Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene

Augustine and the Image (Again)

This is an addendum to a recent post on Augustine and the adoration of the image.

Though such adoration can look from the outside like pious worship, Augustine, following the Apostle Paul’s reasoning in the first chapter of Romans, unmasks it as an evidence of ingratitude toward God in City of God 14.28:

And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,— that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride—they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed for ever.

This comes near the conclusion of the book, in the chapter that famously begins: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves…”. That is, adoration of the image is characteristic of the earthly city, the civitas terrena (sometimes also called the “city of the Devil”), which is governed by self-love: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God…”. In contrast, the other city, the heavenly city, the civitas caelestis (frequently referred to as the “city of God”) is formed “by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” “The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience.” “The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, ‘You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.'”

These loves become manifest in a variety of ways (for example, through love of rule in contrast with the love of obedience: “In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all”). But their characters are particularly revealed through modes of worship. Hence, for Augustine, the adoration of the image is a marker for the loves of the earthly city, which he differentiates expressly from worship that is given to the true God apart from “human wisdom” that fashions gods in keeping with its own desires: “But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, ‘that God may be all in all.'”

Though this life is characterized by the desire for the vision of God, then, the fulness of sight nevertheless must wait until our dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem, which is ruled by the object of our love:

Therefore the place of this promised peaceful and secure habitation is eternal, and of right belongs eternally to Jerusalem the free mother, where the genuine people of Israel shall be: for this name is interpreted Seeing God; in the desire of which reward a pious life is to be led through faith in this miserable pilgrimage. (17.13)

As Augustine says in 18.54,

Of these [two cities], the earthly one has made to herself of whom she would, either from any other quarter, or even from among men, false gods whom she might serve by sacrifice; but she which is heavenly and is a pilgrim on the earth does not make false gods, but is herself made by the true God of whom she herself must be the true sacrifice. Yet both alike either enjoy temporal good things, or are afflicted with temporal evils, but with diverse faith, diverse hope, and diverse love, until they must be separated by the last judgment, and each must receive her own end, of which there is no end.

The heavenly city, that is, is characterized by “true piety—that is, true worship of the true God” (5.19), in contrast to the “false gods” of the earthly city.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.