I was going to let this pass, but…who am I kidding, there was never any chance of that.
I’m not going to comment on all of it; just some of the Augustine bits. And I’m going to do it in the style of a HOTT TAKE, because it’s Thursday and I need something to spice up my life. 1
Please bear in mind that this has nothing to do with prescription or an evaluation of Prof. Horton’s positive proposals (though I do have thoughts on those, they’re not going to be aired here). It is rather a simple matter of establishing the historical record rather than remaking it according to our own image and post-1787 American cultural conventions.
In the aftershocks of the sacking of Rome by the pagans in 410 a.d., the great church father Augustine, bishop of Hippo, wrote his famous City of God. Jerome, another celebrated church father, had collapsed in despair: “What is to become of the church now that Rome has fallen?” No doubt as a patriot, Augustine felt the same wound, but as a Christian pastor he greeted the event as a providential opportunity: God had brought the mission field to the missionaries. The question was whether there were many “missionaries” left in an empire that had weakened the faith precisely to the extent that it had fused it with civil religion.
Ultimately, Augustine says, these two loves and two cities are themselves grounded in God’s eternal predestination. Although the city of man is destined to perish, God is both creating a new city (the church) from its ruins and preserving the old city by His common grace until ultimate peace and justice arrive with Christ’s return. In this era of common grace, God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” and calls us to imitate His clemency (Matt. 5:43–48). So Christians have two callings: the high calling in Christ to belong to His body and the calling to the world as citizens, parents, children, friends, coworkers, and neighbors. Because God is still faithful to His creation, there is the possibility of an earthly city with its relative peace and justice; because God is faithful to His electing purposes, there is a church in all times and places that brings true peace and justice. He does this first of all by uniting sinners to Christ, and then one day by eradicating all strife from the earth at Christ’s return.
Consequently, each city has its own polity, serving distinct ends through distinct means. Although some of its citizens are converted to citizenship in the city of God, the earthly city is always Babylon. Like Daniel, believers pray for the city, work in the city, contribute to the city’s general welfare, and even fight in its armies. However, they never forget that they are exiles and pilgrims. Babylon is never the promised land.
The kingdom of God advances through the proclamation of the Gospel, not through the properly coercive powers of the state, although the church may take advantage of the relative peace that is possible in the earthly city (City of God, 19.26–27). These two cities we find “interwoven, as it were, in this present transitory world, and mingled with one another” (11.2). The good things that we do with non-Christian citizens to preserve and enlarge society really are good, but they are not ultimate goods. The earthly city will never be transformed into the city of God this side of Christ’s return in glory. A Christian would then approach politics not with the question as to how the world can best be saved, but how it can best be served in this time between the times.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the national covenant that Israel made with God at Sinai was regularly invoked as an allegory for Christendom. Crusades against “the infidel” (often Muslims) were declared by popes with the promise of immediate entrance into paradise for martyrs. Kings fancied themselves as king David, leading the armies of the Lord in cleansing the Holy Land. The very idea of a Christian empire or a Christian nation was a serious confusion of these two cities. It was against this confusion of Christ’s kingdom with Israel’s theocracy that Luther and Calvin launched their retrieval of Augustine’s “two kingdoms.”
Ok, all for now. I don’t dispute, by the way, that there is some relation between Augustinianism and “two kingdoms”–but that relation is not right there to be simply read off the page of this old book, and this is even more so the case when the question concerns the modern American iteration of “two kingdoms” (in contradistinction from the classical view, though the two are unfortunately elided in Prof. Horton’s column). Until we can admit that the settlement that seems so obvious to us now (it isn’t, and never had been in thousands of years of preceding human history) is not the only consistent way–if it is even consistent itself–of approaching the issue of the relation between “religion” and “politics” or “church” and “state,” we will not make any progress on constructive ways forward. It will not do at all to say that everyone before us was just blinded by their own cultural circumstances of “Constantinianism” (an epithet in search of an argument) 4 and therefore inconsistent, while ignoring the ways in which we are conditioned by our own. As a friend says, too often we are like the fish that blithely quips, “What water?” To start, we must read Augustine for what Augustine meant, and try, as best as we can, sympathetically to imagine ourselves into his world, into his shoes, er, sandals. When we do, we might see that contemporary principles for slicing our composite pie–our pie in the sky, 5 as it were, and our pie of the earth–are not the only ones, are not self-evident, and are not necessarily the best; at least, they cannot be simply assumed to be so. Regardless, though, constructive work cannot properly begin until we actually have done so. Otherwise, we might think we’re slaying giants when we’re really just tilting at windmills.