Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Natural Law Reformed Irenicism The Two Kingdoms

Horton Hears a “WHAAAAT?”

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.

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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.

  1. Rome was not sacked by “pagans.” Rome was sacked by Arian Visigoths. Indeed, pagans felt themselves to be the victims of the Sack, which is why they blamed Christians for it.
  2. The differing perspectives of Augustine and Jerome had to do in part with differing views of what “Rome” was and meant. It is true that Jerome was a catastrophist vis-a-vis the Sack–but this for reasons not unrelated to his own ascetic program (see Michele Salzman’s excellent article “Apocalypse Then? Jerome and the Fall of Rome in 410 CE”). For Augustine, on the other hand, a city was not its materiality, the physical space it occupied. It was a civitas, a “body of citizens” (an idea that can be traced back to Aristotle). Thus he tells the trembling Roman refugees in a sermon in the wake of the Sack that they are Rome, and if they have faith, Rome survives: “See, they say, in Christian times it is that Rome perishes. Perhaps Rome is not perishing; perhaps she is only scourged, not utterly destroyed; perhaps she is chastened, not brought to nought. It may be so; Rome will not perish, if the Romans do not perish. And perish they will not if they praise God; perish they will if they blaspheme Him. For what is Rome, but the Romans? For the question is not of her wood and stones, of her lofty insulated palaces, and all her spacious walls.” (Here cf. also Rudolph Arbesmann, “The Idea of Rome in the Sermons of St. Augustine.”) Do you see what he did there? It is Rome that is saved by praising God; the relevance of this point will be seen below.
  3. “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.” I can’t even, here. Do you like the Nicene Creed? Yeah, I thought so. It defies belief that a faith so “weakened” was responsible for the most profound Christological and Trinitarian theology ever produced, but I suppose any stick is good enough to hit an undefined “civil religion” with. It is true that the Sack was good for missionary activity–for instance for Pelagius, who was driven by it out of Rome to Carthage, where his teaching spread quickly.

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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.

  1. This seems to imply that a man can simultaneously be citizens of both cities in an Augustinian framework; he can’t. This point is absolutely fundamental to understanding what Augustine is doing in CoG, and it is manifest from the very beginning of the work. One can’t be a citizen of both cities because the cities are primarily eschatological. One cannot belong to Satan (as does the civitas terrena) and to Christ (as does the civitias caelestis).
  2. This also seems to imply that the City of God is the (visible or institutional) church; it isn’t.2 See (1).
  3. The primary schematic of CoG does not have to do with “new city” vs. “old city.” Both cities have been in existence in the human sphere since the early chapters of Genesis, and both will be here until the Second Coming in Revelation.

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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.

  1. I’m not sure what it means to say “polity” here. Again, the cities are (primarily) eschatological. If all this means is that the City of Man is ruled by Satan and the City of God by Christ, then that is true. If it means, say, “church polity,” then that has little to do with what Augustine is treating.3
  2. Augustine doesn’t use the language of “exile.” He mentions exile in, e.g., CoG 22.22, but there he is talking about “exile” in the traditional, political sense. I promise I will refrain from saying anything else about this right now. Really. Just trust me, would you? Please? Pretty please? With cherries and everything?

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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.

  1. The problem here is that Augustine actually did favor the use of the “coercive powers of the state,” and in exactly the same period during which he was writing CoG. We may not so favor that use, but it is by no means an implication of Augustine’s thought that we must not. It is not inconsistent with his own principles.

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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.”

  1. “The very idea of a Christian empire or a Christian nation was a serious confusion of these two cities.” This is passing strange, since Augustine held precisely to an idea of a “Christian empire”–odd that he who developed the doctrine of the Two Cities was apparently so confused over its most basic and fundamental principles. I’ve dealt with this before. More than once. So I won’t belabor the point here. Really, I won’t. (I note in passing that Augustine’s mentor Ambrose of Milan used precisely the exemplum of King David to press repentance on Theodosius after the Massacre of Thessalonica.)
  2. Augustine did not have a doctrine of “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.

  1. Thus I hope it is clear that this is all intended in good fun, but with a serious point.
  2. There are places where Augustine does give the impression that angels are part of the “church” in some sense, so the thesis of the linked post stands in need of revision. But this still does not lead to a simple identification of the temporal church with the City of God.
  3. The relation between the City of Man and earthly polities and the City of God and the temporal church would perhaps be an issue worth returning to in the future.
  4. But, to his credit, not one used by Prof. Horton in this column.
  5. Sorry. Really.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

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