When lists of the most influential theologians are imagined, Augustine usually sits near the pinnacle. He was among the tallest of theological giants and his influence cannot be denied. His life story is well known due to his Confession. He excelled as a teacher of rhetoric and bounced between heretical sects and various philosophical schools. He battled against false teachers across the spectrum from both within and outside the church. And when the eternal city of Rome was sacked in 410, when women were treated brutally and shamefully, when many men were killed without discretion, when migrants from the war wandered across Italy, and when Christianity was blamed for the catastrophe, Augustine answered brilliantly in the City of God. Throughout the City of God, Augustine lays out a vision of the purpose and end of history. His overarching philosophy of human history is that it is all about the will and providence of God; and believers are to devote themselves to studying, discerning, praising, and submitting to the eternal designs of God (1).
The Historical Background of the City of God
When considering what Augustine set out to do when he wrote the City of God one must realize he was not actually trying to write a historical account of the sacking of Rome or even its implications. He aimed to provide an overarching philosophical system of understanding history as a whole (2). This is important to understand at the outset because if one was to approach Augustine’s view of history, thinking in standard historiographical terms, they would be disappointed at best. Some come off a bit more than disappointed, “my own conclusion is that whatever one may think of St Augustine’s religious faith as an expression of Christianity, it was, and can still be, disastrous for the study of history considered as anything more than material for the elaboration of an edifying ‘Noble Lie” (3). Ouch.
Peter Barnes masterfully lays out the purpose for Augustine writing the City of God and how it fits in with his understanding of history (4). First, he points out that Augustine wrote this work after two major disappointments with the Roman Empire. First, the unjust execution of Marcellinus in 413 for whom books 1-3 of the city of God are dedicated (5). This led to Augustine having a bad taste in his mouth about justice and the state. Perhaps this helped fuel his famed quote “what are kingdoms without justice? They’re just gangs of bandits” (6). The second frustration for Augustine was after he convinced the Roman general Boniface to convert to the faith and leave civil life. Following this, Boniface was baptized by an Arian. Augustine then saw the issue that could arise when political officers hold heretical views.
Historians differ in their opinion on how Augustine felt about the Empire. Christopher Dawson argues that Augustine had no opinion of the issues of the Empire at all, to the point that “the ruin of civilization and the destruction of the Empire were not very important things” (7). Most, however, take the position that Augustine did care about the state, but it was not a major concern to him (8).
Regardless of the degree to which Augustine cared about Rome, it is clear that his philosophy of history was not akin to ancient or modern historiography. He was not concerned with writing history for the sake of a temporary empire, but rather he desired to view history through the lens of the Kingdom of God. The easiest way to summarize Augustine’s use of history in City of God is that it is “basically a presentation of Christianity in the form of Biblical History from Genesis to Revelation” (9). Therefore, the City of God is not about the sacking of Rome, rather it is about history as a whole and how it all points to the will and power of God.
The Purpose of History and the City of God
With that context in mind, it is fair to examine Augustine’s own argument for the purpose of history in The City of God. First, Augustine summarizes his famous dichotomy between the two different Kingdoms “we see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self” (10). Those who are not members of the City of God, for Augustine, are essentially loving themselves more than the creator and His purposes. Doing this puts history, and all of the created order, out of line with God’s intentions. In fact, this very self-love is what sets humanity apart from God in the first place.
Peter Barnes highlights Augustine’s six ages of human history as Adam to Noah; Noah to Abraham; Abraham to David; David to the Babylonian Captivity; Babylon to Christ; from the first coming of Christ to the second coming of Christ (11). Augustine first wrote out this structure for understanding human history in his commentary on Genesis (originally written to refute the Manichean heresy) and reapplied it in book 23 of City of God. Following the Fall, Augustine marks out the historical ages from Adam to Christ. He states that the first age “extends from Adam to the deluge; the second from the deluge to Abraham, equalling the first, not in the length of time, but in the number of generations, there being ten in each. From Abraham to the advent of Christ there are, as the evangelist Matthew calculates, three periods, in each of which are fourteen generations — one period from Abraham to David, a second from David to the captivity, a third from the captivity to the birth of Christ in the flesh” (12). This shows that the purpose of history, according to Augustine, is “the coming to earth of the Savior is the central event in world history. For five ages, Christ was proclaimed by the prophets, while in the sixth age he is proclaimed by the gospel” (13). He, in essence, argued that all of history led up to the birth of Christ, and now all of history is pointing to the return, “There are thus five ages in all. The sixth is now passing, and cannot be measured by any number of generations, as it has been said, It is not for you to know the times, which the Father has put in His own power. After this period God shall rest as on the seventh day, when He shall give us (who shall be the seventh day) rest in Himself” (14).
It is interesting to note that Augustine used the seven days of creation as a bracket for his understanding of History. If it is true that for Augustine all of history is about the will and design of God, then connecting its linear nature to creation makes absolute sense. God created the earth for Himself and history is all about Christ and the people of God over and against the kingdom of this world.
While Augustine’s purpose in writing the City of God was not to lay out an account of Roman history (nor “history” according to modern sensibilities at all), he did use Rome’s history to show the providence of God over both kingdoms and that standard measures of success do not undo or undermine the Christ-centric focus of history (15). He shows that Christianity was not the cause of Rome’s ills by showing that Constantine, a Christian Emporer, lived a long and successful life as the sole leader of Rome. In the words of Augustine:
[God] gave to the Emperor Constantine… such fullness of earthly gifts as no one would
even dare wish for. To him also He granted the honor of founding a city… but without
any temple or image of the demons. He reigned for a long period as sole emperor, and
unaided held and defended the whole Roman world. In conducting and carrying on wars
he was most victorious; in overthrowing tyrants he was most successful. He died at a
great age, of sickness and old age, and left his sons to succeed him in the empire (16).
This, for Augustine, showed that the Christians did not cause the problems. But Augustine also shows that it is not about the Empire at all. He reminds the reader that after Constantine “lest any emperor should become a Christian in order to merit the happiness of Constantine when everyone should be a Christian for the sake of eternal life, God took away Jovian far sooner than Julian” (17). God was not primarily concerned with the Roman Empire, He put Constantine on the throne just as He did a heretic. And although Augustine goes on to defend the currently faithful emperor, he still believed that the Empire was not necessary to human history (18).
When answering the question “why would God allow these hard things to happen to Rome?” Augustine answered that God “has willed that these temporal goods and temporal evils should befall good and bad alike, so that the good things should not be too eagerly coveted, when it is seen that the wicked also enjoy them, and that the evils should not be discreditably shunned, when it is apparent that the good are often afflicted with them” (19). The main difference is that the troubles for believers are not eternal, but are for “testing and correction” (20). In short, in the City of God history is for the purposes of God as revealed in Christ for the good of those who trust in Him. In the words of Andrew Murphey “for Augustine, God is always the author of history, author of a plot that always remains beyond our comprehension (21).
Augustine viewed history as the outworking of the will and providence of God. The role of His people is simply to devote themselves to studying, discerning, praising, and submitting to His eternal designs for His glory. This is why his understanding of history must be examined through the Christian worldview; it is the only way for it to make sense. This is why Augustine was able to write about something as awful as the sacking of Rome. It’s because he did not have temporary circumstances in mind. Augustine is undoubtedly one of the greatest influences on Christian thought and studying his views found in the City of God, especially as related to the purpose of history, is time well spent.
1 – G.J.P. O’Daly, ‘Linking Through History’ in Mark Vessey, Karla Pollmann, Allan D. Fitzgerald, O.S.A., History, Apocalypse, and the Secular Imagination: New Essays on Augustine’s City of God (Bowling Green, 1999), 54.
2 – Carol Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 206.
3 – G. L. Keyes, Christian Faith and the Interpretation of History: A Study of St Augustines Philosophy of History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), viii.
4 -Barnes, Peter. 2012. “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God.” The Reformed Theological Review 71 (2): 93.
5 – Ibid, 96.
6 – Augustine, City of God, 4.4.
7 – Christopher Dawson, ‘St Augustine and his Age’ in M. C. Darcy et al. Saint Augustine (Ohio: Meridan, 1930, reprinted 1964).
8 – G. L. Keyes, Augustine and History, 177.
9 – J. Burleigh, City of God: A Study of St Augustine’s Philosophy (London: Nisbet and Co, 1949), 153.
10 – Augustine, City of God,14.28.
11 – Peter Barnes, Augustine and History, 94
12 – Augustine, City of God, 23.30.
13 – Peter Barnes, Augustine and History, 94.
14 – Augustine, City of God, 23.30.
15 – Peter Barnes, Augustine and History, 104.
16 – Augustine, City of God, 5.25.
18 – Augustine, City of God, 5.26.
19 – Augustine, City of God, 1.8.
20 – Augustine, City of God, 1.28.
21 – Andrew Murphy, Augustine and the Rhetoric of Roman Decline’ in Christopher T. Daly, John Doody, and Kim Paffenroth (eds), Augustine and History (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008), 66.