Book Review–City of God (St Augustine)

A couple of years ago I decided I would like to try reading on of the “Early Church Fathers”, and spotted this Penguin edition of Saint Augustine’s “City of God” for a very reasonable price. I did not however, pay attention to the page count. This is a massive work, at well over 1000 pages of small print, and required the perseverance of a saint to get through.

The way the book is structured is very interesting. It actually consists of 22 “books”, each of which contain around 20-30 “chapters”. These chapters are quite often only a couple of pages long, and each chapter has a full sentence for its title, summarizing the main point made in the chapter. This is very helpful and it breaks working through a book of this size into manageable chunks. If Augustine was alive today, I am sure he would blog each chapter, and tweet his chapter headings.

The first major part of the book is devoted to defending Christianity against accusations that because Christians did not worship the Roman gods, they were to blame behind the recent sacking of Rome by the Goths. Augustine sets about showing how this is a ridiculous allegation. One of his major counter-arguments is to show how many similar and worse atrocities occurred in the Roman empire before the advent of Christianity:

“How can our opponents have the effrontery, the audacity, the impudence, the imbecility (or rather the insanity) to refuse to blame their gods for those catastrophes, while they hold Christ responsible for the disasters of modern times?”

This moves him onto his next major theme, which could be called “The Gods Delusion”, where Augustine starts to examine the vast pantheon of gods worshiped by the Romans, pointing out all kinds of ridiculous inconsistencies, particularly relating to how the areas of jurisdiction of different gods overlapped. For example, if the goddess “Victory” gives all victory in war, then what exactly does Jupiter, king of the gods do?

He makes short shrift of astrology, stating that “it is blatantly obvious that multitudes of people conceived or born at the same time as each other have greatly differing destinies”. Along the way he makes some incisive comments on the relationship between “divine foreknowledge and human free will”, which he argues are not incompatible.

For God would never have created a man, let alone an angel, in the foreknowledge of his future evil state, if he had not known at the same time how he would put such creatures to good use, and thus enrich the course of world history by the kind of antithesis which gives beauty to a poem.

Elsewhere he states that “God was not unaware of any event in the future, and yet he did not, by his foreknowledge, compel anyone to sin”.

He then moves into what is essentially a book review and critique of the massive works of Marcus Varro. Augustine has great respect for Varro’s intellect, but criticises him for not having the guts to disbelieve in the gods. He again pokes fun at the the ridiculous parcelling out of small domains to gods. A favourite example of his were the three different gods for the door, the hinges, and the latch. He can be quite humorous in places, nowhere more so than when he discusses the whole plethora of gods required to ensure that a newly married couple get to have sex, ending with him wryly commenting that he felt sorry for the bridegroom who didn’t seem to have anything left to do for himself!

One lesson perhaps we can draw from Augustine is his willingness to engage deeply with the beliefs of the pagan culture. He clearly knew a lot about Roman beliefs, philosophy, myths and history, and from that position was able to make a very thorough critique of the whole system.

Moving on from gods, he turns to consider the philosophical ideas of Plato (which he thinks is the philosophy closest to Christianity). He asks what the “Summum Bonum” (the ultimate good) is, and here defines it by saying that “man’s true good should be found not in the enjoyment of the body or mind, but in the enjoyment of God”, although later in the book he says that “eternal life is the Supreme Good and eternal death the Supreme Evil, and that to achieve the one and escape the other, we must live rightly”.

In a rather obscure chapter he deals with a prevailing pagan idea that “demons” serve as mediators between humans and the gods, which presents a nice opportunity for him to show how Jesus is the only mediator between man and God. He also argues that God exists outside of time and therefore sees the future as having already happened.

Although most of the first part of the book is a critique of Roman beliefs, he does along the way begin to build a case for belief in the God of the Bible. This leads into the second major part of the book which is essentially a tale of two cities – the city of God and the city of man. Augustine interprets the whole of human history in terms of these two cities.

He begins with creation, and defends the biblical account, based on his conviction that “the Bible never lies”. Although he generally takes a literalist interpretation, he is not always as dogmatic as you might expect. For example, on the duration of the “days” of creation, he says “What kind of days these are is difficult or even impossible for us to imagine, to say nothing of describing them.”

One of the great things about reading this book is the number of surprising directions he goes off in. For example there is a chapter on “the perfection of the number 6”, which as someone who enjoys mathematics I appreciated. Maybe we need more theologians who share his conviction that “the theory of number is not to be lightly regarded, since it is made quite clear, in many passages of the holy Scriptures, how highly it is to be valued.” He includes a fascinating (although possibly circular) argument to prove your own existence: I exist; and if I’m mistaken, then I must exist in order to be mistaken. Or how about this for the most bizarre quote I came across: in discussing people who have remarkable physical capabilities, he reports that “a number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region”.

This would be an appropriate point to say a word or two about Augustine’s hermeneutics. He accepts the validity of allegorical interpretation (such as the Song of Solomon refers to the church), and in principle allows it in other places such as Genesis (e.g. the door in the ark representing where the spear went into Christ’s side), so long as the historicity of the accounts is not denied. He actually shows more restraint than I was expecting, recognising that allegory is of necessity speculative, and any findings must be in harmony with the clear teaching of other parts of Scripture (i.e. they must be tested by “the rule of faith”). He is also extremely Christocentric in his hermeneutics, looking for Jesus at every point, an approach I appreciate even if I am not convinced with everything he claims to find.

But there are a few oddities. One is his insistence on defending the Patriarchs at every possible juncture. He stretches credulity with his attempts to put a positive spin on Abraham and Jacob’s every action. So for example he argues that Abraham is from a family of Hebrew speaking God-fearers, and defends him against any wrongdoing in sleeping with Hagar. Even more incredible is his claim that Jacob didn’t use deceit to obtain the blessing!

Another quirk is his stance towards the Septuagint, which he sees as a divinely controlled translation (believing that each of the 70 translators independently created the same translation), and hence while he acknowledges discrepancies between the Hebrew and LXX, he argues that both are right.

Augustine often gets bad press for his stance concerning sex. To be honest, he doesn’t say a lot about it in this book, but he does claim that before the fall, conception did not involve sexual lust, and indicates that he thinks passionless sex would be the ideal state of affairs. An indicator of perhaps ascetic tendencies comes when he needs an example of a particularly dishonourable desire: he chooses wishing for yourself “the provision of extravagant banquets”.

Having very slowly gone through the Genesis story, Augustine picks up pace and rushes through the Exodus through to David in just a couple of pages. He then takes some time to discuss the “era of the prophets”, where he attempts to demonstrate as many different prophecies relating to Christ as possible.
When he gets onto the end times, he seemed to me to be clearly articulating an amillennial position. However he is not too dogmatic about it, since after summarising the Bible’s teaching on the end times as: “Elijah the Tishbite will come; Jews will accept the faith; Antichrist will persecute; Christ will judge; the dead will rise again; the good and the evil will be separated; the earth will be destroyed in the flames and then will be renewed.”, he then goes on to admit that it might not be exactly in that order. Perhaps the most novel part of his eschatology was the claim that even believers who are alive at the second coming will briefly die, before being brought to life into their resurrected bodies.

The final two books deal with eternal death, and eternal life. It is important to him to make the case for a physical, bodily existence in both places, which leads him to answering all kinds of bizarre objections raised to the idea of either eternal pain in hell or eternal physical life in heaven. He hints at believing in the possibility of some kind of purgatory. There is a remarkable chapter in the final book where he recounts all the miracles of healing he has witnessed or knows of first-hand. As he ponders the physical nature of the eternal state, he wonders in what sense we will be able to see God (naturally he accepts that we will be able to see Jesus, but since God is Spirit, he does not take it for granted that he will be physically visible to us):

perhaps God will be known to us and visible to us in the sense that he will be spiritually perceived by each one of us in each one of us, perceived in one another, perceived by each in himself; he will be seen in the new heaven and the new earth, in the whole creation as it then will be; he will be seen in every body by means of bodies, wherever the eyes of the spiritual body are directed with their penetrating gaze.

The final chapter is a wonderful end to the work, and a very profound meditation on eternal life (or life in the “heavenly city” as Augustine would say). He says that God “will be the goal of all our longings; and we shall see him for ever; we shall love him without satiety; we shall praise him without wearying. This will be the duty, the delight, the activity of all, shared by all who share the life of eternity.” When he ponders whether there will be free will in heaven, he concludes that “the will will be the freer in that it is freed from a delight in sin and immovably fixed in a delight in not sinning.”

Hopefully that gives you a taste for some of the contents and highlights of this substantial volume. There is no denying that this book is hard work, particularly if like me you are not accustomed to reading ancient literature and are ignorant of the beliefs and history of Augustine’s day. However, in amongst the perplexing bits, and the downright strange bits, and the seemingly obscure points he sometimes addresses, there are lots of fascinating insights to be gleaned.

Reading it made me think of how much the church needs writers and thinkers of his calibre, to give a well researched and reasoned Christian response to the diverse worldviews of our own day. His depth of knowledge and learning, not just of the Scriptures, but history, pagan beliefs, philosophies made him the ideal man to write this work of apologetics.

4 thoughts on “Book Review–City of God (St Augustine)

  1. Excellent review! I haven’t read the whole thing myself, but I’ve read long stretches across the whole book, and I teach many sections in my introductory historically-based philosophy course. It’s great to read an overview of the various things he does in the book.

    I would disagree on the circularity claim with his argument for his own existence. He’s critiquing the ancient Skeptics’ approach, and he begins by noticing that even their very high standards for knowledge don’t successfully lead to the conclusion that we know nothing, because the person doing the doubting can’t do any doubting without existing. So if I’m a Skeptic, I have to accept my own existence if I accept my own doubting. I think it’s a pretty airtight argument against the Skeptics. It’s not all he has to say, since he questions their very assumptions also, but he insists that even by their standards their conclusion conflicts with what they in fact do.

    On the sex issue, Augustine’s detractors usually do offer their criticisms based on what he says in this work. It’s just that they treat him very uncharitably and interpret him in a way that doesn’t remotely fit what I read in those very passages. He says some things that I think go way too far, but it’s nothing compared to what many people have taken him to think.

  2. thanks Jeremy, yes you are right, his argument does work well against skepticism.

  3. Pingback: City of God Book Notes | wordandspirit

  4. Many thanks Mark – your hard work is much appreciated. Reading Augustine makes me despair somewhat that there are so few (if any) Christian thinkers of our time who dig as deep or soar as high as he did. Probably worth saying that if anyone wants an introduction to Augustine that is a bit more accessible than City of God then ‘Confessions’ would be a good place to start….

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