History and the City of God – an Excerpt from Christian Philosophy

The following is an excerpt from Christian Philosophy, by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen.

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Cover Art[Augustine’s] The City of God was composed to defend Christianity against the pagan charge that the fall of Rome was the result of Christian influence in the empire.

Indeed, Curtis Chang rightly argues that The City of God is an attempt to “out-narrate” the Roman narrative of Rome’s fall. Chang shows that the Roman narrative had three intertwined threads: religious, philosophical, historical. Religiously, Roman intellectuals argued that Rome had forsaken the gods. Historically, Rome had forsaken its founding myth of Romulus/Remus, as told by Virgil and others. Philosophically, it had forsaken the Platonic tradition. Augustine refutes all three of these by tracing the biblical storyline.

The City of God is a story of two invisible societies, the City of God (Jerusalem) and the city of the world (Babylon), battling through history until the last judgment. The first is bound together by love for God and the second by love for self. These cities are not to be identified with the church and the political state. Rather, they are more like spiritual forces at work in the world. It is true that the City of God is primarily found in the church, and the worldly city in various historical states including Rome, but there can be no strict identification.

In this book Augustine moves away from the static and spiritualistic Christianity of Neoplatonism toward a more dynamic, historical vision of God’s purpose in history. It is a narrative of universal history that is given its meaning by God’s providential rule, not ideas that stand above history. As Michael Mendelson puts it, “Augustine is acutely aware that scripture has an historical dimension, and he is sensitive as well to the tensions between the scriptural tradition and the Neoplatonic framework upon which he is relying. . . . Augustine’s increasing familiarity with the contents of scripture leads him to focus more and more upon the historical dimension of this tradition, a dimension alien to the intellectualism of the books of the Platonists.” Thus, for example, the struggle of evil and good is not between the material and spiritual aspects of reality but is now articulated as spiritual forces at work in the context of an unfolding story.

Nevertheless, Augustine’s attention to history does not leave behind Neoplatonic elements. While God’s providence oversees all of history, including the cultural unfolding of Babylon, in the end this city will be destroyed. It is not just evil but the city itself that will be destroyed. The significance of cultural development and life in this world is diminished. The end of history is not the restoration of creation but the establishment of the City of God, an intriguing mix between the new creation and Platonic heaven, in which the elect final escape the vagaries of this temporal world in the eternal one of the next.

©2013 by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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