St. Augustine The City of God. While the writings of St. Augustine (A.D. 354-430) belong to the period of the Church Fathers just considered, and represent in the main the same point of view, they contained several ideas that demand special attention. The work of Augustine embodies the transition from the classical world, about to pass away, to the world of Christendom; from the period of hostility between the church and a pagan state to the period of unity in a Christian church-state.
When the city of Rome was sacked by the Goths in A.D. 410, those who adhered to the pagan beliefs attributed the fall of Rome to the fact that the government had abandoned the old worship and adopted Christianity. In order to answer this accusation, St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, spent thirteen years in preparing his City of God the most influential book written in the fifth century.
He attacked paganism, traced Roman history to show that the old gods had not saved Rome from misfortune, and argued that Christianity, if adopted generally by people and rulers, would save the state. The tone of this part of the work is aggressively apologetic.
He then turned from the earthly to the spiritual city. By this he meant not only Heaven, to which the Christians looked forward as their eternal home, but also its counterpart on earth composed of the body of true believers. The church was, thus, the City of God.
Augustine deliberately imitated Plato in working out his ideal city, and combined the philosophy of Plato with the doctrines of Cicero and with the theology of the Christian religion. He justified slavery as the result of the fall of man, which made necessary the conventional institutions of society.
Accordingly, slavery was both a remedy and a divine punishment for sin. He criticized Cicero’s conception of the state as an embodiment of justice, holding that justice could not exist in non-Christian states. Justice, therefore, was not created by the civil authority but by the ecclesiastical, which existed as a principle of authority, independent of the state. In this respect Augustine broke away from the earlier Church Fathers and eliminated the elements of law and justice which the Roman writers had considered the fundamental basis of the state.
Augustine considered the state partly as a punitive, partly as a remedial, institution. Men by their nature were impelled to form social relations. They were originally equal, and freely obeyed rules of wisdom and justice, but as a consequence of sin some men had to be subjected to the authority of others. Augustine believed in the divine origin of the state, and bitterly opposed the Donatists, who claimed freedom from civil obligations and considered the state a diabolical institution.
The ruler was the representative of God on earth and as such was entitled to the obedience of his subjects, but the real kingdom of God was not of this nature. Holding these ideas of the state, it was quite natural that Augustine should consider the earthly state inferior to the eternal state of the spirit and of the hereafter.
The fundamental distinction in Augustine’s thought, however, was not between church and state, but between two societies, one composed of the wicked, the other of the godly. On earth these groups were always mixed, and it was by symbol, rather than by identification, that the City of God was represented by the church. St. Augustine conceived of the City of God as a
Christianized Church-State, from which unbelievers are excluded, and claimed the supreme power in that state for the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
St. Augustine’s City of God dominated Christian thought for centuries. It set over against the declining world of ancient Rome the eternal commonwealth of God’s elect, and sketched in fervid rhetoric the ideals and interests of that church here on earth which strives toward the kingdom of heaven.
Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Wyclif, and Grotius drew largely from the City of God for their writings. It was a favorite book of Charlemagne, who in establishing his empire aimed to make a state in which God’s will should rule; and Bryce says that it is hardly too much to say that the Holy Roman Empire was built-upon the foundation of the City of God.
The work of St. Augustine gave to the church at a critical period of its history a crystallized body of thought, and put into definite statement the ideal which gave it distinctive existence and sett-conscious purpose, As it developed its administrative machinery and concentrated more on earthly activities, it was well-started on its way to the position of church-power represented by the papacy at its height.