Without a doubt, the greatest theologian in the first thousand years of the church was Augustine of Hippo (354–430). His voluminous theological, exegetical, and devotional writings have had a lasting impact and continue to be studied to this day. One of Augustine’s greatest works is The City of God, written to defend the Christian faith from its pagan attackers as the Roman Empire was collapsing. It is one of the most influential books ever written. The City of God is available in a number of English translations, but one of the clearest and most readable is the translation by Henry Bettenson in the Penguin Classics series.
Augustine was born in AD 354 in the town of Thagaste in North Africa to a pagan father and a Christian mother. From these inauspicious beginnings, he would eventually become one of the most influential thinkers in the history of the church and Western civilization. The ramifications of his debates with the Donatists and the Pelagians are still felt to this day. His Confessions remains a spiritual classic among Christians of widely varying traditions, and The City of God laid down the political and religious foundations for the following one thousand years of medieval European history.
The immediate historical context for the writing of The City of God was the sacking of Rome by Alaric in 410. Over the next several years, exiles from Italy began coming to North Africa where Augustine was a bishop. Augustine found himself confronted by pagans who were assigning Christianity the blame for the collapse of the Empire. In AD 413, at the age of fifty-nine, Augustine began writing his magnum opus as a response. He would complete the work fourteen years later in AD 427 at the age of seventy-two. Readers did not, however, have to wait fourteen years to begin reading Augustine’s response. The individual sections of The City of God were circulated among readers as they were completed.
The City of God contains twenty-two “books.” The first ten books are devoted to answering the charge made by pagans that the Christian faith is responsible for the woes that Rome is experiencing. In responding to this charge, Augustine also devotes considerable space to a sustained critique of Roman paganism in all of its various forms. Within this extended critique of paganism, the reader finds numerous discussions of theology, philosophy, culture, politics, and ethics. The overall thrust, however, is to leave the Roman pagans with no excuse for clinging to their superstitions. When Augustine gets on a roll, critiquing the Roman tendency to multiply gods for every conceivable detail of life (for example, one god devoted to doors and another to door hinges), one cannot help but envision his pagan audience cringing in embarrassment. Although a critique of Roman paganism might seem dated in the twenty-first century, paganism is again on the rise, and much of what Augustine says is still relevant.
The last twelve books of The City of God are divided into three sections. Books 11–14 are devoted to the origins of the two cities: the city of God (God’s church; 13.16) and the city of this world (unbelievers). The growth and development of the two cities is discussed in books 15–18. Finally, books 19–22 are devoted to the appointed ends of the two cities. In one sense, much of the second part of The City of God may be considered a redemptive-historical overview of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Augustine traces the development of the people of God and those who oppose God from the creation of the angels to the coming of Christ to the final judgment. But these chapters are not merely a summary of redemptive history, because Augustine stops on numerous occasions to develop theological topics at greater length.
Augustine makes it very clear that the two cities are intermixed during the present era and will only be separated for good at the final judgment. Citizens of the heavenly city must realize that this intermixture is necessary because among the citizens of the worldly city are her own future citizens (1.35).
It is impossible to discuss everything in The City of God in this space. I simply leave the reader with a sample of Augustine’s wisdom, his encouragement to Christians who are surrounded by danger on every side: “Among the daily chances of this life every man on earth is threatened in the same way by innumerable deaths, and it is uncertain which of them will come to him. And so the question is whether it is better to suffer one in dying or to fear them all in living” (1.11). May we all be faithful citizens of the city of God.