City of God has happily occupied so much of my reading time since I started it last August. I always enjoy reading Augustine, whether he is beating back the last remnants of the pagan intelligentsia (recently arrived in Carthage from Rome) using their own gods and authorities against them or whether he is engaged in a systematic spiritual interpretation from Genesis to Revelation showing that Christ and the church are foretold and symbolized on every page of Scripture. These are the two parts of this massive work, and both are virtuoso and dazzling performances. This is the theological equivalent to Franz Liszt’s Sonata in B minor, a work that has pulled into orbit a whole solar system of scholarly interest. The reason so much work revolves around it is because so much work is contained within it. In it Augustine seems to talk about everything, even though he marches under a single banner—the rise, development, and destiny of the city of God and the city of men.
Surely after taking a long draught of this heady brew, Fred Sanders is unable to stifle this belch:
City of God is a work that, like God, fails to be grasped by any summary. And the standard summary—that Augustine is responding to the fall of Rome—while approximate, risks reducing Augustine’s romance of many dimensions to a flatland.
Peter Brown wrote that,
The City of God cannot be explained in terms of its immediate origins. It is particularly superficial to regard it as a book about the sack of Rome. Augustine may well have written a book ‘On the City of God’ without such an event.
What this event secured was an audience that acted like an inviting canvas onto which Augustine could paint, in universal strokes, the story of mankind’s longing for happiness, peace, justice, and repose. In this light, “City of God is the application of the Confessions to the history of mankind.” (xvii) Extrapolating from his own knowledge and experience, Augustine exposes the false promises and fleeting achievements of the city of men and stirs our longing for a city where God Himself will be our eternal and stable enjoyment. Under the earthly city, “the only joy to be attained had the fragile brilliance of glass, a joy outweighed by the fear that it may be shattered in a moment” (4.3).
City of God can be likened to the Great Barrier Reef, a vast, complex system teeming with literary lifeforms of all stripes—Hebrew, Greek, Roman—and set at the boundary of two worlds—the classical and the Christian, antiquity and the Middle Ages. It’s possible to swim in these waters for years, continually exploring their contents. In fact, the entire Middle Ages was nearly dominated by such swimming. As Augustine comments on the past thousand years of Roman history, so the next thousand years of church history would comment on his comments.
The book is challenging, but it is well worth the struggle. I was worried the first half (the demolition of paganism) would be a slog, but some of those chapters turned out to be the most entertaining parts. In those chapters, Augustine methodically pins, forks, and skewers his opponents like a grand master in chess. Watching him make his moves was amazing—setting up his attack for a few pages then going in for the checkmate. All the while Augustine’s training in oratory is on full display. Augustine manages to pepper even the most tedious chapters with epic one-liners, hilarious taunts, rhetorical flourishes, piercing insights, and bursts of wisdom that could fill fortune cookies for years.
The best part, though, is the second half, where Augustine swims into warmer waters—the Bible. Augustine’s interpretation of Scripture is riveting. He pulls a whole colony of theological rabbits out of his hat, in the most unlikely passages. Augustine fully employs the allegorical method to uncover Christ and the church. One of his more famous lines is:
The new covenant is presented, in a veiled manner, in the old. For what is the ‘Old Testament’ but a concealed form of the new? And what is the ‘New Testament’ but the revelation of the old? (16.26)
Augustine is a man who knows how to wring every drop of Christ out of the fabric of Scripture, and when we see Christ in new light we cleave to Him with fresh love; and when we cleave to Him in love, we become Him in life. The fundamental longing of all humanity that Augustine presents in City of God is the longing to know and experience Christ.
For He Himself is the source of all our bliss, He Himself is the goal of all our striving. By our election of Him as our goal… we direct our corse towards Him with love so that in reaching Him we may find our rest, and attain our happiness because we have achieved our fulfillment in Him. (10.3)
And, in the end, this is the best reason for reading City of God—not the impressive speculative answers he propounds, not the rigorous analysis he conducts, not the political philosophy he outlines, not the rhetorical power he wields, but to enjoy a man’s enjoyment of God in pursuit of truth. In Augustine’s long and arduous defense and confirmation of the gospel we can be fellow partakers with him of grace (Phil 1:7), aka the enjoyment of God. This enjoyment is the “sober intoxication” that speeds us on our way to our eternal home.
In City of God, through Augustine, we get a foretaste of the peace of the New Jerusalem, that peace which is the “perfectly ordered and completely harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and of each other in God.” (19.17)