"There is a river the streams whereof shall make glad the city of our God,
the holy place of the tabernacles of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved.”
It was the year 410 A.D. Toppling from the heights of her golden throne, Rome, the great mistress of the world, opened her gates to barbarian invaders. Throughout the civilized world, rumors of the sacked city were greeted with horror or unbelief. Three years later, in response to the pagan’s charge that Christian impiety towards the Roman gods had brought the gods’ wrath upon the city, Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, took up his pen to defend Christianity from this charge. These writings were the beginning of his great literary work, which would prove to become one of the most respected and frequently cited books of Church history. Thirteen years of labor completed this work; Augustine called it The City of God. This city, he wrote, is “…surpassingly glorious, whether we view it as it still lives by faith in this fleeting course of time, and sojourns as a stranger in the midst of the ungodly, or as it shall dwell in the fixed stability of its eternal seat . . .” There is another city of which he also writes: the earthly one. Of it, he says, “though it be mistress of nations, it itself is ruled by its lust of rule. ”Throughout the City of God, he traces the journeys of these two cities, from the time they were founded, to how they relate with one another, the conduct of their life, and finally, their ultimate end.
When God created the world with divine perfection and set man in the midst of His garden, He knew that man would sin. The eating of the fruit brought God’s just retribution as he promised, and not just upon Adam, but upon all of his posterity, for an imperfect nature cannot beget a perfect nature. To those who found God’s punishment harsh, Augustine wrote, “But eternal punishment seems hard and unjust to human perceptions, because in the weakness of our mortal condition there is wanting that highest and purest wisdom by which it can be perceived how great a wickedness was committed in that fist transgression. The more enjoyment men found in God, the greater was his wickedness in abandoning Him; and he who destroyed in himself a good which might have been eternal, became worthy of eternal evil.” Thus, Adam’s sin left all of mankind in the city of man, from whence it could not be freed except by Christ’s blood. Augustine believed that God chose to redeem His own people so that the world could see the efficacy of earthly grace, and on the other hand, He chose to let the rest continue in condemnation so that the world might also see the severity of retribution.
Of the worldly city, Augustine wrote that Cain was the founder, and of the heavenly city, Abel. Though it could be argued that Adam actually founded the earthly city when he ate of the fruit, Augustine apparently preferred Cain as founder. At the hands of Cain, the earth first swallowed the blood of man, and it was first recorded of him that he arose and built cities. Whoever were the true founders, Augustine was certain that all of humanity is divided into one of these antithical cities. One consists of those living according to man, while the other lives according to God; “one is predestined to reign eternally with God, and the other to suffer eternal punishment with the devil.” (XV.1) Thus, these the two cities exhibit two loves; the earthly loves itself to the contempt of God, whilst the heavenly city loves God, to the contempt of flesh. The former seeks glory from men, the latter from God, saying, “Thou art my glory. And the lifter up of mine head.” (Ps. 3:3)
That part of the heavenly city which sojourns here on earth is composed of numerous households, and the way these are ruled contributes in a very real way to the function of the whole city. The principles this city must live by, and which must be encouraged on behalf of all household members by the head of the house are the two greatest commandments: Thou shalt love the Lord they God, and thy neighbor as thyself.
In the spiritual life of each individual Christian, Augustine indicated that
there must be a balance between living an active Christian life (societal
involvement) and a contemplative life (that is, contemplation of God). Not surprisingly, however, Augustine placed more emphasis
upon the latter. Influenced as he
was by this platonic doctrine of contemplation of the greatest Good, he
believed, to some degree, in the encompassing superiority of contemplation in
the whole of Christian life. However,
he also recognized the importance of active Christian life and the danger of
selfishly indulging in contemplation to the detriment of Christian service in
the body of Christ. On the flip
side of this, he warned that active life, unaccompanied by contemplation,
quickly saps a Christian of the strength to press forward. In his own words, “No man has a right to lead such a life of
contemplation as to forget in his own ease the service due to his neighbor; nor
has any man a right to be so immersed in active life as to neglect the
contemplation of God.” (XIX.17)
Patrick L. Hurd