Augustine wrote City of God as an apologetic in response to those who were crediting Christians with the downfall of Rome. They argued that Christianity as a religion weakens cultures and makes them susceptible to overthrow by foreign powers. Augustine argued to the contrary that, whereas faithful commitment to the God of Scripture has always brought about flourishing in particular cultures, increased rebellion against Him has always resulted in their downfall. Within these cultures, Augustine recognized that there were two types of citizens: those of the City of God and those of the City of Man (also known as the city of this world or the earthly city).
A Necessary Dichotomy
Augustine distinguished the City of God from the City of Man. These two cities are organized societies with citizens who are respectively distinguished by the standards by which they live. Citizens of the City of Man live by the standard of the flesh, whereas citizens of the City of God live by the Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:13-26). Augustine emphasizes that what ultimately distinguishes the two cities are their loves: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self.” (Book 14, Chapter 28).
It’s important to emphasize that, for Augustine, there is no dual citizenship – in other words, each individual member is a member of one city, and one city only. Augustine reiterated Jesus’ teaching that while Christians live in the City of Man, they do not belong to the City of Man (cf. John 18:36). Their presence in the earthly city is like that of strangers sojourning in a foreign country (cf. 1 Peter 1:1-2). The City of Man is not our true home; rather, our citizenship is in heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20) and it is to that Heavenly City that we owe our affections and our ultimate loyalty.
As some have rightly observed, Christians are in a very similar situation to that of the church during the period of the Assyrian Dispersion and the Babylonian Exile. We remain citizens of Zion while we sojourn in a foreign land and seek, in our occupations and conversations, to enable flourishing, both our own and that of those around us. As part of our goal to aid in the flourishing of the land shared by these two competing cities, the City of God necessarily speaks the truth in boldness when addressing the City of Man.
Augustine’s Critique Centered on Virtue
Some have interpreted Augustine’s words as a justification for the withdrawal of Christians (and a Christian worldview) from the civil and political sphere of society, but this would be a misreading of Augustine. Augustine strongly believed that the blessedness of civic life would be enhanced if the majority were to hear and embrace the Christian precepts of justice and moral virtue. Consider the words of Augustine in Book II, Chapter 19 of The City of God:
If ‘the kings of the earth and all nations, princes and all the judges of the earth, young men and maidens, old men and children’ [Psalm 148.11f.], people of every age and each sex; if those to whom John the Baptist spoke, even the tax gatherers and the soldiers [Luke 3.12f.]: if all these together were to hear and embrace the Christian precepts of justice and moral virtue, then would the commonwealth adorn its lands with happiness in this present life and ascend to the summit of life eternal, there to reign in utmost blessedness.
Augustine also emphasized that the City of God and the City of Man are competing, intermingling loyalties within the same culture. It is at this aspect of the City of Man that Augustine’s critique is most pointed.
The City of Man always seeks stability, if for no other reason than to maintain its own power, and as a result, it legislates at the level of the minimal standards needed to preserve society. The City of Man, therefore, emphasizes tolerance of differences (as long as they don’t interfere with the government’s power) in order to avoid conflict. For the City of Man, this passes for peace, albeit distorted by greed and selfishness. The City of Man is dominated by self-love and built around the lowest common denominator in society, which is self-indulgence. Virtue is absent since the citizens of the City of Man love themselves more than others, though good behavior may be enforced by social customs or by coercion by the state. In this environment, the state is necessary to restrain evil. Herein lies the dilemma: the problem is, the government itself is part of the City of Man and is itself dominated by self-love. The State is more interested in self-promotion and power than it is in promoting the good. In the City of Man, the State is nothing less than organized oppression, and maintains its power through violence and threats.
In contrast to the City of Man, the City of God is built around love of God and therefore love of neighbor. Because of this focus on love, all true virtue resides in the City of God. The City of God also seeks peace, though of a different and more profound sort. Whereas the City of Man uses terror to compel good behavior and to protect good people from the wicked, the City of God relies only on penitence, grace, and mercy, not compulsion, to advance its goals. Augustine emphasized that the City of Man cannot accomplish its penultimate ends (i.e. safety, peace, etc.) if its ultimate ends, means, and motivations (i.e. domination, pride, and self-love) are fundamentally disordered. This is a reality that is understood by citizens of the City of God and because of our love for our neighbor, we have a responsibility to speak this truth in boldness to citizens of the City of Man. In this way, the City of God can influence citizens of the City of Man by addressing the moral conscience of the City of Man. In this role, the citizens of the city of God become a prophetic voice to the State – forth-telling the God’s truth as revealed in Scripture.
In the next blog, we will consider how Augustine’s Two Cities has been applied throughout Church history by examining the thoughts of Martin Luther on the subject as well as the modern advocates of Two Kingdoms theology.