St. Augustine and the End of the World

The Sack of Rome


The year is 410. The day is August 24. Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, has Rome, the center of the known world, under siege.

This is the third time he has besieged Rome. The previous two times, he was left after being paid off. This time is different. This time the money has not come.

And so, for the first time in 800 years, Rome falls to an enemy. The barbarians, pour through the gates and loot it for three days. The city’s great buildings are ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors are raided and their ashes scattered to the wind. The city is devastated, and many Romans is taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many feel, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There is one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and a response to pagan critics who blamed its embrace of Christianity for its decline. Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God. It is by far his longest work, and was written in many pieces over the course of more than a decade. Where Confessions laid out Augustine’s theology of individual salvation, City of God lays out his theology of history.

Remember how horrified you were to see Augustine advocate state suppression of the Donatists? Why was that? Because we believe in a doctrine of separation of church and state. By now, it will probably not surprise you to learn that even this idea has its origins in Augustine’s thought.

In reply to those critics who charged that Rome has fallen because it had Christianized, Augustine countered that Rome had in fact not truly converted. Rather, he posited, there exist two overlapping kingdoms in the world: the City of God, and the City of the World (alternately called the City of Man).

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all.

Augustine traces the origin of the two cities back through the Bible, all the way to the original rebellion of Satan and his angels. This rebellion continues with Adam and Eve, who join the City of the world when they are seduced by Satan into loving themselves more than God. The split is reiterated with the story of Cain and Abel.

Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God. For as in the individual the truth of the apostle’s statement is discerned, “that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual,” whence it comes to pass that each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration: so was it in the human race as a whole.

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of the resurrection; and then shall the promised kingdom be given to them, in which they shall reign with their Prince, the King of the ages, time without end.

Of course, you remember How the story of Cain and Abel ended. Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s relationship with God caused him to commit fratricide. In the same way, the City of Man is at war against the City of God, which Augustine continues to trace down through scripture. He even ties this idea in with Rome’s founding myths. According to legend, Romulus killed his twin Remus before himself founding the city of Rome, once again placing Rome firmly in the “City of the World” category.

The City of the World has its uses, according to Augustine, but even at its best it just serves to suppress the crime and more blatant effects of sin. The City of God is what we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal.

The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.

Augustine’s Death

While Augustine lay on his death bed in 430, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.

Now What?

If you want more Augustine, he has plenty of writings to choose from. The massive City of God is his most famous and important work, but there are lots of others. On Christian Doctrine is another popular (and fairly short) work of his. If you want to further explore the Pelagian controversy that we touched briefly upon, his Anti-Pelagian Writings have been collected together into a volume of their own. If you’re interested in the free will aspects of that debate, he has a separate work titled On Free Choice of the Will. If you liked his work on time, you may be interested in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis. This is just a small sampling; there are many other tracts, sermons and books that he authored.

Augustine did change his mind. Significantly, he later went back over his past work, revising and even abandoning some of his ideas in his Retractions.

So go pick up an old book and get to reading!

Augustine and the Donatists

Augustine Disputing with the hereticsIn 250, Emperor Decius initiated a brief but bloody persecution of the church. The majority of Christians renounced their faith or purchased a certificate saying they had renounced it. Once the danger was past, they began to rethink their decisions and wanted to rejoin the church. How should the church respond?

Back in Rome, the bishop had been martyred, and for a year there was nobody to take his place. In 251, Cornelius was elected and immediately offered penance to the lapsed. Novatian, who had helped lead the church in the transition, declared that this was impossible, and became the head of a rival church. Cornelius excommunicated them, and tension remained between the two groups for over a century.

In 303, Emperor Diocletian initiated what became known as the Great Persecution, and when it was over, the controversy arose again. This time, it was worst in North Africa, where the persecution had been lightest. All that had been asked of Christians there was to hand over their scriptures to be burned. Many Christians, particularly wealthy ones, acceded to this request, including clergy. These people were branded “traditores” (literally “those who had handed over”) and is where the word “traitor” comes from. The Donatists, led by Donatus, declared that any sacraments administered by traditore priests were invalid. They remained a force for centuries; it was only the Muslim conquest in the 7th century that put an end to the division.

Society of Saints vs. School for Sinners?

The questions raised in each of these schisms are very difficult, so much so that the church has continued to wrestle with them for the entirety of the past 2000 years. On the one hand, is the church not a pure, spotless bride? We cannot really claim to have faith in Christ if that faith doesn’t change how we live. On the other hand, we are all sinners; in the eyes of God we have all fallen short, and can we really claim that some other person’s sin is so much worse than ours as to put them beyond redemption? On the other hand, if we do not hold each other to account then aren’t we really just a bunch of hypocrites? On the other hand, we are specifically enjoined to be careful about judging, because the same measure will be applied to us. On the other hand, if we don’t judge and even expel some sinners from the congregation, we may indirectly cause others to sin who would have otherwise learned from the examples of those who were expelled. On the other hand, perhaps by staying in fellowship with a fallen brother, we can influence him back towards Christ and better behavior.

Wheat, Tares, and Augustine

As a bishop in North Africa, Augustine spent a lot of time combatting the Donatists. Sermon 23 succinctly lays out his view of sinners within the church, both among clergy and laity:

In the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, to burn them, but gather the wheat into My barn. Why are you so hasty, He says, you servants full of zeal? You see tares among the wheat, you see evil Christians among the good; and you wish to root up the evil ones; be quiet, it is not the time of harvest. That time will come, may it only find you wheat! Why do ye vex yourselves? Why bear impatiently the mixture of the evil with the good? In the field they may be with you, but they will not be so in the barn.

O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! The harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who can make the separation, and who cannot make mistakes. We in this time present are like those servants of whom it was said, Will You that we go and gather them up? for we were wishing, if it might be so, that no evil ones should remain among the good. But it has been told us, Let both grow together until the harvest. Why? For you are such as may be deceived. Hear finally; Lest while you gather up the tares, you root up also the wheat with them. What good are you doing? Will ye by your eagerness make a waste of My harvest?

I tell you of a truth, my Beloved, even in these high seats there is both wheat, and tares, and among the laity there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good. Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world.

Consider how you would handle following in your church

  1. A man who sacrificed on the pagan altar to the emperor.
  2. A man who didn’t sacrifice, but bought a certificate saying he did.
  3. A Pastor who turned over scriptures to be burned.
  4. Church leadership which ordained a practicing homosexual.

Suppressing the Donatists

Augustine went beyond preaching, though. He called upon the state to help end the schism:

Again I ask, if good and holy men never inflict persecution upon any one, but only suffer it, whose words they think that those are in the psalm where we read, “I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them; neither did I turn again till they were consumed?” If, therefore, we wish either to declare or to recognize the truth, there is a persecution of unrighteousness, which the impious inflict upon the Church of Christ; and there is a righteous persecution, which the Church of Christ inflicts upon the impious. She therefore is blessed in suffering persecution for righteousness’ sake; but they are miserable, suffering persecution for unrighteousness. Moreover, she persecutes in the spirit of love, they in the spirit of wrath; she that she may correct, they that they may overthrow: she that she may recall from error, they that they may drive headlong into error.

Finally, she persecutes her enemies and arrests them, until they become weary in their vain opinions, so that they should make advance in the truth; but they, returning evil for good, because we take measures for their good, to secure their eternal salvation, endeavor even to strip us of our temporal safety, being so in love with murder, that they commit it on their own persons, when they cannot find victims in any others. For in proportion as the Christian charity of the Church endeavors to deliver them from that destruction, so that none of them should die.

The Donatist schism by his time had existed for nearly a century, and the division now went much deeper than the original controversy. It often turned violent. Sometimes, Donatists would loot and destroy Catholic churches. They also prevented people among their ranks from going over to the Catholic side by using violence. Does this change your view any?

And what are we to say of those who confess to us, as some do every day, that even in the olden days they had long been wishing to be Catholics; but they were living among men among whom those who wished to be Catholics could not be so through the infirmity of fear, seeing that if any one there said a single word in favor of the Catholic Church, he and his house were utterly destroyed at once? Who is mad enough to deny that it was right that assistance should have been given through the imperial decrees, that they might be delivered from so great an evil, whilst those whom they used to fear are compelled in turn to fear, and are either themselves corrected through the same terror, or, at any rate, whilst they pretend to be corrected, they abstain from further persecution of those who really are, to whom they formerly were objects of continual dread?

But if they have chosen to destroy themselves, in order to prevent the deliverance of those who had a right to be delivered, and have sought in this way to alarm the pious hearts of the deliverers, so that in their apprehension that some few abandoned men might perish, they should allow others to lose the opportunity of deliverance from destruction, who were either already unwilling to perish, or might have been saved from it by the employment of compulsion; what is in this case the function of Christian charity, especially when we consider that those who utter threats of their own violent and voluntary deaths are very few in number in comparison with the nations that are to be delivered?

What then is the function of brotherly love? Does it, because it fears the shortlived fires of the furnace for a few, therefore abandon all to the eternal fires of hell? And does it leave so many, who are either already desirous, or hereafter are not strong enough to pass to life eternal, to perish everlastingly, while taking precautions that some few should not perish by their own hand, who are only living to be a hindrance in the way of the salvation of others, whom they will not permit to live in accordance with the doctrines of Christ, in the hopes that some day or other they may teach them too to hasten their death by their own hand, in the manner which now causes them themselves to be a terror to their neighbors, in accordance with the custom inculcated by their devilish tenets? Or does it rather save all whom it can, even though those whom it cannot save should perish in their own infatuation? For it ardently desires that all should live, but it more especially labors that not all should die.

Consider the many people who are prevented from even hearing the gospel due to violent men who keep it out of their country. Now, imagine that you could change this by removing their oppressors by force. Would that be wrong?

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapters 11-13

People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually — from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint — it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff.
As we shall see, the concept of time has no meaning before the beginning of the universe. This was first pointed out by St. Augustine. When asked: What did God do before he created the universe? Augustine didn’t reply: He was preparing Hell for people who asked such questions. Instead, he said that time was a property of the universe that God created, and that time did not exist before the beginning of the universe. -Steven Hawking, A Brief History of Time
What was God doing before he created the universe?

It’s a question without an obvious answer, prompting some to snarkily respond, “preparing Hell for people who ask such question.” But that doesn’t get to the real heart of the question. If God spent innumerable ages doing nothing, why did He suddenly break the trend and create Heaven and Earth? What changed His mind? Why won’t He go back to doing nothing in the future?

Augustine’s answer is both simple and confusing:

Let him wake up and consider that he wonders at a faulty concept. From where could innumerable ages come, which you have not made, since you are the Author and Creator of all ages? Of what times should there be which have not been created by you? Or how shall they pass by if they had never been? For you made that very time. But if there was no time before heaven and earth, why is it asked what you did then? For there was no then when time was not.

The question, Augustine says, is flawed. Time itself is a part of the created world. There is not before before God created time. And since time is just another creation of God, it is not a thing that God himself is subject to.

The Big Bang

At this point, it’s worth looking back a century from our own time. For much of the 1900s, the general scientific consensus was that the universe had no beginning. It had been in existence for eternity, and would continue for eternity (this was also Plato’s view). That the Bible taught it had been created was just another example of religion contradicting science.

Now, of course, the Big Bang theory enjoys near unanimous support. We now know that the universe began at a specific moment in time. More than that, we know that not only did matter come into existence at this moment of creation; time itself did. It is probably not a coincidence that this theory was proposed by a Catholic priest; he had probably read Augustine, who had figured this out long ago. To reiterate: If you went to the best schools in the 1920s and were tutored under the top physicists of the day, you were actually less knowledgeable about the origins of the universe than if you simply read St. Augustine, writing a thousand years before Science was even invented, with only his wits and Scripture as his guide.

The Eternal Now

God being eternal means much more than that He has always existed and will keep existing forever and ever and ever. It means that God is actually outside of time itself. Page 214:

For eternity by definition is fixed and cannot be compared to the moments we experience, which are never fixed. How do we know that a long time has become long? We sense the passing by of many moments and changes. Were there no motions or changes there would be no lengths of movements to call “time.” In the eternal realm the whole must be present. In our minds we cannot imagine time in that totality now. For us, all time past is driven on by time to come, and all to come follows upon the past. But in God’s timetable of creation, all past and future are one design, flowing out of one now.

What is time, anyway?

By this point, it should not surprise you that Augustine moves on to trying to figure out what time itself is. He notes that everyone seems to think they know what time is, until they are asked to define it.

Augustine starts with the Past. But what is the Past, except something which does not exist anymore? Likewise, the Future does not exist. Only the Present can be said to actually exist, and even that passes away in an instant. If time is defined by things arriving and then immediately passing away, then time is little more than a march towards non-existence. He declares that “we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends toward non-existence.”

He spends a long time on this idea and its paradoxes. After all, we can measure time. How can we measure an hour if all parts of the hour that are outside of Now do not even exist?

Ultimately, the best Augustine can say is that the soul is stretched out into an apparent succession of events, perhaps as part of our fall away from God and His eternal present.

Interpreting Genesis

Taking his ideas of time as a guide, Augustine turns to the book of Genesis, which even back then had many contentious interpretations.

But among so many truths which occur to inquirers in those words, understood as they are in different ways, which of us shall so discover that one meaning as to state, “This is what Moses thought,” and, “That is what he wanted understood in that narrative,” as confidently as he would say, “This is true, whether Moses thought this or that?”

Augustine separates the debate over interpretations into two categories: those concerned with the truth of the matter, and those concerned with the intent of the author. He largely dismisses the second category as unknowable.

As for the truth of the matter, Augustine argues that scripture can allow for many different “true” readings, though I hasten to add that he is not supporting relativism here. He does not believe that any possible interpretation is valid, but he is rather easy on simplistic and literalistic interpretations, so long as they act as a step towards faith in God as the creator of the universe. He additionally argues that Moses may well have been aware of the many ways his words could be interpreted, and intended all of them.

If you get why this image goes with this post, I have done well as a father.

Confessions of St. Augustine – Chapter 10

RememberConfessions now turns from autobiography to philosophy. The next few chapters can come as a bit of a shock for people; they make for more difficult reading, and it can be hard for moderns to even understand why Augustine spends as much time as he does on topics like memory. However, Augustine still has the same focus here as in the rest of the book: he is concerned with the search for God. Just as he started the story of his life with his birth, so he starts his search for God from the very beginning. After all, how can he really know God without first knowing how he knows things?

What do we love when we love God?

But what do I love when I love you? Not the beauty of bodies, nor the fair harmony of time, not the brightness of light, so gladsome to our eyes; not the sweet melodies of various songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and ointments and spices; not manna and honey; not the limbs that physical love likes to embrace. It is none of those that I love when I love my God.

I asked the whole frame of the world about my God; and it answered me, “I am not He, but He made me.”

Augustine interrogates each of his physical senses as he tries to determine just how it is he knows about God, and finds them all inadequate to the task. Finally, he turns inward, bringing him to the faculty of memory.

What is memory?

At its core, Augustine’s investigation of memory is really about epistemology. He wants to know how it is that we are capable of knowing things, so he can know how it is he is capable of knowing God. It should be noted that he is using “memory” in a broader sense here than we usually do.

He starts with the most basic type of memory: sensory perception. Augustine envisions his memory as a vast palace storing all kinds of images which he can retrieve with varying levels of ease. Somehow, these things can be experienced even without the original items being physically present.

This is not the only kind of memory, though. Augustine also remembers skills. These are different from sensory images in an important way: with skills, it is the thing itself that is stored in his memory, not an image of it. He moves quickly to our storage of ideas, where the thing itself is once again stored. He points out that he received many ideas by way of hearing Greek or Latin words, but the things themselves are distinct from the language they were communicated in, and it is the thing itself that he stored.

He is reaching at a deeper point here: as ideas get more abstract, many of the things he remembers are things he has never actually physically seen. Mathematical concepts illustrate this particularly well. Augustine understands quite well what the number “3” is, or what a triangle is, even though he has never actually seen them. (At this point, he is essentially talking about Platonic forms).

He has another, very Platonic concern here. Sometimes, we encounter ideas that seem self-evidently true. Plato held that learning was actually the process of re-remembering things which we forgot when we took bodily form. Augustine modifies this view a little; he implies that these things had been placed in his memory beforehand, and were just waiting for somebody to pull them out.

Emotional memory is next up, and here things start to get weird for Augustine. How can he remember emotions without feeling them? Sometimes some memories even give him the opposite emotion that they originally evoked (for example, his current sadness at his former fornication). He starts running into further contradictions. How can he remember forgetfulness? When he remembers memory, is it some image of memory that is present, or is memory itself present in his memory, that is, present inside itself? Augustine finds no answer to his questions.

Finding God

Augustine returns to the idea that some things were placed in his memory even without his having experienced them. This time, he considers the concept of a happy life. Recall how torn up he was prior to his conversion about his failure to achieve happiness. Yet, how could he know and long for a thing he had never actually experienced? Augustine is driving at much the same thing C.S. Lewis was when he said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We find the idea of a happy life in our memory because God placed it there, to draw us to Him.

You were not in my memory before I learned of you. Where did I find you, that I might learn of you, but in yourself, above myself.

Too late have I loved you, Oh Beauty, ancient yet ever new. Too late have I loved you! And behold, you were within, but I was outside, searching for you there-plunging, deformed amid these far forms which you had made. You were with me, but I was not with you.

God, he says, was not in his memory before he found Him, but has pledged to dwell there ever after. Yet God is not a sensory object, a skill, an idea, or an emotion. He doesn’t fit in any of the kinds of memory Augustine has investigated so far. Thus, while the search for God is an inward search, it ultimately takes the searcher outside of and above himself.

Temptations sore beset him

Augustine moves on to a different subject now, pondering over how best to avoid sin without becoming too strict (Page 189). He begins with the example of the proper place of music in church, a debate that continues to this day. He later returns to the same issue as he thinks about his own struggle with pride and a desire for praise from others (Page 197):

To receive no praise we must live an incompetent life, abandoning all praiseworthy deeds and living atrociously. Then no one should think about us without despising. What greater madness than that can be said, or thought of? But if praise uses and ought to accompany a good life and good works, we ought to no more avoid its company that we do the company of a good life itself. Yet how do I know whether I am handling something sinfully or in proper balance unless I am without it?

Bonus Material: Memory and the Trinity

Augustine returned to subject of memory in his later work On the Trinity. There he uses the human mind as an illustration of the Trinity (man is, after all, made in God’s image):

Since, then, these three, memory, understanding, will, are not three lives, but one life; nor three minds, but one mind; it follows certainly that neither are they three substances, but one substance. Since memory, which is called life, and mind, and substance, is so called in respect to itself; but it is called memory, relatively to something. And I should say the same also of understanding and of will, since they are called understanding and will relatively to something; but each in respect to itself is life, and mind, and essence.

And hence these three are one, in that they are one life, one mind, one essence; and whatever else they are severally called in respect to themselves, they are called also together, not plurally, but in the singular number. But they are three, in that wherein they are mutually referred to each other; and if they were not equal, and this not only each to each, but also each to all, they certainly could not mutually contain each other; for not only is each contained by each, but also all by each.

For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will. For that of my memory which I do not remember, is not in my memory; and nothing is so much in the memory as memory itself. Therefore I remember the whole memory. Also, whatever I understand I know that I understand, and I know that I will whatever I will; but whatever I know I remember. Therefore I remember the whole of my understanding, and the whole of my will. Likewise, when I understand these three things, I understand them together as whole.


Read Book XI, where Augustine inquires into the creation of the world.