Citizens of Heaven

August 28
Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Review by Jeremy Bergstrom

One of the better things happening in the world of Patristics is the quiet yet steady work going on at New City Press towards producing a contemporary English translation of most of St. Augustine’s extensive corpus. The latest release in its effort is the first of a two-volume edition of The City of God, beautifully and lucidly translated by William Babcock. Volume 1 provides us with not only Books 1-10 of City of God’s 22 books but also contains Babcock’s excellent introduction to the whole treatise, in addition to an extensively detailed table of contents.

The City of God, Vol. 1
By St. Augustine.
Translated by William Babcock.
New City Press. Pp. 404. $49

Augustine is always worth reading; and a significant advantage to owning a copy of his City of God is that in many ways the text is a compendium of his thoughts on just about every subject he touches upon in his other works. But in a moment when the relationship between the Christian faith and public life is especially fraught with tensions, temptations, and ambiguity, there is perhaps no better time to take a step back with a Church Father and reconsider just what it means to be both a Christian and an active participant in the life of a city, or commonwealth (res publica).

Faced with political tensions not unlike those we suffer today, Augustine wrote City of God to help his readers identify not the evils of the earthly empire against the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem, but instead how to live on earth without loving this life, and ourselves, too much. In this scheme, the two cities refer to two objects of desire, and the question is one of human delight and longing. As Augustine famously summarizes in Book 14, “Two loves have made two cities. Love of self, even to the point of contempt for God, made the earthly city; and love of God, even to the point of contempt of self, made the heavenly city” (XIV.28).

Echoing Seneca, Cicero, and others, Augustine proclaims that Rome’s failure was due not to neglect of the traditional gods, but to its persistent failure to love true philosophy and virtue. And much like Cicero’s ideal philosopher-statesman, whose “splendor of life and character” serves as a model to the betterment of his fellow citizens in the commonwealth (De re publica 2.42.69), Augustine posits Christ the Head as the perfect ruler, who through virtue and eloquence engages in “dialogue” (Word and sacrament) with the members of his body to effect their perfection, appealing to Paul’s image of Christ as “head of the body, which is the church” (Col. 1:18, 24).

So it is that for Augustine the Church triumphant is the only truly just and therefore happy society. This does not mean, however, that he has pitted the Church militant against the state — far from it. Both earthly institutions contain members of each of the two spiritual cities. But only those who consider themselves to be citizens of the heavenly city, their hearts longing for their true patria with God in the life to come, are able to engage the affairs of this life with any sense of virtue or dignity, and love for their fellow man.

Jeremy Bergstrom, a licensed lay minister at St. John’s Church, Savannah, received his Ph.D. in historical theology last year from the University of Durham.

Image of Augustine: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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