Augustine’s City of God, VIII: The City of God

Where the city of man is founded on the love of self to the point of contempt of God, the city of God is found on the love of God—and by extension, others—to the point of contempt of self.[i] The city of God is also about enlargement; for it is the truly universal city spread throughout the world which claims and names its members from the beginning of time.[ii] The city of God does not transgress or eliminate the nations, rather, all the nations have representatives who belong to the city of God. This furthers the Augustinian vision of unity in diversity; unity in plurality—like how there is a single (whole) body with many constitutive parts.

The City of God

Augustine traces the city of God back to the creation of the cosmos. Its first representatives are, of course, Adam and Eve. Then there is Abel, Seth, and Enos.[iii] Then there is Noah and his blessed sons Shem (“Christ in the flesh”) and Jepheth (“enlargement,” foreshadowing the enlargement of Israel to include the Gentiles who are the descendants of Jepheth).[iv] And in reading the Flood narrative, Augustine takes the ecclesiological view that the “Church” is represented by the Ark. That is, only those who are in the Church are saved from God’s cleansing (outside of the Church there is no salvation); God’s cleansing judgment which destroys the wickedness of sin and allows for righteous living is symbolized in the Deluge, which is an embodiment of the sacrament of baptism. God purified the world through water and sealed his covenant with the Spirit (the Dove).

More impressively, Augustine interprets the significance of the meaning of the names of the many biblical characters to make his point. Just as Cain and Enoch mean control and dedication and being the founders of cities in the Genesis account entailing that the city of man is dedicated to the lust for control, the typological representatives of the city of God bring the promises of hope and salvation as seen through their names.

Seth, one of the three named sons of Adam, means “resurrection” or “anointed.”[v] Seth’s son, Enos, means “son of the resurrection” or “son of the anointed.”[vi] For Enos is the son, the heir, the inheritor, of the resurrected man of truth and life.[vii] Abel, in contrast, was a prefiguration of Christ; a type of Christ. For Abel was a Shepherd tending the flock (like how Christ is conceived as the Shepherd of the Lost Sheep of Israel). Abel was a godly and pious figure put to death by the distorted lusts of Cain (like how Christ is put to death by the city of man whom Cain is a prefiguration). It is through Abel’s death that the next seed of humanity, Seth, is born. Seth was born after Cain murdered Abel. Thus, Abel’s sacrifice brings about the “resurrection” of man represented by the birth of Seth—who is the resurrected humanity.

This line of resurrected or anointed men continues with the birth of Enos who is a “son of the resurrection” as his name means in Hebrew. The converse is true in the city of man where Cain’s son, Enoch, is a son of the city of death. It is also important, as Augustine notes, that it is from the line of Seth that Noah descends, and from Noah his sons, principally Shem, from which Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob descend, leading up to Christ come the New Testament—with Shem’s name foreshadowing the incarnation and Jepheth’s name foreshadowing the enlargement to the Gentiles. It is here Augustine develops from Saint Paul the more codified and systematic doctrine of “predestination” and the covenantal Elect and how the Gentiles are inheritors to the promises of Abraham by reading the unbroken genealogy in an allegorical and ecclesiological light.

Augustine’s hermeneutic of the city of God is rooted in his ecclesiological hermeneutic. God has always worked through his Church, not nations or races of men—as certain Protestant (mostly dispensationalist Evangelical) sects will claim. In fact, the dispensationalist rupture with the ecclesiological tradition is what leads to ethnic eschatology and religion like kinism and “chosen nation” mythologies like the Anglo-Saxons, the English, or the “City on the Hill” of the United States. God’s chosen people is his church which is the bridegroom of Christ (again prefigured going back to the first humans, Adam and Eve).[viii] Israel is the Church in Augustine’s eyes, and the Church was always destined to enlarge to include the Gentiles as foreshadowed by the Old Testament promises. The Church is, and has always been, the fulfillment of the promises made to Israel—and that Church is composed of men and women from all nations and races.

The city of God moves through the world and world history with God always present with it. In discussing the story of Noah’s Ark, Augustine writes, “[T]his is certainly a figure of the city of God sojourning in this world; that is to say, of the church, which is rescued by the wood on which hung the Mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”[ix] The structure of the Ark is like the structure of the church, the walls that protect men from the city of man. The wood by which it was made is a prefiguration of the wood of the Cross on which Jesus was slain. Those who survived the Deluge did so twofold: They were in the Church (represented by their being inside the Ark) and by the Cross (represented by the wood of the ark).

The story of the Ark is the story of the pilgrim Church on earth and through history much like how the story of the Exodus is the story of the pilgrim Church on earth and through history. Now Augustine does not deny the historicity of these Old Testament events, but he doesn’t dwell exhaustively on their literality; instead, he focuses on the “allegorical” readings which foreshadow, prefigure, and tell, the history of the Church and of God’s Elect through time and history. The Ark’s journey is the Church’s journey, and its landing on the mountain is its arrival in heaven.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is also a prefiguration of Christ, Salvation, and the Church.[x] Importantly, Abraham is rooted back to Shem (Christ in the Flesh) which is why it is from Abraham’s seed that Israel, the Chosen People married to Christ’s Body, descend or are grafted into. Isaac, in Augustine’s reading, is a symbolic type of Christ who, in being led up to the mountain to sacrificed, prefigures the sacrifice of Christ:

In order, then, that the children of the promise may be the seed of Abraham, they are called in Isaac, that is, are gathered together in Christ by the call of grace… And on this account Isaac also himself carried to the place of sacrifice the wood on which he was to be offered up, just as the Lord Himself carried His own cross. Finally, since Isaac was not to be slain, after his father was forbidden to smite him, who was that ram by the offering of which that sacrifice was completed with typical blood? For when Abraham saw him, he was caught by the horns in a thicket. What, then, did he represent but Jesus, who, before He was offered up, was crowned with thorns by the Jews?[xi]

Additionally, Augustine notes that Isaac’s name means laughter in Hebrew.[xii] Laughter is a symbolic representation of joy, of happiness. This is important too given that Isaac, as a prefiguration of Christ, a type of Christ, whose name means laughter, implies that—through archetypal typology—Isaac as a Type of Christ shows how only in Christ true joy (revealed by the pleasant laughter of Abraham and Sarah) is consummated.

The Exodus is equally understood in much the same way. The Church in Egypt is human bondage to sin (slavery, represented by the Egyptians). The Church in the desert is the human struggle against sin and temptations which prevent the pilgrim from arriving in the Promised Land (think of all the rebellions and idolatrous behavior of the Israelites in the Desert). The Church arriving in the Promised Land is its successful pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem. Egypt is slavery to the lusts of the world. The journey through the desert is the pilgrimage of the Church and the faithful Christian and all the troubles that come with it (including internal rebellion and strife). The crossing of the Jordan River, another prefiguration of baptism, is the new life in Heaven. Christ is also prefigured in the story, “when the people had entered the desert, on the fiftieth day after the passover was celebrated by the offering up of a lamb, which is so completely a type of Christ, foretelling that through His sacrificial passion He should go from this world to the Father (for pascha in, the Hebrew tongue means transit), that when the new covenant was revealed, after Christ our passover was offered up, the Holy Spirit came from heaven on the fiftieth day; and He is called in the gospel the Finger of God, because He recalls to our remembrance the things done before by way of types, and because the tables of that law are said to have been written by the finger of God.”[xiii]

So just as there is a line of men who exist in the genealogy of the city of man, there is a line of men who exist in the genealogy of the Covenantal Promises, and this is “spiritual Israel” which includes the Gentiles (as prefigured by Jepheth but also Job and Rahab and others). Therefore, the origin of the city of God is in the covenant promise and stands juxtaposed to the origin of the city of man—and that Covenant Promise foretold to Adam and Eve about the birth of Christ ensures that there is a literal line of descendants who are prefigured as being “in Christ” because it is from that line of Abel, Seth, Enos, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Mary and Joseph, that Christ was born. Reading the Old Testament in light of the New, Augustine, reflected on the Apostle Paul’s famous outlining of the two cities in Galatians 4, says, “This interpretation of the passage, handed down to us with apostolic authority, shows how we ought to understand the Scriptures of the two covenants—the old and the new. One portion of the earthly city became an image of the heavenly city.”[xiv] Earthly and Heavenly Israel, intermixed together, then separated with the coming of the Messiah and children of the promise passed on into the heavenly city, with heavenly citizenship, while the children of the flesh remained tethered to the fleshly city according to the earthly seed without divine grace.[xv]

This is not only ecclesiological hermeneutics, but it is also Christological hermeneutics. For Christ appears all over the Hebrew Bible according to Augustine. He is the Spoken Word of creation in Genesis 1. He prefigured and represented by Abel in Genesis 4. He is also contained in the persons of Seth and Enos after Cain’s murdering of Abel. Christ is present in the Ark when Noah survives the Flood. And so on. Books XVI-XIX go into greater detail this unfolding of Divine History. The “allegorical” is synonymous with the “ecclesiological” and Christological reading because Christ is always the Head of the Church.

Essential to the character of the city of God is its filial and relational, and loving, nature. The city of God, as it marches through history, is a family—and a family dedicated to love and unity. There is, despite their first sin and fall, Adam and Eve. By contrast, Cain, who is typological of the city of man, is broken from his family. He murders his brother and, in isolation from his parents (Adam and Eve) sets out a course for a new path (dedicated to self and the desires of the self which manifests in the libido dominandi). The city of God, from Adam and Eve, to Seth and Enos, to Noah and his sons, Abraham and Sarah, to Mary and Joseph, right up to the present, is a place where family, relationships, and the loving gift of self to others (“to the point of contempt of the self”) holds sway. Again, by contrast, the city of man is ripped apart from family and relationships: Cain, Ham, Ishmael, etc.

It would, here, be unbefitting of me not to mention the important doctrine of the mixed church (corpus permixtum) which Augustine also develops in the City of God. Earlier battles with the Donatists, schismatics, put Augustine on the side of catholicity—the view that the universal body will include saints and sinners. This he takes from the Old Testament and New Testament teachings.

In the Old Testament “Israel,” which is the people of the city of God, included an unfaithful “fleshly” side: Cain, Esau, Ham, Ishmael, etc. So there was a spiritual Israel and a fleshly Israel in the visible (or earthly) covenant but not the eternal (or spiritual) covenant. Christ’s statements of separating wheats from tares, of spiritually guarded virgins and spiritually unguarded virgins, Augustine took to mean, along with Christ’s statement in Matthew about those who come to him and he turns away, that there exists in the visible church—which is the realized instantiation of fleshly Israel to—reprobate and elect. Just as with Rebecca there was Jacob and Esau. Among the Israelite peoples, there were Nadab and Abihu, Korah and his faction, and so on. Augustine, in his clearest depiction of the mixed Church, says, “In this wicked world, in these evil days, when the Church measures her future loftiness by her present humility, and is exercised by goading fears, tormenting sorrows, disquieting labours, and dangerous temptations, when she soberly rejoices, rejoicing only in hope, there are many reprobate mingled with the good, and both are gathered together by the gospel as in a drag net.”[xvi] When that net opens on the shore—the Last Judgement—the separation of the wheats and tares occurs; the good and bad are separated with the children of the promise welcomed into that heavenly city which awaits them (cf. Ga. 4:21-30), and, following the Psalms, especially Psalm 89, the Bride of Christ, that is the heavenly city, though she will sin and be reproached, “but my mercy will I not take away from him.”[xvii] Therefore, the mixed church was itself prefigured in the Old Testament by the visible people Israel who had in its ranks saints and sinners.

The city of God is always in the hand of God. The city of man exists outside of God’s grace though never outside of his providence and sovereignty. As Augustine says, “Both, indeed, were of Abraham’s seed; but the one was begotten by natural law, the other was given by gracious promise. In the one birth, human action is revealed; in the other, a divine kindness comes to light.”[xviii] Those born outside of the gracious promise and entanglement (enlargement) are sons and daughters of the flesh, born entirely of the civitas terrena and given over to their wanton lusts which is what drives fallen history onward (or downward). Those born to the Church, those luminaries of the city of God, struggle as they must, die even as they will, are eternal citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. For that is the telos of the city of God: Union with God. Hence, the city of God pilgrimaging through the history of the saeculum to arrive in union with God at the eschaton. “How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!”[xix]

Augustine’s systematic treatment of the two cities in the second half of City of God is, arguably, the first systematic biblical theology attempted in the Christian tradition. Before him there were attempts at establishing hermeneutical principles to reading Scripture, there were commentaries on individual books and key stories, defense of practices of the faith, etc., but never was there—with the exception of Lactantius’ Divine Institutes (ca. 310 A.D.)—such a systematic attempt to chart the origins and ends of the two cities from within the Bible. Thus, Augustine’s systematic theology is also a theology of history. Because his was the first systematic biblical theology, Augustine’s legacy has been enormous in the Church’s self-understanding; many read the Bible and understand the church through his eyes even if unconsciously because of the inherited conditioning.

The city of God, for Augustine, in following Paul and through the New Testament revealing what was hidden, or prefigured, in the Old, is the spiritual Bride of Christ who is faithful to the end and receives the unconditional blessing and love of God. The city of God is the Israel of faith, that enlarged city that has the Gentiles in it, and the pilgrim city passing from earthly Jerusalem to the Jerusalem above. It is the city of the Promises. And those promises are realized in the Heavenly Jerusalem under the eternal King who is Christ and not the Earthly Jerusalem on sandy rocks and hills.

[i] See City of God, 14.28.

[ii] Ibid., 16.2.

[iii] Ibid.., 15.18.

[iv] Ibid., 16.2.

[v] Ibid., 15.17

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid., 22.17.

[ix] Ibid., 15.18.

[x] Ibid., 16.32.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid., 16.31.

[xiii] Ibid., 16.43.

[xiv] Ibid., 15.2.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Ibid., 18.49.

[xvii] Ibid., 17.9.

[xviii] Ibid., 15.2.

[xix] Ibid., 22.30.


Support Wisdom:

My Book on Plato:

1 comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: