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Augustine Reinterprets Rome | Augustine's Church of Sinners | Rival Bishoprics and the Nature of Jesus Christ

Augustine Reinterprets Rome

In the years 411-12, when refugees from Rome reached the city of Hippo in North Africa, the bishop there, Augustine, heard accusations that Rome's destruction was the result of neglect to worship Rome's traditional gods. Christians were responding with uncertainty to these allegations. They believed that their god protected people, and obviously Rome had not been protected. They believed as had Bishop Eusebius that God had linked Rome and Christianity, and with disaster befalling Rome they needed a new view of God's ties with Rome and with Christians.

In a series of sermons, Augustine told his flock not to worry, that they were not citizens of Rome or denizens of earth. He appealed to their imaginations and told them they were citizens of the heavenly city of Jerusalem. Since the fall of Adam, said Augustine, the loyalties of the human race had been divided between two great symbolic cities. One city, the heavenly city of Jerusalem, served God along with his loyal angels. The other city, Babylon, represented by Rome, served the rebel angels: the devil and his demons. He said that although Jerusalem and Babylon appeared mixed they would be separated at the Last Judgment. The righteous, he said, would return to the heavenly city of Jerusalem just as the prophets had foretold of the return of Jews to their homeland.

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine, to be declared a saint

Augustine's response in writing to the charge that Christianity was to blame for the fall of Rome appeared in 413 in a work titled The City of God. In this work he argued that although Rome had suffered a great demise, God was actively at work in human history, that Rome was not eternal as some people had thought but had been destined to decay. Augustine claimed that Rome had been influenced both by God and by demons, that worldliness, a lust for material goods and violence were rooted in impulse and had made Rome wicked. Rome, he wrote, was based on self-love, robbery, violence and fraud. The Romans, he claimed, were the most successful brigands in history. Viewing Roman culture, Augustine described slavery and private property not as the creations of God but of sin.  Christianity could not save Rome, he wrote, because those with power, including Christian emperors, could not erase the taint of humanity's sin. Rome, he wrote, had to perish as had the wicked cities of the Old Testament. Augustine described history as changing the world visually, like a kaleidoscope, and that history was linked with the wisdom of God as the prophets had claimed – links that humanity could not understand because it could not see the whole, as could God. God, he claimed, ordered all events. Augustine claimed that without the coming of Jesus Christ history would have been meaningless. He described pagans such as Platonist philosophers as having failed to understand the sequence of history or its appointed end: Armageddon.

Augustine's City of God became five volumes which dealt with those who worshiped God for happiness on earth, another five volumes that dealt with those who worshiped God for eternal happiness, and twelve volumes concerning the origin and ultimate destinies of the symbolic cities of Babylon and Jerusalem. It was an elaborate work that made Augustine an Aristotle of allusions and metaphysics.

Augustine claimed that one finds truth through revelation, a sort of flash of insight emanating from God's messenger, Jesus Christ – rather than the weighing of generalizations. Truth, he thought, could be found in scripture, which he saw as the word of God. But he believed that to find it there, one had to search for it with a yearning for fulfillment – an attempt to find what one was looking for rather than an attempt to find whatever was there. Having come to see all of creation as God's, Augustine fought against the notion that humanity was helpless before the forces of evil. People chose to be evil or not to be evil, he believed, as in Adam choosing to sin. Despair, Augustine believed, was unnecessary and an unforgivable sin. People, he believed, had the freedom to call on God to save them. A Christian's worst enemy, he believed, was inside himself: his sins, his doubts.

Along with seeing God as the creator of all, Augustine believed with other Christians that the world was also influenced by devils. Pagan gods, he believed, were devils. He described devils as vile beings, as the evil spirits of which the apostles had spoken. Augustine turned the struggle against devils inward. Men, he believed, got the demons they deserved. Augustine believed that people were at times their own devil. He saw victory over evil as depending upon an inner strength, the source of which was an inner attachment to Jesus Christ.

Augustine railed against the remnant paganism among his parishioners, including astrology. He attacked the notion that humanity's course of action could be determined by the stars while animals such as dogs remained free to choose between doing something and not doing it. He spoke of people born in the same month – even the same hour – as not necessarily having the same destiny over the period of a day or a lifetime.

Like the Christian scholar Origen (184?–254?), Augustine interpreted scripture allegorically. The Bible, he believed, had been veiled by God in order to exercise those seeking Him. He believed that the Bible's ambiguities provided people with ever-new facets of truth to be discovered. He saw human consciousness as the psychoanalyst Freud would see messages in dreams: truth not as simple and direct but diffracted into obscure and intricate symbols needing interpretation. Augustine believed that people had a repressed awareness, a loss of direct knowledge, resulting from humanity's fall at the Garden of Eden, which had left Adam and Eve able to communicate only by the clumsy artifice of language and gestures. Believing that God was the source of all knowledge, Augustine believed that direct awareness was a gift of God and that the gap between direct awareness and human consciousness was mercifully bridged by the Bible and its proliferation of imagery.


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