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Augustine & Jerome

Michael S. Horton

A few years ago, I had a discussion with U.S. Senate Only in eternity will chaplain, Dr. Richard Halverson, and he told me how truth, beauty, difficult it is to travel around the world and have other American believers traveling with him express their faith in goodness, and love triumph finally. extremely cultural terms. Living in Washington, he says, "No one actually says it, but it's there, and that is the idea that if we just get the right man--and it has to be a man--in the White House, and the right people in the Supreme Court, we'll have the kingdom of God. Now let's get to it!" And then Dr. Halverson quoted a penetrating question from Malcolm Muggeridge: "What if the church had pinned its hopes on the Roman Empire?" "I can't forget that," Dr. Halverson said, "at a time when the church is pinning its hopes on the good 'ol U.S.A." Imagine you are a Christian living near Rome in the year 411, when the barbarians sacked the seat of the Empire, an empire which had become identified with the City of God upon the earth. For so long the center of the universe for pagan Romans, the city of Rome continued as the center of the universe for the Christians as well. The city of man had at last been converted into the city of God. Here Paul nurtured the small community of Jewish and Gentile Christians, and here Peter was martyred. But now, the City of God had been taken by the heathen and the apparent collapse of the Roman Empire was equivalent in many minds to the fall of the Christian church itself. How could God allow this? How were the Christians to make sense of this catastrophe? In this article I want to tear out a page or two from church history which I think many readers will find instructive as we look at our own situation in American Christianity. The same questions were asked, the same issues were at stake, and church fathers took sides over what would be the most prudent course. Should we fight for our empire? After all, it is a Christian empire and doesn't the pagan take-over parallel the plundering Israel experienced at the hand of other nations? Ought we to do nothing? Or, should we accept the situation and see the barbarian invaders (in our case, secularists) as those who need the gospel? Rather than arguing over whose empire it is (a pretty moot point when the other guy has the weapons), shouldn't we see this as a missionary opportunity: God bringing the heathen to us?

Approach #1: Recovering the Vision of the Founding Father (Constantine)

The age of martyrdom and persecution created a longing for the second coming of Christ, to deliver them and vindicate their cause. There was very little interest in reforming a society that considered them enemies of the empire simply because they claimed Jesus Christ was their only Lord. In fact, much like the Anabaptists centuries later, the church father Tertullian asked, "What has Athens [philosophy] to do with Jerusalem [faith]?" and insisted that one could not be a Christian and a Roman emperor. (1) After surviving successive waves of persecutions, the Christians were gaining tremendous credibility. When in 311 AD he confronted an army whose general was relying on pagan magic, the new Emperor Constantine knew he would have to find a greater source of power. While in prayer, Constantine tells his friend, church historian Eusebius, that he had a vision of a cross in the sky that read, "By this sword conquer!" After his military success, Constantine set out to make Christianity the official religion of the very empire that had just poured so much of its energies into wiping out the growing religion. Privileges were given to the clergy, including taxexemption, and before long the upper clergy were showered with the pomp and prosperity of secular princes. Constantine abolished death by crucifixion, the cruel games, the bawdy entertainments, discouraged abortion, and called for an end to slavery. (2) As Constantine carried on a Christianized version of the Pax Romana (Roman Peace), the Christians themselves saw the Roman Empire as the civilizing, peace-keeping, and justice-preserving glue holding the world together. Meanwhile, Salvianus (440-455), a Gallic priest, wrote a book arguing that the catastrophe was due to the failure of the Church to uphold traditional morality. The lives of the common Christians, and even the clergy, had become scandalous under imperial favor, and Salvianus appears to have thought that moral reformation was the answer. Nevertheless,

Salvianus did not blame the barbarian pagans, but the Christians who excelled the barbarians in immorality. Such portraits, of course, ought not to be relied upon entirely, since they come from the polemics of monks who considered anything less than monasticism sub-Christian. Nevertheless, the reports abound and leave us with the general impression that the church at the time of the invasion was itself an inglorious institution within a generation of its official establishment as the imperial religion. It is against this backdrop of newfound prosperity that the Christians faced the Gothic invasion in 410.

Approach #2: Withdrawal

The church father Jerome represents the most traditional response: The destruction of the Roman Empire was such a catastrophe as to signal the end of the age, and Jerome retired to a very ascetic life, encouraging monasticism as the way of handling the invasions. Christians ought to separate from the barbarians and take what bits and bobs of the glorious Empire they could as they left. Preserving "the faith once and for all delivered unto the saints" included the preservation of the Roman traditions, history, and customs. "How can we be safe if Rome perishes!", Jerome lamented. Apologists for the church sought a number of lines of defense against the suggestion made by many Romans that it was Christianity that corrupted the Empire and brought this disaster. Some apologists argued that it was the Christian faith that was the reason for Rome's glory, citing the facts--and they were facts, that even before Constantine officially declared in favor of Christianity, the believers had an enormous moral influence in society.

Approach #3: What An Opportunity!

While Jerome, Salvianus, and other apologists saw the sacking of Rome in 410 as an omen of the end of the world, and responded either by withdrawal or a call to recover the faith (read culture) of the Empire, the great African bishop used his pen for other conclusions. Augustine (354-430) laid out his approach to the new situation by writing that great classic of Western civilization, The City of God. In this world, the wheat and tares grow together; love struggles with selfishness for dominion. In the City of God in heaven, there is only perfection, joy, peace, and love. But this does not even describe the church, for "there are wolves within and sheep without," and not even the Christians themselves can attain moral perfection. Thus, Augustine countered the moralistic utopianism of most other apologists and, therefore, undermined the foundation for a supposed revival of imperial fervor. We ought not to confuse nostalgia for revival of religion. Only in eternity will truth, beauty, goodness, and love triumph finally. Therefore, in this world we participate on a human level with our neighbors and do our best to evangelize and participate in the City of Man as salt and light, but we must never confuse the City of Man with the City of God. As Henry Chadwick puts it, Augustine saw the Church existing for the kingdom of God, the true 'eternal city,' beyond the rise and fall of all empires and civilizations. Even 'Christian' Rome could claim no exemption from the chaos and destruction brought by the barbarians. Augustine never supposed that the interests of the Roman empire and the kingdom of God were more or less identical. In relation to the church, he thought, the government had a positive function to preserve peace and liberty. But the barbarians who attacked the empire were not necessarily enemies to the city of God. It would be the western church's task to convert its new barbarian masters. (3) The African bishop, therefore, saw the crisis as an opportunity. If Rome, the City of Man, is ultimate, the Gothic invasion is intolerable. If, on the other hand, the City of God is eternal and heavenly, outliving the rise and fall of earthly empires, the invasion is an unparalleled missionary opportunity. After all, instead of taking the Gospel to these pagans, it is the pagans themselves who are coming to the missionaries! It all depends on how one looks at it. Augustine does not hesitate to defend Christianity against the charge that it contributed to the collapse. The Romans, he said, "should thank Christ for the boon that, out of regard for His Name and in disregard of the traditional usages of war, the barbarians gave them immunity in spacious Christian buildings...Bear in mind that, in recounting these things, I am still dealing with those ignorant dupes who gave birth and popular currency to the saying: 'If there is a drought, blame the Christians.' As for those among them who have received a liberal education and appreciate the value of history, they can very easily inform themselves." (4) While defending Christianity against the false charges of the pagans who tolerated or even embraced the faith while all was well, Augustine did not see that as his primary obligation. The following passage from The City of God captures Augustine's vision: In this unfriendly world, in evil days like these, the Church through the lowliness she now endures is winning the sublime station she is to have in heaven. Meanwhile, the sting of fears and ache of tears, the

vexatious toil and hazardous temptations, teach her to rejoice only in the healthy joy of hope. With so many sinners mingled with the saints, all caught in the single fishing net the Gospel mentions, this life on earth is like a sea in which good and bad fishes caught in a net swim about indistinguishably until the net is beached, and the bad ones are separated from the good. Only then does God so reign in the good, as in His temple, that He may be all in all....So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world's hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God. Nor does this state of affairs date only from the days of Christ's and His Apostles' presence on earth. It was never any different from the days when the first just man, Abel, was slain by his ungodly brother. So it shall be until this world is no more. (5) That last remark is especially important, since Augustine develops it as an essential aspect of his argument. In Genesis, we see emerging two lines: The line of Cain (the ungodly), and the line of Seth (the godly). Throughout the story of redemptive history, these two lines, forming the City of Man and the City of God, struggle with each other. Not for one moment are these two cities to be confused. Each has its own God-ordained purpose. One is earthly, temporal, changing, cultural; the other is heavenly, eternal, unchanging, and transcendent of human wisdom, values, and opinions. Nevertheless, Augustine was advocating neither a hostile take-over of government (confusing the City of God with the City of Man), nor monastic isolation and withdrawal. As Tillich expressed it, "There is the unity which overcomes the split of reality, and from this point of view it [Christian involvement in the world] is a work of love. If this is understood by the emperor, he can become a Christian ruler. Here we have the ambiguous valuation: the state is partly identical with the kingdom of the devil and it is partly different from it because it restricts the devilish powers." (6) In other words, by our involvement in the City of Man, as salt (a preservative) and light, we can actually restrict the evil influences of that realm. We can bring the eternal to bear on the temporal affairs; grace to bear on nature; love to bear on greed and selfishness. The Christian can be involved with the most corrupt worldly institutions, but must never confuse them with the kingdom of God--not for one moment, not even when those institutions are perceived as being paragons of moral virtue. The church historian Philip Schaff wrote, "While even Jerome deplored in the destruction of the city the downfall of the empire as the omen of the approaching doom of the world, the African father saw in it only a passing revolution preparing the way for new conquests of Christianity." (7)

So What Was The Outcome?

Eventually the Church settled in to Augustine's realization that the fall of the Roman Empire wasn't the end of the world. Clovis, King of the Franks, was baptized in 496 and many of the other barbarian rulers had been evangelized before their invasions by missionaries. With the baptism of Clovis came the mass-conversion of the Germanic barbarians. Christianity spread with each wave of invaders and these very mobile converts themselves took their new faith with them beyond the frontiers, deep into Africa, Asia, Europe, and Britain. Significant gains were made during this period among the Arabs as well. China had the Gospel planted in its soil in the early 7th century. In many cases, the successors of the pagan invaders were to become defenders of the faith, unparalleled even under Constantine. As Kenneth Scott Latourette observes, "The collapse of the Empire freed Christianity from the restrictions placed on it by its close association with that regime and gave greater opportunity for its inherent genius to express itself than was true in the East, where the Roman state persisted." (8) Scandinavian rulers, for instance, would be much more open to Christianity if they did not have to adopt the Roman Empire as well. In short, the outcome was both positive and negative, but on the whole, the barbarian invasions provided for the most explosive missionary expansion to that date and without it, Christianity would be a footnote in history books on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Happily, Augustine pointed the way beyond this-worldly attachments to the most amazing advances of Christ's kingdom. In 497, the last Roman Emperor ruled and the pagan rulers now assumed the Roman titles. The Holy Roman Empire of medieval Christendom itself was the product of this barbarian invasion and conversion.

So What Does All of This Mean For Us During An Election Year?

Augustine could handle the fall of Rome because this was the City of Man, not the City of God. What Jerome saw as the herald of the apocalypse Augustine simply viewed as one of the passing revolutions which disturb the peace of earthly kingdoms. The expectation of an earthly, geo-political millennium was always prone to confusing the two kingdoms, Augustine argued, and creating either revolution or ascetic withdrawal. Tillich writes of Augustine's view, "But one thing was clear for him: there is no thousand-year stage in world history, no third age. Chiliasm or millennialism was denied by him. Christ rules the church in this present time; these are the thousand years...We are in the last period; it is a sectarian heresy to say that another state must still be expected. The medieval sects, of course, expressed this heresy." (9) So did the Anabaptists, with one group separating entirely from society and another group initiating a military take-over of a German city. Today, once again, millennialism dominates. Postmillennial utopianism (there is a form of postmillennialism that is not utopian) and premillennial withdrawal (there is a form of premillennialism that is not isolationist) both blend with

American nationalism to give the impression that somehow the mission of America (the Pax Americana, if you will) is equivalent to the mission of the Church. If American society worsens, it is somehow of ultimate consequence, so we become obsessed with apocalyptic visions, reading the newspaper and our Bible as though our generation in this place and this time were really most important. Augustine's vision excludes such arrogance of time and place, with the eternal City of God as the goal of human history rather than the hopes we place in earthly kingdoms. Once again in our own day, suppose one were to get up in some evangelical congregations and announce the fall of America, with the additional remark, "But this doesn't make much difference in the long view. Nations come and go, and America is no different. A new nation or empire will emerge in place of this one, and the kingdom of Christ will not sustain the slightest set-back because of it. After all, America never was a Christian nation, but a mixture of Christian people and moralistic pagans. The founding fathers consisted both of those who worshiped the true and living God, and many who called the resurrection of Christ "the world's greatest blasphemy." Our founding fathers are perfectly suitable for our patriotic admiration, but, taken as a whole, should not be regarded as outstanding believers. The kingdom they founded, though influenced by the kingdom of Christ, was clearly another, earthly kingdom in the City of Man. We may wish, like Salvanius, to waste away the hours complaining about the moral decline of our nation and the church. But this too is not the root of the problem, as Augustine saw it, nor indeed as I think we should view it. Augustine returned to his high doctrine of grace for the ultimate answer. Human beings are born into this world sinners--God-haters, selfish, rebellious. They are born for the City of Man and we should expect the world to be worldly. Only God's sovereign grace, reaching into time and space history, can bring us to faith and spiritual life, engrave a love of God and neighbor upon our hearts, and keep us in faith. Pagan morality and virtue is possible in the City of Man, since all people bear God's image. They can even come up with a fairly just political and social order, since that image includes the law of nature written on the human conscience, whether Christian or not. But salvation can never come from the City of Man. Ultimate justice, righteousness, love, and peace can never be secured in this war-zone, where the devil calls home. While we are expected to be salt and light--and that means raising our children to take their places of influence in society, there will be no conversion of Cain's proud city--whether in any particular case its name is the Soviet Union, China, or the U.S.A., into the City of Peace, the New Jerusalem awaiting us. It comes down from heaven, and is not built up by our clever programs. Now we are faced with the barbarian invaders--well-dressed pagans who worship strange foreign gods, with little or no background in the most basic Christian convictions. Should we continue building an evangelical monastery to which we can escape while we accuse the barbarians of stealing our beloved country? Or should we rally the troops for a crusade against the "secular humanists," in order to recapture the "shining city"? Or should we take Augustine's course and see this as a tremendous missionary opportunity? Instead of casting a longing gaze at the "Leave It To Beaver" days of God and country, when many thought they were Christians because they were Americans, we ought to view this country as a foreign mission field and ourselves as missionaries. We ought to treat our neighbors as though they were members of a tribe in New Guinea in respect to their knowledge of the Christian message and instead of further alienating the barbarian invaders by demanding control of and power over institutions that we ourselves evacuated long ago, we should befriend our new neighbors and work side by side with them in the City of Man toward the common good, bringing the light of the gospel into the darkest regions of the concrete jungle. Neither despair nor radical activism are our only options. Augustine's approach made it possible for profound Christian involvement and influence in secular society, while at the same time never giving in to the naive assumption that any human culture or nation is (or can become) righteous or good and, therefore, requiring merely to be directed. (For that is the Pelagian heresy against which Augustine fought so furiously.) Only at the end of the age, when Christ returns, is the wheat separated from the weeds and until that time, we work on two different agendas: One for the kingdom of Christ (salvation), and another for the kingdom of man (social improvement), and both for the glory of God. The Reformation followed Augustine's vision of the City of God and the City of Man. Its powerful reclamation of central biblical teachings created a new generation of literate laypeople who were transformed by the gospel of grace and this in turn produced an entire epoch rich in cultural and social contributions. When Christians set out to convert the world through morality and politics, they not only fail in this Pelagian task, but actually end up creating more hostility and resistance to the Gospel--the only real answer to the human problem. As Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, spanned a horizon filled with revolutionary ideologies, he wrote, "Even now, in 1848, it certainly looks as though politics were everything; but it will be seen that the catastrophe (the Revolution) corresponds to us and is the obverse of the Reformation: then everything pointed to a religious movement and proved to be political; now everything points to a political movement, but will become religious." In other words, the revolutions brought about by the Enlightenment taught that political solutions were ultimate, which is to say that one's ideology is god. The Reformation, on the other hand, insisted that the ultimate solutions were theological and religious, and this led to practical solutions in less ultimate areas, such as politics. When we treat politics as a god, we end up not only committing idolatry (which is bad enough); we actually end up denying our society the solution to the problem while desperately (and, most often, unsuccessfully) attacking mere symptoms. Christians today, as in Augustine's day, in the medieval church, and in Kierkegaard's time, run the risk of bowing down before the idol of politics just as the rest of their contemporaries seem to be doing, whether of the left or the right.

Political and ideological issues far outweigh discussions of theology and truth in our pragmatic age. The make-up of the Supreme Court replaces the older discussions of evangelism and conversion in some hard-line circles. This is not to say that the make-up of the Supreme Court is unimportant, but that it is not ultimate, either for the eternal state of the unbelievers with whom we are developing this relationship, or even for the temporal condition of a society increasingly feeling the effects of a church that no longer preaches a God-centered gospel. The rulers of pagan Rome cynically referred to the policy of "bread and games" to keep the masses happy. Mere hand-outs without justice and preoccupation with entertainment lulled the Romans to sleep, only occasionally waking the people to engage in another form of entertainment: war. Parallels can be drawn with contemporary society. Not only do unbelievers need to hear about life hereafter; they need to hear from God's own mouth transcendent truth for the problems here and now. Perhaps that will mean for many of us, like the early Christians, a diminished position in society. We might have to live out our days without great promotions, content to be "salt" and "light" in a quiet, simple manner. But then, Paul instructed early Christians, "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody" (1 Thes. 4:11). Others may be more vocal, and all of us should be involved in the issues of our day; nevertheless, we must never lose sight of the impact of the so-called "little people" whose weakness is an opportunity for a display of divine strength. Instead of moving into the arts, music, entertainment, politics, and other cultural fields with a military mind-set, let us enter with a missionary mind-set. Let us set out to persuade and argue our way to success, instead of alienating the cultural king-pins and king-makers by seeking to impose our will through mere assertions, slogans, protests, and votes. Let us become the best musicians, artists, thinkers, educators, scientists, architects, plumbers, lawyers, and businesspeople. And let us win the debate by building solid, honorable families: Actions speak louder than words. It has often been said that the church conquered the Roman Empire, not through the weapons of this world, but because it out-thought, outworked, and outlived paganism. What will historians centuries from now report of us in this regard? I wonder.

For Further Reading:

The City of God, Augustine's classic, is a "must" for every Christian. It can be found in most abridgments of Augustine's work, but I suggest The Essential Augustine, edited by Vernon J. Bourke (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1974). The full text can be easily obtained in the 1,000-page Penguin edition.
Harold Mattingly, Christianity in the Roman Empire (NY: Norton & Norton, 1967). Eusebius, The History of the Church (NY: Penguin Classics).

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Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (AP & A), vol. 1, p. 91. Ibid., p. 108. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin), p. 226. Tr. Demetrius Zema, The Writings of St. Augustine (Catholic Univ. Press of America), VIII. St. Augustine, The City of God , XXIV. Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (Norton & Norton), p. 122. Schaff, op. cit., p. 86. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, vol. 1, p. 327. Paul Tillich, op. cit., p. 122.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism. Issue: "How Pro-Life Are You?" July/August 1992 Vol. 1 No. 4 Page number(s): 11-13, 22-23 Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be explicitly approved by Modern Reformation.

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