Saint Augustine: The City of God, with Introduction by Thomas Merton, translated from Latin by Marcus Dods, the Revd George Wilson And the Revd J J Smith, New York,  Random House (The Modern Library), 1950 [originally commenced  c 413 AD  and written in instalments over 13 years], 892pp including detailed index.

This is a substantial and demanding read by any standards and is more like a spiritual experience or a course of lectures than anything else I can compare it with.  Thomas Merton, wisely I think, encourages the reader who wishes to know Augustine to read first his Confessions, to enable the reader to understand his background and life and his central theological themes and Christian ideals. 

In  The City of God the reader is faced with a vast canvass indeed …a history and time-line of the known world, detailed philosophical analysis, lengthy Biblical summary and analysis, lengthy social analysis; speculative thoughts about Heaven and Hell;  Merton asks: How many Americans will have the patience to follow him through all of this? Good question! 

 We are  plunged into deep thoughts; irritating  digressions; a passion for numerology;  seemingly unnecessary detail about things that can never be known in this world; annoying at times over – allegorisation of Old Testament passages combined with unnecessary literalism in some New Testament interpretation; surprising reliance on apocryphal writings; for C21st readers at times outrageous anti-semitism, sexism and “hate speech”; horrifying physical description in parts including cannibalism; wondrous spiritual visions of the beatific vision; intense philosophical disputations especially with Plato, Cicero, Virgil and Porphyry and the historian Varro; remarkably very little reference to theologians except the occasional nod to Jerome and breathtaking honesty. eg p 741 on Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-11..”I frankly confess I do not know what he means.”  It was refreshing to see Augustine not being drawn to a particular view of the complexities in the book of Revelation including the millennium and other obscurities in some Biblical texts where he confessed to being uncertain of how to interpret them.

Some initial responses for me were:

  1. It was awe inspiring to get a feel for the cataclysm produced by the sacking of Rome and fall of the Roman Empire and how unsettling and terrifying it must have been for ordinary citizens of Rome [interesting to compare it with the 2019 Trump/Democrat based shut down of the US Congress/UK Brexit debate chaos/French yellow vest destroyers of Paris and other cities …the fall of the Western World???etc  In a different way Augustine’s ignorance and scepticism about “the antipodes”  (p532)
  2. A surprising lack of interest by Augustine in “Reformation” themes eg “justification” mentioned only on pp786-7 and the phrase “justification by faith” not mentioned at all; In all his extensive treatment of the OT no reference at all to Isaiah’s suffering servant and Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
  3. The evidently unclear status of the Biblical canon in the early C5th and constant reference to church authorities’ uncertainty about various books which have come to be called the Apocrypha as well as Augustine’s clear preference for the Septuagint over the Hebrew text of the Old Testament where there are differences. 
  4. Troubling anti-Semitic and sexist references; 
  5. Augustine’s obvious admiration for the intellectual strengths of  Plato, Cicero, Virgil and Porphyry and the historical work of Varro (now lost)  mixed with his intense criticisms of all of them whenever their view conflicted with Christian faith; (only one mention of Aristotle and only one of Seneca); 
  6. Somewhat chilling evidence of the rise of the importance of relics of the apostles and martyrs and their value for healing alongside a degree of naivety regarding supernatural healings and miracles…an indication of the dominance Augustine would have over the development of mediaeval theology in the coming centuries; 
  7. The constant and intense analysis of demons/fallen angels and their power and influence
  8. Augustine’s surprising theological flexibility including his strong defence of human free will (and we will still have it in heaven); our ability to remember the past in heaven (p 867); evil in the world before the creation of man (p811); that “God wills many things he does not perform” (p812); that God “killed his own Son” (p575) On predestination and freewill..we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former, that we may believe well; the latter, that we may live well. (p157); that evil has no positive nature..the loss of good has received the name ‘evil’ (p350)
  9. On the other hand Augustine’s regimented view of the impact of “original sin” on humankind in Book 19 seems to me to misunderstand Paul’s argument in Romans 1 – 11 especially 5:12 (death spread to all because all men sinned). Nowhere does Augustine seem to grapple with the problem of those who have never heard the good news about Jesus although he does allow that original sin’s impact will not hurt the young. He seems unaware of the radical unfairness of the result of one decision of one man at the beginning of creation and the theological impact of billions punished for eternity because of their failure to accept God’s solution in sending his son to die for those who believe the Christian story of redemption. The impact of Augustine’s writing about original sin cannot be over-estimated and I believe still hampers evangelism in the C21st.  

The City of God contains two major sections:  Books 1 – 10 deal with the Greek and Roman gods and Greek and Roman philosophy contrasted with Christian faith.   Books 11 – 22 elucidate the various contrasts and interactions between the two cities ..the earthly city and the heavenly city. Augustine’s demonstrated knowledge of Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy as well as what was then known of the history of the ancient Near East is impressive. I agree with Thomas Merton that the outstanding books are 19 and 22 and they might be a good place to start on the other hand there is also an ongoing logic in the whole work which gives the last three chapters a substantial power and gravitas which would not be felt without the labours of the first 18 chapters. 

Do I recommend this book?  Only for mature Christians with a healthy background in history, philosophy and  theology and a deep personal faith in God. There is much of powerful value and much to think about.  Most non-believers with a C21st scientific understanding of the world would consider much of what Augustine writes here as arrant nonsense. His book forces Christian believers to consider very carefully indeed whether or not they do believe in the bodily resurrection to eternal life.  3 stars.