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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 12. Augustine’s City of God. Salvianus.


(4) Among the Latin apologists we must mention Augustine, Orosius, and Salvianus, of the fifth century. They struck a different path from the Greeks, and devoted themselves chiefly to the objection of the heathens, that the overthrow of idolatry and the ascendency of Christianity were chargeable with the misfortunes and the decline of the Roman empire. This objection had already been touched by Tertullian, but now, since the repeated incursions of the barbarians, and especially the capture and sacking of the city of Rome under the Gothic king Alaric in 410, it recurred with peculiar force. By way of historical refutation the Spanish presbyter Orosius, at the suggestion of Augustine, wrote an outline of universal history in the year 417.

Augustine himself answered the charge in his immortal work “On the city of God,” that is) the church of Christ, in twenty-two books, upon which he labored twelve years, from 413 to 426, amidst the storms of the great migration and towards the close of his life. He was not wanting in appreciation of the old Roman virtues, and he attributes to these the former greatness of the empire, and to the decline of them he imputes her growing weakness. But he rose at the same time far above the superficial view, which estimates persons and things by the scale of earthly profit and loss, and of temporary success. “The City of God” is the most powerful, comprehensive, profound, and fertile production in refutation of heathenism and vindication of Christianity, which the ancient church has bequeathed to us, and forms a worthy close to her literary contest with Graeco-Roman paganism.125125   Milman says (l.c. book iii. ch. 10) The City of God was unquestionably the noblest work, both in its original design and in the fulness of its elaborate execution, which the genius of man had as yet contributed to the support of Christianity.” It is a grand funeral discourse upon the departing universal empire of heathenism, and a lofty salutation to the approaching universal order of Christianity. 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,126126   Proleg. in Ezek.: In una urbe totus orbis interiit. Epist. 60: Quid salvum est, si Roma perit! the African father saw in it only a passing revolution preparing the way for new conquests of Christianity. Standing at that remarkable turning-point of history, he considers the origin, progress, and end of the perishable kingdom of this world, and the imperishable kingdom of God, from the fall of man to the final judgment, where at last they fully and forever separate into hell and heaven. The antagonism of the two cities has its root in the highest regions of the spirit world, the distinction of good and evil angels; its historical evolution commences with Cain and Abel, then proceeds in the progress of paganism and Judaism to the birth of Christ, and continues after that great epoch to his return in glory. Upon the whole his philosophy of history is dualistic, and does not rise to the unity and comprehensiveness of the divine plan to which all the kingdoms of this world and even Satan himself are made subservient. He hands the one city over to God, the other to the demons. Yet he softens the rigor of the contrast by the express acknowledgment of shades in the one, and rays of light in the other. In the present order of the world the two cities touch and influence each other at innumerable points; and as not all Jews were citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, so there were on the other hand true children of God scattered among the heathen like Melchisedek and Job, who were united to the city of God not by a visible, but by an invisible celestial tie. In this sublime contrast Augustine weaves up the whole material of his Scriptural and antiquarian knowledge, his speculation, and his Christian experience, but interweaves also many arbitrary allegorical conceits and empty subtleties. The first ten books he directs against heathenism, showing up the gradual decline of the Roman power as the necessary result of idolatry and of a process of moral dissolution, which commenced with the introduction of foreign vices after the destruction of Carthage; and he represents the calamities and approaching doom of the empire as a mighty preaching of repentance to the heathen, and at the same time as a wholesome trial of the Christians, and as the birth-throes of a new creation. In the last twelve books of this tragedy of history he places in contrast the picture of the supernatural state of God, founded upon a rock, coming forth renovated and strengthened from all the storms and revolutions of time, breathing into wasting humanity an imperishable divine life, and entering at last, after the completion of this earthly work, into the sabbath of eternity, where believers shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise, without end.127127   “Ibi vacabimus, ” reads the conclusion, l. xxii. c. 30, “et videbimus; videbimus, et amabimus; amabimus, et laudabimus. Ecce quod erit in fine sine fine. Nam quia alius noster est finis, nisi pervenire ad regnum, cuius nullus est finis.” Tillemont and Schröckh give an extended analysis of the Civitas Dei. So also more recently Dr. Baur in his work on the Christian church from the fourth to the sixth century, pp. 43-52. Gibbon, on the other hand, whose great history treats in some sense, though in totally different form and in opposite spirit, the same theme, only touches this work incidentally, notwithstanding his general minuteness. He says in a contemptuous tone, that his knowledge of Augustineis limited to the “Confessions,” and the “City of God.” Of course Augustine’s philosophy of history is almost as flatly opposed to the deism of the English historian, as to the heathen views of his contemporaries Ammianus, Eunapius, and Zosimus.

Less important, but still noteworthy and peculiar, is the apologetic work of the Gallic presbyter, Salvianus, on providence and the government of the world.128128   Of this book: “De gubernatione Dei, et de justo Dei praesentique judicio,” Isaac Taylor has made very large use in his interesting work on “Ancient Christianity” (vol. ii. p. 34 sqq.), to refute the idealized Puseyite view of the Nicene and post-Nicene age. But he ascribes too great importance to it, and forgets that it is an unbalanced picture of the shady side of the church at that time. It is true as far as it goes, and yet leaves a false impression. There are books which by a partial and one-sided representation make even the truth lie. It was composed about the middle of the fifth century (440–455) in answer at once to the charge that Christianity occasioned all the misfortunes of the times, and to the doubts concerning divine providence, which were spreading among Christians themselves. The blame of the divine judgments he places, however, not upon the heathens, but upon the Christianity of the day, and, in forcible and lively, but turgid and extravagant style, draws an extremely unfavorable picture of the moral condition of the Christians, especially in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Africa. His apology for Christianity, or rather for the Christian faith in the divine government of the world, was also a polemic against the degenerate Christians. It was certainly unsuited to convert heathens, but well fitted to awaken the church to more dangerous enemies within, and stimulate her to that moral self-reform, which puts the crown upon victory over outward foes. “The church,” says this Jeremiah of his time, “which ought everywhere to propitiate God, what does she, but provoke him to anger?129129   “Ipsa Dei ecclesia quae in omnibus esse debet placatrix Dei, quid est aliud quam exacerbatrix Dei? aut, praeter paucissimos quosdam, qui mala fugiunt, quid est aliud pene omnis coetus Christianorum, quam sentina vitiorum?” (P. 91.) How many may one meet, even in the church, who are not still drunkards, or debauchees, or adulterers, or fornicators, or robbers, or murderers, or the like, or all these at once, without end? It is even a sort of holiness among Christian people, to be less vicious.” From the public worship of God, he continues, and almost during it, they pass to deeds of shame. Scarce a rich man, but would commit murder and fornication. We have lost the whole power of Christianity, and offend God the more, that we sin as Christians. We are worse than the barbarians and heathen. If the Saxon is wild, the Frank faithless, the Goth inhuman, the Alanian drunken, the Hun licentious, they are by reason of their ignorance far less punishable than we, who, knowing the commandments of God, commit all these crimes. He compares the Christians especially of Rome with the Arian Goths and Vandals, to the disparagement of the Romans, who add to the gross sins of nature the refined vices of civilization, passion for theatres, debauchery, and unnatural lewdness. Therefore has the just God given them into the hands of the barbarians and exposed them to the ravages of the migrating hordes.

This horrible picture of the Christendom of the fifth century is undoubtedly in many respects an exaggeration of ascetic and monastic zeal. Yet it is in general not untrue; it presents the dark side of the picture, and enables us to understand more fully on moral and psychological grounds the final dissolution of the western empire of Rome.



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