City of God, Book 4: Rome’s Silly Gods

Throughout Books One to Three, Augustine has demonstrated that the Roman gods were no true protectors of the city – not from internal rot and not from external threats. In Book Four Augustine pulls at the disorganized threads of Roman religion until it unravels and the folly of paganism is laid bare.

In Book Three, I praised Augustine’s apologetic approach, especially his willingness to assume the truth of Roman mythology ‘for the sake of the argument.’  It is a good approach initially, but at some point, the faithful apologist will need to expose the falsehood of the alternative view they are confronting. Augustine does that with brilliance in Book Four.

In Book Four he focuses on the expansion of the Roman empire in order to debunk the belief that it was a sign of the gods’ favor that the empire had spread so widely. Augustine’s take: God, the one true God, “sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” The righteous and the unrighteous both were, at times, spared the worst of the invader’s wrath out of respect for Christ. Similarly, God allows unrighteous kingdoms to exist, even to expand, to serve his Kingdom’s purposes.

Augustine questions the true granduer of Rome, wondering if the size of the kingdom is, in fact, the true measure of glory when the people of the kingdom are not at all happy? Constant wars, the threat of violence, all to feed a Rome’s ravenous ambition had led to a communal life where any joy was fragile, like glass, and outweighed by fear. A good ruler, one who serves God and looks to his people’s good (happiness) is a gift from God and benefit both their souls and their subject. The wicked, ambitious ruler does damage to their own soul. The evil they inflict on the righteous is but a test of virtue. For, Augustine argues, “The good man, though a slave, is free; the wicked, though he reigns, is a slave of as many masters as he has vices.” (A good hint of why Calvin like Augustine’s theology here).

There is some really good political theology in this chapter. For example, Augustine contends that a kingdom without justice is nothing more than a criminal gang on a larger scale. This is, according to history/legend, how kingdom-building began as King Ninus of Assyria (founder of Nineveh) attacked his peaceful neighbors to build his kingdom. Strengthened by the conquest of one land, he could go on to subjugate another. If Assyria, one of the greatest hitherto known empires, had risen to prominence without the aide of Roman gods, why do Romans give them credit for the expansion of their empire?  Is it because one nation’s gods are stronger and more capable than another’s? If so, then the Romans should worship to gods of other nations too and make as many god-allies as possible, so argues Augustine. In addition, the concept of “just war” is raised in Book Four.

Augustine turns to examine Roman religion in particular and asks which god, of the myriad of gods, is responsible for the expansion of the empire. Romans, he jabs, have gods for every facet of life. There isn’t just a god of agriculture, but of particular crops. And, even more ridiculous, for every stage of, for example, corns growth – a seed god, a sprout god, a harvest god, a god of germinating, a god of “nodes and joints on the stalk”, etc., ad nauseam, ad absurdum. Rome had so “prostituted itself to a mob of demons” there was no aspect of land, life, or empire not under the control of some false deity. So, he pushes, which one is responsible for kingdom building?

Jupiter. Jupiter is the god responsible. Augustine picks at the nonsensical fables of Jupiter which religious men have “botched together.”  Some contend that Jupiter is the one god, and all other minor deities are aspects or names or manifestations of Jupiter. Why then, Augustine asks, worship so many?  Why then separate temples and rites? If they’re all Jupiter, why not just worship Jupiter. He asks further if Victory is a goddess, why is Jupiter needed? Ah, but the response will be “Jupiter, as King of the gods, sends Victory.”  Well, why not Triumph – if Victory is a goddess, why not Triumph?  And then what of Felicity…why is she not the sole divinity?

Augustine continues along these lines for some pages, dissecting the pagan religion and putting the internal inconsistencies on display like a religious coroner. Augustine argues that many learned men do not truly believe in gods or the myths, but find them useful. Citing Scaevola, an early Roman politician and authority on the law, Augustine says that it was commonly held “that it was expedient for communities to be deceived in matters of religion.” Others tried to disentangle the gods and religion for the fanciful wives’ tales, but such attempts were utterly unsuccessful. The demons, which are what these supposed gods really are, rejoice at the deception and depravity Roman religion has begotten.

Of all the old thinkers, Augustine does show some sympathy for Varo. Varo seems to encourage the worship of the gods against his good judgment but out of respect for tradition. Varo did believe the images of the gods and the explosion of the pantheon corrupted religion. “Varo did not attain to the whole truth,” but Augustine believes he was closer to correct in his understanding of God being the soul of the world that those who built statues and engaged in lewd religious rites. But, if Varo couldn’t escape the allure and deceit of the demons behind Roman worship, “what chance had a weak and ignorant individual of escaping the combined deceits of the statesmen and the demons?”

Roman doesn’t get the credit for the empire it had become, and certainly, the Roman gods don’t get any credit. Instead, “the author and giver of felicity, who, being the one true God, gives earthly dominion both to good men and to evil” is the one behind Rome’s ascent (and fall). God the Sovereign “is himself in control, as the master of events, and arranges the order of things as a governor.” Had Rome acknowledged this God and this truth, their empire would be a blessing to the world.

It struck me that many today would be unwilling to do what Augustine has done in his apologetic – criticize (even mock) the beliefs of those adhering to false religion. Without doubt, in the past, some have approached apologetics as a crusade – conquer, crush, subjugate by reason. I’m not advocating for that. But, maybe we’ve become too soft, too affirming. Francis Schaeffer advocated for a ‘yes, but’ approach in dealing with adherents to other religions. “Yes, we can agree on this, but…Yes, your religion is good here, but it doesn’t go far enough….”  Augustine was heavy on the “but”, light on the “yes”. Today, maybe we’ve swung too far the other way. Augustine exposed error, the internal and external inconsistencies of Roman religion.

May God raise up apologists who are as insightful and brave as Augustine!