City of God, Book 7: From Apologetic to Worship

Book 7 almost beat me. I got a bit bogged down even though it’s only forty-some pages. Much of the ground Augustine covers here has been well trodden in early books, but thankfully it includes an incredible section of Christian theology that leads almost to doxology.

He begins outlining his purpose explicitly,

“I am using my most earnest endeavours to destroy and eradicate the baneful and long-held notions which are the enemies of true religion, and which have been fixed in the darkened minds of mankind through centuries of error, putting out deep and tenacious roots. I am cooperating, in my small measure, with the grace of the true God, relying on the help of him who alone can accomplish this design.”

No polite affirmation of the goodness of pagan religion. He seeks to tear it down, with the help of God, for it is dark, unholy, demonic.

Having dissected the fabulous theology of the poets and the civic theology of the temples, here he turns his attention to ‘natural theology’. Specifically, he focuses his attention on the ‘select’ gods Varo writes about – twenty gods deemed to be the most important.

To begin, he attacks these important gods for the “tiny tasks” they perform, often with the help of lesser gods. For instance, the act of procreation, one god is in charge of “opening the door for the reception of the seed,” while another is in charge of the emission of seed. Still another ‘select’ god is in charge of menstruation. But the giving of vitality to the fetus, and the bestowing of sense and intellect belongs to other gods (Vitumnus and Sentinus) that are not in the company of the select. Augustine questions, “in spite of their utter obscurity, those two perform a much more important office than all those noble and ‘select’ gods. For surely, without life and sense, what is it that a woman carries in her womb?”

This line of reasoning continues for a good number of pages before Augustine turns his attention to the “more esoteric of the pagans.” For example, Augustine focuses on Varo’s assertion that images were created to help men contemplate more easily the true nature of the gods, “namely the Soul of the World and its manifestations.” In sum, the cosmos, the world, is God. But, asks Augustine, how does this work when the earth is divided up into sky and earth. Furthermore, the sky is divided into ether and air; the earth into water and land. Augustine probes Varo’s natural theology with such questions for a number of pages. He ponders the relationship between Janus, the god of beginnings, with Terminus, the god of endings, which leads to a discussion of cause and effect and the tasks other gods perform. How can they do anything without Janus, who is the god of beginnings?

Augustine toys with Varo’s theology, pointing out the inconsistencies, the numerous gods who go by multiple names, the overlap between gods and their tasks, etc, asserting that Varo’s interpretations tend to “produce confusion rather than enlightenment.”

Augustine believes the most probable explanation for the gods is that they were once men. These men won the adulation of other men who wanted to venerate them and turned them into gods.

And yet, this superstition and demonic religion has taken hold. And, in the course of worshiping these false gods, Romans have performed all manner of debauchery, including the mutilation of male and female organs.

Augustine maintains that true worship should be given to the true God alone. True (appropriate forms of worship) given to false gods is an evil thing. False worship (inappropriate forms of worship – mutilation, human sacrifice, etc) given to the true God is an evil thing. And false worship given to false gods is doubly evil!

But all the good works the pagans attribute to their pantheon of select and obscure gods should be attributed to the one true God the Christians worship.

The God of our worship is he who has created all beings, and ordered the beginning and the end of their existence and their motion. He has in his hands the causes of all that exists; and all those causes are within his knowledge and at his disposition. From him comes the vital force of seeds,he has bestowed the rational soul (or mind) on such living beings as he please, and he has given to mankind the faculty and use of speech. he has imparted the gift of foretelling the future to certain spirits of his choice, and he himself prophesies the future though those who he chooses; and he uses men at his pleasure to drive away sickness. He also controls the beginning, the progress, and the end even of wars, when mankind needs to be corrected and chastised by such means.

The God of the Christians holds the sun, the moon, the stars, land, sea, air, fire and even the underworld in his hands. Nothing is beyond his sovereign control.

It is the one true God who is active and operative in all those things, but always acting as God, this is, present everywhere in his totality, free from all spatial confinement, completely untrammelled [not deprived of freedom], absolutely indivisible, utterly unchangeable, and filling heaven and earth with his ubiquitous power which is independent of anything in the natural order. He directs the whole of his creation, while allowing to his creates the freedom to initiate and accomplish activities which are their won; for although their being completely depends on him, the have a certain independence.

It is this God who can give felicity in this life and eternal life and rest to come. “In view of all that,” asks Augustine, “what heart or what tongue would claim to be competent to give him thanks?”

Though this section Augustine’s heart for God warms mine. You almost want to break out in doxology after this (similar to how Paul breaks out in doxology in Romans 11 after having outlined the beauty of the gospel for ten chapters). Book 7 highlights his keen intellect in dismantling great Roman thinkers and pagan theologians. But, honestly, that part got a bit wearisome. Thankfully, it turned in section thirty and become worshipful and beautiful. Intellect without heart, apologetic without worship, is dry and lifeless. Good reminder for me.