City of God, Book 15: Urban Sprawl in the Two Cities

I’m convinced writing these summaries is beneficial, but I’d have been done with Augustine’s tome long ago if I wasn’t writing these. But I am benefiting from writing these, if for no one but myself.

Book 15 traces the progress of the two cities, the “two societies of human beings, one of which is predestined to reign with God for all eternity, the other doomed to undergo eternal punishment with the Devil.” This Book is heavily exegetical and reveals Augustine’s hermeneutic – at once committed to the grammatical historical method and also open to deeper, allegorical meanings of Scripture. Moreover, Augustine frequently employs the ‘Rule of Faith’, that Scripture interprets Scripture.

His work of tracing the the development of the two cities begins with the first two children of Adam and Eve. “The first to be born [Cain],” writes Augustine, “was a citizen of this world, and later appeared one [Abel] who was a pilgrim and stranger in the world, belonging as he did to the City of God. He was predestined by grace, and chosen by grace, by grace a pilgrim below, and by grace a citizen above. As far as he himself is concerned he has his origin from the same lump which was condemned, as a whole lump, at the beginning. But God like a potter…made ‘out of the same lump one vessel destined for honour, and another for dishonour.'” This was emphatically not because Abel was good. The “base condition” comes first and “no one will be good who was not bad originally.”

Cain goes on to found an earthly city, but Abel did not, showing that his home was not of this earth, but of heaven. One city, Jerusalem, would eventually come to be “which has been made into an image of the Heavenly City, by symbolizing something other than itself.” This earthly city has a double significance – displaying it’s own presence and signifying the Heavenly City. “But citizens of the earthly city are produced by a nature which is vitiated by sin, while the citizens of the Heavenly City are brought forth by grace, which sets nature free from sin.”

Now the earthly city is not eternal. However, it is a mistake to believe that the good of the earthly city is not really a good, albeit a relative good. For, Augustine argues, the earthly city is better off when it attains peace, even though it attains it by making war. Moreover, when the victory in battle goes to the city fighting for the juster cause, it is a matter of rejoicing, and the peace is a better peace.

The founder of the first earthly city committed fratricide, as did the founder of Rome. These two murders show that the earthly city is hostile to the Heavenly City and also frequently divided against itself. The conflict between the earthly and heavenly is replicated in the individual whose carnal desires war against their spiritual desires. The good however, at least when they reach perfection, will not fight against themselves.

The weakness we, even citizens of the Heavenly City, struggle with is not our nature, but a defect in our nature (as discussed in Book 14). That we all struggle with it is why there are so many frequent admonitions to forgive one another. I need to quote Augustine at length here:

“This is how the citizens of the City of God are restored to health while on pilgrimage on this earth, as they sigh for their Heavenly Country. At the same time the Holy Spirit is at work internally to make effective the medicine which is externally applied. Otherwise, even if God makes use of a creature subject to him to speak to human senses in some human form, whether to the bodily senses or those closely resembling them that we posses when we are asleep and does not rule and guide minds with his inward grace, no preaching of the truth is of any help to man. In fact, this is what God does, distinguishing the vessels of wrath from the vessels of mercy, by the deeply hidden yet just dispensations, known only to himself.”

In other words, God uses means. But, without the internal, hidden, secret workings of the Holy Spirit these means would not be efficacious. This is what distinguishes the elect from the reprobate.

Augustine puzzles over why Cain’s offering was rejected while Abel’s received. Applying the Rule of Faith he outlines some possibilities, but concludes that it is not easy to say with certainty why one was favored and the other scorned. Whatever the reason, Cain was given over to his envy and murdered his brother. In this, the founder of the earthly city “symbolizes the Jews by whom Christ was slain, the shepherd of the flocks of men, who was prefigured in Abel, the shepherd of the flocks of sheep. But this is a matter of prophetic allegory.”

The next section is particularly interesting. Augustine answers those who are confused or incredulous regarding the sacred record regarding the population of the earth from Adam to Noah. Augustine correctly asserts that neither the genealogical record of Cain’s line nor Seth’s line is complete, only including members deemed important enough for the authors purposes. More interestingly, it appears Augustine’s belief is that Seth’s line continues the City of God and Cain’s line continues the earthly city, not merely allegorically or symbolically, but literally. These two lines eventually intermix and combine, degrading the good line. This is the meaning, Augustine believes, of Genesis 6:2 – Seth’s line, the sons of God, saw the women of earthly city, “daughters of humans,” were beautiful. “Thus,” contends Augustine, “the sons of God were captivated by love for the daughters of men, and in order to enjoy them as wives, they abandoned the godly behaviour they had maintained in the holy community and lapsed into the morality of the earth-born society.” This leads to the pollution of the good so that the they became bad enough to be wiped out in the flood.

Throughout this section, Augustine details, at length, theories related to how long men live, contending against those who believe ten years were equal to one year by modern standards. He contends also against those who discredit the existence of giants, recalling his personal experience in Utica of finding immense human remains (a molar). In addition, he defends the original Hebrew text over against “our own version” where there is significant discrepancies between the two detailing the ages of men. He utterly dismisses those who “maintain that the Jews, in their jealousy…altered some passages in their own text to diminish the authority of our own version.” He also discusses the possibility that men/women didn’t procreate till much later in life, whether they were reproductively immature for longer period of time, whether they abstained from intercourse until the age their children are recorded, and why marriage laws were different in the earliest days of man’s existence (permitting the marrying of close kin).

The meanings of the names of many early men are also considered important, especially Seth, which means ‘resurrection’. I underestimated how important numbers were to the early church, but Augustine finds meaning in virtually every number. Eleven generations from Adam to through Cain are recorded, symbolizing sin (one more than ten which symbolizes the Law). From Adam to Noah through Seth, you have ten generations, and “To this the three sons of Noah are added; but one of these fell into sin, and two received their father’s blessing, so that with the removal of the rejected son, and the addition of the sons who were approved, we are presented with the number twelve”, which signifies the number of patriarchs and apostles “because it is the product of the two parts of seven – that is, three multiplied by four, or four multiplies by three, makes twelve.” Huh.

Considering again the two cities, Augustine writes, “God makes both ‘vessels of wrath destined for dishonour’ and ‘vessels of mercy designed for honour’, as if out of a single lump consigned to well-merited condemnation. To the former he gives their due, by way of punishment; on the latter he bestows undeserved gift of grace. And this he does so that the Celestial City, on pilgrimage in this world, may learn through this very comparison with the vessels of wrath, that it should not trust in its own free will, but should ‘hope to call upon the name of the Lord God.”

Coming finally to the story of Noah, Augustine see here “a symbol of the City of God on pilgrimage in this world, of the Church which is saved through the wood on which was suspended ‘the mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.'” Here we see allegory in all its color. Augustine asserts the ark, by virtue of it’s dimensions, represents the human body (“for it’s length from head to the sole of the foot is six times its breadth from side to side”) and the door opening in the side of the ark represents the wound in Christ’s side “for it is the way of entrance for those who come to him.” The beams and windows are symbolic also, the clean and unclean animals represent, for example, the Jews and the Gentiles. Augustine does allow that others may differ from him on the details of the symbolism. This is fine as longs as they follow the Rule of Faith.

Importantly, Augustine is firm in this, one must acknowledge that this passage and others like it have an allegorical meaning AND a historical meaning. One must not dismiss either! “No one ought to imagine, however, that this account was written for no purpose, or that we are to look here solely for a reliable historical record without any allegorical meaning or, conversely, that those events are entirely unhistorical, and the language purely symbolical, or that, whatever may be the nature of the story it has no connection with prophecy about the Church.”

He spends the next few pages dismissing common objections to the historical nature of the Flood. He concludes Book 15 asserting again that we must believe the events are historical and that they have a symbolic meaning, “and that this meaning gives a prophetic picture of the Church.”

This Book was highly enjoyable. I appreciate the Christ-centeredness of Augustine’s hermeneutic. He sees Christ everywhere, a habit we ought to mimic as we also heed his warning not to dismiss the historical import of Old Testament narratives.