Augustine, the lead pastor of the church in Hippo, North Africa, spent more than a decade writing the City of God—from 413 to 426. It was his response to news that Alaric, commander of the Goths, had sacked Rome in 410. So Christians in the Roman Empire were shaken.
Christians throughout the Empire, including the residents of Hippo, thought the Roman Emperor Constantine’s Christian conversion a century earlier was a new stage of God’s kingdom coming to earth. How, then, could God’s kingdom be overthrown?
Augustine answered from the Bible. Any given community, including Rome, ultimately consists in just two spiritual groups. There are those who have faith in God; and those who do not. These are “two cities” which are “commingled”—blended together—as one community. And only God knows, exactly, who are the citizens of his spiritual city within a given city. So the fall of Rome didn’t signal the defeat of God’s work on earth. God’s city wasn’t to be identified with the conquered city of Rome.
Today only historians will recall much about Rome’s fall. But the event still holds lessons for Christians today as we still live in blended communities. That’s true in large measure because of what we call the Magisterial Reformation and the religious settlements in Europe that were based on the divisions defined by the faith of the local ruler: “his region, his religion.”
So anyone in a realm ruled by a Roman Catholic ruler was obliged to worship as an obedient Roman Catholic. Or in a Lutheran region, as a loyal Lutheran. The label “magisterial” referred to the local civil authorities—the “magistrates”—whose laws reflected local religious beliefs.
This, in turn, set up the notion of the “Christian West” because other major religions were only allowed to exist as ghetto-based groups—as in the case of the Jews—or, in the case of Islam, they were kept out of Europe by fighting. Wars against Islam were fought both in the Balkans and in Spain.
The colonial era in America reflected this sort of boundary-based thinking. The French established Quebec, their part of what later became Canada, as a Roman Catholic realm, while the British set up their new realms as Anglican-based communities.
This means that residual claims today about a presumed “Christian America”—based on early Puritan settlements in New England—only has merit for that part of the country. The growth of Protestantism was modest as Enlightenment ideas; the spread of Deism; the impact of Freemasonry; and a variety of other sectarian groups; all produced a spiritually diverse America.
And this brings us back to Augustine’s thesis that only “two cities” actually exist on earth. When religious labels—Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Quaker—were broadly applied to the cities of Boston, Quebec City, and Philadelphia the question of where a given citizen actually stood with God wasn’t answered. That was true in the eighteenth century and it’s also true today.
Now to the key question: so what? Does this sort of distinction have any practical use?
Augustine believed it did. He held that virtue—genuine righteousness—only exists in God’s City. And when there is no true faith, there are no true virtues. If, for instance, an irreligious people adopt laws they think are virtuous, “they are inflated with pride, and are therefore to be reckoned vices rather than virtues. For as that which gives life to the flesh is not derived from flesh, but is above it, so that which gives blessed life to man is not derived from man, but is something above him.” [Augustine, The City of God, 19:25].
Augustine had assimilated at least two convictions from Christ. First, only those who have the new life of the Spirit at work in them have God’s own integrity shaping their conduct, from the inside out. Regeneration, in other words, is the source of integrity.
Second, and overlapping, was Augustine’s certainty that only God is good. And any claims to goodness that don’t treat God as the only moral bedrock of life are still living with Satan’s myth that people can function like Gods—choosing right and wrong for themselves.
The dramatic implication of Augustine’s position is that the “City of God” is likely to be a small part of any city. And, with that, if Christians in a given city are busy as moral reformers in that city while not declaring the character of Christ as their measure of reform, they are actually inducing proud self-confidence—a “vice” by the measure Augustine offers—rather than a redemptive picture of God.
It also means that Christians will be careful not to be entangled with any political vision that doesn’t start with the urgent call, “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come!” So that every reference to goodness starts with Goodness Himself.
Rome fell. But Christians then, as now, are secure. Knowing Christ makes us citizens of his heavenly kingdom.