Augustine for the Americans: Lessons on Christianity & Public Life from a Fifth-Century North African Theologian

April 20, 2015

One rarely finds oneself trampled by herds of evangelicals making their way to the Augustine section of the local bookstore. One reason for this, of course, is that evangelical bookstores don’t even have such a thing as an “Augustine section.” Where would they find the room amidst all the Precious Moments figurines, test tubes of anointing oil, and tins of Test-a-Mints? The mighty Augustine can’t compete.

A more significant reason for Augustine neglect is the mere fact that he lived a very long time ago. We Americans rarely read old books, and Augustine’s are old books. We tend to limit ourselves by era, tribe, and category—we read books written in our day, by people just like us, and that can be placed in one or two limited genres. We find it hard to imagine that a bishop living 1,600 years ago might have something to teach us. But this sort of epistolary reductionism is to our detriment: older books are precisely the ones that can help us to escape the limitations of our current era, learn from those who are not a part of our local tribe, and transcend the categories to which we have become accustomed. Plus, we get the added benefit of having time itself weed out the bad works, leaving us with the gems.

City of God is one of those gems. Its author, Augustine, penned more than five million words over the course of his lifetime, words which would shape the next millennium of Western theological and philosophical thought. Attempt to overstate the man’s significance if you dare: you will come up short. And at the apex of his writings stands the towering City of God, a book written in response to pagan intellectuals who considered Christianity a liability to the empire. For that reason, City of God is particularly timely for Christians living in 21st century Western contexts.

Augustine lived in the midst of Rome’s decline.

On August 24, 410, Alaric had just led his ruthless band of Goths into Rome, sacking the city. For the Romans this devastating event demanded interpretation. What had weakened mighty Rome and brought her to her knees? Why was she now being dominated after centuries of being the dominator?

Volusianus and other pagan intellectuals speculated that Christianity was at fault. The Roman emperor Constantine had adopted Christianity just a century before, acting as both a confirmation of this growing faith and as an enormous catalyst for it. With Constantine’s official endorsement, Christianity experienced explosive growth, leading to the eventual outlawing of the pagan gods. Volusianus and other pagans saw this as a dangerous betrayal of Rome’s roots, and waged a public relations war against this pernicious “Hebrew” religion. Rome had been beaten to her knees, they argued, because the Romans had forsaken their gods, their founding political narrative, and their philosophers.[1]

Rome had forsaken her gods, they argued: her patron deities had been abandoned. Now instead of offering their support, the gods had issued a verdict that Rome should fall. Further, Rome had forsaken her founding political narrative: rather than locating her identity in the mythical narrative given by Virgil, she located it in an alien Hebrew narrative. Finally, Rome had forgotten her philosophers: she had departed from Plato and the Neo-Platonists by claiming the need for a Christ in order to obtain Eternal Truth.

Roman Christians, including a respected Roman proconsul named Marcellinus, sought to counter this pagan narrative. Marcellinus wanted to win Volusianus over to the Christian perspective, but found himself insufficient for the task. So Marcellinus penned a letter to his friend Augustine, asking for his help in answering Volusianus and the pagans. Augustine happily obliged in a 1,000 page letter, now known as City of God.

Augustine exposed the incoherence of the pagan intellectuals’ narrative.

Augustine’s letter is divided into five parts. In the first two parts, Augustine devotes himself to exposing the deep incoherence of the pagan narrative. In relation to the pagan gods, he shows that the Romans never could decide which deities were actually in control, and that the preeminent Roman historian of religion, Marcus Varro, didn’t really believe in the gods anyway. He surveys the Roman gods, exposing their immorality, injustice, and inability to save the Romans from disaster.

In relation to the pagan philosophers, Augustine finds common ground in his admiration for Plato and the Neo-Platonists. But he also exposes the tragic flaw in the Platonists—their pride—that kept them from even considering the incarnation and resurrection. Augustine provides a masterful and comprehensive survey of the history of Roman philosophy and concludes that the philosophers discovered many truths—but in the end failed to discover Truth.

In relation to Rome’s founding political narrative, Augustine finds common ground with the Roman pagans in admiring Virgil. But he points out that the mythical story of Romulus, Remus, and Rome’s founding (as told by Virgil) is actually a verdict against Rome. Whereas the pagan intellectuals viewed justice as the unique interpretive key to her glorious history, Augustine argues that Rome had never been just and that her pretension to justice was no more than a veil for her lust for power. As Curtis Chang writes, “Augustine…presents a political analysis that was stunningly original for its time and for centuries to come. He takes apart an entire civilization’s ideologies to reveal them as masks for raw power.”[2]

By exposing the inadequacy of their religion, philosophy, and politics, Augustine sought to “take the roof off” of the Roman worldview, allowing the realities of the external world to beat in upon the Romans as they stood naked and exposed before reality.[3] He spent nearly half of City of God doing so because he knew the Romans had to recognize the severity of their situation before they would be open to a solution. They had to perceive the deep inadequacies of the Roman religious, philosophical, and political narrative so they would be existentially prepared to comprehend the adequacy of the biblical narrative. They knew something was wrong when Alaric was at the city gates; Augustine wanted to show them that something had gone wrong—fatally wrong—far earlier.

From Augustine, we learn the value of deep cultural exegesis. Augustine was only able to counter the Roman pagan narrative because he knew it intimately—better than most of his opponents. We must do the same, learning to read our socio-cultural context if we wish to speak the gospel with prescience and contribute to the common good. Sociologist Philip Rieff argues that every social order is undergirded by a sacred order, and culture is the mediator between the two.[4] In other words, culture serves as a middleman between the sacred and the social, drawing upon the authority and power of sacred ideas in order to uphold social order. Rieff writes, “A culture is the vertical in authority, that space between sacred order and social order which is the world made by world makers.”[5] But culture doesn’t always do its job. Sometimes, instead of upholding the social order, culture undermines it. The result is often slow but always disastrous. Rieff sees this, referring to those cultural works that undermine society as deathworks.

Augustine worked hard to understand his cultural context, immersing himself in the historical, political, philosophical, and religious literature of his day. We, too, should work hard to understand the cultural context of our day. If, as Rieff argues, culture undergirds social order and if we live in a day when many of our culture-makers are producing deathworks, then our (American) service to God includes the necessity of exposing these deathworks for what they are. We dare not wait until Rome is burning to raise the alarm.

Augustine offered the biblical narrative as the true story of the whole world.

In the last three Parts of City of God, Augustine traces the biblical narrative of creation, fall, and redemption, arguing that this narrative explains the world better than the pagan Roman narrative.[6] The biblical narrative has more explanatory power; it alone makes sense of the world. Up to this point, Augustine had for the most part made his points within the framework of the pagan worldview, drawing upon the writings of their intellectuals, using their conceptual categories, and answering their questions. As he turns to the biblical narrative, he provides a new framework for viewing the world, drawing upon the biblical writings, using Christian categories, and posing a series of new questions provided by special revelation. He has finished cross-examining his opponent’s witnesses, and now clears his throat to make his own defense.

At the center of Augustine’s strategy is his “Two City” argument. For Augustine, all of human society can be divided into two cities—the City of Man and the City of God. The two cities take center stage early on in the biblical narrative when Cain murders Abel. They provide the dramatic tension throughout the rest of Scripture. And they persist, Augustine argues, to the present day.

As Augustine argues, man is drawn toward what he truly loves—either toward God or toward idols—and his chosen love locates him in either the earthly City of Man or the heavenly City of God. Citizens of the earthly city seek their happiness in temporal things, while those in the heavenly city seek theirs in an eternal Kingdom. Citizens of the earthly city are destined for eternal death, while citizens of the heavenly city are destined for eternal life. In the end, the King of the heavenly city will return to decisively destroy the false rule of the Evil One over his earthly city.

Augustine is not satisfied, however, to merely show the tragic flaws in the competing narratives and the superiority of the biblical narrative. He also wants to make abundantly clear that Christ and his church are not “part of” any other larger narrative. They are not actors on the stage of a grand Roman drama—not even the chief actors. The truth of the matter is exactly the opposite: Rome herself is only a minor character in the grand sweep of the history of Christ and his people. All of history centers on Christ and his people, rather than on Rome and her people. Despite all her grand conceptions of her worth, Rome was never as mighty as she believed. Her rise to power, her centuries of dominance, her precipitous downfall—all these were but peripheral scenes in a much greater story. Augustine invites his reader to believe in Christ, to follow the one who actually stands at the center of the greatest story ever told.

Augustine teaches us the significance of the Bible’s master narrative for our public square interactions. The biblical narrative frames reality, putting all other stories in proper perspective. As Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen write, “If we really want to recover the authority of Scripture in our lives, then we urgently need to recover the Bible as a grand story that tells us of God’s ways with the world from creation to re-creation, from the garden of Eden to the new Jerusalem. Only thus will we see our way clear to indwell God’s story and relate it to all of life today.”[7]

Augustine rose to the occasion when there was a need for a public theologian.

Augustine had been born in Hippo (modern-day Algeria) in AD 354 to a Christian mother and a pagan father. At age 18 he discovered Cicero’s writings and started his quest as a philosopher. At first, he was drawn to Manichaeanism, an ideology that conceived of the universe as a battleground between equally powerful forces of good and evil. He shifted from Manichaeanism to skepticism, and later left his skepticism for Plotinian neo-Platonism. At age 32, fourteen years after his initial search for philosophical truth, he converted to the Christian faith. From this time onward, he was a tireless proponent of the gospel, laboring as a pastor, theologian, apologist, and philosopher.

Because Augustine had read widely in Greco-Roman philosophy, theology, and history, he was well-prepared to understand his cultural context and speak to it. In his writings, Augustine drew

upon Plato and Varro, Cicero and Virgil—easily and with authenticity, whenever he pleased. He employed Roman theological and philosophical vocabulary whenever it served his primary strategy of promoting Christ’s kingship and the common good. Having been a sincere pagan philosopher for years, he was fair-minded to his pagan opponents; he sought to describe their ideas fairly and accurately, and usually succeeded.

Because Augustine had labored in theological study, he knew the biblical writings well and was able to show the internal coherence and superior explanatory power of the biblical storyline. He was always able to answer Rome’s most pressing questions within linguistic and conceptual categories familiar to them, but he never stopped there. He also introduced his Roman opponents to special revelation and, in so doing, bequeathed to them a different set of questions, a fuller set of categories to help them understand themselves and the world.

From Augustine, therefore, we learn the value of being prepared, when the time arises, to speak a timely word for the common good. Such a timely word must be informed not only by serious cultural exegesis but also by religiously-informed argumentation. Cultural parlance can carry us only so far; eventually we must publicly speak and argue as Christians.

As Richard John Neuhaus argued in the The Naked Public Square, it is not possible to have a naked public square because people cannot really divest themselves of their most deeply held beliefs.[8] “The public square,” he wrote, “will not and cannot remain naked. If it is not clothed with the ‘meanings’ born by religion, new ‘meanings’ will be imposed by virtue of the ambitions of the modern state.”[9] The real question is not whether to bring our religious beliefs into politics, but how to do so in a helpful rather than harmful manner. (This, of course, is no small question.)

Contrary to its twenty-first century cultured despisers, Christianity is not a liability to society. There are those who, like Volusianus in Augustine’s day, continue to maintain that Christianity is pernicious. In the face of such assertions, we maintain that Christianity is not a societal curse, but its greatest boon. By its very essence, Christianity safeguards public life and enables human flourishing.

Sadly, too few of the young men and women in our churches are equipped to apply their Christianity broadly. American evangelicals have no Augustines in our midst. We must once again foster an ecclesial environment in which believers see the value of public theology, an environment in which they are equipped to take their theology into the streets, an environment in which church members are catalyzed to dive into biblical and cultural exegesis—not simply for the sake of the church, but for our lost and decaying society.

Augustine sought to undermine the sacred/secular distinction.

In Representations of the Intellectual, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said seeks to define what precisely public intellectuals do. He argues that public intellectuals are essentially outliers and disturbers of the status quo who call into question existing paradigms, even at the risk of ostracism and exile. “The intellectual,” writes Said, “is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message . . . to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted.” Said is clear that the public intellectual should never draw upon divine revelation to make his points: “In the secular world . . . the intellectual has only secular means to work with; revelation and inspiration, while perfectly feasible as modes for understanding in private life, are disasters and even barbaric when put to use by theoretically minded men and women.”

Said’s argument raises a perennial question for public theologians (a better term, perhaps, than “Christian intellectuals”). Should we speak with the thick discourse of Christian particularity, relying on Scripture to make our arguments, at the risk of being dismissed or misunderstood? Or do we follow Said’s counsel, speaking the thin discourse of translation, using language that is less specifically Christian, at the risk of losing some of the distinctiveness of the particular point we are trying to make? Here, once again, Augustine tutors us in being public theologians.

Augustine adapted his strategy depending on where, to whom, and on what he was discoursing. On the one hand, he was not averse to thin discourse as he sometimes made powerful, refined, and nuanced arguments that did not explicitly make use of special revelation. On the other hand, in City of God and other writings, he employed powerfully thick discourse as he spoke directly from the Scriptures. In the communication of his arguments, Augustine relied upon wisdom to determine when to deploy thick or thin language. At times his readers could easily recognize the Christian moorings; at other times, those foundations were subtler.

But make no mistake: Augustine’s construction and conceptualization of his views never sidelined special revelation and thick reasoning. He always constructed his thought as a Christian. As James K. A. Smith has argued, Augustine refused to circumscribe God’s grace to a “sacred” realm or reduce himself to hoping for a good natural ordering of society.[10] Indeed, Augustine’s public theology rested on the bedrock theological framework in which grace renews and restores nature. Augustine never saw grace as a parallel track running alongside the natural world, nor as a superior realm detached from the realities of daily life. Augustine recognized that there is only one realm, a realm that includes both nature and grace, both human reason and divine revelation.

For Augustine, Christ’s Lordship was as wide as creation and, therefore, as wide as public life. His Lordship—and therefore, his word—holds for both the “sacred” and “secular” aspects of life. No piece of our (secular) life is to be sealed off from his Lordship, for every square inch of it belongs to Christ, and every square inch ought to be made to honor him. This is why public theologians allow their Christian beliefs to inform their views on social, cultural, and political issues. This does not mean that we should always articulate our views with explicitly Christian language. In fact, wisdom sometimes dictates that we should avoid such language. But even if our Christian beliefs only sometimes shape the way we speak publicly about the common good, they should always shape the way we think and argue and act for the common good.


Modern prophets will continue to argue over whether our American empire is headed for further dominance or imminent destruction. They will, at times, point their accusing finger toward Christianity as the scourge of our society. They will wonder aloud if the prevailing story of our society really has the power to explain the world around us. And as they do, we must, with Augustine, learn how to calmly and confidently proclaim the true story of the world.

From Augustine, American evangelicals can learn how to do public theology in the midst of American empire. His exposition of the inadequacies of Roman religion, philosophy, and politics reminds us that we must do the hard work of cultural exegesis if we will be able to speak with prescience in the public square. From his “two cities” argument, we are reminded that the Bible provides the true story of the whole world, a story that should be the primary shaping influence in our view of the good life. From Augustine’s life, we learn the value of being prepared, in season and out, so that when the occasion arises, we may speak a timely and compelling word for the common good. Like Augustine, we must resist nature/grace dualisms and sacred/secular dichotomies by recognizing that God’s grace brings renewal and restoration to every aspect of our lives, including matters of public import and the common good. May the Lord give us grace and wisdom so that we may speak faithfully in our era, as Augustine did in his.

[1] For an excellent and accessible treatment of Augustine’s argument against the pagan’s religion, politics, and philosophy, see Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 66-93.

[2] Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief (Downers Grove: IVP, 2000), 74.

[3] Francis Schaeffer is known for employing the phrase “take the roof off” in order to describe his apologetic strategy of uncovering the inadequacy of false religions and worldviews.

[4] Philip Rieff, My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2006), 2.

[5] Rieff, Deathworks, 45.

[6] Chang, Engaging Unbelief, 66-93.

[7] Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen, “Story and Biblical Theology,” in Out of Egypt: Biblical Theology and Biblical Interpretation, eds. Craig Bartholomew, Mary Healy, Karl Möller, and Robin Parry (Scripture and Hermeneutics Series, vol. 5), 144.

[8] Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, 2d. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984), 4.

[9] Neuhaus, Naked Public Square, ix.

[10] James K. A. Smith, “Reforming Public Theology: Two Kingdoms, or Two Cities?” in Calvin Theological Journal 47 (2012): 122-137.

Bruce Ashford
Bruce Ashford is the Provost at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.