It Cuts Both Ways

Last year, to fill my commute, I listened to Calvin’s Institutes (well, heard may be a better description for much of it), as podcasted by Princeton Seminary’s Year With the Institutes project. This year, I’m listening to Augustine’s City of God.

The primary occasion for Augustine’s writing the book, was to defend Christianity against accusations that the then-recent Sack of Rome was a consequence of the slightly-less-recent Constantinian abandonment of the pantheon of Roman gods. Having listened to the first three books so far (of 22), I can report that Augustine does a bang-up job of running through the history of Bad Things happening in Rome, and repeatedly asking the question:

which of these disasters, suppose they happened now, would not be attributed to the Christian religion by those who thus thoughtlessly accuse us, and whom we are compelled to answer? And yet to their own gods they attribute none of these things, though they worship them for the sake of escaping lesser calamities of the same kind, and do not reflect that they who formerly worshipped them were not preserved from these serious disasters.

This Goose/Gander argument is all well and good, but what confuses me is why, even before Augustine so heavy-handedly nails this argument into the floor, he begins to undercut his own argument by grounding it in a peculiarity of The Sack:

All the spoiling, then, which Rome was exposed to in the recent calamity—all the slaughter, plundering, burning, and misery—was the result of the custom of war.  But what was novel, was that savage barbarians showed themselves in so gentle a guise, that the largest churches were chosen and set apart for the purpose of being filled with the people to whom quarter was given, and that in them none were slain, from them none forcibly dragged; that into them many were led by their relenting enemies to be set at liberty, and that from them none were led into slavery by merciless foes.  Whoever does not see that this is to be attributed to the name of Christ, and to the Christian temper, is blind; whoever sees this, and gives no praise, is ungrateful; whoever hinders any one from praising it, is mad.  Far be it from any prudent man to impute this clemency to the barbarians.  Their fierce and bloody minds were awed, and bridled, and marvellously tempered by Him who so long before said by His prophet, “I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquities with stripes; nevertheless my loving-kindness will I not utterly take from them.”

So Christianity cannot be debited with evil, but it can be credited with good? If this argument is logically sound, then Christianity could be judged as false if it did not benefit the state of Rome. Or if some other invading state ever refrained from desecrating the temples of a victim state, then the religion of the victim state must be true. Following that logic, since the U.S. does not have a practice of destroying mosques in Iraq, then Islam must be true.


This entry was posted in Church and State, Church Fathers, Civil religion, Constantinianism, Two-kingdoms. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to It Cuts Both Ways

  1. Joe Brancaleone says:

    I agree this certainly fails as any sort of apologetic argument.

    Something else I noticed about that quote, which I’ll have to think about more. Exegetically, Augustine seems to be in a stream of thought that assumes particular experiences (and conditional promises) regarding God’s people being spared from senseless calamnity in biblical history are also normative for Christians in all times. *If* the invading barbarians had slaughtered Christians in the midst of their various pillagings of the empire, *then* these would have been senseless deaths of the saints. I.e. their lives would have been cut short due to circumstances other than direct persecution or chastisement for sin. But God has promised in his Word that would not happen, a corollary of Augustine’s quote from the Psalm prophesying with conditional, Fatherly chastisement language regarding David’s “offspring”.

  2. RubeRad says:

    Yes, that’s along the lines I was thinking too.

    There is a section, which I can’t find now, where Augustine gives a comparison of pagans vs. Christians undergoing suffering; for the pagan it’s more calamitous, but for the Christian it’s not such a big deal, because he’s not so attached to the temporal, and has his sights set on the eternal (pagan is only in City of Man, but Christian realizes his higher citizenship is in the City of God).

  3. Joe Brancaleone says:

    After reading those quotes a few times, it’s suddenly not so clear to me what exactly he is getting at. At first I thought he was talking about the special preservation of Christians’ lives in the midst of calamnity. But is he in fact demonstrating how the church is an agent of good in society at large, since those who were “given quarter” in the buildings were not only Christians, but everyone who happened to find solace in the churches at that time?

  4. RubeRad says:

    More the latter, I think. In fact, he seems to focus less on Christians being spared from/by the Barbarians, and more on hypocritical pagans being spared (by pretense of being Christian) and later attacking Christianity. I’m just not sure why especially the sparing is a feather in the cap of Christianity, since (as Augustine describes it), it was not church but the Barbarians themselves who took the lead in this novel sparing of life during war.

    Another confounding factor is this historical note from the editor:

    Aug. refers to the sacking of the city of Rome by the West-Gothic King Alaric, 410. He was the most humane of the barbaric invaders and conquerors of Rome, and had embraced Arian Christianity (probably from the teaching of Ulphilas, the Arian bishop and translator of the Bible). He spared the Catholic Christians.—For particulars see Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, and Millman’s Latin Christianity.—P.S.

    If Augustine’s point is that Christianity gets the credit because Alaric was a “Christian Barbarian”, he certainly doesn’t spell it out. Searching the text, I can find no mention of Alaric by name in the whole book (except for editor’s footnotes), and I haven’t heard anything about the barbarians being Christians; only that the barbarians spared Romans out of “respect for Christ”.

    BTW, here is the link I couldn’t find before, comparing Christian vs. pagan response to suffering.

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