The accusations of pagan religionists, who blamed Christians for the fall of Rome in AD 410, forced St. Augustine into an acute theological reflection on the relationship between the church and government.
Ideas born from his nearly two decades of investigation became the bedrock of the Christian view of the church and polis, the political ideal, for nearly 1,000 years. Augustine believed the church—the City of God—was on pilgrimage, walking parallel to the earthly city (sometimes called the City of Man).
The two cities, he wrote, were representative of the forces of good and evil in a great cosmic struggle. They often collided, but Augustine believed the City of God, wholly spiritual, was pushing for and striving toward ultimate fulfillment in the promises of God in Jesus Christ. In the end, only the City of God would remain.
In the meantime, he believed God had established human government as a sort of divine marshal, a concession toward restraining evil in a fallen world. In this sense, his reading of history was the purest interpretation of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 13.
His tradition is still alive in those who, disabused of the notion of the good of politics, are content to let the earthly city burn because their eyes are set only upon the world to come.
In the Middle Ages, however, another Christian theologian re-evaluated that understanding and conjured a more expansive view of Christianity and politics, still faithful to the Apostle Paul’s teaching on the restraint of evil but finding a different origin of the political bodies governing society.
To St. Thomas Aquinas, the political construct was not unnatural and not a response to humanity’s slide into moral chaos. It was created by God to order various relationships between human beings in which some governed, hopefully in a virtuous manner, and others were governed with the expectation they, too, would submit to virtue. In reality, Aquinas had rediscovered the kernel of Aristotle’s theory of governance, underpinned by virtue.
Aristotle, student of the famed philosopher Plato, believed politics was a natural current of community wherein the highest good for the most people was to be pursued. That good could only be obtained by citizens concerned with virtues such as generosity, justice, courage and, finally, temperance. The stable citizen lived a life of individual restraint, somewhere between excess and deficiency, and was capable of recognizing right and wrong.
In his understanding, the intemperate man—the vicious man—whose concern was only for his wealth or who had no moral compass, was the most destructive element in the civil society. The intemperate man was a threat to the happiness of the city.
To this philosophical framework, Aquinas attached the Christian virtues, most prominent among them love. And not content to see virtue as something unanchored to the eternal, he agreed with Augustine, who wrote, “The soul needs to follow something in order to give birth to virtue: this something is God. If we follow him, we shall live aright.”
The recent happenings in American society lead to the inescapable conclusion we are witnessing the passing of the temperate man and the collapse of the earthly city. We are witnessing, from the actions of a rogue police officer to the rioting of thousands, the outcome of what Richard Neuhaus called in 1984 “the naked public square”—political life unmoored from transcendent faith and devoid of religious virtues.
Absent virtue—indeed, without the virtues seated in the Judeo-Christian tradition—we will continue our slide into the abyss. Our civic life will not be one of striving for a more just and equitable society. It will be for advantage and power. It will continue to produce in our politics, as Alisdair McIntyre wrote, “civil war by other means.”
If what Aquinas wrote is true, and I believe it is, our circumstances should prompt the church to re-engage the political culture and push the advancement of civic virtues seated in our understanding of the God who intended us to live together in order, with every person seen as bearing the image of God. He intended the church to play a role in the polis, rather than to abandon it.
If what Augustine wrote is true, and I believe it is equally, the church will also need to be aware its engagement may produce a more virtuous and just earthly city, but political engagement alone will not produce new citizens of the City of God. That is another and more important matter altogether.
As the learned Dutch prime minister and theologian Abraham Kuyper wrote in 1901, “Even if we pursue this path of justice to its very end, the goal that God has in view will never be reached by legal measures designed to improve social conditions. Rules alone will not cure our sick society.”
God’s goal, as history marches to its close (whenever that may be), is to bring all things together under the Lordship of Christ. In the end, that will happen. For now, we persuade others, through the message of the gospel, to join us on the pilgrim path in the City of God. To those who will not joint us, we extol the benefits of virtue in the civil society.
Dr. Gregory Tomlin is a Carroll Fellow and Associate Professor of Christian Heritage at the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute in Irving.