I hope your weeks are going well. This week, we are continuing our blog series on Augustine. After my wife’s statement last week that I keep casting Augustine as a villain, I wanted to switch gears a little bit. The first two blogs in this series were set up to show that Augustine, like all of us, is indeed human. This week, however, I wanted to focus on a passage from Augustine’s City of God. It is a massive work, over 1,000 pages in the Penguin Classics version, from which I will be quoting in this post. Despite its length, I would recommend to all Christians that instead of reading the Confessions for the third or thirtieth time, give City of God a read. You won’t be disappointed (however I will warn you, you will wish Augustine had an editor). Anyways, on to today’s post.
Peace is a theme that runs throughout the City of God, and in particular throughout Book 19 (the work is split up into 22 “Books” with each book having several “chapters” throughout). Augustine notes that individual Christians have to engage in war with themselves in this life, in order to subdue their temptations and other sinful urges (City of God, 19.27). Such an idea is intriguing, and, I would argue, seems to line up pretty well with Paul in Romans 7.14-25 (the “do/ don’t want to do” section). Today’s post, however, will be focused on a passage on justice.
Augustine writes, “In this life, therefore, justice in each individual exists when God rules and [the person] obeys, when the mind rules the body and reason governs the vices even when they rebel, either by subduing them or by resisting them, while from God himself favor is sought for good deeds and pardon for offenses, and thanks are duly offered to him for benefits received. But in that ultimate peace, to which this justice should be related, and for the attainment of which this justice is to be maintained, our nature will be healed by immortality and incorruption and will have no perverted elements, and nothing at all, in ourselves or any other, will be in conflict with any one of us” (City of God, 19.27).
Such a passage contains a great deal of things to unpack. Firstly, justice is tied directly to God’s rule in the person’s life. God’s role in the lives of believers is necessary in order for their minds to rule their bodies and for “reason to govern the vices.” Reason and a sound mind are thus very important in order to defeat the various “vices” in one’s life. Secondly, Augustine demonstrates that justice in one’s life does not equal perfection. He includes his statement that God’s favor is “sought for good deeds and pardon for offenses.” The inclusion of offenses shows that even with such justice in one’s life, he or she will still have missteps.
One final thing that I want to discuss from the above passage is the most complex. Augustine relates the justice in the believer’s life to “that ultimate peace” which is achieved through “maintaining the justice.” Such a statement would seem to suggest that Augustine argues for a personal role for anyone seeking “ultimate peace;” i.e. immortality and incorruption. Augustine fights against Pelagius for arguing that believers play a personal role in their own salvation. Isn’t that what Augustine is stating in our passage? I would say no. I think what he is getting at with regard to “maintaining” justice is proper living and proper self-restraint. One’s good deeds are directly linked to God’s favor, and any “benefits received” from such justice in one’s life should come with thanksgiving to God. Augustine, however, still attributes the primary role to God.
Further, he notes that “our nature will be healed by immortality and incorruption” and that conflicts will cease. Obviously, the “ultimate peace” we have been discussing is found in such cessation of conflict. Peace with others, but more importantly, peace within the individual person characterizes the ultimate peace. I think Augustine’s meaning is that the incorruption and immortality are gifts from God, even possibly the “benefits received” from God to which Augustine refers.
So if God’s rule allows us to subdue our vices, allows for our mistakes, and leads to the “ultimate peace,” what is our role in all of this? Are we to be simple innocent bystanders? Do we just hand God the keys and go along for the ride? Although Augustine does say that justice is to be “maintained,” who does the maintaining, us or God? I find these questions to be tricky because of what they imply. I don’t think Augustine would suggest that we are entirely passive in such an endeavor. He does seem to imply that our role is very small in such a matter. however.
I close by wondering how peace and justice can work together in our lives. Further, do we take issue with the notion that we are to give over so much control of our lives to God? Should we?