De Civitate Dei

I’m reading through David VanDrunen’s recent work, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought, and I’m a bit hung up in his analysis of Augustine’s City of God (see pp. 22–32). I do want to be clear that in what follows I am simply making notes and asking some questions; I’m nowhere near ready to offer any kind of review of VanDrunen’s work as a whole.

Here is a summary of VanDrunen’s reading of Augustine (p. 32):

“[Augustine] refused to embrace an idyllic, theocratic, or Christianized view of the world. Christians here on earth are a people on pilgrimage, their citizenship and their hope lying in an everlasting, heavenly city. Civil society (the Roman Empire), roughly associated with the City of Man, is ultimately vain and condemned, but serves limited, yet good, earthly and temporal purposes of which Christians ought to make use. Thus, on a certain level civil society is characterized by things that are religiously indifferent per se, though at a more ultimate level – concerning what one loves and what one’s supreme good is – there is no commonality at all with the City of God.”

It’s that little phrase “roughly associated” that keeps blinking at me. Just for fun, let’s replace it with a symbol (=?). On the left side of the “equation” (=?) we have “civil society” with “Roman Empire” immediately following in parentheses. Let’s bracket that first:

[Civil society / Roman Empire] (=?) City of Man

Civil society cannot and should not be equated (=) with a particular civil society. Civil society is ordained by God, and is therefore good; particular civil societies (Rome, for example) are deeply corrupted by sin; so identification of these two things on the left side of the equation introduces a very big question mark into the overall equation. Because, spiritually and morally speaking, civil society really doesn’t equal (≠) the Roman Empire (or any other particular civil society), we have to introduce the question mark (=?).

Civil society (≠) Roman Empire (=?) City of Man

Maybe if we use just one of the terms on the left side, we can erase the question mark? Let’s see. We certainly can’t say that civil society itself is identical to (=), or directly associated with, the City of Man, for this would confuse a good ordinance with its corruption by sinful humans. We might be on firmer ground if we tried to equate the Roman Empire (or another particular civil society) with the City of Man; but, as both Augustine and VanDrunen acknowledge, this doesn’t quite work, either, because there are both lovers of God (citizens of the City of God) and lovers of self (citizens of the City of Man) in any particular civil society (including Rome).

Civil society (≠) City of Man

Roman Empire (≠) City of Man

Hmmm . . . no wonder there’s a question mark. (In fairness to VanDrunen, the question mark is mine; but I think it is definitely implied in his phrase “roughly associated.”) Let me wrap up by offering a few suggestions for further exploration:

Scripture plainly teaches what some have called “the antithesis”: the irreducible distinction, and conflict, between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. I think we could equate the seed of the woman with Augustine’s City of God and the seed of the serpent with his City of Man. Scripture also teaches that God has ordained distinct spheres of human association: church, family, and state, for example. Let’s diagram these two biblical distinctions thus:

1. Seed of woman (City of God) / seed of serpent (City of Man)

2. Ecclesiastical sphere / non-ecclesiastical spheres (e.g., family, state)

I think just setting it out like this underscores the need for extreme caution in collapsing these two sets of binaries into each other: it is hugely problematic, for example, to identify the seed of the serpent with the non-ecclesiastical spheres. Now VanDrunen doesn’t read Augustine as doing this, precisely (and neither do I); but he certainly seems to read Augustine as doing so “roughly,” and that’s where my questions come in. But there’s more: VanDrunen wants to show that early Reformed thinkers, drawing on Augustine and others, “grounded social life in God’s work of creation and providence, not in his work of redemption” (p. 15). Here’s a third set of binaries:

1. Seed of woman (City of God) / seed of serpent (City of Man)

2. Ecclesiastical sphere / non-ecclesiastical spheres (e.g., family, state)

3. Redemption / creation and providence

Did the early Reformers, drawing on Augustine and others, “roughly associate” redemption, the ecclesiastical sphere, and the City of God, while also “roughly associating” creation/providence, the non-ecclesiastical spheres, and the City of Man? I’ll have to read on to see how VanDrunen parses the historical details. And I think I will probably have some more questions.

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