I got an email from a friend regarding this post: “What do you mean ‘Augustine isn’t interested in political theology or ecclesiology’???”
Hey, that’s not me (I say, evasively), that’s the great David Knowles. But Knowles makes a powerful point. His introduction to the 1972 Pelican edition of the City of God is by some distance the best brief commentary on the book I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, though that translation (by Henry Bettenson) is still in print, the move from Pelican to Penguin Classics was accompanied by the commissioning of a new introduction, and then, some years later, still another one. Neither is as insightful and useful as the Knowles original. (By the way, the chapter on Augustine in Knowles’s best-known book, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, remains, I think, an outstanding survey of Augustine’s mind.)
Anyway, in his introduction to the City of God Knowles writes this:
To our eyes it is remarkable that Augustine very rarely identities the City of God with the Catholic Church. He does so at least once: ‘The City of God, that is, God’s Church’ (Bk xIll, 16). He identifies the other city with the course of Gentile kingdoms before Christ, and the City of God with the ‘People of God’ from Adam to the birth of Christ. After the resurrection those who believe in Christ, the City of God, are in fact the Church, just as those that disbelieve are in fact the Roman authorities and the pagans of the Empire, but there is no confrontation of Church and State. We can see the reason for this. The constituent qualities of the two cities are their two objects of love, the love of God leading to contempt of self, and the love of self leading to contempt of God (Bk XIV, 28). The two cities are therefore two loves, and these are an inward and spiritual, not an outward and political distinction.
Augustine repeatedly says that Abel is a citizen of the City of God, so that City not only precedes the Church, it precedes … well, almost everything in human history.
Later — this regarding political theology — Knowles notes Augustine’s comment (CD V.17) that because life is so short is really doesn’t matter much what kind of political order you live in. And he continues,
Certainly there is an entire absence of any doctrine of Church-State relationship in the City of God. No doubt it would anachronisic to expect anything of the kind. Yet to most historians who consider the beginnings of that age-old confrontation, the conversion and subsequent patronage, not to say tutelage, of the Church by Constantine marks an epoch, a point of no return, when the Church was first faced with a secular master, benevolent though he might be. Augustine says not a word on this matter, though it had occupied the mind of his father in God, Ambrose.
That is, for the argument of the City of God, the conversion of Constantine is not significant. Augustine has some things to say about Constantine – for instance, that he was happy (beatus) in a way that no pagan emperor would ever be happy, and was granted the privilege of founding a new city, Constantinople, that contained no temples to demons. But he gives no indication that the existence of Christian emperors changes anything about the characters and conditions of the two cities. Therefore, says Knowles, to think that Augustine is concerned with the nature of the Church or with the proper relationship between the sacred and secular powers is to impose our categories on a book that works in a different manner than we are accustomed to.
Thus for my current project the challenge for me as a reader — and I am just a reader, not a scholar or a theologian — is to try to read him in ways that don’t cram him into the Procrustean bed of my expectations and familiar categories.