Monday, October 16, 2006

Augustine on being a Christian emperor

What is the church to say to Caesar when he converts? This was not something directly pondered in the New Testament, but thinking about it has caused quite a headache ever since Constantine decided to throw his lot in with the all-conquering Galilean. Augustine offered one of the most influentual accounts in the following passage:

We say that they are happy if they rule justly; if they are not lifted by the talk of those who accord them sublime honours or pray their respects with an excessive humility, but remember that they are only men; if they make their power the handmaid of His majesty by using it to spread His worship to the greatest possible extent; if they fear, love and worship God; if they love that Kingdom which they are not afraid to share with others more than their own; if they are slow to punish and swift to pardon; if they resort to punishment only when it is necessary to the government and defence of the commonwealth, and never to gratify their own enmity; if they grant pardon, not so that unjust men may enjoy impunity, but in the hope of bringing about their correction; if they compensate for whatever severe measures they may be forced to decree with the gentleness of mercy and the generosity of benevolence; if their own self-indulgence is as much restrained as it might have been unchecked; if they prefer to govern wicked desires more than any people whatsoever; if they do all these things not out of craving for empty glory, but from love of eternal felicity; and if, for their sins, they do not neglect to offer to their true God the sacrifices of humility and contrition and prayer. We say that, for the time being, such Christian emperors are happy in hope and that, in time to come, when that to which we now look forward as has arrived, they will be so in possession.

- Augustine, The City of God book 5, chapter 24.

UPDATE: For a very accessible summary of contemporary scholarship on City of God that happily confounds reading Augustine as either a secular liberal before his time or a dastardly apologist for Christendom, check out this lecture. He includes a lengthy summary of the elusive Rowan Williams article that has been mentioned in the comments.


Rachel said...

after snooping at someone elses comment I hear that its your BIRTHDAY today. well Happy BIRTHDAY Byron! Hope you have a great day - October is a great month to be born in.......

Anonymous said...

Yes, happy birthday.

And also. I like this quote.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Happy birthday. I don't trust emperors, Christian or not. I want limited powers in government and checks and balances (something disappearing in my own country!). We are all too short-sighted about our own sin to simply check ourselves=--we need outside checks on our power.

And Augustine's quote about using power to spread the worship of God sounded REALLY alarming. That's how crusades start.

Anonymous said...

Michael, while I share your unease about the way this kind of idea can be abused (as well as, I suspect, disquiet about contemporary American politics), I think that to say I don't trust emperors, even if they are genuinely Christian, gives away too much. This effectively means my final allegiance is to a particular political praxis rather than to Christ. If an emperor becomes a Christian, he is my brother first and emperor second.

It's interesting: do you think your commitment to "checks and balances" owes more to your country's political culture or to your faith? The Holy Spirit genuinely can change people and lead people to do good. Why must we think only of needing to thwart the flourishing of evil through political authority? Why cannot political authority, too, be sanctified and brought to serve Christ? In 1 Timothy 2, prayers are offered for rulers so that we may lead quiet and peaceable lives, which is linked in verses 3-4 to the church's mission. That is not how crusades start.

byron smith said...

I suspect that Augustine's phrase has been used to start crusades (or their equivalents), but I also strongly suspect that such a use would be a one-sided reading of his thought. His role in and attitude towards the Donatist controversy is more complex than I imagined. I'm not sure he can either be directly blamed or totally exonerated.

byron smith said...

Rachel and Andrew and Michael - thanks. :-)

Andrew said...

Birthday greetings to you as well dear Byron!

Augustine sure uses a lot of 'if's. Any Christian Caesar would want to bear that in mind.

byron smith said...

Here's a comment from John Milbank on this passage:
‘Political rule, for Augustine, is only “natural” in a twofold manner. First of all, the intellectually and morally inferior should naturally be guided by their superiors, just as women should be guided by men. (City of God XIX. 14, 15) In this sense there would have been “government” even before the Fall. … Secondly, coercive political rule, like slavery, is “natural” for the period after the Fall, because providentially ordained by God to curb human sin. Nonetheless, this is a curbing of sin by sin, and, in a way by more serious sin, because more self-deluded in its pride and claims to self-sufficiency. It is here that Augustine’s social thought is most problematic.’
‘For the Church is to make usus of the peace of this world – of slavery, “excessive” coercion, and compromise between competing economic interests. (CG XIX.14, 20) It must never derive these things from its own rule and order, and yet should try to make them work towards the ultimate purpose, the true heavenly peace. Within the space of this ambiguity alone, the earthly church must continue to have a separate identity. Quite clearly, though, there would, for Augustine, be no point in laying down “Christian” norms for an area which was intrinsically sinful. Instead his nearest approach to political recommendation comes in the form of a “mirror for princes”. Here Augustine lays down what qualities will characterize a ruler who also happens to be, as an individual a member of the Christian Church: he will rule with justice and humility, will be slow to punish and ready to pardon, and so forth (CG V.24 [i.e. the passage I posted]). Insofar as it is possible, the Christian ruler will make a usus of the earthly peace, by subordinating it to the ecclesial purposes of charity and of a “loving discipline”. … The “Christian emperor”, therefore, is a just ruler exactly to the extent that he treats his political function as an inner-ecclesial one, or as an exercise of pastoral care.’
- John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory, 411-12.

Though I've just found a fairly devastating critique of Milbank and Hauerwas on Christian non-involvement in politics here.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Byron. Devastating. But one could perhaps go even further, as O'Donovan does, to give a positive conception of the legitimate (albeit limited and contestable) function of the state alongside the church.

It would be interesting to have a look at the Rowan Williams article referred to...

Happy birthday, by the way ;)

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

From my reading, the Bible as a whole is very anti-imperialist. Of course my preference for checks & balances has to do with my having been raised a radical democrat, but the cautions against monarchy in 1 Sam. 8 certainly seem relevant. Early Israel, while a direct theocracy, also had breaks against concentrations of power--monarchy changed all that.
The rise of monarchy and the rise of the prophets seems to occur at the same time. The prophetic voice is needed because of concentrations of power.

A truly Christian emperor would dismantle the empire.

I do NOT say that scripture endorses democratic republics (that would be anachronistic). I recognize that the church can and has flourished under all kinds of governments.

Nevertheless, I believe that democracies with checks and balances and protections for human rights are what Bonhoeffer would call penultimate goods. It shouldn't need adding, but since the rise of the Evil One---er, of George W. Bush, it does need adding: Democracy cannot be promoted at gunpoint.

I am not being, I trust, overly chauvenistic: After all, I believe that the U.S. is on the verge of becoming a democracy in name only and a plutocratic oligarchy in fact--a development I hate. And, I think that parliamentary democracies have some structural advantages over the U.S. congressional system.

But empires are always wrong: Egypt's, Babylon's, Persia's, Rome's, the Ottoman, Britain's, the Soviet Union, and the American Empire. All evil, no matter if individual rulers were Christian.

Anonymous said...

As a Presbyterian I am expected to affirm the Westminster Confession and the writings of Calvin which talk over and over again about Civil Magistrates in much the same way that Augustine talks here about the emperor. So switching the form of government does not change the basic question which is whether civil government can be legitimate at all in the eyes of God. Does God institute governments of any kind to rule over people, judge and punish the wicked, protect the weak etc..?

How you answer that question will determine how you relate your faith to politics in general.

For me the answer is no. The Bible is never univocal on any issue, but I find the strongest voice in the bible to be not only anti-imperial, but anti-human institutional government. Judges, Deuteronomy and Samuel all have passages suggesting that the proper situation of Israel is to have God as king (which means no earthly ruler), the prophets pick up and elaborate on this theme and this is what Jesus preaches when he preaches the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Attempting to derive government from the bible you would end up with a kind of theocratic anarchy... which is going to be the topic of my next series of posts on my own blog.

Anonymous said...

Miner, it all depends what you mean by 'derive'. It is a very grave and weighty thing to presume to pronounce support for this or that government 'from the Bible'. We do need to be extremely wary of those who butress the legitiimacy of this or that government by saying that it is God's agent and God has told me so.

But the Church must surely have a position on the general place of goverments in the world, and one that is grounded in the Bible. And even if there are strong anti-imperialistic impulses in the Bible, which I would readily acknowledge, this does not mean it has a negative view of government per se.

When a theology of political institutions is properly 'derived' from the Bible, the legitimacy of such institutions could only be very narrowly defined. As such, a well thought out political theology is precisely what is needed to make the right critical interventions in concrete political debates. It is by no means a route to the wholesale legitimation of governments whatever form and whatever they do.

So to develop a theology of the political sphere is not theocracy - it is just the attempt to form a Christian judgment about the place of the polis within the framework of the Christian gospel, for the sake of orienting our obedience to God in this sphere of life.

The alternative is simply to consign government to the 'too far gone' category. But why? Surely not just because it is a secular institution (e.g.we don't say this of the corporation, or the golf club - although perhaps we should...). And let it not be simply because government are organs of authority and power. Power and authority is, in itself, not only a neutral thing but a good thing, given by God to restrain evil and order the world. Authorities may set themselves up as enemies of God (Colossians 2, et al.), but at that point they are simply abusing their God-given responsibilities (Romans 13, et al.).

Obviously more to say. But is there not some theological middle ground here between writing off goverment entirely and blithely giving government the wholehearted blessing of the church? Perhaps this is the very thing Augustine was attempting to do?

byron smith said...

Matheson, well put. I do believe that this is more or less what Augustine is doing. He is in no danger of affirming the Roman empire (or any other)! The entire first half of City of God is a very sharp pin entering the balloon of Roman hubris. The passage I quoted is almost all he has to say about "Christians in government" - this is no full program of theocracy, but is trying to answer what an emperor might do if he finds that Christ has conquered him. In particular, he is contrasting the points he mentioned in the quote with those emperors who think they've done a good job if they defeat their enemies, rule a long time and leave the throne to their sons. He is raising the bar (and marginalising these other goals).

byron smith said...

Matheson: thanks - I had a lovely birthday evening. Jess organised something of a surprise gathering. She said you sent your apologies. It was a merry time.

As for the Rowan Williams article*, I wish I knew where to find it. If anyone has a copy in PDF, I'd love it. It's not at college or any Sydney university that I can find, yet it gets quoted a lot.

* Rowan Williams, 'Politics and the Soul: a reading of The City of God' in Milltown Studies 19/20 (1987), 57-72.

Anonymous said...


You're right it is a weighty thing to claim biblical authority for any argument, and I qualified my statement by saying that I do not find the Bible to be univocal on any matter. It always comes back to your hermeneutic principle for reading the Bible and which voices you are going to privilege over others. I think that the voice which is critical of government is stronger than the voice which recognizes it as a temporary, but necessary evil. This is because the fundamental position of Jesus and the prophets is with the oppressed rather than the oppressors and though goverments may often claim to be supporting the oppressed they are NEVER the oppressed themselves. In other words, governments always represent the powerful in a given society which makes them immediately suspect - though no it doesn't disqualify them from participating in the Kingdom. It just makes it REALLY REALLY REALLY hard. Camel through eye of needle etc...

In other words, I think the Church's orientation toward government is basically eschatological. We are expected to be co-creators of God's kingdom on earth which operates on the basis of principles which are fundamentally inimical to the status quo and any form of goverment you could devise.

Even so, we recognize that the Kingdom is not fully realized and that we don't bring it by our own power, but God brings it in the fullness of time. So we find ourselves in danger of being too accomodating if we are not kingdom focused and anti-status quo, but likewise we are too arrogant if we don't accept that we have to work in and through the world we are given until God brings the Kingdom to earth.

You mentioned a middle-path, it might be something like what I've described, but I really think the danger of accomodation is worse than the danger of over-reaching. So I tend to lean toward the Kingdom.

byron smith said...

For those interested, I now have a copy of the Rowan Williams article. I'll show it to you sometime, Matt.