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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Free Will, Providence, Politics, Oh My!

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

We are going to begin to nuance and clarify our comments last week on what it means for America to be an earthly city by asking, alongside Augustine: “What is God’s relationship to the earthly city?” Augustine begins Book V with a discussion of divine sovereignty and free will, no small topic in Christian theology, and no small subject in Augustine’s overall work. While we cannot fully exhaust this topic and solve a significant theological puzzle, we will look briefly to see how God’s rule relates to human free will in the earthly city. Augustine calls God “the giver of all powers, but not of all wills” [1]. What Augustine means is that the power humans have to exercise free will comes directly from God. However, not everything humans use their free will for is God’s will. For example, God gives humans the free will to chose to be content with their possessions or to follow their own greed and steal from their neighbors. However, the decision to thieve is against God’s will for human behavior. Not everything that happens in the earthly city is God’s will. However, the ability to make those choices stems from the power God provides humans. It is not outside of His control or His knowledge. Whenever we see our governments making unjust actions, we need to recognize those choices are outside of the will of God, but we need not despair: God is not surprised by them, nor are they outside of His control [2].

However, God wants earthly cities to live in accord with His will. “Never should this God be thought to have wanted the kingdoms of human beings and their dominations and servitudes to be alien from the laws of His providence” [3]. God can use human choices, even choices that fall short of true piety, to further His purposes. Augustine presents those who seek human glory in the earthly city as an example. To gain earthly glory, these rulers did good things: they maintained justice, resisted their own temptations to greed, and dedicated their lives to the common good. Because of these good deeds, they received honor in the earthly city. Because they received the praise they sought, Augustine quotes Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full” [4]. They have received compensation in this life for their goodness. They did not seek the city of God and did not pursue true piety for the sake of their Creator, but their lives improved their cities [5].

I think, if we are reading Augustine correctly at this point, they deserve this honor. For us in America, I believe that means there is nothing wrong with honoring figures in our past and victories that have made America a more just nation. But, while celebrating, we must temper it with the fact that America still lacks justice, as we learned last week, and that the city of God, the only Kingdom with true justice, deserves more honor than the earthly city. “It was also for the sake of the citizens of that eternal city, so that during their journeys here they might diligently and soberly contemplate these examples and learn what love they owe to the heavenly country on account of eternal life if the earthly country was loved so much by its citizens on account of human glory” [6]. Each celebration of America’s best should drive us to praise that greater Kingdom of true justice.

While Augustine has shown us that some cities are closer to true justice than others, he returns us to his comparison to the city of God, a comparison that all earthly cities fail. “What difference does it make whose governance a man who is about to die lives under, so long as those who rule do not compel him to impiety and sin?” [7]. Even at its best, America is still merely a kingdom of this age, subject to death. In the earthly city, human glory is better than the desire to dominate. “Those who desire true glory, even of human praise, will avoid displeasing those who think well of them.” But, “He who scorns glory and is avid for domination is worse than the beasts in the vices of cruelty and extravagance” [8]. Yet while one is better than another, both fail to be true piety. “No one lacking true piety, which is the true worship of the true God, can have true virtue. Let it also be agreed that virtue is not true when it serves human glory” [9]. We need to be very careful about how we apply Augustine’s words to our political leaders, individuals we do not personally know. But we can apply them to ourselves when we vote. If we are seeking dominance, power, and human glory here in the earthly city, we have fallen short of the city of God. We certainly prefer those who seek human glory to those who desire to dominate, but the pursuit of praise cannot be the Christian’s goal in political engagement. The only aim a Christian ought to have in political engagement is the worship of the one true God. We must reject any motivation for maintaining our own group’s power in voting. Our vote is merely to honor the God who made us and who defines true justice.

Finally, Augustine provides a lengthy list of requirements for earthly rulers who profess faith in Christ. “We do claim that the Christian emperors are happy if they rule justly and, if, instead of being exalted by the praises of those who pay them the highest honors and by the groveling of those who salute them with excessive humility, they remember instead that they are human beings. We claim that they are happy if they make their power the servant of God’s majesty by using it for the greatest possible extension of his worship; if they fear and love and worship God; if they love that kingdom in which they are not afraid to share power more than their earthly kingdom; if they are slow to punish and ready to pardon; if they apply that punishment as necessary to govern and defend the republic and not in order to indulge their own hatred; if they grant pardon, not so that crime should be unpunished, but in the hope of correction; if they compensate with the gentleness of mercy and the liberality of benevolence for whatever severe measure they may be compelled to decree; if their extravagance is as much restrained as it might have been unrestrained; if they prefer to rule evil desires rather than any people one might name; and if they do all things things from love of eternal happiness rather than ardor for empty glory, and if they do not fail to offer to the true God who is their God the sacrifices of humility, contrition, and prayer for their sins” [10]. In a society where most of our leaders profess faith in Christ, we ought to expect such behavior, leadership, and action from our government officials. If a candidate professes faith in Christ publicly as part of their campaign, we need to ensure they will represent Christ well in office. Do they match the description of a Christian leader provided by Augustine?

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 39.

[2] Ibid. pp. 38-40.

[3] Ibid. p. 40

[4] Matthew 6:2 NRSV.

[5] Augustine, p. 40-41.

[6] Ibid. p. 41.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid. p. 43.

[9] Ibid. p. 43.

[10] Ibid. p. 44.

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