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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Augustine 2020: Love in the Earthly City

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

Augustine now turns his attention to tracing the progress of the two cities, focusing on the biblical text. Book XV of The City of God contains some of the most vigorous statements Augustine makes on the relationship between the two cities. Many of the pieces we have been considering during the past months begin to come together here.

At the start, in ch. 2, Augustine turns his attention to a feature of the biblical story I am sure has been in the back of many minds following this series: Israel. Is it an earthly city? The heavenly city? Where does it all fit in? Augustine is going to be developing that question over the next several books and we will be considering them in the next several installments. For now, we see Augustine defines the Israel of the Bible as a shadow of the heavenly city. “When the time came for the heavenly city to be manifested, there appeared on earth a certain shadow and prophetic image of it by which it was signified…The shadow itself was also rightly called the ‘holy city,’ not because it was the complete reality destined to exist in the future, but because it was a signifying image of it” [1].

Yet this image of the heavenly city is found in an earthly city. Augustine views Israel as an earthly city that has been transformed into an image of the heavenly city. “A certain part of the earthly city has been made into an image of the heavenly city. It stands not for itself, but for that other city, and that is why it is its slave. It was established not for its own sake but for the sake of representing the other city” [2]. Augustine’s language of “slave” comes from Galatians 4, a complex passage in which Paul creates an analogy from the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah. Paul compares Hagar, the slave who bore Ishmael to Abraham, to the old covenant and Sarah to the new covenant. The relationship between these two realities is described in vv. 25-26: “Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother” [3]. Just as Hagar was the servant of Sarah, so the earthly Jerusalem is the servant of the heavenly Jerusalem.

Now, we need to ask an important question: can any other earthly city be an image of the heavenly city? Is there hope that maybe America can be more than a “great band of robbers” [4] and be an image of the heavenly city too? Could John Winthrop have been right in saying that America is to be a “city on a hill” [5]? An essential fact that we must remember is that Israel did not make itself an image of the heavenly city, but God did out of “divine kindness” [6]. Israel played a unique role in God’s salvation plan and, now that those promises have been fulfilled in Christ, we are to look for the true city in Him. No law, no constitution, no policy, and no candidate can make an earthly city the image of the heavenly city. That is the work of God alone by grace. Because the shadow served its purpose, I do not think we should expect to find it in any other city the same way it was in ancient Israel.

Augustine now, in an extended passage, gives one of the clearest summaries in all of his work about what the earthly city is, what good it has, and the limits its goods have. His words here speak for themselves and I will quote him at length before providing some concluding thoughts. “The earthly city will not last forever, for when it is condemned to final punishment, it will cease to be a city. It possesses its own good here and now, and it is made joyful through its association with the joy that may be derived from such things. Because its good is not the sort of good that causes no difficulties for its lovers, this city is most often divided against itself….Out of whichever part of itself that has risen up to wage war against another part of itself, this city seeks to be the conqueror of peoples while being itself the captive of vices….It is not right to say that the things this city desires are not good, because, in its own human way, it is better by desiring them, for in order to obtain these base things, it desires a certain earthly peace….These things are good and without doubt they are gifts of God. If, however, to the neglect of better goods, the ones pertaining to the city on high, where victory will be secure in the eternal and highest peace, these lower goods are desired in such a way that they are believed to be the only goods, or else are loved more than the goods believed to be better, then misery necessarily follows and the misery that was already present increases….What all people do who follow their own will rather than God’s, and who live by a twisted rather than an upright heart, is to offer God a gift, thinking they can buy him off so that he will serve them…Truly, the good use this world in order to enjoy God, but the wicked, on the other hand, want to use God in order to enjoy the world” [7].

This is a rich statement, one I recommend you reread many times and ponder carefully. Think about it while engaging in politics. Ask yourself, what am I seeking? What is the good I am looking for? Am I interested in peace, rights, freedom, wealth? Or am I seeking God and using the good things that are found in the earthly city to enjoy Him? The danger in engaging in politics is getting our loves out of order, of turning aside from our Creator to seek lesser goods [8]. Each time we engage in politics, let’s ask ourselves, “What am I loving right now? What am I desiring?” And that is an easy question to deceive ourselves on. It is easy to trick ourselves into thinking we are seeking God when we are actually looking to our own self-interest. This kind of reflection requires time spent in deep prayer, confessing our hearts to God, and asking Him to reshape us where we have turned our love to goods less than He who is the source of all goodness.

[1] Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 110.

[2] Ibid. p. 111.

[3] Galatians 4:25-26.

[4] Augustine, p. 30, see Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: But Great Robber Bands,” July 21, 2020,

[5] John Winthrop, “A Modell of Christian Charity,” Hanover College, 1630,

[6] Augustine, p. 112.

[7] Ibid. pp. 112-113.

[8] See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Life in the Two Cities,” September 22, 2020,

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