Augustine, Justice & the SCOTUS
Last night I finished my pilgrimage through Augustine’s City of God. Considering it took Augustine almost a decade to finish book nineteen after starting I would say that I made better time on the reading than he did the writing. I wish that I could say all twenty-two books and eight hundred and sixty two pages in my volume were a joy, they were not. However, the end was worth traveling through some of the valleys in between. I thought in celebration of my completing the work I might share some lessons from the last few books.
First, Augustine has a good word for those of us struggling with our political climate in the United States. To put it tersely, we are to hold this world loosely. Augustine appears to be a political minimalist when it comes to thinking about what the world has to offer. In other words, if you don’t expect much from the city of man you won’t be disappointed when you don’t get much. There is a reason for that. According to Augustine, the earthly city does not live by faith and so seeks an earthly peace. However, this earthly peace can only be tentative and temporal. It is not lasting. It is not the peace for which the Christian seeks. Listen to Augustine speak about the two cities and their aims.
This heavenly city, then, while it sojourns on earth, calls citizens out of all nations, and gathers together a society of pilgrims of all languages, not scrupling about diversities in manners, laws and institutions whereby earthly peace is secured and maintained, but recognizing that, however various these are, they all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace….Even the heavenly city, therefore, while in its state of pilgrimage, avails itself of the peace of earth, and, so far as it can without injuring faith and godliness, desires and maintains a common agreement among men regarding the acquisition of the necessaries of life, and makes this earthly peace bear upon the peace of heaven…(book XIX. 17).
Thus, for Augustine, the city of God should not expect much from the city of man because the two pursue two different sorts of peace.
However, this leads to a second lesson. Those who belong to the city of God may and can participate in the political structures of the city of man, not in order to pull the strings of power, but to serve justly. In book nineteen, Augustine brings to mind something he mentioned earlier in the City of God, much earlier! According to Cicero, a republic cannot be administered without justice and where, therefore, there is no true justice there can be no right. At this point Augustine gives Cicero a thrust with his sword, saying, if “justice is that virtue which gives everyone his own due” then, where is the justice due to the God of heaven and earth? Thus, according to Augustine, Rome never was a republic in the truest sense. Therefore, every citizen of the city of God must give everyone their due, which includes God.
As I thought about these lessons, I couldn’t help but think about the state of our own nation. Perhaps we are moving through a Platonic cycle of governmental morphology. We began as a republic and slid to a democracy and perhaps now we are an oligarchy. The United States is not immutable. However, what is true for every citizen of the city of God is clear, according to Augustine. He must serve giving God his utmost. We might be tempted to say that the Supreme Court is headed in that direction. However, the Supreme Court is actually on the verge of moving us back toward a democracy with regard to Roe vs Wade. If that happens, states can decide for themselves what will be the fate of unborn children. But do you see the problem? Murder is not a decision of the majority. Murder is a violation of God’s law. Thus, even this decision, if made by the SCOTUS, will fall woefully short of a republic that gives God his due.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.