Augustine on the Relationship between the Church and the State in De Civitate Dei

Reads: 6027  | Likes: 2  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This was my paper I passed for my one semester course on Augustinian Philosophy. This essay exposes Augustine's theory concerning the relationship between the Church and the State. Furthermore, this paper is a close reading of Augustine's De Civitate Dei (The City of God) and focuses on the critique of paganism and the development of a Res Publica Christiana. I know other people have other views about relationship between the church and the state, but this is Augustine's view and not my view. For the purposes of Academic study, I took the challenge and made this paper.

Submitted: September 11, 2012

A A A | A A A

Submitted: September 11, 2012





Houses burning, women screaming, these were the images that we ascribe when we think of the sack of Rome in 410. It was as if all history was lost. The glory that once stood as the caput mundi now lost its splendor as German barbarians ransacked Rome and destroyed the once glorious empire.

In this paper, the researcher shall carry out the project of elucidating on the linear development from Augustine’s critique of paganism, his outlook on the history of Rome and lastly, his position on the relationship between the church and state. This way, one can see that Augustine does not have a negative outlook on the state rather he saw it as a redefinition of a classical definition by Cicero i.e. the necessity of justice is insufficient under the context of pagan Rome.[1] The gods of Rome has cast a favorable look into modern man. In an age where there is a seemingly revival of paganism in the form of the “New Age Movement” and government turning more secular and juxtaposing the need for religion, Augustine’s view on the relationship between the church and the state points a necessary position that stresses the state’s need for a light that will guide it. If the purpose of the state is to provide the happiness of its constituents, it must lead it to the source which is infinite that is God. But, now it leads into crazy often out-of-this-world laws.

The history of the Roman Empire still casts a magical aura among those who study it. The image of emperors and the vast territories it held became the basis for the future conquests that followed it. In this paper, the researcher shall elaborate on the development of Augustine’s thought concerning the state and the church which during the ancient times the cut was slowly being cut.



I.  Varro Classification of Theology

Varro’s classification of theology into three distinct parts is the locus in which Augustine starts his critique of paganism. Situated in Books IV-VII of De Civitate Dei, Augustine’s treatment of Varro is one of the few argumentative situations where Augustine displays his brilliant knowledge of pagan literature.

Varro’s taxonomy classifies theology into three distinct types; first, mythical, second, natural, and third, civil or political. Out of the three, the first and the third are the most important points where Augustine puts forth a detailed examination, enumerating instances in which he highlights the inconsistencies of the pagans.


1.1  Varro’s taxonomy

 In the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum, Varro enumerates three types of theology which were practiced both by the common people and philosophers. Augustine examines in Chapter 5 of Book VI the three distinct types which Varro enumerated.

1.1.1 Mythical Theology

If Latin usage is allowed, we should call the kind that he placed first “fabular.” But, let us call it “fabulous,” for the term mythical is derived from fables, since in Greek a fable is called mythos.[2]

This form of theology is the theology of poets and actors. This type is enjoyed by the masses and is best seen in poems, epics and stage plays that entertain pagan audiences in the past. Poetry and plays gathers together both the divine and the mortal. A best example is the Aeneid of Virgil. We can see that in that epic, the interplay between the gods and men virtually leaps out of the lines. In one of the scenes for example in Book IV, Juno looks down on Dido as she contemplates suicide.

Juno almighty pitied her difficult death with its painful/ anguish long drawn out and dispatched to her, down from Olympus,/ Iris to unmoor her struggling  soul from the limbs’ web of damage./ Dido was dying a death that was neither deserved nor predestined,/ but, premature: a poor woman swept by the quick fire of madness.[3]

In the citation above alone, we can see that the characters were two deities and a mortal. Dido was contemplating suicide because Aeneas did not recognize her love for him. The goddesses on the other hand watched as she contemplated suicide. They look at her with pity but saw that she has decided to die a premature death.

We can cite many instances in this epic where the deities intermingle with human affairs and emotions sometimes even altering them by using different ways to change their mind like deaths, deals, threats etc. they even help them win battles as we can see in Bk. XI.[4] The distinguishing mark this type possessed is its anthropomorphic tendency.[5] The plurality of gods signifies each human emotion and desire. In the Aeneid, we can see how motherly Venus becomes when it concerns her son Aeneas. As Augustine viewed this stories in references to the Euhemerist theory—positing that these epics were true and taken as historical—Augustine says asking a question that maybe these deities are once men and have been subject to mortal tendencies.[6]

Anthropomorphism is an excellent instrument in entertaining the masses. Stories of deities in their lustful acts and vanities are good for the eyes of the ordinary pagan. The heroes of Rome were inscribed in poetry and the words of Virgil and the plays of various playwrights presented an image of humans as divine. As Gibbon puts it

Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but, not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country, they were exalted to a state or power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved if not the adoration, at least the reverence of mankind.[7]


1.1.2 Civil Theology

But, in any case let us scrutinize the civil theology too. “The third kind,” he says, “is that which citizens in the states, and especially the priests, have an obligation to learn and carry out. It tells us what gods to be worshiped by the state and what rites and sacrifices individuals should perform.”[8]

In explaining this form of theology, one has to look at the Roman attitudes towards religious matters.  Charles King’s article, “On the Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs” highlights a particular detail in Roman religion. He calls it an orthopraxy and defines it as “the correctness of ritual rather than orthodoxy, the correctness of belief.”[9] What are we looking at here then? King tells us that Roman authorities never had a problem concerning the correctness of beliefs and teachings (orthodoxy) and disputing over the nature of deities. The concern rather, was of putting correct rituals for a particular deity.[10] In context, Roman authorities do not focus on whether a particular deity teaches this particular doctrine or concerning its nature on the contrary the authorities respect the religious ceremonies of other nations. For that matter, the Romans are more open to polymorphism. The various religious cults that existed in the Roman Empire meant that there are various gods and goddesses to offer libations to.  There are However limitations. “The tests applied to foreign cults, therefore, were three: (i) would they upset the dominant position of the Roman cults? (ii)  Were they politically unsafe? (iii)  Were they morally undesirable? If these tests were satisfied, toleration was complete.”[11] As long as they complement to Roman cults they were allowed. Thus, out of the polymorphic religions of its constituents, Roman state religion was made out of the directives of the Roman authorities. Augustine views this form of theology as belonging to the urbs. The term urbis refers to the authorities and to the persons in charge of the government. Urbs captures the image of the political sphere in this form of theology. Varro however, looks only on this type of theology as useful in maintaining the order within the city.[12]


1.1.3 Natural Theology

Founded on the speculations and not on superstition, natural theology grounds itself on the observation of nature. Varro subscribes this theology to philosophers and those inclined to the natural sciences. This type is by natures cosmological and is related to the speculation concerning the nature of things, first principles etc. Augustine citing Varro says:

Now let us see what he says of the second kind of theology. “The second kind of theology that I have pointed out,” he says, “is the subject of many books that philosophers have bequeathed to us in which they set forth what gods there are, where they are, what their origin is and what their nature, that is whether they were born at a certain time or have always existed whether they are of fire as Heraclitus believes or numbers as Pythagoras thinks or of atoms as Epicurus says.”[13]

From the observations of natural phenomena, one proceeds to the nature of the divine with the natural seemingly modeled with the divine. Going forwards to Bk. VII, Augustine cited Varro’s notion of God as a world soul and enumerating other views of Greek Philosophers.

Augustine says that “the same as Varro, then, still in his introductory remarks about natural theology, says that he thinks that God is the soul of the universe, which the Greeks call cosmos, and that this universe itself is God.”[14]Although Pantheistic, Augustine remarks that this Varronian remark on God is indeed monotheistic.

II.  The Augustinian Rejoinder

Now that we have seen Varro’s three types of theology and have seen the historical context regarding Varro’s Antiquitates. It is now time to ask: why is Augustine attacking Varro? Bk. VI contains plenty of citations from Seneca and other authors, but why put the spotlight on Varro? O’ Daly gives us a very simple answer:

One reason why Varro is treated so seriously by Augustine is that he was read and invoked by educated pagan contemporaries; another is that Augustine found in his writings elements of a system of natural theology that could be pinpointed and confronted.[15]

The pagans know Varro. Educated men can cite from the Antiquitates and utilize it for rhetorical purposes. Since De Civitate Dei was written as an attack against the pagans concerning the sack of Rome in 410, it is essential that we look at the rhetorical battle between Augustine and the pagans. Andrew Murphy calls it the “decline rhetoric.” Murphy highlights the different arguments of the pagans and summarizes their arguments into two distinct patterns.

First they identify a phenomenon or group of phenomena as illustrative of the seriousness of contemporary decline. Such claims are always put forward as empirical ones, with vivid examples or statistics presented to back them up. Secondly, in addition to explaining what is wrong, decline narratives also identify an agent or entity responsible for initiating the process of decline, assign this agent a causal role in spurring on the observed decay.[16]

If we follow this scheme, we can see that the pagan attack would be simple. Rome fell because of the Christians. The pagans used their history as a weapon and Augustine turned their own weapons against them. Thus, we can see why in the first seven books of De Civitate Dei bolsters countless of citations from different pagan writers. This way Augustine demonstrates his versatility in the use of both pagan and Christian sources and possessing the logic to be able to make use of them in his polemics.

In context, the exchange of arguments between the pagans and Augustine utilized various devices of rhetoric. Rome’s past was the collage of internal events that led to its rise. The armies of Rome marched with the standard of pagan gods and wars were fought calling the blessing of pagan gods. Having an extensive knowledge of Roman history, Augustine’s knowledge of Varro came from his liberal education. Moreover, almost everyone knew about Varro and his “catalogue of gods.”

Augustine’s rejoinder can be classified using the same scheme of Murphy but Augustine’s rebuttal goes beyond the classic pagan “decline rhetoric.” Murphy highlighted Augustine’s attempt to go beyond the limited scope of empirical claims.[17]His rebuttal can be divided into three parts. First, the inconsistency of the pagan religion, Augustine explains that Rome was not protected by the pagan gods rather they did not guard Rome at all. Second, Rome’s rise is not the product of the pagan gods rather it was God’s providence at work who chose Rome as the locus of Christianity’s synthesis with society. Third, this last item connects with the seconds and stems from it; this is regarding the relation of the church with the state. The church works with the state and the latter with its civil authority should uphold the true religion upon its citizens because only through the following of Christ’s precepts can justice be achieved and a res publica to be an authentic one.


2.1. The Failure of Paganism: Varro’s Demons

Since we have already enumerated the following classifications of theology, let us proceed into the matter of civil and mythical theology’s relationship. The two are distinct types of theologies in respect to the object and nature. Since both subscribe into theological opinion, Augustine says

The former [mythical theology] plants the seed by inventing vile stories about the gods, and the latter [civil theology] reaps the harvest by giving its approval; the one sows falsehoods, the other garners them; the other includes divinity among fictitious crimes, the other includes among religious rites the shows that portray the crimes….[18]

Civil theology is sponsored by the state. Myth gives us the anthropomorphic images of the gods. Civil powers impose decrees of worship to a particular deity through state sponsored temples and state regulated ceremonies.


Without mythical theology however, state religion will not take shape.[19] Varro affixes to these gods a divine nature yet, they exist in plurality. For example in Bk. VII, Augustine mentions the dei selecti of Varro. The dei selecti are the main gods and goddesses that are more powerful than the inferior gods and goddesses. The members of the dei selecti are composed of different gods and goddesses that most people have already heard like Janus, Jupiter, Saturn, Genius, Mercury, Apollo, Mars, Vulcan, Neptune, Sol, etc.[20] These deities are created or mentioned from myths and superstitions of common people or by the works of the poets and the playwrights. Focusing on the exposition above, Varro highlights two distinct theologies yet, the two are seemingly together. We must not forget that Varro was a thinker before the foundation of the Roman Empire. At that time, Rome existed not as an empire but as a republic. Thus, Varro’s work occupies a context where the work is situated for a city state whose power is on the rise and whose authorities were men well versed in philosophy, rhetoric and history. Varro’s Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum was an exposition of all mythical personas existing within Rome. As Rome’s power and influence rose and its territories expanded, so was its contact with other cultures and theologies. Every city-state has its own myth and its own identity and Rome tolerated their myths moreover, its identity was complemented with Rome’s gods. Zeus was equalized was with Jupiter, Juno with Hera. Myths from the Greek world were discovered by the Romans. Virgil’s Aeneid was a continuation of Homer’s Iliad. As Rome expanded, it utilized myths as tools of pacifying the locals.[21]

The Romans do not need to impose a new religion they would just look after it and make sure it will not defy Roman authority.[22]


2.2 Augustine and Roman History

The connection between the history of Rome and Augustine is a centuries old development of historiography and the Christian assimilation of pagan historiographical methodology of the 4th and 5th centuries. The importance of this part in our exploration is the connection of the events in Roman history and its respective relationship with historiography. In an article by Momigliano, he explains the development of Christian historiography from its assimilation of pagan techniques to its relating of history with the history of the covenant. He says:

Therefore, St Augustine who knew where to look for the real enemy was not worried by contemporary pagan historian in the Latin tongue such as Ammianus Marcellinus….But, he was disturbed by the idealization of the Roman past which he found in the fourth century Latin antiquarians poets and commentators of poets….He went back to the sources of their antiquarianism and primarily Varro in order to undermine the foundations of their work.[23]

The development then, from this form of argumentation sprung from variegated sources. It was a time when Christian writers were springing out of persecution. The 4th century writers on history were now drawing out the relationship between secular history and salvation history. They were connecting the history of Jews with Roman history and gave them a Christian twist. Book XVIII of De Civitate Dei deals with the same pattern of putting the history of salvation to the incarnation with secular history of Rome and her neighbors, Augustine sketches the extent of parallelism between Rome and the unfolding of the covenant in Christ. The attempt to place side by side secular history and sacred history was a project of the Christian historian after the persecution. Augustine’s idea here is not new rather it was developed from a century of refining Christian Historiography.

It is evident that from the time of Augustine at least during the ancient times, History is a work of rhetoric and a showmanship in oration.[24] In order for a critique to be fully effective, one has to be adept at the use of historical facts. In Book XVIII, this parallel historical recreation of secular and salvation history was evident as Augustine ends his Book XVIII.

But let us now at last bring to a close this book, in which we have discoursed thus, far and shown sufficiently as it seemed what is the mortal course of the two cities, the heavenly and the earthly, which are intermingled from beginning to end. One of them, the earthly has crafted for herself from any source she pleased, even out of men, false gods to worship and sacrifice; the other a heavenly pilgrim on earth does not create false gods, but is herself created by the true God whose, sacrifice she is herself.[25]

As Augustine had said it, he was able to place into two parallel lines the secular and the sacred. Although both happened simultaneously, Augustine was able to demonstrate the unfolding of the two cities. As salvation history unfolds in Palestine, secular history also unfolds. This duality in the development of the two cities emerged and Augustine maintains this duality until book XIV when he dabbles into politics.


III. The Coexistence of the Church with the State

The history of the unfolding of history both sacred and secular culminates in Christianity’s coexistence with the Roman Empire. Augustine’s discussion on book XIV centers on the concept of the heavenly city’s participation with the earthly city. The saeculum in which both these two entities, is the course of temporal reality that would soon unfold in the future.[26]  At present, the two representatives of the earthly and heavenly city travel in a pilgrimage and as they travel along the saeculum, they become responsible of the people’s journey towards the eschatological end. In its present state, the heavenly and earthly city participate with the concepts of the church and state.

It is important that the context between Church and State with its connection with the discussion on history takes a more careful look. Augustine does not treat politics in a systematic treatise rather one has to look seriously on his other works besides De Civitate Dei especially the anti Donatist works and letters. De Civitate Dei on the other hand gives us only a little of that “political philosophy” and one would find it a very theological rather than philosophical treatment a la Cicero.

We now come near to the end of the linear development from critique, relation with history and now towards church and state. The state and the church personify the penetration of the two cities but not absolutely. We cannot say that the church is the Civitas Dei and the state the Civitas Terrena, a conclusion like that would cause a pessimist outlook with the state. To avoid this let us look into what Augustine says in book XIX:

This accordingly is the place for me to fulfill as briefly and as clearly as I can the promise that I gave in the second book of this work, that I would show that there was never a Roman state such as defined by Scipio in Cicero’s Republic; for he briefly defines a state as a people’s estate.[27]

There Augustine cites from Cicero’s De Res Publica and proves that there was never a res publica in the past. Does this mean that Augustine accepts a very pessimistic view of the past Roman government? Cicero was not totally wrong but, he lacked the fundamental source of justice. For Augustine, there can be no justice with ancient Rome for it has subscribed itself to false gods.[28] However, Augustine employs this Ciceronian definition of the state as a “point of departure for constructing his Christian alternative.”[29] Thus Augustine says

I think that what we have said concerning a common sense of right is enough to demonstrate that in terms of this definition a people in whom there is no justice cannot be described as having a state.[30]

What lacked in the past was justice for it did not subscribe itself to the true God rather it offered libations to demons. Thus, in order to be a state in its full sense, the state and the church must constitute a Res Publica Christiana which echoes the Civitas Dei but not synonymous with it.[31] The latter is an eschatological reality.[32] The church and the state constitute a balance that counteracts the state’s inclination to cupidatas gloriae (desire for glory) and provides civil humility among its authorities.[33]

Therefore so long as it leads its life in captivity as it were being a stranger in the earthly city, although it has already receive promise of redemption, and the gift of the spirit as a pledge of it, it does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city whereby matters that minister to the support of mortal life is common to both, a harmony may be preserved between both cities with regard to the things that belong to it.[34]

The Romans lacked the conception of true justice for they were busy in exemplifying heroes praising them and deceived by demons they were brought to the inconsistencies of mythical religion that enjoys deification and rejoices over the vices of the deities. The Empire did not have the right religion to which it can be more of itself fulfill its true essence and administer justly the goods of the earth.[35] The church then is a vital synthesis with the Roman Empire it is when the cupidity of the Pagan empire meets with the sacred message of the Church. With Christianity, the empire with its vast territory will be able to envelop its people under the faith. Learning true justice with the Church, the state evolves into its very essence that Cicero has envisioned hundred years ago. Only with the Church’s light can the state manage to achieve it.






The Romans created their religion out of the stories of poets and playwrights. They possessed the civil authority to acknowledge them and decree the worship of one deity after another. As its influence spread and other deities were encountered, she took them under her wings and tolerated their practice creating a mosaic of various divinities that often overlap each other. Civil religion created orthopraxy. One can offer libations for an intention x to a deity “a” or “b,” it depends on the individual to decide. This was the picture of pagan religion under the pre-Christian Rome.

Augustine aimed his rhetorical guns against the pagans by enumerating one by one the inconsistency of their religion moreover, he wrecked one of their chief sources; Varro. Varro for a pagan is the one who described Roman religion. He supported civil and mythical religion because of its utility. It kept peace and order among the constituents of the republic and later the empire. The conquered were subdued by thinking that they were complementing Roman deities with their own deities. As Zeus was enveloped by Jupiter and Mithras became the god of Roman legions aside from Mars, Roman religion possessed this inconsistency that Augustine highlights strongly in books VI and VII.

In book XVIII however, Augustine expounds on a duality. This duality is the unfolding of sacred and secular history. He puts into parallel lines the unfolding of salvation history in Israel and the development of secular history of her neighbors. Israel’s neighbors soon started to fall. Empires fall and rise but, they followed that circular pattern. As Jesus was crucified on the cross, it was as if he was hanged by the greatest empire that surfaced after Alexander the Great. Years after Christ’s death and resurrection and the apostles have already started and made countless churches, have endured persecution and went into hiding, the empire started to fall. Emperors were losing their integrity. After the edict of Milan, the empire was going down and decays slowly. As it goes down the church goes up, sacred and secular history has met. The once persecuted became the light of the state. Augustine from that point emphasizes the need for the church and the state to work with each other as he says in a letter “that the happiness of the state has no other source as the happiness of man.”[36] We cannot deny that we are with each other in a state but since “Happiness in life is not to be attributed to the possession of those things [earthly good fortune]….”[37]We have to look further, the state posses the authority but it can fall into what Dodaro calls cupiditas gloriae, but, Augustine emphasized the need for a “Christian civitas armed with the conviction of its collective auctoritas so that it can withstand the threat of the civitas terrena.”[38] A union with the church fulfills this idea. Working together, the state fulfills its essence and leads men to true happiness and not to the temptations of cupiditas gloriae and other worldly ambitions  

[1] See. De civ. Dei, II. 21 and Cicero, De Res Publica 2. 44.

[2] De Civ. Dei, VI.5 (2, 309)

[3] Aen, IV.695-705 (p. 99)

[4] “Dawn passed duly rose and left Ocean. Aeneas/ up before her with the morning star, thanks the gods for his conquests. See Aen. XI.1-2


[5] Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 103.

[6]“Did they not give evidence in support of Euhemerus who wrote not as a garroulous story teller but, as a careful historian that all such gods had once been men, and subject to death?” see De civ. Dei. VI.7


[7] Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. 1, ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin Books, 2005), p. 57.

[8]De civ. Dei, VI. 5. Here Augustine cites Varro.

[9]Charles King, “Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs,” Classical Antiquity, vol. 22 no. 2 (October 20003), p. 298


[10]Ibid., 297.

[11]R.H Barrow, The Romans (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 147


[12] O’Daly., 103.

[13] De civ. Dei, VI. 5 (2, 309-311).

[14]De civ. Dei, VII. 6 (2, 397).

[15]O’Daly., 236-237.

[16]Andrew Murphy, “Augustine and the Rhetoric of Roman Decline,” in Augustine and History, ed. Christopher Daly, John Doody, and Kim Paffenroth (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008) p. 54. 

[17]Ibid., 67.

[18]De civ. Dei, VI. 6 (2, 319).

[19]O’Daly., 105.

[20]For a complete list of the dei selecti, see. De civ. Dei., VII. 2. (2, 375) 

[21]Joseph Kelly, The World of the Early Christians, Message of the Fathers of the Church, ed. Thomas Malton (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1997), p.95

[22] Ibid., 80.

[23]Arnaldo Momigliano, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.,” accessed on Feb 13, 2012. 

[24]Momigliano, 10

[25] De civ. Dei, XVIII. 54 (6, 91-93)

[26]Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. 133.

[27]De civ. Dei, XIX. 21 (6, 207)

[28]De civ. Dei, XIX. 21 (6, 209)

[29]Robert Dodaro, OSA, “Church and State” in Augustine through the Ages, ed. Allan Fitzgerald, OSA (Grand Rapids, MI: William Erdmanns Publishing Company, 1990), 182.

[30]De civ. Dei, XIX. 21 (6, 211)

[31]Dodaro, 182


[33]Ibid., 183.

[34]De civ Dei, XIX. 17 (6, 195)


[35] Ernest Fortin, “St Augustine,” in History of Political Philosophy, ed. Leo Strauss and Joseph Cropsey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 196.

[36]Ep. 155. 7 

[37]Ep. 155. 8

[38]Robert J. Forman, Augustine and the making of a Christian Literature: Classical and Augustinian Aesthetics (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Hellen Press, 1995), p. 168  


© Copyright 2020 Pater Profundus. All rights reserved.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Reddit
  • Pinterest
  • Invite

Add Your Comments: