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De Civitate Dei, Book XI

November 29, 2011

My Introductory Comments: Books XI-XIV is the second main section of City of God which deals with the origin of God’ s City. These books were probably written between AD 416-420, which means that Augustine was in the midst of responding to Julian of Eclanum (hence all the material on sexuality in Book XIV). The supposed lopsidedness of Augustine’s writings on sexuality can largely be attributed to his embroilment in this controversy with Julian, because the debate required him to assert that sexuality is indeed fallen (some have thought that this point is all that Augustine thought about sexuality). Regarding Book XI specifically, Jean-Luc Marion, in his book On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism (University of Chicago Press, 1999, pgs131-132), says that it “aims to establish that the world, even in the economy of the fall, remains intrinsically good and that it keeps an image of the Trinity. This image is also recognized in man, even in the state of sin.” This affirmation of the created world, despite sin, is helpful to keep in mind as the overarching purpose as you read through these summary notes. Now on to Augustine…


Chapters 1-3: Knowledge of Reality

The Founder of the City of God gives us a desire to join it. The Scriptures mention “glorious things” spoken of this City, and indeed there are many who speak of its beauty and glory. The fallen gods who demand human worship are deprived of the changeless light that is shed upon all alike. After losing it, they began to scramble for their lost dominions. But we have replied to the enemies of this City in Books I-X. Now it is our task, relying on God’s help, to trace the rise, development, and destiny of the two cities (the earthly and heavenly). In the present these are woven together, but they arose from two classes of angels.

It is rare for one to observe the mutability of creation and arrive at God’s immutability, concluding that all creation is the work of God alone. God can speak about these matters to the mind directly or through spoken testimony. The former is hard for humanity since humanity cleaves too weakly to the light and needs the healing of faith to be able to do so.


Chapters 4-11: The Creation of the World by God

Of all visible things the world is the greatest; of all invisible things the greatest is God. We know of the creation of the world from God’s testimony in the Scriptures. Some want to ask why creation was not created sooner. If the suggestion behind this question is that the creation has always been in a cycle or process of change, we need not answer this question. For the creation itself testifies to its creation as do the Scriptures. Some want to promote the idea of eternal process to defend God from creating as a mere fortuitous act. But the notion of a perpetual cycle would imply that happiness can never be eternal and lasting, which would make it less than full happiness.

Instead of discussing the point in time when creation began, let us discuss the space in which creation began. For if we imagine infinite stretched of time in which God was inactive, we can also imagine infinite stretches of space in which God was inactive. Certainly Platonists must hold that God was inactive in infinite stretches of space or else they are left affirming, like the Epicureans, that there are innumerable worlds. But Platonists do not hold this, though they hold that God’s immaterial presence fills even the infinite stretches of space which the creation did not fill. And if they assert that it is pointless to imagine infinite space before creation in which God was inactive, it is likewise the case with infinite time. The reality is that there was no time before the world began. Time means change, and eternity involves no change. So the creation must exist for the movement that makes time possible. “In the beginning” means before the work of creation. Thus, the world was created with time, not in time.

The Scriptures record seven days. But the light was created before the sun, the source of light. What kind of light was this? Either it was material light or it was a description of God’s City (cf. Galatians 4:26, 1 Thessalonians 5:5). This latter interpretation depends on us discovering the appropriate meaning of the recurring “evening and the morning”. It can be understood in this way: the creature’s knowledge is like a twilight (“evening) compared to the Creator’s knowledge, but the creature’s knowledge when it is turned to praise and love of the Creator never turns dark (“morning”). The text does not mention “night” but only “evening”, which Augustine takes to mean the creature’s knowledge. Morning arrives when creation is known in the Wisdom by which it was made. Thus, the text records human knowledge turning from knowledge of material things to the fuller understanding of those things mentioned on each successive day in light of God’s Wisdom by which He made them. The seventh day is called “the rest of God” which means the rest of those who find their rest in Him, just as “the joy of a house” means the joy of those who rejoice in that house: the efficient cause stands for the effect.

The Scriptures do not specifically mention the creation of the angels. Thus, the angels were either referred to in the phrase, “God created heaven and earth” or they are the “light” that we have been discussing. It is reasonable to expect that the angels were included in the creation account, because by day seven God is resting from the work of creating everything. Job 38:7 shows that the angels were made before the stars (the fourth day). The best explanation is that the angels are the “light” which received the name “day”, created on “one day”. That the text does not say “the first day” is significant, for these are not seven days but are all part of the one day and represent seven stages of knowledge, seven stages of comprehending the created works of God, with the seventh day including the embrace of God’s rest. The angels are “day” on account of their being illuminated by that light which comes from God (John 1:9).

The Trinity is simple, meaning that being is identical with attributes, and it cannot lose any attribute it possesses. The soul does not contain light on its own, for its being and this attribute of light are not the same. Thus, “simple” can only apply to the divine. In God are all the invisible and unchanging causes of things visible and changing. The light was not an aspect of the being of the angels, and some fell and, losing the light but keeping their rationality, dwell in “evening” rather than “morning” knowledge of creation. The degree to which they experienced the light before the fall is uncertain.


Chapters 12-15: Original Happiness of Creation and the Fall

Two factors lead to blessedness or happiness: untroubled enjoyment of the changeless Good and certainty of remaining in him for eternity. With regards to the creation of angels, there are two possibilities: 1) either they were given an unequal assurance (those who would remain were given an eternal sense of security while those that would not did not have this sense of security) or 2) all angels were given an equal assurance and the good angels received the certainty of eternal happiness after the other angels departed from the light.

Though John 8:44 claims that the devil was a deceiver from the beginning, this does not mean he was created evil; rather, it means that from the beginning he refused righteousness (1 John 3:8). We must oppose the Manichees who claim that the devil is in principle evil, giving to evil its own power and existence apart from the good. John 8:44 does say that the devil did not stand fast in the truth because the truth was not in him – but this is a certain kind of saying in an unusual form. Isaiah 14:12 and Ezekiel 28:13ff suggest that the devil was once without sin. So we can uphold our point that God creates things good, according to a proper order and form.


Chapters 16-18: Creation’s Order and Use

Augustine describes three types of “order” that can be perceived or implemented in creation. First, God’s order. To describe God’s created order, Augustine lists several qualities that cause one being to be ranked above another, namely, beings with: life, reproduction (or an urge towards it), sentience, intelligence, and immortality. This is the order God has established which treats things and beings according to their nature given by God. Second, humanity employs utility as the criterion of value in interacting with these different beings: we sometimes prefer inanimate things to animate beings and at times would pay more for a horse than a slave. The point in contrasting the criterion of utility with God’s created order is to show that the attraction of desire can distort the order that God has established. Being driven by one’s own need causes one to evaluate creation on a selfish basis, while observing each thing’s own merits reflects an enlightened intelligence. Third, one can employ righteousness as the criterion through which one would see that righteous humans are ranked above evil angels.

God creates all beings good, and evil arises only because the will acts against one’s own nature. The fault is therefore with the will and not with the nature that God created. Nevertheless, God knew that the devil and others would withdraw from the light. But God foreknew this and utilizes such antithetical elements of creation to beautify it rather than the ultimately destroy it.


Chapters 19-23: Evil within Creation

In Genesis 1:4 God separated day and night, showing that he foresaw the coming darkening of some of the angels. This saying comes after “God saw that the light was good.” Thus, God declared all angels good. God says this not because he just discovered it but in order to communicate it to humanity. With God there is not a difference between seeing with the eyes and seeing with the mind, and his knowledge does not have past, present, future like ours.

So after this declaration that the light was good comes the division, and it is interesting to note that God does not say “God saw it was good” after dividing day and night. This affirms that the division concerned the coming darkening of some of the angels.

For each created thing we need to know who made it, how, and why. So light was created by God (who) through His Word (how) because it was good (why). Plato also grasped the “why” – that good works should be effected by a good God. Perhaps Plato had been taught by someone who had read this opening to Scripture. But some think that there are unpleasing elements in the created order, things like fire, cold, wild animals, etc. They fail to acknowledge the value these things have in their own sphere and in their own nature. They cannot see how these things and beings contribute to the overall beauty of the cosmic commonwealth. Even small things have value – for example, shave off an eyebrow and see what loss afflicts your face! We see that beauty depends on symmetry and thus depends on even the small and insignificant elements of creation.

Origen, though in agreement with us on most of these points above, failed to affirm the goodness of the human body. He thought that human souls were created by God but they withdrew from Him. As a result, God cast them down to earth to enter various kinds of bodies. This attributes far too much to the fall and ignores that saying from Genesis 1, “And God saw all that He made, and, behold, it was very good”. But Origen should have also realized that if it is true that the souls who sinned most severely received lower bodies, how do the demons have greater bodies than humans? And further, Origen’s point would imply that the sun which brings heat and light to our world was the result of a soul who sinned. Surely we should not be grateful that such a soul in such a way as to provide us with such warmth and heat to our physical world!


Chapters 24-32: Knowledge of the Trinity

The Trinity is what we faithfully proclaim. The Father is omnipotent, the Son is, and so is the Spirit; but we do not say there are three Omnipotents – there is only One. On a similar note, whether the Spirit is the goodness of both the Father and Son, this is a point Augustine does not want to hazard a judgment on. However, he does want to say that the Spirit is the substantial and consubstantial holiness of both Father and Son. If divine goodness is identical with divine holiness, it is not a rash judgment to expect that a hint of the Trinity would be found in the description of God’s creation.

Such a hint comes when we ask the questions noted above: who? how? why? As noted above, the Father created (who) through the Word (how) because it was good (why). Following the suggestion that the Spirit is the divine goodness then allows us to see that the creative works express the Trinity.

Similarly, philosophers divided their disciplines into three: natural, rational, and moral philosophy. These three forms of pursuing wisdom result from our being created, for if we had being in ourselves we would seek all these things from ourselves. However, these pursuits have some resemblance to the Triune God who made us.

Similarly, our nature reflects the Trinity in that we exist, we know we exist, and we are glad of this existence and knowledge. These three elements are not something we detect with our outward senses. Skeptics might say back, “but maybe you are mistaken”. If so, we simply say that if I am mistaken then I exist. Existing is something we naturally love, for even a person who is miserable would rather go on existing than be annihilated. Even beings lower on the scale of existence desire to continue living. In a similar way, humans love knowledge over deception. Intelligence is unique to humanity among the creatures on earth, and other animals cannot attain the immaterial light that shines on our minds.

Indeed, God’s creation reveals God. And as part of God’s creation, we look to ourselves; like the prodigal we “return to ourselves” (Luke 15:17) and find traces of God in whom alone we have no death, falsehood, or errant love. Certainly, the unfallen angels perceive God as Triune with greater clarity than we perceive ourselves (which are vestiges of the Trinity). These angels, filled with the light of God’s knowledge, know the creation and know themselves clearer than if they sought to understand themselves directly (apart from God’s light).


Chapters 33-34: Good and Evil Angels

The fallen angels are confined until they are judged. The good angels are certainly properly called light, for even saints still on earth are called light (Ephesians 5:8), though we are lower than the angels in our current state. The good angels burn with holy love for God, while the fallen angels live in the dark shadows of desire. The good angels bring merciful aid or just punishment in accordance with God’s will, while the fallen angels seethe with lust to subdue and injure. These are the two societies of angels referred to in Genesis as “light” and “darkness”.[1]



My Footnotes:

[1] Augustine notes at this point and elsewhere in this book that his interpretation of this phrase may not be right. He has the sense that the author may not have meant this. But what is interesting is that he considers it not unsafe since it confers with the Rule of Faith (p469, for example). A further apologia for his interpretation is that, while these sayings may have originally referred to material realities rather than immaterial ones (angels), Paul still uses them in a metaphorical way to talk about the saints and the unredeemed (1 Thessalonians 5:5). His final argument is that we must put the angels somewhere in the creation narrative and this seems the most likely.


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