By Ryan Patrick Hoselton
Christians today have two options: hiding under a rock, or confronting complicated and disturbing moral issues. The past month alone has witnessed an ethical Blitzkrieg on Christian values. From the Gosnell trials to the Marathon Bombing, with two more states on the verge of legalizing homosexual marriage and insecure international relations, believers are overwhelmed with moral conundrums. Thankfully, there are resources from the past that help Christians think through the moral dilemmas of today—nothing is new under the sun. Augustine’s work, The City of God, is an excellent example of such a resource, and while it may not comprehensively address every nuance of our modern ethical crises, it’s a good place to establish a moral framework for working in that direction.
In this work, Augustine (354-430) depicts two realms: the earthly city and the heavenly city. The earthly city is transient and corrupt, and the heavenly city is eternal and glorious. In Book XIX, Augustine explains what differentiates the citizens of these cities: one worships and serves God, and the other serves the self. The worship of God establishes true virtue while self-worship leads to immorality. He expounds this point:
Now in serving God the soul rightly commands the body, and in the soul itself the reason which is subject to its Lord God rightly commands the lusts and the other perverted elements. That being so, when a man does not serve God, what amount of justice are we to suppose to exist in his being? For if a soul does not serve God it cannot with any kind of justice command the body, nor can a man’s reason control the vicious elements in the soul. (XIX.21)
If God is not the master of our actions, then our conduct will serve evil. Service to God subjects the mind, will, and actions to righteousness rather than corruption.
The worship of God grounds not only justice but also true happiness and wisdom. When the saints inhabit the heavenly city, they experience supreme joy because they no longer serve other things. The “present reality without” the future hope of being righteous in God is “a false happiness, in fact, an utter misery” (XIX.20). The things humans serve in the earthly city will not only tend to evil but also to profound disappointment. True wisdom must direct “its just dealings with others” towards “that ultimate state in which God will be all in all, in the assurance of eternity and the perfection of peace” (XIX.20). If believers want to act morally wise in the present age, they must pattern their conduct on the heavenly city rather than the earthly city.
Make no mistake, Augustine warns, for many will exploit the virtues to serve selfish ends rather than serving God. Non-Christians and Christians alike can fall into this insidious trap. Augustine explains, “if the soul and reason do not serve God as God himself has commanded that he should be served, then they do not in any way exercise the right kind of rule over the body and the vicious propensities” (XIX.25). Thus, it is essential for believers to constantly study and cherish God’s commands if they hope to gain moral discernment.
In sum, the foundation of virtue is the worship and love of God. Moral reasoning that is not subject to the service of God is vulnerable to serve all kinds of evils, for “it is not something that comes from man, but something above man, that makes his life blessed” (XIX.25). Augustine grounded his confrontation with the moral issues of his day in this framework, and believers today would do well to imitate him.
St. Augustine. The City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin Books, 1972, 1984.
Ryan Patrick Hoselton is pursuing a ThM at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He lives in Louisville, KY with his wife Jaclyn, and they are expecting their first child in August.