STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 08/06/2009

FEATURE | What Does the City of God Have to Do with the City of Man?

What Does the City of God Have to Do with the City of Man?
Students in the Jerusalem and Athens (JAF) honors program were invited to submit essays considering the age-old question of the relationship of the City of Man (civitas terrena) to the City of God (civitas Dei). Are we to be hypersojourners, aloof from the "powers and principalities" of this world, even if often prophetically critical of them? Or are we to be more deeply, "residentially" engaged, eager to endow human civilization itself with the sap of the gospel?

Two Cities, Two Mindsets
By Lydia Sheldon '10

I grew up in a Reformed Presbyterian church. Dogmatic and thoughtful, my church took its spiritual vocation seriously. Any seventh-grader who had been through Confirmation Class could recite the catechism answers to questions about our relation to God, our spiritual responsibility and our salvation. We were wary of the influence of pop culture on church worship. We studied the apostles, the Church fathers and C. S. Lewis. We didn't just wrap ourselves up in books, either, but built a strong community within our church, loving and serving each other—so much so that even all the cynicism of two years in college hasn't changed my perception of this church as a real family.

We were, however, too often separated from the world. Having the right theology was more important than ministering to the needy. Was my church fulfilling its mission?

St. Augustine used an illustration of two cities in trying to explain the distinction between the Church and the world. Two loves have formed two cities, he claimed. The love of self has formed the earthly city; the love of God has formed the heavenly one. The earthly city is characterized by pride and self-aggrandizement while those in the heavenly city honor God in all things, trusting only Him for all wisdom and giving glory to only Him. It's easy to see which city the Church should belong to, isn't it?

A surface reading of Augustine seems to indicate that the Church should adopt a separatist mindset, dwelling in the world reluctantly, abstaining from the inevitable corruptions of worldly institutions and systems. But the Cities aren't defined by association; rather by priority. Value God over yourself and you will be in the City of God. Love yourself before you love God and you are in the City of Man. It is man's City because it is man's sinful nature that pulls Him away from God, and God's City because it is God's grace that pulls man to heaven. Thus Augustine is not advising separation from the world in body or effort. The difference between the Cities comes from a mindset, a motivation, a mission.

What is the unifying factor that brings together those in the City of God and distinguishes them from the City of Man? What is the Church's mission?

We can trace God's plan for his chosen people back to Abraham. "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great so that you will be a blessing . . . and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:2, 3; italics added). The purpose of God selecting a group of people is so they can bless others. And in the New Testament, what exactly the blessing is becomes clear. Jesus brought the Word, the Way to salvation. This Way is the blessing, continued by his disciples and by the Church. He commissions the disciples to "make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:19).

It is a failure of exegesis, however, to limit this commission to only teaching; this is a commission to love. The Way, as Jesus says, can be simplified to this one word: "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:37-39).

Our entire morality, then, is wrapped up in the command to love God. Love God and you will love your neighbor. Loving God means loving your neighbor. Loving the world is part and parcel of loving God. It is God's love of the world that propels our salvation, and our duty as Christians to further his Word not only in preaching and studying but through action—in social involvement, in politics, in education and in the arts. Loving the world in this way is not to love what the City of Man has to offer but to offer it a rigorous and exclusive blessing out of great love. Augustine refers to this blessing as "that security where peace is complete and unassailable. . . . This is the final blessedness, this the ultimate consummation, the unending end." To present that blessing to the world is the temporal mission of the Church.

But how can the Church minister to and love the world and not be affected by it? Exposure to the world, after all, often means contamination by its evils. In an effort to realize its temporal mission, the Church can forget its spiritual mission. In the Middle Ages the Church erred in becoming violent, power-hungry and absolutist. In 19th-century America the Church became too identified with the road to success. Alexis de Tocqueville observes:

In the Middle Ages the clergy spoke of nothing but a future state; they hardly cared to prove that a sincere Christian may be a happy man here below. But the American preachers are constantly referring to the earth, and it is only with great difficulty that they can divert their attention from it (Tocqueville 127).

This description sounds uncomfortably familiar. The contemporary American Church has become relativistic, pandering to what it believes the leaders of the world (in education, politics, media and art) will be least offended by. It is heavily influenced by pop-culture trends, substituting biblical wisdom for secular emotional therapy-at the expense of its absolutes and historical truths, even sometimes at the expense of a coherent theology.

The Church's spiritual vocation is essential to its temporal mission—must, in fact, be its first love. It can be of little use to the furthering of God's blessing and love if it forgets or neglects its primary commitment. It is impossible to love the world without authentic commitment to the spiritual truths of the Word. Jesus is the Word and the Way; they are one and the same.

So it is critical to have a structured, dogmatic understanding of God's character and plan and our relation to Him. This is part of loving God, our first duty, and is also a necessary component of loving the world. To bring others to blessing is to share the revealed Way to salvation; the Church's theology and biblical truths are what the blessing is. We can't truly love others without loving and understanding God. Our spiritual vocation is tied to our temporal one.

In my home church we avoided the pitfalls of worldly, watered-down spirituality but simultaneously passed by our duty to bring blessing to the world. The contemporary American Church needs to unite its spiritual and temporal missions. Many churches have one or the other, but both are incomplete if isolated.

Because of God's promise of unfailing love, we can be assured the Church can fulfill both missions. Augustine writes, "Neither have we in ourselves power to live rightly, but can do so only if He who has given us faith to believe in His help to help us when we believe and pray."

Lydia Sheldon '10 is an  English major from Ocean City, New Jersey.

Jerusalem and the Athens of the North: Reflections on Church in A. J. Gordon's Homeland
Excerpt Joshua Hasler

Paradoxes are troublesome beasts. According to St. Augustine, we have the trouble of returning from exile--all the while not knowing how long we should be in residence here. We are at once a buzz of possibility in the midst of our ever-present failures. If all the world's a stage, Shakespeare's unpredictable pen has yet to finish. Both laughter and tears are in the wings until that uncertain end; each making their maddening appearances. What are actors without a script? What do we do?

Joshua Hasler '09 is a philosophy major from Conifer, Colorado.

On Cities and Churches
Excerpt Patrick Welsh

One tool the consumer has is the power to boycott. Who doesn't appreciate the chance to say "no" to a company? Many Christians find the idea of individual empowerment to leave an agreeable taste in the mouth. With the biblical emphasis on purity and moral decency, it is easy to see the gospel message as one of boycott. Many Christian groups, in fact, have established communities to secure a spiritual aloofness. If you don't like what the culture advertises, boycott it. But what, then, is the Church's temporal mission? To boycott or to engage?

Patrick Welsh '10 is a communications major from Geneva, Illinois.


Lydia Sheldon