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City of God vs. The Protestant Reformations Essay

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The belief that God is present to the human mind and soul, and can be found is part of the Christian tradition. Many Christian philosophers seem to regard this as the concern only of specially devout persons and of no interest for philosophical purposes. The evidence for it, they think, it too slender to be taken seriously by academic philosophers without particular interest in religion, who tend to regard anything in the nature of religious experience as suspect. So, philosophical discussions about religion are usually concerned with rational arguments for and against theism, usually of a technical kind.

In this article, I want to discuss the Augustine world with the reformist will as proposed by Martin Luther.

One of the great cornerstones in the history of Christian thought, The City of God is vital to an understanding of modern Western society and how it came into being. Begun in A.D. 413 by Saint Augustine, the great theologian who was bishop of Hippo, the book’s initial purpose was to refute the charge that Christianity was to blame for the fall of Rome (which had occurred just three years earlier).

Augustine’s City of God, a monumental work of religious lore, philosophy, and history, was written as a kind of literary tombstone for Roman culture. After the downfall of Rome, Augustine wrote this book to portray the corruption of Romans’ pursuit of earthly pleasures: “grasping for praise, open-handed with their money; honest in the pursuit of wealth, they wanted to hoard glory.” Augustine contrasts his condemnation of Rome with an exaltation of Christian culture.

The glory that Rome failed to attain will only be realized by citizens of the City of God, the Heavenly Jerusalem foreseen in Revelation. On the other hand Hans J. Hillerbrand in his book “The Protestant Reformation” says “When the reformers who had first ventured a new interpretation of the gospel had passed from the scene, the question which had haunted the Reformation from its very inception–where is truth?–was still contested by the proponents of the old and the new faith.

But one fact was beyond dispute: Western Christendom was tragically divided…into no less than five religious factions….Though these divisions were the result of intense religious conviction, they could not help but lessen the intensity of religious belief in Europe. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was the last period in the history of Western civilization when men were preoccupied with religion, argued it, fought and even died for it. Its consequences are still with us”.

Argument: The two cities in city of God and the two wills in Lutheranism

No book except the Bible itself had a greater influence on the Middle Ages than the “City of God”. Since medieval Europe has been the cradle of today’s Western civilization, this work by consequence is vital for an understanding of our world and how it came into being. St. Augustine is often regarded as the most influential Christian thinker after St. Paul, and this book highlights upon a vast synthesis of religious and secular knowledge. It began as a reply to the charge that Christian otherworldliness was causing the decline of the Roman Empire. Augustine produced a wealth of evidence to prove that paganism bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Then he proceeded to his larger theme, a cosmic interpretation of history in terms of the struggle between good and evil: the City of God in conflict with the Earthly City or the City of the Devil. This, the first serious attempt at a philosophy of history, was to have incalculable influence in forming the Western mind on the relations of church and state, and on the Christian’s place in the temporal order. It is more than a question of setting down on paper a series of abstract principles and then applying them in practice. Christianity is more than a moral code, more than a philosophy, more than a system of rites.

Although it is sufficient, in the abstract, to divide the Catholic religion into three aspects and call them creed, code and cult, yet in practice, the integral Christian life is something far more than all this. It is more than a belief; it is a life. That is to say, it is a belief that is lived and experienced and expressed in action. The action in which it is expressed, experienced and lived is called a mystery. This mystery is the sacred drama which keeps ever present in history the Sacrifice that was once consummated by Christ on Calvary. In plain words–if you can accept them as plain–Christianity is the life and death and resurrection of Christ going on day after day in the souls of individual men and in the heart of society.

It is this Christ-life, this incorporation into the Body of Christ, this union with His death and resurrection as a matter of conscious experience, that St. Augustine wrote of in his Confessions. But Augustine not only experienced the reality of Christ living in his own soul. He was just as keenly aware of the presence and action, the Birth, Sacrifice, Death and Resurrection of the Mystical Christ in the midst of human society. And this experience, this vision, if you would call it that, qualified him to write a book that was to be, in fact, the autobiography of the Catholic Church. That is what The City of God is. Just as truly as the Confessions are the autobiography of St. Augustine, The City of God is the autobiography of the Church written by the most Catholic of her great saints.

Evidently, the treatment of the theme is so leisurely and so meandering and so diffuse that The City of God, more than any other book, requires an introduction. The best we can do here is to offer a few practical suggestions as to how to tackle it.

The first of these suggestions is this: since, after all, The City of God reflects much of St. Augustine’s own personality and is colored by it, the reader who has never met Augustine before ought to go first of all to the Confessions. Once he gets to know the saint, he will be better able to understand Augustine’s view of society. Then, no one who is not a specialist, with a good background of history or of theology or of philosophy, ought not to attempt to read the City, for the first time, beginning at page one.

The living heart of the City is found in Book Nineteen, and this is the section that will make the most immediate appeal to us today because it is concerned with the theology of peace. However, Book Nineteen cannot be understood all by itself. The best source for solutions to the most pressing problems it will raise is Book Fourteen, where the origin of the two Cities is sketched, in an essay on original sin.

On the other hand the protestant reformation deals with the religious movement which made its appearance in western Europe in the sixteenth century, and which, while ostensibly aiming at an internal renewal of the church, really led to a great revolt against it, and an abandonment of the principal Christian beliefs. The causes of the great religious revolt of the sixteenth century must be sought as far back as the fourteenth. The doctrine of the church, it is true, had remained pure; saintly lives were yet frequent in all parts of Europe, and the numerous beneficent medieval institutions of the church continued their course uninterruptedly. Whatever unhappy conditions existed were largely due to civil and profane influences or to the exercise of authority by ecclesiastics in civil spheres; they did not obtain everywhere with equal intensity, nor did they always occur simultaneous in the same country.

Ecclesiastical and religious life exhibited in many places vigor and variety; works of education and charity abounded; religious art in all its forms had a living force; domestic missionaries were many and influential; pious and edifying literature was common and appreciated. Gradually, however, and largely owing to the variously hostile spirit of the civil powers, fostered and heightened by several elements of the new order, there grew up in many parts of Europe political and social conditions which hampered the free reformatory activities of the church, and favored the bold and unscrupulous, who seized a unique opportunity to let loose all the forces of heresy and schism so long held in check by the harmonious action of the ecclesiastical and civil authorities.

Luther’s theology is his understanding of God that can be summarized as Gottes Gottheit, which means “God is God.” In the deepest sense, Luther believes that God is above all and in all. God, through his creative power, reveals that he is free and immutable. He alone can bring life into existence. He alone sustains life. He alone freely wills. Moreover, what God wills can not be impeded or resisted by a mere creature. God is all-powerful and therefore, God’s will is alone immutable. Any person, therefore, that appeals to the freedom of human will attempts to usurp for themselves an attribute that belongs only to God.

The free and immutable will of God is, in Luther’s writings, fundamental to a right and proper faith. Without it, God is not God and Scripture would, therefore, have to be annulled. In BOW, Luther constantly emphasizes these two characteristics of the will of God and points out their significance for the Faith. In addition, Luther argues that God has two wills as pertains His nature: (1) the revealed will of His word and, (2) the hidden or inscrutable will. These characteristics of God’s will provide the basis for understanding and interpreting Luther’s conviction that the human will is enslaved. For Luther, the free will of God is not simply God’s limitless and unobstructed ability to choose between any set of variables in any set of circumstances.

Rather, it is God’s unique ability to transcend all these variables and circumstances to perform, or not perform, any action that He desires. God’s will is not contingent upon the will of any other being. In ceaseless activity, God creates the possibilities. As such, the free will of God is most plainly revealed to humanity through His creative acts. God freely chooses to create our present reality and likewise, He freely sustains this reality. In fact, reality does not exist except by the will of God. To this all-encompassing extent then, Luther asserts that God is all in all. Nothing is that God does not declare to be. And, it is this creative power that manifests God’s freedom, His free will. In recognizing Luther’s pronounced emphasis on God’s sovereignty, Paul Althaus declares:

“God is the first or principal cause, all others are only secondary or instrumental causes. They are only the tools which he uses in the service of his own autonomous, free, and exclusive working; they are only the masks under which he hides his activity”.

The second characteristic of God’s  will that is crucial to Luther’s understanding of the bondage of the human will, is its immutability. That is, God’s will can not be changed, altered or impeded. The immutability of God’s will is the logical conclusion to the freedom of God’s will. God’s sovereignty and almighty power demands that whatever God wills happens by necessity. Nothing occurs contingently. God’s will does not act independently of reality, as the human will does, but rather, God’s will creates reality. In Luther’s theology, the will of God is not contingent and so likewise, the foreknowledge of God is also not contingent. For whatever God wills, he foreknows and so, whatever He foreknows must, by necessity, happen.

For if it did not happen, then God would be fallible and His will contingent which Luther declares “is not to be found in God!”  It is the immutable will of God, acting freely, that provides the Christian with “the assurance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1), namely that the promises of God will be fulfilled. As Luther suggests, “the Christian’s chief and only comfort in every adversity lies in knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded. “Indeed, for Luther, the conviction that God’s will is free and immutable must be central to the Faith.

Yet, Luther’s theology presents a problem: if God wills everything and everything He wills comes to pass then one must conclude that God wills the salvation of few and the damnation of many (cf. Mt 22:14). Luther answered this dilemma by teaching that God has two wills, the revealed and the hidden. As Luther declares in BOW, God’s decree to damn “the undeserving . . . [who are] compelled by natural necessity to sin and perish” does indeed seem horrible.

Moreover, all rational and philosophical knowledge of God can not avoid the terrible reality of this conclusion, for as Luther concedes, the “injustice of God . . . is traduced as such by arguments which no reason or light of nature can resist”. Luther understands this horrible decree in light of God’s justice in two ways. For Luther, the answer to these questions is twofold: (1) we must simply believe that God’s justice is righteous because in Christ God has proven His love and compassion and, (2) we should not probe into the hidden or inscrutable will of God wherein God operates paradoxically, i.e. righteousness made evident through unrighteousness.

Luther’s twofold answer to the questions of damnation reveals a high view of God’s sovereignty and majesty. Moreover, the answer is in accordance with Luther’s view that God’s will is uniquely free and immutable. The answer also demands that the Christian simply trust in God. The Christian must believe all that is revealed in Scripture, not merely those things that are pleasant to the senses, and as such, we are compelled to accept the fact that God actively chooses to reject certain people.

Nevertheless, if God has said in His Word that He is loving and gracious, and He has revealed himself to be such through His forbearance with the Israelites and the glorious plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, but what right can we judge the manner in which God oversees and sustains the world? For Luther, this is precisely the point at which the Christian must heed the words of God, spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa 55:8-9). Luther would likewise appeal to God’s answer to Job in Job 38-41 and the words of Paul in Romans 9:20 as yet other examples of the futility of comprehending the incomprehensible and inscrutable will of God.

Luther, therefore, answers the critics of predestination and defends God’s decree to affect unbelief in people by appealing to this inscrutable wisdom and will of God, a will that cannot be understood by any attempt of human reason. Because God is God, He has the right to condemn man for sins that God works in Him.10 And so, it is by faith that the Christian simply trusts that God is righteous, loving and gracious in so working.

Luther consoles the Christian by exhorting them to look only to the revealed will of God that promises salvation to all who receive Christ. Thus, He does not will the death of a sinner-that is, in His Word; but He wills it by His inscrutable will. At present, however, we must keep in view His Word and leave alone His inscrutable will; for it is by His Word, and not by His inscrutable will, that we must be guided.

Yet, for Luther, knowing that God does possess a hidden and inscrutable will of God provides valuable insights for the Christian. The inscrutable will of God tempers the revealed will of God. The doctrine of the free, immutable and inscrutable will of God, therefore, contributes three important foundations to the Christian Faith: (1) God is sovereign, all-powerful and therefore, even evil is under the sway of His goodness and as such, the Christian can be certain that the promises of God will be realized, (2) humanity is not free to earn or demand anything of God and so, God’s gift of salvation can truly be called free and gracious and, (3) the Christian, in response to these truths, is properly humbled and learns, in reverent adoration, to fear God, who acts freely and immutability for His glory.

In consequence of his view of God’s will, Luther’s view of the human will is necessarily placed in total subjection to the Divine. It is in this respect that Luther stands in contrast to Erasmus. Luther’s discussion of this topic is theocentric, beginning with a discussion of God and His attributes whereas Erasmus belies an anthropocentric view, beginning with human experience. For Luther, that God’s will is immutable logically demands that man’s will is mutable.

For if God’s will is not contingent but immutable and free, no other will can be also be immutable and free otherwise these wills could impede one another and consequently, these wills would no longer be immutable and free but rather, they would be subject to one another. As such, Luther rightly proclaims the inconsistency of the term free will. In Luther’s writings, there are three primary considerations to consider in evaluating the characteristics of the human will: (1) the human will is mutable, (2) as a consequence of the Fall, the human will is enslaved to sin and, (3) the human will requires the grace of God, offered through the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ Jesus, to affect any positive change in a person’s life.

Luther’s position on the Divine and human wills was not a small matter to him. In Table-Talk, Luther once stated in regards to his position that “I know it to be the truth, though all the world should be against it; yea, the decree of Divine Majesty must stand fast against the gates of hell.” The belief that humanity is enslaved to sin and that it is only by sovereign election that God saves a person formed the basis for Luther’s conviction of justification by grace through faith.

Grace is one the most important principles of biblical interpretation to Luther and no where is divine grace more evident than in the doctrine of election. And, it is this sola gratia principle of Luther’s faith that preserves the eternal significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. It is by his sacrifice, not by our own works, that God graciously extends salvation to the elect. As Luther often remarked, to assert the freedom of the will is to deny the necessity of Christ’s atoning work.


Augustine produced a wealth of evidence to prove that paganism bore within itself the seeds of its own destruction. By means of his contrast of the earthly and heavenly cities–the one pagan, self-centered, and contemptuous of God and the other devout, God-centered, and in search of grace–Augustine explored and interpreted human history in relation to eternity.

Saint Augustine examines the failure of Roman religion and the flaws in human civilization, thus creating the first Christian philosophy of history. Against the ‘city’, i.e., society, of many gods, there is but one alternate society, this Augustine calls The City of God, adopting the expression found in several of King David’s psalms. Not only is the society of many gods the society of polytheists, it is also the “city” of pantheists, atheistic materialists and philosophical Cynics. In the case of the Cynics and atheists, these false gods are the myriad gods of self, indeed, at least as many gods (selves) as there are believers in them.

Thus there are two “cities”, two loves, two ways to understand the big questions of existence, two destinations. Says Augustine:  “The one City began with the love of God; the other had its beginnings in the love of self.” XIV:13. “The city of man seeks the praise of men, whereas the height of glory for the other is to hear God in the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own boasting; the other says to God: ‘Thou art my glory, thou liftest up my head.’ (Psalm 3.4) In the city of the world both the rulers themselves and the people they dominate are dominated by the lust for domination; whereas in the City of God all citizens serve one another in charity. . .”


  1. 1. http://www.newadvent.org
  2. The Catholic encyclopedia
  3. The Journal Of Religion, J. Jeffery Tyler, volume 85, Part 1(2005), pages 317 – 319
  4. Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther. Translation of 2nd edition by Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1966
  5. –. Luther’s Works, Volume 31: Career of the Reformer I. ed. Philip S. Watson. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press, 1957.

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