Two Cities – Part 1 – Right Belief, Wrong Belief

News of the fall of Rome reached the north African city of Hippo on the lips of indignant refugees. Rape, pillage, slaughter, widespread vandalism by the unwashed barbarian hordes—the account no doubt horrified all who heard.

But it probably did not surprise them. Rome had ceased to be the center of the Empire long before 411 AD. For more than half a century the real capital of the Empire had been in Constantinople. All the people who mattered in Roman affairs had abandoned the corrupt and decaying city on the Tiber to bask in the bright lights of the Eastern world. The Rome which was sacked by Alaric and his armies was a shadow of its former self. Hardly worth defending, or so many might have thought.

But it wasn’t the sacking of Rome that got the attention of Augustine. As chief shepherd of the Christian communities in that part of north Africa, Augustine was drawn into the matter of Rome’s fall not by the mere fact of it, but by the explanation proffered by the erstwhile sophisticates and aristocrats who, having survived by flight, were now spreading their views among the people over whose souls Augustine watched with care and prayer.

For the Roman refugees loudly and indignantly blamed the Christian faith for the fall of Rome. Belief in Christ, they insisted, had made the ancient gods and protectors of Rome so angry, that they gave the city over to destruction. This was a charge Augustine could not allow to go unchallenged. And in his book, City of God, he argued powerfully against the idea that Christian belief was the cause of Rome’s demise. Right belief did not doom the former capital. And not even unbelief was the cause of its destruction.

Rather, as Augustine showed, wrong belief was the real problem, belief as a commitment of one’s life and strength to unworthy, unreliable, and untrue ends. Wrong belief, not right belief, brought about the decades-long decline and final demise of what had been the greatest city in the world.

Augustine used this opportunity to argue that what was true of Rome is true for all time. For there are, he insisted, ultimately only two cities—the city of God and the city of man. These represent two ways of life, two views of the future, and two kinds of citizens. And while, in this world, those two cities are inextricably mixed, yet their separate qualities and fates can be known and were known in the fall of Rome, manifested in a dramatic and undeniable manner.

Right belief and wrong belief: These provide the motive power of the two cities as Augustine outlined them. Unbelief, as the idea is frequently used today, is not an accurate term. Nor is it fair to apply the epithet of “unbeliever” to those who reject what Christians hold as right belief, belief that God is One and Jesus is Lord and there is no other name given among men under heaven whereby we must be saved. This, Augustine insisted, is right belief; all departures from this truth are not unbelief but wrong belief. Wrong belief, pursued diligently over time, leads to social collapse, moral and cultural decline, and widespread disillusionment, disappointment, despair, and death. This was the cause of Rome’s fall, Augustine argued.

Wrong belief can be diagnosed by skillful surgeons of the soul. Its symptoms can be identified, and a treatment regimen can be provided to bring healing and avert the inevitable disaster to which all wrong belief leads.

This is what Augustine sought to do in City of God. He wrote to defend the glory and majesty of the “celestial city of God’s faithful, which is partly seated in the course of these declining times, wherein ‘he that liveth by faith,’ is a pilgrim amongst the wicked; and partly in that solid state of eternity, which as yet the other part doth patiently expect, until ‘righteousness be turned into judgment…’” He resolved to argue the case for right belief against the false accusations and vain pretensions of wrong belief, for he earnestly believed that “strong arguments are required to make the proud know the virtue of humility”, which, when accompanied by the grace of God, can allow even the most inveterate wrong believer to overcome his worldliness and gain access to the Presence of God.

The city of man, Augustine wrote, “overruled by the one lust for sovereignty”, will always produce ardent and eloquent foes “against whom God’s city is to be guarded.” Thus, Augustine hoped not only to vindicate the faith and followers of Jesus Christ, but to bring wrong believers to an honest assessment of their worldview and point them beyond the blinders of folly to the light of Jesus Christ.

Augustine’s burden and task is ours as well; and we shall see how this great leader of the early Christian movement can enlighten and equip us for more faithful, loving, and effective witness for Christ among the wrong believers of our time.

Spend some time today thinking about the various wrong beliefs that ensnare people and leave them disillusioned and disappointed. Pray daily for the people you know who are caught in the nets and snares of wrong belief, that King Jesus will be pleased to use you to bring them to right belief and true freedom in Him.

  • Become A Student

  • Become A Leader

  • Become A Mentor