published on March 1, 2016
Gregory W. Lee
Using the Earthly City
Ecclesiology, Political Activity, and Religious Coercion in Augustine
Augustine’s political theology is characterized by two apparently contradictory impulses: his harsh moral critique of non-Christian political communities, and his approbation of Christian participation in these communities. I argue that Augustine’s ecclesiology illuminates the coherence of his thought on these matters. Augustine’s assertion against the Donatists that Christians do not contract guilt from ecclesial fellowship with sinners reflects his larger vision of the relation between the earthly and heavenly cities. Association with sinners is no more avoidable in the civic sphere than in the ecclesial, and the vicious character of non-Christian political orders does not taint Christians who participate in them. Indeed, Christian rulers exercise authority over the earthly city faithfully when they direct their civic authority toward heavenly ends. This perspective funds Augustine’s defense of religious coercion. Since the Christian ruler ultimately belongs to the heavenly and not the earthly city, he should use his earthly power to enforce church unity according to ecclesial and not civic duty.