Review: Saeculum

Markus, R. A. Saeculum.

Markus offers a reading of Augustine’s deconstruction of previous metanarratives. Markus gives a particularly lucid account of key terminology and moves Augustine made. And I think he is generally correct in his conclusions, though his reading has been challenged by recent Augustinian scholars.

Problem to be faced: Did the “fading night” of the Roman Empire necessarily mean a golden time for Christians? Augustine oscillated on this point. By the end of his life he held a more realistic, sober view. Not only did he make a distinction between pre-Christian time and tempora Christiana, against the Donatists he could distinguish the apostles’ time and the current age (which allowed for the use of the sword in religious matters).

Two Cities (and the time between)

“The two cities are formally defined either in terms of the ultimate loyalties of their members, or of their members’ standing in the sight of God” (59). But Markus hints at a perhaps more radical division: a division of two loves (de Civ. Dei. 14.28). This is a more accurate division and, as Markus notes, forbids any strict identification of a city with an institution (60). This has to be the conclusion if we hold that “membership of the cities is mutually exclusive.” city = citizens, allegiances to values they set before themselves (concors hominem multitudo; Ep. 155.3.9). A city is a “multitude of men linked by a social bond” (Civ. Dei. 15.8).

“Peace” is the realm where the two cities overlap. Yet it is divided into earthly and heavenly peace. The earthly peace is of common concern to all (Markus 69). Augustine’s definition of a res publica allows for this overlap. “The people in the earthly city agree in valuing certain things. They need not agree on the scale of value.”

Ordinata est Res Publica

Markus’s running thesis is that Augustine modified his view on “order” as the years went on. He became disenchanted with the possibility of a good Christian state. The early Augustine held to a cosmic hierarchy and this would be seen in the state. But this was in tension with the biblical view that man was a peregrinus on earth.

saeculum: the historical and empirical interweaving of the two cities (100ff).
a) The two cities can agree in their intermediate principles.
b) This is his sharpest break with the Platonic traditon. The true polis is not a city, but the society of saints and angels.


Markus repeatedly refers to the “ills” of Constantinianism, but it isn’t always clear what he means by it. About the most specific he gets is the “Christianisiation of the empire” (35), but what does that actually mean? And why is it bad? I think he means by “Constantinian” something like Eusebius’s interpretation of Constantine (48ff). But this still begs several questions.

a) Does this mean that church history has undergone a total and official reversal because of Eusebius? That is quite a stretch.

b) Does it mean simply that the Empire is pro-Christian and anti-pagan? But this can’t be that bad. Should we rather hope for lions and stakes?

c) What I think Markus means is that the Empire (and it isn’t always clear whether he means the medieval Latin Church or the Greek East) now sees itself as a focal point of God’s history. If that’s what he means, then sure, Constantinianism is probably bad and points to Augustine for opposing it. But few pro-Constantinian scholars hold that position today.

On another front, it seems rather odd that by the end of Markus’s account, Augustine looks and sounds like a radical Barthian and anabaptist opposing the power structures (177-178)!


One thought on “Review: Saeculum

  1. Markus’ later work fills in these gaps. His “End of Ancient Christianity” and his work on Gregory the Great reflects on the ambiguity of an imperially endorsed Christianity, which then invites in all of the problems and questions of genuine conversion, political opportunism, governmental interference with ecclesial affairs etc etc. I think Markus prefers a placement of twilight and ambiguity that Christianity can create in the vacuum of the secular. My understanding (and I’ve read only a little of Markus) is that Constantine’s problem was not the end of persecution but the patronage, which created a kind of tumbling towards Christendom that one sees in both West and East. The secular allows for the possibility of penultimate things and events that lack any substantial meaning and can be value neutral through the Christian vision of valuation.


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