Tim Dieppe learns a lesson from Augustine with Biblical backing that has relevance for how we think about the effects of coronavirus on Christians and others across the nation.
Is coronavirus a calamity? Not if we are comparing with ancient plagues or the massive destruction of warfare. Nevertheless, it is a time of hardship for the nation as a whole and many individuals. Augustine reflected on why the righteous suffer with the wicked in times of calamity. His answer is very pertinent to the church today.
The value of reading old books
C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, elaborated on the importance of reading old books. One key reason to do this is that people from different ages had different outlooks:
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Augustine’s City of God
I read through Augustine’s famous masterpiece “The City of God” a few years ago. There are lots of interesting takeaways, but one passage in particular, near the start of the work, seemed to hit me between the eyes, and deeply impacted me. He made a point that I have not seen any modern authors make.
Should Christianity be blamed for the sacking of Rome?
The passage is Book I, Chapter 9.
Augustine is concerned in Book I to answer the critics of Christianity who were blaming the sack of Rome on the rise of Christianity. In their view, Rome had been sacked because it had abandoned its traditional gods. Augustine has many points to make, and questions to answer. One of these is why some evil people survived the calamity. Here Augustine makes this point about God’s providence:
“For if every sin received obvious punishment in the present, people would think that nothing was reserved for the last judgement; but if God’s power never openly punished sin in the present, people would think that there was no such thing as divine providence.”
(Book I, Chap 8, p8)
He therefore appeals to a balance in God’s providence between judging things in the present and judging them in eternity. This is a helpful perspective to bear in mind.
Why did Christians suffer too?
The question he moves onto in chapter 9 is why did Christians suffer in the calamity? In Babcock’s translation, the passage is subtitled: ‘Why the good also suffered in the sack of Rome: Failure to Correct the Evil.’
Augustine’s answer to the question is, as Babcock aptly summarises, “failure to correct the evil.” Here is what Augustine says about living amongst wicked people:
“Far too often we wrongly shy away from our obligation to teach and admonish them, and sometimes even to rebuke and correct them.”
That rings so true of Christians today! Augustine continues:
“We shy away either because we are unwilling to make the effort or because we hesitate to offend their dignity or because we want to avoid enmities that might impede and harm us with respect to some temporal things which our desire still longs to acquire or which our weakness fears to lose.”
Again, how relevant today! We shy away from warning others about their sins because of fear of offending or because it might cost our job or our reputation or our friendship … all temporal things.
We make excuses
We make excuses for not warning others. Augustine explains that this is blameworthy:
“What is blameworthy is that people who live quite differently to the wicked, and abhor their deeds, are nonetheless indulgent towards the sins of others when they ought to teach them otherwise and rebuke them. It is blameworthy, that is, when they do this for fear of offending people who might do them harm with regards to things which the good may certainly use permissibly and innocently, but which they are pursuing more avidly than is proper for people who are only on pilgrimage in this world, bearing with them the hope of a heavenly homeland.”
Augustine says it is blameworthy when we fail to rebuke sinners for fear of offending them! He says that even mature Christians, “often refrain from reproving the wicked because they are fearful that the wicked will plot against them and attack their reputation and welfare.” Is anyone today afraid of loss of reputation?
For Augustine, it is not good enough to refrain from participating in evil, you must rebuke it too.
“Although they are not so afraid of the wicked that they would ever agree to act in the same way, no matter what threats and villainies they faced, they are often unwilling, all the same, to rebuke actions they would never join the wicked in committing. And they are unwilling to do so, even though their rebukes might put some on the right path.”
Stinging words. While we might not ourselves engage in sinful deeds on pain of death, we are nevertheless unwilling to confront sinful deeds in others. This, says Augustine, is why the righteous suffer with the wicked in times of calamity.
What about the Bible?
Is there any Biblical justification for what Augustine says? Towards the end of the passage, Augustine refers to Ezekiel 33 which talks of watchmen who have a duty to warn the people of impending danger. The key verses are 8-9:
“If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.”
Ezekiel was told that God had made him a watchman for Israel (v7). Augustine, reading a Latin Bible, understands that the watchmen are Bishops, including himself, who have a particular responsibility to warn people about their sins. But he applies the principle to all Christians since we all have responsibility to those that God has connected us with to warn them of their sins. Some may have greater responsibility than others, but none of us can leave it entirely to others.
What about Jesus?
Augustine could also have appealed to how Jesus spoke. His disciples were shocked at how blunt he was:
“Then the disciples came and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this saying?’” (Matthew 15:12)
The disciples were concerned about how he was offending people with his teaching. Jesus, however, was not afraid of offending others. He spoke plainly. He knew that people needed to hear the truth and that for some of them it would lead to their salvation.
How to respond?
Here in the UK right now, and around the world, we are facing the biggest national challenge for a generation or two. I am not saying that it is a calamity, but it is putting pressure on everyone in the whole nation. Christians are suffering alongside non-Christians. Why is this?
One reason is the reason that Augustine provides. An answer from another age, but one that rings true and has Biblical backing. The church has failed to warn the nation about its sins. It may not have engaged in those sins, but it has failed to speak out about them. Mainly out of the fear of offending that Augustine mentions. I include myself in this dereliction of duty.
As we face lockdown and lack our usual opportunities for interaction with others, now is an appropriate time for us to pray into this, and both individually and corporately to seek repentance. When the lockdown ends will you still fear offending others, or will you boldly proclaim the hope of the gospel?
 The text of the NPNF translation is freely available online here. I read it in a more modern translation by William Babcock. (Saint Augustine. The City of God (De Civitate Dei) (Books 1-10). Translated by William Babcock. The Works of Saint Augustine. Vol. 6, New York: New City Press, 2012.) I will be quoting from this translation.