Augustine, Pilate, and the Kingdom of God

January 06, 2017

by William Edgar

Augustine is rightly regarded as the greatest theologian of the ancient church. On so many matters, his views have shaped Christian thought in a God-centered way. But in his approach to culture, there are some defects, in my opinion. In his remarkable study of paganism, City of God, Augustine compares two great realms, the City of God and the City of Man. A great deal can be said about Augustine’s philosophy of history and the contrast between these two dominions. He is not always consistent in his descriptions of the differences. But here is what can be said. While not entirely separate in this present world, the two cities (which are not urban centers, but spheres of life) are ordered by opposing principles. Here is how he describes our relationship to them:

We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God. The Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord. (Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, 14.28)

The contrast is sharp. The so-called wise people of the earthly city live by men’s standards, and pursue the “goods of the body or of their own mind, or both.” In the heavenly city humankind’s only wisdom is “the devotion which rightly worships the true God.”

We who are from the heavenly city lead “what we may call a life of captivity in this earthly city as in a foreign land.”

The question Augustine raises for us is whether Christians should have anything to do with the City of Man. He does argue further that though the earthly city is temporal, Christians need to live alongside others and to join them in the pursuit of peace and other earthly necessities. Yet they do so with different motives: “Thus both kinds of men and both kinds of households alike make use of the things essential for this mortal life; but each has his own very different end in making use of them.” But still the differences in the cities themselves are great. We who are from the heavenly city lead “what we may call a life of captivity in this earthly city as in a foreign land.”

Though we should tremble to disagree with Augustine, what emerges here, corresponding no doubt to his stage in church history, is the absence of a proper grounding in the doctrine of creation. Still in part influenced by Plato, what Augustine calls the earthly city is quite different from God’s good creation infected by sin. The difference is crucial. If all we share with the earthly city is the quest for peace and “things essential for mortal life,” we are far short of a fully biblical position on the dynamics of creation-fall-redemption, are we not?

Facing Pilate 

We must now ask, what does Jesus mean when he tells Pilate his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36)? Does this statement somehow support Augustine’s position? Does it mean his kingdom has nothing to do with this world at all? That would be odd, since he spent so much time with people and their worldly needs, helping the poor, healing the disabled, blessing a wedding, and so on. Remember that Jesus is here on trial because the Jews resented his claims to be God, which they saw as the capital crime of blasphemy. As they were not allowed to enact the death penalty, they brought him to Pilate and tried to convince him that Jesus was a threat to Roman supremacy. According to Roman law, only Caesar was god, or at least a demigod, the denial of which was a treasonable offense. The Roman government was empowered to deliver the death penalty.

At the Roman trial, to Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus might, once again, have fallen into a great trap. If he answered yes, then the prefect could legitimately have put him to death, since such a kingship might be a threat to Caesar’s regime. If he answered no, then Pilate could have returned him to the Jews, something he had hoped he could do from the beginning, but which would not have been quite true, for Jesus was and is a king. As we know, Jesus answered neither yes nor no, but, “My kingdom is not of this world.” He added that were it so his servants would have fought against the Jews. Jesus did not come to establish a Jewish theocracy on earth. Yet he was a king, and as such came to inaugurate a radically different kingdom, the kingdom of God. This is the truth to which he came to witness (Jn 18:36–38).

Thus Jesus’s kingdom is not of this corrupt, sin-infested world, even though he rules all things. But his kingdom has everything to do with the world he was redeeming, wherein truth and righteousness would reign.

Such a kingship is not unrelated to this world, nor to its institutions. Note the significant conversation that occurs in the next episode. To Pilate’s threat, “Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” he answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19:10–11). Here Jesus acknowledges the legitimacy of the civil government, much in the way implicit in the episode about the coin. Whereas Pilate no doubt believed there was no higher authority than Caesar, Jesus, while not denying the legitimate authority of the Roman government, at the same time saw all of creation, including provincial government, as functioning under God’s authority.

If Jesus had meant that his kingdom had nothing at all to do with the present world or with government, then presumably neither the Jewish Sanhedrin nor the Roman proconsul would have felt so threatened by him. But the Jews knew perfectly well that his claim to be “of the truth” was a challenge to their religious system, wherein they had vested an exaggerated authority in the scribes and Pharisees. And the Romans knew that his claim that their authority derived not from Caesar but from God was a challenge to their hegemony. Yet to properly understand God’s supremacy over all things is not to degrade, but rather to uphold human institutions.

If we understand the claims of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven in this way [as a threat to both Roman and Jewish authority], we can see how relevant those claims are to every kind of human responsibility on earth, including human government. Jesus did not teach that his shepherding was “spiritual” and unrelated to life in this world. He did not say that his authority to teach disciples touched only theological matters. He did not say teach that the brotherly, sisterly love he was urging his disciples to practice was sacred in contrast to their “secular” family relationships. To the contrary, the mission of Jesus in announcing the fulfillment of God’s purposes with creation was to reconcile and redeem all that is human. (James Skillen, The Good of Politics, 9–12)

Thus Jesus’s kingdom is not of this corrupt, sin-infested world, even though he rules all things. But his kingdom has everything to do with the world he was redeeming, wherein truth and righteousness would reign.

Taken from Created and Creating: A Biblical Theology of Creation by William Edgar. Copyright (c) 2017 by William Edgar. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426.

William Edgar

Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at WTS.

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