In the year 410, Rome fell to Alaric and the Visigoths.
In light of those events, Jerome would write, “My voice is choked, broken with sobs as I dictate this letter. The city that conquered the entire earth has now itself been conquered” (Nick Needham, 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power, 321).
Romans, having enjoyed such a long and splendid history, would understandably ask why Rome had fallen. How could the unthinkable take place? How could the titanic that was Rome sink to such depths?
Christianity is to Blame
Etienne Gilson notes two main arguments raised against the Christians. First, “Christian doctrine taught the renouncement of the world” (Etienne Gilson, City of God, xvi) and therefore turned Roman citizens against the state. Thus, the state begins to decline. Second, “the destiny of Rome was always bound up with the worship of her gods” (Gilson, xvi). With Christian religion calling for the worship of the one true God, and thus the forsaking of all the Roman deities, “terrible punishments” fell on Rome (Gilson, xvi).
How should Christians respond to such accusations? Marcellinus, a Christian who was also a Roman official, sought the help of Augustine, the bishop of Hippo. In response to the objections stated above (and others), Augustine takes up the pen.
Augustine’s full response in The City of God is worth reading. However, my aim is not to work through his arguments. Instead, I am struck by something Augustine states more than once in making his reply.
Holding Out Hope for Enemies of the Cross
Even though he responds to so-called enemies of Christianity, he nevertheless calls for Christian forbearance. That is, even if our arguments are not convincing and men and women continue to reject and oppose the faith, bear with them. Why? Because “as long as they [our enemies] live, there is always the possibility that they may come to a better mind” (City of God, 11).
After making a number of arguments, Augustine comes to the end of Part I, Book 1 and writes the following:
This—or something fuller and fitter, if it can be found—is the core of the reply…But our city must remember that, in the ranks of its enemies, lie hid fellow citizens to be, and that it is well to bear with them as enemies until we can reach them in their profession of faith. (Augustine, 27).
Notice the hope Augustine holds out for enemies of Christianity. Though they blame Christianity for the problems of Rome and are hostile to the faith, there are many who “lie hid fellow citizens to be.” That is, in the multitude of enemies of the cross, there are some that are simply not yet Christians. So, don’t write them off.
Ideas More Ancient than Augustine
Paul writes to his young protégé, Timothy, and tells him,
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Tim 2:24–26)
Notice what Paul says to Timothy about dealing with “opponents.” Correct with gentleness and do not be quarrelsome. Patiently endure. And the reason for such endurance is because God may “grant them repentance…” In other words, God may bring them from death to life and reconcile them to himself. Though they might be opponents now, they may be brothers and sisters tomorrow. Perhaps they are simply not yet Christians.
These are helpful reminders for Christians in every age. This is specifically important for us today as American culture becomes increasingly antagonistic and oppositional to the faith. How should we respond?
Augustine provides a model of faithfulness. He does not shrink back from making thoughtful and careful arguments. He contends for the faith. But he does so while remembering those with whom he disputes might one day be fellow citizens of the city of God.
Let us, then, follow in those footsteps. Let us respond to those who oppose the faith. But let’s do so with gentleness, kindness, self-control, and patience, because God may yet grant our opponents repentance that leads to life. If he does, our enemies become our friends. More than that, they become our brothers and our sisters.