Earth and Heaven; Heaven and Earth

While writing my paper for my Augustine’s City of God class, I’ve been pondering the pagan idea that Augustine attacks in Book VIII that the earthly political order mirrors the heavenly order, such that what the (quasi) “divinized” rulers do on earth is naturally fully in accord with what the gods do in heaven. This is the idea of “sacral kingship” – the earthly king mirrors the heavenly King, God. As such, the earthly king cannot be questioned, and to depart from his will is simply evil rebellion.

Augustine attacks this idea in the person of the pagan philosopher Hermes Trismegestus, who actually wrote that the Kingdom of Egypt was a mirror of heaven, and that in the actions of the earthly Egyptian king we see incarnated images of heavenly realities. In this connection, two Scriptures came to my mind in a way I’d never thought of either before.

On the one hand there is the line in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” The language here indicates that insofar as the will of God goes, what is done on earth does, in fact, mirror what is done in heaven. This is one side of the “sacral kingship” claim: God Himself appears as the Sacral King. Typically, in Reformed theology this idea would expressed under the heading of the absolute sovereignty of God: nothing does occur – indeed nothing can occur – that is not fully within God’s ability to control and direct for His own purposes.

The kingship language of the Old Testament illuminates this doctrine well, with such claims as that God laughs all the plans of men to scorn, raises up and deposes kings as He wishes, turns the hearts of kings like a watercourse, and so forth.

On the other hand there is part of the grant of authority to the Apostles, “Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven…” The language here seems to indicate that at least insofar as the Apostles went, God did indeed determine to ratify in heaven the decisions they made on the earth as His representatives. One can easily see how an entity such as, say, the Roman Catholic Church, connects this thought with the ancillary doctrine of apostolic succession – the idea that the Apostles actually passed a metaphysical-spiritual “charism” on to those who followed in their footsteps, giving them the very same divine “teaching authority” as the Apostles themselves had – and so arrives at the conclusion that the leaders of the Church are effectively unquestionable by their followers.

In this scheme, the leaders of the Church (most particularly the pope, of course) are, in effect, ecclesiastical “sacral kings,” and so to dissent from them, God’s appointed representatives whose word on earth comes to be reflected in heaven, is to enter the realm of open rebellion against God Himself.

This is a big reason why the issue of apostolic succession is so important to Roman Catholicism, and it is a big reason why we as Protestants need to consider the cultural foundations of the belief in “sacral kingship.” In reading Augustine’s critique of Hermes Trismegestus in City of God Book VIII, I cannot escape the nagging notion that there is something in it that is profoundly applicable to Rome’s doctrine of authority. The City of God is, of course, a sustained polemic against the pagan Roman ideas of authority and religion, and it is surely significant that much of the theoretical and practical structure of the Faith as it came to dominate the West was Roman.

The form of Christianity that organized itself under the tutelage of the Roman bishop took up many of the cultural norms of the Roman Empire as its own. Bishops came to see themselves as possessing auctoritas (superior prestige), and as fulfilling the role of patrones (patrons) to the “lower classes” of believers seen as clients (clients). As the political structure of the Western Empire fell apart and paganism declined everywhere, Christians stepped into the vacuum and retained the old language of potestas (power), ius (justice), and principatus (supremacy). The administrative structure of the Church followed that of the Empire very closely, and can be summed up by the phrase i>imitatio imperii (imitation of the Empire). Even the term for the “universal” Christian religion, “ecumenical,” came from the Greco-Roman idea of oikumene (the whole world), and partook of a decidedly imperialistic bent.

The popes themselves retained the ideological notion of the paterfamilias, the nearly unquestionable “head of the household,” whose power over his familias (family) often extended to matters of life and death. Over the centuries, Roman legal maxims such as principatus legibus solutus est (the prince is free from the laws) vied with others such as quod omnes tangit ab omnibus approbetur (what concerns everyone must be approved by everyone) to create an uneasy arrangement of multiple authorities all striving against each other for either supremacy or balance.

Over the course of the first ten books of the City of God, Augustine masterfully eliminates the divine foundation of pagan Roman political theology, and demonstrates that for Christians, there is no single divinely-guaranteed form of political order in the world. It seems difficult to escape the implication that it is natural to extend his insights to the Christian form of divinized politics as it is found in Roman Catholicism.
To return to the Scriptures with which I opened, then, I would suggest the following reading as a tentative starting point. God Himself is indeed a sacral king – or rather, the Sacral King. To dissent from His will is indeed open rebellion, and is not permissible for any reason. God’s Word, whatever it may be, is law, and although God does not necessarily require us to suspend our rational faculties so as not to contemplate difficult issues of practical application in a fallen world, at the end of the day, all Christians must confess (even if they cannot explain) that the Lord’s ways are higher than our ways, His thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and no matter what it looks like to us at any given time, He will never do any wrong.

What then of the second verse I adduced, which seems to extend the same power of authoritative declaration to certain men? In the Christian scheme of things, are there human sacral kings, the mirror images of God Himself? The way that the Christian tradition has worked itself out in the realm of secular politics is that the idea of “the divine right” of human kings has been firmly rejected, and the basic idea of the limitations of all human authorities under God affirmed and codified in various schemes of constitutional government. In secular politics, at least, the Western Christian tradition says no, there are no human sacral kings.

But what of spiritual politics? Here Western Christians part ways with each other. The Protestant traditions extend the denial of sacral kingship into the Church as well, pointing out that Christ said that authority in His kingdom is not to be exercised the way that the Gentile kings do, lording it over their subjects. Rather, in Christ’s kingdom, the last shall be first and the first shall be last, the greatest person is the humblest person, and the greatest virtue is not the possession of authority, but the exercise of charity. We know as well that people who want to sit in chairs right beside Christ are rebuked sternly for not contemplating what sorts of dire sacrifices will be required of them for wishing such a thing.

The Roman Catholic tradition, by contrast, adheres openly to the position espoused by Hermes Trismegestus: there is an earthly political structure that mirrors Heaven itself. Christ is King in Heaven, and on earth the pope is Christ’s vicarius (substitute). The structure of the Church, like the structure in Heaven, is metaphysically hierarchical – power flows down from the One at the top to the successive lesser levels below it. Like Christ’s own Word, the pope’s word is law, and all authorities beneath the pope have lesser power and are fully beholden to him. Like God, the pope raises up and deposes rulers as he wills, and (thanks to Vatican I), like God, he ultimately cannot be questioned, but only submitted to.

In theory, the pope is the servus servorum Dei (servant of the servants of God), but spiritual Rome’s idea of “service” to the rest of the Church is like the principate of Augustus Caesar: the outward language of the Republic is preserved for rhetorical effect, but inside is only the stark implacability of absolute monarchy. The Ecclesia docens (the teaching Church, the hierarchy) lords it over the Ecclesia discens (the learning Church, the laymen); the prestige of the Magisterium (master) supplants the humility of the ministerium (ministry). And, to borrow from the City of God again, spiritual Rome distorts her relations with all outside of her by embracing that which ultimately destroyed pagan Rome, the libido dominandi (the lust for domination).

Apostolic succession, which at first appears to be such a strong point in favor of this scheme, subsequently turns out to be a superficial biblical warrant. For again, in Christ’s Kingdom, the least are the greatest, the first shall be last, and no one who is not ready to give up everything – especially pride of place – for the sake of the Kingdom truly understands what the Kingdom is about.

When once one stops looking at the Scriptures through Roman cultural windows, it becomes clear that the New Testament’s understanding of succession has nothing to do with potestas or charismata or auctoritas (the things for which the Romans cared), but with fidelity to a body of Truth that stands outside of personal officeholders and to which all personal officeholders are subject. Paul repeatedly sends his readers – among whom were bishops – back to the Scriptures as the source of that Truth, not to conditions supposedly existing within themselves by quasi-metaphysical transfers occurring by the laying on of hands. He even warned everyone that after he was gone, savage wolves would arise from within the episcopate – proving that the episcopate per se is not the source of Truth.

As for the apparent mirroring of heavenly authority in the authority of the Apostles (“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven), don’t we have to consider the times, and the perspective of the whole of inscripturated revelation? It could be argued that the Apostles stood in the place of Christ the same way the prophets of the Old Testament did – such offices were for special times of new revelation only, not for the ongoing life of the people of God. To try to preserve the time of the Apostles in perpetuity, and to make it the foundation of the esse (very being) of the Church looks like not only immaturity, but a reversal of the whole prior pattern of Scripture.

A lot more could be said about all of this, obviously. No doubt the Roman Catholic’s next move would be to attempt to connect the language of “the body of Christ” to the outward institutional structure of the Church, such that that structure is thought to be “the continuing incarnation of Christ” in the world. No doubt some would try to make sophisticated Christological arguments about alleged hypostatic unions between the Apostolic successors as vicarii of Christ to Christ Himself, allowing for the divinization of the earthly Roman Catholic theo-political system.

To such arguments, I think Augustine’s critique of Hermes Trismegestus remains the best starting point. No earthly political order is or even can be a mirror of the divine. Earth may aspire to heaven, but it does not and cannot mirror heaven. Whether in the temporal or spiritual spheres, there are no human sacral kings. That office belongs to God alone.

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13 Responses to Earth and Heaven; Heaven and Earth

  1. Steven W says:

    Excellent post.

    We could add that Protestants can allow for a qualified “sacral kingship,” based on gifting and order, though never an absolute one.

  2. I know I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I think there are several problems with this reasoning, both in St Augustine and in your reflections.

    I think the most important problem is this sort of dialectic between Truth and the Episcopate that I don’t really find helpful. I think it is, in fact, the identification of the episcopate with the secular authority: a sort of papocaeserism. This of course takes hold very strong in the west after the fall of Rome. The idea being namely that a bishop is to the Church as an Emperor (or King, Czar, etc) is to his people. This claim is actually particularly comforting to a people whose government is collapsing. Thus as you suggest, there is a sort of “sacral kingship” within the episcopate. The first major controversy over these claims is of course the Photian schism and the resulting filioque controversy. The end result of this view of sacral kingship of the episcopate is the Pope essentially commanding legions of soldiers during the crusades.

    Further, when we arrive at the Protestant controversy there is one important idea that overshadows all others: there is a higher authority than the Pope which the His Holiness must submit to. This higher authority takes a variety of forms: Truth, the Scriptures, Faith Alone, etc. Each of these doctrines serve one important sociological imperative: they are the intellectual justification for disobedience of the Roman See. Protestants could claim that they were the true Christians because they obeyed the Higher “sacral king.”

    This dialectic became the foundational talking point between the two confessions. The Romans claimed to have the King and the Protestants claimed to have the higher King, each side upping the ante after each round. The eventual Roman claim (Vatican I) is to admit “perhaps the truth is the highest authority, but the pope IS truth” (when he speaks ex cathedra, et al).

    I think both of these positions are in one sense two sides of the same coin. It seems to me far more helpful to think in terms of a Eucharistic authority.
    If anything is a “sacral kingship” it is the Eucharist. What is the “order” of heaven? It is Christ as our High-Priest, offering himself for the life of the world. This is precisely what we claim in our Eucharistic prayers during the Anamnesis. What is the context of “Thy will be done”? It is the main prayer said over the consecrated gifts before communion.

    The episcopate is certainly an apostolic succession, but not merely a singular succession but a succession of communion. The ancient practice of the Church does not allow for a single bishop to ordain a successor, but instead requires three bishops to consecrate a new one. The authority of the presbyter to pray the Eucharistic prayer is his only insomuch as he stands in the stead of the bishop. It is in fact this authority, namely the consecration of the gifts, that is the quintessential quality of the episcopate. All of his other authorities relate to this:
    1. Baptism is the initiation into the gifts
    2. Absolution of sin in confession is preparation for consuming the gifts
    3. Ordaining presbyters as vicars in his place to consecrate the gifts
    4. Excommunication is withholding of the gifts

    Yet, this authority to consecrate the gifts comes itself from the Eucharist, that is Christ himself, come in the flesh, laying down his life as a servant. It is at the memorial of Christ the suffering servant that the whole Church is constituted in the coming of Christ himself. We proclaim the suffering servant and he comes to us. We consume his flesh and blood and become the body of Christ. Unless Christ is present, there is no Church. Unless Christ is present there is no bishop. It is also in the Eucharist that the bishop learns how to be a bishop, namely how to become the great shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep.

    And thus we have this wonderful (circular) logic: The bishop consecrates the Eucharist and the Eucharist (as Christ) constitutes the bishop. The Church offers the gifts and in the offering becomes the Church.

    Augustine’s City of God ultimately does great violence to the Eucharist and to ecclesiology. If the Eucharist constitutes the Church, how can there be an invisible Church without an invisible Eucharist? If the Eucharist is invisible, we ultimately have a docetic Christianity. Likewise, if the visible Eucharist is only valid to those who are in the invisible Church we end up with a sort of gnosticism.

    Well, those are my thoughts… Take them or leave them. :)

  3. I also wanted to mention that one might be careful not to suggest that the idea of the earthly order mimicking the heavenly order as exclusively a pagan idea. Such is very clearly the idea we find in Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation, and is certainly implied in the Hebrew Temple Rite. Further, such an idea is clearly expounded by the earliest sources, including Clement (Epistle to Corinth – 40ff, particularly 42), Polycarp (Phillipians 5; “as unto God and Christ”) and Ignatius (Magnesians 7).

  4. Further, one clear distinction between a Pagan idea of sacral Kingship and a Christian one is that, for whatever reason, God’s will is often *not* done on earth. This possibility, namely of disobedience, is foundational to the entire Christian narrative, particularly in luminaries such as Irenaeus, for Christ has, through obedience, undone the the disobedience of Adam. We are saved by being “in Christ” as both a sacramental union and a union of obedience, being transformed by the renewing of our mind..

    • Tim Enloe says:


      Thanks for your interesting comments. To be honest, I don’t understand Orthodoxy and over time I have developed the impression that many Orthodox criticisms of “the West” and of Augustine in particular are simply extremes, though I can’t spell out why I think that is so in any detail. The point is, I can’t really engage with Orthodox apologetics, because I don’t understand Orthodoxy well enough to do so.

      At any rate, if you are interested in further examination of how this all worked out politically in the West, I am doing a series on the Basilica blog. My co-contributors there are also putting together various posts relevant to the subject.

      • Please know that I’m not polemicising or attempting to find fault with Augustine or the West and would like to have an honest dialogue. I agree with your assessment that many criticisms are merely extremes. However, I think in the case we have before us there is a real problem, namely, since the Church is the body of Christ, constituted by partaking in His body and blood (a theology arguably held by the apostles themselves or, if not, shortly afterwards), any understanding of ecclesiology is also essentially a Christology. Augustine’s response to the pagans is essentially a platonizing of ecclesiology and therefore Christology (and of course we know that a platonized Christology is a type of docetism).

        That being said, St. Augustine’s work is largely an apologetic work and as such should be given great latitude. It is *not* a dogmatic work, which must be scrutinized. Another example of this is St. Justin Martyr who, if one were to merely judge his faith on his apologetic works, is clearly a subordinationist. I think part of the difficulty is that Protestants require St. Augustine’s apology as a doctrine, since they need a metaphysical Church of which to belong. Thus an apologetic work which is clearly orthodox in its intention becomes an unorthodox doctrinal work. Thus, my critique is not so much of the work itself, but its use as a treatise on ecclesiology, where it simply falls short.

        I hope that helps clarify things. You should keep learning about Orthodoxy, if for no other reason than it will help you understand your own tradition more clearly.

        • Tim Enloe says:

          Alright, I’ll bite. What is it that’s wrong with the ecclesiology of Augustine in terms of what I said in my post?

  5. I think its fairly simple. Eucharist = Christ = Church. What we say of one must be true of the others. Would we say that there is a visible Christ and an invisible Christ? That the invisible Christ is pure and whole, but the visible Christ is mixed with the City of God and the City of Man? This is just plain gnostic/docetic.

    An authentic ecclesiology flows from an authentic Christology. And, in fact, as demonstrated in Irenaeus’ AH, our Christology flows from our Eucharist (he argues that the gnostics have an invalid Christology because it doesn’t match their Eucharistic practice).

    In fact, to change gears to your excellent “Two Kingdoms” post, the entirety of Church/State thought boils down to this: Under what circumstances do we allow men with blood on their hands to partake in the Eucharist? This is the pastoral imperative of Augustine’s just war doctrine. It is not merely reflection on the nature of war but of the Eucharistic consequences when you have military leaders under your pastoral care. But I digress…

    • Tim Enloe says:

      Well, I’m still not tracking with your criticism. You keep talking about an invisible Church, but it can be persuasively argued that Augustine doesn’t equate the City of God with the Church. This being the case, I’m not sure how your objections relate to the City of God.

      • So what is the relationship between the City of God and the Church? I confess I’m not as current on Augustine scholarship as I used to be.

        • Tim Enloe says:

          Well, I’ll have to pull some things together from my notes on the City of God to try to answer that question. At any rate, the fact that you were assuming Augustine equates the City of God with the Church, and that the “quasi-invisible” nature of the former has serious Christological ramifications for the latter again makes me wonder about the legitimacy of Orthodox views about things Western. Maybe in their reactions to the extremes of the papacy (which did in the Middle Ages tend to conflate the City of God with the Church) the Orthodox have adopted many extremes of their own.

  6. Well, I think you’re mistaken in two regards. First, I’ve never claimed to relate “Orthodox” views. Unless otherwise stated, my views are my own and not of my Church (I’m probably a heretic anyway!). Second, my understanding that the Church is made up of the City of God and the City of Men is a result of my Methodist seminary training. In fact, I just found my notes on that lecture, and that is specifically what I was taught. :)

    It should be pointed out that you said that I suggested that Augustine equated City of God with Church. I actually never made that suggestion. However, it is obvious that I need to read more in this regard. I am curious to your answer as to how specifically City of God relates with Church.

    You’ve convinced me to pick up and read City of God. Its been a long time since I last perused its pages, so its overdue. I would like to state again that my tone is not polemic, nor am I attempting to judge “the West.” My actual original point was to talk about a Eucharistic ecclesiology, and that, in fact, the Mass of Christ *is* in fact the prototype of heavenly worship. It is because this is so that our bishops are a “sacral order” not because they themselves are unquestionable in some regard, but because their authority flows out of the Eucharistic celebration itself. I further wanted to comment that the idea of the sacral order of bishops is in fact a *very* early Christian teaching. The early Christians clearly teach that as God sent Christ so Christ send the Apostles and the Apostles ordained the Bishops and the Bishops ordained Deacons: the earthly ordus of the Church is a reflection of the divine life between Christ and his Father in the economy of his coming. It is in the light of this that the Church later struggles with its relationship with the state which essentially claims the same sacral order for itself. Such is a tension that is never resolved to this day. It is not merely a pagan claim to “sacral kingship,” everyone claims it.

    It was *not* my original intention to critique Augustine per se, though I obviously did, so please forgive me.

    • Tim Enloe says:


      Obviously, I can’t have a problem with the idea of Christ setting up a chain of ordination – it’s all over the Book of Acts and the Pastoral Epistles. But how this makes the ordained men “sacral kings” in terms of the Eucharist, I don’t see. The bishops are not “vicars” of Christ – i.e., literal substitutes. They are “ministers” – i.e., messengers with delegated power within limits that are both discernible by everyone else and able to be applied to them by others within the church.

      I’m not sure we’re using the term “sacral king” in the same way. The idea of a “sacral king” as I am using it, especially when I call it a pagan idea, is the idea that one human being in his own person is both a temporal king and a spiritual priest. The basic idea of the Western tradition (though of course the papacy historically has not followed it) is that this was a pagan institution, and after Christ came He abolished it because only *He* can be both king and priest.

      This is one of the biggest reasons why the papacy’s concept of itself in the Middle Ages (and in some ways still today) is wrong. The pope doesn’t just see himself as an ordained minister of Christ, with power circumscribed within those discernible limits I mentioned, which limits make him accountable to other authorities in the Church. He sees himself as Christ’s substitute (vicar), and his word as literally being Christ’s here on earth. In the Middle Ages, especially after Gregory VII, the pope was a true sacral king, uniting both temporal and spiritual powers in his own person. Hence, some of his devoted followers wrote treatises dedicated to expounding the idea that he actually *was* God on earth, and no one could say to him, “Why have you done this?”

      That’s the idea I’m writing against in these posts, and that’s how I’m applying Augustine’s views in the City of God.

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