Manila and the City of God: Divine Providence in Philippine Politics

How Filipinos Used (or Misused) the Doctrine of Providence in Philippine Politics

A new Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., assumed office last June 30. He is a son of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who was ousted during the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution. The younger Marcos narrowly lost the vice-presidential race six years ago. But this year, he won the elections by a landslide against the incumbent Vice-President. The campaign season leading to the national elections was highly divisive especially for the Christian community. Some people say that his popularity is due to a social media campaign aimed at rebranding his family name, which is driven by massive misinformation and an attempt to rewrite history. His supporters considered issues like his unpaid taxes, his family’s ill-gotten wealth, and related Supreme Court convictions as smear campaign by his opponents. Many of those who voted for him believed that, like his father, he would usher the country in another “golden era” allegedly enjoyed by the Philippines during his father’s twenty-year regime.

Christians disagree not just on how to interpret our recent political history as a nation and what kind of future awaits our nation with this new administration, but also on how to apply theological concepts like “God’s will” and “the sovereignty of God” in our current political landscape. Before the elections, some Christians did not actively participate in the electoral process, even not exercising their right of suffrage, thinking that “God’s will will ultimately prevail anyway.” Some are quick to invoke God’s sovereignty to abdicate from their responsibility as citizens of this country. Jayeel Cornelio observes that this kind of perspective on “the ‘sovereignty of God’ disempowers the people of God. It asks them to accept defeat, move on, and then shut up.”[1] I have observed this firsthand when after some of our younger members expressed their grief over the results of the elections, some of our older members quickly commented, “You do not need to be sad. Just accept God’s will, trust God, and move on.” Some also used the popular phrase vox populi vox Dei, thinking that God’s sovereign will over our history means that he gives approval to the decision of the majority. Cornelio states the implications of this kind of rhetoric:

In this rhetoric, God’s sovereignty operates on three levels. On one level, it asserts that electoral victory perfectly matches the will of God. On another level, it also insists that if God (sovereignly) had another candidate in mind then that person should have won the election. And yet on another level, God’s sovereignty is asking everyone else not only to accept their defeat but also hold their tongue.[2]

It is one thing to use Christian phrases like will of God, sovereignty of God, and providence of God. It is another thing to understand what we mean by these terms, and how they apply to our situation today. So, how do we understand God’s providential dealings with his people in a way that is biblically faithful and culturally relevant? To help us to that end, Augustine and his The City of God may serve as our mentor today. Augustine was no politician, and his book is not a political book, but he was aware of political realities, and the political implications of the views he has set forth in this book. “The purpose of this book was broadly moral, rather than narrowly political.”[3] It has both theological and pastoral implications in helping Christians navigate the complexities of our political situation.

Augustine’s Situation in Roman Politics

But let us look first at the immediate background informing the purpose and contents of The City of God. In 410 AD, the Visigoths led by their chieftain Alaric, attacked and plundered Rome. The significance of this event for Augustine’s time “far outweighed the fairly inconsequential material reality of the sack itself.”[4] Many people at that time considered Rome as “an eternal city.” Others like Jerome compared it with the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, seeing Rome as a kind of a new Jerusalem partly because of its “conversion” to Christianity during the time of Constantine. In contrast, Augustine “saw the impermanence in all human institutions,”[5] including the once glorious Rome.

Many people during Augustine’s time saw the plundering of Rome as an occasion to attack the Christian religion, attributing the tragedy to the anger of the Roman gods because of their conversion to Christianity. In response, Augustine wrote this book as a kind of theodicy, with polemics against the Roman gods, especially in the first five books, to “answer the accusations of a resurgent paganism with an entirely different presentation, indeed one that would give a view of God’s providential dealings with human societies quite at odds” with the philosophers of his time.[6] Augustine himself notes in his preface to start Book I, “I have undertaken its defence against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of this city.” More than a polemic, John Maxfield notes that it is also “his testament to the church describing the relationship of this hidden spiritual kingdom to the earthly society with which it is intertwined” throughout this age until Christ returns.[7]

The City of God contains twenty-two books that can be divided into five parts. The first part (Books I–V) deals with his critique of Roman religion as beneficial to this life. The second (Books VI–X) is against paganism (including Socratic and Platonic philosophy) as beneficial for the life to come. In the third part (Books XI–XIV), he starts discussion on the City of God and its origin. The fourth part (Books XV–XVIII) deals with its progress, while the fifth (Books XIX–XXII) on its end.[8] This thick volume gives us a glimpse of Augustine’s view of God’s providence in Roman history set in the context of God’s purposes in all of history.

Augustine’s Doctrine of Providence

A discussion on God’s providence in politics and history must necessarily start with a discussion on our source of authority. The writings of historians are valuable, but Augustine emphasizes that they cannot be as authoritative for us as the Scriptures. They only record what is past, from a limited point of view, and with many disagreements among them. The Scriptures, however, give us an interpretation of history from God’s vantage point, which also includes the end of history. So, we have “a good reason why we ought rather to believe him who does not contradict the divine history which we hold,” Augustine wrote. “Whatever is opposed” to this is “most false.” Our understanding of divine history as revealed by God in Scripture is, therefore, necessary for “our living rightly and happily” (18.40).[9]

Augustine’s High View of God and His Providence

Augustine’s high view of divine providence is rooted in his high view of God. Notice how he connects God’s all-pervasive providence to his attributes of omnipresence, immutability, infinity, omnipotence and aseity:

He who is wholly everywhere, included in no space, bound by no chains, mutable in no part of His being, filling heaven and earth with omnipresent power, not with a needy nature. Therefore, He governs all things in such a manner as to allow them to perform and exercise their own proper movements. For although they can be nothing without Him, they are not what He is” (7.30, emphasis mine).

This is like Anselm’s conception of God in Proslogium as “a being than which no greater being can be conceived.” The supremacy of the divine being over all things must mean that his providential governance of all things in his creation is all-encompassing. “The true God created the world, and by His providence rules all He has created” (1.36).

Augustine’s references to things in creation and human history confirm this. The great discoveries made by philosophers were “by God’s help,” and their weaknesses and mistakes were “ordered by divine providence” to restrain their pride (2.7). The Romans’ enjoyment of popular glory and the withholding of true religion from them were “by the secret of divine providence” (2.29). The dispersion of the Jews to all nations is “through the providence of that one true God” (4.34). Seneca’s words of astonishment about the plight of the Jewish people were said even though he does not know “what the providence of God was leading him to say” (6.11). Even demons and their demonic acts are under God’s providence (7.35; 8.15): “They cannot, however, do anything of this kind unless where they are permitted by the deep and secret providence of God, and then only so far as they are permitted” (8.24).

This sums up Augustine’s view of providence: “The world is governed…by the providence of the supreme God” (9.13). When we talk of divine providence to his people, it extends not just to spiritual or eternal blessings, but also to temporal prosperity. So, we worship God because “all things are regulated by his providence.” Augustine calls a person a “madman” who denies that “all things…are in the hand of the one Almighty” (10.14). “All things” implies that providence has some benefits also to unbelievers: “divine providence grants promiscuously to good and evil” (5.18).

God as supreme ruler of all things was important for Augustine to emphasize because pagans were reproaching the Christian religion and Christ for “the ills that have befallen their city” (1.1), but the preservation of their own life they do not attribute to Christ but to an impersonal fate or fortune or to their own gods or goddesses. The prosperity of the wicked is to be attributed “to the secret providence of God” (2.23), “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).[10] How about hardships like the fall of Rome? Augustine puts the accent again on “divine providence,” which calls sinners to repent and also ushers God’s people to “a better world” through death:

They ought rather, had they any right perceptions, to attribute the severities and hardships inflicted by their enemies, to that divine providence which is wont to reform the depraved manners of men by chastisement, and which exercises with similar afflictions the righteous and praiseworthy—either translating them, when they have passed through the trial, to a better world, or detaining them still on earth for ulterior purposes (1.1).

God’s Providence in History

Augustine affirms God’s providential hand in all of history. We often see conflicts playing out in the story of the world as wars between rival kings for who gets the right of imperial dominion, or, in the case of democracies like the Philippines, as more of a personality than an ideological contest for an electoral victory. Augustine views conflict in this grand drama of history on an altogether different level. According to Matthew Levering’s analysis of Augustine’s view of history,

History works itself out, in God’s providence, in the conflict between those who love self over God (denying the participatory character of human existence) and those who love God over self (affirming that the self finds its happiness in participation in God). This conflict goes on within persons and within societies, and manifests itself in sinful acts and in acts of love.[11]

Augustine delineates the differences of these two cities, the City of God (a term he has taken from Psalms 87:3; 48:1; 46:4, among others, see 11.1) and the earthly city, as two opposing loves: “Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience” (14.28). The City God is building is “obviously by an express providential arrangement” (11.1). Beginning in Book XI until the end, Augustine treats “of the origin, and progress, and deserved destinies of the two cities…which…are in this present world commingled, and as it were entangled together” (11.1).

The centrality of God in history, and not on any human personality, is rooted in how Augustine sums up biblical history, “O things done, yet done prophetically; on the earth, yet celestially; by men, yet divinely” (16.37)! He sets the events in Roman history not myopically, but in a “universal” context. His God is not just the God of the church of the Old and New Testaments but “the God of all history.”[12] As such, history is not merely a human production but primarily divine in character, as seen also in his treatment of God’s providence in the first five books as he surveys what happened in Roman history.[13]

Politics and God’s Providence

If God is the God of all history, then God’s governance also includes the realm of human politics. In Book IV, Augustine stresses that God himself, being the true God, “gives earthly kingdoms both to good and bad.” The rise and triumph of any earthly king cannot be attributed to fate nor fortune but “according to the order of things and times, which is hidden from us, but thoroughly known to Himself.” He is not “subject” to this order of things, “but Himself rules as lord and appoints as governor” (4.33). When and how long a king will reign and and the duration of their kingdom are all ordained by the judgment and power of God. Its “extent He regulates according to the requirements of His providential government at various times” (5.26).

Sometimes, people use the word “fate” to refer to the will or power of God. But Augustine cautions against this tendency and suggests a change on the language they are using. Rather, they must affirm, “Human kingdoms are established by divine providence” (5.1). The greatness of the Roman empire cannot be credited to any impersonal force or gods or goddesses but to God alone. If we believe God as “supreme…one God omnipotent, creator and maker of every soul and every body,” and when we confess the universal providence of God in the laws of nature, then, it is unthinkable and unbelievable that he has “left the kingdoms of men, their dominations and servitudes, outside of the laws of His providence” (5.11). Divine providence is not limited to the rise of good rulers. With reference to wicked rulers like Nero, Augustine affirms that “power and domination are not given even to such men save by the providence of the most high God” (5.19). This line of thinking is consistent with Paul’s in Romans 13 when he referred to all human authorities, including Roman rulers, as “from God…instituted by God…what God has appointed…the servant of God…ministers of God” (Rom. 13:1–7).

There were points in history when good leaders rule over us. Although most are unbelievers, we must recognize that having virtuous rulers are work of God’s gracious providence.

Though, nevertheless, they who are not citizens of the eternal city, which is called the city of God in the sacred Scriptures, are more useful to the earthly city when they possess even that virtue than if they had not even that. But there could be nothing more fortunate for human affairs than that, by the mercy of God, they who are endowed with true piety of life, if they have the skill for ruling people, should also have the power. But such men, however great virtues they may possess in this life, attribute it solely to the grace of God that He has bestowed it on them—willing, believing, seeking (5.19).

When citizens of the earthly city ask the citizens of the City of God, “Where is your God,” the psalmist instructs us to respond, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psa. 15:2–3). Therefore, all that is virtuous and all that is wicked in Roman dominion, according to Augustine, were all “ruled and governed by the one God according as he pleases”:

These things being so, we do not attribute the power of giving kingdoms and empires to any save to the true God, who gives happiness in the kingdom of heaven to the pious alone, but gives kingly power on earth both to the pious and the impious, as it may please Him, whose good pleasure is always just. For though we have said something about the principles which guide His administration, in so far as it has seemed good to Him to explain it, nevertheless it is too much for us, and far surpasses our strength, to discuss the hidden things of men’s hearts, and by a clear examination to determine the merits of various kingdoms…and if His motives are hid, are they therefore unjust? (5.21)

God is sovereign and he remains just and righteous even in appointing the wicked that he might rule us through them. This is how the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to Question 104 puts it, “it is God’s will to govern us by their hand.” The intricacies of how this works out are not all revealed to us and we better refrain from undue speculations. That is why Augustine, in the words quoted above, said that if “it is too much for us” to pry into the motives of the human heart, how much more when seeking answers about the hidden motives of God. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us” (Deut. 29:29).

What is better is for us to recognize is that God’s providence in politics does not just include appointing who will rule over us, but also who will submit to their God-ordained authority and how. Our circumstances as citizens and our responses to our governing authorities are not outside the purview of God’s providence.

The society of mortals spread abroad through the earth everywhere, and in the most diverse places, although bound together by a certain fellowship of our common nature, is yet for the most part divided against itself, and the strongest oppress the others, because all follow after their own interests and lusts, while what is longed for either suffices for none, or not for all, because it is not the very thing. For the vanquished succumb to the victorious, preferring any sort of peace and safety to freedom itself; so that they who chose to die rather than be slaves have been greatly wondered at. For in almost all nations the very voice of nature somehow proclaims, that those who happen to be conquered should choose rather to be subject to their conquerors than to be killed by all kinds of warlike destruction. This does not take place without the providence of God, in whose power it lies that any one either subdues or is subdued in war; that some are endowed with kingdoms, others made subject to kings (18.2).

God’s Foreknowledge

We finite creatures are limited in our understanding of history and ambivalent towards the future. But God, who is infinite in knowledge and wisdom, knows all things that will come to pass (5.9). His knowledge is far more superior than ours. Acknowledging God’s all-encompassing providence means recognizing God’s comprehension of all of history, including the hidden motives of men and things that have not yet come to pass. This is how Augustine describes the knowledge of God:

It is not as if the knowledge of God were of various kinds, knowing in different ways things which as yet are not, things which are, and things which have been. For not in our fashion does He look forward to what is future, nor at what is present, nor back upon what is past; but in a manner quite different and far and profoundly remote from our way of thinking. For He does not pass from this to that by transition of thought, but beholds all things with absolute unchangeableness; so that of those things which emerge in time, the future, indeed, are not yet, and the present are now, and the past no longer are; but all of these are by Him comprehended in His stable and eternal presence (11.21).

Some people are hesitant to acknowledge divine foreknowledge thinking that this would “destroy human freedom and necessitate fatalism.”[14] Augustine discusses this issue against Cicero in Book V. Augustine “holds in tandem the complete foreknowledge of God and the total responsibility of the human will for its choices. Human choices fall within the order of causes that propel history forward.”[15] God’s providence in politics and history is pervasive, yet it is not invasive in such a way as to invalidate our choices or make them irrevelant. On the contrary, as Levering notes, “Participation in the will of the transcendent God…makes possible our freedom, because he wills it.”[16]

And yet, we cannot grant that the human will is operating on the same plane as that of the divine will. The will of God is supreme and primary while ours is secondary and derivative. Notice how Augustine sees the correlation between the divine will and the human will,

In His supreme will resides the power which acts on the wills of all created spirits, helping the good, judging the evil, controlling all, granting power to some, not granting it to others…all of them are most of all subject to the will of God, to whom all wills also are subject, since they have no power except what He has bestowed upon them (5.9).

Augustine called God omnipotent on account of his supreme will (5.10). He concludes discussion of this issue on the relationship between the absolute prescience of God and the relative freedom of the human will by noting that it is “impious” for as to affirm one and deny the other. Rather, “we embrace both. We faithfully and sincerely confess both. The former (referring to divine foreknowledge), that we may believe well; the latter (referring to the freedom of the human will), that we may live well” (5.10). Embracing both is indeed necessary for orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

God’s Providence and Evil

Many Christians tend to avoid engagement with political issues because for them politics is dirty stuff. There is some truth to that given the depravity of our fallen human nature and the danger of being corrupted by possessing power and authority. So, a discussion on God’s providence inevitably leads to a consideration of his providence over the evil acts of men, including those who rule over us. Augustine affirms that God is Creator of all good things. When it comes to evil, God is not its author but its governor. “But God, as He is the supremely good Creator of good natures, so is He of evil wills the most just Ruler; so that, while they make an ill use of good natures, He makes a good use even of evil wills” (11.17).

For Augustine, God’s permission for evil to exist does not compromise nor diminish his goodness because God superintends the evil actions of angels and humans to accomplish his good purposes in history. In what way God accomplishes this is incomprehensible for us. It like a canvass in the hands of an artist—the strokes of his paint brush produce an exquisite work of art. “For God would never have created any…whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses” (11.18).

For Augustine, evil exists not independently of the good, but on account of the good and for the good purposes of God who is the supreme good.

But evils are so thoroughly overcome by good, that though they are permitted to exist, for the sake of demonstrating how the most righteous foresight of God can make a good use even of them, yet good can exist without evil, as in the true and supreme God Himself, and as in every invisible and visible celestial creature that exists above this murky atmosphere; but evil cannot exist without good, because the natures in which evil exists, in so far as they are natures, are good (14.11).

God’s “planned permission”[17] of evil is a testament not to his powerlessness but to his omnipotence, “due to his providential plan for the saints.”[18] We affirm this although we cannot understand how exactly evil fits into God’s providential plan. Responding to the horror and shame suffered by the women raped during the sack of Rome, Augustine told them that they “were permitted to commit sinful outrage upon you. And if you should ask why this permission was granted, indeed it is a deep providence of the Creator and Governor of the world” (1.28). He then cited Romans 11:33, “How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

No evil is so great that can deter God from accomplishing his will. “The sins of men and angels do nothing to impede the great works of the Lord which accomplish His will. For He who by His providence and omnipotence distributes to every one his own portion, is able to make good use not only of the good, but also of the wicked” (14.27). The mysteries surrounding God’s providence over the evil actions of men are beyond the scrutiny of finite minds. Although this providence is “very secret,” it is also “very just” (5.16). Affirming God’s providence over all evil does not make God the author of evil. It simply means that, as Barnes concludes, “God was involved in all of history, not just Christian activities, and not just ‘good’ events. Nothing was to be attributed to chance or destiny, but all to divine providence.”[19]

Providence and Suffering

Consequently, not only our sinning, but also our being sinned against is under God’s providential hand. God has different purposes for the wicked and for his people when he allows that those in power abuse their authority, which may sometimes cause unimaginable sufferings to their subjects. Here’s Levering’s analysis of Augustine’s theological and pastoral response to human suffering:

Although Augustine remarks that Alaric’s soldiers spared those who took refuge in Christian basilicas, he grants that the living God allows us to suffer in history. He does so for the twin purposes of punishing the wicked and training the good to persevere. Augustine does not turn a blind eye to the terrible nature of the sufferings that we undergo; for example, he devotes significant attention to the plight of women raped by marauding soldiers. The key is to recognize that spiritual goods, not temporal goods, are the true gift of divine providence.[20]

Augustine sets human suffering eschatologically, that is, in view not just of the temporal but, more importantly, of the eternal good of God’s people. Maxfield roots Augustine’s view of divine providence in our sufferings to divine goodness, “Whether he is speaking of the gifts of God’s providence or his scourges, Augustine always relates these to God’s providence. When he speaks of the good, he is certain to denote their source in the Divine Goodness. But that Goodness is always working providentially for the eternal good of His creation and not merely for the temporal good.”[21]

Providence and Human Responsibility

The history of human politics is littered with evil and suffering. Affirming God’s providence over all human history does not mean turning a blind eye to evil nor being passive in times of sufferings. This doctrine does not diminish our responsibility but enhances it and makes it more meaningful. Seeing God’s providence in the prosperity of the wicked should not discourage God’s people nor make them idle. Those who truly know God and his work in history should inspire us to faith and action. Levering summarizes the lessons Augustine teaches regarding God’s providence in the rise of the Roman empire:

The tragedy of Rome is that its understanding of history, and of the divine, was faulty and cut many Romans off from true happiness, which comes only from God. Augustine draws two lessons: God’s providence justly allowed the Roman Empire to increase, and God intended that those who seek a heavenly reward within the heavenly city should be inspired to an increase of fervor, humility, and endurance by seeing how devotedly these citizens of the earthly city pursued a merely earthly reward.[22]

If citizens of the earthly city fought with courage and even with their own lives, according to Augustine, “how much rather must Christians, the worshippers of the true God, the aspirants to a heavenly citizenship, shrink from this act, if in God’s providence they have been for a season delivered into the hands of their enemies to prove or to correct them” (1.24)! Faith in God who is always at work in the grand theater of human history leads us to embrace our roles as participants, and not as mere spectators. Levering notes that in Books XV to XVIII, where Augustine traces the progress of the city of God in biblical history, he “argues that every event in linear history has a participatory dimension, so that human words and deeds cannot be understood solely in terms of temporal causality and progression…the Bible shows that linear history is about participatory relationship with the transcendent God.”[23]

This is also the thesis of Ad de Bruijne’s article on the role of Christians in Augustine’s vision in The City of God. Our dual citizenship in the earthly and the heavenly cities creates tensions that cannot be removed in this age. Although we must have eternity in view, we must not miss the fact that our participation in the affairs of the earthly city can bring tremendous impact to our societies. According to de Bruijne, “Despite the antithetical relationship between the city of God and the cities of humankind, Christian participation in the latter could under God’s providence produce extraordinary temporary blessings for such societies.”[24] He suggested several ways to do that, like living in the context of the Church, avoiding overly strong political identifications, and living prophetic lives like that of Joseph and Daniel. “Christians should not withhold the biblical narrative but, on the contrary, embed their considerations and contributions to public life explicitly in God’s truth.”[25]

The prophet Daniel praises God for his sovereignty in raising up Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom Babylon although they are conquerors and oppressors of his people in exile, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (Dan. 2:20­–21). A high view of God’s providence in politics and history motivates him not to live in seclusion while waiting for the end of their seventy-year Babylonian captivity, but to persevere in service of earthly kings from his teenage years to his eighties. The certainty that God’s kingdom purposes will eventually prevail is no excuse for not being faithful stewards of our pilgrimage. God’s words to his people in exile then were God’s mandate also for us pilgrims today, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). By providence, God sent them (us) into exile. In response, they (we) are to pray and work for that earthly city.

There can be strong disagreements among Christians regarding the interpretation of history and the level of our political engagements. It can be an occasion for the enemies of Christ to disparage his name, but Augustine insists that even our sinful responses to political issues dividing the church are under God’s providence, “that God permits such trials in order to build up love and that God also provides great consolations.”[26]

History may bring us many kinds of political turmoil or conflicts. But a Christian who embraces God’s sovereignty over all things will have much-needed humility, God-centered focus, and reliance on God’s power. Levering notes the God-centeredness of Augustine’s vision of God and history:

The heavenly city has faith in the transcendent Creator and hopes to enjoy him forever. The heavenly city loves the Triune God as its end. The love of God above all things is made possible by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and this love enables believers to be configured to Christ’s life of self-giving humility. Desire for a heavenly kingdom, whose center is God, thus conquers desire for an earthly kingdom, whose center is the self.[27]

This will then cause us to rely more on God’s power as we participate in accomplishing his will in history. On the surface, a Christian’s engagement on politics may appear similar to that of an unbeliever, but it “depends entirely” on a different power. “Unlike Rome’s warfare, which depended entirely on the strength of Rome, Christian spiritual warfare depends entirely on the power of God. Embracing the participatory dimension of history means learning to rely on God’s power—that is, learning the power of humility and receptivity.”[28]

The Goal of God’s Providence in History

Citizens of the city of God rely entirely on a different power—the power of the Almighty—and work towards a different purpose—the end to which God is moving all of history, namely, the glory of God in Christ. The heavenly city is characterized by “the love of God” and “glories…in the Lord” (14.28). Augustine’s view of history is “centered in the incarnation of God in Christ.”[29] History, for him, is “both cyclic and linear.”[30] By cyclical, he does not mean that history repeats itself in an endless cycle. Since God is sovereign over all things, “history is teleological; it has a divine purpose behind it, and a divine direction.”[31]

This confidence in the outworking of divine providence should not waver even when a tyrant rises to power, or when “wicked men do many things contrary to God’s will,” or when the saints “desire many things which never happen,” when “what they request (in prayer) He does not perform” (22.30). Levering remarks that the key is for us to look at the human will and the divine will as existing on different ontological levels:

In history, God’s purpose is to gather a people to himself, so as to bring together the full number of humans and angels in his fellowship. Our sin does not frustrate God’s will, even though the holy will of human beings can often be frustrated, as when we pray that a tyrant will not decimate his populace. The difference is that God’s will is transcendent and has in view God’s whole plan, whereas our will is on the same ontological level as the tyrant’s and so our holy prayers for temporal events are not always answered. God wills not the sin but the good that he has in view, which he can draw even out of sin.[32]

To encourage those who are filled with uncertainties regarding their human rulers, or of themselves, or of their future, Augustine ends his voluminous work with an endtime vision of the City of God in the book of Revelation. Here he “revealed that God’s providential care of the church was expressed also through the crises of this world’s history, all for the progress of the City of God as it made its pilgrimage in this world to the eternal rest of the next.”[33] All the current political rumblings will pale in comparison with our eternal enjoyment of God our Creator and Ruler. Augustine exclaims, “How great shall be that felicity, which shall be tainted with no evil, which shall lack no good, and which shall afford leisure for the praises of God, who shall be all in all!… There we shall rest and see, see and love, love and praise. This is what shall be in the end without end. For what other end do we propose to ourselves than to attain to the kingdom of which there is no end” (22.30)?

Applying Augustine’s Doctrine of Providence in Relation to Philippine Politics

Augustine’s high view of God’s providence set forth in The City of God in response to the crisis of his own day is biblically faithful, culturally relevant (and offensive!), and pastorally sensitive. The relevance of his work to our own day cannot be overestimated. Our conversations about politics too often revolve around human personalities, and the role of God in history, if ever mentioned, is often relegated to secondary importance. We easily bow down to political idols and fail to submit our political thoughts to God and the authority of Scripture. Augustine’s theological reflections in The City of God invites us to recover a radically God-centered view of history and politics in our country. It does not mean that we cannot develop and hold on to our own conviction about what really happened during the rise and fall of the Marcoses in the history books. What it does mean is that we need to have a wider-lens perspective of history like Augustine.

Since God’s providence covers every square inch of our history as a nation, we can affirm that the election of the younger Marcos to the presidency is appointed and governed by God. Christians must discard the popular phrase vox populi vox Dei because it is misleading and may imply that popular vote is evidence of God’s approval. It may or it may not. The witness of biblical history tells us that God ordains some events to happen that does not merit his approval. We must be careful in hastily appealing to God’s sovereignty in all things to validate how we elected our own leaders. All people—whether rulers or citizens, believers or unbelievers—will be held accountable by the Judge of all the earth for how we steward our responsibilities as citizens of this country in conformity to his revealed will in Scripture.

How we respond to the presidency of another Marcos is determined by the ground of our confidence—whether it is in God or in an unknown future. Maxfield notes that Augustine’s “confidence in God even in the face of the crisis of his world speaks volumes to our own day, full of preoccupations with and manipulations of human fear in the face of the uncertain future.”[34] In The City of God, Augustine is not directly addressing critics of Christianity but also those within his own Christian circles who are “too preoccupied with fear concerning the future of Rome.” [35] He reminds them that, in this world where the city of God and the earthly city intermingle and cannot be separated, “there is a God who is in control over all things, who shapes events for the ultimate good of both those with perverted self-love and those with rightly ordered love for God.” [36] Our preoccupation with things like economic prosperity and social justice causes us to lose sight of the design of God’s providence for his people, that it is not just for temporal and material blessings but for their ultimate good which includes healing of “their preoccupation with earthly things.”[37]

Augustine also cautions us on interpreting God’s providences. In the wake of the presidential elections, this quote commonly (or wrongly?) attributed to John Calvin was floating around on social media: “When God wants to judge a nation, he gives them wicked rulers.” Applying this to the Philippine situation, the new president is judged as a wicked ruler and God’s ordaining or permitting his rise to power is an act of judgment against our nation. Blanket statements like that do not accurately capture the mysteries of God’s providence. Barnes observes, “To Augustine, what we might call secular history was under the sovereign hand of God, and as such used for His purposes. But he was reluctant to offer a reliable interpretation of it.”[38] In a single historical event, no matter how seemingly trivial or history-defining, God is doing thousands of things of which we are not aware. We must be careful in interpreting the motives and purposes of God and limit ourselves to what Scriptures will allow us to say. Talking about God’s governing of the affairs of the nations in the many conflicts among warring kingdoms, Augustine throws a rhetorical question, “Manifestly these things are ruled and governed by the one God according as He pleases; and if His motives are hid, are they therefore unjust” (5.21)? Our theologizing of our current political situation must be clothed with humility and faith.

So, instead of engaging in endless (and often futile) speculations, we must remember that God gives us the doctrine of providence for our everlasting consolation. Because we often glue our minds to current events, we easily fail in keeping conclusion of history in view. God commissioned his people to be witnesses for his kingdom, not to build their own earthly kingdomd. Bradley Burroughs agrees, “Rather than being the paradigm of politics, Augustine reminds us that the church itself witnesses to the eschatological realization of the City of God.”[39] The focus of The City of God is not politics and social transformation. It is highly religious and eschatological in nature. Like Augustine’s long-term view of history, Isaac Adams tweets daily, “Christian, we are one day closer to heaven.” Woo concludes his article on Augustine’s political thought:

He sees humanity, the church, and the state from the viewpoint of eternity. He points out that all Christians are pilgrims who everyday take a step forward toward the city of God in heaven…As the people of God, they should live their lives differently from those of the citizens of the earthly city. They need to arrange all aspects of life in the perspective of the pilgrim eschatology…which is a continual reminder of the ultimate and spiritual reality of the world.[40]

A pilgrim mindset helps us live our lives with the end in mind while working for the good of this earthly city. Embracing the church’s prophetic role while considering our high view of God’s providence will help us avoid over-involvement in politics and societal transformation. Augustine does not offer suggestions on how to transform culture or change society.[41] But it does not mean that passivity is a corollary response to God’s all-pervasive providence. Bruijne’s conclusion in his article reminds us that even “tiny mustard seeds” are made historically significant by God’s omnipotence, and the church’s witness

should not primarily take the traditional Christendom form of powerful churches publicly raising their voices or issuing declarations, demanding official audiences and recognition. Every simple sermon, every public debate, every contribution to the media, and even small-scale conversations or remarks in passing could and should contain prophetic dimensions. Moreover, prophecy with words will only resonate when the Church noticeably longs and begins to live those truths. Here too, we should learn to trust that even in post-Christian democracies and with tiny mustard seeds, the Lord is able to make his Church a blessing for the surrounding society.[42]

Bibliography

Augustine of Hippo. “The City of God.” In St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff, translated by Marcus Dods. Vol. 2. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887.

Barnes, Peter. “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God.” The Reformed Theological Review 71, no. 2 (August 2012): 90–108.

Bruijne, Ad de. “Living with Scripture, Living in a Democracy.” European Journal of Theology 28, no. 2 (2020): 124–35.

Burroughs, Bradley B. “Reconceiving Politics: Soulcraft, Statecraft, and the City of God.” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 33, no. 1 (2013): 45–62.

Cornelio, Jayeel. “The 2022 Elections and the Sovereign Will of God.” Rappler (blog), May 22, 2022. https://www.rappler.com/voices/thought-leaders/opinion-2022-elections-sovereign-will-of-god/.

Levering, Matthew. “Linear and Participatory History: Augustine’s City of God.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 5, no. 2 (2011): 175–96.

———. The Theology of Augustine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. https://www.perlego.com/book/2050984/the-theology-of-augustine-pdf.

Maxfield, John A. “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God.” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66, no. 4 (October 2002): 339–60.

O’Daly, Gerald. Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Piper, John. Providence. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021.

Woo, B. Hoon. “Pilgrim’s Progress in Society: Augustine’s Political Thought in The City of God.” Political Theology 16, no. 5 (September 2015): 421–41.


[1] Jayeel Cornelio, “The 2022 Elections and the Sovereign Will of God,” Rappler (blog), May 22, 2022, https://www.rappler.com/voices/thought-leaders/opinion-2022-elections-sovereign-will-of-god/.

[2] Cornelio.

[3] B. Hoon Woo, “Pilgrim’s Progress in Society: Augustine’s Political Thought in The City of God,” Political Theology 16, no. 5 (September 2015): 422.

[4] John A. Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” Concordia Theological Quarterly 66, no. 4 (October 2002): 340.

[5] Peter Barnes, “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God,” The Reformed Theological Review 71, no. 2 (August 2012): 92.

[6] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 342.

[7] Maxfield, 358.

[8] See Gerald O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[9] All citations from The City of God are from Augustine of Hippo, “The City of God,” in St. Augustin’s City of God and Christian Doctrine, edited by Philip Schaff, translated by Marcus Dods, Vol. 2, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1887). Parenthetical citations include book and chapter numbers. For example, 18.40 refers to Book XVIII, Chap. 40.

[10] All Scripture quotation, unless otherwise specified are from the English Standard Version of the Holy Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bible, 2016).

[11] Matthew Levering, The Theology of Augustine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), https://www.perlego.com/book/2050984/the-theology-of-augustine-pdf.

[12] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 345.

[13] Maxfield, 345.

[14] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[15] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 357.

[16] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[17] A term used by John Piper in Providence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021).

[18] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[19] Barnes, “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God,” 102.

[20] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[21] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 354.

[22] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[23] Matthew Levering, “Linear and Participatory History: Augustine’s City of God,” Journal of Theological Interpretation 5, no. 2 (2011): 177.

[24] Ad de Bruijne, “Living with Scripture, Living in a Democracy,” European Journal of Theology 28, no. 2 (2020): 127-28.

[25] Bruijne, 131–32.

[26] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[27] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[28] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[29] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 349.

[30] Barnes, “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God,” 103.

[31] Barnes, 103.

[32] Levering, The Theology of Augustine.

[33] Maxfield, “Divine Providence, History, and Progress in Saint Augustine’s City of God,” 359.

[34] Maxfield, 340.

[35] Maxfield, 355.

[36] Maxfield, 355.

[37] Maxfield, 355.

[38] Barnes, “Augustine’s View of History in His City of God,” 105.

[39] Bradley B. Burroughs, “Reconceiving Politics: Soulcraft, Statecraft, and the City of God,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 33, no. 1 (2013): 52.

[40] Woo, “Pilgrim’s Progress in Society,” 439.

[41] Woo, 436.

[42] Bruijne, “Living with Scripture, Living in a Democracy,” 132.


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