Augustine and the Insanity of Religious Tolerance

Second Article of the Series, “Retrieving Happiness”

Augustine’s Harmony of the Gospels is arguably one of the most extensive work the African theologian ever produced.[1] According to S D. F. Salmond, one should probably date the work no later than 399 CE (thirty years before Augustine’s death) because in Book I, “there is a sentence (§26) which appears to indicate that … the destruction of the idols of the old region was being carried out under express imperial authority.”[2] This widespread edict was first enacted by Theodosius I.[3] Furthermore, athough Augustine speaks of this authoritatively imperial destruction of idols in The Harmony of the Gospels, he makes no mention of such laws that affected Africa like those placed upon Carthage under the rules of Gaudentius and Jovius, of which he wrote in City of God, which suggests that The Harmony of the Gospels was written before the Visigoths sacked Rome.[4]

 During this period, many “alleged that the original Gospels had received considerable additions of a spurious character,”[5] and thus the “evangelical historians contradicted each other.”[6] Therefore, Augustine sought out to absolve Christianity from any false claim that (1) the New Testament was incongruous with the Old Testament, (2) that the Gospels themselves were incongruous, and (3) therefore the entire Christian religions was incongruous. It is within this context that Augustine writes The Harmony of the Gospels.

Augustine's Thesis

The section upon which this brief essay reflects is Book I, §XIX–XXXI. In Book I, Augustine “refutes those who asserted that Christ was only the wisest among men … by insisting on the absence of any written compositions proceeding from the hand of Christ Himself, and by affirming that the disciples went beyond what had been his own teaching both on the subject of His divinity, and on the duty of abandoning the worship of the gods.”[7] In the two chapters prior to our section (§XVII and §XVIII), Augustine charges Roman polytheists with inconsistency: If the Romans claim that all gods are to be worshipped, and if the Christian God is a god, then the Romans must also worship this God. But the Romans do not worship this God, and therefore their “pious” polytheism is irreconcilable with their own worldview because they disregard the exclusive claims to deity by the Christian God. And even if these polytheists claimed that they worshipped the Christian God alongside their pantheon of gods, they would remain pragmatically inconsistent because “unless [the Christian God] is worshipped alone, He is really not worshipped at all.”[8] And this is Augustine’s primary concern—to show Roman polytheists that the Christian God is true and superior to all other gods, which are untrue (that is, not real). Therefore, they should worship him.

I see three main principles from which Augustine builds his case: (1) The God of Israel has promised in the past what he is bringing about in the present; (2) Unlike the Christians, the pagans fabricate their own gods; and (3) by formulating their own gods, the pagans are inconsistent with their false worldview.

Augustine's Argument

First, Augustine argues the true God of Israel has proven that he acts within time and space. He writes,

For if those are held to be gods whose prophets, when consulted by men, have returned responses which … were at least most convenient for their private interests, how is not He to be regarded as God whose prophets have not only given the congruous answer on subjects regarding which they were consulted at the special time, but who also … have announced prophetically so long time before the event those very things of which we now read, and which indeed we now behold?[9]

 Here Augustine does not refute the possibly that a false god actually prophesies (though he does refute that claim); he is simply arguing for the true God’s existence. And even if a false god could prophesy, the fact that such prophetic fulfillments “were at least most convenient for their private interests” strengthens the claim that the Christian God is the true God since he prophesied in ancient time events that have actually occurred in the present.[10] Augustine gives an example: though the Romans deem as gods those who sing prophetic, divine oracles under the inspiration of the Sibyl, they fail to recognize that the Christian God has demonstrated long ago how “the Romans and all nations are coming to believe in Himself through the gospel of Christ ... and to demolish all the images of their fathers,”[11] which was currently taking place in Augustine’s context under an imperial Roman edict.

The second principle from which Augustine builds his case is that Roman polytheists have fabricated their own gods to their own liking. In chapter §XIX, Augustine asks why the pagans do not revere he who explicitly condemns the Roman gods and prophesied the destruction of the Gentiles even though they deem as gods those who have not spoken against the Christian God? The implication to this question is that the polytheists reject the Christian God because they do not like his exclusivity; for them, this would mean abandoning all their idols and abominable practices that go along with the idols. Later, Augustine will refute the claim that the twelve disciples fabricated their own teaching from the teachings of Christ, which implies that they fabricated their own deity.[12] According to Augustine, they claimed that “His disciples not only gave a false account of Him when they declared Him to be the God by whom all things were made … but also that they taught with regard to these gods of theirs something different from what they had themselves learned from him.”[13] Augustine proves that the Roman polytheists are the ones who fabricate their own gods “suitable to their inclinations” because of their inconsistency in betraying their own worldview,[14] which leads us to Augustine’s third principle.

Third, because the pagans fabricate for themselves their own gods, they betray the very worldview they attempt to promote. The pagans maintain that all gods should be worshipped; therefore, Augustine finds nothing in their writings that denies the Christian God.[15] However, the biblical prophets explicitly deny all pagan gods.[16] Furthermore, if the Romans claim that the Christian God should not be worshipped while maintaining that all gods should be worshipped, their gods are profitless. But if the Christian God should also be worshipped, then their pagan worship of other gods is proven impious because of the exclusive claims to monotheism by the Christian God. How then can the Romans still choose their gods instead of the Christian God who clearly prohibits them from polytheism? Answer: they cannot—or at least, to remain logically consistent, they should not. Because of this, the Christian God is superior.[17]

Augustine even notes that some consider the Christian God the pagan god Saturn or Jupiter; this is still inconsistent with their polytheistic presuppositions.[18] Augustine writes,

But even these new interpreters of Saturn must be required to tell us what they think of the God of the Hebrews. For to them also it seemed right to worship all the gods, as is done by the heathen nations … For if they do not worship Him then they do not worship all gods; and if they do worship Him, they do not worship Him in the way that He has ordained for His own worship, because they worship others also whose worship He has interdicted.[19]

 At the end of Book I, Augustine even notes that he read “in some philosopher or another” the following: “He [the Christian God] is deity … that presides over those elements of which this visible material universe is constructed.”[20] To which Augustine responds: “If, indeed, He is the deity that presides over the elements of which this world consists, why is He not worshipped in preference to Neptune, who presides over the sea only?”[21] Thus, to worship the pantheon of Roman gods but to reject the Christian God is to live functionally inconsistent. In other words, according to Augustine, these pagans wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.

Conclusion: Application for Today

One does not have to read much of Book I, chs. §XIX–XXXI to find direct application for today’s Church in America. And from what I see, there is at one major application that should be noted because it relates directly to American, post-modern culture: the insane contradiction of “religious tolerance.”

Just as Augustine indicted the pagans with fabricating their gods according to their own inclinations,[22] he would likely also indict post-modern America with the same charge. Just like the pagans denied any exclusive worship to one particular god, so too America denies the reality of one God—which ironically betrays the clear recognition of monotheism (“In God We Trust”) printed on their bills of currency. Christians would do well to follow Augustine in uncovering the inconsistencies and faulty presuppositions by those who promote religious “tolerance.” Often a simple redefinition of terms can serve to uncover obscured meanings.

For instance, one website writes, “We believe in … Lack of discrimination: Working towards a culture that is relatively free of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientationgender identityreligion, national origin, physical disability, language, age, body shape, etc.”[23] At first glance, I would suggest that all Christians should despise discrimination as it is commonly defined: “The unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things.”[24] However, some in America might label a Christian as discriminatory (and therefore intolerant) if one merely stated that homosexuality, transgenderism, or practicing Islam are sins. But most Christians would say that this is not discrimination; this is remaining faithful to religious convictions. Yet, they might say to the Christians that such an “intolerant” disposition runs against the “tolerant” disposition of progressive, post-modern Americans. However, that even such an intolerant position runs against that of the so-called “tolerant” position only proves the logical inconsistency of this post-modern idea of “tolerance.” That is, you cannot claim to be “tolerant” and not accept the “intolerant.”

This is precisely what Augustine was attacking: you can’t say you worship all the gods and reject the god who claims exclusive worship; that’s inconsistent. According to Augustine, the pagans rejected the real God to preserve their worldly passions allowed by their pantheon of gods. In the like manner, we live in a culture wherein reality is rejected daily in order to promote autonomous, self-centered, self-creating reality. As Augustine made clear in these sections in The Harmony of the Gospels, a call to religious tolerance is a call to insanity. By accepting all gods, you reject the one God who requires exclusive worship of himself. By accepting all gods, you choose insanity. By accepting religious “tolerance,” you accept contradiction by refusing the “intolerant”; therefore, those “tolerant” become the very people whom they indict as intolerant.

[1] M. B. Riddle, “Introductory Essay” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6 Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, nd.), 154.

[2] S. D. F. Salmond, “Translator’s Introductory Notice,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, nd.), 160 (emphasis added). 

[3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, vol. 1, rev. and enl. ed. (Broadway, NY: HarperOne, 210), 141.

[4] Saint Augustine of Hippo, The City of God: Originally, De Cititate Dei contra Paganos or, The City of God against the Pagans, trans. Marcus Dods (Peabody MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 601–04 (Book 18, §54).

[5] Salmond, “Translator’s Introductory Notice,” 160.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 161.

[8] Saint Augustine, The Harmony of the Gospels, §XIX. Augustine, in §XXIV, also writes that “if they do not worship Him then they do not worship all gods; and if they do worship Him, they do not worship Him in the way that He has ordained for His own worship, because they worship others also whose worship He has interdicted.”

 [9] Ibid., §XIX (emphasis added).

[10] Ibid., §XIX, XXVIII. See ibid., §XXV–XXVI, XXVIII, XXX–XXXI, and XXXV for other examples. See ibid., §XXVI, XXXI for proofs that Christ was prophesied in ancient times and fulfilled the prophecy in his life, death, and resurrection.

[11] Ibid., §XIX.

[12] Ibid., §XXXII, XXXIV.

[13] Ibid., §XXXIV.

[14] Ibid.; Cf. §XX.

[15] Augustine believes that their documents contain even evidence in favor of the Christian God: “For I stop not to state that those things which we can read in their books repeat a testimony on behalf of our religion … which they might have heard from the holy angels and from our prophets themselves; just as the very devils were compelled to confess Christ when he was present in the flesh,” ibid., §XX.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., XXI.

[18] Ibid., XXII.

[19] Ibid., XXIV.

[20] Ibid., XXIX.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., §XX.


[24] The New American Oxford Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), cited on personal MacBook Pro.