A cute game in the modern theology faculties is to play the later Augustine against the earlier Augustine, while demonstrating incomprehension of both. Thus we can extract, like a sorting machine, two “doctrines of grace,” and set one against the other — if we are sufficiently smug.

The man himself, reviewing his own works, towards the end of his life, did not disown his earlier writings. Instead he called attention explicitly to a development in his thinking, between a work published in the year 394, and another in the year 397. It would be more accurate to say that the one work leads to the other. He was consecrated a bishop in the interim, and he strongly hints that the gravity of this election contributed to the development of his thinking. Grace itself then comes into this directly — grace in the explication of grace, I should think — from an “Augustinian point-of-view.”

His Confessions continue to place high on the classical bestseller charts, for the remarkable candour with which they were written (about 398). Among the qualities that make him so breathtakingly “modern” (in the old sense of, Ancients versus Moderns), is that remarkable guilelessness and candour; that Gospel elimination of the ancient Olympian pose (though sometimes done with irony). Augustine is making an assault for the truth, and he is writing for people in like mind: marines or commandos in some sense; people who “live like marines.” We aren’t aloof, can’t afford to be aloof, on the fundamental questions of our being. Too much is at stake, and it is too late in the day.

Either it is my imagination — for I am not a learned man — or there actually is a development of tone, between the earlier and later Augustine, turning on the year 396. He becomes more urgent and more sure. It is as if he were himself crossing that threshold from the Ancient to the Modern: from Christianity as an ancient cult, under attack in all quarters, to what came to be known as Christendom. It is an action of the mind parallel, in some way, to the en toutoi nika of Constantine. (“In this sign will you conquer.”) We are no longer scaling the walls, as it were; we are suddenly inside the fortress.

We are no longer the persecuted, and therefore, we have no choice but to assume the responsibilities of government. This is not a cynical thing, as it must appear to the post-Christian mind, which immediately thinks, “Now it is your turn to persecute.” To the Christian view, it is taking up a burden, one actually thrust upon us — in the void that is opened when the earthly powers crumble away; as they have often done and will do.

The circumstances of Augustine’s life and times explain this adequately. He grasps them himself in The City of God. The ancient, pagan, Roman world is collapsing. His own diocese of Hippo is sliding into the hands of barbarians; in August of the year 410, Rome itself is sacked by Alaric and the Visigoths. (For eight centuries it had been secure.) The book is a treasury of Christian teaching, addressed to the soul of every man. Yet, one might almost say paradoxically, it is also among the greatest political tracts, plainly expressing the way this world is ordered, and should be ordered.

An earthly kingdom whose eyes are fixed on Heaven — the very mediaeval ideal — is prefigured in this work. We cannot be Pelagians; we cannot optimistically assume that, thanks to baptism, all will be well. The condition of the world really is a cause for sadness, and we, who are wounded, like the Samaritan — struck down by the Enemy, and fallen along the road — cannot “fix it” by our own devices. The wounded must care for the wounded; but salvation can come only through Grace.

Our situation today is no different. It remains just the same as Augustine described, as another pagan empire is succumbing to another barbarian conquest. In this midst, we wounded have no choice but to “take charge” — and in the sign of the same Cross. God must be our government, because men will always fail. We will fail, verily, unless we serve that high order; and even then we will fail in the sight of the world. But there is no avoiding our grave responsibility; it cannot be disavowed.

Divine Grace, properly understood even in the most elementary terms, tells us there can be no secular political solution. No man and no mob has the power to impose it. Christ alone has the power, drawn down from the Heaven, bestowed upon us according to our need. Our situation is thus not hopeless. In fact it is extremely hopeful, for those at least who are following their orders.

For then as now there is a war on: a war that the forces of light and goodness are bound, finally, to win. It is a war of the worlds, and the earth is in the middle. We are the wounded soldiers in that war. But every inch of ground we can take from the forces of darkness and evil, is well won for Christ our King. And every inch surrendered will be occupied by the Devil.

This is not a dream; this is how things are; and in this state of war, none of us can pretend to be neutrals. We must choose between the City of God; and the City of Man, falsely promised in the propaganda of the Enemy.

It is to this end, that we must come to a better and better understanding of how things are. This is what Augustine meant by his Retractationes. Not to disavow his former works, but to improve upon them; even to put them back into service for the fight ahead. We cannot fix the world but we can fix our weapons. The war goes on.

The front line passes through every human heart, and we must keep pushing it forward — pushing and pushing to our last breath.