Skip to main content


Theological treatments of land, place, and the built environment are increasingly common. Most Christian theologies of place take their cues from the presence of the Triune God. However, a theology of place must also reckon with issues of diversity, pluralization, and tolerance, and thus the way that Christians practice citizenship in their ethnic and civic communities. In other words, a profoundly Christian practice of place might appear to be a threat to an authentically pluralistic society. New Testament scholars have renewed attention to the biblical claim that those united to Christ inherit the creation with him. This sort of language is implacably political and potentially troublesome; it forces theological ethics to wrestle with Christian citizenship directly. This article argues that returning to the resurrection is a particularly important ground for Christian habits of place. The resurrection grounds both an unvarnished Christian witness to the Trinitarian meaning of place while also framing Christian citizenship as an eschatologically anticipatory mode of life, along the lines of what Augustine describes in the City of God.


Augustine, Built environment, citizenship, inheritance, place, two cities

Theological treatments of land, place, and the built environment are increasingly common. Most Christian theologies of place take their cues from the presence of the Triune God. A theology of place must also reckon with issues of diversity, pluralization, and tolerance and thus the way that Christians practice citizenship in their ethnic and civic communities. In other words, a profoundly Christian practice of place might appear to be a threat to an authentically pluralistic society. New Testament scholars have renewed attention to the biblical claim that those united to Christ inherit the creation with him. This sort of language is implacably political and potentially troublesome; it forces theological ethics to wrestle with Christian citizenship directly. Given this conundrum, I argue that the resurrection is a particularly important ground for Christian habits of place. My thesis is that the resurrection grounds both an unvarnished Christian witness to the Trinitarian meaning of place as well as frames Christian citizenship as an eschatologically anticipatory mode of life, along the lines of what Augustine describes in the City of God.

The tensions of a Christian theology of place for those who inherit the world

The apostle Paul appealed to the church at Philippi that they were to “live as citizens worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Phil 1:27). Is Paul saying that the Philippian church is to act as citizens of Rome in a way that is worthy of the Gospel? Perhaps this is so, but more likely Paul is calling the Philippian church to live in the Roman Empire as citizens of another polity. As he says later in the letter, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). What does Paul mean? One of the currents in New Testament scholarship interprets this as anti-imperial language. As N. T. Wright puts it, if Jesus is proclaimed as Lord in Philippians 2, the implication is that “Caesar is not.”1 In the language of citizenship, the implication might be that Paul is “renouncing any serious identification with his Roman citizenship,” and holds onto that citizenship only in order to circumvent his own death.2Yet, even if there is an anti-imperial meaning to Paul’s words, Paul is not vitiating Christian responsibility in the wider culture. As he says at the beginning of the letter, his imprisonment has led to the gospel becoming known in the “whole imperial guard” (Phil 1:13). It is also difficult to reconcile a renunciation of Roman citizenship with how Paul talks about the benefits of Roman authority in Romans 13—the Roman authority is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom 13:4). In the context of pluralistic modern nation-states, where citizenship is shared much more widely than in the Roman Empire, what do Paul’s words mean for us now? How do Christians approach both citizenships, and how do they relate?

This is an important question in multiple contexts, but especially in the context of a theology and practice of place. Building on the work of Walter Brueggemann and James Hester in 1977 and 1968, respectively, a thread of New Testament scholarship has become interested in arguing more specifically and vigorously for approaches that do not undercut the materiality of eschatological inheritance.3 Mark Forman, for example, has argued that reading Rom 4:13 (“For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”) and Rom 8:17 (“… heirs of God, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ …”) in the broader context of Romans, Old Testament inheritance dynamics, intertestamental literature, and imperial culture “convey the idea of universal sovereignty which believers will share with the Son.”4 In other words, the inheritance of Abraham, which is brought to fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, “retains a strongly geographical reality but that is now extended to the whole world rather than limited to Canaan.”5 Yet, in contrast to the imperial culture, the people of God, shaped by the story of Abraham, regard the land as a gift, as a blessing meant for the blessing of all of Israel and the blessing of many nations.6

The resurrection is particularly relevant to these inheritance motifs. Psalm 2—speaking of the Messiah, the Anointed One—holds the promise that “I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession.” N. T. Wright argues that the disciples do not believe that Jesus is the Messiah because “they already believed that the Messiah, when he came, would be raised from the dead.”7 No, the resurrection is the reason they believed he is the Messiah: “the Jesus they knew had been tried and executed as Messiah, and this extraordinary and unexpected event … had apparently reversed the verdicts of both the Jewish and Roman courts.” Thus, one implication of that promise, in light of the resurrection, is that the New Testament writers, such as Paul, took Jesus Christ to be the offspring of Abraham—one who receives God’s covenant promises on behalf of Israel (Gal 3:15–18). Because of the resurrection, Jesus is known to be the Messiah, the one who receives God’s covenant promises—including the land of Israel—and simultaneously one who rules the land on behalf of God.

Yet, the covenant promises and hopes of Israel are about even more. The hope is that “all the earth shall be filled with the glory of YHWH” (Num 14:21). Just as the glory of the Lord fills the tabernacle and temple before the exile, just so will glory fill the whole earth in and through Christ.8 As God dwelled in the tabernacle and temple, even more does the glory of God disperse through the resurrected Christ into the creation—“the lamp is the Lamb,” as Revelation puts it (Rev 21:23). Jesus the Messiah does not simply receive and rule the land. Instead, in the resurrection, Jesus the Messiah both inherits a transformed land that is filled with the glory of God’s presence and also perfects the land such that the glory of God’s presence becomes unavoidably palpable. Thus, for Wright, when Paul speaks of “the hope of glory” (Rom 5:2), he is “not talking … about heaven. He is talking about the renewal and restoration of creation, and about the role within that purpose, under the creator God, of human beings in whom the spirit has been at work.”9 The resurrection does not simply reveal that Jesus is the one who inherits creation, it is the giving of the inheritance itself: the new creation. The inheritance is a creation flooded by the self-expression of the Triune God, as it is shared with the creation in Christ.

In the context of place-making, the question of the proper practice of Christian citizenship—citizenship in heaven and citizenship in our current nation-states—has particular importance. For, if this band of New Testament scholarship is right, then the people of God are responsible as heirs of the land in which they live. In a Roman context, to be an expectant heir was to act in accord with being a part of the family—the family that holds responsibility for the inheritance.10 As Paul puts it in Romans, those united to the Son are to be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). What does that mean?

Contemporary theology and ethics have begun to take advantage of this thread of biblical scholarship with regard to land and inheritance. For example, John Inge’s work draws on Brueggemann in order to define place as “the seat of relations or the place of meeting and activity in the interaction between God and the world.”11 In this dynamic, neither the people nor the place are extrinsic to the uniqueness of a place. It is not simply that a place has a meaningful relationship to God that people, in turn, discover. Neither does a people simply bring a meaning to a place. Place-making happens in the interaction between God, the people, and a particular place. Inge also offers further clarity on what happens in this interaction. Inge argues that places are sacramental—they are not identical to sacraments—they are sacramental in that they are spaces in which “the material becomes a vehicle for God’s self-communication.”12 This claim deepens his relational view of places by orienting them to shared memories of God’s action. Places become sacramental just because God reveals God’s self in a particular way, in a particular place. It also deals with one of the difficulties of a theological approach to place: how can one place be holy as opposed to another? The incarnation provides both a warrant and a pattern for this relational, sacramental approach to place: “God chose some places for self-revelation to people, just as God chose one place for the incarnation … it is not that God has chosen some places in preference to others, but rather that holy places point to the redemption of all places in Christ.”13 In a certain sense, for Inge, all places are holy. Nonetheless, “holy places” are ones that open up perception of God’s action and presence everywhere.

At this point a tension arises for Christian citizenship in our contemporary context. Inge’s work narrates quite well how shrines of all kinds, including churches, are, or at least should be, sacramental places that open up perception to God’s creation and redemption of all things. His narrative, however, trails off concerning the question of shared place-making in pluralistic cultures. Christians do not simply build or dwell in homes and churches for themselves; they also build boulevards, office spaces, apartment complexes, etc. Karl Barth argued that “we are more in God’s space than in our created space” and that “our space does not exist apart from God’s space … by it and in it God’s space is always and altogether in our space as well.”14 The question now arises: how do Christians make places in creation when all of creation is made of places shaped by God’s action? More basically and helpfully, perhaps, what are the habits by which Christians can approach place-making in pluralistic environments?

An alternative approach can be represented by Timothy Gorringe’s work. Gorringe quite agrees with Inge’s way of relating sacred places to other places: all spaces are “potentially sacred;” they are made sacred by a moment of encounter with the divine; and they “are a reminder of the potential for epiphany of all other spaces.”15 With that insight, he aims to talk about built environments that are not sacred space—he says quite forthrightly that his ruminations on the built environment are “not about churches, but about supposedly ‘secular’ buildings and settlements.”16 Agreeing with Barth’s basic orientation to space and place, Gorringe sets up a theological grounding and ethical guidance for approaching built spaces in shared, pluralistic environments. For example, when he argues that built environments should conduce face-to-face interactions—i.e. community based on bodily proximity—he uses the church’s life as a model, because it “has a sacramental significance for humanity as a whole.”17 The results? He asks that built environments work toward local community, carry on memory and tradition, arise from relationships that deal with conflicts, are shared justly, and embody a common purpose.18

All of Gorringe’s guidance is quite appropriate, but it also tends to separate theology from ethics in ways that he himself warns us cannot be done.19 The problem is that this Christian habit and theology of place tends to become, as Sam Wells puts it in a larger context, “moralized into a blueprint for a non-Christian society.”20 Gorringe appeals to Barth as the one who roots anthropology in Christology—as Jesus is the human being for others, just so are all human beings.21 But, this layer of Barth’s anthropology was embedded in a deeper matrix—Jesus is the human being for others because he is the human being for God, for the God who elected and called him and who elects other human beings in him.22 Gorringe’s recommendations, helpful as they are (and they are indeed helpful!), do not include recommendations for a divine reference in shared built environments. In contrast, Philip Bess, using the idea that “both space and the objects that define and occupy it are always at least potentially sacramental,” concludes that architects with this sense of the sacred ought to be put to work creating not just “temples of worship, but also … ‘temples of justice,’ ‘temples of learning,’ and ‘temples of healing.’” 23 For Bess, sacred built environments incorporate at least six characteristics: “A sense of verticality”; “Concern for light”; “Care for and delight in craftsmanship, durability, and material particularity”; “… ordering devices emblematic of the ‘structure’ of the natural order and its rootedness in the sacred”; “compositional and artistic unity, whether simply or complex”; and “perhaps most importantly, a sense of hierarchy: of sacred things (even if they are ‘plain’ and ‘ordinary’ things, sanctified).”24 If Gorringe asks readers to recognize all space as subject to the Lordship of the Triune God, Bess’s work takes up that challenge and suggests ways to do this in built environments without shearing off transcendent reference. But, how are Christians to practice this sort of planning and building in pluralistic environments? If Bess’s recommendations can represent ways that Christians can be conformed to the image of the Son who rules over creation, how do they practice Christ-conforming place-making in pluralistic nation-states?

The two cities: Citizenship in Augustine

One of the resources for addressing questions like this, especially in Western Christianity, has been Augustine’s theology of the two cities. Oliver O’Donovan has argued that the “doctrine of the two” arises from the context and needs of Christendom. In other words, there is civic order and an ecclesial order, and the doctrine of the two is meant to articulate what happens when the “rulers of the world have bowed before Christ’s throne.”25 In the medieval era, the doctrine of the two became a distinction between two authorities within one Christian society.26 In contrast to the medieval period, until the end of the patristic era, the two cities are considered to be “distinct structures belonging to distinct societies, and, indeed, distinct eras of salvation history.”27 In other words, at the beginning of Christendom, the distinctions between the two cities were built upon distinctions between the people of God and those whom the letter to Ephesus describes as being “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God” (Eph 4:18). Augustine’s two cities doctrine, especially as found in the City of God, fits within the earlier patristic conception.28 Thus, I will reconsider Augustine’s two cities theology because of its deep influence on multiple Christian confessions and because it articulates a relation between the two that is more consistent with the current socio-cultural situation of the church in North America and the West more broadly. In other words, given its context and perspective it offers more in the way of dealing with the dethronement of the church in contemporary culture.

The culminating point of Augustine’s theology of citizenship in the two cities is Book 19 of the City of God. As is well known, the occasion of the City of God was the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410. If the Empire had turned to Christ, how is it that the Empire could be so weakened and defeated?29 Augustine’s basic response was to say that happiness cannot be had in this life, and not by the gods of Rome. Instead, he aims to “establish the City of God, and true religion, and the true worship of God. For in this alone is the genuine promise of eternal bliss.”30 Book 19 presents this human happiness within a social register. The happiness of the heavenly city at the end of time is “a perfectly ordered and perfectly harmonious fellowship in the enjoyment of God, and a mutual fellowship in God.”31

Augustine’s way of articulating the relationship between “temporal peace” and “peace in life everlasting” is particularly important for understanding how Augustine frames the practice of Christian citizenship.32 Temporal peace—an order among or between classes of entities—consists in “bodily health and soundness, and in fellowship with one’s kin” which happens within mortal life.33 Augustine wonders whether to describe this as peace, given that it may not be trained upon enjoyment of the Triune God. In the end, he uses this word in a broader sense because all human beings seek peace, even if they do not direct that desire toward the peace of eternal life. For Augustine, there is an ontological ramification of the fact that created goods, including the conditions for temporal peace, are given so that “every mortal who uses aright such goods, goods designed to serve the peace of mortal men, shall receive goods greater in degree and superior in kind, namely, the peace of immortality.”34 Thus, the two citizenships—earthly citizenship and heavenly citizenship—are differentiated by whether “use of temporal things is related to the enjoyment of earthly peace” or “related to the enjoyment of eternal peace.”35 How are temporal things to be used? They are to be integrated into the practice of the love of God and neighbor, such that all things are done to maintain the love of God in oneself and in one’s neighbor.

Heavenly citizenship, as it is practiced before arriving at heaven, boils down to a practice of love that anticipates the enjoyment of other people in God that will be practiced in heaven. It sounds relatively harmless. If citizenship is a matter of loving others in a common context, then Christian citizens will simply learn to cooperate with others in a neutral space that allows for different kinds of loves.36 But a basic alienation between the two cities never recedes. As Oliver O’Donovan puts it, “there is no tertium quid between the two cities, no neutral space on which they meet as equal partners … only the ‘earthly peace,’ ‘that temporal peace of the meantime which is shared by good and wicked alike,’ is common to both communities.”37 In other words, they make different use of that shared earthly peace: one uses it for the sake of loving God and the other does not. Although Augustine was able to say that Rome was a commonwealth because it shared a common love, a common love of itself and the resulting domination of other nations, he could not quite say that it befitted the full ontological weight that a commonwealth suggests. Book 19, in the end, is Augustine saying that “it is life outside the Christian community which fails to be truly public, authentically political.”38 The central case in point for Augustine is justice. If we are going to define a commonwealth as an entity that engages in justice for the sake of a whole community, then Rome fails. Why does Rome fail, for Augustine? If justice is giving everyone their due, God must be worshipped because worship is giving God God’s due.39 Justice is a matter of loving yourself and loving others in a way that sustains and does not undercut one’s love for God. Citizenship in the heavenly city is working for a love of God across all human boundaries, including the boundaries within one’s own life.

This brings us back to place-making. Thus far, Augustine’s theology of citizenship simply affirms the tension that has been identified. With regard to justice on Augustine’s terms, Christian citizenship would require giving due to God through place. That means two things. First, it means doing the kinds of things with space that Bess mentions above. Second, it clarifies why shaping space with the transcendent in view is a matter of Christian citizenship. For Augustine, as we noted, loving other people and one’s self has to do with helping and not hurting one’s own love for God. Practicing Christian citizenship by planning and building places that have theological reference is also a matter of cultivating worship in human beings. This was the aspect that Gorringe elided above. Christian community happens in all the ways he specifies simply because it is a community that is held together by a worship of God in Christ. But, not only that, the Christian community loves other communities, seeking always to support and not hinder their love for God. Shaping shared places into places that refer to the life of God in Christ is simply a matter of love for the culture which the church inhabits.

Resurrection as the shape of inheritance

A question still lurks at this point. If all of this is true, what is the concrete posture of the Christian community with regard to place? Does the Christian community resist all types of shared place-making that do not have theological reference? How do they do justice to the dignity of other human beings who do not share these convictions? As mentioned above, the resurrection is the key event that shapes the New Testament’s claims about the people of God as the heirs of the world. As such, it also frames the tensions with regard to practicing citizenship in pluralistic contexts. In this section and the next, I will synthesize four layers of a biblical theology of the resurrection that give shape to the inheritance given in Christ as well as Augustine’s way of receiving the theology of the resurrection. In the final section, I will point to the implications of the resurrection for practicing Christian citizenship of place in pluralistic contexts, drawing on this biblical theology and Augustine.

First, it must not be forgotten that Paul writes that those with the Holy Spirit are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if in fact we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). For the people of God, inheritance comes by way of the cross just as it does with Christ. James Hester points to the parable of the wicked tenants in Mark 12 as a story in which Jesus identifies himself as the heir sent by the Father to claim his inheritance—a claim that ends in death by those who “want to take the Inheritance for themselves.”40 Thus, the parable of the wicked tenants depicts Israel and others as those who seize their inheritance through violent means. The resurrection is the resurrection of a crucified heir, the crucified Lord. Inheritance for Christ comes by means of dying at the hands of those who want the inheritance for themselves. Thus, Romans 8, a description of a people who are heirs of the world, is a depiction of a people “groaning inwardly” (Rom 8:23). There is a sense in which the inheritance has been claimed for the people of God, for they are “more than conquerors” (Rom 8:37). Unlike the Roman Empire that conquers other nations through violence in order to take land and resources, the community of Romans 8, in the words of Mark Forman, “will be conquerors, but through the suffering of self-giving love, not violence.”41 This capacity to hold non-violently to an inheritance is itself a result of the hope of glory—of resurrection—for the groaning comes in people who are longing for “the redemption of their bodies” (Rom 8:23). Embracing suffering and groaning comes from knowing that death is no longer an obstacle to inheritance—it becomes a way to embrace that inheritance.

Second, waiting happens because the resurrection of Jesus Christ transforms the created order. The resurrection brings an inheritance that saves the creation by transforming it: it is a creation that is no longer “subjected to futility,” and is instead “set free from its bondage to decay” as it obtains “the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20–21). This parallels Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, such that the resurrection finally allows for all things to “put all things under his feet,” including death (1 Cor 15:25). In other words, the gift of creation, the abundance which comes from God’s own original gift and sustenance and recognized by God as “very good” (Gen 1:31), has been tarnished and undercut by others who want to rule in God’s place. The resurrection is God’s re-asserting the generosity of his rule and the abundance of the creation under his rule. God preserves this goodness in creation by transforming the creation, eliminating all the possible roots of corruptibility. Just as resurrection bodies move from “perishability” to “imperishability” (1 Cor 15:53), so also with the new creation.

Third, it is not simply that the creation is being transformed; it is being materially preserved through transformation. For example, the vision of the new heavens and new earth at the end of Revelation signals a creation that is utterly recognizable. Although it is true that there is no sun or moon in the New Jerusalem, given that “the glory of God is its light” (Rev 21:23), it is a depiction of the goods of creation being preserved. It is a city with depth and dimension, and the “glory and honor of the nations” are being brought into its gates (Rev 21:26). Revelation draws deeply on prophetic literature, especially Isaiah, where the vision of the new heaven and earth includes building and inhabiting homes and vineyards, laboring that bears fruit, and the “wolf and lamb” that “shall feed together” (Isa 65:25). But the most important witness suggesting that these are more than simple metaphors for a disembodied future is the body of Jesus Christ. The resurrected Christ was seen and touched. The resurrected Christ ate. The resurrected showed the disciples marks of his wounds in his hands and sides. In other words, it is because the crucified Lord is resurrected that we can say that the new creation brought on his heals is this creation, only now made new. As James Hester puts it, it is not that Abraham and his descendants “will inherit the world to come, but that they are heirs of the world.”42

Fourth, although the inheritance is this world, it is this world transformed by the Spirit at the return of Jesus Christ. As Paul writes, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11). In this text, Paul displays a Trinitarian theology of the resurrection in which both the Father and the Spirit enact both the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the resurrection of others in Christ. There are many striking aspects to this claim, but it is important to note that Spirit language is inherently resurrection language. Given that both individuals and the church are described and experienced as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16), it makes sense that Ephesians would affirm that the “seal of the Holy Spirit” is “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people” (Eph 1:14). Ephesians is careful to say that the Spirit is a pledge. In Romans 8, the Spirit seems to be included in the inheritance itself, as it is the Spirit who bears witness to the children of God. Even so, the current embodiment of the Spirit simply cannot be more than a pledge. The inheritance is currently among the people of God, but the inheritance is not yet fully in hand. If it were, the kind of transformation described above would ensue. Still, it is the Spirit’s life—the very life of God—which is even now being inherited by God’s people.

Resurrection and the two cities

The “two cities doctrine” is best understood within the resurrection. As Beth Felker Jones states, “Through and through, Augustine’s City of God is defined by the doctrine of the bodily resurrection.”43 There is a negative moment to this, and a positive moment. On the one hand, Augustine will specify that the resurrection brings a way of encountering one another that simply cannot be sustained before it is shared with all at Jesus’ return. As a result, certain ways of being a citizen are just not options in this life. On the other hand, Augustine is serious when he says that the peace of the heavenly city is the final fulfillment of temporal peace, and it is the resurrection of Jesus which provides the pattern for that claim. Also, many of those who would be inclined toward the biblical theology of inheritance and the “holistic eschatology” that it entails are relatively skeptical that Augustine is a good place to recover such an eschatology.44 Although it is true that it is not deeply thematized in his work—he wants to talk about how bodies are transformed so they might exist in heaven, instead of how the earth is transformed as the rule of God comes down at Christ’s return—his way of receiving the theology of the resurrection provides a wonderful pattern for describing the new creation.

For Augustine, as we mentioned above, the difference between the two cities is that each uses the temporal peace in different ways. Augustine describes the relationship of the city of God in relation to the earthly city as one of pilgrimage, alien residency, even captivity. In other words, the earthly city treats this time before the onset of heaven as home; the city of God knows its home happens in the future. Two key texts bring out this relationship:

So also the earthly city, whose life is not based on faith, aims at an earthly peace, and it limits the harmonious agreement of citizens concerning the giving and obeying of orders to the establishment of a kind of compromise between human wills about the things relevant to mortal life. In contrast, the Heavenly City—rather that part of it which is on pilgrimage in this condition of mortality, and which lives on the basis of faith—must needs make use of this peace also, until this mortal state, for which this kind of peace is essential, passes away. And therefore, it leads what we may call a life of captivity in this earthly city as in a foreign land, although it has already received the promise of redemption, and the gift of the Spirit as a kind of pledge of it; and yet it does not hesitate to obey the laws of the earthly city by which those things which are designed for the support of this mortal life are regulated; and the purpose of this obedience is that, since this mortal condition is shared by both cities, a harmony may be preserved between them in things that are relevant to this condition.

While this Heavenly City, therefore, is on pilgrimage in this world, she calls out citizens from all nations and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages … Thus even the Heavenly City in her pilgrimage here on earth makes use of the earthly peace and defends and seeks the compromise between human wills in respect of the provisions relevant to the mortal nature of man, so far as may be permitted without detriment to true religion and piety.45

One interpretation of the relationship between the two cities is to focus on how Augustine instrumentalizes the relationship for the sake of loving God or for the sake of the blessedness of the city.46 Augustine applies here his well-worn distinction between use (uti) and enjoy (frui). Under constant scrutiny by his interpreters, the basic idea is that the triune God is the final end and thus enjoyed; and all of creation must, at some level, be used for the enjoyment of God.47 He can mix and cross the concepts, affirming, as we saw above, that other humans are enjoyed, but they are enjoyed “in God.”48 It would only make sense that the city of God is on pilgrimage. Its home is God and enjoyment of God, and the earthly city can be used to anticipate that future enjoyment. The basic problem here is that the relationship seems one-sided, and perhaps even solipsistic. The earthly city is used by the heavenly city for its own purposes: “we make use of the peace of Babylon,” Augustine declares.49 If love is defined by the love of God in Christ, it is difficult to use the term love to describe this relationship. Cannot more be said about how temporal peace is not simply used in two different ways—and thus the earthly city gets used for the sake of the heavenly city—but is instead grafted together as a common project by the two cities?

There is something to this criticism. But attending to the way that the resurrection shapes the whole enterprise mitigates the problem. One of the terms that repeats throughout both of the block quotations above is mortality. For Augustine, death is revealed to be the enemy that it is due to the onset of the resurrection. Augustine opens Book 22 by noting that God has done many things to confirm that the “eternal bliss of the City of God” is coming.50 What are the things he lists? God creates the world filled with good things. God gave human beings the ability to contemplate God’s life. God gave humanity freedom. Even the things that contravene God’s will are brought into conformity with God’s will. Then, he ends the series: “Therefore … as we now see fulfilled in Christ the promise given to Abraham, ‘In your posterity all nations will be blessed’ … There will be a new heaven, and a new earth.’”51 In other words, the resurrection fulfills the history of God’s acts in creation. The sundering of peace—death—runs counter to this fulfillment, but it is only in light of this fulfillment that we can know that death is an enemy.

What does this mean? Both the earthly city and the heavenly city share in a common problem: death. What makes the heavenly city a captive, a pilgrim, a society of aliens, is that it lives a life steeped in death. Death, for Augustine, amounts to “a separation of natures which cohere together.”52 Death names a sundering of the relationship between God and the soul, the soul and the body, and between entities made of souls and bodies. It is the enemy of the eternal peace that Augustine is so vociferously defending. The fundamental reason the heavenly city is captive and on pilgrimage in a foreign land is that it shares a mortal life with the earthly city. Both the earthly city and the heavenly city are captive to death. The death that occurs between the soul and God means that the soul is not able to serve and rule the body. That death between soul and body means that the ways that we encounter one another in our day to day material lives makes peace difficult, even impossible, apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit. Near the end of the City of God, in Book 22, Augustine draws on 1 Cor 4:5 and comments that one of the fruits of resurrection is that “the thoughts of minds will lie open to mutual observation.”53 No longer will human beings be able to live within one another for decades and still be surprised by acts of unfaithfulness. Only then will trust and friendship be secured. This is a problem not simply for the earthly city, but also for the heavenly city. The heavenly city has a pledge in the Spirit’s presence and thus can use death against itself.54 But only the resurrection is the act by which God secures peace among human beings, and, without the resurrection, all bear the burden of corruptible bodies.55 Both cities live without the transformation of the resurrection.

Given that common situation, Augustine claims that the heavenly city lives its common life among people who do not understand the depths of their own situation. Yet, in a way, they also share in a common way of dealing with their problems. Augustine says that the best peace that the earthly city can manage is the compromise of wills. If the earthly city is made up of a people that loves itself over others because it loves itself over God, then that is all that can be managed. Yet, Augustine also affirms that the heavenly city is not simply to work around that history of compromise. The heavenly city also “seeks and defends” that compromise. Augustine realizes here that, as we saw in the biblical theology of the resurrection above, resurrection involves the preservation of the created order in and through its transformation. For example, Augustine affirms that human beings will still be male and female at the resurrection—a conclusion not shared by others in Christian antiquity. As Beth Felker Jones observes about Augustine’s claims, “God does not make us new by destroying nature. God saves us rather than some other creatures altogether. Part of who we are is written on our materially different bodies.”56Indeed, Augustine often opines that God gave human beings sexual propagation because human bodies, through the sharing of bodies in reproduction, bind human beings more deeply together.57 At the resurrection, Christ continues to bear the marks of his wounds, indicating that resurrection sums up the whole history of our bodies in order to sum up our identities. Christ’s history marks his body because his history makes him who he is, and so it is with others. It is no accident that Augustine makes it a point to say that the end of humanity is not simply the cessation of life as it stands. Heavenly peace is not an extrinsic reward for the faithful, like ice cream for those who achieve good marks. No, for Augustine, the peace of the heavenly city is “final perfection and fulfillment” of temporal peace.58 The heavenly city seeks, defends, and preserves a compromise with the earthly city because they are making a peace together that will be consummated when Christ returns. The compromises that happen between these cities make up what these cities are to be at the resurrection.59

Seeking and defending these compromises are also important once the inheritance of creation is recovered on the terms of Augustine’s doctrine of the resurrection. Augustine himself did not directly address the transformation of all creation—he tends to focus on the anthropological implications of resurrection.60 Even so, as we noted above, the resurrection is the warrant and the pattern for the new creation. Thus, if the transformation of creation follows the same dynamics of transformation that Augustine identifies in the resurrection, it allows us to recover how belonging to place shapes human identity. Willie Jennings, in a profound contribution to a theology of place in relation to the invention of race in modernity, has argued that “racial imagination … draws its life from copying a centered existence between animals, landscape and peoples.”61Blackness is a way of referring to whole swaths of people who should have been identified by their belonging to a particular place. Against this, the resurrection—following Augustine and biblical theology—preserves human identity that is constituted by belonging to particular lands. If that is true, then seeking peace with the earthly city is a way to preserve the national, civic, ethnic, or local identity that members of the earthly city share with members of the heavenly city. The temporal peace is something sought together between these two cities, because belonging to lands shapes the identities within both cities. Even more, it is through the compromises of those belonging to particular places that this belonging happens. To cooperate with the earthly city is to build a peace that echoes eternally.

The practice of Christian place-making in light of the resurrection

What are citizens of the heavenly city to do? Timothy Gorringe rightly notes that the point of a theology of place is not to “teach planners and architects what to do.”62 Theologies of place, or any theologies that seek to do justice to how ethics follows theology, propose markers that work in dialogue with planners, builders, and architects as they find ways to fuse their technical expertise with a vision provoked by theology. Other ruminations on a theology of place have offered comments on this, and much of that advice needs to be considered.63 The focus of this article has been on the reference to the transcendent in planning and building common places—a practice that is often pushed to the side, probably because of the problems involved in working in pluralistic environments.

In light of the unique presence and action of the Triune God, is the only way of faithfully shaping common places to withdraw from the pluralistic culture as much as possible? Is Ave Maria, FL an exemplary approach, where the town is conceived and planned as a cradle to grave community that is architecturally centered on a magnificent church and adjoining a Catholic university? The advantage of this approach is that it indeed gives a transcendent reference and does justice to the ordering of space for the sake of person-to-person relationships, utilizing the work of New Urbanism and other similar planning movements. It refracts, in certain ways, Augustine’s argument that worship of the Triune God constitutes the justice of a community.

There are several problems with this approach. It tends to duplicate the kind of Christendom that Augustine found himself correcting after the sack of Rome in 410. In other words, this approach betrays a resentment about a loss of cultural power, and pulls back from pluralistic environments in order that the culture might possibly be regained on proper principles in the future. It tends to suffer from the same imagination that panicked Augustine’s original readers: isn’t the church’s culture supposed to rule? If it cannot rule in one place, then it will withdraw to a place where it can. This simply fails to deal with Augustine’s claim—supported by the many parables about the kingdom that Jesus tells—that the difference between the earthly city and heavenly city is constantly maintained because of the delay of the general resurrection. It also fails to deal with Paul’s recognition that the people of God have only received a pledge—a seal of the inheritance of the creation. The reason for that claim, no doubt, is that the creation has not yet been transformed into the likeness of Christ’s body. Finally, this approach, in the end, simply gives up the range of inheritance promised by the Spirit. The people of God, which is not identical to the institutional church by any means, inherits the world. But, more fundamentally, the first heir of the world is not the people of God; it is Christ. The people of God, if it is to provide a witness to the universality of Christ’s rule—a rule that is only fully evident at the final transformation of creation—is better off not ceding any territory.

Although this may sound like a call for a kind of takeover of the urban environment, this is far from the truth. Near the end of the Book 19 of the City of God, Augustine quotes Jer 29:7, in which the prophet calls Israel to seek the peace of Babylon because “in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Augustine interprets this as “the temporal peace of the meantime, which is shared by good and bad alike.”64 The point is to seek and defend compromises with the earthly city in the built environment because the earthly city and the heavenly city are together making up what will constitute the peace of creation at Christ’s return. Certainly, as authors such as Inge and others have asked, the church needs to relearn place-making. In the common places, however, the goal is to develop built environments that do justice to multiple visions of the common good. A way to imagine these kinds of compromises might be the analogies that Ludwig Wittgenstein proffered in hopes that his readers would recognize that meaning occurs in the linguistic practices of communities, such as the duck-rabbit: “We see it as we interpret it.”65 The best approach, given our pluralistic environment, is to see the good of cities by seeking compromises in built environments that can be plausibly interpreted as both divinely referential and referential to other public goods identified by other communities. As opposed to a lowest common denominator approach, this would require hard, direct, and honest conversations about the common good and how shared places can reflect that common good. This is not simply a way to deal with the differences that occur between the cities, but to be open to the fact that the church, including even the planners and architects who are inclined to this sort of approach, does not have a monopoly on imagination. The goods of the nations—the goods brought into the New Jerusalem—are created by the nations, not just by the people of God in those nations. Even more, as Augustine recognized, the general resurrection is not something we have yet observed.66 Thus, the church needs more imagination than she has at her disposal to find ways to anticipate how the glory of God will turn the creation inside-out at the return of Christ. If the resurrection is the beginning of a new creation in which all of history gets preserved in its transformation, then the Heavenly City best find ways to provoke a temporal peace that more deeply deserves such transformation. Of course, even if such compromises are not forthcoming, there is no need to grasp anxiously or to pout resentfully, for that is the way to the wrong side of the cross, not the way of the resurrected Lord of all creation.


  1. N. T. Wright, Paul in Fresh Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 69.
  2. Gordon Zerbe, Citizenship: Paul on Peace and Politics (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013), 24.
  3. Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977); James Hester, Paul’s Concept of Inheritance(Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1968).
  4. Mark Forman, The Politics of Inheritance in Romans (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 231.
  5. Ibid., 230.
  6. Ibid., 92–100.
  7. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 576.
  8. N. T. Wright, Paul and Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1053.
  9. Ibid., 1091.
  10. Trevor Burke, Adopted in God’s Family (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006), 60–71, 96–98.
  11. John Inge, A Christian Theology of Place (Burlington: Ashgate, 2003), 52.
  12. Ibid., 91.
  13. Ibid., 100.
  14. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, trans. T. H. L. Parker, et al, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (London: T & T Clark, 1957), 476.
  15. Timothy Gorringe, Theology of the Built Environment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 40.
  16. Ibid., 7.
  17. Ibid., 185.
  18. Ibid., 185–192.
  19. Ibid., 1.
  20. Samuel Wells, Transforming Fate into Destiny (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 103.
  21. Gorringe, 184.
  22. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III.2, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley, et al., ed. Geoffrey Bromily and Thomas Torrance (London: T & T Clark), 55.
  23. Philip Bess, Till We have Built Jerusalem (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006), 74.
  24. Ibid., 73–74.
  25. Oliver O’Donovan, Desire of the Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 195.
  26. Ibid., 196.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Whereas many follow Robert Markus and interpret Augustine as articulating two ideal groups that overlap in the church and in the state, I follow O’Donovan’s interpretation of these two cities as the society of Rome (but not necessarily the empire itself) and the society of the church (Desire of the Nations, 97–99, 202–203). See also Oliver O’Donovan, “The Political Thought of City of God 19,” in Bonds of Imperfection (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 55–59. See Robert Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of Saint Augustine(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 60–71. A brief catalog of recent appropriations of Augustine in political theory can be found in Eric Gregory, Politics and the Order of Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 6–13.
  29. See chapters one through five of Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  30. City of God, 1.36. All the citations come from the following translation: St. Augustine, Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson (London: Penguin, 1972). Hereafter I will refer to it as CG.
  31. CG, 19.13.
  32. CG, 19.13, 11.
  33. CG, 19.13.
  34. Ibid.
  35. CG, 19.14
  36. Markus, Saeculum, 178.
  37. O’Donovan, “Political Thought of City of God 19,” 59.
  38. Rowan Williams, “Politics and the Soul: A Reading of the City of God,” Milltown Studies 19/20 (1987): 58.
  39. CG, 19.21.
  40. Hester, 38.
  41. Forman, 127. Forman points out that Paul picks up on Jewish literature such as the servant songs of Isaiah or Daniel 7, where receiving suffering is the means of attaining glory (128).
  42. Hester, 81.
  43. Beth Felker Jones, Marks of His Wounds (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 26.
  44. The term “holistic eschatology” is derived from J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2014), 19. Middleton claims that “the main blow to the vision of a renewed cosmos came from the magisterial synthesis by Augustine” (291).
  45. CG, 19.17.
  46. An important representative of this position is Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958).
  47. For a wonderful review of the literature see Gregory, chap. 6.
  48. CG, 19.17.
  49. Ibid., 19.26.
  50. Ibid., 22.1.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid., 13.1
  53. Ibid., 22.29.
  54. Ibid.,
  55. Ibid., 13.16.
  56. Felker Jones, 95.
  57. For one example, see CG, 14.1.
  58. CG, 19.1.
  59. It is important to note that this reading differs slightly from O’Donovan’s interpretation of the two cities. O’Donovan argues that the compromise exists only within the earthly city, and the heavenly supports this compromise for its own ends (“Political Thought of City of God 19,” 58–59). My reading suggests that such a compromise exists between the two cities, and it is the meaning of the resurrection and the perfection of the earthly peace in the heavenly peace that suggests it. A longer defense of this interpretation must lie elsewhere, however.
  60. But there are hints that he does have a sense of this, including the way that he describes the vision of God as a seeing of God “in the new heaven and new earth, in the whole creation as it then will be; he will be seen in every body by means of bodies” (CG, 19.29), or the fact that human beings will be able to eat (CG, 13.22–23). Just where will the food be grown? It is too much to say that “there is simply no redemption of the cosmos in Augustine’s eschatology” (Middleton, 292).
  61. Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 289.
  62. Gorringe, 2.
  63. Inge, 129–139; Gorringe, 241–261; Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 249–318; Eric Jacobsen, The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), chaps. 5–9.
  64. CG, 19.26.
  65. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1958), 193.
  66. CG, 22.4.

Leave a Reply