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  • Ordering the Times: The Theology of History in Augustine’s De civitate Dei and Joachim of Fiore’s Concordia Novi ac Veteris Testamenti
  • Bernard McGinn

Let me begin with a few words about the genesis of this paper, which sets itself the task of trying to compare two of the greatest (and longest) works in Christian literature on the meaning of history. In early 2018, my colleague Jean-Luc Marion asked me if I would be interested in teaching a course with him on Augustine’s De civitate Dei in the spring of that year. I declined coequal responsibility for the course, but agreed to take part and give a number of the lectures. This gave me the opportunity to reread the De civitate Dei, something that I had not done for more than fifty years.1 Needless to say, I garnered many new insights into the book. In the fall of the same year, I was asked to review the monumental new four-volume edition of Joachim of Fiore’s Concordia Novi ac Veteris Testamenti produced by another colleague, Alexander Patschovsky, emeritus professor of the University of Constance.2 This provided the chance to reread another great, if less known, classic of Christian thought that I had not studied in a comprehensive way for some decades. As I immersed myself in Joachim’s attempt to order history through his understanding of “concordia,” that is, the literal agreement between persons and events in the Old Testament and those in the time of the New Testament, I could not help but think often of Augustine and the De civitate Dei, not because of any major dependence of the Calabrian abbot on the bishop of Hippo (although Joachim does cite the De civitate Dei seven times),3 but because, despite their significant differences, the bishop and the abbot shared a basic intention: to give order to the confusion of world history on the basis of the guidance provided by biblical revelation, that is, to construct a properly theological understanding of history. Augustine and Joachim took radically different views about how to read the meaning of history and its end, but on the basis of a shared conviction that only the Bible could provide the answer. [End Page 1]

Augustine’s De civitate Dei, of course, is one of the masterworks of the Christian tradition, often copied (394 known manuscripts), widely read, translated into many languages, and much commented upon.4 Joachim’s Concordia is less well-known and certainly less read, although the forty-three surviving manuscripts testify to a fairly substantial number of early readers.5 Only a small portion of the work is available in English translation.6 Comparing these two large and complex works (roughly a thousand pages each) is not an easy task, but I found it rewarding, and I want to share some of my findings.7

I will structure what follows in three parts. First, an introduction to the two texts. Second, a look at the inner logic of Augustine’s view of the ordering of time. Third, some brief comparative remarks on how Augustine and Joachim understand history. Large-scale attempts to discern the meaning of history, whether theologically, philosophically, or sociologically conceived, popular in the first half of the twentieth century, have faded from the scene in recent decades.8 Nonetheless, the recurrence of such ambitious projects over the centuries is evident, and there may well be a revival in years to come.

Part I. The Two Texts

Augustine’s decision to undertake what he called a “magnum opus et arduum” [great and difficult work] (DCD 1, Praefatio, 1:3) was not his own, but was impressed on him by concerned Christians, such as Count Marcellinus, who felt pressure from pagans who blamed the 410 sack of Rome by the Visigoth Alaric on the empire’s abandoning her traditional “protecting” pagan deities for their ineffective Christian successor.9 The brief Praefatio that the bishop addressed to Marcellinus makes clear the universality of his perspective: “My dearest son Marcellinus, here is the fulfillment of my promise, the book I have taken up to defend the most glorious City of God against those who prefer their...


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