His Government Itself is Judgment

A fifth-century book review of Salvian's The Government of God.

The Government of God is a theodicy in which the presbyter Salvian of Marseille defends God’s sovereignty and justice at his present moment of history. This is not merely a discussion about theology or philosophy in the abstract: the immediate concern for Salvian is what God is doing (if anything) to protect the Roman people following the sack of Rome by the Goths in AD 410 and the humiliating defeat of Litorius in AD 439.

The work was written in response to the claim, apparently common in Salvian’s day, that God is “careless and neglectful of human actions, on the ground that he neither protects good men nor restrains the wicked”. These interlocutors are not atheists in any strong sense; rather, they initially might appear to be mostly orthodox Christian theists: they affirm that God exists, that God created the heavens and the earth, and even that at the end of all things he will judge the world in righteousness according to what each man has done. Whither the conflict?

The point of contention between Salvian and his interlocutors is the latter’s denial that God continually governs and judges the world throughout history, rather than only at the end of history.

Salvian’s response has two main aspects. Firstly, God rules and governs the world according to his goodness at every moment throughout history, not only at the final judgment. Secondly, Salvian considers that the harsh judgments befalling Rome are in fact strong evidence that God is righteously judging the world at all times: though Christian in name, Rome is thoroughly wicked and deserves to be judged!