The middle of book 3 of Augustine’s Confessions contains a somewhat unexpected tangent. Augustine disrupts his narrative of his time at Carthage – his obsession with attending tragic theatrical shows, his life-changing encounter with Cicero’s Hortensius, and his fascination with the duality of Manichaeism – to ruminate on justice.

Augustine raises several important points about justice in book 3. He grapples with how God’s law can be both immutable and universal when the patriarchs of the Old Testament were permitted to engage in certain practices (for example, polygamy) that are no longer considered permissible. He examines envy and pleasure as two root causes of crime, and he considers the way in which crime corrupts those who engage in it.

But what I find most crucial in his tangent on justice is his discussion of the relationship between human law and God’s law in Confessions 3.8.15:

“Transgressions against human codes are a different matter: they vary in accordance with variable customs; but they are to be avoided all the same, lest an agreement made by citizens or compatriots among themselves, and rendered stable by custom and law, be violated at the whim of any citizen or foreigner; for a part which fails to harmonize with the whole is a source of mischief. If, on the other hand, God commands something which conflicts with the customs or rules of any human society, then it is to be done, even if it has never been done there before…”

Augustine here advises his readers not to transgress human codes of law. While such laws vary according to custom and are not perfect and immutable like God’s law, they nonetheless should be followed.

What is Augustine’s rationale for obeying human law, which is so variable? Isn’t he famous for claiming that “an unjust law is no law at all” (De Libero Arbitrio 1.5)? Why does he suggest here that human law should be obeyed?

Augustine recognizes the value of following laws that have been created through agreement by fellow citizens and “rendered stable by custom and law” (Conf. 3.8.15). Laws grounded in consent and upheld through precedent should not be capriciously transgressed by rogue individuals. Such violations would disrupt the harmony of the whole community, Augustine explains, and bring unnecessary “mischief.” It is better for the good of the community to follow human laws.

But what if the reason for transgressing the law is not caprice but faith? If “God commands something which conflicts with the customs or rules of any human society,” Augustine argues, “then it is to be done” (3.8.15). Augustine clearly and uncompromisingly contends that God’s law must always take priority over human law.

I recently discussed this passage with my first-year undergraduate students. While they generally understood and in some cases agreed with what Augustine is saying here, when I started giving them more concrete examples of what this would mean in practice, they started to grow uneasy.

Should we really do things like love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? What would the justice system look like if instead of punishing those who slap us in the face we turned and gave them the other cheek? Could a contemporary society really operate like this?

I understood their unease. Augustine is calling on us to be willing to ignore and even violate the rule of law. For people living in liberal societies under democratic systems of government, Augustine is presenting a serious challenge to our norms, customs, and laws.

I think we can sometimes forget the radical nature of Augustine’s thought and of Christianity more generally. But here in book 3 Augustine is unequivocal: “God stands before all” (3.8.15).