Augustine: On the Trinity

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Puritanboard Clerk
Augustine's work on the Trinity truly illustrates the definition of the work "classic": a book much discussed but never read, either by his adherents or critics. To be fair, even Augustine's adherents admit his style could be improved--shortening passages and limiting some of the more fanciful exegesis (City of God is notorious in this regard). And as some of his critics point out, if you want a good introduction into Trinitarian thinking, Gregory of Nazianzus (or Basil) is clearer.

On the other hand, a handful of books clearly define the thinking and development of Western civilization, and Augustine is responsible for at least three of them: City of God, Confessions, and De Trinitate.

In book II Augustine is dealing with the theophanies and how God revealed himself to the Fathers in the Old Testament. His larger argument is that the Trinity works in sending. The act of sending is a Trinitarian act.

Augustine rightly says that God's nature is invisible to human eyes. God's nature is not corporeal and cannot be seen by man. That is another way of saying the essentially correct thesis that God's essence cannot be comprehended by man. Because of that, Augustine reasons that the appearances (theophanies) in the Old Testament were essentially the ancient equivalent of holograms. Speaking of the Holy Spirit Augustine writes,

For in due time a certain outward appearance of the creature was wrought, wherein the Holy Spirit might be visibly shown (II. 5).

Augustine then engages in an extended discourse on whether the theophanies were revelations of the entire Trinity or of one person. Personally, I don't know and I don't think Augustine does, either. He seems to entertain several positions. It is imperative to say that the Old Testament is a revelation of God the Son, but it is not entirely certain from that whether all theophanies were of the Son or of the Trinity. I don't see any reason to come to a hard conclusion on this.

books 5-6
Augustine is here responding to the Arian heretics who say that the nature of the Son is different from the nature of the Father. He modifies somewhat the traditional dictum that what is said of each person in respect to themselves is to be taken in the singular (V.8.9). (Or something like that. Augustine's argumentation here is very convoluted and is open to many interpretations. He also appears in this section to anticipate the "relations of opposition" line popular in the later middle ages. I will interpret him for now as holding to the classical triadic dictum: what is said of all three persons is said of the essence, and what is unique to one person is unique to that person). It should be noted, however, that Augustine is not always using the term "God" as the New Testament and early fathers used it: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am simply noting that for now, for it may become important later).

In chapter 13 Augustine anticipates later Filioquist discussions. Given his commitment to the unity of the Trinity, he wants to say that all persons share in the principium (or the beginning), and from this he denies there are two Beginnings. He writes,

"But if whatever remains within itself and produces or works anything is a beginning to that thing which it produces or works; then we cannot deny that the Holy Spirit also is rightly called Beginning, since we do not separate him from the appellation of Creator" (V.13.14).

books 7-8
In book seven Augustine continues his discussion of the problem whether the Father is wise in himself or wise only when speaking the Word, who is Wisdom. He is taking his cue from St Paul, who says that Christ is the Wisdom and Power of God. While much of Augustine's discussion is laborious and belabors the point, it is a fair question. St Athanasius wrestled with the same question, though his answer was more straightfoward (if not entirely avoiding the problem. Instead of "Wisdom," Athanasios was discussing whether Christ was willed by the Father. He denied the Arian dilemma by saying that Christ was the willing of the Father).

Notwithstanding the similarities of the problem, Augustine has to fight it on a different front. Throughout the treatise he has affirmed that God is identical with his attributes (this is more clearly stated in City of God bk. 11, c. 10). If it is true, Augustine reasons, that in the Father it is not one thing to be, and another to be wise, but to be is to be wise. And if Christ is the wisdom of God, how is Christ not also the essence of God? Further, if the Father is "wise in himself," and yet the Son also is Wisdom, are they not of different essences? This is the heart of the problem.

Augustine answers it by saying what is said of the persons is said relatively. He writes, "but the Son is begotten: since by these names only their relative attributes are expressed. But both together are one essence and one wisdom; in which to be, is the same as to be we have already sufficiently shown that these terms [Word, Son] are spoken relatively" (VII.2.3).

Book XV neatly summarizes the entire work and ends with some of Augustine's stronger conclusions. The main point is Augustine sets forth what will later harden as "double procession." I still don't see it as a hard Filioquist reading, since the latin word procedere is ambiguous, but it certainly points that way. For those who reference the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers edition, on page 222 Augustine, in speaking of the divine nature, uses the phrase "equals." Augustine's definition of simplicity, God is what he has, and that it is not one thing for God to be, and another to be wise, but to be is to be wise. Combine that with the "equals" on page 222 (he is simply clarifying his point), then we are justified in positing that absolute divine simplicity is simply (no pun!) one big "=" sign.

He ends the book discussing double procession. His argument is fairly well-known and I won't belabor the point. The Spirit proceeds from the Father principally as from one clause.


*Augustine then goes to say that man cannot see God's glory with his own eyes (III.2.24). Contrast this with Leviticus 9:5 and Numbers 20.6 where it says men will see God's glory
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