With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Three What? Augustine and the Trinity (Part I)

I. Hermeneutic: Faith and Understanding

A number of contemporary theologians offer various critiques of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. An exemplar of such criticism is that of Catherine Lacugna in her God For Us. According to Lacugna, Augustine’s metaphysical speculation concerning the divine unity (found in books V-VII) creates an image of unity that is “prior to the plurality of persons” and makes ousia, rather than hypostasis (from the Cappadocian Fathers), the “highest ontological principle.” This ultimately renders the Trinity “impersonal.” Even if a sense of diversity[1] is upheld in God, Augustine’s ontological distinction between missions and processions “defunctionalizes” the Trinity by “minimizing the relationship between the divine persons and the economy of salvation.”[2] Appropriation and the specificity of a person’s mission become problematic, and in reality, she claims, Augustine is employing a “compensating strategy” [3] in a framework in which he’s lost the uniqueness and the link between the reality of the person and the revelation of that reality in a mission or appropriation. His vision boils down to one in which appropriations are “first” made of the single divine substance, and then arbitrarily passed on to the persons. Thus, Lacugna claims that Augustine’s ontological supremacy of divine unity over personality strips the Trinity of any meaning and function for us as Trinity, and its consequences stretch from metaphysical subordination in God to the impersonal nature of the economy of salvation.

What should one make of such criticism? Surely Lacugna’s concerns are important and affect the very life of a faith that encounters a God who is not merely a strict “oneness,” but is Trinity. Yet one must ask to what extent Augustine falls prey to such a troubled account of triunity. By examining Augustine’s De Trinitate, one can in fact find a Trinitarian theology that withstands such criticism: first, with regard to the context from which Augustine is working (in other words, where is Trinitarian discourse taking place?); second, by reading the metaphysics of books V-VII in that context; and lastly, by drawing out some of its fundamental implications for the doctrine of appropriations.

Implicit (and in certain ways, explicit) in Lacugna’s account is a distinction between the Eastern and Western approaches to the Trinity. The former, associated with the Cappadocians begins with the “threeness” and treats unity in light of a “personalism” that favors hypostasis (understood as individual person) as the governing ontological category. The Western approach in contrast is said to begin with unity of divine substance (ousia) and treat of “threeness” in light of the common nature. However, it is not altogether clear that such a distinction is operative, or at least definitive in such a way that the differences between east and west are greater than their similarities. For instance, Augustine borrows from the Cappadocians (Nazianzen in particular) the need to predicate names of God substantially rather than accidentally. Such a conclusion derived from the battle with Eunomian-Arian doctrine, strands of which Augustine was likely addressing in parts of the De Trinitate. Likewise, Augustine inherited not only the orthodox definition of triunity, but also apophatic concerns. And his “western” emphasis on the unity of God’s actions ad extra have undeniable similarities with Gregory of Nyssa’s account of divine action [4]. By deemphasizing the supposed chasm between Greek and Latin Trinitarian method, one can begin to put Lacugna’s critique into perspective.

But there seems to be evidence that the metaphysical work that Augustine does favors unity to such a degree that the distinctions in the Godhead are obscured: ousia is so much of a unity that it cannot maintain a “threefold” within the unity. Augustine’s metaphysical language does in fact stress the divine substance and how radically it equates the persons in terms of all attributes. However, while ousia may be Augustine’s “highest ontological principle” (indeed he does not even distinguish between the content of hypostasis and ousia as the Greeks do), one must admit that Augustine’s metaphysics is not the foundation or Archimedean point of his holistic account of the Trinity. His highest ontological principle is not in the end his highest principle as such. For Augustine, there is a donation of faith that precedes rational articulation, or understanding. The content of faith grounds and ultimately exceeds (beyond reduction) the rational articulation of that content. Augustine even explicitly speaks out against those who would worship reason and allow it to rule over their faith. In contrast, for him one must believe in order to understand: belief allows one to enter the milieu of understanding in the first place. But never in such a way that the deposit of faith is ever exhausted in the determinations of the understanding. What is given in faith for one to believe both allows one to understand and at the same time exceeds the ultimate reach of that understanding from the beginning. It remains irreducible even in what it gives to the understanding. Consistent with this are all of the apophatic elements of Augustine’s theology. Here, thus, no matter how central Augustine’s metaphysical conception of divine unity appears to be to his overall account of the nature of the Trinity, the content of faith that ever exceeds the understanding is still more guiding. For him, the locus and starting point of our belief is the Scriptural testament about God: from which he begins (starting in Book I) to articulate (according to reason) the unity of the persons in the Biblical theophanies. Thus, what is even more central to the belief that governs and grounds any attempt of understanding is the taxis of the economy; in which the specificity of the Divine persons (for instance, the Father is inextricably the Father of Jesus, not a divinely indeterminate father) shines forth. Augustine notes in book XV that all attributes of God that can be drawn from creation ultimately reduce to substantive terms, and thus ones common in the divine substance. Thus, by natural reason, unaided by the revelation in Scripture of the economy, one cannot cognitively reach the truly Trinitarian nature of God, existing in threeness (a position St. Thomas will later articulate). Ultimately then, Augustine seems to hold that taking a metaphysical foundation of divine unity as one’s starting point cannot truly reach the proper and orthodox account of the triunity that is the very subject of the De Trinitate. Rather, a true treatment of such divine threeness, one that is not merely a parody of the true God, can only be reached according to a faith that seeks understanding.

One must distinguish between the “motives” that determine one’s approach to and conclusions concerning the unity and diversity in God: in contrast to Augustine’s, the motive of a reason-loving approach, that sees the metaphysical emphasis on unity as foundational and ultimately determinative of what we believe, seemingly requires one to end with a sense of threeness that is either wholly undermined by unity or altogether restricted to the intra-divine sphere (and thus ineffective for the economy). This is, arguably, the motive of a Eunomian form of Arianism, which manipulates an emphasis of substantial predication in God in such a way that it concludes that the Son must be of a different substance from the Father (rather than the motive for a generically “western” or Augustinian preference for unity). One must recall that Augustine was in fact writing with a critical eye set on certain Arians of his day; and while it is clear that Augustine argues in the other direction, to the absolute unity in substance (though he dislikes the term “substance” used for God), it is not the case that he simply accepts the Eunomian’s sense of an “emphasis on substantial predication.” Rather, the centrality of unity in Augustine is not only used to reach an opposite conclusion, but it is of a wholly different kind. For the Bishop of Hippo, the role that metaphysical conclusions about unity play in his account is conditioned and limited by the more crucial centrality of a faith that precedes and grounds understanding (or metaphysical speculation).

Note here how Augustine seemingly shares the Cappadocians’ apophatic method, at least in a broad sense: what we don’t know and can’t say (but believe in) grounds and limits what we can say about substance and its conclusions for the threeness. Augustine, along with the Cappadocians, is working with an excessive understanding of mystery, such that it overwhelms rather than simply lacks, and that wonder is not thereby reduced to a problem that will in time be solved. This inheritance from the Cappadocians is perhaps the most important inheritance Augustine has in this work, or at least as important as the orthodox vision of triunity that he inherits as well.

Also, without the element of theoretical speculation that follows upon and clarifies faith, the testament given in faith becomes less than what it intends: the threeness that is given in Scriptural revelation is immensely vulnerable to various forms of subordinationism. Thus in order to reach a true, pure understanding of the diversity given to faith, the contemplation that follows upon faith is in fact necessary, and a reconciliation of the latter with the former is the final goal.

Further it is simply not the case that the persons lose their value for the economy; there is a strong sense in which the relations are not subject to (resistant to) determination by metaphysical reasoning (in a sense, they do not come under its gaze), which functions in the language of substantial terms; but it need not be for Augustine that the persons’ value for us within the economy derive from their justification in the eyes of that reasoning. The value of the taxis of the economy precedes the understanding we attempt to make of it and exceeds that understanding, and thus a true accomplishment of the understanding’s work cannot oppose and ultimately frame the value of what is first given to faith, simply because understanding is not on equal footing with faith. Rather, faith grounds our understanding. A conception such as the former would have to assume that the content of faith is merely a lack of what understanding eventually determines and exhausts; that understanding has the power and duty to “solve” the “problem” of what comes to us in the economy and in Scripture. Or in other words, that the Beatific Vision is accessible to us if we can only think hard enough. This view is fundamentally foreign to Augustine’s; thus, Augustine’s emphasis on metaphysical unity and the commonality between the persons, seen in this context, can never come to fully strip the economy of its Trinitarian value; rather, it only means to articulate an understanding of unity that is consistent with, in communion with, the sense of diversity that shines through in the economy. [5] How exactly this sense of communion and consistency takes shape will be discussed later on.

Thus one can see Augustine’s purpose as: 1) beginning with the mysterious “personalism,” the three, shining forth in the taxis of salvation history and thus the content of faith, and from this (faith grounding and inspiring understanding), articulating the sense of personal threeness in such a way that it is consistent with a radical substantive unity of being, which means metaphysical reflection or “understanding” compatible with and complementing the mysterious content of faith that remains ever irreducible; and 2) arguing that the one God, the unity, is a “threefold unity” in such a way that it is consistent with, expressive of, and ultimately conducive to the truth about the threeness that is given in faith. In this sense, Augustine can be seen as transcending any strict division between eastern and western approaches, and his hermeneutic of “faith seeking understanding” guides the proper thinking on the Trinity and safeguards his account from falling to criticisms that are more oriented toward heretical alternatives. One can then look, in both the metaphysical meditations and the doctrine of appropriations (specifically books V-VII) and find the same hermeneutic functioning throughout.


[1] Throughout the paper, I use diversity and distinction interchangeably: they are not meant to have varying definitions.

[2] Lacugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991. pg. 101

[3] Ibid, p. 100

[4] Augustine. The Trinity: De Trinitate. Trans. Edmund Hill, O.P. New York: New City Press, 1991: Bk. XV, chp.2, p.404: “No, he himself as these three, and he has them in such a way that he is them. But its being so with him comes to him from where he proceeds from
[5] Bk. VI, chp. 2, p. 213: “For God is one, and yet He is three.”


  • At 6/18/2007 4:00 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    Great to see you back and posting.

    I am interested in where you will be taking this series. I agree with you about St Augustine -- he's become too much the bullwark of unjust criticism, with people who generally have not understood his methodology, if they have read him.


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