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

Monday, June 18, 2007

Three What? Augustine and the Trinity (Part II)

II. Being and Relationship

After articulating the necessity of substantive terms of God (rather than accidental ones), Augustine attempts to authentically “speak” the threeness of God. For him, persona, and its Greek counterpart hypostasis, are primarily substance words, and thus can be predicated commonly. The fact that person is common to Father, Son, and Spirit means a problematic relationship of genus-species-individual that ends up in the same status as “being” and predications ad se (which are common as cum altero), and which would terminate in either “one being-one person” or “three persons-three beings.” Person, as an ontological category, cannot escape the interplay of genus and species that mark the predication of being, and thus cannot serve to properly signify that which is three (triad). For Augustine then, that which distinguishes Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can only be relationship. He denies that distinction between persons can derive from either the economic purpose a person has for creation or in terms of divine attributes (which are common predications). Thus, intra-divine relationship can be the only possible ground. Yet relationship cannot seemingly be expressed in ontological terms, since this always seems to lead to what Edmund Hill has called “the tangle of species and genus” and unacceptable conclusions to the equation of one being or God with one person, or three persons with three beings; or, in other words, the problematic duality between unity and diversity.[1] Thus, in the end, “person” comes to rise as a term drawn from convention, elected simply to stand as an answer to the question: “Three what?”[2]

Already what is hinted at by this question is the ambiguous (but not hostile) place that relationship has with respect to being or ontology. It is neither substance nor accident, nor genus nor species, yet nor is it nothing. It is clear that for Augustine the language of being is consumed with these categories that stress substance, and thus are employed in such a way as to secure the absolute equality in God. But ontological language for that reason fails to do justice to the mysterious diversity of the Trinity that relationship secures. Despite our language concerning being and its employment with regard to divine unity, conceptually we grasp that trinity is there: the action of God in the economy of salvation reveals three “somethings;” “God is the three,” and thus beyond what our finite conception and articulation can achieve concerning God’s being, there must be some reconciliation between God’s unity and His diversity in God’s simplicity. Thus, God’ being as unity ultimately, in its simplicity, signifies a unity that must exceed a finite conception of unity according to which, for us, relationship and commonality are irreconcilable in terms of God’s being.

Relationship terms do mark off what is distinct in the Godhead (the Father is not the Son, etc.). And thus, according to relationship, we have the precise sense in which such predications need not be taken cum altero: not “with the other.” And yet, there is another sense in which all relationship predications must be “taken with” terms predicated commonly.

By this we do not mean to confuse the distinction between, say, the Son and wisdom (that, as Augustine fears, would lead to unacceptable consequences about the Father’s or the Spirit’s wisdom). Rather, it seems that Augustine’s position is one that holds a complex and tensile union between the diversity (in relationship) and unity (in being); which is to say that Augustine wants us neither to conflate the predications, but more importantly not to interpret the uniqueness of any person in such a way as to exclude absolutely this sense of reconciliation between diversity and unity. Neither is ultimately reducible to the other, and if we can speak the being and unity of God and His attributes with some clarity, it remains such that “persons” are expressed even more adequately as “somethings.” Any attempt to interpret either unity or diversity as “primary” or reducible to the other will lead only to a false image of the Christian God: either “one person-one God,” found in Arian and Sabellian forms (the former denying the diversity in substance that would secure the Son’s divinity; the latter restricting all diversity to functionality or mode in history); or “three persons-three Gods,” as found in tri-theism.

Thus, if contemporary theologians are to charge that Augustine takes divine unity as primary and foundational for any sense of distinction, this can only be the case in a sense that does not exclude or reduce diversity to nothing; in a sense that takes the unity with diversity[3]. And this tensile unity between oneness and threeness is due to God’s simplicity. From our point of view, interestingly enough, God’s simplicity is anything but simple! For Augustine, following the Cappadocians, simplicity is identified with immutability: accidents are only found in changeable creatures, and all the attributes of God must be of a substantial nature and are thus identified with each other. It is then not different for God “to be good” and “to be wise.” And yet, somehow this account of simplicity is consistent with the fact that for God “to be Son” and “to be good” are not entirely the same: it is one thing for God to be wise, which is predicated according to divine being; and it is “another” thing for God to be Son, which is secured with reference to relationship.

How is it then that divine simplicity is consistent with such distinction? It just so happens that it is because of simplicity that there is absolute unity in God and distinction between persons: both derive from simplicity. In the first instance, if we attribute, say, wisdom to the Son and love to the Spirit, it remains the fact that in God being wise and loving are not different things: neither is more or greater; they are identical because He is simple. Thus, because they are equated by God’s simple being, how can the Son withhold wisdom from the Spirit, or how can the Spirit withhold love from the Son? All substantive predications, because they are all absolutely identified with each other, simultaneously identify the persons they are predicated of (in substance).

On the other hand relationship, which has ontological value in the sense that it is mysteriously “in between” accident and substance, only has its ability to distinguish the persons because of its situation in the divine unity, or rather, simplicity: in creatures, relationships are situated in the realm of accidents, because we are composite and the relations inhere in us, such that our “to be” and “to be a father” are not identical. However, in God, because He is altogether simple, accidents are accorded no space, and thus relationality finds a new home in God’s Being that is, though not accidental, nonetheless irreducible to mere substance. This unique distance between relationship and substantive attribution in God is actually secured by His divine simplicity, and thus His absolute unity. Were God to be less than simple, relations would fall to the place of accidents and thus the personal distinctions in God would be reducible; the common essence would endure, while any sense of personality would be subject to change and thus of an entirely weaker ontological significance. One must take note of the distinction between the richer and deeper unity in simplicity, that actually co-implicates God’s threeness; and the weaker sense of unity, in which the common being of God actually does govern, limit, and evacuate the relationality in God of its lasting meaning. Paradoxical as it seems: one is forced to read in this a sense of simplicity and unity that actually saves the true sense of diversity in God, rather than evacuating it of its significance.

Overall, one can see in this account both a sense of unity in God’s being and diversity in His relationships that exceed common notions of unity and distinction. There is, for lack of a better phrase, a sense of unity beyond unity: the unity of the divine being that is reached by the unaided understanding, can only end in an account in which unity limits and rules over diversity (Arianism, Sabellianism, etc.); as well as a sense of threeness beyond threeness: the distinctions encountered in the economy, without the complementary work of the understanding that stresses unity, will either result in a form of subordinationism or tri-theism. Thus it would seem that God’s simplicity, which accounts for the reconciliation in Him between distinct persons in relation and common being, can only be attested to complexly by finite and changeable creatures.[4] God’s simplicity is seen in the co-implication of unity and relationships in His Being, and we can only weakly treat these as irreducible elements of God, never so “simple” as to be fully understood. Faith in a triune God whose simplicity is beyond finitude determines the limitations of the understanding that follows it. And thus, here, one sees “faith seeking understanding” at work.

III: Appropriations and Economy

However, it may seem that relationship, which for Augustine is the sole ground of specificity and uniqueness of persons, may actually exclude any importance with regard to the economic taxis and the specificity of missions or appropriations. It is one thing to argue about the complicated relationship between unity and diversity within God, and the potential for one to lord over the other; it is a different criticism that, even lending such a complex understanding of unity and distinction within God, it seems this solely intra-divine ground of specificity robs it of any place in salvation history: because neither missions nor substantial appropriations can be the ground of distinction between persons, and if relationship (which is that ground) is seemingly at odds with, distant from, or even usurped by the divine unity, then the diversity as it functions in the economy is seemingly destroyed or rendered meaningless, rather than upheld by its grounding in the being of God.

Appropriations occur according to convention, because all non-relational terms are predicated commonly, and thus for us to refer such a term to just one of the divine persons is without precedent. A parallel example of this reasoning concerns the missions of the persons, particularly that of the Son in becoming Incarnate. For Lacugna, Augustine’s preference for the divine unity in actions ad extra actually undermines any significance that the Son has (as Son) in relation to us. Because appropriation of substantial terms is of the common substance, and because actions ad extra are one, what criterion is left to determine why it is that the Son and only the Son becomes Incarnate, and less crucially, is called Wisdom above all? Yet this seemingly arbitrary sense of convention by which we predicate wisdom of the Son specifically, even though the Father is wisdom and the Spirit too is wisdom, is actually enriched by the sense of the “convenience” of such appropriation. By “convenience” I refer to what St. Thomas calls, reverberating Augustine, the “outstanding suitability” and “natural kinship” that the Son has with respect to the appropriation of wisdom and becoming incarnate as Savior.[5]

The key to the Son’s appropriation as Wisdom is His intra-divine status as perfect Image of the Father, (“image” being, as St. Thomas notes following Augustine, a term that Scripture applies both to the Son and to men) and the Son’s “suitability” for becoming incarnate is thanks to “kinship” with creation: creation occurs through the Son as the Word of God. Thus, the appropriation as “convention” stands in a unique place. It is neither totally arbitrary nor necessary that the Son be called wisdom and become incarnate, and there is still a strong sense in which “wisdom” and the mission of “salvation” are substantial terms that tell us nothing definitive about the Son in distinction from the other persons. And yet, it is not the case that such appropriations tell us entirely nothing, because in each case the predications are grounded in the Sons intra-divine relations. They are not totally arbitrary because here the Son’s relationship comes to have meaning for us and our understanding of the Trinity, in such a way that is not reducible to, nor opposed to, the metaphysically secured unity of the divine Being. In a sense, our attribution of wisdom to the Son distinctively is guided by the Son’s relationship to the Father (as Image and He through which the Father creates) that is revealed to us in the Scriptural Revelation of salvation history. Thus, here again, what is given for faith, including what we cannot fully “say,” is definitive for our articulations and understandings. Interestingly, we find both what we cannot say (that the Father and Spirit are not wisdom), and what we should say: here, the faith that precedes understanding actually guides not simply the limits of our silence, but the shape of our positive speech. Our understanding, taking a cue from the centrality of divine unity, would seemingly suggest that we not speak as if the Son were “the wisdom and power of God,” because wisdom cannot be the Son’s alone: and yet we are compelled by what is revealed to speak as such.

Furthermore, Augustine’s concerns are real. For one to too closely tie the distinction between persons to the missions will not only mix God’s simplicity with composition; it also inevitably renders God’s intra-divine being subject to temporal history and creation. Too economic a theology, as some of the earlier Church Fathers drew dangerously close to, cannot secure the enduring value of relations in the being of God, because they wouldn’t theoretically stand in God apart from His act of creation. There is also the threat of tri-theism that results if God’s unity is somehow inordinately subject to the diversity encountered in the economy. Thus, in distancing himself from locating distinction according to the economy, and situating relationship in the intra-divine sphere, Augustine creates a distance that allows for the true and complex communion between the missions in salvation history and the intra-divine processions.

In the end then, Augustine provides us with an account of the Trinity that escapes the criticisms from an overly economic theology. In truth, Augustine’s treatment of divine unity and simplicity secures rather than undermines the Trinitarian diversity. And it is his unique hermeneutic of a faith that seeks and is complemented by understanding that strikes a subtle balance in his accounts of divine substance, the economy, and appropriations.


[1] Hill, p. 234

[2] Unlike Augustine, who saw hypostasis and substance as having the same essential meaning, both the Cappadocians and St. Thomas attempt to give an account of person/hypostasis that is not substantial yet maintains ontological value.

[3] Bk. VI, chp. 13, p.213; Bk. VII, chp. 3, p.227

[4] BkVII, chp. 3, p. 225: “God can be thought about more truly than he can be talked about, and he is more truly than he can be thought about.”

[5] Aquinas, St. Thomas. On The Truth of the Catholic Faith: Summa Contra Gentiles Book 4: Salvation. Transl. O’Neil, Charles. New York: Hanover House, 1957: SCG IV, ch.42


  • At 6/21/2007 1:15 PM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Just interested, do you see your discussion of unity as "non-dualism", where it is one but not in a monistic sense, and so it is between monism and dualism?

    This kind of approach (and way to read Augustine ) is quite powerful, and certainly the way I do so. It helps sort out many of the mistakes critics make of Christianity -- it shows the limitations and shallowness of many.

    It is also a good starting point to for Christian-"Eastern" dialogue. I believe we can learn a great deal from India (Hindus and Buddhists alike) because they took considerable interest in this very topic -- this is not to say they are without their own problems, of course.

  • At 6/24/2007 10:49 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Exactly. I think the point is precisely that when we speak of the unity in God, it cannot simply be conceived in a monistic, univocal sense; and when we speak of the Trinitarian diversity in God, it cannot simply be conceived in equivocal terms. This is what I mean by a unity-beyond-unity and threeness-beyond-threeness: God's simplicity surpasses "simplistic" and finite conceptions of simplicity. If one skips the apophatic stage, misinterpretations occur. It is really only when God's unity is conceived with His triunity that it is thought accurately.

    I think Augustine must be read in this way. Indeed, all speculation about the Trinity must follow something like this line. As I'm sure Brendan would agree, this all rings with the philosopher William Desmond's notion of the "metaxological" sense of being. It is a conception of being that is irreducible to either a monisitic unity (univocity) or disjoined plurality (equivocity). It is "between" them and thereby beyond them. Insofar as it exceeds these ways of thinking, it draws us beyond the common temptations of our positive speech lacking an apophatic limitation. And thus I think it more faithfully mediates the relationship between the Unity and the Relations.

    As Brendan once pointed out, he has found that Desmond's notion is actually implicit in many places throughout the theological tradition, especially the Fathers. I have begun to find the same thing.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 6/30/2007 3:49 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Have you had a chance to read Rahner's treatise on the Trinity yet? If not, you should. There are good things in it, even if I also think it has helped foster bad Trinitarian theology (and bad criticism of the past).

    It was responding more to early 20th century Western Trinitarian attitudes than anything one can find in the Patristics or even St Thomas Aquinas. But many modern Western writers then wanted to take it all the way back and assume the source of the problem lay in... Augustine and Aquinas. Alas.

  • At 7/07/2007 11:07 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    I have indeed read Rahner's treatise. Well, most of it. I too think that it sparked a questionable trend in Trinitarian thought, though its call to draw attention once again to the "personalism" of a more Eastern influence is notable. Problem is, as you say, whatever bad hermeneutic that came into the early 20th century should not immediately be applied to, say, the entire tradition without serious and generous investigation. Lacugna, who I think radicalizes Rahner, seems to fall into this.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 7/13/2007 10:44 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    I strongly agree with what you said. I respect much of what Rahner tried to do in his Trinitarian work, but afterwards, it was used and abused to justify all kinds of diversions from legitimate Trinitarian theology. It is one thing to say that the economic Trinity truly presents to us the immanent Trinity (and indeed, this is a necessity for all theologians to accept), it is another to go the reverse, and suggest that all that can be known of the interior life of the Trinity is fully expressed in the economy. It can't be. I also found her criticism of Palamas to be outright ridiculous. I am fairly certain she didn't realize he is a Catholic saint ;)

    Still I would not dismiss everything even LaCugna wants to do; just so much of it is without any solid grounding that it is like trying to recreate the wheel and finding out it needs to be round!

    I would be interested if you have the time/interest to write a short post comparing LaCugna or Rahner's interpretation of Augustine with the real Augustine. I've thought about the issue several times, but never went about doing it; but with your more recent connection to Augustine's Trinitarian theology you might be able to do something. If not, I understand.


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