All quotes from Edmund Hill's translation (New York: New City Press, 1991).
We now come to one of Augustine's longest and most difficult works, On the Trinity. I would say it is hard enough to read, let alone understand, Augustine's work here. Nonetheless, let us make some attempt, and I will deal with a few other key issues and readings in a post to come.
There is a certain delicious yet tragic irony in 1.6, where Augustine disavows responsibility for those who will misread his work and misunderstand his thought. We will return to that in our next post. To focus at hand, De Trinitate is Augustine's attempt to develop a treatment of the doctrine of Trinity (1.4), yet the work once read is peculiarly lacking in what one might expect.
In 1.7 we see Augustine's pro-Nicene presuppositions, “Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the inseparable equality of one substance present a divine unity”. This is a starting point for Augustine, and his grasp on the inseparability of operations will guide the whole project (1.7-8).
He then turns in Bk 1 to treat scriptural texts, and employs throughout the basic principle of partitive exegesis, distinguishing that things said of Christ refer to Christ being “equal by nature, by condition his inferior” (1.14). While Augustine has some distinctive takes on a few passages, there is nothing methodologically radical here.
In Bk 2 he states that various statements need to be read, contextually, as some indicate unity and equality of substance (Jn 10:30, Phil 2:6), others mark his inferiority as a servant (Jn 14:28, Jn 5:22, 27), while Others “which mark him neither as less nor as equal, but only intimate that he is from the Father.”
Augustine then treats of the sending of Son and Spirit. He notes that the Son shares all works with the Father, including acts done 'upon' the Son (eg. The Son is said to sanctify himself). Also, that the Father is not said to be greater than the Spirit, which he refers to the fact that the Spirit does not assume the form of a servant, which the Son does. Then the rest of Bk 2 is taken up with an investigation of OT theophanies, inquiring into the first of 3 questions: which member of the Trinity appears? In each case, Augustine says the evidence is indecisive whether it is one of the Three or all Three as One.
In Bk 3 Augustine considers whether such theophanies occur by angelic means or by purely God-created momentary things. Augustine develops an argument for primary and secondary causes, and sees God at work in both(3.1-11). As for the problem of Pharaoh and his magicians, Augustine asserts that fallen angels can likewise manipulate fine or spiritual reality (3.12f). So his argument develops until in 3.19 he says that thus there are things that occur naturally and regularly, things that occur naturally, regularly, but infrequently, and there are things “that occur equally in the physical realm, but are presented to our senses to tell us something from god. These are properly called miracles and signs.” This is coupled with 3.22, “whatever it was that the OT Fathers saw whenever God showed himself to them... it is clear that it was always achieved through created objects.” how it was done is unclear, that it occurred is certain.
Bk 4 then begins to develop an account of the Son's sending, by depicting the redemptive and mediatorial work of Christ. This is central to Augustine's account of the 'inferiority' of the Son. His account of the fall involves a two-fold fall of body and soul, ignorance and sin. Since Augustine's vision of salvation and eschatology is shaped around direct contemplation and beatific vision, his depiction of atonement is shaped around the same, “to contemplate God, which by nature we are not, we would have to be cleansed by him who became what by nature we are and what by sin we are not” (4.4). From 4.7f Augustine engages in what seems to us some bizarre numerology, but it is entirely historical-contextual, so we should not be too hard on him, so let us move on.
Augustine's account of death and redemption is that Christ dies a single (fleshly) death for our double (body/soul) death, and applies his single (fleshly) resurrection for our double resurrection (body and soul). This account is summed up in 4.25, “There you have what the Son of God has been sent for; indeed there you have what it is for the Son of God to have been sent.” This provides Augustine the basis to deny that 'sending' implies inferiority, but rather has the economic purpose of bringing us home to God, the source and origin of all Deity (4.32).
Books 5-7 form a unit (so Hill), in which Augustine considers the problem raised by 1 Cor 1:24, and whether God is Wise, or Christ, or both, and in what that Wisdom consists. The argument is logical more than metaphysical, and Augustine's thought goes something like this:
Words can be used as predicates, or substantially. Due to God's simplicity (notice that it is foundational), words used as predicates of God become substantives: that God is Wise means that God is Wisdom. Yet, 1 Cor 1:24 seems to use a Substantive relationally, so that God's Wisdom is Christ. One solution (Bk 6), would be to treat all such words relationally, but this collapses, and so Bk 7 provides a more permanent solution, distinguishing a proper and improper use of substantial and relational terms. It is this distinction that allows us to use Father/Son/Spirit relationally within the Godhead, without destroying the Substantial unity.
This is important in the debate between Father and Unbegotten. Augustine's point is that Unbegotten is not a substance term, but a relational term, defined as 'Not-Begotten'. It tells us of the absence of a relation, not of a substance. It is in these chapters that Augustine works towards a relational distinction of the Holy Spirit as Gift and Love (since unlike Father/Son, the name 'Holy Spirit' does not indicate the particulars of his relation).
To reframe the discussion, here is how Ayres gives an account:
Augustine offers an alternative account of the Son being Wisdom of God while the Father is still wise in himself, in three steps:
1.Every essence which is spoken of relatively is something apart from that relative predication. Eg, for X to be in relation, X must be something (logically) prior, in order to be in relation. Thus the individual reality of the Persons is affirmed.
2.The Father generates the Son. More specifically, the Son's essence. The Son is essentia de essentia, light from light, wisdom from wisdom. If the Son is Wisdom (1 Cor 1:24, and the Son Is God (Jn 1:3), then the Son is wise in himself, and is Wisdom itself, because God is simple. The grammar of simplicity carries from 1 to 2, everything said of the Father applies in like manner to the Son. “we see that a simple being may generate another who is also coequal and simple.” (379)
3.If the Father is Wisdom itself, and the Son is wisdom itself, then “the Son's essence must be identical with the Father's essence”(379). There are neither two instances of wisdom, not does the unity result from an underlying substance (as many material analogies); the grammar of simplicity gives “very different linguistic resources for us to speak of the unity of the three.” (379)
“Because the principles of his Trinitarian faith tell him that the Spirit is also God and is a distinct person, the same arguments apply to all three persons.”(379) “We do not find the unity by focusing on something different from the persons” and “there is nothing but the persons.” (380)
In Ayres' account, there is no hint that Augustine believes in a prior substratum of God's essence. Rather, Augustine employs Neo-Platonic techniques to articulate the grammar of the pro-Nicenes. It is pro-Nicene theology, not Neo-platonism, that is the driving engine of his theology.
I am going to break off my account of De Trinitate here, for now. Bks 8 onward begin to delve inwards, and consider psychological images and analogies for the Trinity. Perhaps I will return to them a little later. Suffice to make one decisive point though: Augustine recognises, as all the pro-Nicenes do, the limitations of analogy. Bks 14-15 bring that out clearly. Augustine thinks that the Triune pattern of the Godhead almost certainly must be reflected in the creation, and that is why he spends so much time on the psychological analogies, but the further away from God these are, the more imperfect they are as analogies. One of the great misreadings of Augustine is to think that these are offered as analogies for the Trinity per se. This is the Augustinian equivalent to the misreading of the Cappadocians as offering a social analogy. More on this shortly.