Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Augustine of Hippo, IV (PTT)

The assault on Augustine:
Gunton, Barnes, Ormerod, Zizioulas, Turcescu

In this post I want to turn to the modern debate over Augustine. We begin with Colin Gunton, who in Chapter 3 of his The promise of trinitarian theology launches a sustained and hostile attack on Augustine and his legacy. Gunton situates Augustine as making God unknowable, beholden to Platonism, suspicious of materialism, and responsible for Western theology and philosophy's failure to be truly trinitarian and instead deeply individualistic.

So, Gunton thinks Augustine fails to treat the humanity and the materiality of the humanity of Christ with enough gravity; that Augustine's reading of OT theophanies (unlike Tertullian and Irenaeus), makes God more remote, since he appears through the mediation of angels or ephimeral matter; that his account of the baptism of Christ treats the Spirit as substance, not relationally.

In contrasting Augustine and the Cappadocians, Gunton claims that Augustine radically fails to understand Eastern thought and the ousia/hypostasis distinction. Further, Gunton says that Augustine defines persons as relations. Gunton draws the distinction thus:
The Cappadocians: “the three persons are what they are in their relations...therefore the relations qualify them ontologically” (p41)
Augustine: “continues to use relation as a logical rather than an ontological predicate” and thus cannot “make claims about the being of the particular persons” (ibid.)
Gunton now raises Wolfson's critique, that Augustine thinks “the true being of God underlies the threeness”.

Gunton then goes on the attack against Augustine's psychological analogies. For Gunton, this is evidence of Augustine's anti-materialist, intellectualist approach. He writes that Augustine tends to “ illustrate the nature of the Trinity by comparing it not to persons in relation...but to the individual human mind”. This, despite the fact that Augustine denies the identification of the 3 constituent parts of his psychological image with the 3 persons of the Trinity, and the fact that the analogy of 3 persons in the Cappadocians is specifically denied to be adequate (see Gregory of Nyssa, Ad Ablabium!).

Gunton continues, seeing Augustine's treatment of the Spirit as pre-conditioned by his need to find a third party to correspond to his pre-existent psychological analogy, in the will.

I confess, reading Gunton made me angry. His is an essentially uncharitable reading of Augustine, specifically refusing Augustine's own statements about what he is doing, and misreading terribly both Augustine and the Cappadocians.

Michel René Barnes offers a serious critique of Gunton's, et al., reading of Augustine. He insists that neoplatonism is not the primary background for reading Augustine. He points to the tendency to abstract and decontextualise elements of Augustine, and highlights for instance how the debate between Joachim of Fiore and Peter Lombard in the context of the 4th Lateran council seized upon a single phrase in Augustine's On Christian Doctrine as a point of dispute and the basis for theological development. Augustine can hardly be responsible for traditions that build of a single phrase.

Barnes also notes the influence of de Régnon's schema of east/west unity/diversity as the backdrop for many readings of Augustine, a paradigm that is both inaccurate for the 4th century, and on careful reading de Régnon himself, probably inaccurate for him too. Barnes then engages in a close reading of Epistle 11 and Question 69 (see earlier post), to lay bare three motifs found in early Augustine:

(1)the doctrine of inseparable activity as the fundamental expression of divine unity
(2)the epistemic character of the Incarnation as the decisive revelation of divine unity
(3)the 'hermeutical' circle of faith by which true doctrine leads to the process of personal imagining, which deepens doctrinal insight, etc..
These certainly ground the Incarnation as the center of Augustine's epistemology of God (contra Gunton), and the doctrine of inseparable operations as the expression of divine unity (the unity of God is never the starting point in a materialist sense).

Neil Ormerod also offers a critique of Gunton's reading of Augustine. He begins by noting the essential uncharitability of Gunton's reading, for instance Gunton's claim “that Augustine's theology always borders on modalism, which he avoids 'by the mere assertion that he does not wish to be a Modalist'” (Ormerod p35, quoting Gunton from Scottish Journal Theology, 1990, also p35).

Ormerod argues that “personhood cannot be a 'principle of being', because Father and Son (and Spirit) have an identical principle of being.” (p41) If personhood becomes a ground for ontology, which seems to be the shift Gunton and Zizioulas are arguing for, and trying to support from the Cappadocians, then the implication seems to be that the persons are ontologically distinct, which is certainly tritheism (Ormerod seems to think Volf is tritheistic, see footnote p43).

Turcescu makes a similar critique, focusing on Zizioulas' account of persons vs. individuals, in '"Person" versus "Individual", and other modern misreadings of Gregory of Nyssa'(Modem Theology 18:4 October 2002), which see.


Barnes, Michel René (1999) ‘Rereading Augustine’s Theology of the Trinity’ in The Trinity: An interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity Edited by Stephen Davis. Oxford: OUP. p145-176.

Gunton, Colin (1993) The promise of trinitarian theology Edinburgh : T&T Clark. p30-55.

Ormerod, Neil (2005) The Trinity : retrieving the Western tradition Milwaukee, Wis. : Marquette University Press. p33-77.

1 comment:

mark said...

Seamus, it seems our reading has crossed paths again! I've just gotten through Gunton's Triune creator and had a similar taste in my mouth after his bagging out of Augustine!

I just blogged about it, but would appreciate your thoughts on my reflections if you had 30 secs to spare. I suppose I feel a little out of my depth and wanted to ensure I was on a reasonable track.