Augustine and the Trinity, by Lewis Ayres


April 27, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

ImageLewis Ayres. Augustine and the Trinity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010. 360pp.

Augustine (354-430) remains one of the most important thinkers in the history of Christianity (and of the West in general). His legacy extends from theology to politics, psychology, and literature. Some count his thought as still pregnant with potential for human flourishing; others attribute some blame to him for the problems of the modern world. Augustine remains strikingly relevant today when compared to the reception of some of his contemporaries.

Augustine became a Christian in the late fourth century, following soon after the important council of Chalcedon in 381. This council declared with new precision and authority that Jesus Christ–“the Son of God”–was to be regarded as equal in his deity with the one he called upon as Father. And by implication the one the scriptures referred to as the Spirit was seen by most to require the same designation. This meant that there were three referred to in scripture that all shared the same designation of being the one God. Augustine was a bright mind with a devotion to God and the scriptures and he joined up with this tradition of reflection and wrote about the Trinity and the implications thereof.

Lewis Ayres’ book, a few years old now, is an attempt to provide clarity about what Augustine said about the Trinity–with a special but not exclusive focus on Augustine’s De Trinitate. Ayres undertakes this difficult task by close examination of what Augustine actually says, by analysis of what Augustine is trying to accomplish in is works, and by setting Augustine’s work against its historical and theological backgrounds–of which Ayres shows a stunningly vast knowledge. The result is a rare book–one that looks to be unsurpassed in the English language for many years to come.

In the first part of the work (chapters 1-3) Ayres seeks to uncover some of the origins of Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. (Ch 1): Here Ayres deals with the common narrative that sees Augustine’s earliest theology being essentially the adoption of Neoplatonist/Plotinian principles until Augustine later abandoned this for something more explicitly Christian. Ayres complicates this too simple picture and says that we should rather see Augustine’s philosophical background coming into a dynamic interaction with his newly adopted Trinitarian faith. There were points where Augustine found the Trinitarian “rule” to encourage his use of these philosophical ideas, and other points at which it demanded he abandon or critique them. (Ch 2): The dynamic interplay between Augustine’s faith (the adoption of the creed) and understanding (his reflection on the creed using philosophical tools) was further developed as Augustine became acquainted with the traditional idea that all of the works that any of the three persons belong inseparably to the entire Trinity. In the context of fighting with the gnostic group, the Manicheans, Augustine used this idea to say that the whole Trinity was involved in the creation of the world, and thus making the point that the world itself is good and has a role to play in leading us to knowledge of God. (Ch 3): In 393, the new bishop Augustine had to give an address (De Fide) to a council of bishops, and decided to speak to them about the creed. This forced him to dig deeper into his own tradition of Latin theology. Here we see him pick up for the first time, some of the language and concepts that will be so important to him later in his career: the term “always” in reference to the three, the lack of “person” language and a very limited use of “nature” and “substance”, and some hints toward the idea that the Spirit is the love the Father and Son have for one another.

The second section (chapters 4-6) shifts its primary (but not exclusive) focus to De Trinitate and describes Augustine’s approach to doing Trinitarian theology. (Ch 4): In book 1 of De Trin Augustine is concerned with providing the first step in a classical education: teaching. This is why here we see only the most austere form of doctrinal summary, principles extracted from scripture and in accordance with the creed. He is laying out the faith. Later, he wil move from teaching/faith to delight/understanding. (Ch 5): Augustine was heir to a tradition that emphasized the liberal arts as preparation for philosophical and mystical ascent. This tradition emphasized thinking beyond the material towards the divine. As Augustine progressed in his Christian life, he modified this tradition, emphasizing humility as central to ascent–with the process ending in a recognition of the divine mystery and a confession of sinfulness before God. This modified notion of ascent is seen in Confessions 10-13. (Ch 6): Ayres then develops Augustine’s “Christological epistemology”–the way in which we come to know eternal realities through the temporal reality of Jesus Christ (as well as other theophanies and images in the Bible). Though Christ comes in the form a servant, he comes in order to lead us to a contemplation of the eternal God (Phil 2:6-7). In the interim, the human person must seek to “look beyond” the language and images of scripture, by having our mind’s attention trained by these very images.

Section three (chapters 7-10) is Ayres’ unfolding of Augustine’s “mature Trinitarian ontology”. (Ch 7): Here Ayres shows the dogmatic foundation for the Christological epistemology mentioned above. The foundation is laid out by reference to two hermeneutical rules that Augustine develops. The first rule is that we are to read through and beyond Christ’s incarnation to the eternal reality of God–this is in accordance with the movement of Christ’s own mission (Phil 2:6-7). The second rule has to do with texts that appear to speak of inequality between the Father and the Son and Spirit (for example, “The Father is greater than I”). Augustine says that these texts refer not to substance, but to an ordering of the eternal procession. They provide us with the material to reflect on the manner of this eternal procession. In using these two rules, Augustine picks up a variety of Latin Trinitarian themes, but develops them more consistently.

(Ch 8): When it comes to interpreting the creedal language of “God from God”, Augustine does something rather unique and innovative. He rejects the adequacy of the terms “person”, “substance”, and “essence” because, taken literally, these would all compromise divine simplicity. Augustine then uses this principle of divine simplicity to articulate an account of God’s eternal, trinitarian self-relating. In fact, on Augustine’s account, divine simplicity is necessary to articulate such an account.

(Ch 9): Here Ayres shows more of how the simplicity logic works and what it entails. In response to a passage about the Son only seeing what the Father shows (John 5:19), Augustine says that this seeing and showing is constitutive of the eternal relationship between the two–doing so by way of simplicity rather than reference to “person” or “nature” language. This takes the “showing” and “seeing” to be identical to “begetting” terms and (a) weds the eternal processions to what happens in time, and (b) retains the Father’s status as principium because Augustine is careful never to say that the Father’s showing makes him who he is.

(Ch 10): Augustine sees the Spirit as the agent of unity, arguing that the “gift” of the Spirit is the communion between the Father and the Son, which is eternal and identical to the essence of the Father and the Son. This means the Spirit is irreducible and is irreducibly the divine essence. The titles Holy, Spirit, and Love are common to all three but are appropriated of the Spirit to show the Spirit’s consubstantiality and derivation from the Father. Speaking of the Spirit as eternal “bond” comes from exegesis on Acts 4:32, showing Augustine reasoning from the economy to the immanent Trinity. In the end, we can speak of a ‘redoublement’ in Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. First, he focuses on the three as active agents; second, on each of the three as the fulness of the Godhead. In both cases he refines terminologies to the point of apophaticism, and we learn that there are no available categories by which we can speak of this reality.

The final section (chapters 11-12) is Ayres’ brief treatment of the famous “analogies” of the last half of De Trin (specifically the analogies in books 8-10). Rather than these being analogies of the Trinity, Ayres says, they are analyses of how the mind might be a proper site for knowledge of the Trinity. On the one hand, Augustine reasons, we have no categories to know this God, and yet we must be able to know God because God is Truth and Truth is present to our minds. The way this works, Ayres says, is that the God who is beyond all our categories is present to our minds in someway, and the language of faith (creedal language) allows us to analyze “that which is before us and within us, but not grasped”. For Augustine, our knowledge of God must in someway be like God (simple, ineffable), and in this way the Trinitarian language provides us with a way to analyze our minds as the very site of divine knowledge. He sees that in our normal, fallen state, our mind is not identical with itself in its knowing (is not simple), but rather thinks of itself in terms of something higher (God) or lower (bodies), thus forgetting itself. It is this decidedly Trinitarian attempt to obey the Delphic oracle (Know thyself) that leads to purification of the mind. The mind comes to know itself when it sees that it has its proper object of love and knowledge in God.

Ayres’ book is not one that someone like me can really critique. It is more the type of book that one submits to until the primary text shows otherwise. I have read De Trin a couple of times now, and I find Ayres’ work to be highly illuminative. Many of the things I sensed but couldn’t articulate well were here developed about five levels further than I had thought them. This is the English language book to read on Augustine and the Trinity and it must be one of the best English language books on the Trinity, period. That is saying a lot for a book that is a secondary source and a piece of historical theology, but I guess this is historical theology at its very best–bringing the past to bear on our minds in a new and compelling way. I will say that I found the last section a bit rushed and either messy or just too subtle. That is, either Ayres was not as clear on what he was saying here, or he did not say what he was saying with enough clarity. This ambiguity in understanding (and maybe in expression) is represented in my summary above. And in all fairness, Ayres’ subject matter–the latter half of De Trin–is one of the most subtle and difficult theological texts ever.

2 thoughts on “Augustine and the Trinity, by Lewis Ayres

  1. […] Also, here is my summary/review of Lewis Ayres’ book, Augustine and the Trinity. […]

  2. Jon Sellers says:

    Very helpful review. Thanks. While I would love to study this book, it is not likely in the near future, but your review gave me an interest in Augustine’s work, which I hope to be able to read piecemeal.

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