De Trinitate, book 1


April 28, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

ImageYesterday I offered a long summary of Lewis Ayres’ book Augustine and the Trinity. Between reading this book, teaching a class on the Trinity and using Augustine for it, and the fact that I have to give a paper in a couple weeks on ethical formation and Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, I thought I’d make a run through De Trin once again. My aim is to go book by book (there are fifteen), offering concise and clear summaries of what Augustine does. This will help me get clarity, and I hope it means these posts can be a guide for you–so that you can take up De Trin and not get lost in some of its more labyrinthine sections. Here goes.

Augustine’s stated purpose in the work is to give an account of the Trinity that is in line with the scriptures and the creed (“the starting point of faith”) and to do so in opposition to those who have fallen into error by thinking that they can come to an understanding of God and revelation without having reason itself fundamentally brought into line. He points out three errors: thinking of God in terms of bodies, thinking of God in terms of immaterial creation, and thinking of God in non-sensical terms. Augustine says that we cannot proceed so simply, but that we have to realize that God has given us two types of biblical statements that play off of one another: statements that say things about God in creaturely terms, and statements that refer to the fact that God is beyond all creation, corporeality, and time. Therefore God wills to tell us about himself, but at the same time our regular ways of thinking of God are insufficient to grasp him. We need to be purified from the way we currently think, before we can ever have any understanding of the God who is inseparably Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Before he can go on, Augustine needs to instruct those of us who are ignorant, and persuade those of us who are doubtful, of what the faith actually teaches about God. So he lays out a rather concise and austere Trinitarian formulation in 1.4.7: Father, Son, and Spirit all fully possess the divine nature undivided, and yet the Father is not the Son, the Son not the Spirit, etc. He goes beyond the definitions of the three and the one to explain the principle that everything which any one of the three do is actually the action of all three inseparably; this functions as an important hermeneutical rule, and Augustine tries to show how necessary and helpful it is.

Augustine was not unaware of passages in which the Son was said to be less than the Father. Yet, since there are still so many passages which indicate the co-equality of the Son with the Father, what is to be done? The solution is seen in Phil 2:6-7. Here Augustine sees a movement in the divine Son’s life: he takes on “the form of a servant” for a time, for the sake of salvation. He does this without ceasing to be God. This gives Augustine license to state another important hermeneutical principle: the Son is less than the Father in reference to him being the form of the servant, but equal with the Father inasmuch as he remains in the form of God. This hermeneutical rule is applied to all statements about Christ, and to great effect. Augustine did not invent this, of course–it is an inheritance from the Fathers who preceded him. It is now referred to as “partitive exegesis”. Augustine uses it extensively here to show how it is that the Son hands over the kingdom to the Father (1 Cor 15:24-28) and is still co-equal and inseparably working with him.

Augustine notes some even more difficult texts that apparently indicate subordinationism of the Son to the Father, and perhaps flat contradiction. For instance, Jesus says that he did not come to judge (John 12:47). On the other hand, Jesus says that the Father does not judge (John 5:22). But in the first passage (John 12:47), Jesus says that the word Jesus speaks will judge. In the second passage, it is explicitly stated that judgment has been committed by the Father to the Son. So what gives? 1. Jesus did not come to judge. 2. Jesus’ word judges. 3. The Father does not judge. 4. Jesus judges. This is further complicated by the fact that, 5. the word Jesus speaks are the words he hears from the Father–and in fact, Jesus just is the Word from the Father. To unravel all this, Augustine derives two other hermeneutical rules. First, some texts that appear subordinationist are referring to the fact that the Son is from the Father–eternally. This means that though the Father and Son are of the same essence and work inseparably, we are still led by scripture (through these apparently conflicting statements) to see that the Son proceeds from the Father. Second, he shows how we have to see some passages as predicating things of the person “Jesus Christ” (simpliciter) which actually require a further nuance. For instance, scripture says that “they crucified the Lord of glory”. In the context of all the biblical statements, the devout reader knows that this is said about “the form of the servant”.

I know there are a great many who will find these hermeneutical principles to be dubious at first glance. I would seriously encourage you to think long and hard about them. For Augustine, they are not just rules that conveniently get him out of exegetical difficulties. No, they are rather the fruit of his engagement with the text and a desire to take every statement of scripture with full seriousness. Yes, he assumes a harmony exists between the seemingly disparate statements, but mustn’t every Christian reading of scripture?


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