De Trinitate, book 2


April 29, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

st-augustine-cycle---the-parable-of-the-holy-trinityDe Trinitate book 2 opens with these rich lines about the process of trinitarian theology. It is a process of reading scripture in order to ascertain God’s nature, and it works something in the one who undertakes it:

People who seek God, and stretch their minds as far as human weakness is able toward an understanding of the trinity, must surely experience the strain of trying to fix their gaze on “light inaccessible” (1 Tim 6:16), and the difficulties presented by the holy scriptures in their multifarious diversity of form, which are designed, so it seems to me, to wear Adam down and let Christ’s glorious grace shine through. 

So Augustine picks up here with biblical exegesis. Here he states explicitly the exegetical rule which he only hinted toward in the previous book: there are some biblical statements that refer neither to the Son’s or Spirit’s equality with the Father, nor to the Son’s being less than the Father in the “form of a servant” (incarnation), but rather refer to the fact that the Son or Spirit is from the Father. This rule comes from the fact that there are texts which speak of the Father giving the Son to have life in himself, and of the Son being able only to do what he sees the Father doing (John 5:19), and especially the general language of the Son being “sent”. As we will see later on in book 4, Augustine will reason from the Son’s being “from” or “sent” in the economy to make statements about how the Trinity is in itself.

In explicating this rule, Augustine is trying to ward off certain misunderstandings: some people were evidently still trying to show from scripture that the Son and the Spirit were not really co-equal with the Father. They were apparently doing this by reference to the “sent” language. So, Augustine has to deal with what it means for the Son or the Spirit to be “sent”. Augustine points out the fact that this is not really standard spatial language–the eternal God does not go from one place to another, leaving behind one place for another. Instead, the “sendings” or “missions” are visible manifestations in time of the God who in himself contains all times. Thus this occurs without a diminution of God’s divine eternity.

Though Augustine’s enquiry seems to have begun with New Testament statements about Christ’s and the Spirit’s sending, he turns now to the question of the Old Testament and some of the theophanies that occur there. Some heretics were apparently fond of reading 1 Tim 6:16 as saying that the Father alone was invisible, and this led them to believe that the appearances of the Old Testament were of the Son (and possibly the Spirit) who was, obviously, not invisible. The dilemma would have been this: if the appearances in the Old Testament could be appearances of the Father, then 1 Tim 6:16 is just wrong; and if the Son and Spirit are also included in the invisibility of 1 Tim 6:16, then God does not appear at all and you deny the OT theophanies. Augustine shows that it is a false dilemma: all three can be said to be invisible and we can do so without denying the revelation of the theophanies simply because the theophanies themselves indicate that they are but creaturely manifestations serving to point us beyond the creaturely to God. Think, for example, of the fact that Moses can talk about seeing God “face to face” in one sense, but still ask “show me your glory”–something which God says is impossible.

If the three stand on the same exact footing, then we are led to wonder which of the three are being revealed in the various OT theophanies–is it one of the three, or is it all three together? Most of the time, Augustine says, it is simply not possible to tell. The context of the passages give us no clue, and these manifestations are creaturely effects of the action of God–and God’s action always belongs to all three indivisibly. He offers a modest conjecture that we should see many of the manifestations as appropriated to the Holy Spirit, but he is not at all dogmatic about this, and apparently does not think it is of ultimate importance.

Augustine spends considerable time on one special manifestation: Moses’ seeing God’s “back” and being hidden in the rock (Exodus 33:20). Augustine follows precedent and takes “back” to be a reference to the flesh of Christ (“the form of a servant”), and the “face” of God which cannot be seen is said to be a reference to Christ’s deity (“the form of God”). The rock which Moses is hidden in, being covered by the hand of God, is said to represent our standing in the Church as the vantage point from which we believe. Christ “passes by” and we cannot see his face, but his flesh is raised from the dead and by this perception of his bodily resurrection, we are given faith. Augustine is aware that he is being allegorical here–but he thinks it is warranted by the fact that a literal interpretation would be patently absurd: that God has a real body, half of which is visible and half of which is invisible.

One of the questions running throughout book 2 but never really dealt with is the nature of the theophanies, specifically those that are connected to angels or “the angel of the LORD”. Does God conscript already existent angels for this purpose, or does he create a temporary creaturely appearance for the sake of the theophanies. It might seem obscure to us, but we’ll see in book 3 what Augustine does with the role of the angels in revelation.


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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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