April 30, 2013 by mattwilcoxen
The heart and soul of De Trinitate book 3 is to give an account of the nature of the Old Testament theophanies–the “sending” of the Son and the Spirit–and to do so in such a way that we do not compromise the uniqueness of what happens in the premier sending, the Incarnation of Christ. Augustine is compelled by the scripture’s witness to the Incarnation to affirm that what happens in Christ is different, not just in degree but in kind, from God’s works more generally. At the same time–since all the divine works are the inseparable works of the Trinity Augustine will need to show an inner-connection between what happens in Christ and what happens elsewhere.
Augustine starts with an account of God’s general providential rule of the world. He lays out an account wherein all creaturely action–absolutely all of it–can be traced back to the all-wise God as the primary cause. Yet, he shows that God works through secondary causes. The primary cause is the will of God; secondary causes are those things which act to bring a thing to a certain realization of what is inherent in that thing’s nature. Augustine makes the important point that even miracles (which are also referred to as “signs”) occur through secondary causes–just in an unusual manner.
This idea that miracles are wrought not through a special primary causation of God, but secondary causation like everything else, opens space for the consideration of the role of angels in the divine economy. Miracles are wonderful and strange to us because we do not have the “keenness of perception” to see how they are brought about through secondary causation (i.e., through something like “ordinary means”), but angels do. This keenness of perception allows the angels to act in ways that are inscrutable to us, but still fall into the realm of “secondary causation”. Augustine refers to the stories in Exodus, wherein Moses turned his staff into a serpent but was then mimicked in this by Pharoah’s magicians. These miracles depend upon good and bad angels, respectively–and both have power to act in ways that we cannot perceive. There are points where Moses is able to do things that the magicians cannot–and this reveals that all the power the angels have comes from God.
As I mentioned, Augustine sees these miracles done by angels functioning as “signs” revealing things to us. Human beings can also act and speak and have their actions and words used as signs. The difference with what the angels do is not in the meaning that the signs have, but rather in their style: “as if you were to write the Lord’s name both in ink and in letters of gold.” In angelic signs, there is understanding and wonder; in human signs, just understanding. Presumably, Augustine makes this point to further underscore the fact that, while these miracles are incredible, they are still the operations of secondary causes.
If this all seems a bit speculative, the last part of book 3 is Augustine giving a scriptural defense for seeing the miracles of the Old Testament as the work of angels. He references both Old and New Testament writings to this effect, and does bring out something that modern scriptural exegesis tends to ignore: God’s activity occurring through angels.
But what is the importance of this point? Why does Augustine want us to see that the Old Testament miracles were on the level of secondary causation, and that they were thus wrought by angels? Simply put, he wants to make sure that we don’t regard God’s action as uniform across the Old and New Testaments. If we take the Old Testament miracles as the result of God’s primary causation–his direct acting upon the creature, then there is no real way to say that what happens in Jesus Christ is qualitatively different. Augustine appears convinced that what sets Jesus apart as supreme is that something happens in Jesus that has never happened before and will never happen after–the direct, personal expression of God–though still through a creaturely medium. Of course, this does not mean that God’s action through angels is disconnected from what God does in Christ: all the signs and miracles wrought by angels were to prepare us for Christ’s coming.