De Trinitate, book 4


May 1, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

st-augustine-cycle---the-parable-of-the-holy-trinitySo far we have seen Augustine lay out the basic tenets of trinitarian faith, including some hermeneutical rules that coincide with this doctrine (book 1). Then Augustine took two books to discuss the idea of the divine missions or sendings. The first was concerned with what it means to be “sent” and focused on the Old Testament theophanies (book 2). The second argued that the Old Testament theophanies were signs carried out through the secondary causation of angels (book 3). Now in book 4 Augustine is turning to the issue of the sending of the Son in the incarnation–how this sending differs from those in the Old Testament, and what we can learn from this sending. Book 4 is one of the more difficult in this very difficult work, and so I’ll try very hard to lay out the logic of book 4 step by step.

Augustine reminds us first of one of the most fundamental principles of theology: that God does not change; God is eternally the one he is. He does not argue for this here, but if he did his argument would involve a series of philosophical reflections on the nature of God as creator and on the divine name (“I am that I am”). Augustine’s situation in relation to the unchanging truth and goodness of God is that he (Augustine) does change; he sees himself wandering in exile. Unlike God, we are not identical with our true nature; we are split apart, divided. This fallen state is not because of our fundamental nature. No, we were created for life and light “in” the eternal Word.

Since we were created in the Word for life and light–our death and darkness must be done away with by the Word. Our confusion and division must be brought to harmony by the incarnation of the Word. This is why the Son (Word) was sent, Augustine says–to bring our disorder (“our double”) into order by way of his life (“his single”). We die a double death, in both body (physical death) and soul (sin leading to eternal death). Christ’s life was a fundamental unity because he was without sin, so he only died one death, the one he took on willingly–the physical death. And this unified life of Jesus Christ serves to heal both our physical and spiritual ailments. Augustine says that Christ’s one work consists of two movements: his death and his resurrection. Each of these two serves two functions: one for our soul and one for our body. So Christ’s death is a sacrament for our soul, leading us to repentance by showing us our sin. Christ’s death is a model for our body, giving us the courage to face our own deaths. Christ’s resurrection then is a sacrament for our soul because his resurrection leads us beyond his earthly life into a contemplation of what is eternally true in Christ. And Christ’s resurrection is a model for our body as a preview of what will finally occur for us–our resurrection. In this way, Augustine says, Christ is the gathering up of our disparate elements. Christ brings harmony.

Next comes one of the strangest sections as far as modern Christians are concerned. Here Augustine does a great deal with numerology. He starts with the statement that Christ’s single (1) works a double for us (2) (=3), and it does so for us in two ways (x2): body and soul (=6). Then he says that the number 6 is symbolic of time (since there are 6 days before the eternal rest, the Sabbath), and he finds warrant for this by reflecting on scriptural structures of time and on our own lunar and solar calendars. The reasoning is impressive, but the method strikes us as odd. The purpose, however, is this: Augustine wants to show that all of created reality is structured as a witness to Christ’s work. He says that it is in Christ that all the meaning of the ages comes together at one point. It is in Christ that our disparate lives come together into one. It is in Christ that the disparity between the many human wills can become one (in the Church). Augustine says we may find other or better or more instances of this structuring, but that “no one will be so foolish and inept as to contend that they are there in the scriptures to no purpose, and that there are no mystical reasons for recording them.”

Having shown the way in which the work of Christ brings harmony to our disorder–his single for our double, and having shown how all of created reality testifies to this work of Christ, next Augustine brings in a contrast between the mediation of Christ and the mediation of the devil. The devil too has a single that leads to our double: his single death was a death of the spirit (sin) and through his prideful act of sin he persuaded us to sin, incurring death in both soul and body. So by being like the devil and reaching for what is beyond us by nature, we incur death. Christ, by contrast, redeems us from our double death by his single death–a death not in the spirit but in the body. Augustine sees in this a typology not only of the work of the devil on Adam and the work of Christ for believers, but also a typology of human religion: there are human religions and philosophies that claim to offer salvation through mystic rites, special knowledge, philosophical reasoning, and general ascent beyond the created order. By contrast, Christianity offers salvation only through the very flesh of Jesus. It is only through the flesh of Jesus Christ, Augustine says, that we can be purified and start to catch a glimpse of eternal things. The way to knowledge of the eternal is through faith in the temporal. Christ is “a bridge to [God’s] eternity.”

So Augustine takes it that he has shown how everything that happens in time is ordered toward this “sending” of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And the sending of the Son of God is of such a nature that it gives us someway to be purified and led (eventually anyways) to a contemplation of the eternal truth, the Word of God. And we know from scripture, and our previous discussion, that the one who is sent (Jesus Christ) is referred to as both less than the Father and equal to the Father–less in the sense of his being incarnate, equal in the sense of his eternal status. At this point, Augustine seems to reason thus: what happens is temporal and revealed in human terms that are “less” than God. In this sense the one who is “sent” is less than the one who sends. Yet, what happens in the human temporal sending reveals to us in someway the eternal nature of God; the one who is sent is “equal” to the one who sends. This leads Augustine to posit that the Son’s “sending” in time is rooted in the fact that he is “begotten” in eternity. The same thing applies to the Spirit: the Spirit’s “sending” or “proceeding” in time is said to be rooted in the fact that the Spirit proceeds (from the Father and the Son) in eternity. In other words, the economy of salvation is temporally correlated with the eternal reality of the Trinity. The former reality is temporal and divided into parts, while the latter is a simple unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which we are trying to conceive of somehow–without dissolving either the unity or the distinction.

As a final note, Augustine struggles here to understand how it is that the Spirit came in a new way at Pentecost (as opposed to his sendings in the Old Testament). He thinks scripture and his own train of logic demand that what happens at Pentecost is qualitatively different than the Old Testament missions of the Spirit, and most would agree. Yet he knows that, unlike the Son, there is no personal union that occurs, no incarnation. So he leaves an open problem: how to describe what, precisely, is qualitatively new about the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. He says he will come back to this later, but it’s unclear whether he really does.

In any case, Augustine has tried to show why the Son was sent. He has tried to show how all things in the Old Testament–and in the very structure of created time–point toward this sending of the Son. He has tried to show how this sending of the Son in the flesh is in contrast to other human attempts to gain knowledge of truth. Finally, he has claimed that the sending of the Son in time is a temporal route to God’s eternity, and so through this sending of the Son (and the Spirit) we gain some insight into God’s nature.


3 thoughts on “De Trinitate, book 4

  1. Lance says:

    This was a helpful introduction before digging into this work again. Thanks very much for this!

    • mattwilcoxen says:

      Hi Lance,

      I’m glad you found it helpful. I just read a great book on Augustine’s De Trin: one of the best I’ve found (it rivals Ayres’ book). It’s by Luigi Gioia and it’s called “The Theological Epistemology of Augustine’s De Trinitate”.

      All the best!

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