De Trinitate, book 6


May 7, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

st-augustine-cycle---the-parable-of-the-holy-trinityBook 6 is about how the divine attributes are to be appropriated to the three. 1 Cor 1:24, which says that “Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God”, had been historically troublesome. It appears that some had taken this text to mean that Christ was less than the Father, being identified as two attributes: “power” and “wisdom”. Yet, some pro-Nicene Christians had used the text to argue against the Arian heresy, saying that since God was never without his wisdom or power, that there was never a time when the Son was not with the Father. That is, since the Father needs the Son to be wise, the Son is eternally with the Father.  Augustine is asking the question of whether this latter use, orthodox in intent, makes any sense. Does it compromise the creed’s insistence on co-equality: “God from God”, “Light from Light”?

He explores one way in which we could make sense of this statement. We could say that the Father is only referred to singly when we use the term “Father”. The same with the “Son”. However, when we speak of  “wisdom”, “power”, “greatness”, or any other substance-wise statement, we speak of the Father and Son together. This is so because, on this account, the Father is only wise together with the wisdom he eternally brings forth. The Son is only the wisdom he is as he is eternally brought forth by the Father. On this account, there would be no way to single out one of the three and say something substance-wise about just that one. The Father and the Son would be “one” in that they together make up “God”. But since they are together eternally, and since they are both “great”, “wise”, and “powerful” through one another, then they are equal in everything, save their relations of being “Father” and “Son”. Augustine does not explicitly say that this view lands in heresy, perhaps because it was the view of some fathers before him (Hilary?), but he will reject this attempt to deal with the issue of appropriation of titles. Augustine’s own solution will be to maintain a stronger interpretation of divine simplicity, declaring that “God from God” means that each of the three is identical with all the essential attributes. Here “Christ [is] the wisdom of God” will mean that the Son is divine wisdom just as the Father is divine wisdom.

Augustine makes the point that everything that is created–material or immaterial–is composite. It is therefore changeable. God, he says, is not composite and is therefore unchangeable. In other words, God is simple. This means that all of his essential attributes are identical. The fact that we think of God as three cannot mean that we divide this simple essence into three. While doing so would allow us to confess the three together as God, it would mean that each of the three–even the Father–would be less than God. We would have a situation where three things that are less than God add up to God. Augustine is aware that in this construction the three would never be separate and all would be coeternal, but logically speaking the absurd implication would hold. This construction would make it impossible to make sense of the scriptural appropriation that flatly asserts that Christ is “the power of God”, and it would also make it impossible to confess the “God from God” of the creed. Therefore we must maintain that “the Father alone or the Son alone or the Holy Spirit alone is as great as Father and Son and Holy Spirit together”. This means that “in no way can they be called triple, or three by multiplication” for the very reason that here the sum is not greater than any of the parts, since in God there are no parts and therefore there is no sum.

To close out this book Augustine quotes Hilary’s attempt to cash out the special properties of each of the persons in the Trinity: “Eternity in the Father, form in the image, use in the gift.” Augustine goes on to offer an interpretation of Hilary’s words that will fit with what Augustine has been arguing and not compromise the perfect simplicity of God leading to the perfect coequality of the persons. Essentially, Augustine turns Hilary’s quote (perhaps a famous quote?) into something of use for Augustine’s own trinitarian theology. Ayres notes that here Augustine knows that Hilary does not quite have the Trinitarian logic right, but rather than go against this revered theologian explicitly, Augustine decides to rejigger Hilary’s words in accordance with what he believes is a correct deduction from divine simplicity.

From what I can gather, my hypothesis is that this whole book is a gentle correction to the Nicene tradition, and not at all concerned with the “heretics”. Augustine does not come right out and say that the attempt to conceive of the Father and Son as being wise only together is veering toward heresy. He obviously does not want to make enemies out of orthodox friends. However, the argument of book 6 shows that he clearly thinks this way of talking about God is hermeneutically deficient (it compromises 1 Cor 1:24) and goes against the creed (contradicting the “God from God” clause).

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