De Trinitate, book 7


May 7, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugIn book 7 Augustine picks up with the same question with which he left off in book 6. The question, simply stated, is this: “whether the Father taken singly is wise and is indeed his own wisdom, or whether he is wise in the same way as he is uttering.” In other words, is the Father alone wise, or can we only speak of the Father as being wise in the begetting of the Son (Christ) who is the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24)?

The first thing Augustine has to say to this question is that if we say that the Father is wise only in his begetting of the Son, then we are also saying that the Father has all his other attributes in this way too. And, since we know (per divine simplicity) that for God to be and to be wise are the same thing, then we also have to make the ludicrous statement that God begets his own being as God! This leaves us with a number of options–all of them bad: (i) deny that Christ is the wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), (ii) admit Christ’s status, but deny the Father’s fatherhood, (iii) say that “the Father is not…wise with his wisdom”, (iv) deny divine simplicity and say that for the Father to be and to be wise are two different things, and (v) say that the Father is nothing in himself, but only exists in reference to the Son. This last option receives particular attention, with Augustine showing that it amounts to a denial altogether of “being” in God; it leads to the idea of God as pure relation(s).  This is absurd, Augustine says, for a relation presupposes things/substances that are related. Therefore, he says, the Father and the Son must each be a substance. And the Son cannot be a “thing” or a “substance” in the way of a property–otherwise we deny divine simplicity afresh. The relation between the Father and the Son is: “God from God”, “Light from light”, “wisdom from wisdom”.

At this point Augustine raises and answers the question of why the scripture so often speaks of wisdom being made, or even speaking of Christ being “made wisdom for us” (1 Cor 1:30). His answer is made by recourse to “partitive exegesis”. The Son was made wisdom for us by taking on flesh and providing a temporal-bodily route for us sinners by which we may travel back to God. However, we know, from the logic of divine simplicity and the other statements in scripture which declare the equality of Father and Son, that each of the three are fully and equally the divine wisdom. That is to say, the divine substance/essence. (Augustine is careful to discuss explicitly the Spirit.)

The discussion of the simplicity of the divine three leads Augustine to discuss the terms “person” and “substance”. The difficulty in speaking about God comes from the fact that God is totally transcendent, and there is absolutely no inherently appropriate language by which we can speak of God. Our language inevitably employs species and genus terms, and God is beyond species and genus. The fact of divine simplicity (a precise way of stating divine transcendence) entails that any way we speak of God will break the conventional rules of our language. Any way of speaking will also potentially cause us to say something erroneous about God. Yet, we have to say something about God–both for the sake of attempting understanding of the Bible and for the sake of beating away heretics from the truth of scripture.

“So human inadequacy searched for a word to express three what, and it said substances [Gk. hypostases] or persons. By these names it did not wish to give any idea of diversity, but it wished to avoid any idea of singleness; so that as well as understanding unity in God, whereby there is said to be one being, we might also understand trinity, whereby there are also said to be three substances or persons.”

Augustine points out the problem with speaking of three “substances” (Gk. hypostases); it would imply either division or composition in God. He says that the same thing is true of “persons” (the usual Latin term) as it is normally used. It is inappropriate. Yet, he says, this is just the one word we have picked out in order to say “three somethings” rather than remaining entirely silent. So we say “one being” and “three persons”, but we always remember that because of God’s simplicity these terms do not follow the normal rules of predication. And because we are so bound to thinking in creaturely terms (for Augustine a result, at least in large part, of sin), we cannot conceive of God as he is. Augustine reminds us to stick to what we know by faith–to what we know in the economy of salvation and in the Nicene creed.

At the end of the chapter the question of scriptural language regarding the divine unity and plurality leads Augustine to discuss Genesis 1:26 (“Let us make man to our image and likeness”). He says that the text shows that the image of God in humans is not present in the way of identicality–in the way that the Son images the Father, but rather that humans are created in the image of the Trinity and that this is a “sort of imitation”. There is some possibility, he says, for us to approximate the Holy Trinity with the proper function of our minds, and to substantiate the point he cites Romans 12:2,  Ephesians 5:1, and Colossians 3:10, all of which center around the idea of being “renewed” in our minds. It is my belief that the rest of De Trinitate, from this point forward, is about helping us engage in the renewal of our minds in imitation of the Trinity.


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