De Trinitate, book 12


May 14, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugAugustine’s first move in book 12 is to distinguish between two functions of human reason, and these were implicit throughout book 11. Reason has a lower function by which it has knowledge of bodily and changing things, and reason has a second function by which it “make[s] judgments on these bodily things according to non-bodily and everlasting meanings.” These are two functions of the one image of God in humans, not two elements of a synthetic trinity. Since the lower function of the mind is temporal and changing, the image we are looking for must ultimately be found in the mind so far as it is concerned with the contemplation of eternal things.

Augustine clears out of the way possible alternate interpretations of where the image of God in persons is to be found. Augustine rejects an interpretation that finds the image of God in a family of man, woman, and child. Some apparently said the man represented the Father, the child the Son, and the woman the Holy Spirit. Augustine’s problem with this is that it drags created realities quite literally into our understanding of God. He also makes a biblical argument that the scriptures simply say that “man”–as in a singular person, with no real focus on gender–was made in the image of God; that is, made in the image of the Trinity. Augustine also raises and defeats the notion that God the Father made persons in the image of the Son. This approach, he says, implies within itself that the Father and the Son are not truly co-equal. He returns to the idea that the image of God is to be found in the relation between multiple persons, explicitly denying the idea of some that the image was found in the sexual differentiation between men and women (i.e. “he made them male and female”).

Augustine’s point that each single person is the image of God was underlined by 1 Cor 11:7, which says that in church a man should not cover his head because he is the image of God, whereas the woman should because “she is the glory of man”. Augustine sees the apparent problem with this–denying the image in women–but he says it does not actually mean this. He affirms that both the man and the woman each fully possess the image of God. That is non-negotiable. He does, however, see the relation between man and woman in the worship service as the site of an allegory for how the image of God is present in each and every person, female or male: the man with head uncovered represents the function of contemplating eternal truths, the woman with head covered represents the function of the mind in managing temporal affairs. When this allegory or symbolism is acted out in the church it is “pleasing to the angels”. Augustine says of this passage that “if this does not refer to some hidden sacramental or symbolic meaning, it will remain quite pointless”. In other words, Augustine takes it as true that woman and man are ontologically equivalent in that both are made in the image of God. He takes 1 Corinthians 11:7ff to be in reference to an allegory that is acted out in worship, wherein each of the two represent parts of the one image of God they both possess fully.

For Augustine, the story of Adam and Eve and their fall becomes an allegory for understanding what happens to the image of God in each one of us (of course, Augustine thinks there is a historical story in Genesis 1-3, but he is reading it in a much broader theological way here). The image of God in all of us falls as the higher function of human reason no longer prevails over the way we know and love lower things. Rather than being content with being given all things to enjoy in God, we each strive to grab “more than the whole”. Augustine describes the mind’s fallen state this way:

And so it finds delight in bodily shapes and movements, and because it has not got them with it inside, it wraps itself in their images which it has fixed in the memory. In this way it defiles itself foully with a fanciful sort of fornication by referring all its business to one or other of the following ends: curiosity, searching for bodily and temporal experience through the senses; swollen conceit, affecting to be above other souls which are given over to their senses; or carnal pleasure, plunging itself in this muddy whirlpool.

Rather than the higher and lower aspects of our reason enjoying cooperative wedded bliss, Augustine sees our fallen mind’s state as one in which the higher faculty devours the lower in fornication, in the end destroying itself. This is the fate of the human that is not content with being a creature and enjoying all things in God but would rather possess things as private goods; he ironically descends almost to the level of a beast.

Going further with his Adam and Eve allegory of the mind’s fall, Augustine says that we should not read the story as one in which the lower reason (represented by Eve) is tempted and sins alone, but rather one in which the lower reason presents to the higher reason (represented by Adam) an occasion for temptation, and both consent and sin together. The reason that both consent and sin together, it should be noted, is that we are not speaking here of a lower and higher nature in terms of body/soul, but rather two functions of the one human reason.

Now Augustine discusses the lower and higher function of reason in our minds as “knowledge” and “wisdom”, respectively. Knowledge belongs to action and wisdom belongs to contemplation. Knowledge is the way we abstain from evil in temporal things, wisdom is the piety that contemplates eternal things. Knowledge refers to ethical decisions and historical templates of virtue. Wisdom refers to the eternal norms of goodness which are always present at every moment, accessible in some way to human persons, but only momentarily because in this perception the mind can only manage “a transitory thought about a non-transitory thing”. Luckily for us, these transitory thoughts are implanted in our memories, and we are able by discipline to go back to them and recover them. With this Augustine crafts a response to Plato’s theory of anamnesis (or recollection). Contra Plato, we don’t know the eternal standards by which we judge because we come from a past life; rather, our daily, bodily perceptions give us momentary glimpses of eternal forms (truth, goodness, and beauty) that all of created reality participates in whether it knows it or not. What is needed is training to recover our perceptions of eternal realities.

In closing, Augustine yet again refers to the fact that he is “leav[ing] behind what belongs to the outer man” in order to “climb up inward from what we have in common with the beasts”. On the way we have run into the issue of the “rational cognizance of temporal things”. In other words, in trying to go from the trinities of the outer person (book 11) we have seen that the first step to eternal contemplation must be temporal knowledge (book 12). So in book 13 Augustine will discuss temporal knowledge by looking at the economy of salvation. In book 14 he will try to show how this knowledge leads us to wisdom–to contemplation of the Trinity.


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