De Trinitate, book 13


May 14, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugThe first chapter of book 13 is a basic reiteration of the distinction between knowledge and wisdom which was given at length in book 12. Augustine begins by glossing these as follows: in knowledge of temporal things our activity and our awareness are both engaged, in contemplation (wisdom) of eternal things only our awareness is involved. Augustine proceeds to show the distinction between the two by looking at the Johannine prologue (only vv.1-14). He sees in this passage reference both to eternal things and to temporal things, with the emphasis being on the idea that knowledge of temporal things can lead to contemplation of eternal things. This knowledge of temporal things he regards as “faith”. “And what we hope for is that faith in true things will eventually be transformed into sight of the things themselves”. This “faith in true things” will be the theme of this book. Augustine acknowledges that this faith is many–instantiated in many individual people, yet he insists that it can be called the faith because each person’s faith is united in its object.

Augustine begins his discussion with the statement that the one thing we can universalize about our human experience is that we all want to be happy. He is eudaimonistic to the core. Yet he raises a problem: there are massive disagreements about what it means to be happy. People seek happiness in ways that are diametrically opposed. Some know that happiness is living a life of conscious virtue, but others think that happiness is found in bodily pleasure. Does this mean that there are some who desire happiness and yet do not know what the happy life is? No, Augustine says they do know what the happy life is: it is having everything one wants, and wanting nothing wrongly. The problem with people is they have a bad will–they want the wrong things. One is better off, Augustine says, having a good will and not having the things you desire, than having a bad will and achieving what you desire.

The life of true happiness is a life beyond this life: only in the eschaton can one both desire the highest good (the Most High God) and not lack anything of one’s desire. For now, our options are faith (loving the highest good without possessing it) or faithlessness (loving lesser goods and either having them or not having them). Therefore, the desire for happiness is a desire for immortality, since those who are happy want to be happy and they do not want not to be happy, and since they do not want not to be happy, they do not want their happiness to cease. Since happiness requires life, those who are happy do not want their life to cease. Some have tried to prove that this immortality exists for the soul, but Augustine himself refers us to the scriptures and their promise that the whole person–body and soul–will be immortal, and it makes this promise because Christ has shared our mortality so that we might share in immortality.

So Augustine analyzes the way in which Christ acted to redeem us. He first raises a seeming contradiction from Romans 5:9-10. These two verses can give the impression both (a) that the death of the Son leads to our reconciliation to the Father who was angry because of our sin and (b) that the Father is already so reconciled to us in love that he gives his Son for us. Augustine’s response is to say that the Father and Son and Spirit actively will salvation together and that the Father “loved us not merely before the Son died for us, but before he founded the world”. So how is it that we were “justified in the blood of Christ and reconciled to God through the death of the Son”? Augustine will answer this question by, essentially, going over the same material as he covered in book 4.

By their fall humans were handed over to the devil’s power by the permissive will of God. This was the just wrath of God. In this, they did not leave the realm of God’s power, since God remains sovereign over all things. The devil, Augustine says, loves power and neglects justice. So God, in redemption, delivers people from the devil’s authority by way of justice, not by way of power. In God’s order of things, justice must always precede power. (This is why the people of God can only pursue justice now, in humility. The only power that they can rightly desire right now is the power to overcome their sin.) God’s overcoming justice is the death of the just one, Jesus Christ. The only one who did not deserve death died on behalf of those who did, entitling him to release those who justly deserve death. This is, specifically, “the justice of humility” that did not have to die (because God) yet could die (because man). So God’s justice was wrought through the cross and God’s power was granted in the resurrection.

Christ indeed overcame the devil’s power through his humble death, overcoming power with justice. Yet death and all manner of evils remain. In God’s providence, these train the elect in virtue, providing them with something to struggle against so that they might imitate Christ’s justice, and so that they might be actively but secondarily involved in God’s victory. God’s just permission that all people can be consigned under the devil’s power because of sin, and that the elect can be redeemed by the justice of God wrought in the death of Christ–both allow believers to participate in this justice of God. This is a demonstration of God’s wisdom in his plan put forth before the ages. Augustine says that God could have overcome the devil by sheer power, but this would not have conferred the same level of benefits. It also would not enable God to give grace without merit.

Augustine also asks why it is that the one who overcame by justice was born of the virgin. His answer is that it was fitting, or seemed most appropriate, for God to overcome the devil’s power by one who was of the very same race that had been conquered, yet to do so by one who could not in himself be implicated at all with the sins of that race. Augustine takes it that sex is a particularly powerful symbol of the sin of humanity. He does not say, however, that sex is inherently evil, but just that it is now particularly indicative of our disordered desires. So it is that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin: born of our race and so like us, but not the result of the devouring, libidinous will.

As Augustine opens his final chapter, he returns to his distinction between “knowledge” (perception of temporal things) and “wisdom” (perception of eternal things). He says that the things that have been illustrated in book 13 are concerned with the knowledge that comes about through Christ. But the Word who became flesh is in himself eternal Wisdom, and so Augustine sees in these temporal things a path to wisdom.

Our knowledge therefore is Christ, and our wisdom is the same Christ. It is he who plants faith in us about temporal things, he who presents us with the truth about eternal things. Through him we go straight toward him, through knowledge toward wisdom, without ever turning aside from one and the same Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3).

Augustine is very explicit in this section that the knowledge of Christ is the only way to wisdom. He speaks of brilliant philosophers who were able to “behold the invisible  things of God” (Rom 1:20) without the mediation of Christ, and says that these were those who inevitably “changed the glory of the incorruptible God into the likeness of an image of corruptible things” (Rom 1:23).

What Augustine has accomplished in book 13 is an retracing of redemption, now with the emphasis not on the Son’s co-equality with the Father (as in book 4) but now with the emphasis on the distinction and relation of knowledge and wisdom. Augustine has previously said (in book 8 and elsewhere) that we can know and love something or someone through testimony–knowing them and loving them because we can put together an image of them on the basis of things we do know. I believe Augustine is saying that knowledge and wisdom work in this way. We are able to know and love Christ in knowledge because we can hear about him and form an image of him in our minds. And this knowledge may somehow lead to wisdom. Augustine has not yet said how. He promises to take us further along this path in book 14 by finally–finally!–showing “where in fact the image is”.


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