De Trinitate, book 15


May 15, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

AugAugustine has been training his reader to see reflections of God in the things that have been made. He does so because he believes firmly that creation is good and partakes in the goodness that God the Trinity is. Now he wonders if he can finally go from faith to understanding. Now that he has arrived at a purer description of the image of the Trinity in humans–the mind that is renewed in worship–can he move to give us a way to comprehend how it is that the eternal and simple God is a Trinity?

Augustine first rehearses the rule of co-equality, that anything that can be said humanly-speaking “fits both the whole trinity which the one God is and each of the persons in this trinity.” But he asks–how is God therefore really a Trinity? He says God’s simplicity does not cause a problem for faith, but it does make it exceedingly difficult for understanding. It was because of this difficulty, he says, that we spent books 9-14 looking at the human mind, hoping to concentrate on something creaturely in order to rise up to God. His conclusion about where we stand: “So here we are, after exercising our understanding as much as was necessary in these lower things, wishing and not being able to raise ourselves to a sight of that supreme trinity which is God.”

We do see some trinities he says, and we know from book 8 and book 14 that we have some participation in God the greatest good, but we are not able to glimpse (“descry”) the Trinity that God is. For instance, the highest trinity we could glimpse was that of the human mind’s memory, understanding, and will. In the end, however, this was reducible to one person. But since God’s nature is simple and indivisible, each of the three “persons” we describe simply is God. The Trinity together is neither more nor less than each individual person considered alone. The commitment to divine simplicity is what guards against any reduction of the three distinct “persons” because it means that even if we were to model God on our “memory, understanding, and will”, each of the three would be all three of these fully. Within the Trinity itself we could not appropriate one to the Father, one to the Son, one to the Spirit. But this commitment to divine simplicity is also the reason we cannot come to any direct understanding of the Trinity God is.

Augustine’s response to this situation is to quote 1 Cor 13:12: “We see now through a mirror in an enigma, but then it will be face to face.” He says that what he has been doing heretofore is precisely this, trying to see God in a mirror. The “mirror” here refers to the fact that we are the image of God, we are a site for reflection on God’s own nature. The “in an enigma” bit refers to the fact that all our knowledge that comes through this mirror is tropic, allegorical, and enigmatic. Augustine says that an enigma is “an obscure allegory”. Since this is our mode of seeing “no one therefore should be surprised that in this fashion of seeing which is allowed us in this life…we have a struggle to see at all.”

Without much transition, Augustine seems to query the image in us afresh, this time availing himself of the notion of an inner-word that was “begotten” by us in the ack of knowledge (which he discussed in book 9). If I understand him rightly (and I think I do) in what he does with this, I believe he finds a way in which our acts of knowledge can image the Trinity by giving birth to outer-words. In other words, our mental acts can incarnate themselves in our outer-acts and we see an image not only of the Trinity, but of the Trinity’s work in the incarnation of the Word. This means for Augustine that we are most truly the image of the Trinity when we both contemplate what is good and give birth to it in our acts toward others. “However, this is a perfection of the image that lies some time in the future. To achieve it we are instructed by the good master in Christian faith and godly doctrine…”

Augustine turns now to the question of how great the unlikeness is between us as the image and God the Trinity. He does not think he can even fully grasp the extent of the unlikeness, but he wants to say as much as he can. In the first place, he says that all of our knowledge or wisdom comes about through sensory knowledge, whereas in God the Word or Wisdom is identical to God’s eternal essence, begotten by the Father from all eternity. So our knowledge is learned, whereas God’s knowledge is not only always present to him, but productive of the things he knows. Our knowledge can be gained and lost, whereas God’s is always present to him. There is some knowledge that is always present to us–the knowledge of ourselves–but this is not like the eternal Word because we might be thinking about things other than ourselves, and so our knowledge of ourselves is not always an “inner-word”.

In discussing the image in terms of “word”, Augustine has obviously been discussing the Father’s begetting of the Son and our (dis)similarity. Now he moves on to talk about the procession of the Spirit and the (dis)similarity our image has to this. His first step is to revisit some issues regarding the Spirit. He says that the term to describe the Spirit is love/charity/gift. He reminds us that while in the simplicity of God the Father and Son are also love, the Spirit rightly receives this as a proper title, because it reveals to us the difference in the processions. The Father is God. The Son is God from the Father. The Spirit is God from the Father and the Son. The Spirit has the economic role of uniting us to God and to our neighbor, and this flows from the Spirit’s immanent reality. Augustine apparently thought issues regarding the Spirit would be held in doubt by some, and so he goes through quite a lot of biblical evidence to make these points. In the end, Augustine barely comes back to the issue of how we as the image of the trinity are similar or dissimilar with regard to the procession of the Holy Spirit. He simply says that our likeness to the Holy Spirit is to be found in our “will” or “love” and that for whatever similarity we may note, we should recognize a great dissimilarity.

Augustine next notes again a general dissimilarity. He says that our image of the Trinity is located “in” a single person. In other words, memory, understanding, and will add up to a human mind, whereas we cannot make an equation in which Father+Son+Holy Spirit add up to God. Instead, we might say that the one God is present in three repetitions. Augustine remarks, “it is certainly a marvelous and an inexpressibly marvelous thing that while this image of the trinity is one person and that supreme trinity is three persons, that trinity of three persons should still be more inseparable than this trinity of one.” This difference is rooted in the difference between Creator and creation.

There are some who are very clever and perceptive when it comes to the Delphic commandment to “know thyself”, but Augustine says that without faith these cannot succeed. They spot phenomena in the human person, but they have no idea how this is an image of God. Therefore the slow, the little ones who only have faith, are in a better position to know themselves than the philosophers.

Augustine turns to the issue of the processions, which has been present in various places throughout De Trinitate. Here he goes out of his way to affirm the rules of procession: the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. Yet he shows us that as clear as the rules are in scripture, it is equally difficult for us to understand these things because God is timeless. However the processions occur, they do not occur in a temporal-ordering.

In what seems rather anti-climactic, Augustine comes to the end of his argument. The end of the book affirms that all our searchings have not been in vain–we have seen something in the human person, some image of the trinity. Yet this image is so unlike the original. We can sum it up this way, perhaps: the doctrine of the Trinity has helped us to understand the human image, but the human image has not made the doctrine of the Trinity comprehensible to us.

And so Augustine does two things. First, he speaks to his own soul, to the image of God within him, enjoining himself not to stop searching. He affirms the goodness of what he desires, and the goodness of his desire, while noting that what he wants is not possible for him. It cannot be achieved until he receives the grace of God more fully, until he sees “face to face”. Second, he prays. He prays that God would give him the strength to continue seeking God, leading him further in that seeking, reforming his heart. “Let me remember you, let me understand you, let me love you. Increase these things in me until you refashion me entirely.”



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