Augustine of Hippo/On The Trinity

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Augustine - On the Trinity

His Trinitarian Formulation

  • Over against the Greek formulation from Nicea of one essence (ousia), three substances (hypostases), Augustine preferred the expression in Latin which was one essence (essentia), three persons (personae).
  • Gk. hypostasis = Lat. substantia
  • Augustine said substance cannot properly be predicated of God as if God were something in which accidental properties could subsist. From Ex. 3:14, “I AM what I AM,” God is more properly called essence than substance. N.B. Augustine’s respect for tradition meant that he did not deny the validity of the Nicene formulation, merely that the Latin was more precise.
  • The distinction between persons according to scripture and tradition (the usual starting place for Augustine) lies in causation. The Father is the principle of the Godhead and alone is unoriginate. The Son is both begotten from eternity and sent into the world in time by the Father. The Spirit both proceeds eternally from God and is given temporally to the Church.
  • God is ineffable mystery. In the blessed life that awaits the faithful, we hope to see God as God is insofar as we will then be conformed to God’s likeness perfectly. Yet, in this life, as the image of God is renewed in us by faith and sanctification, we can begin to understand, as it were, “through a mirror in an enigma” (the translation Augustine used translates this way into English). Thus, Augustine proposed to understand the distinction between persons according to reason in terms of a category that is neither substance nor accident, i.e., eternal and immutable relation.
  • Aristotle had categorized every predicable as either substance or accident. God is immutable, and so it is impossible to predicate any accident of God. Further, God is one, and so it is impossible to predicate any difference of substance in God. In what, then, could the distinction of persons consist?
  • Augustine modified Aristotle’s categories by distinguishing the accidental category of relation as temporal from the substantial category of eternal relation.
  • With this modification, Augustine moved beyond the generic analogy favored by the Cappadocians in which the essence of Godhead (ousia) is likened to a secondary substance, i.e., a genus, and the persons of the Trinity (hypostases) are likened to primary substances, e.g., Peter, James and John are one humanity but three individual subsisting things.
  • Augustine gave classic expression to the psychological analogy of the Trinity in which the unity of essence is likened to the rational part of the human soul, composed as it is of “the mind, and the knowledge by which it knows itself, and the love by which it loves itself.” (464) to which he compares the persons of the Trinity.
  • The image of God in us consists of that part of the soul which the beasts do not have in common with us, i.e., the ability to contemplate the eternal forms and to make judgments (know things) according to them.
  • This ability requires memory - the metaphysical warehouse in which we not only store sense impressions, but in which we discover things we never knew we knew (present illumination vs. Plato’s reminiscence).
  • It requires intellect (understanding) - the mind’s eye, as it were, which takes on the form of what it beholds in memory and conceives thought thereby.
  • It requires will - that which directs the mind’s eye, as it does the bodily senses, to what it loves and attaches it thereto.
  • Augustine’s typical dialectic is to move from the exterior realities of creation to the interior reality of the human soul where he hoped to encounter God in the image of God, damaged as it is by the fall. Further, his dialectic is guided by the particular consideration of what true love is: a trinity of lover, beloved and the love that binds them together into one. (cf. book 8, chapt. 7, p. 260) The dialectic consists of a series of trinities that increasingly approximate the Trinity without ever completely delineating it.
  • Direct dependence on sensory input: In the physical act of seeing, the will moves the eye toward a body. The form of that body then evokes a corresponding form in the eye, and the two are bound together as one insofar as the will is drawn to love that body.
  • Indirect dependence on sensory input: In thinking of something no longer present, the memory presents to the inner eye of understanding the form of a body which the understanding then duplicates. The will, then, binds together both the image from memory and the form produced in the understanding insofar as the image is loved.
  • Absolutely no dependence on sensory input: In reflective thought, the mind is present to itself, knows itself and loves itself. Even when there is no actively self-reflective thought, the mind is present to itself, “hidden in a kind of secret knowledge which is called memory.” (421) Self-knowledge is a sort of self-seeing. Though the eye cannot see itself in its entirety, the mind somehow can. “It remains, therefore, that its sight is something belonging to its nature, and the mind is recalled to it when it thinks of itself, not as it were by a movement in space, but by an incorporeal conversion.” (421) This thinking-itself reproduces an exact image of the mind, an off-spring so to speak, that is identical to the parent. Why does the mind engage in self-reflection? “Behold! the mind seeks to know itself and is inflamed with this desire.” (297) The mind always loves itself which means that both mind and thought are bound together by the constant will to reflective knowing.

“But in these three, when the mind knows itself and loves itself, a trinity remains: the mind, love, and knowledge.” (277) “These three, therefore, are in a marvelous manner inseparable from another; and yet each of them is a substance, and all together are one substance or essence, while the terms themselves express a mutual relationship.” (278)

General considerations

  • God is incorporeal, immutable and eternal. There is sequence of events in God and no change. Rather all events are eternally present before God together with their temporal characteristics.
  • As the Father is the principle of the Godhead, the Son receives the Godhead entirely from the Father and so whatever may be said of his substance belongs to him “of God,” e.g., God of God, true light of true light, wisdom of wisdom, and even Word of Word. Nevertheless, the terms Word and Wisdom are especially proper to the Son. Also, as the Spirit proceeds from God the Father and as the Son receives everything of the Father, including this procession, the Spirit also proceeds from the Son. No temporal distinction is possible in this eternal procession from Father and Son.
  • Any substantial term that is especially appropriate of any Person in the Trinity is certainly predicable of the two remaining Persons as it is of the Trinity itself. Terms depicting eternal relations, however, are not predicable of any Person, e.g., the Father is unoriginate, the Son is only-begotten, and the Spirit is Gift of God who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
  • Every action of God ad extra is the action of the Trinity and of each person within it, e.g., creation and redemption.
  • God is God’s own essence simply and immutably. This not only means there is no accident in God, but also that God is every substantial attribute predicable. Thus, for example, there is not a thing called wisdom by which God is wise. God is God’s own wisdom. In God, “to be” and “to be wise” are one and the same. Likewise, “to be” and “to be just,” or “to be” and “to be almighty,” etc., are one and the same in God.

Reading List

Augustine, Aurelius. The Trinity. Translated by Stephen McKenna in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 45. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1963. [page references above are to this work.]

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Volumes I & II. New York: Doubleday, 1962.

Gilson, Etienne. The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine. Translated by L.E.M. Lynch. New York: Random House, 1960.