The most disturbing thing I’ve read in a long time…

Posted: January 28, 2012 by J in Book review, Church history, Theology

“1 + 1 + 1…hmm, where’s my abacus?”

…is Gunton’s article on what Augustine did to the Trinity (in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology). If he’s right (and I suspect he is) then our troubles are deeper than we realise.

Think of this: the big A is our main man in the first millenium post-apostles. The whole Western Church tradition is steeped in his theology and thought in general. Especially Protestants! Augustine was the Reformers’ hero. He was the church father they could count on in defining their faith over against the RC tradition. It’s arguable that we owe more to Augustine than to Luther or Calvin.

Let’s put it plainly: like it or not, realise it or not, Augustine is inside your head. He’s in mine too. Actually I think I can feel him in there now…

So anyway, any distortions in his account of the Christian faith are going to have massive, massive implications for the Western Church.  Even small ones could lead to big problems down the track, like ripples spreading out in a pond.

But the way Gunton tells it, there’s nothing small about the distortions Augustine brought in. It amounts to this: Augustine steered the Church away from belief in the Trinity.


Augustine certainly didn’t criticise the doctrine of Trinity overtly. He accepted it, though not very warmly. But to see where the problem is, you have to realise that Augy is a hugely systematic thinker and theologian. His project was about the entire structure, the core structure of the Christian faith. And here is where Gunton’s critique is aimed: he claims that the basic structure Augustine established for the faith was non-Trinitarian.


No matter then if Augustine pays lip service to the doctrine. If it’s just an overlay, a veneer on a monadic (single-person God) substratum, it won’t save us from this underlying heresy. What the Church has inherited from Augy is the core structure, the fundamental concepts, the intellectual commitments and assumptions. And these, says Gunton, owe more to Plato than to Jesus or Paul.

If this is true, you should be able to trace streams of thought from this source carrying distortion down through the long history of the Western Church. And this is exactly what Gunton does. Right down to today. Perhaps the most disturbing is the question, why is ours the only society where atheism has flourished? Gunton analyses it as the inevitable outcome of the instabilities and distortions enshrined in the Western religious tradition since – you guessed it – since Augustine. What we inherited from the big A had too many internal tensions, it couldn’t possibly last. The tradition fragmented in the c.16th, (RC church exploded) and then collapsed altogether in the c.18th (Enlightenment). In the Eastern Church, these things simply didn’t happen.

OUCH! Is this really true? If it is, how do you come back from something like that? How do you unearth 1500 years of thinking, and rethink it along the right tracks? The project is just too massive to imagine.

Robert Doyle from Moore College says that he doubts Gunton’s critique of Augustine. (And to give him credit, it was Doyley who put us onto this book, recommended it. And it does indeed sizzle). Doyley says Gunton is on the wrong track. Good news, no? But here’s the catch: he never told us why. I’d like to know.

So here’s the challenge: I’ve sent this post to RD, inviting him to explain.

We’re throwing down the gauntlet here Doyley. What have you got? We’re listening: where does Gunton go wrong? Now’s the time to put up or shut up. Gunton was pretty convincing – can you persuade us that he’s barking up the wrong tree, and reinstate Augustine as Western hero no.1?

I hope you can. Cause otherwise we’ve got a truckload of work to do on ourselves…

  1. Hi Jonathan.
    The critique I’ve heard of Guntons proposal is that it misreads (or, more likely, undereads) Augustine.
    That is, it takes a small portion of Augustine and takes that as the whole. It is a tricky question because that is probably what those following Augustine did to his writings too.
    So there is the question of the difference between Augustine the actual person, Augustine the writer, and pop-Augustine.
    Which raises a bigger question about how someone can take responsibility for those who follow them. Do we need to take responsibility for the populist ways our words are used?

    Anyhow, guess I’ll have to read some more Augustine and more Gunton, which isn’t a bad thing

    • Jonathan says:

      That’s helpful Mike, thanks.

      In Gunton’s defence, and writing as someone who’s read almost no Augustine, Gunton does focus on those works where Augy is specifically discussing the Trinity. I reckon if your works on Trinity are dodgy on Trinity, you probably have to take the rap for that even if your other works use a better approach to Trinity.

      If you see what I mean…

  2. so, that critique was from some stuff from Brad Green, who published a book this year called Colin Gunton and the failure of Augustine. He seems to think Gunton was right about the Trinity but wrong to blame Augustine.
    You might want to look at Robert Jensons article in “The theology of Colin Gunton” too, which says similar things

    Could it be that bad theology doesn’t come from a brilliant major theologian, but from generations of mediocre ones?

    This reminds me of the thing with NT Wright though, where he pins a current problem to luther, then all the Luther scholars say “No, no, no, luther didn’t mean that”, everyone breaths a sigh of relief and continues saying the same problematic thing.

  3. Yeah I think there are problems there too, I just wonder whether CG and StA would agree more if you plonked them in a room together.
    Jenson has a pretty good go at StA on the Trinity in his Systematic theology too.

  4. Probably the biggies on the defending side are Lewis Ayres and Michel Barnes,

    • Jonathan says:

      Wellsie, I’m not at all surprised to find that you’ve gone into this much deeper than me. Thanks for filling in some more of the argument and the players in it.

      Ultimately, of course, as you say, it doesn’t matter that much what Augustine thought – it matters what people took from him. Gunton is trying to show thought-trajectories from him through to today. If those exist, then it doesn’t matter if Augustine would be horrified by them. The point I suppose is not so much to assign blame, as to understand what happened to us in the western church tradition. If there’s a weakness or distortion at the core of the thing, at the doctrine of Trinity, then we’ve got a serious illness on our hands, and we’d better gear up to deal with that. I reckon understanding how it happened has to be a good way forward to bringing healing.

  5. I think Mike has basically covered what I would say. I looked at Augustine not only in Patristics but I did the “Was Augustine a modalist” question for Doctrine 2. Context is key, and this is what Gunton fundamentally fails to appreciate. Augustine’s main concern in his trinitarian theology was defending how differing spheres of activity of the Persons does not compromise divine unity. My own reading convinced me that while certain sections of his work sound a trifle dodgy if read in isolation the broader range of his work keeps to an orthodox model. Moreover (particularly with the psychological analogies), Augustine is aware of the limitations of his language and makes it clear that they are to illustrate specific points regarding trinitarian relationships rather than being a dominant framework (as Gunton seems to think).

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for that Luke, very helpful. I can see we have a bit of a brainstrust on Augustine vs Gunton. Nice. I’m hoping to learn more from you all.

      This context thing is a constant problem in life, I find. Usually you don’t get the courtesy of anything you say being contextualised by reference to your previous verbal efforts. Though as I’ve said I don’t think assigning blame is the point here, I reckon a whole book should be adequate co-text for determining most of what someone has in mind on any one page of it. If you have to refer to their earlier or later works, then how do you know the dude hasn’t just changed his mind in the meantime? I reckon if you can’t be clear over the length of a book, then, sorry Saint A, but you’re a lousy communicator…

      The question is, did people take Augy’s dodgy sounding stuff and run with it into the western tradition, or didn’t they? I can certainly see the monadic thing pretty strongly at work from reformation times onwards (and esp. now). But where did it come from, I’d like to know?!

  6. As long as the geneaology (and its detractors) don’t distract from the key question, is the monadic thing right or wrong.
    So,for example, another genealogy that has caused problem, Yoder’s fall narrative about Constantine. People can pin him on the history and then utterly ignore whether it is right or wrong for the church to be enmeshed with a violent state.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Sorry, Mike, but I’ve been kind of assuming monism and modalism are a problem. We can have that discussion at The Grit if anyone wants to fly it, but it’s probably a different one from the historical issue we’ve been debating here. But hey, Question Everything. 🙂

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