Robert Doyle responds…

Posted: January 29, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

We have received a full and somewhat robust response from Robert Doyle, complete with footnotes. That’s what we like! You may remember that we dragged RD into the discussion about Augustine following his intriguing comments in a Doctrine 3 lecture at Moore College. He asserted that Gunton was barking up the wrong tree in his critique of Augustine on the Trinity. I invited Doyley to explain his position.

We will post RD’s response in three parts. Be warned that this is slightly technical, I am struggling with some of the concepts and terminology myself. But if you read it slowly, it kind of starts to come clear.

It was very kind of RD to reply, especially since, as you will see, he was considerably annoyed by our inquiry… 🙂


Hi J,

Herewith my response to your blog.  


Disappointed to see strong opinion advanced without evidence. Why assume Gunton has made his case and it is up to others now to answer it?  Gunton himself had somewhat more humility than is operating in your assumption.  “He accepted it, though not very warmly” – pure tosh, suggest you read his De Trinitate.  Gunton was an outstanding theologian, but as is acknowledged in an otherwise highly commendatory reviews of his work, he was impatient in reading others and would rush on to strong, not well supported conclusions.  Suggest you read the relevant sections in John Webster’s, Systematic Theology after Barth: Jüngel, Jenson, and Gunton (2005).  

Returning to your main point, Gunton’s use of Augustine has undergone severe criticism.[see footnote 1]  

My own considered opinion is that  although his criticism of Augustine is at least in part inaccurate, it is not without point, for it has highlighted unhelpful tendencies that do exist in western theological thinking about the Trinity that in part arise from tensions in Augustine’s thought, and offered a better way forward.

More specifically, my analysis runs along three lines: 1. Gunton’s criticism and evidence; 2. the notion of ‘person’ in Augustine, and 3. the place of the ‘one essence’ with respect to the ‘three persons’ in Augustine.  What follows is abstracted from an unpublished MA (Theol) lecture.


Gunton views several statements of Augustine from the point of view of Gunton’s understanding of Cappadocian theology. For the Cappadocians, the three persons are what they are in their relations, and therefore the relations qualify them ontologically, in terms of what they are.  But in the following statement Augustine uses relation as a logical rather than an ontological predicate:

The particulars in the same Trinity that are properly predicated of each person are by not means predicated of them as they are in themselves (ad se ipsa), but in their relations either to one another or to the creature, and it is therefore manifest that they are predicated relatively, not substantially. (De Trinitate, 5.7.12)

The idea occurs again in Book 7.2.3, where Augustine says that with predicates like ‘begotten’, ‘the essence is not revealed, since they are spoken of relatively’:

And therefore He is not the Word in that He is wisdom; since He is not called the Word in respect to Himself, but only relatively to Him whose Word He is, as He is called the Son in relation to the Father; but He is wisdom by that whereby He is essence. And therefore, because one essence, one wisdom. But since the Word is also wisdom, yet is not thereby the Word because He is wisdom for He is understood to be the Word relatively, but wisdom essentially: let us understand, that when He is called the Word, it is meant, wisdom that is born, so as to be both the Son and the Image; and that when these two words are used, namely wisdom (isborn, in one of the two [words], namely born,629 both Word, and Image, and Son, are understood, and in all these names essence is not expressed, since they are spoken relatively; but in the other word, namely wisdom, since it is spoken also in respect to substance, for wisdom is wise in itself, essence also is expressed, and that being of His which is to be wise. Whence the Father and Son together are one wisdom, because one essence, and singly wisdom of wisdom, as essence of essence. And hence they are not therefore not one essence, because the Father is not the Son, and the Son is not the Father, or because the Father is un-begotten, but the Son is begotten: since by these names only theirrelative attributes are expressed. But both together are one wisdom and one essence; in which to be, is the same as to be wise. And both together are not the Word or the Son, since to be is not the same as to be the Word or the Son, as we have already sufficiently shown that these terms are spoken relatively.

That is, as Persons they cannot or are not known in their being.  The relations are logical rather than ontological.


[1] Refer Michel René Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Theological Studies 56 (1995); Michel René Barnes, “Rereading Augustine’s Theology of the Trinity,” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity, ed. Stephen T.  Davis, Daniel  Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Lewis Ayres, “The Fundamental Grammar of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology,” in Augustine and His Critics: Essays in Honour of Gerald Bonner, ed. Robert Lawless George Dodaro (London; New York: Routledge, 2000); Neil Ormerod, The Trinity: Retrieving the Western Tradition (Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 2005).
  1. Ok, so I can see how Augustine is trying to argue against those who say that the Father and Son must be of different essence.
    But this definition seems to fly pretty close to describing the essence of God in a minimalist way, that is, the essence is only that which we can say of each and every person .(rather than what we must say of the whole.)
    The thing that mitigates this minimalism ( to my feeble mind) is the sentence
    “whence the Father and the Son together are one wisdom”.
    But does it really mitigate it enough?
    Is it really orthodox to say that the Son could separate himself off from the father and still be wise? Because it is in his essence??
    If not, then what is the difference between saying ‘wisdom is essence’ and ‘father-son-spiritness’ is essence?
    So I can see how this might, with a careless reading, lead to an abstract discussion of the ‘nature of divinity’ rather than ‘who actually is the God we are dealing with’

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