Doyley’s second point – impressions

Posted: January 31, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

Doyley’s an odd fish. For someone who disagrees with Gunton’s thesis, he sure sounds like someone who agrees wholeheartedly with it. In some ways he even makes Augustine seem worse than Gunton does.

For example: He objects to my paraphrase of Gunton saying that Augustine ‘accepted the doctrine of Trinity, but not very warmly’. Yet he starts his point about persons with this:

The use of ‘Person’ has not been without its ancient critics.  Augustine was strongly conscious of the inadequacy of persona for its theological task.  Famously, he said:

But the formula three persons has been coined, not in order to give a complete explanation by means of it, but in order that we might not be obliged to remain silent (The Trinity, 5. 9.10).[1]

I can’t imagine a better expression of accepting the doctrine but not warmly than this.

And then the description that follows this opening is a detailed elucidation of Gunton’s point – that while heretics were clear in their antitrinitarian teaching, Augustine is more of a problem.   For his anti-trinitarianism is not on the surface.

Augustine insists that ‘The oneness is not something anterior to the threeness.’ Exactly. Yes, he develops his analogies ‘in a warm atmosphere of prayer to the triune God of grace.’ When Augustine develops “non-personal ‘modes of being’ of the one divine ‘substance'”,  certainly “Augustine hardly intended this outcome”. Of course he didn’t. All of this is the point Gunton is getting at. The surface orthodoxy hides the problems in the deep structure.

Gunton is not claiming Augustine was a modalist or Arian: ‘what has to be examined is not simply his statements of doctrine but the underlying presuppositions which give the doctrine the shape it has’ (p.32). The question is does Augustine ‘take away with the left hand what had already been given with the right, to undermine the doctrine of the God known as triune even while it is being stated?’ (p.33)

It is a nuanced theological critique, which, as RD knows, is not countered and may even be strengthened by isolated pro-trinity quotes from St A’s writings, or references to his piety.

But Doyley gives us both: the statements of pro-Trinity doctrine, and the analysis that underlying that is a conception of God that is essentially impersonal. Just like Gunton says.

Gunton’s ultimate question is ‘whether [St A] has the conceptual equipment to avoid a final collapse into something like [modalism]. And the answer must be that he has not’ (p.55). Doyley seems to be saying the same thing. But saying it as a critique of Gunton!?!

Am i missing something? Where’s the bit where Gunton’s thesis is inaccurate, his conclusions strong and not well supported,  the result of impatient reading??

Maybe it’s coming in part 3.

  1. Jonathan, your critique suffers from two major flaws in my view:

    First of all, you have not taken into account the difficult resonances with the whole “Essence/Person” language that was still being felt in the early 5th Century. One of the great difficulties of systematic theology is expressing the divine nature in an analogy adequate to the Biblical witness. Perhaps we should be cursing Tertullian for landing us in this mess, but that was the language first coined and (for better or worse) the Fathers chose to run with it (probably because a better analogy could not be found). Despite a resolute defense of the language by Athanasius and the decisions of Constantinople, it was clear that theological work needed to be done. Both Augustine and the Cappadocians were attempting to do this from slightly different starting points, but they could not avoid the fact that the concept of Person had carried significant theological and philosophical baggage into the debate and the Arian controversies had just made things worse. What I take from that first quote (consistent with my wider reading) is that Augustine had to express a certain level of dissatisfaction with the language if he was going to express the persons in terms of their relationships within the Godhead, which he thought was a way through the debate. [note: The concept of perichoresis that John of Damascas would develop owed much to Augustine’s work.]

    Second, Augustine’s work highlights the difficulties and advances that had emerged in the interaction between the established Greek (‘hypostasis’) and new Latin (‘persona’) theological voices. The context in Book V shows that this was primary in Augustine’s mind when he wrote that (supposedly damning) sentence. In fact, he was merely stating the problem that Hilary of Poitiers had faced some time earlier, namely that the concept of Person in Latin fails to capture the true semantic range of hypostasis and may appear on the surface to be a concession to Arianism. Hilary had already had to defend why in the context of Trinitarian theology ‘persona’ was a better translation of ‘hypostasis’ than the usual ‘substantia’, and it is within this context that Augustine’s use of language should be fairly judged. Hilary had not only framed the concept of ‘essence’ as a personal concept (stating that anything that exists musts subsist in itself), but had contended that the Nicene use of homoousios meant to convey that the Son is born of the substance of God and subsists in no other source, thereby using the term as a source of unity rather than division of the Godhead. Augustine is clearly building on the previous work by his prime Latin theological influence (few and far between at this stage). When this is recognised it clearly answers the charge of Augustine’s impersonal Trinity as well as his hesitancy with the language as he proceeds.

    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks Luke, good to have some background. I like your point 1. Translation issues were troubling him. Perhaps the process of finding right terminology had to happen all over again in the West, as things swapped from Greek to Latin. In which case,I can’t help thinking it’s a pity that the mega-star of western theology was writing so early, before the terms had settled down. Because for whatever reason, the trumpet was making an uncertain sound. Perhaps it would have been better if St A were not such a genius in other ways: then we could have moved on from him and grown. Still waiting for that!

      Your second point covers similar ground. If I can summarise, I think you’re saying Augustine did his best in a difficult situation, with limited terminological resources. This of course creates respect and sympathy for him. I’m not sure it touches Gunton’s critique, which is that what Augy did in that tight spot was disastrous for the western church which has followed him so faithfully. Certainly he was trying his best, and meant it for the best, and was trying to defend Trinity and all that. No debate there. The issue is about outcomes – what he actually achieved. From what you say in point 2, it’s not surprising he didn’t lay the golden egg. And we can forgive him if the one he laid went rotten…

      It’s probably worth mentioning that vocabulary/translation issues alone are not the heart of the matter. Augustine, like the Eastern Fathers, poured meaning into his terms by how he described them. And it’s those descriptions, rather than his choice of words, that Gunton (and now Doyley) critiques. It might not have mattered that much if he’d translated hypostasis with substance, if he’d then gone on to describe substance as ‘a distinct, freely relating agent’. By now, we’d all be using substance in that way and not know any different!

      I don’t mean we’d be using substances…

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