Robert Doyle continues…

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

Robert had three points in response to our review of Colin Gunton on Augustine. Here’s the second.


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]

In Book 7 of The Trinity, working on the Cappadocian understanding of “hupostasi” (and only partly understanding it) Augustine defined the three members of the Trinity as ‘relations.’  Note though that he is careful to keep the notion of persons/relations together with the notion of God’s oneness of being:

[I]n God to be is not one thing, and to be a person another thing, but it is wholly and entirely one and the same (The Trinity, 7.6.11).[

The oneness is not something anterior to the threeness.

Augustine is seeking to understand what it means for the Persons to called ‘God’.  Can ‘God’ terms or attributes, like ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’, be used for each Person separately or only ‘when the Trinity itself is understood’?[3]   The conclusion he comes to is that we can only understand the Persons relatively, that is, in their relations to the other Persons.  So, we can rightly say of the second Person of the Trinity that he is ‘Son’, ‘Word’ and ‘Image’, of the Father.  We cannot say of the second Person of the Trinity that he is in himself ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’, for those attributes may only be applied to all three Persons together as the one Trinity, that is, they may only be applied to the one, undivided essence of the triune God.  If we applied the attribute ‘power’ and ‘wisdom’ to the three Person separately we would be implying that there are three essences in God, that is three gods.  This is so because Augustine, alone with other Latin and Greek theologians (like Gregory of Nyssa), understands God’s essence as simple, and undivided.  ‘Essence’ is of course the most foundational aspect of what it means for God to be God, and so any further thinking must not be allowed to compromise this.  In appealing implicitly and explicitly to the ‘one simple essence’ as he seeks to understand what it means for the God of Holy Scripture to be triune, Augustine safeguards the unity of God (i.e. there are not three gods), and the divisibility of the Father and the Son and Spirit in their operations, and also the equality of their essence.  For, if the notion of  ‘essence’ could be entertained in thinking about the Son, because the Son is (eternally) begotten of the Father, it could be implied that his essence as Son was inferior to that of the Father.

Further, in his famous analogies for the divine members (in Book 8 following), Augustine treated the Persons or ‘relations’ as ‘modes’ (memory, understanding, will) in which the human self (conceived of as ‘mind’) is present for itself.  Memory, understanding and will are in themselves events or states of affairs, and in that way are non-personal.  Thus we see here the development of non-personal ‘modes of being’ of the one divine ‘substance’.  Augustine hardly intended this outcome, for the analogies developed are only provisional, and to aid our understanding of God, are philosophical illustrations if you like, and they are developed in a warm atmosphere of prayer to the triune God of grace.   Nevertheless, the effect of these striking analogies can be to produce a less than fully personal understanding of modes of being of the one being of God.

This tendency towards ‘depersonalisation’ is heightened, when as outlined above, Augustine in Book 7 of On the Trinity in order to secure trinitarian thought from tritheism, conceives of the relations logically more than ontologically or ‘essentially’.  That is, when for whatever good reason we are reluctant to understand the Persons in terms of ‘essence’, which is the most foundational aspect of God’s godness, ‘Person’ tends not to be the most fundamental category, and therefore less personal for it is the lesser than what is ultimately real or essential.


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