Robert Doyle concludes…

Posted: February 1, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

This is RD’s third point in response to our book review of Colin Gunton, detailing Gunton’s critique of Augustine’s teaching on the Trinity.

Once again, The Grit’s advice is, read it slowly, and maybe a couple of times over – it’ll come clear gradually.


Augustine constantly refers his trinitarian thinking back to the ‘simple essence’ of God.  He is not alone in thinking this way.  The emphasis on ‘essence’ is not just Latin or Western way of thinking.  We see in both the Nicene creed with its description of the Son and the Spirit in homoousial terms (‘of the same substance’), as well as the writings of both Greek and Latin Fathers, that they tend to think ‘ousially/substantially/essentially’ as well as ‘personally’ with respect to the Trinity.

The Cappadocian Fathers in the East, along with Augustine in the West, used the term ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ or ‘being/ousia’ to supply the grammar or terminology of trinitarian unity.[5]  By saying that the Son, in his particularity as one of the three members of the Trinity, is ‘of the same substance’ (homoousion) with the Father, they are safeguarding the unity of God, his oneness with the Father, and also confessing that the Son is also truly God, and a distinct, personal particular of God.

There is a contemporary trend which stress the three persons as the starting point, and downplays the importance of the one-substance informing our trinitarian thinking.  This loses what the Fathers gained by thinking ‘substantially’ about the persons and their equality and unity (homoousion of the Son and the Spirit).  By ignoring, or even pillaring this focus on ‘substance’, the three Persons are made to bear all the weight in affirming their equality and unity, especially their equality.  So, as with Volf and others, any hierarchical order in the relations between the three Persons (the priority of the Father in being and authority), must imply inferiority in ‘godness’ or being.

In assessing Augustine’s work, we need to ask whether he so conceives of “oneness” to make it a thing prior to “threeness” so that the threeness may collapse back in the one essence and a sort of modalism occur.

We have already noted that Augustine has been accused of beginning with the unity of the divine essence before going on to the three Persons.[6] The charge that Augustine saw the oneness as a substrate below the three persons, and thus had Modalist tendencies, is an old one, and has been common until recently.  H. A. Wolfson saw it in 1956 in his analysis of the philosophy of the Church Fathers.  ‘Unlike Tertullian and like Aristotle, . . he identifies the substratum not with the Father but with something underlying both the Father and the Son.’[7]

However, the more recent and more thorough work of Barnes and Ayres, and others, has shown otherwise.  For about 100 years, with the loss of advanced Latin skills amongst theologians, it was mainly Augustine’s On the Trinity in English translation which was read, not his anti-Arian writings.  Further, it was read in a context where falsely it was believed that the East started with the Persons and the West started with the one substance in thinking about the Trinity.  Both these unfortunate tendencies have been corrected in the last 15 years or so.

Although, arguably it is not true in Augustine, it certainly is for the doyen of medieval theologians, Thomas Aquinas.  He writes first on the One God (De Deo uno) before turning to the three members (De Deo trino).  Moltmann and others have observed that this method has had a dominant effect on western theology in both its Catholic and Protestant forms since.  Further, as we began to see with Thomas Aquinas, the first leg is the task of natural theology which supplies the framework, with the special theology of revelation only coming afterwards.  The framework acts to make the picture possible, but also restricts it.  What is then is really being taught is a double divine unity – a unity of the divine essence, and the unity of the triune God.  The result is that the first unity tends to force out the second.  This ‘leads unintentionally but inescapably to the disintegration of the doctrine of the Trinity into abstract monotheism.’[8] 
Colin Gunton has framed the ‘modalist’ case against Augustine in this way: ‘Does Augustine believe that the true being of Godunderlies the threeness of the persons?’[9]Reference to Augustine’s other trinitarian writings shows this not to be the case.  He argues against ‘a divine essence prior to or in any way separable from the three persons’.[9]  In Letter 11 (389), Augustine’s begins his reflection on the oneness of God at the same point as does the Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa, with the inseparability of operation of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is inferred from the identity of their operation we see in the world.  E.g., the Bible tells us that the Father creates, the Son creates, and the Spirit too is involved in creation.  The members of the Trinity are inseparable in operation.  Only at this point does Augustine uses the philosophical concept that divine essence must be simple.  He does not use ‘essence’ to establish God’s unity, but to bolster his arguments from the unity of the operations of God in the world, as indeed Gregory of Nyssa did before  him.  Ayres observes that Augustine does not talk of an essence as distinct from the communion of the three Persons.

Further, Augustine insists in Sermon 52 (410) that in this unity the 3 members are irreducible – that is, you cannot go behind the three in their unity to a fourth thing, like an underlying substance. ‘Augustine clearly rejects the idea of a common divinity as in any way separable from the person.’

[11] If we ask what is the ‘essence’ of this unity, the answer comes, ‘the inseparability of their operations’.  But Augustine can push the question further.  We observe that in the operation of God in the incarnation, although all three members are involved, yet only the Son and not the Father or the Holy Spirit are incarnate.  If three are inseparable in operation, why did not the whole Trinity become incarnate?  The question is important, for Augustine has very much located the unity of God in the inseparability of operation of the three members.  Unity would seem to dictate they all ought become incarnate.  Augustine answer solves his problem by not only thinking about who God is, but also at the same time reflecting on the process of thinking theologically in an appropriate way.  As he answers the question about who was incarnate, he at the same time indicates yet another way, a deeper way if you like, of accounting for the oneness of God: the priority of the Father:

This [right theological thinking] has been established by the dispensation of the Incarnation, which is properly attributed to the Son, so that there proceeds from the Father himself, as from the single principle from whom are all things, both understanding through the Son and to a certain interior and ineffable sweetness and delight in that understanding . . . , which is rightly ascribed to the Holy Spirit.[12]

But the question remains, so acutely raised by Gunton’s observation on De Trinitate books 5 and 7, has Augustine satisfactorily tied the three persons, and thus the Father and his priority, back to the one essence?  You will see that Augustine at least does so by his strong emphasis on the inseparable actions of the three persons, and that the Son, the Word of God, is appropriate to both his relations to the Father and also to the fact that God’s one essence has the attribute of ‘wisdom’.  However, his repeated insistence on seeing the relations only relatively to the three persons and not ontologically to the one substance is unsatisfactory.  It can leave God’s essence as something inherently impersonal.

T F Torrance points out that amongst the Greek Fathers, it was Didymus the Blind who came up with the most satisfactory solution: the Son receives his existence of sonship not from the person of the Father (as with the Cappadocians), but from the being of the Father.  This at once acknowledges that the persons are to be conceived of of the one essence and not just against the essence, and that God’s essence is inherently and ineluctably personal.  To acknowledge the ontological nature of the relations between the three Persons, which makes them what they are, and at the same time to honour the importance of the “one essence” is thinking truly about God, we then ought say: God’s one being and the three Persons arise together.  Real being then, as God undoubtedly has, is not monism but a personal sharing in being.

If Augustine had worked explicitly with the divine mutual indwelling, he may have arrived at the same conclusion as Didymus.

[5]            Richard M. Fermer, ‘The Limits of Trinitarian Theology as a Methodological Paradigm,’ Neue Zeitschrift für Systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 41 (1999): 165-9, 175-80..

[6]            Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: the Trinity and the Christian life (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991) 214.

[7]            The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, volume 1: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1956) 326-7.

[8]                Moltmann, Trinity, 17.

[9]            Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology,  (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991) 42.

[10]            Lewis Ayres, ‘”Remember That You Are Catholic” (Serm 52.2): Augustine on the Unity of the Triune God,’ Journal of Early Christian Studies 8, no. 1 (2000): 41.

[11]         Ibid.: 68 and 70.

[12]         Epistle 11.4, cited from Ibid.: 52-3.

  1. Mike W says:

    So, let me get this right. For Augustine, the relations are inseperable from the essence, but are ontologically relative.
    And Aquinas picks up a similar problem…..which the reformers pick up…..
    So Gunton was kind of right?

    If the ‘real being’ of God arises from the sharing of being, how much can we emphasise the Father as the source of ‘being’ of the Son, without also emphasizing the Son as the ‘ground/source/dunno what word’ of the ‘being’ of the Father. Or does the Son only need to share in the Father and not the Father in the Son?

  2. Jonathan says:

    That’s a very good question you ask, Mike. If the Father is the source and the Son shares in his being, does the Father share in the Son’s? Is this sharing in being the same as or different from perichoresis, mutual indwelling?

    My hunch is it might be a different thing?

  3. Here’s another way of putting it.
    When Jesus is raised from the dead, we find out he really is the Son. Because to be the Son involves utterly receiving being from the Father.
    But do we also see that the Father is truly the Father, because to be the Father is to give being to his Son?

    It seems a little unfair to have a poke at Volf for making the essence of the Trinity personal, only to finish by saying that the essence is personal.
    How else but in a personal sense can we say that the Father gives the Son his being, unless of course, we are happy to say that there was a time when the Son was not……

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