Augustine wrestles with that annoying little problem: the Incarnation – Letter 11

Posted: February 3, 2012 by J in Church history, Theology

That letter of Augustine’s which Robert Doyle was quoting from – it’s about why all the persons of the Trinity were not incarnated along with the Son. A strange question, you might think. Not one you’ve ever found yourself asking? Me neither.

But for Augustine it’s a biggy:

a very great question, so difficult, and on a subject so vast, that it is impossible either to give a sufficiently clear statement, or to support it by satisfactory proofs.

Really? Why so, St A?

For the union of Persons in the Trinity is …so inseparable, that whatever is done by the Trinity must be regarded as being done by the Father, and by the Son, and by the Holy Spirit together; and that nothing is done by the Father which is, not also done by the Son and by the Holy Spirit and nothing done by the Holy Spirit which is not also done by the Father and by the Son; and nothing done by the Son which is not also done by the Father and by the Holy Spirit. From which it seems to follow as a consequence, that the whole Trinity assumed human nature.

Wow. That’s pretty inseparable. We’re not just talking here about a Trinity that works together, so that each member is involved in every action. Rather, they are ‘so inseparable’, that every action must be seen as done by Father Son and Spirit in the same way. I.e., they have the same involvement in every action. That’s why this problem with the incarnation, you see. You might think it’s enough that the Father and Spirit were involved in the incarnation, working in different ways with a common purpose. But no: this inseparability in action means that when the Son was incarnated, the Father and the Spirit should strictly speaking have done exactly the same.

That’s why this is such a biggy for Augustine: here’s something that clearly the Son did (assume humanity) which the Father and Spirit didn’t do. The incarnation seems to threaten Augustine’s whole concept of the unity of the persons in the Trinity.

You might think he’s in a pretty big pickle, if he has a Trinity doctrine that clashes with the gospel story. And you’d be right. 

It gets worse.

His solution is worse than his problem.

It seems to go something like this:

STEP 1: The mode of existence which is properly ascribed to the Son, has to do with training, and with a certain art…and with the exercise of intellect, by which the mind itself is moulded in its thoughts upon things. By that assumption of human nature the work accomplished was the effective presentation to us of a certain training in the right way of living…

The human existence of Jesus has to do with training of the intellect, through presenting us with a certain way of living, so that ‘a certain rule and pattern of training be plainly exhibited’ to our minds. That’s what the incarnation was for! Ok?

STEP 2: So then, this presentation to our intellect ‘was done by the divinely appointed method of the Incarnation’. Why?

in order that from it should follow, first, our knowledge, through the Son, of the Father Himself, i.e. of the one first principle whence all things have their being,

What kind of principle is this that we’re getting to know? Not sure. But Augy is talking intellectual patterns, remember. There’s nothing much personal here. Indeed the 3 ‘persons’ here are described in largely non-personal ways. I’ve got a bad feeling this ‘principle’ is a logical principle. That’s what is good about knowing the Father: you get to know the original pattern.

But wait there’s more: there’s the second reason for the Son’s incarnation:

in order that from it should follow, second, a certain inward and ineffable charm and sweetness of remaining in that knowledge, and of despising all mortal things—a gift and work which is properly ascribed to the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit helps us delight in the pattern which exercises our intellect, and to despise all mortal things. And he does this through – incarnation!!

It gets worse still. Take a deep breath.

Therefore, although in all things the Divine Persons act fully in common and inseparable, nevertheless it is right that their operations be presented as distinct, on account of the feebleness which is in us, who have fallen from unity into diversity. For no one ever succeeds in raising another to the height on which he himself stands, unless he stoop somewhat towards the level which that other occupies.

Aw blimey. That’s seriously bad. That’s bad in so many ways, where do we start?

First a paraphrase: The persons act totally in the same way, no true distinction or difference exists. But it is good that a distinction be presented to us, because of our feeble intellectual condition, addicted as we are to that degraded condition diversity. For unless God gives a little, comes a little way down toward us, how can he raise us up out of that fallen state (diversity)?

The unity based on inseparability of divine operations, which for Robert Doyle was Augustine’s way of building personhood into God’s unity (see previous posts) – that unity turns out to be the real problem. For this inseparability is so total that it is really uniformity: any distinction in actions is only a presentation, a communicative concession to our degraded state. Behind that presentation, the reality is, the persons’ acts cannot ultimately be distinguished in any way.

But this empties the concept of ‘distinct persons’ of any real meaning. We can no longer give any account of any real difference between the Son, Father and Spirit in their actions.

And this is necessarily so, because God’s condition is one of unity only, whereas diversity is the thing we humans have fallen into. I.e. The one is good, the many are not. So God’s unity is the ultimate reality, his diversity must be a representation, needed because ‘no one ever succeeds in raising another to the height on which he himself stands, unless he stoop somewhat towards the level which that other occupies.’

God stoops to the appearance of diversity: that’s Augustine’s gospel!

And what of Jesus’ humanity then? The only way Augustine can get out of his dilemma is to see the incarnation as a ‘presentation’. The diversity implied by the Son taking on humanity, but not the Father or Spirit, is an appearance only. It’s only one tiny step from there (and St A doesn’t take this step here) to saying that Jesus’ humanity is a presentation only, and not ontologically true of the Son. In saving us, God need only ‘stoop somewhat’ – he doesn’t have to come all the way down. Docetism is at the door, the door is wiiiiide open…

Now remember I didn’t pick out this letter because it shows Augustine at his worst. Robert Doyle picked it out for us, as showing St A at his best. This was the letter where his Trinitarian thinking was clear!

Here, friends, is the Father of the Western Church: your father and mine, doing his Trinitarian thinking – our Trinitarian thinking. Behold, and wonder!

  1. Jonathan, you are making a fundamental mistake.
    When someone quotes something, it is not expected that you will actually go and read it.
    That just makes it so much trickier to make a point!

  2. Jonathan, in my view, makes a greater mistake in reading an ancient text through a hermeneutic of suspicion rather than sympathy, with the result being the twisting of Augustine’s words and the context in which they were written. I make the following observations:

    1) Ep.11 must be read in the context of Augustine’s correspondence with his friend Nebridius at the early stage of his adult Christian life. The letters in question (Ep.3-10) betray the lingering effects of the Neoplatonist academic culture of the day (something with which Augustine would always struggle). Nebridius expects that Augustine will be able to teach him the truth not only of Christ but of Plato and Plotinus as well (Ep.6.1). Uppermost in Nebridius’ mind are questions of Knowledge and Desire, Memory and Imagination, Dreams and Revelation, Image and Reality. To such questions Augustine attempts to give answers. At least two of Nebridius’ letters are missing, which makes the exact nature of the particular question Augustine is answering in Ep.11 unknown. Nevertheless, we know it has something to do with “the way in which we might live together” with reference to the content of the questions previously answered (Ep.11.1). He will give his answer with reference to his Neoplatonist background, which both throws up a whole other set of problems but also gives us clues on how we should interpret the points that he will make.

    2) With this in mind, it is clear that Augustine’s statements regarding the Trinity here refer to questions of epistemology and revelation rather than divine ontology. It is to this end that Augustine employs his psychological analogy of Cause, Form, and Permanence (Ep.11.3). Understanding this is crucial as the rest of his statements would appear to take on a modalist flavour if the context was not duly noted. In this context, Augustine’s statements about the Son being the source of true training of the mind and turning our thoughts to higher purposes makes perfect sense as Revelation was one of the purposes of the Incarnation. The truth of God the Father was intended to be revealed to any the Son chose and was possible because of divine self-knowlegde (Lk 9:21-22). In answer to the question “How should we be wise in the world?”, Augustine answers by pointing towards the form in which the divine essence has been manifested in the world (the Son).

    3) The words you omitted from the second quotation (“…in the Catholic faith set forth and believe, and by a few holy and blessed ones understood,…”) give Augustine’s theological context as reflecting Nicene orthodoxy. He believes he is stating what the Church has always truly believed about the operations of Persons. With this in mind, it is inconceivable that Augustine believes the Persons must have the same involvement in every action as this had never been affirmed by any orthodox theologian previously. To my mind, Jonathan has placed a slant on Augustine’s premise that he would have rejected vigorously. He is simply wishing to affirm that in their differing operations the Persons were united by a common essence and will. Without this affirmation Augustine would have been promoting Arianism.

    4) The language of “presentation” I grant is confusing, but I wonder whether a different interpretation may be put on the language. Jonathan has interpreted the text as saying that God has, in effect, practiced a deception in conveying a separation of Persons which does not really exist. But what if Augustine’s meaning (poorly expressed, I’ll admit) was that “presentation” and “revelation” were synonymous? Is Augustine saying nothing more than humanity has the benefit of witnessing the Economic Trinity rather than the Imminent Trinity? If so, then the tension is hardly new and remains a live issue in both the Eastern and Western tradition. I don’t have ready access to the Latin text and my Latin skills are pretty poor, but the suggestion is not outside the realm of possibility as it would fit in with what Augustine goes on to say in On The Trinity. Of course, the whole use of presentation language flows out of his analogical triad earlier. True knowledge of God is possible only if the fullness of God were incarnate in the Son. There is a case that he has pressed the analogy too far, but its earlier use provides us with at least one boundary marker as to how we should interpret the Son’s presentation to humanity and what it aimed to accomplish.

    Do I think that this letter represents the best thinking of Augustine on Trinitarian relationships? No, and I don’t think that Doyle does either – he referenced the work as making a specific point about unity and operations rather than saying it is Augustine par excellence. The language that is employed here lacks the precision of his later work and so much is left unsaid that it is difficult to see this as anything more than an answer to a specific theological and philosophical question. We must not make the text say more than it means, and I don’t think it says that Augustine is a modalist.

    • Jonathan says:

      “a hermeneutic of suspicion…the twisting of Augustine’s words” – strong criticisms, Luke! That’s what we like! Wouldn’t want the whole Western tradition to put up with what we’ve been dishing out, without making some sort of complaint or counter-argument! So good on you Luke for having a go, a courageous stance – but brother, you’ve taken on a heavy burden, you’re trying to defend the indefensible. Letter 11 is a disaster.

      But you are a funny thing. After that bold beginning, you go on to concede pretty much everything I say about the letter, and even make it sound worse than I did! (There seems to be a bit of that about at the moment. You haven’t been learning from Robert Doyle by any chance…?)

      In point 1 you tell us Augustine is treating the Trinity through a neoplatonist grid: exactly the problem Gunton (and now I) see in him.

      In point 2, you get to the heart of the problem. ‘Augustine’s statements regarding the Trinity here refer to questions of epistemology and revelation rather than divine ontology’. Are you being tongue in cheek, Luke? – I can’t figure you out. The thing about modalism is that it takes what should be ontology and treats it as ‘questions of epistemology and revelation rather than divine ontology.’ That’s a near-perfect description of modalism. It describes the persons as appearances but not realities in God. Then you say ‘the rest of his statements would appear to take on a modalist flavour if the context was not duly noted.’ If I can paraphrase you, if we didn’t know that St A was treating the distinctions between the persons as a matter of revelation not actuality, we’d be fooled into reading his argument as modalist. 🙂

      St A’s tackling the problem that, based on his view of the Trinity, “it seems to follow as a consequence, that the whole Trinity assumed human nature” (his words). He asks, “Why, then…is the Incarnation ascribed only to the Son?” This is the question that he attempts to answer through the remainder of the letter. I leave it to the reader to decide whether questions of incarnation and the distinction between the 3 persons should properly be treated as a question of ontology or merely of epistemology.

      Then you give us this showstopper: ‘Augustine answers by pointing towards the form in which the divine essence has been manifested in the world (the Son).’ Couldn’t have put it more damningly myself. The Son as the form in which the divine is manifested: a blunt statement of modalism.

      In point 3 you unveil the tragedy of Augustine’s work: ‘He believes he is stating what the Church has always truly believed about the operations of Persons.’ And because he believes his view is orthodox, ‘it is inconceivable that Augustine believes the Persons must have the same involvement in every action’ – he can’t possibly be espousing an unorthodox view. Really?

      I wonder if you could give a different explanation as to why St A feels all 3 persons should have become incarnate, if it’s not coming from a belief in the uniformity of actions? How does he arrive at his initial dilemma? Most Trinitarian thinkers don’t seem to feel it is a dilemma. Why is ‘the incarnation of the Son but not the Father’ problematic for St A, if not for the reason I’m seeing there?

      In point 4 you suggest ‘But what if Augustine’s meaning was that “presentation” and “revelation” were synonymous? Is Augustine saying nothing more than humanity has the benefit of witnessing the Economic Trinity rather than the Imminent Trinity?’

      Call it revelation or presentation, makes no difference. If you want to persuade us to read it this way, you might need to try it out in a few of those shocking quotes from the letter, see how it fits. I did that a fair bit, my take seems to give at least a possible reading of the text. In particular it would help if you can reconcile your alternative suggestion with this amazing quote:

      Therefore, although in all things the Divine Persons act fully in common and inseparable, nevertheless it is right that their operations be presented as distinct, on account of the feebleness which is in us, who have fallen from unity into diversity.

      I leave it to the reader to decide whether this is just saying that we only get to see the economic Trinity not the immanent: or whether St A is claiming we are shown things in the economic God that aren’t really there in the actual God, as a sort of concession to our fallenness. Changing ‘presented’ to ‘revealed’ here won’t change much.

      I haven’t often read anything about the Trinity as jawdroppping as St A’s ‘fallen from unity to diversity’. Is there some way of reading that that fits with a real Trinity? No, come on Luke, give it up, it’s not worthy of you. Letter 11 is just about as bad as it could be. Rank, open heresy would of course be much less dangerous.

      It’s not St A at his best. OK. On The Trinity is not his best thinking on the Trinity either, according to Doyley. So what we’d like to know, is where is the good stuff? Can someone show us something of Augustine’s on the doctrine of the Trinity that doesn’t need serious apology? Bring it on.

  3. A rebuttal:

    Point 1 – I have already stated the the Neoplatonist worldview that Augustine and Nebridius were working through presents problems. I am just not convinced that they are the exact problems that you raise. We ourselves have our own intellectual and cultural grid that we work through which colours our theological language (e.g. as Reformed Evangelicals we have a tendency to talk about the Cross in almost exclusively Penal Substitution terms), but the issue in Systematics is to see through this grid to get to What Is He Really Saying. Augustine is answering a question from a Neoplatonist about the possibility of true knowledge and right living and he uses an analogy that works for his audience. We need to be just a teensy bit generous and not come down like a ton of bricks whenever we hear a modalist shibboleth.

    Point 2 – I disagree with your premise. It surely is possible that Augustine could address an epistemological question without compromising issues of ontology. Augustine is addressing the issue of “How can we know the true God if only one Person was incarnated? Is our knowledge flawed?” Augustine’s answer is that the fullness of God IS manifest without compromising divine unity. He is not stating that Jesus was merely a manifestation, but seems to be arguing that any revelation must come out of divine unity and not merely refer back to it. I am unsure how his reasoning that the Son must have been the most appropriate Person to be incarnated makes him a modalist. If he lets go of that basic Catholic belief then he is either an Arian or Tritheist.

    Point 3 – The reason is that in the Incarnation we have a Person appearing to act independently by crossing the ontological divide between God and Man. Does this mean that the Trinity has split? Does the Incarnate Son include some token of the Persons of Father and Spirit in order for the Trinity to be intact? If so, does something less that the Father reign while the Son is Incarnate (and continues to be so in Resurrection). In other words, how can homoousios cope? Augustine’s answer is that there is something about the nature of the Person of the Son which can be incarnated without compromising that nature. I believe Barth came to similar conclusions.

    Point 4 – Unless you go as far as Rahner (and I don’t) you need to maintain that something about the divine communion will (and should) always be beyond the ken of us fallen mortals. We are not given direct view into the perichoretic godhead, but instead aspects of it are revealed in Word and Incarnation. If we did not have this revelation we would be worshipping a divine monad incorrectly. Incarnation reveals an extraordinary truth – God Is One and God Is Three. The average Jew (or Neoplatonist) has no problem believing that God Is One, but the God Is Three is a massive problem. Of course the Incarnation is a concession to our fallenness – it can’t be anything else! God forsakes his glory and joins his creatures in their dirty, fallen flesh to save them. However, while not everything is revealed what is revealed is still Truth, and only by the Incarnation of the Son can we possibly accept it.

    • Jonathan says:

      Luke, I am convinced that you are a solid and nuanced Trinitarian thinker. I only wish I could say the same about Augustine. I don’t think the letter is about what you think it’s about, we may have to agree to differ.

      But it has been enlightening and challenging to hear your perspective on it. And I’m glad you have so much generosity of feeling towards the guy. I think you’re treating him as a person – which is right. I think I’m treating him as the father of the western tradition. As a person, it’s understandable that he was struggling (and even failing!) to shake of his intellectual upbringing. As hero no.1 of the western church, it’s sad that we got stuck with this neoplatonic modalist and tragic that his ideas got into the bedrock of our faith. As an erring brother he deserves to be treated with sympathy. As the distorter of the entire western tradition, his work (where flawed) deserves to be exposed and undone. He meant well, he did (and still does) incalculable harm.

  4. Yes, let’s do Trinitarian theology better than St A. I agree that we should neither be modalist nor sound like we are.

    Maybe we should be more Eastern. I’ll stop shaving immediately!

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