Augustine on the Trinity
I) Persons as Relations
Augustine’s goal is to not to prove the doctrine the Trinity given his presupposition that faith precedes understanding and that understanding must inform faith. His ‘De Trinitate’ represents an exercise in understanding what it means to say that God is at the same time Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.
For Augustine the doctrine of Trinity is already revealed in Scriptures but it may be clarified using an adopted philosophical framework which in his case is Neo-Platonism. He assumes that man is made in the image of God on the basis of Scripture. He proceeds to explain how the Trinitarian structure of the inner man illuminates our understanding of the Trinity. His approach is arguably circular, but this is acceptable so long as we accept that his end goal is to explain the Trinity rather than to prove the Trinity.
He begins by stating the doctrine as he has received it:
The Father, Son and Spirit are distinct, and yet they are a unity in the equality of the one substance. Any inferiority of the Son refers to his human nature or to the Trinitarian order whereby he has received his equal being from the Father. “The Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Spirit God…yet there are not three Gods – but one God – the Trinity Itself” . . . “so total is the equality of this triad that not only is the Father not greater than the Son as far as divinity is concerned, but also Father and Son together are not greater the Holy Spirit, nor any single person of the Three is less than the trinity Itself” (8.1).
Still, within this equality there are distinctions between the Persons. The Father is distinguished as Father because He begets the Son, and the Son is distinguished as Son because He is begotten. The Spirit, similarly, is distinguished from Father and Son inasmuch as He is ‘bestowed’ by them; He is their ‘common gift’, being a kind of communion of Father and Son.
The distinctions between the three persons are grounded in their mutual relations within the Godhead. Augustine resorts to the category of “distinctions based on relations” even though this may seem contrary to the doctrine that God as simple and as such cannot be differentiated from his attributes. The reason for this assertion is to escape a cunning dilemma posed by Arian critics. They argued that the distinctions within the Godhead, assuming they exist must be categorized as either substance or accidents. Everyone agrees that God has no accidents. On the other hand, to view the distinctions as substance would result in three independent substances in the Godhead.
Augustine rejects the dilemma. He suggests that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit denote not difference in substance between the Persons but eternal and unchangeable relations between them within the one substance. That is to say, what differentiates the Three Persons in the Trinity is the specific form of relations. The persons retain substantial equality.
The relationships do not simply distinguish the Persons from each other – they are the persons. In technical language, they are subsistent relationships. Accidents in ordinary things like qualities or quantities can change. For example, the quantity of stuff in a man can change without him ceasing to be a man. But in the case of the divine, relationships are actually substantive predications since they are identical with divine nature or substance. But a relationship requires real distinctions between two referents at the poles of the relationship. The Father is distinct from the Son. Neither is distinct from God; and they are each distinct from the Holy Spirit, not as Father and Son, but as ‘from whom he proceeds’.
Edmund Hill elaborates, “Therefore [the Father] is not only Father, he is the fatherhood (the relationship) by which he is Father. So too the Son is the sonship by which he is Son. And the Holy Spirit. . . the relationship of being Gift, the relationship of ‘givenness’ if you like.
II) Analogies of the Trinity
Having defended the distinctions of the persons in the Godhead, Augustine proceeds to search out for analogies that will illuminate the relationships within the Godhead. He begins with the observation that love has a Trinitarian form of “the lover, that which is loved, and love”. Augustine cautions that this analogy of love is imperfect and concludes “we have found, not the thing itself, but where it is to be sought” (8.14). He locates the source of better analogies within the psychological structure of the soul.
Book 9 – The Mind, Self-knowledge, and Self-love (mens, amor, notitia)
According to Augustinian psychology, the mind’s knowledge of itself (knowledge of the self) is expressed as a mental judgment ‘that I am I’. This judgment is a complete and equal likeness of the self that brings it forth. To help modern readers who are puzzled by such statements, we note that mind can be understood as the self in contemporary usage and that the mental judgment or the likeness of the self brought forth is an image of the self – an image understood more in terms of a mirror reflection rather than a statue or a picture.
But according to Augustine, you cannot love what you do not know. “The mind cannot love itself unless it also knows itself” (9.3). In other words, self-knowledge is a co-product of the love of self, a sense of delight in ‘my being myself and knowledge of myself as myself.’ That is to say, self-love implies self-knowledge. We find then a trinity of the mind, self-knowledge and self-love.
These components may be distinguishable, but they are inseparable and are equal, mutually comprehensive and co-inhere with one another. “Mind is no greater than its offspring, when its self-knowledge is equal to its being, nor than its love, when its self-love is equal to its knowledge and to its being” ((9.18).
Book 10 – Self-Knowledge in Memory, Understanding and Will
The problem is that the mind does not know what it loves and indeed the mind does not know itself. Augustine stresses that we are motivated in our search for knowledge only if we know in anticipation, albeit partially, what we are seeking for, “Either (1) the object of his love is already known to him in kind, and he is seeking to know it in some particular case… Or (2) we see something and love it under the ideal form of timeless existence… Or (3) we love something we know for the sake of which we seek for something unknown…Or lastly (4) the love is for knowledge itself.” (10.4).
As a good Platonist, Augustine argues that self-love and self-knowledge are grounded not in fleeting external impressions but in self-evident realities like mind and will. Among these realities he can see a basic triad of memory, understanding and will.
“Now this triad of memory, understanding and will, are not three lives, but one; not three minds but one. It follows that they are not three substances but one substance.” But although these are “one essence”, they are three inasmuch as they are related to one another. “Therefore, since all are covered by one another, singly and as wholes, the whole of each is equal to the whole of each and the whole of each to the whole together. And these three constitute one thing, one life, one life, one mind, one essence” (10.18)
To help contemporary readers, we see this triad not as three faculties or powers of the soul, but as three mental acts, in one mind, or remembering self, understanding self and willing self. We can also operationalize these terms as ‘to be, to be conscious, to live’.
Self-memory refers to the mind’s awareness [in contrast to the absence of mind] constituted by memory of the past. The mind always functions as a remembering self. One commentator elaborates, “As soon as the mind thinks about itself (cogitare) its self-memory becomes actual, and in the act of thought (cogitation) it begets or brings forth a mental word of self-understanding. And from this act of self-memory producing the mental word of self-understanding there spontaneously proceeds the act of self-appreciation or love or enjoyment which Augustine calls rather colorlessly self-willing.”
Book 11 – The Image of God Reflected in the Outward Activity of Sense Perception
Augustine is aware of the difficulties in understanding the trinities of the mind expressed in mental images. To help us understand better these mental images, he suggests that we look at more manageable or graspable dynamics of external sense perception. He suggests the presence of the following analogies of Trinity:
The trinity of perception
1) the external object of vision
2) the perception of it in the sense-organ (sense impression)
3) the mental attention that fixes the eye on the object (unites the two)
The trinity of imagination occurs when a remembered perception is recalled to mind, though, this time the process is entirely within the mind:
1) the memory of something perceived
2) the inward vision that objectifies the memory
3) the activity of the will which directs attention upon the object in the memory
These analogies are inadequate since they are disparate in nature and show no unity of substance at all, but at least they are more easily understood. Augustine seeks to explain the outward (higher) analogies with illustrations from inward (lower) analogies. The progression of discernment of Trinities in Augustine’s analysis begins with external sensory perception (consciousness) to internal perception (recollective or imaginative) to Mind’s mental acts.
Book 13 – The Highest form of knowledge – Faith
Given the Incarnation, external realities – when viewed through faith can become a ‘bridge’ to true wisdom or the soul’s contemplation of God. Augustine suggests a ‘trinity of faith’ – (1) the things believed (2) the memory of these things (3) the conscious recalling of them to thought by the act of will. Furthermore, faith in Jesus Christ results in conformity to Christ. Faith transforms the lower and temporal knowledge to higher and eternal wisdom by connecting us to Christ in whom are all the treasures of wisdom. But this trinity of faith must not be taken to be the true image since faith is dependent on input from the outside world (even though the input data are Christian truths).
Augustine presses on, “What we have to find in the soul of man, that is in the rational or intellectual soul, is an image of the creator which is immortally engrained in the soul’s immortality” (14.5).
Book 14 – The Perfection of the Image in the Contemplation of God
Augustine’s concern is not to find the image of God in the introspective structure of the mind itself; he is more concerned about the mind’s ability to remember, understand and love God. Augustine’s quest is more to attain a religious rather than a psychological understanding. This quest is premised on the soul’s experience of salvation. The image of fallen man is “obscured and defaced” but the memory of God persists in the soul. The restoration of the image to its original perfection is the work of grace in a gradual process whereby the mind’s love is redirected upon God, and it reaches perfection only in the final vision of God (14.23, 24), when we shall be “like him, for we shall see him face to face.”
The soul/self transcends the world of changeable things when it worships God. In other words, the soul in worship displays the Trinitarian pattern par excellence. “Now this trinity of the mind is God’s image, not because the mind remembers, and understands and loves itself; but because it has the power also to remember, understand and love its maker. And in so doing that it attains wisdom…Wisdom will be the mind’s not by its own illumination, but by partaking in the supreme light” (14.15).
Augustine’s own words give a fitting climax to his quest to illuminate the doctrine of the Trinity:
It is clear that the image of God will achieve its full likeness of him only when it attains to the full vision of him. . . . the image which is being renewed in the spirit of the mind in the recognition of God, not outwardly but inwardly from day to day [Eph 4:23, Col 3:10, 2 Cor 4:16], this image will be perfected in the vision that will then be face to face after the judgment, while now it makes progress through a puzzling reflection in a mirror [1 Cor 13:12] (14.24-25).
Book 15 – Review and Re-valuation: Image and Original
Here Augustine points out the weakness of the analogies (15:11-12; 42-29).
1) The analogies describe mental functions which ‘belong’ to a man, whereas the Persons of the Trinity are God; the ‘Ego’ of God is not to be distinguished from the Trinity. The human faculties described in the analogies are self-contained. In a human, the faculties of memory, understanding, and will are not interchangeable, whereas in God we cannot confine memory to the Father, understanding to the Son, or love or will to the Spirit. Whatever we ascribe to each person is not to be understood as peculiar to each Person. All share in all.
2) ‘Generation’ and ‘procession’ in the analogies imply temporality, but in the Godhead these are terms describing eternal relationships.
3) In the Trinity, the Three are ‘Persons’, but the faculties of mind described are not so.
Augustine is acutely aware of the limitations of his study. He is not trying to establish the truth of God so much as using analogies to understand the truth. He never lost sight of the fact that the image will always fall short of the original.
Despite the limitations we “see through a glass darkly”. Nonetheless the analogy does give some positive help so long as we remember that the pursuit of understanding is circumscribed by faith. Augustine conffesses that “I was only too well aware that my attempt even to understand involved more effort than result” (15.45), “I dare not claim that any of them is worthy of this unimaginable [unspeakable] mystery” (50). He thus closes his book with adoration and petition: “So now let us bring this book to a close at last with a prayer in preference to an argument” (15.50-51).
Note: Unresolved tension in Augustine’s model of the Trinity (not expressedly stated by Augustine)
Augustine deployed a ‘circular’ model of the Trinity that seeks to preserve full Deity and equality to each Person of the Trinity. Whether he finally achieves it is another question. For example, the Father is still the ‘unbegotten’ and the fount of deity and by implication primodiality suggests superiority. On the other hand, there is a tendency to relegate the status of the Holy Spirit to an inferior status if the Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. It is also arguable that the image of the Spirit as Love that binds the Father and the Son suggests something abstract and depersonalized.
III) Clarification of Technical Terms
Taken from “Introduction” to The Trinity, Translated by John Burnaby in Augustine: Later Works. The Library of Christian Classics, ed. John Burnaby. Westminster Press 1955, pp. 34-36
We noted earlier that Augustine’s terminology is not the same as modern usage. Hopefully the following notes will help readers to avoid confusion.
1) Mind (Mens) – not what we call ‘intelligence’ but the ‘rational soul’ which distinguishes man from all lower animals. ‘Mind’ is virtually equated with self.
Conclusion – ‘mind’ stands for the self-conscious thinking, knowing, loving, willing person which is man in his uniqueness, the image of God.
2) Understanding (Intelligentia) = intuitive apprehension
Augustine does not mean by this “comprehension, appreciating the significance of an idea and how it connects logically with the rest of our knowledge. Rather he means the mind’s intuitive ‘apprehension’ of reality ‘first-hand’ (as opposed to ‘faith’ which is an apprehension and belief in reality at second-hand mediated through history).
3) Memory (Memoria)
This is the word for the retention of experience in the human mind. As memory, the mind is a storehouse in which traces of the passing experience are preserved. But we only “remember” what is in the storehouse by entering it (as it were) and looking in it for what we want, or (as in the case of involuntary recollection) by stumbling upon some particular item of its content. Thus the Augustine “memory” corresponds roughly to the modern notion of the “sub-conscious” or “unconscious”.
Being the creation of God and bearing the image of God, the mind always retain a knowledge of its own nature as God’s created image; and thus it must possess a “memory of God” which is indelible, however deeply hidden away.
4) Love (Amor, Charitas)
This is the motive behind human action, the source of energy which compels a man to seek the satisfaction of his needs. The end which love pursues is “fruition”, enjoyment and the quality of love depends on that of the objects whose enjoyment is sought. Augustine defines love as “nothing else but the will, seeking after or hold in possession an object enjoyment” (14, 8). It is therefore that factor which unites subject and object, while flowing as it were from both. So it is that Augustine finds in “will” an analogy for the Holy Spirit.