5.1.2 Augustine of Hippo

Augustine of Hippo

Augustine is a fascinating and inspirational figure in church history. His theological and philosophical works have provided much of the western church with the groundwork for many a spiritual measuring rod. He is also an interesting study, since he approaches many of the same issues that faced the Cappadocians, yet from very different angles. The first emphasis of importance was Augustine’s vigorous rejection of any form of subordinationism (that is, treating the Son and Holy Spirit as inferior to the Father within the Godhead). The way Augustine achieves this, is by making an important distinction, not between oneness and modes of being, but rather between the essential or imminent Trinity and the revelatory components of the economic Trinity. In Augustine’s view, the unity of God is completely undisturbed in every eternal sense, they are eternally co-equal. The only reason the Son and the Holy Spirit appear to be subordinated to the Farther, is because of the self-revelation of God in history unto salvation. The economic Trinity thus presents God in varying forms, based upon the person in the foreground for said purpose. The nature of God in Godself remains untouched, that which we are aloud to behold is revealed with distinction. The most unique conception within Augustine’s trinitarian thought, is the standing and role of the Holy Spirit. In his understanding, the Holy Spirit is viewed as the agent of love which unites the Son and the Father. In Augustine’s rationale, the Son is first identified with “wisdom” (sapientia), and the Spirit then with “love” (caritas). Augustine admits that he has no scriptural reference from which to explicitly infer this concept, he however states that the entire testimony of scripture provides evidence for viewing the imminent Trinity in this manner. One could say, it is inferred generally, not specifically. Augustine reinforces that the Spirit “makes us dwell in God, and God in us”. This particular point is critical for Augustine’s view of the Spirit in the Trinity as well as the devotional life of the believer. For Augustine the Spirit is specifically identified with the union that is experienced between God and man. The Spirit is the agent of community, grafting us into the trinitarian union. He (the Spirit) is the gift which binds us to God.

Augustine also states elsewhere that humanity is not merely made in the image of God; it is created in the image of the Trinity. Therefore Augustine is able to draw out conclusions about the imminent Trinity from the work of the Spirit between God and the believer. There is, according to Augustine, a relational correlation between the Spirit’s work between the Godhead and the believer, and the Spirit’s role within the Trinity itself. This means that God is merely drawing us into the same kind of union, that is present and active within himself. The Spirit is the bond of love, eternally and perpetually binding the persons of the Trinity together. “The Holy Spirit … makes us dwell in God, and God in us. But that is the effect of love. So the Holy Spirit is God who is love.” Augustine further supplements this argument by generally emphasizing the importance of love (caritas) in the Christian life. Augustine loosely bases this notion on 1 Corinthians 13:13: “These three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” He argues for this in the following order:

God’s greatest gift is love;
God’s greatest gift is the Holy Spirit;
therefore the Holy Spirit is love.

The glaring weakness in Augustine’s model is the almost mechanical or impersonal nature of the Holy Spirit. Acting as a kind of glue between Father and Son, and God to humanity, the Holy Spirit does not, at first glance, appear to have any personal divine standing. This is possibly an inevitable weakness in Augustine’s theology, since the image of “being bound to God” is one that is often featured. Augustine clearly affirms the divinity of the Holy Spirit; it is the definition of role within the Trinity that appears to cast the Holy Spirit into a subjected position. It is important to remember that Augustine argues for a separation between observed function in the Trinity and the inherent equality present in the Godhead. Role never defines standing for the persons of the Trinity. Augustine made great efforts to focus on the “inner life” of the Trinity, and not only the economic revelation.

One very distinct feature in Augustinian thought is the development of “psychological analogies”. The human mind as the analogous framework for describing the inner life of the Trinity. This is an attempt at reasoning from the bottom up, from the human person to the life of God. Augustine illustrates the idea by stating that it is not unreasonable to expect that:

“in creating the world, God has left a characteristic imprint upon that creation. But where
is that imprint (vestigium) to be found? It is reasonable to expect that God would plant
this distinctive imprint upon the height of his creation.”

Therefore, Augustine argues, we should look to humanity in our search for the image of God. The emphasis or center of Augustine’s investigation of the Trinity is the truly fascinating aspect of his thinking. Immensely impacted by his Neo-platonic and intellectual worldview, Augustine chooses to focus on the human intellect or the human mind as the analogous location for trinitarian ideas or the place to discover “traces of the Trinity” (vestigia Trinitatis) in creation. He herewith moves away from often used analogies which utilized the picture of human relationship and personality, and in doing so, creates a trinitarian center that is much more individualistic and subjective. Augustine’s approach of “human person as Trinity” needs to be qualified of course. In what way is the human inner life analogous to the divine inner life? Augustine gives special significance to three components of the human inner life; these are: mind, knowledge, and love (mens, notitia, and amor), although Augustine also relates these to another triad of capacities; these being: memory, understanding, and will (memorial, intelligentia, and voluntas). The entire point of these terms is to establish a way of thinking about human persons that allows for the distinction of these capacities while demonstrating the unity they obviously display. From one perspective, mind, knowledge, and love are different aspects of the human inner life, yet from another, they are completely intertwined, and in fact, indivisible from one another. The same can be said of the distinction and indivisible nature of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The obvious weaknesses of this approach are easily spotted, not the least of which is the impossible task of actually reducing the human inner life to three distinctive capacities.

The purpose of the analogy, in Augustinian terms, is not to be constitutive, but rather illustrative. The approach is meant to provide a visual aid for rationally considering the logic of a three-in-one system of function. In other words, if human capacities, such as mind, knowledge, and love (by far not the best examples to choose from), can be individually observed yet not individually functional (meaning: they need each other in order to work), then it is easy to imagine a deity who’s inner life is observed similarly. This is a helpful illustration, yet appears to be quite far away from providing any concrete idea of the observation that can be made of the immanent and economic Trinity. In future writings, many theologians, most notably Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, embraced Augustine’s overall approach to the Trinity, while at the same time, often choosing to either restate or fully dismiss his use of “psychological analogies”. Augustine remains a thinker of immense importance to the western church, and must be revisited or considered any time the topic of the Trinity comes up. The most significant restatements of the doctrine of the Trinity within the western tradition were developed in the twentieth century. That is where we jump to next.