Review: Augustine on the Trinity

Long review.  I’ll put my cards on the table. I am not a huge fan of Augustine.  I’ll try to not let that color the review too much. I didn’t realize I hadn’t posted a review.  Ligonier had a list of books on the doctrine of God and put this one on there.  That’s fair, since it is an important read.  I just don’t think this is the most helpful way to approach the Trinity.

Augustine’s work on the Trinity truly illustrates the definition of the work “classic”: a book much discussed but never read, either by his adherents or critics. To be fair, even Augustine’s adherents admit his style could be improved–shortening passages and limiting some of the more fanciful exegesis (City of God is notorious in this regard). And as some of his critics point out, if you want a good introduction into Trinitarian thinking, Gregory of Nazianzus (or Basil) is clearer and is writing more within the mainstream of Nicene thought (yes, I am aware of Lewis Ayres’ thesis, and I still maintain that last sentence).

On the other hand, a handful of books clearly define the thinking and development of Western civilization, and Augustine is responsible for at least three of them: City of God, Confessions, and De Trinitate.

In book II Augustine is dealing with the theophanies and how God revealed himself to the Fathers in the Old Testament. His larger argument is that the Trinity works in sending. The act of sending is a Trinitarian act.

Augustine rightly says that God’s nature is invisible to human eyes. God’s nature is not corporeal and cannot be seen by man. That is another way of saying the essentially correct thesis that God’s essence cannot be comprehended by man. Because of that, Augustine reasons that the appearances (theophanies) in the Old Testament were essentially the ancient equivalent of holograms. Speaking of the Holy Spirit Augustine writes,

For in due time a certain outward appearance of the creature was wrought, wherein the Holy Spirit might be visibly shown (II. 5).

Now, instead of “Holy Spirit” one can also insert (as he does elsewhere) “Son” or “Father.” While I am going to disagree with his above conclusion, his reasoning is consistent and bears some reflection. Augustine rightly notes that the Holy Spirit is “invisible.” Obviously, the Father is invisible, also. After the incarnation, though, Jesus is not invisible. Augustine does not want to say that Jesus assumed flesh before the incarnation, and I think rightly so, so he opts for the temporary “creature” mode (e.g., Jesus assumes a temporary creature to show himself, not that Jesus is one).

Therefore, the only way the invisible God can manifest himself without committing to multiple incarnations is to assume some form of a temporary creature in the theophany. Augustine repeatedly uses the word “creature” and this can throw the reader off. With all due respect, however, I think the term “hologram” best describes what he is getting at.

Augustine is insistent that God’s “nature” cannot be shown. Man’s eye cannot see God’s nature. That’s why, I think, he insists that God appears to man via hologramic images. Augustine seems to reduce the argument to two options: either we see God’s nature (which is impossible) or we see God by “the corporeal creature made subject to him, and not by his own substance” (II. 14).

Augustine then engages in an extended discourse on whether the theophanies were revelations of the entire Trinity or of one person. Personally, I don’t know and I don’t think Augustine does, either. He seems to entertain several positions. It is imperative to say that the Old Testament is a revelation of God the Son, but it is not entirely certain from that whether all theophanies were of the Son or of the Trinity. I don’t see any reason to come to a hard conclusion on this.

Augustine ends this section with a helpful summary of Book II: which persons of the Trinity appeared to man, and their appearance via created means (II. 35).


Must we accept Augustine’s conclusion that the theophanies were holograms? He is correct that God’s nature qua nature cannot be seen by corporeal eye.  Augustine gives a meditation of Moses on Mt. Sinai and seeing the “back parts of God.” Augustine maintains his thesis that man cannot see God. However, Moses does see God’s glory. Now, is God’s glory truly divine? Is it truly the presence of God? I don’t see how any can deny this. Consider: it is God’s presence to us, yet it is not simply his essence. It is God, yet it is clearly seen by human eyes (Lev. 9:6; Num. 20:6; Ex. 34:29-35).

De Trinitate, books 3-4
Book 3 is an extension upon several themes highlighted in Book 2: God’s invisibility and incorporeality and how man saw revelations from God in the Old Testament. Augustine specifically deals with Angels and Miracles, and much of it is quite helpful. He wants to know “whether the angels were then the agents both in showing those bodily appearances to the eyes of men, and in sounding those words in their ears, when the sensible creature itself, serving the Creator at His beck, turned for the time into whatever was needful” (III.1.6).

It is helpful to keep in mind when Augustine says “creature” in this context he means the vehicle in which the divine appeared to the human.  Presumably on Augustine’s gloss, it is corporeal. Forgive the horrible cultural reference, but remember what was going on the movie Avatar. (!!).

Augustine makes his conclusion when he says “that all those appearances to the Fathers (old testament saints)…were wrought through the creature” (III.2.22). He then discuses when the Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses, whether it was an angel or God himself who actually appeared. Given his above conclusion Augustine maintains that it is an Angel who actually appears. Augustine actually does a good job in examining the difficulties in both positions, but one would have hoped he would have been consistent with his earlier theme and simply not come to a dogmatic conclusion on an issue that Scripture really doesn’t say too much about. (He does note that St Stephen says in Acts 7 that the *angel* appeared to Moses).

The problem here is that Patristic exegesis reads the Old Testament as a Revelation of God the Son, not as a revelation of “an angel.”

(In a rather humorous, if somewhat bitter, moment he goes back to Stephen’s conclusion to the Sanhedrin and applies these words to whoever disagrees with him, “Ye stiff-necked…” cf. III.2.26).

Augustine then goes to say that man cannot see God’s glory with his own eyes (III.2.24). Contrast this with Leviticus 9:5 and Numbers 20.6 where it says men will see God’s glory. The problem here is that Augustine lacks the concept of the divine energies, so he is left with man either seeing God’s essence (which is impossible) or only seeing a created intermediary. In either case, man never actually communes with God.

Book IV

Book IV is a wonderful meditation on Christ’s reversal of the work of the devil. He discusses how the person of Christ takes our death into his death and resurrects us. One is struck by how Eastern and Patristic this sounds, and this should remind the reader that for all of Augustine’s innovations and erroneous conclusions, he is still a faithful son of the Church. When he sticks to received Catholic doctrine that is common to the fathers, he is a wonderful guide to piety.

De Trinitate, books 5-6
Augustine is here responding to the Arian heretics who say that the nature of the Son is different from the nature of the Father. He modifies somewhat the traditional dictum that what is said of each person in respect to themselves is to be taken in the singular (V.8.9). (Or something like that. Augustine’s argumentation here is very convoluted and is open to many interpretations. He also appears in this section to anticipate the “relations of opposition” canard popular in the later middle ages. I will interpret him for now as holding to the classical triadic dictum: what is said of all three persons is said of the essence, and what is unique to one person is unique to that person). It should be noted, however, that Augustine is not always using the term “God” as the New Testament and early fathers used it: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am simply noting that for now, for it may become important later).

In chapter 10 of Book V Augustine advances and early form of the “Absolute Divine Simplicity” thesis, stating “that it is the same thing to God to be , and to be great (or wise, or love, etc)” (V.10.11). One way to interpret this line is that the term “Greatness” equally applies to all three persons, therefore it is common to the essence. On the other hand, it is not hard to see how this line of reasoning could equate God’s attribute–greatness–with God’s essence. And the obvious conclusion: if God’s attribute a = God’s essence, and God’s essence is absolutely simple, and God’s attribute b (or x, y, and z) = God’s essence, then attribute a = attribute b.

At this point in the narrative Augustine doesn’t say any more, so I will leave it at that. In the next chapter (11), Augustine says that since the Father is Holy, and the Son is Holy, and the Holy Spirit is holy by definition, then the entire Trinity can be said to be the Holy Spirit (V.11.12)! This leads Augustine to his famous line that the Holy Spirit is the communion of Father and Son.

What just happened here?

Keep in mind what was said earlier: what is common to all is common to the essence; what is unique of one is unique to that one person. It appears that the Holy Spirit is both common to the essence and unique to a person. It also looks like the Holy Spirit has become an attribute of God. I am sure there are more able interpretations in defense of Blessed Augustine, but it looks like this is a confusion of both person and nature.

In chapter 13 Augustine anticipates later Filioquist discussions. Given his commitment to the unity of the Trinity, he wants to say that all persons share in the principium (or the beginning), and from this he denies there are two Beginnings. He writes,

“But if whatever remains within itself and produces or works anything is a beginning to that thing which it produces or works; then we cannot deny that the Holy Spirit also is rightly called Beginning, since we do not separate him from the appellation of Creator” (V.13.14).

In other words, only the Creator (or non-creatures) can participate in the principium. It seems then that active participation in the Principium is common to the essence, since it is common to all (V.13.14). However, in the next section he says that the Father and Son are the principium of the Holy Spirit. He ends his discussion on principium noting, “But the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one Beginning in respect to the creature, as also one Creator and one God.”

In other words, the Holy Spirit does not participate in the Principium in the same way that the Father and Son participate. While Augustine formally avoids calling the Holy Spirit a creature by noting he, too, is principium, at the same time it appears that the Holy Spirit does not participate with the Father and Son. This strains the Triadic logic mentioned above and has the practical effect of subordinating the Holy Spirit.

Book VI

Augustine wrestles with some of his implications in the previous book. If Christ is the Wisdom and Power of God the Father, and obviously assuming “wisdom” and “power” common to the essence, one must wonder if the Father is not wise apart from Christ. Granted this is an abstraction, since one cannot speak of the Persons apart from one another, but it is an important question. If one answers in the affirmative, Augustine notes, one must conclude that the Father is not wise in himself (VI.1.2).

De Trinitate, books 7-8
In book seven Augustine continues his discussion of the problem whether the Father is wise in himself or wise only when speaking the Word, who is Wisdom. He is taking his cue from St Paul, who says that Christ is the Wisdom and Power of God. While much of Augustine’s discussion is laborious and belabors the point, it is a fair question. St Athanasius wrestled with the same question, though his answer was more straightfoward (if not entirely avoiding the problem. Instead of “Wisdom,” Athanasios was discussing whether Christ was willed by the Father. He denied the Arian dilemma by saying that Christ was the willing of the Father).

Athanasius, again: Christ as the willing of the Father illustrates Act-in-Being.

Notwithstanding the similarities of the problem, Augustine has to fight it on a different front. Throughout the treatise he has affirmed that God is identical with his attributes (this is more clearly stated in City of God bk. 11, c. 10). If it is true, Augustine reasons, that in the Father it is not one thing to be, and another to be wise, but to be is to be wise. And if Christ is the wisdom of God, how is Christ not also the essence of God? Further, if the Father is “wise in himself,” and yet the Son also is Wisdom, are they not of different essences? This is the heart of the problem.

Augustine answers it by saying what is said of the persons is said relatively. He writes, “but the Son is begotten: since by these names only their relative attributes are expressed. But both together are one essence and one wisdom; in which to be, is the same as to be wise…as we have already sufficiently shown that these terms [Word, Son] are spoken relatively” (VII.2.3).

Augustine goes on to discuss the differences between Greek and Latin triadologies, and his discussion is limited by his lack of knowledge of Greek. He is identifying the terms (not the concepts) “person” and “substance.” This was a legitimate way to speak of it in parts of the Roman Empire; it seems, however, that Augustine is reading his own understanding of “substance” back into Greek, which was quite different. And from that reading he appears to draw a number of conclusions:
it is the same thing with God to be (esse) as to subsist (subsistere).
Therefore, he subsists relatively, as he begets relatively, as he bears rule relatively (VII.4.9).

One tentative conclusion he does not necessarily draw here, but will be made with great force by Thomas Aquinas, is that the persons are identical in essence by different only relatively, in terms of relation. While it is true the persons share and fully possess an identical essence, it seems dangerous to say that the persons are identical. On the other hand, this appears to be the logical conclusion of absolute divine simplicity. Latin scholastics would avoid the trap only by saying there are “notional distinctions in God.” But are notional distinctions real distinctions? If they are, then how do you maintain ADS? If they aren’t, then does it even matter to call them notional distinctions?

For further discussion the reader is urged to consider J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 271-279.


Augustine ends his exegetical discussion of the Trinity for now and begins his famous psychological analysis. He has been criticized for saying there are psychological analogies to the Trinity, and perhaps positing some sort of analogia entis. Maybe so. I don’t think analogies are helpful, nor I suspect do most people think them helpful, either. However, it is an interesting discussion and as they say more about human loving and the mind, I think it can be read with profit.

Actually, there is a very good discussion of the nature of speech (VIII.6.9). I think his point in this book is that any of these (lover, object loved, and the love that unites them) cannot ideally be separated

If we want to use these analogies to properly understand the Trinity, I think it dead-ends, and badly so. However, if, like St Maximos the Confessor, we want to say that man is a triadic being, and reality itself is triadic (see Maximos: Genesis, Kinesis, Stasis), then Augustine’s exposition is quite helpful.

Book XV

Book XV is the most important of the sections.   Books 9-14 can easily be skipped for the analogies.   As a wee child in Sunday School I was rightly taught that the Trinity is 3 Persons/1 essence.   I was also taught that analogies of the Trinity fail miserably.    Augustine spent 100 pages defending and explaining trinitarian analogies.    I am not going to “critique” the analogies, since I can’t imagine any but  few would take them seriously.

In any case, Book XV neatly summarizes the entire work and ends with some of Augustine’s stronger conclusions.   The main point is Augustine sets forth what will later harden as “double procession.”   I still don’t see it as a hard Filioquist reading, since the latin word procedere is ambiguous, but it certainly points that way.  For those who reference the Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers edition, on page 222 Augustine, in speaking of the divine nature, uses the phrase “equals.”   Augustine’s definition of simplicity, God is what he has, and that it is not one thing for God to be, and another to be wise, but to be is to be wise.   Combine that with the “equals” on page 222 (he is simply clarifying his point), then we are justified in positing that absolute divine simplicity is simply (no pun!) one big “=” sign.   Therefore, to be wise = just = love = wrath = God’s essence.

Unfortunately, St Paul said Christ is the wisdom of God, and I think Augustine sees the trap into which he walked.   Books 6 and 7 try to deal with this problem, and I think as long as Augustine holds to this form of simplicity, he can’t avoid the conclusion that the Person of the Son is the essence of the Father (which we know is clearly wrong).

He ends the book discussing double procession.  His argument is fairly well-known and I won’t belabor the point.   The Spirit proceeds from the Father principally  as from one clause.   So far, orthodox.   However, he also proceeds from the Son.   Chant “de Regnon” all you want, I don’t care how you slice it–that is a real form of subordinationism.  The Spirit is now Jesus’ lieutenant.

Despite the painful meanderings from the point, the treatise is actually organized quite well.  With an exception of the last two books, each book can be read in about 10 minutes


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
This entry was posted in Book Review, Church History, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Review: Augustine on the Trinity

  1. Pingback: Zizioulas: Being as Communion | Theological Geometry

  2. Pingback: The Development of Differences – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s