Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology
In an article entitled “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,” Michel Rene Barnes explores what he considers the bankruptcy of contemporary systematic treatments of Augustine with specific reference to the doctrine of the Trinity. Barnes’ specific interest is revealing the “methodological presuppositions” at work in these treatments of Augustine (237). He notes the standard division of “patristic Trinitarian doctrine” into the Greek and Latin camps (ibid), noting that this division derives from the work of Theodore de Regnon in the late 19th century and that this division must be demonstrated (238). After sketching some ways in which de Regnon’s paradigm is employed in contemporary treatments of Augustine, Barnes points out that these treatments depend on broad generalizations of Augustine’s thought (239). Barnes detects a certain confidence in employing these broad generalizations and attributes this confidence to two points.
First, the confidence reflects a positive sense of all the new things that we have learned as moderns through the mechanism of “paradigm shifts”; not the least of what we have learned is the existence of such paradigms themselves. Second, the confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of “facts” can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any “fact” can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutic or ideology (241).
That is, contemporary treatments are confident in their generalizations because we tend to think ourselves more aware than our forebears and because specific statements and positions are read in light of the larger paradigm rather than the larger paradigm being built with attention to specific statements and positions.
Barnes attributes the fact that contemporary systematic theologians seem to prefer architectonic narrative forms to their preference for “an idealistic style of writing” (243), by which he means (1) interest in polar opposition (2) describing cultural forms by means of the logic of ideas. For Barnes, all of these things suggest the influence of German idealism (ibid). In the realm of historical studies, Barnes identifies Oliver du Roy’s work on Augustine as particularly influential and particularly flawed along these lines. This is primarily because du Roy discussed Augustine’s Trinitarian theology in conversation with the philosophy of Augustine’s time as opposed to its relationship to preceding doctrinal understanding (244).
At this point, Barnes has built up to what is his fundamental critique. He writes, “The rhetorical voice of such reconstructive narratives is one of comprehensiveness, but the ‘historical method’ supporting the narratives is in fact reductive. Stories of increasing scope are told on the basis of diminishing experience and evidence” (248-9). For Barnes, it is bad enough that scholars would make sweeping generalizing claims based upon careful attention to the sources, but it is altogether unacceptable when these kinds of claims are developed out of a basic failure to read the relevant primary sources. For instance, Barnes notes that polemical context is frequently avoided (cf. 245) and that Augustine’s last Trinitarian works are not read simply because they exist only in Latin and systematic theologians generally do not work in Latin (cf. 248). Specifically with reference to De Trinitate, Barnes notes that contemporary treatments tend to be insufficient for three reasons: (1) little attention is given to the polemical context (2) little attention is paid to the fact that Augustine builds his arguments on exegetical series (3) few are aware of the previous use of many important Scriptural passages for earlier Trinitarian theology (cf. 247).
Barnes’ explication of contemporary systematic treatment of Augustine is a challenge to systematic theologians. But, it also begs the question of to what degree systematic theology can properly be separated from historical theology. As per Barnes’ argument, the former seems to begin where the latter leaves off.
 Michel Rene Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology” pp. 237-50 in Theological Studies 56 (1995). Page citations given in the main text.