Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology - Take 2
In a paper delivered to the Southeastern regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Brad Green undertook to defend Augustine from his modern day detractors. He focuses specifically on the work of Colin Gunton, first describing the trends of Gunton’s own interpretation of Augustine and then turning to Augustine’s own De Trinitate in an attempt to mitigate against Gunton’s arguments (1).
Green points out that Gunton interprets Western thought against the background of the philosophical problem of the One and the Many, moving from there to consider the continuity between creation and redemption as well as the question of a Christian ontology (2). Gunton’s understanding is that in the West the One has triumphed over the Many and he attributes this victory primarily to Augustine’s work on the Trinity (3). Further, Gunton thinks that this ancient emphasis on the One lead moderns to privilege the Many (individualism being one example of this – 4). With reference to the relationship between creation and redemption, Gunton thinks that it is vital to affirm continuity and argues that Augustine fails in this affirmation. Drawing on Irenaeus, Gunton maintains that redemption is the telos of creation (5). Augustine is not able to make such an affirmation as far as Gunton is concerned because he sees Augustine’s emphasis on the One as making salvation history irrelevant for the doctrine of God. Thus, Augustine, under Gunton’s account, has trouble dealing with particulars and must look to the human mind rather than redemptive history for analogies to the Trinity (6). With reference to a Christian ontology, Gunton thinks that this is the result of the development of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Cappadocians. Gunton argues that, for the Cappadocians, communion and relationship constitute the divine ousia (7). The result of this move for Gunton is that the One is defined in terms of the Many, that is, there really are three divine persons who are joined so closely in relationship that the one ousia of God is actually constituted by this relationship (8-9). As far as Gunton is concerned, Augustine is working with an Aristotelian ontology with its distinction between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’ (9) that prevents him from truly being able “to conceive of the persons as the substance of God.” The effect of this in Gunton’s estimation is to establish and unknown substance of God behind the known relationships such that God’s being remains unknown (10).
Having thus described Gunton’s criticisms and concerns with reference to Augustine, Green turns to Augustine’s work in De Trinitate to test Gunton’s claims. Green commends Gunton in his attempt to rethink contemporary theological problems in light of their historical roots (11) but lists six points of disagreement with Gunton’s understanding of Augustine based on Green’s own reading of De Trinitate. First, Green seeks to mitigate against Gunton’s concerns about the hidden-ness of God in Augustine’s scheme by pointing out that Augustine’s goal is to attain a vision of God, even if this vision will only be fully attained in the next life, and it is for this reason that Augustine offers the anthropological analogies for the Trinity so reticently. Further, redemptive history is revelatory for Augustine because he writes as one who already believes in the Trinity (12-13). Second, Green argues contra Gunton that Augustine does understand redemption to be the telos of creation as attested by the revelatory role that the created order plays. We “come to know invisible realities through the visible world” (13-14). Third, Augustine’s distinction between the divine missions and the divine processions is important. Green points out that “Augustine holds that what God does in time reveals who God is in eternity.” Gunton’s criticisms of Augustine as to the unknowability of God and the superfluous place of the three persons are called in to question (15). Fourth, Green points out the polemical nature of De Trinitate (making reference to Michel Rene Barnes). One of the most important polemical features in De Trinitate by Green’s account is the centrality of Christ’s death, which he notes as playing a key role in books 4 and 13. Because Augustine reframes the vision of God as only being possible through Christ, Green detects an “anti-neoplatonic polemic” (16). This emphasis serves to show that for Augustine we really only come to know God through Christ (17). Fifth, Green argues that the Trinitarian relationship is attributed to the divine substance in Augustine’s understanding. While Green recognizes that this is not made explicit in De Trinitate, he views it as consistent because without relationship the divine Trinity would cease to exist in Augustine’s account (17-18). Sixth and finally, Green pushes us to consider the relational aspect of the imago Dei in Augustine’s thought, noting that for Augustine the image “is not a static faculty such as reason” but is to be centered on a relationship with God (18).On the basis of these six points, Green feels as though a more careful reading of Augustine’s De Trinitate serves to protect Augustine from the brunt of Gunton’s criticisms. In closing, we would like to raise questions for two of Green’s points. With reference to the sixth, while Green seems to be correct, he also misses a step. Augustine’s understanding of the imago Dei is certainly directed toward relationship with God, but it is also the means to that relationship. This is the role of the vestigia trinitatis, namely, establishing the necessary conditions for relationship between God and humanity - the human person’s knowledge of God. Second, Green’s fifth point concerning relationship as a substance term for Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity lacks nuance. Augustine argues that while nothing can be said of God “modification-wise” there is another alternative to speaking of God “substance-wise,” namely “relationship-wise” (V.6). Indeed, Augustine argues that being cannot equal relationships because being precedes relationship. The basic insight here is that there must logically be two “things” before they can be in relationship. Finally, Augustine does not finally relegate the divine attributes such as “great” and “wise” to relationship speech, but refers them to the Trinity as a whole (VII.2). So, the ousia is not constituted by relationship but by these attributes. However, these attributes only find expression in relationship whether intra- or extra-Trinitarian. Thus, while the ousia is not constituted by the divine relationships, we might say that it is defined by those relationships.
 Brad Green, “Augustine and the Trinity in Contemporary Theology” from the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Conference Papers; 2001, 20p. Citations given above.