Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology

In an article entitled “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology,”[1] 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.

[1] Michel Rene Barnes, “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology” pp. 237-50 in Theological Studies 56 (1995).  Page citations given in the main text.


Evan said…
Great thoughts... another Barnes article worth reading is “Rereading Augustine’s Theology of the Trinity,” in The Trinity, ed. S. Davis, D. Kendall, and G. O’Collins (New York: Oxford University,
1999). My sense is that the tide is beginning to turn with Augustine amongst systematic theologians, and much of the credit goes to Barnes and Ayres.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Travis. I have also found Barnes' work compelling.

Just in case you aren't aware of another important article by Barnes, see:

Barnes, Michel René. “De Régnon Reconsidered.” Augustinian Studies 26, no. 2 (1995): 51-79.

In that article Barnes takes to task the common-place generalized contrasts that are made between Eastern and Western trinitarianism (including generalizations repeated by luminaries such as Moltmann) that owe much to De Régnon's thesis. Essentially, De Régnon argues that "East starts with the three and moves to the one, while West starts with the one and moves to the three." Theologians have been repeating that rather untrue generalization ever since!

Thanks for the helpful summary.
Anonymous said…
Very good, Travis! I appreciate this post, and look at it as a corrective to some of the things I was repeating over at my blog; although I'll want to read these articles myself in order to ensure that I am being a "careful" student.

Thanks, I look forward to future postings on this issue.
Evan said…
For balance, it'd be good to check out Kristin Hennessy's "An Answer to de Régnon's Accusers: Why We Should Not Speak of “His” Paradigm" in HTR, April 2007. The whole issue has some great stuff, too.

As I recall, this article doesn't really discount what Barnes wants to say against textbook discussions of patristic trinitarianism in the 20th century, but does seek to vindicate de Regnon with regard to the mess.
Anonymous said…
for more on this line of thinking about Augustine, Lewis Ayres has a new book coming out in the next year or so on Augustine's Trinitarian Theology.
Anonymous said…
I look forward to the book by Ayers, if its anything like his article!

Thanks again Travis, I'm excited to dig into those articles you sent!
Anonymous said…
Hi there.

Caricaturing Augustine (or anyone) is not going to make for great theology, historical or otherwise. But whether or not Augustine was himself as guilty as is commonly made out doesn't seem to me to be the heart of the issue. Surely it's more important to consider whether those errors (which may rightly or wrongly be branded 'Augustinian') persist within our theology. The challenge Gunton and others throw down can only partly be answered by a closer reading of historical theology. It seems to me the much greater challenge is whether we do in fact find that our trinitarian theology begins with the one God of classical theism and only subsequently allows the economy of the Three to nuance it. Whatever you call that, and whoever you blame for it, that's a problem. We can vindicate Augustine all we like but we can't deny that such an approach to trinity has infected a good deal of our theology.

Thanks for all the input, everyone!


I'm very sympathetic. But, I resist the notion that God's oneness is tied only to classical theism. For my money, it is also a deeply biblical concept (Duet 6.4?). In which case, the task is not simply to define God's oneness by his threeness, but also his threeness by his oneness.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the response.

I'm of the unfashionable opinion that the OT is already and consciously trinitarian

But I realize that view hasn't been popular for almost 300 years!

I'm afraid that I think such a position to be beyond untenable and into the realm of the absurd. I've glanced at your post. In brief, it seems entirely unrealistic to me to conclude that ancient Israel was fully and consciously trinitarian in the wake of the fact that it took Christians a few hundred years to articulate it themselves. Nevermind the fact that we find nothing of this in the rabbinic tradition. There are other, far more (to me) reasonable explanations for your verses.
Evan said…
I thought Barnes was writing a book about Augustine's Trinitarian theology too... don't know when it's coming out, but he certainly teases us with a mention of it on his faculty page.

I think Ayres' book is coming out in 2009. John P. or one of his other students can correct me if need be.
Anonymous said…
Oh well.

Just for the record, I'm not saying that Moses would have composed the Nicene creed. What's relevant to this discussion is that I believe his doctrine of God was already multi-Personal. Anyone who takes the divine identity of the Angel seriously is forced to conclude that. (A divine identity that has been for the most part unquestioned in church history, until recently). This is all something that Margaret Barker, for instance, has articulated with much rabbinic support (though I reject her conclusions that they believed in some sort of Hebrew pantheon). But as it bears on this discussion my point is that one-ness for Moses was nothing like one-ness for Maimonides. And there aren't too many biblical scholars who reckon Deut 6:4 was originally intended as an affirmation of "strict monotheism". At the very least I'll say that "beginning with the biblical one" will look extremely different to "beginning with the philosophical one".

But thanks for taking the time Travis, your comments have made me chuckle all morning. I'm considering changing my blog name to 'beyond untenable'. :)


If you can't make people chuckle with your blog, then what is the point in having one? ;-)

For my money, henotheism makes a lot of sense for reading much of the OT. As for the particular passage you mention here with Moses, dig out a copy of Augustine's De Trinitate and see what he does with it. He was not a big fan of the 'theophany' reading, and tended to attribute to angels all these OT incidents.
Anonymous said…
Yes, very salient point. I'll just make one remark on that only cos it's related to Gunton. In 'Promise of Trinitarian Theology' he makes the excellent point that a theologian's handling of theophany is a good indicator of thorough-going trinitarian thought. ie Is this the pre-incarnate Son (the eternal Image of the invisible God)or simply 'God'? I find Augustine out of step with the fathers and reformers (as does Gunton) in, for the main part, identifying theophanies as manifestations (through angels) of 'God' undifferentiated.

I think this is one demonstrable way in which the thinking of Augustine is unlike that of Justin, Irenaeus, Clement, Tertullian, Athanasius, Chrysostom, Ambrose, etc. (Or for that matter Luther, Calvin, Owen, Edwards etc)

It might be a big picture (broad generalization) kind of point but I still think interesting.
Anonymous said…
ayres book is finished and with the publisher and should be out in 09.

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