Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology - Take 2

In a paper[1] 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. 

[1] Brad Green, “Augustine and the Trinity in Contemporary Theology” from the Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Conference Papers; 2001, 20p.   Citations given above.  


Matt Bales said…
I recently read both Gunton and Green for a paper I wrote. I thought Green missed Gunton's point that Augustine didn't apply his doctrine of trinity when discussing creation.

There isn't a problem per se with his Dei Trinitas.

But I haven't read that widely so please help...
Anonymous said…
"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.'

"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."

It seems from the latter quote that Gunton's claim in the first quote is correct. To claim that being precedes relationship is to make an Aristotelian assumption, is it not? The 'logic' you refer to is Aristotelian logic. And this really does prevent Augustine from viewing the persons in relation as the substance of God, as you say at the end of your article.

Augustine wants to view the persons in relation as 'defining' the substance of God but not 'constituting' it. Now it seems there is a genuine debate to be had as to whether this is the right thing to say, whether this does 'hide God behind the three.' Gunton may be wrong at some points about Augustine, but correcting those points of interpretation surely doesn't silence all of Gunton's objections, or does it?.

According to your reading of Augustine, when we witness in Scripture the relation between the Father and the Son, we can say things like, God is 'good' and God is 'wise.' Here is my question: what is the referent of 'God' in these statements? To the substance that each person has prior to their relations? If so, then in the economy where we see the relation, we don't see the prior substance, even though we get clues about it through the relation.

Gunton's objection, it seems, is that 'clues' about God's substance is not adequate to a Christian doctrine of revelation. This maintains an unknown substance back behind the relations. Now this, it seems, is a genuine debate not just about how to interpret Augustine but about how to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

Is this right?
Re: Matt

It has been three years or so since I wrote this bit about Green and Gunton. I have posted it for the benefit of a blogging friend with whom I have been having conversations on these topics. The creation angle is one that I have not thought through too systematically yet. Sorry to be of little further help.

Re: Peter K

Do I know you?

To take Augustine as supporting a substance / accident distinction with reference to the Trinity is off, because he specifically rejects assigning to the three persons accidental status. He explains that in addition to saying this with reference to substance and accident, you can say them with reference to relationship, and by this he means the relationships between the three persons in the one being of God. This sets a few of your comments further down the line in a different light.

Concerning the referent when we speak of 'God' as good or wise, I would argue that we are referring to the triune God in his single subjectivity. Whatever you want to say about the relations, what you can't do is start talking about three different wills or loci of consciousness, etc. Gunton can get close to this, although he does it in a much less crass way than does, say, Moltmann. Furthermore, maintaining this emphasis on the single subjectivity of God is not the same as emphasizing a divine substance that lies 'behind' the relations. But, it is to understand the relations in a different manner than that in which they are often understood in contemporary theology.
Anonymous said…
Thanks, Travis.

If the single subjectivity is neither 'behind' the relations, nor simply is the relations, then what / where is it?

If I want to think about the single subjectivity of God, don't I have to think of the Father as he relates to the Son with the Spirit? In this case the single subjectivity is simply the actuality of the relation. No?
Re: Peter

I've very Barthian on this point - the thrice repeated I. Each trinitarian 'person' is a 'mode of being' for the single divine subject. This is not modalism because they are not sequential - they are eternally coextensive. If we MUST name what lies behind this, we call it Father - which seems to me to be in keeping with the Creedal language of the Son as begotten of the Father and of the Spirit as proceeding from the Father (and the Son).
Anonymous said…
Ok, the single subject Father in twice repeated in the Son and Spirit. So there is no divine 'I' that does not exist as repetition of himself. God exists AS a repetition of himself. There is no divine 'I' that is not a repetition.

Now the language of repetition is relational language. For something to be a repetition of something, there must exist a relationship between the thing and the repeated thing.

So if we say that the divine 'I' exists only as it repeats itself, we are not far from saying the divine I exist as a series of relations. And this is what Thomas says. What is a divine person? A subsistent relation.

What I am trying to get at is that one can say, 'The divine being is constituted by relations,' and not be a tritheist or a social trinitarian.
Re: Peter

Thomas won't help you very much. The language of 'subsistent' is entirely out of court for trinitarian thought - at least as I read it.

I am happy with something like the construction you give: "The divine I exists as a series of relations" because this holds in dialectical tension the one and the three - which is what I think needs to be done. In other words, it defines the one by the three AND the three by the one. We could find a better word than 'series', however, because we want to avoid temporal sequence.

The language of 'constitution' is tough. We can certainly say that God's being is not other than these relations, provided that what we mean is something like what is said in the above paragraph.
Anonymous said…
How about, 'The divine I exists as a set of relations.'

Now why is the language of 'subsistent' totally out of court?
How about: "God = the eternal relations of the thrice repeated 'I'"

One could make the language of 'subsistence' work, but my worry is that it could tie you too closely to Aristotelian metaphysics - it can be a very technical term.
Anonymous said…
Except when Thomas combines 'subsistent' with 'relation,' Aristotle has taken a back seat. For Aristotle, a relation cannot possibly subsist, i.e., have essence / being. Predicating relation of something, for Aristotle, is predicating an accident of something. Things that have being can be in relation accidentally, but relations qua relations cannot have being.

Thomas subverts Aristotle when he teaches that triune relations subsist, i.e., have being. There is something metaphysically real about the relations themselves, for Thomas. Aristotle could not affirm that.
Very true. But, in making that move, Thomas has (as it were) broken the language that he is using. There is something deeply nonsensical in the notion that a relation could have being. To say this is to move beyond saying that there is something ontologically significant to the relations. Left in its context, this language can have only paradoxical or mystical meaning, and it is therefore of little use to us in systematic theology.

So, let's keep working on other ways to say similar things. TF Torrance sometimes talks about "onto-relations", for instance.
Anonymous said…
What is theology but a continual breaking and cranking of language? Yes, 'subsistent-relations' broke the language of the context it was in, but it was so that the gospel could shine through in its strangeness. But where will proper theological language not do this? Where will theological language not appear "deeply nonsensical" to reason unschooled by the gospel?

Onto-relations is no more "sensical" than subsistent-relations. It is no less of a break with a prior philosophy, using that philosophy's language to do the breaking.
There is a sense in which we are always breaking language, but there is also a sense in which we should be about the business of developing better language. If we stop with the breaking, we have only done half the job.

"Onto-relations" is not as nonsensical since it is playing off field theory, which sees everything in space-time as intermingled and enmeshed. In such an outlook, there is no being independent of relations. There is a gap when applied to God - God is not part of space-time - but it more adequately, I would suggest, points to what we are trying to get at than does Thomas' formulation.
Anonymous said…
Fair enough.
Anonymous said…
Well, almost fair enough. I still think this statement of yours is too much:

"Thomas won't help you very much. The language of 'subsistent' is entirely out of court for trinitarian thought"

Thomas gave theology a remarkable breakthrough at the time, and while we will want better language for our time, he is a key player in the tradition from which we learn how to fashion better language for our times.
My turn: Fair enough.
Anonymous said…
Thanks guys so much. Fascinating discussion.

have we now concluded that Augustine was wrong to believe:

"being precedes relationship"


"there must logically be two “things” before they can be in relationship."

Whether it's the Cappodocian's hypostasis IN ekstasis or Thomas's subsitent relations or Torrance's onto-relations, haven't we significantly disagreed with Augustine?

Thanks again,


What we have concluded is that Augustine is an important step along the way to formulating the doctrine of the Trinity in our current context. We have not concluded that we can be done with him, however.

On a subsidiary point, I began posting on this topic to combat the notion that there is truth to the notion that Augustine and the Cappadocians are radically different on these matters.
Anonymous said…
Hi Travis,

Yes I'm a regular reader of Bobby's and your blog (and appreciate them both very much) so I'm aware of the origins of this particular thread.

Just seems to me if Augustine is going to be an 'important step' in trinitarian thought you want to make sure it's a step in the right direction. Gunton can draw a straight line from before Augustine ('hypostasis in ekstasis') to the present-ish day ('onto-relations'). It seems pretty hard to me to fit 'being precedes relationship' into that story as anything other than a mis-step. And it seems to me that this is a significant disagreement between Augustine and the Cappodocians and one that Gunton rightly points out. Not least because of Peter K's first comment regarding the genuineness of God's revelation in the economy

Feel free to respond or not - I realise I'm late to the discussion and that was a bit scatter-shot!

yours in Christ,
My problem with Gunton is that he takes there to be a significant difference between the Cappadocians and Augustine on the doctrine of the Trinity. I just don't see it, and more recent patristics scholarship has been making a similar argument. So, once one shifts into that mode, Augustine is less a mis-step and more a starting point.

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