Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology - Take 3

In an encyclopedia entry entitled “The Trinity in Modern Theology,”[1] Colin Gunton lays what he considers to be the problems of Western trinitarian theology at Augustine’s feet.  As per Gunton’s estimation, Augustine “weakened the impact” (940) of the Cappadocians, who ingeniously developed a new way of thinking of God’s being – being-as-communion (939).  The first charge which Gunton levels against Augustine is that he reintroduces a neo-Platonic dualism that undermines this Cappadocian breakthrough (940), but the criticisms that most interests us is that Augustine blunted the social ramifications of conceiving of being-as-communion (based on the Cappadocian understanding of God’s being as being-as-communion) by “seeking…analogies for the being of God in the individual human mind – what is sometimes known as the ‘psychological analogy.’”  In Gunton’s mind, this makes the doctrine of the trinity “chiefly devotional” as opposed to ecclesial and social (941). 

            Gunton does not seem to understand what Augustine is up to in De Trinitate.  Gunton appears to assume that Augustine’s use of the “psychological analogy” contributes to the material content of the Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity.  While we do not have the space to do so here, we would argue that the psychological analogy does not contribute to the material content of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, but it does materially affect Augustine’s anthropology.  It is at precisely this point that Gunton does not understand De Trinitate.  Ellen Charry has argued that “De Trinitate is as much a treatise in moral as dogmatic theology.”[3]  De Trinitate isa protracted anthropological discussion grounded upon the doctrine of the Trinity.  In the closing pages of the work, Augustine summarizes the import of the preceding exploration by noting that God “has shown you those three things in yourself, in which you can recognize yourself as the image of that supreme trinity” (15.50).  The soul’s recognition of itself as in the image of the Trinitarian God is Augustine’s goal, and this is a goal aimed at moral reshaping of the human person.  And yet, this moral reshaping is not “chiefly devotional” as Gunton would lead us to believe, for it involves growing in the virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation and justice (14.12) – virtues which only find expression in our interaction with our fellow humanity and the rest of the created order.  Furthermore, Augustine is clear that in this process our love is transformed from “twisted” to “straight,” and while the straightening of our loves must begin with the straightening of our love for God, it does not exclude the straightening of our love for neighbors (14.18). 

            In summary, we would content contra Gunton that Augustine’s work in De Trinitate has immense social and ecclesial import and that the “psychological analogy” should not be understood as a way of our understanding God as much as a way of our understanding ourselves as being in the image of God.  Furthermore, the Augustine’s ordering of placing proper love for God as the basis of proper love for neighbor is correct, in that it is only as our love for God becomes renewed that our love of our neighbor can become renewed.

[1] Colin E. Gunton, “The Trinity in Modern Theology,” pp. 937-57 in Companion Encyclopedia of Theology (Edited by Peter Byrne and Leslie Houlden; New York, New York: Routledge, 1995).

[2] While our being unable to conceive of it does not make it necessarily false, Augustine did touch on one very important aspect of this quandary in the course of De Trinitate.  As Augustine says, “if being is predicated by way of relationship, then being is not being…every being that is called something by way of relationship is also something besides the relationship” (DT 7.2).  In this way Augustine makes the point that being must precede relationship since for there to be a relationship there must be two ‘things’ to be related.  In this way, while we affirm that being (especially God’s being) is defined by communion, it is not constituted by communion.  This becomes tricky when dealing with God because there is the play the notion of God as actus purus, which would seem to want to break down this distinction.  With reference to God this seems fine, but it is not self-evident that this then should be predicated of the created order.

[3] Ellen Charry, By the Renewing of Your Minds: The Pastoral Function of Christian Doctrine (Oxford: OUP, 1997) 129.  Gunton had read Charry by 1998 as evidenced in his essay “The Forgotten Trinity” published in Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Essays Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T&T Clark, 2003), where on page 8 he favorably interacts with Charry’s discussion of Basil of Caesarea.  



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