My original post was a summary of a paper that I wrote a few years ago. As this is my most frequently re-visited post, I am guessing that the material is of interest. I am therefore posting the entire piece for reference.
The Holy Trinity: An Exploration and comparison of the theory of Augustine of Hippo with a contemporary alternative
Augustine was unequivocal in defending the doctrine of the Trinity from those he thought of a mind to ‘assail the faith of the Trinity by use of reason’ (De Trinitate I, 1). He made his defenses from Scripture, in a stand against Manichaeism which felt at liberty to question plain reading of the bible. He believed wholly that the doctrine that he was to stand for, a doctrine that for the most part was articulated christologically at the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the basis of the Creed used today, was based purely in Scripture and that one only needed to open its pages to see the Holy Trinity pour forth. However, as Augustine’s own preamble suggests, his work was brought into being as a reaction to the theory of others, most notably the ‘arch-heretic Arius’ (Kelly, 1989: p223). Simply put, Arius believed that only the Father was God, not the Son and certainly not the Spirit. It is to this apparent departure from the Scripture that Augustine, and others like Athanasius reacted. Alister McGrath makes that point that 'the Arian controversy of the fourth century is widely regarded as one of the most significant in the history of the Christian church.' (McGrath, 2001: p22). Little wonder that its Western re-articulation in the words and person of Augustine was to reverberate through the centuries.
Aurelius Augustine was born some decades after the events that were to precipitate his life’s work, the Council of Nicaea in AD325 and the Arian Controversy that ensued. Both events served to attempt to make sense of the nature and the persons of God, wrestling with notions of substance and equality amongst the figures of the Father and Son together with the Holy Spirit. Influenced by the writings of figures such as Hilary of Poitiers who had written on the matter of the Trinity, and specifically the Arian conflicts, some years earlier, Augustine came to the debate with the view that the assertions of the Orthodox Church against Arian heresy lacked requisite force in the arena. Augustine’s principal doctrine was that to which he devoted the last eight years of his life. He worked from the starting point that man is formed in God’s image, and that by logical deduction, the analogy of the Trinity is to be found in the person of man. His reliance on allegory was as a result of his time spent with Ambrose of Milan who taught this method as opposed to the Manichean biblical critical method. The God of Augustine’s Trinity is a relational one, that is to say, one based on and dependent upon relationship. Clearly the two-way relationship in focus is that between Father and Son. Augustine held that the Spirit was manifest in the love that binds Father and Son together. In his own words, 'The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit constituted a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality' (De Trinitate 1, 7). This gives us the clue to the other aspect of his theology, that nature and form of the persons to whom he referred. The word with which he and Christendom wrestled was ‘homoousios’, or ‘substance’.
Augustine believed that ‘The Father, Son and Spirit are one is the same substance and equal in divinity’ (De Trinitate II, 4), a principal departure from Arius and others who held that the Son and the Spirit were both lesser in substance or divinity from the Father. In trying to reinforce his point, Augustine illustrated it with other ‘triads’, such as the nature of the mind with which he highlighted its intelligence, its memory and its will; three distinct aspects of the mind yet as one within it. And so it was with God. As I will later demonstrate, there are other triads that can be employed to make the same point if within the basic premise that the Trinity is a single divine God. Augustine preferred the term ‘essence’ to ‘substance’ as the latter term inferred separate matter. For him, the Son is the Word as referred to in Genesis, together with God the Father from the beginning. This follows into the Nicene Creed which states that ‘and the Word became flesh’, mirroring John 1 in its words ‘was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary’. Augustine was keen to point out that Father did not create the Son, implying subservience for the Son, speaking rather of the Son being ‘begotten’ of the Father. Indeed, as ‘the Word was with God’ it follows that the Word was not therefore created by the Father rather that it existed in the same space at the same time. Arguments against this notion, where found in Jesus’ statement that his Father was greater than he was, were dealt with by Augustine as illustrating Jesus’ humility and self-emptying servanthood. He also stated that the Son’s glorification of the Father did not infer subservience.
It is simple enough, Augustine would claim, to demonstrate the equality of Father and Son/Word scripturally, but he moved further to defend the equality and divinity of the Spirit, itself a less scriptural position. He held that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father ‘and the Son’ (the divisive Filioque Clause in the Nicene Creed that has continued to split Christians and churches of East and West), and in analogical terms, is represented as the love that binds the two essences. He said that '...the Trinity is the one, only and true God, and that one rightly says, believes and understands that the Father, the son and the Holy Spirit are of one and the same substance or essence' (De Trinitate I,4). He uses the language of gifts to illustrate his point, that the Spirit is a gift of love to the Son and the Son to the Father. 'The gift must reflect the nature of the giver' (McGrath 2001: p332). Therefore, the Spirit, as a gift of the Father must be of the same nature. However, this a factor of this theology that perhaps tests logic to its limit, as it can easily argued that gifts reflect the nature of the receiver, were their choice given proper consideration! Further, in taking account of the love that passes between God and his creation, that is to say humankind, together with the assertion that we are made in God’s image, that very love must exist within the Trinity.
As Augustine used psychological analogies to form triads to illustrate the nature of his Trinitarian model, I will attempt to do the same. Over a period of twenty years, whilst a practicing Christian in the Western Nicene tradition, I have endeavored to make sense of the Trinity, for my own consumption and faith journey, but in such a way as I can describe lucidly for others, especially those new to the faith. The equality of the three figures of the Godhead had never been a matter for question for me, simply the best expression of how such a three-part, one substance whole works. In Grahame Greene’s novel ‘Monsignor Quixote’ (1982), the principal character analogized the Trinity in the model of three bottles of the same wine (albeit that he used a smaller bottle for the Spirit, in error by his own admission), separate in themselves, but one in the same in terms of substance. This failed for me because wine can be made by using the grapes from different places, thus rendering the claim that its substance is the same as false. At best it can be described as very similar, but not the same.
In working with the premise, together with Augustine, that man is made in God’s image and by virtue of that fact alone, that the Trinity is imprinted on the nature of man, I sought to find the Trinity in my own experience of human existence. For me, the Father can be analogized as the human brain; the source of the initiative, the co-ordination of the activities of the whole. The Son is represented by the fleshly human body, the ‘doer’, the aspect of the person that imprints upon the existence of others. The Holy Spirit is seen in the sense of the ‘nature of the person’, that quality of psychology and personality that specifically defines one individual against another. To take the analogy further, each aspect of the person illustrated here can be said to operate independently from the other, to a limited extent, and would certainly (were it able to express such a thing) be able to refer to the other part. As a man can speak of his hand or his foot, so the Son can speak of his Father. In speaking of his hand or foot, the man does not, by implication, state that he and his hands or feet are separate entities. This naturally is ludicrous. A man is the sum of his parts, hands feet head and legs; each is separate and uniquely identifiable, but none are self sufficient or able to function if not part of the whole body. So it is with my own model. The brain function (the Father of my model) can be regarded as acting independently from the manual or bodily functions (the Son of my model). Automatic response to stimuli could demonstrate this point, such as a reflex. It requires no conscious input from the person. The brain function can be differentiated from the personality (the Spirit of my model), particularly when such personality is said to spring from the heart. Bodily dysfunction can expand my analogy further. A brain can continue to function in cases where the body is all but dead (such as the Father surviving the bodily death of Jesus on the Cross, to invert the model). A corporal body can still function when cognitive ability is all but diminished, and both brain and flesh can operate perfectly well in cases of personality breakdown, or alternatively, in the form of new born babies who would clearly have not formed any kind of personality. Yet it is clear that were we to illustrate this Trinity triad using a well adjusted, rounded human being, we would see a harmony of the brain body and personality. The success of the brain would enhance the existence of the body and soul. Care of the body enhances the functions of the brain and maintains the well-being of the soul, and finally, a generally happy and well-rounded personality seals the bond between the cognitive and tactile.
The Trinity-models of Augustine and this Ordinand depend entirely on the premise that man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). They turn on the assumption that analogies that can describe God’s form, and that of the Trinity, can be seen in the human form and experience. Augustine offers a model that is relational, my own being more interdependent. Augustine believed that each facet of the Trinity, be that the Father Son or Spirit acted in its own right, yet as three. He stated that of the Father sent the Son, then by definition, the Son sent the Son and the Spirit. One person acts, all three act as one. In my model, it can be easily seen that if the hand moves, then the brain is implicit in that, yet unmentioned, there being no suggestion that the brain ‘picked up the stick’ for example. In the same way, there is never the suggestion that God the Father was crucified, only the Son.
As I am not Augustine, I cannot pretend to formulate a model of the Trinity that stands up to all scrutiny. It is a model with weaknesses, and as such, will continue to turn over in my thoughts and prayers for the years to come. The obvious weakness in my model is that the brain is implicit in all the actions of the human, whereas the same cannot be said for the fleshly body or the soul/personality. For a human to think, there is no bodily aspect, though perhaps a background provided by personality. For that thought to turn into action, we simply add the corporal aspect. There is the danger that this could render the body subservient to the brain, or by implication, the Son to the Father. A way around this would be to look more closely at the physiology of the brain and determine that the brain is a bodily organ, and that if we speak of the mind instead, we have to have physical brain in which to think, and that the Father element of this particular model should therefore be applied more appropriately to the synaptic responses within it. However, with this and indeed Augustine’s view of the equality of the Spirit, it can be difficult to see how something that he illustrates as an outpouring of love or a gift can be equal to the Father and the Son. It could be determined that such love or such a gift depend on the Father or the Son acting in a given way, and that a lack of action could nullify the Spirit. To love could imply a choice, and it could argued reasonably by this model, that God the Father or God the Son have the ability (albeit untested, naturally) to make a choice not to love, or that love to fail, or not to offer the gift of the Spirit. Such is the weakness in any relational model. It infers choice, and when the aspect of the Trinity that is illustrated as the manifestation of that choice, its equality could perhaps be on faltering ground. Another possible failing in my model, in using the fleshly body to illustrate the Son, is that the fleshly body is finite, subject to decay, error or malfunction. A fleshly body can become diseased, and will ultimately degrade unto its demise. Such characteristics do not sit well with an analogy for God the Son. However, it cannot be forgotten that the Son took the form of a fleshly human so would, presumably, be subject to the rigors identified above. Certainly, we know that the fleshly body of the Son was capable of dying. Lastly, the Spirit parallel, the personality is another factor that is far from constant. It is unlikely that anyone could describe the Holy Spirit of having a ‘bad mood’ or other vagaries of the personality such as a psychosis for example. Yet, for all that I have said, there is no suggestion that any human analogy, be they in my mind or that of Augustine, can be whole and perfect examples. If we believe that God, in all his essences is perfect, then any analogy other that with another perfect example, will fall short.
As Henry Chadwick puts it, 'Augustine showed effortlessly that the concept of being both one and three is so far from being gobbledygook that simple reflection on the nature of human personality offers an immediate example' (1986, p95). For a man like me considering an ordained Christian ministry, this sentiment gives hope. The Trinity is often perceived as impenetrable by many Christians, both lay and ordained. Something being seen as three distinct parts, yet as one indivisible whole, can appear as a paradox that stands between God and the believer, an insurmountable barrier to a fuller relationship with God. Such barriers, I believe, are to be countered by the clergy, and that this work forms their role in the created order. Despite its apparent paradox, the Trinity is the very centre of Christian belief. Whilst the sense of mystery must always remain undiminished in such matters of faith, there still needs to be ways of penetrating these truths in an expedient and accessible way if the Church of God is to thrive in a world of computed and scientific logic. In making his argument from Scripture, Augustine gives the believer an anchor point, the place to make their enquiry. In making use of human analogy, he roots this enquiry in the person of the believer. In communicating his doctrine using the language of love and relationship, he uses examples that are relevant to almost every person. In making the three essences of the Trinity equal in stature and divinity, he removes any sense of or potential for conflict that can arise from inequality. In the way that a chord demands that its component notes are played equally, and that as a result it emanates as a single sound, so it is with Augustine’s Trinity.
The essential truth of my exploration into Augustine’s model of the Trinity, my own perhaps simplistic model and the many writings concerning the persons of God the Trinity is that it lies at the centre of all Christian thought. It might possibly be one of the most abstract concepts, one that defies language and conventional thought. In returning to Augustine’s own words, the misuse of reason assails the very truth of the matter at hand that the God of the Trinity is beyond our comprehension. It is, however, capable of being rooted in what we know and are as human beings, thus rendering it tantalizingly accessible. More importantly, Augustine raises more questions than he manages to answer, but does not apologize for maintaining this mystery, stepping away from cold reason and blind logic, and daring to use the frail and failed human as his Trinity model. Without Augustine’s audacity, it is likely that the church may not have grown in the way that it has, and gives us courage today to look to the place where we are for means of expressing the inexpressible regarding the Godhead.
Chadwick, H. Augustine – A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 1986)
Chadwick, H. The Early Church (London: Penguin, 1993)
Kelly, J.N.D. Early Christian Doctrines (London: A&C Black, 1989)
Mackey, J.P. The Christian Experience of God as Trinity (
: SCM Press, 1983 London
MacCulloch, D. Groundwork of Christian History (Peterborough: Epworth, 1987)
McGrath, A. Christian Theology – An Introduction (
: Blackwell Publishing, 2001 Oxford
Young, F. The Making of the Creeds (
: SCM Press, 2002) London
(Scripture references were taken from the New Revised Standard Version)