Friday, May 24, 2024

Trinity - Augustine


Everyone knows Sunday's the Feast of the Trinity, that central doctrine of the Faith which describes the inner nature of God as He has revealed Himself. One nature, divine, three persons, distinct, and unless you believe this you're in big trouble, says the Athanasian Creed. This, NB Anglicans, has been shunted to the back of our latter day Prayer Books where presumably it'll cause less offense by virtue of being well hidden. Here's the intro:

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith. Which faith unless every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the Catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence.

So, there's most definitely a three line whip on orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. That said, can we make any sense of it? St. Augustine most certainly endeavored to do so in his magisterial De Trinitate, read it if you can and I found this short commentary helpful. An excerpt:

The Father, Son and Spirit are distinct, and yet they are a unity in the equality of the one substance. Any inferiority of the Son refers to his human nature or to the Trinitarian order whereby he has received his equal being from the Father. “The Father is God, the Son God, the Holy Spirit God…yet there are not three Gods – but one God – the Trinity Itself” . . . “so total is the equality of this triad that not only is the Father not greater than the Son as far as divinity is concerned, but also Father and Son together are not greater the Holy Spirit, nor any single person of the Three is less than the trinity Itself” (8.1).

Still, within this equality there are distinctions between the Persons. The Father is distinguished as Father because He begets the Son, and the Son is distinguished as Son because He is begotten. The Spirit, similarly, is distinguished from Father and Son inasmuch as He is ‘bestowed’ by them; He is their ‘common gift’, being a kind of communion of Father and Son.

The distinctions between the three persons are grounded in their mutual relations within the Godhead. Augustine resorts to the category of “distinctions based on relations” even though this may seem contrary to the doctrine that God as simple and as such cannot be differentiated from his attributes. The reason for this assertion is to escape a cunning dilemma posed by Arian critics. They argued that the distinctions within the Godhead, assuming they exist must be categorized as either substance or accidents. Everyone agrees that God has no accidents. On the other hand, to view the distinctions as substance would result in three independent substances in the Godhead.

Augustine rejects the dilemma. He suggests that the terms Father, Son and Holy Spirit denote not difference in substance between the Persons but eternal and unchangeable relations between them within the one substance. That is to say, what differentiates the Three Persons in the Trinity is the specific form of relations. The persons retain substantial equality.

The relationships do not simply distinguish the Persons from each other – they are the persons. In technical language, they are subsistent relationships. Accidents in ordinary things like qualities or quantities can change. For example, the quantity of stuff in a man can change without him ceasing to be a man. But in the case of the divine, relationships are actually substantive predications since they are identical with divine nature or substance. But a relationship requires real distinctions between two referents at the poles of the relationship. The Father is distinct from the Son. Neither is distinct from God; and they are each distinct from the Holy Spirit, not as Father and Son, but as ‘from whom he proceeds’.

Edmund Hill elaborates, “Therefore [the Father] is not only Father, he is the fatherhood (the relationship) by which he is Father. So too the Son is the sonship by which he is Son. And the Holy Spirit. . . the relationship of being Gift, the relationship of ‘givenness’ if you like.


Now, per the above, what do "subsistent relationships" in the life of the Trinity teach us? To put it another way, if distinct personhood, real personhood has been revealed to us as relationship, what does that mean for us who have been created in the image of God? Read Augustine's triads, obviously, but perhaps we get a glimpse of the truth when we reflect on how dismally we behave when self-obsessed, and how much better when the opposite applies. 

In other words, we become ourselves when we forget ourselves in relationship. The last shall be first, and all of that. 

Just look at Victoria Nuland and tell me I'm wrong. By the monkey, I dare you.

Guinea on,



LL said...

That sounds like an early sermonette...should I steal it? No, THOU SHALT NOT STEAL THY PARSON'S SERMON!

LSP said...

My dear LL, feel free to copy and paste. BUt yes, theft is WICKED. Simply attribute.

drjim said...

Thanks for another explanation of The Trinity. Sometimes I struggle to comprehend it, but I think I'm starting to "get it". It's elegant in both it's simplicity, and complexity.

LSP said...

Simple but not easy, drjim, I always think.