Following is a summary of Augustinian Trinitarianism as Levi Leonard Paine presents in A Critical History of the Evolution of Trinitarianism and its Outcome in the New Christology (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900). Referenced page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Paine’s book.
Augustine significantly changed Athanasian Trinitarianism. Athanasius considered homoousios (same substance) synonymous with homoiousian (like substance). Augustine made a great distinction between the two. He also added filioque (from the Son).
The addition of filioque to the Nicene Creed radically changed it. “It broke down its monotheism; it reduced generation and sonship to a metaphor; it turned three personal beings into one being revealing himself in tri-personal form; it changed the mediating Logos into absolute Deity” (p. 57).
Before Augustine, homoousios “meant numerical unity in essences” (p. 62). Also, before Augustine, the Latin Fathers like the Greek Fathers, “held to a trinity of three personal beings united in a generic unity by community of essence. They held to the real subordination of the Son to the Father, distinguishing the Father, as self-existent and the first cause, from the Son as derived and dependent” (p. 62). Augustine changed this concept of the Trinity.
The Trinitarianism that Augustine developed had little historical background. His Trinitarianism “was mostly a new creation from a new standpoint, which was drawn, not from either Greek or Latin Christian sources, but from the ideas which he had imbibed from his philosophical studies and which he applied in his own original way to the defense of what he wrongly understood to be trinitarian orthodoxy” (p. 62).
Augustine’s philosophical views were based on New Platonism, which was Platonism heavily modified by Stoicism. New Platonism was essentially pantheistic (i.e., God is equated with the forces and laws of the universe) and monistic (i.e., only one kind of substance, a reality composed of one unitary organic whole with no independent parts). Although New Platonism was close to Stoicism in its materialism, it did retain the spiritualistic aspects of Platonism.
During Augustine’s time, the great controversy was dualism versus monism; that is, did two substances and separate realms exist in the universe — spiritual and material — or were the two essentially the same. Holding to the ultimate differences between spiritual and matter, Platonism built “its dualistic and spiritualistic philosophy, making God the Supreme Spirit and the creator of the material world” (p. 66). On the other side, Stoicism “insisted on the ultimate unity of all existence, and thus identified God essentially with the world” (p. 66). In the controversy between dualism and monism, New Platonism fell on the monistic side. Consequently, it “substituted a doctrine of evolution from the Supreme One to the lowest forms of matter, in place of the Platonic theory of creation, thus reducing the dualism of Plato to unity, in harmony with Stoic ideas” (p. 66).
In God’s relation to the material world universe, Platonists were transcendentalists (i.e., the spiritual and transcendent have primacy over the material and empirical). They “held that God is essentially separate from all created things, though explicitly accepting the doctrine of God’s providence and efficiency as active in the upholding and governing of the world He has made” (p. 66). Accordingly, “Platonism is theistic, regarding God as a personal Being whose substance is separated by an infinite chasm from all created or material substance” (pp. 66-67).
On the other hand, Stoicism “made God immanent in the world” (p. 66). They reduced “Him philosophically to the central principle or force that gives life and activity to all things, thus confounding Him with all the forms of finite existence” (p. 66). Thus, Stoicism “is pantheistic, treating the universe as essentially of one essence evolved out of a spermatic principle which is its only Deity” (p. 67).
While “Platonism holds to the supernatural, a world above nature, spiritual and eternal, . . . Stoicism is a pure doctrine of nature and natural development and knows nothing of a distinct spiritual kingdom” (p. 67). The Nicene Creed and Constantinopolitan Creed were based on Platonism.
Augustine’s philosophical views were based on Stoicism and its kindred New Platonism. Therefore, his concept of the Trinity reflects the philosophy of the Stoicism and New Platonism.
“Augustine’s whole philosophy starts with a monistic doctrine of unity. The world is but the expression of God. Augustine seems scarcely to admit what we call second causes or laws of nature. . . . He reduces the system of natural causation and law to a direct Divine operation” (p. 69). Under his system, miracles do not subvert the laws of nature because no such laws exist to subvert. “God’s own immediate will is the sole cause of all things” (p. 69).
Augustine, as do most of his followers today, believed that he was a strict trinitarian and was opposing Sabellianism and Arianism. (Sabellianism claims that God is a trinity of attributes, names, functions, or manifestations instead of three coequal Gods or three independent beings; i.e., God is only one person, who reveals Himself in three manifestations, personalities, or functions. Christ is merely an attribute or function of almighty God. Arianism claims that the Logos who became Jesus was the first and noblest being created by God.)
In explaining and expounding on the Trinity, Augustine seeks to show that “the Trinity is not three Gods but one God” (p. 70). Expressing the Trinity such that it appears to be one God, thus, retaining monotheism, instead of three Gods, tritheism, has always been an extremely difficult problem for Trinitarians. Athanasius attempted to overcome this problem with “the doctrines of generic unity of essence, and eternal generation of the Son, and procession of the Holy Spirit” (p. 71). Thus, “the Father is the alone eternal, self existent God, and that He eternally generated the Son and sent forth the Holy Spirit, so that while there are three divine beings in the Godhead, there are not three eternal self -existent Gods, since the Father is the source of being to the others who are thus dependent and subordinate, though receiving from the Father all divine attributes” (p. 71).
Whereas Athanasius attempted to explain how three are one, Augustine attempted to explain how one is three. Beginning by treating the Trinity as a problem of faith, Augustine ended up developing it as a problem of reason. Starting with Scripture and revelation, he passed into the most speculative regions of philosophy.
In developing his doctrine of the Trinity, he gave little attention “to previous theological systems or speculations” (p. 72). However, he thought that he was following his orthodox predecessors: Athanasius and the Nicene Fathers. Nevertheless, he left “traditional Trinitarianism and moved out along the line of his own philosophical ideas” (p. 72), which were monistic. What saved him from reaching absolute pantheism was the clear monotheism of the Bible.
“Augustine starts from the assumption that there is but one eternal substance in the universe. This one substance is God. God then, as a being, is essentially one” (p. 72). He “held to the idea of a numerical rather than a generic unity of essence. . . . With him, essence, in the case of God, is not abstract but concrete. . . . If God is personal, his essence is personal, that is concrete” (pp. 72-73).
“For Augustine, then, the trinitarian problem is how this one God, ‘unus Deus’ can be three or a ‘trinitas’” (p. 73), which he assumed to be a fact. Repeatedly, he declared “that one God and trinity are the same thing[,] . . . one divine Being, not three beings” (p. 73).
Although the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three, they are not three beings. They are three “persons.” However, they are not “persons” in the normal sense of the word. They are “persons” in the sense of being three “distinctions.” They are three “modes or relations of the one essence or being of God” (p. 75). Augustine is presenting a Sabellian trinity. Unlike Sabellius, who started with the “premise of an evolution in God from unity to trinity” (p. 74), Augustine started from the premise of God being three and proceeded to one.
The key difference between Sabellianism and Athanasianism is that Sabellianism declares that God is one Being, and Athanasianism declares that God is three Beings. “Hence Sabellianism is monistic, while Athanasianism is trinitarian” (p. 75). Thus, Augustine’s description of the Trinity is Sabellianism, a heresy that the Church had earlier condemned, and not Athanasianism.
Augustine writes, “‘The Trinity is one God; three, but not three Gods. Three what, then? I reply: The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’” (p. 75). He continues, “‘If you ask: “three what?” number ceases. When you have numbered, you cannot tell what you have numbered. Only in their relations to each other do they suggest number, not in their essential existence. I have no name to give the three, save the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, one God, one Almighty, and so one beginning’” (p. 75). Thus, he exposes his monism. “The only numbering, he declares, that can apply to God is that of his essence, which is one” (p. 75). Therefore, he “did not regard the ‘three’ as real and distinct existences or individuals” (p. 75). With this, the Sabellians agree.
“God, for Augustine, is one Being and so one Person, not three Persons. These three are unus Deus, that is, one Personal Being. The three persons so-called are merely three relative forms under which the one God is manifested in the revelation of himself to men” (p. 76). However, he did not “regarded these forms or relations as superficial or transitory” (p. 76), which separated him from the Sabellians. To him, the Trinity “is the essential mode of the Divine existence” (p. 76), with which the Athanasians agree.
Augustine “regards trinity as an ultimate fact in God” (p. 76). So essential is this notion of the trinity that he saw “the whole universe as, in some sense, trinitarian” (p. 76). Such shows “the essentially Sabellian character of Augustine’s view” (p. 76).
Whereas “Athanasius describes the relations which exist between three divine Beings. Augustine describes the relations or modes of existence of one Being, manifesting himself under different forms and names” (p. 77). Again, Augustine’s description is Sabellian. For Augustine, the “personal forms are three, but the personal centre, the personality itself, is one” (p. 77), which Athanasius declared to be Sabellianism.
Furthermore, “Augustine declares that ‘when the Trinity is spoken of number fails.’ ‘Three’ is but a metaphor. Number only applies strictly to God as one. Athanasius reverses this. His position is that number applies properly rather to the Trinity. He insists on the numbering of the persons as essential to the truth against Sabellius” (p. 77). Thus, Augustine and Athanasius sharply disagree on the Trinity.
According to Augustine, “Jehovah of the Old Testament is at the same time the one God and the Trinity” (p. 78). Moreover, “whenever God appears as a single person (Father, Son, or Holy Spirit), or when any act is performed in the person of either, the whole Trinity is concerned. Thus though the Son only was incarnate, the whole Trinity wrought the incarnation, so that the Son is made to bear a part in his own incarnation. In the same way it was the Son as Christ that died, but the Father also was actively concerned in it, — a view that is perilously close to the old Patripassianism. Everything that Christ did in the flesh, the Father did also” (pp. 78-79). (According to Patripassianism, God the Father also suffered in the sufferings of Jesus Christ.)
Whereas Athanasius never confounded the Father or the Son with the Trinity, Augustine frequently did. Furthermore, for Athanasius, the Trinity was always plural; for Augustine, it was singular.
Unlike the Athanasian Trinity in which the Son is subordinated to the Father, the Augustinian Trinity has no such subordination. The elimination of subordination is a significant and great difference between the two Trinities.
Augustine’s Trinitarianism eliminates the eternal generation of the Son and the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit as Athanasius conceived them. “For Augustine generation did not involve any real derivation or dependence. The Son is as truly and absolutely God as the Father. God is as self-existent and eternal in the Son and Holy Spirit as in the Father. Each form or mode of the Divine Being involves the whole Divine Being. Subordination, therefore, is impossible” (p. 82) The three persons, or relations as Augustine called them, “can have no essential significance. They are not beings or essences, but only qualities of beings” (p. 82).
According to Augustine’s doctrine, “Jesus Christ is absolute Deity, the whole of God. He is the Jehovah of the Old Testament, nay, he is in fact the whole Trinity, for God is trinity; one is three and three is one, and so absolutely that the Trinity is properly addressed as a singular being” (p. 82).
An outcome of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity was that it “tended to break down the Christian Athanasian doctrine of mediatorship.” An essential part of the Athanasian argument against Arius was that the redemption of man was “by a mediating being who partakes of divine as well as human nature” (p. 83). However, in “Augustine’s day the Atonement was not discussed. The doctrine of a Divine Redeemer was thrown into the background” (p. 83). Moreover, “Augustine’s view of him as essentially the absolute God led inevitably to a confusion of his mediatorial function with the other functions of the Godhead. The one God in Trinity was made the agent in the atonement as in all other divine activities” (p. 83).
Following Augustine’s lead, Mediaeval Theology so confused Christ with God the Father that Christ ceased representing Divine mercy and intercession and came to represent Divine justice and punishment. In art, Christ’s face changed from benignant and compassionate to harsh and severe. Augustine’s Trinitarianism led to “a thinly-disguised Patripassianism and Monophysitism” (p. 84). — Christ became the God-man. (Monophysitism claims that Christ has a single inseparable nature that is at once divine and human rather than having two distinct but unified natures.) God Himself was the Redeemer, not another mediating being. Thus, the mediator and God were confounded together. God descended to Mary’s womb; He endured weariness, hunger, and death. The Creator of man redeemed man with His own blood. Such a description is Patripassians and monistic. Consequently, the whole notion of a mediator, the Messiah, between God and man vanished “into the crude materialism of the early heretics” (p. 85).
Also, out of the Augustinian Trinity comes the notion that “God is made to send himself, to be born, to suffer and die, and this to save men from the effects of his own wrath” (p. 85). The “God-man is both the Being to be propitiated and the Being that propitiates” (p. 85).
Another effect of Augustine’s Trinitarianism “was to break down the monotheistic view of God. . . . [M]onotheism lies at the basis of Athanasianism. . . . Monotheism, or theism, in the philosophical sense, holds that God is a single personal being. It emphasizes personality as the true centre and test of all spiritual substance. . . . Theism holds that God, in whose moral image we are, is such a self-conscious Being. Pantheism, on the contrary, makes self-consciousness, or personality, only a quality or accident of substance, so that there may be only one spiritual substance and yet many persons” (pp. 86-87).
Augustine relied on the philosophy of the New Platonists to develop his Trinity. The three hypostases are “placed at the head of the New Platonic pantheon, and united by a pantheistic evolution in one eternal substance” (p. 88).
Although Augustinian Trinitarianism retains the terminology of Athanasian Trinitarianism, the terms are given new meaning. They are “cast in pantheistic form” (p. 88). Thus, “Deity, though one essence, exists by a process of evolution in three hypostases, which have indeed a shadowy sort of personality,” (p. 88) but they are not regarded as distinct personal beings.
However, Augustine does not “say that the one God exists in three real hypostases, which, in Christian trinitarian language, meant three individual persons” (p. 90). In any event, “his Trinitarianism is monistic. . . . His Trinity is not tripersonal, and hence must be, in spite of himself, unipersonal, unless he drops into the open pit of extreme pantheism and makes God . . . unconscious of himself or of the world that is evolved from Him” (p 91). His pantheistic philosophy makes “the one only true God and the Trinity . . . absolutely the same. This is not monotheism; it is a pantheistic monism” (p. 92).
Augustine’s great difficulty “was that he did not know what to do with the problem of personality” (p. 92). He bounced between theism and pantheism. This led to the amazing assumption “that in God essence and person are not coincident, so that God may be and is one Being and yet three real persons” (p. 92).
Another effect of Augustinian Trinitarianism is that it changed “the Athanasian homoousianism from generic to numerical unity of essence” (p. 92). Augustine changed the Nicene Creed from “three personal beings metaphysically united in a Platonic universal into one being manifested under three modes of personal existence” (p. 92). As a result, he inverted the Trinity. “Its apex became its base. Trinity became unity. Trinitarianism became tri-unitarianism” (p. 92). By that, he changed God into one Being of three persons. Although Augustine refused to come to this logical conclusion, his followers did. Thus, God became “numerically one in essence, yet is three in personal agency; therefore essence and person in God are not coincident” (p. 93).
The Athanasian Creed was derived from Augustinian Trinitarianism. One clause reads, “We worship one God in trinity, and trinity in unity, neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.” “This language assumes that the substance or Being is one, while the persons are three” (p. 93). However, like Augustine, it plays on the term “person.” It declares that God is one personal being. Also, it states, “There are not three Gods, but one God.” Thus, the Athanasian Creed is nothing more than concealed Sabellianism. “[I]ts Sabellianism is veiled under the assumption that God may be one Being and yet be three persons, but its real position is that God is one Being, whatever explanation be given of the three persons. Thus its Trinitarianism is only a disguise” (p. 93). Accordingly, Augustinian Trinitarianism gave “a monistic and pantheistic direction to trinitarian dogma” (p. 94).
Besides his doctrine of the Trinity, “his doctrines of original sin, irresistible grace, the sacraments, and the physical punishments and sufferings of lost souls” (p. 69) also grew from his materialistic philosophy. Free will is simply voluntariness, “which itself is the result of a gracious Divine efficiency” (p. 69). His doctrine of human dependency approaches Stoic fatalism. Furthermore, man’s will has the power to do evil, but it cannot do good except with God’s aid.
In summary, Augustinian Trinitarianism is based on Stoic, New Platonic immanence. According to the Augustinian Trinitarianism, God “is essentially one; yet He is a trinity, but not a trinity of real personal beings; the personal centre is one. The three persons, so-called, are not subsistences or individuals; they are modes of the one divine existence” (p. 81). Consequently, it is just a form of Modal Trinitarianism that is closely related to the heresy Sabellianism.
When Trinitarians attempt to explain or expound upon the Trinity, they are at high risk of crashing into the Scylla of Sabellianism or of being swept away in the Charybdis of tritheism. Augustine crashed into the rock of Sabellianism.
Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Coley Allen.
More religious articles