[From my doctoral thesis, Maynooth, 1976.]
The importance of the discipline known as history of dogma (Dogmengeschichte) is apparent at a time when the Church is making an unprecedented effort, for ecumenical reasons and in response to the challenge of rationalism, to situate her teachings in a historical perspective. But the historicity of dogma cannot be properly grasped unless we understand the processes whereby shifts in interpretation and presentation of doctrine come about. Too often the content of the teaching of major theologians is expounded without insight into the method by which this teaching was developed. Augustine’s ideas are so well known that they have become stale and hackneyed. But the movement of Augustine’s mind, the process of gestation which fashioned those ideas and fitted them in place, is hardly understood at all. This may be in part because the methods employed by scholars in their study of Augustine – not least the meticulous philological approaches, which tend to lose all larger perspective in an endless comparison of text with text – seem to cut across the natural rhythm of Augustine’s thought, impeding any kind of intuitive participation therein.
In the following study of the method of De Trinitate we first present the contexts that condition Augustine’s theological effort. Augustine attempts to think out his faith in a fully rational manner, going beyond immediate pastoral needs; he is thus put in dialogue with the intellectual current which provided the criterion of the rational in his day, Neoplatonism. In Chapter One we shall see how his thought is formed in resistance to Neoplatonism, in an apologetic spirit. The other milieu of his thought is, of course, the faith of the Church: in Chapter Two we see how it conditions his mental efforts. In Chapter Three we attempt to isolate characteristic procedures of Augustine’s mind, the personal elements which enabled him to put his own stamp on the traditions, philosophical or ecclesial, in which he works. All the typical ‘Augustinian’ twists in De Trinitate can be seen as proceeding from a handful of methods, which could not have been applied with such force unless Augustine had first subjected his thought to the claims of the philosophical and ecclesial traditions.
In Chapter Four there is a change of focus as we undertake an examination of the short-scale methods and structures employed by Augustine – his techniques of argumentation and the rhetorical features of his writing. We find there that Augustine’s capacious methods of composition allow him to absorb elements from both the philosophical and theological traditions, without forcing them into union, yet creating a personal synthesis by setting these elements in characteristically ‘Augustinian’ structures – for instance in the hierarchical arrangements of Books XI-XIV or in the sequence from metaphysical themes to faith and charity in Book VIII. Having thus uncovered, as far as possible, the generative mechanism of Augustine’s thought, it remains only to show how this deploys itself in the over-all argument of De Trinitate.
We see the book as consisting in six discrete but sequential stages and as moving from level to level as various aspects of the Mystery present themselves to be thought. Books I-IV offer a relatively straightforward dogmatic and biblical approach. Books V-VII move into the realm of abstract logic. As a path to knowledge of God this realm of discourse soon proves itself to be a cul-de-sac. The frontal, metaphysical and contemplative approaches of Book VIII also lead to a theological dead-end, but for different reasons: where Books V-VII show that ‘concepts without intuition are empty’, Book VIII shows that intuition (into the divine nature) is blind to the mystery of the Trinity without some analogical foothold in human concepts. Books IX-X attain the desired unity of concept and intuition in their study of the human mens, whose nature is known by a combination of logical and introspective methods. Books XI-XIV then set the triad thus brought to light in its embodied and historical contexts, describing the salvific relationship between the divine image in man and its heavenly Archetype. Finally Book XV again attempts a speculative approach to the Trinity, using the analogy of the mental triad. The partial and qualified success of this venture sends us back to the beginning, to faith in the Church’s dogma and to a renewal of the quest for theological intellectus.
Our study of the structure of De Trinitate attempts to capture the dynamism of Augustine’s thought, but registering it more from its external effects than from its inner theological motive, which the methodological slant of our inquiry prevented us from keeping in the foreground, so it may be that the reader will hear, in the following pages, the thud of the stethoscope, not the soft beat of the heart. Elements of appreciation of the spiritual and theological depth of Augustine’s proceedings occur only incidentally, particularly in Chapters Two and Three and in the Conclusion, when the large-scale structure of DT come under our gaze.
Since the De Trinitate is second in eminence among theological works only to the Summa, it is surprising how little close attention it has received from scholars. General statements about Augustine’s Trinitarian theology abound, but only a study of the whole of DT can ensure these statements any accuracy, since every part of the work makes its own contribution to the focussing of the Mystery. To study Books IX-X alone, for example, so as to extract the speculative ‘meat’ of the work in a condensed form, is to court a misunderstanding of Augustine, for the ‘psychological analogy’ there developed is set in its moral and spiritual contexts only in Books XI-XIV and is first referred explicitly to the Trinity, with many important qualifications, in Book XV, while its epistemological necessity is apparent only from a study of Books I-VIII. Selective reading of Augustine may well have caused much misguided speculation on the psychological analogy in both medieval and modern times. It is encouraged by the concentration on the latter half of DT in the influential works of Theodor Gangauf (Des heiligen Augustinus speculative Lehre von Gott dem Dreieinigen, second ed., Augsburg, 1883) and Michael Schmaus, Die psychologische Trinitätslehre des heiligen Augustinus, Munster, 1927). The only book-length study devoted to DT as a whole is that of Alfred Schindler (Wort und Analogie in Augustins Trinitätslehre (Tübingen, 1965). Yet unless the work is studied as a unit our notion of Augustine’s theology will inevitably be a distorted one. In other controverted areas of his thought, e.g. his theory of knowledge, more attention to literary contexts might equally suggest more helpful approaches to the problems.
It is also necessary to study the compositional and argumentative techniques which, on the short scale, propel the quest for theological insight forward. In Patristic texts attention to seemingly petty details of argumentation can throw a surprising light on the statements they accompany or prepare, revealing nuances in what might seem at first sight banal or repetitive. The following attempt to provide Augustine’s theology with its contexts – the mental preoccupations that inspired it, the techniques of its exposition, the setting of the individual detail in the close-knit web of the whole, or, to adopt a more exact metaphor, the place of the individual piece in the design of the entire mosaic – may at times seem to the reader either too sketchy or too fastidious. I hope it will at least prompt him to look more closely at the text and to trace for himself the drift and bearing of Augustine’s utterances. The historically embedded condition of Augustine’s quest – which reflects the impact of an original spiritual or contemplative vision on an accumulation of theological and philosophical ideas, so that they are shaken up and reorganized in function of that vision – gives the task of mapping precisely the course of his quest an uncommon interest. Some authors express their insights in a self-contained organic system and once their basic procedure is grasped the methods and structures of their thought need not be traced in detail. But Augustine is constantly refashioning traditional material throughout DT. Even compositional arrangements can reveal an effort to yoke together heterogeneous elements in the unity of a single vision and provide a clue to Augustine’s underlying intention of reproducing in an intellectual and systematic medium, in relation to the tradition of Christian theology and Neoplatonic speculation, his own privileged spiritual insight into the mystery of God and of the soul. In studying these clues we may be seeing only the husk of his achievement: a theological interrogation of DT might shed quite a new light on our findings; but in any case this prosaic and secondary approach can be seen as an exercitatio comparable to DT V-VII or XI-XIV, correcting in advance presumptuous or ill-informed speculation about the significance of Augustine’s quest and fortifying us for a more directly theological dialogue with his thought.
The circumstances of the composition of De Trinitate indicate its unique position among Augustine’s works. It was dictated by no pressing occasion of controversy or pastoral need, as the Trinitarian heresies had ceased to enjoy any following within the Church. In its serene intellectual concern with the Mystery of the Trinity, whose centrality and fundamental status had been imprinted on the minds of believers by the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople, it is the most strictly theological of Augustine’s works. At least during the early stages of its composition the Pelagian and Christological controversies had not yet disturbed the Church’s relatively peaceful possession of doctrinal truth. The work is a meditative and speculative stock-taking of accumulated dogmatic treasures, which no longer need to be jealously guarded from heretics. The tensions and difficulties attending its composition are thus chiefly of an intellectual order. These were considerable enough to delay its completion for some twenty years. Augustine seems to have written with extreme care on a subject on which it was so easy to err: angit me plane Horatiana sententia: nescit vox missa reverti (Ep. 143.4). A rationalistic theology, like that of Neoplatonism (e.g. Proclus’s Elements of Theology), might be easily generated from a few basic principles and the laws of logic. But in dealing with the historically mediated revelation of a mystery transcending the grasp of logic, just this temptation to ease, this possibility of netting the mystery within a metaphysical system, was what was most to be avoided.
Augustine began the work about the time of the completion of the Confessions. Gustave Bardy (Saint Augustin, Paris, 1946, pp. 338-41) and Schindler favour 399-400, but François Glorié (‘Augustinus, De Trinitate’, Sacris Erudiri 16 :203-55) suggests 397. E. Hendrickx (‘La date de composition du De Trinitate,’ L’année théologique augustinienne 11 :305-16) suggests that a first draft was completed by 406. Glorié deduces from the phrase quindecim per aliquot annos (Retr. II 15.1) that a first draft was completed by 411. But these are rather speculative datings: a study of Ep. 120 which dates from 410 suggests that Augustine had not then embarked on the path followed in DT IX ff. and in Ep. 169, dating from 415, he bemoans his slow progress at the work. In any case, although Glorié claims that the final version of DT was published in 413 and Bardy suggests 416, Hendrickx (in La Trinité, Paris, 1955, I, p. 559) along with Schindler and others favor a later dating – about 419-20. The quotation of Civ. Dei XII 12 in DT XIII 12 shows that the latter is at least as late as 417. The most probably dating for the edition of DT to which Ep. 174 is the Dedicatory Epistle is 420. This is late enough for the new themes noted in Books II and IV by Anne-Marie La Bonnardière (Recherches de chronologie augustinienne, Paris, 1965), which she connects with the debate against the Arians recorded in such works as Contra Sermonem Arianorum.
A more detailed discussion on this question would take us far from our subject, but awareness of the span of time over which DT was written will help us to understand the curious mixture of styles in the work, e.g. the contrast between IV 4-10 and IV 1-2, a mixture which does not weaken the superintending design. In Chapter One we shall attempt to find some traces of a development in Augustine’s view of his work during the twenty years of its composition. I am aware of the lack of any secure basis for carrying such analysis very far, but the history of its composition holds out an irresistible invitation to such guesswork. Other details given in Ep. 174 about a pirated edition of the work and the additions and alterations made in the final edition will also help us to distinguish the later insertions in the text.
All quotations are from the text of the Corpus Christianorum edition (ed. William J. Mountain and F. Glorié, Turnhout, 1968), which, though it has been criticized by Edmund Hill for ‘a somewhat rigid application of critical principles’ (‘The De Trinitate: Annotations on the Text of the Latest Edition’, Augustinian Studies 3 :1-14; p. 1), is the only modern critical edition of the work. The prolegomena to this edition contrast it with previous editions (pp. x-xlv), and by checking 52 of the 307 codices of the DT against readings found in the indirect tradition (Eugippus, Alcuin, etc.) show that the new edition had to be based on several codices of different traditions because all our sources for the text of DT have suffered emendation or corruption (pp. xlv-lxx). On the basis of their approximation to a consensus of all the textual witness, these codices (Paris, Bibl. Nationale, nouv. acq. lat. 1445; ib. lat. 2088; Bibl. de l’Arsénal, 303) are given a place of honor and along with 14 others form the required basis for the new edition (p lxxi). Since I have found no occasion to quarrel with the readings of the Corpus Christianorum text in the course of the following thesis there is no need to go into the textual questions more deeply.
The reader should consult a copy of DT constantly in order to follow the argument of the present work, preferably in the edition just discussed, as I have frequently been obliged to give line numbers, referring to this edition, in addition to book and paragraph numbers.