Keith Johnson, in his insightful new book, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, provides a concise survey of Augustine’s trinitarian theology. He marks four traits about Augustine that are often obscured or slanted (52-55):
(1) Key to Augustine’s understanding of the trinity was the “inseparable operation” of the divine persons, meaning that in creation and salvation all members of the trinity were at work together–the Father as the Father, the Son as the Son, the Spirit as the Spirit.
(2) Augustine’s massive volume on the trinity is grounded in Scripture. In fact, the first seven chapters are pure exegesis, and in hiw whole work he cites 6,800 biblical citations and allusions! Despite contrary opinion, he is not a speculative theologian. He cites from every book in the New Testament, minus Philemon, and twenty-seven Old Testament books as he makes a biblical, theological argument for the Trinity in chapters 1-7 and then as he considers how we might make sense of the Trinity in chapters 8-15 of the De Trinitate.
(3) “Despite popular claims to the contrary,” Johnson states, “Augustine’s teaching does not stand in sharp contrast to the trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians” (54). Cf. Lewis Ayre’s, Augustine and the Trinity.
(4) Augustine’s doctrine progresses over time. Since his classic work took two decades to produce (AD 400-420), there is development in his understanding. Johnson cites Ayres, “Augustine moves ‘towards a sophisticated account of the divine communion as resulting from the eternal intra-divine acts of the divine three” (Augustine and the Trinity, 3).
Two Rules By Which Augustine Interpreted Trinitarian Texts.
After presenting these basics, Johnson outlines three material ways that Augustine approached difficult texts about the Son. He provides a handful of hermeneutical “rules” that serve current interpreters well as they come to the difficulty of reconciling passages that say things about God that seem to be in tension.
Combining these two rules, New Testament references to Christ can be grouped into three categories: (1) texts that refer to Son in the ‘form of God,’ in which he is equal to the Father (e.g., Jn 10:30; Phil 2:6); (2) texts that refer to the Son in the ‘form of a servant,’ in which he is ‘less’ than the Father (e.g., Jn 14:28); and (3) texts that suggest the Son is from the Father (e.g., Jn 5:19, 26)” (De Trinitate, 2.3, 98) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, 62).
Keith Johnson summarizes a hermeneutical rule that Augustine employed to discern different way in which Scripture spoke about the two natures of Christ:
In the form of God, Christ created all things (Jn 1:3), while in the form of a servant he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). In the form of God, Christ is equal to the Father (Jn 10:30), while in the form of a servant he obeys the Father (Jn 6:38). In the form of God, Christ is ‘true God’ (1 Jn 5:20), while in the form of a servant he is obedient to the point of death (Phil 2:8). These two ‘forms’ exist in one person–the Son of God (De Trinitate, 1.28, 86) (Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, 60).
Last, Johnson points out another ‘rule’ that Augustine used to handle texts that speak of the Father sending the Son, or texts which speak of the Son coming from the Father. Commenting on John 5:19, 26, Augustine observes,
So the reason for these statements can only be that the life of the Son is unchanging like the Father’s, and yet is from the Father [v. 26]; and that the work of the Father and Son is indivisible, and yet the Son’s working is from the Father just as he himself is from the Father [v. 19]; and the way in which the Son sees the Father is simply by being the Son (De Trinitate, 2.3, 99; quoted by Keith Johnson, Rethinking the Trinity and Religious Pluralism, 62).
In general, these ‘rules’ while not commanded in Scripture, come from someone who is saturated with the Bible, and who models well an approach to understanding the Trinity from the text of the Bible. Next time you read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Philippians 2:5-11, or John 5, 8, or 10 consider how these rules might serve your understanding of the glorious relationship between Father and Son.
And if you have never read, Augustine’s De Trinitate, it is worth the effort. The first half is Bible-rich, while the second half engages in epistemic reflection on how we might best understand the Trinity through the use of analogies. For Augustine, these analogies are not paradigmatic or authoritative, so much as they are ministerial. They help him and put in words an understanding of the three-in-one, even while each of the proposal ultimately fails.
May we have eyes to see the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as we read the Bible, not as blind monotheists, but as worshipers of the Triune God.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss