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  • John Small

Sifting and Shifting with Augustine's "On the Trinity"

Augustine’s On the Trinity is a discourse that seeks to struggle towards a greater

understanding of the Trinity. Written from 399 to 419 AD, On the Trinity is Augustine’s major

work of doctrine in which he gives an elaborative explanation for the Western formulation of the

doctrine of the Trinity (1). Augustine’s reason for writing is found in that the Church was struggling

with various teachings that sought to muddle and diminish the doctrine of the Trinity. Augustine

sees his On the Trinity as a corrective rebuke to three types of men that Augustine recognizes as

asserting baseless and sophistical teachings in regards to the Trinity (2). The three types men as

Augustine perceives them are: the men who seek to transfer their ideas upon the incorporeal and

spiritual, the men who seek to frame their sentiments of God around the nature or affections of

the human mind, or those men who seek to raise their thoughts to transcend creation and meet

their Creator.

Augustine, towards the end of his work, gives the reader an impressive summation of his

argument. Augustine begins by showing the unity and equality of the Trinity from scripture. In

the fifth book, Augustine argues for a correct understanding of the term “begotten”. He explains

that, the distinction which “begotten” seeks to assert is in reference to a relative understanding of

the Son’s person. Hence, Augustine’s metaphysical thrust is that, the Trinity ought to be

analyzed not in the distinction of the locative—rather the relative. Unfortunately, the word

relative as it is used today has been bought and butchered by postmodern philosophers insisting

that, for something to be relative implies an applicative irrationality. Contrastingly, Augustine’s

usage of the term “relative” ought to be seen in an emphasis upon the relational aspects of the

word, which does not constitute an unnecessary appeal to irrationality. It is the metaphysical

distinction between the locative and the relative which is the underlining and unifying thrust of

On the Trinity.

The Shift

Although Augustine does not make his implicit metaphysical argument explicit, it is this

argument that shapes his intention of the discourse which is to, graft man’s perspective of his

experience to be viewed through a relative understanding instead of a reliance upon the typical

locative distinction. Hence, it is expectable that, Augustine’s journey in his first five books

begins with the written word of scripture. Augustine begins with the Scriptures not only because

of the supremacy of the Holy Scriptures, but also in that, man’s rational expression is found in

reference to language. Augustine first applies this implication immediately upon the interrelation

of the persons of the Trinity in books sixth and seven; however, Augustine moves on to address

the heartbeat of the problem. Since language’s usage and meaning are rooted in empirical

experience, Augustine’s discourse in books eight through eleven is the pursuit of shifting and

sifting through humanity’s lived and rational experience within creation to recognize its relative

aspects. The dire need of this task as Augustine considers the Trinity is because all empirical

experience within the material, temporal, and spatial considers primarily a necessitated locative

distinction. One ought only glance upon the grammatical concept of prepositions to recognize

that, all relative concepts are typically distinguished by the locative aspect of humanities material

experience. Augustine completes his discourse in books twelve through fifteen by summating

that, wisdom differentiates from knowledge because wisdom regards the relative distinctions of

that which is existent—particularly considering its relation towards God. Therefore, Augustine’s

work On the Trinity not only argues for a deeper understanding of the Trinity, but also assists the

Christian mind to perceive reality in accordance with the metaphysical confession underlying the

confession of the Trinity.

The Sift

Augustine’s On the Trinity implicitly invites its readers to perceive differently—to view

Creation and the self-revelatory acts of the Creator through a relational lens instead of merely a

locative lens. It not that the locative lens is inherently wrong, it is helpful; however, it is

insufficient. While, in this particular instance Augustine guides his readers to view that the fault

of thinker is found in the forgetfulness of the relational; Holy Scripture alludes to the larger truth

that any view of the world that does not give reference and reverence to God is insufficient.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and discipline”

(Proverbs 1:7, CSB).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is

understanding (Proverbs 9:10, CSB).

The idea of “fear of the Lord” is meant to invoke a reverential awe of God, and it is this

perspective—better yet posture—of viewing and thinking about the world that is the beginning

of wisdom and knowledge. These ideas ought to lead us towards two reflections:

  • Have I cropped God out of the picture?

Augustine came out of gnostic and platonic culture that actively diminished the

value of anything material; large pockets of our present culture assert that it is

only the material that exists. Although as Christians is not our confession, has it

shaped our way of thinking? Do we operate or deal with problems as if everything

was merely material—even ourselves?

  • Is God the focus of my lens?

When you seek to perceive the events of your day what are you looking for, what

are you focusing on? If we seek to live in accordance with the Proverbs: our work,

hobbies, conversations, relationships should include one more person—God. This

is not to purport some way of motivational thinking or self-promulgating

excitement. The beginning of wisdom and knowledge is the fear of the Lord, a

reverential awe of the Lord, not good vibes of the Lord or inspirational thoughts

of the Lord. But do we look to worship God’s glory and majesty in the daily

moments of our lives?


(1) Everett Ferguson, Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation (MI Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2013), 273.

(2) Augustine, De Trinitate 1.1.

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