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
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.
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.
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.