Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Augustine's Trinity: modalistic, semi-modalistic, or pro-Nicene Trinitarianism ???

Back on July 10, 2018 I became engaged in a discussion with Andrew Davis at his blog Contra Modalism. Andrew had published a thread under the title, 'Do You Believe in the Son of God ?' (link), which caught my eye. From the opening post we read:

[Quotes from Andrew will be in GREEN; my combox comments from Andrew's blog will be in BLUE; excerpts from Augustine and scholars in RED]

To believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then, is manifestly required for salvation. The confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is central to the true Christian faith (Matt 16:16).

Yet tragically, many professing Christians deny the Son of God. They do this by embracing Augustinian trinitarianism.

Surely such a statement must seem shocking to many. But consider this- if one believes that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Supreme God, the one God, the Almighty, rather than His Son, then a person does not truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Towards the end of the post, Andrew boldly states that, "Augustinian trinitarianism, then, or semi-modalism, as I prefer to call it, is not simply some innocuous error."

In the combox, I asked Andrew for some further clarification as to what he meant by "Augustinian trinitarianism" and "semi-modalism". He replied with:

I’m using “Augustinian Trinitarianism” here to refer to his beliefs as expressed in his books on the Trinity, and in his debate with Maximinus, a Homoian, that God, the one God, is by definition the Trinity. Its this identification of God with the Trinity instead of identifying God as the Father in particular that logically leads to a denial that Christ is the Son of God. Whatever monarchy and causality of the Son by the Father there is in this view, since it is within God, the Trinity, it ultimately doesn’t change this. The problem as I see it is not a lack of affirmation of the monarchy of the Father, but the identification of the one God with the Trinity rather than the Father. (July 10, 2018 at 9:35 pm)


Semi-modalism says that the one God is one individual who is ontologically three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. From there there is considerably more variety depending on who you talk to, ranging from a breakdown of the relationship between those persons are one defined by ontologically causality of the Son and Spirit from the Father, to a mere economic choice among those three persons to effectively role-play as Father, Son, and Spirit. (July 15, 2018 at 4:37 am)

Augustine believed that, "the one God is one individual"?  That assessment did not, and does not, seem to be an accurate understanding of what Augustine actually taught. The rest of this post will build upon my following combox response to Andrew:

My understanding of Augustine is that though he terms the Trinity (the Three) “one God”, he does not say that the Trinity (the Three) is “one individual”. Augustine states, “‘the Three are One’, because of one substance”; and, “hath one and the same nature”—not “one individual”.

IMO unus Deus (one God) with reference to the Trinity in Augustine’s mature thought has Deus being used in a qualitative sense. This understanding makes sense of the “God from God’ phraseology—found throughout Augustine’s writings, and, of course, in the Nicene Creed.

I then provided the following quote from an esteemed scholar of Augustine:

One constant strand of argument throughout the book has been that the Father’s monarchia, his status as principium and fons, is central to Augustine’s Trinitarian theology. The discussions of these central chapters of the book should, however, have also made clear that many things come under the umbrella of asserting the importance of the Father’s status as principium. For Augustine, the Father’s status as principium is eternally exercised through his giving the fullness of divinity to the Son and Spirit such that the unity of God will be eternally found in the mysterious unity of the homoousion. (Lewis Ayres, Augustine and the Trinity, p. 248.)

I am in total agreement with the above reflections from Ayres. In a previous AF thread—Augustine - on the causality of the Son from the Father and the monarchy of God the Father—I provided a number of examples which support Ayres' belief that, "the Father’s monarchia, his status as principium and fons, is central to Augustine’s Trinitarian theology". With this central teaching of Augustine in mind, I am unable to make sense out of Andrew's conclusion that Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity, "logically leads to a denial that Christ is the Son of God."

Now, Andrew is certainly not the only person to charge Augustine with embracing some degree of modalism. I first came across this notion while reading Harnack's, History of Dogma. Note the following:

We can see that Augustine only gets beyond Modalism by the mere assertion that he does not wish to be a modalist, and the aid of ingenious distinctions between different ideas. (History of Dogma, 1958 Eng. ed., 4.131.)

IMO, Harnack should have read Augustine much more closely, for Augustine definitively goes well beyond, "the mere assertion that he does not wish to be a modalist". Time and time again Augustine makes it clear that the Trinity (i.e. the Three) is composed of three distinct persons, and that the Father is the beginning/source of the Son and the Holy Spirit. As mentioned above, I have already provided a number of examples which are germane to Augustine's anti-modalistic understanding of the Trinity. The following selections will add further support that Augustine did not espouse some degree and/or form of modalism:

summe unus est Pater Veritatis, Pater suae Sapientiae (De Vera Religione, 43.81 - Sant'Agostino website)

The Father of Truth is uniquely the highest/supreme One, the Father of His Wisdom (On True Religion, 43.81 - translation mine.)

112. One God alone I worship, the sole principle of all things [unum omnium Principium], and his Wisdom who makes every wise soul wise, and his Gift [munus] whereby all the blessed are blessed. I am certainly sure that every angel that loves this God loves me too. Whoever abides in him and can hear human prayers, hears me in him. Whoever has God as his chief good, helps me in him, and cannot grudge my sharing in him. Let those who adore or flatter the parts of the world tell me this. What good friend will the man lack who worships the one God whom all the good love, in knowing whom they rejoice, and by having recourse to whom as their first principle they derive their goodness? Every angel that loves his own aberrations and will not be subject to the truth, but desires to find joy in his own advantage, has fallen away from the common good of all and from true beatitude. To such all evil men are given to be subdued and oppressed. But no good man is given over into his power except to be tried and proved. None can doubt that such an angel is not to be worshipped, for our misery is his joy, and our return to God is his loss.

113. Let our religion bind us to the one omnipotent God, because no creature comes between our minds and him whom we know to be the Father and the Truth, i.e., the inward light whereby we know him. In him and with him we venerate the Truth, who is in all respects like him, and who is the form of all things that have been made by the One, and that endeavour after unity. To spiritual minds it is clear that all things were made by this form which alone achieves what all things seek after. But all things would not have been made by the Father through the Son, nor would they be preserved within their bounds in safety, unless God were supremely good. (Of True Religion, in Augustine: Earlier Writings, 55.112, 113, p. 282 - translation by John H. S. Burleigh.) 


God [the Father] is the cause of all that exists. But because he is the cause of all things, he is also the cause of his own Wisdom, and God is never without his Wisdom. Therefore, the cause of his own eternal Wisdom is eternal as well, nor is he prior in time to his Wisdom. So then if it is in God's very nature to be the eternal Father, and if there never was a time when he was not the Father, then he has never existed without the Son. (The Fathers of the Church, Vol. 70 - St. Augustine, Eighty-three Different Questions, p. 45.)

All those Catholic expounders of the divine Scriptures, both Old and New, whom I have been able to read, who have written before me concerning the Trinity, Who is God, have purposed to teach, according to the Scriptures, this doctrine, that the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit intimate a divine unity of one and the same substance in an indivisible equality; and therefore that they are not three Gods, but one God: although the Father hath begotten the Son, and so He who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and so He who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, Himself also co-equal with the Father and the Son, and pertaining to the unity of the Trinity. Yet not that this Trinity was born of the Virgin Mary, and crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven, but only the Son. Nor, again, that this Trinity descended in the form of a dove upon Jesus when He was baptized; nor that, on the day of Pentecost, after the ascension of the Lord, when "there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind,'' the same Trinity "sat upon each of them with cloven tongues like as of fire," but only the Holy Spirit. "Thou art my Son," whether when He was baptized by John, or when the three disciples were with Him in the mount, or when the voice sounded, saying, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again;" but that it was a word of the Father only, spoken to the Son; although the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as they are indivisible, so work indivisibly.  This is also my faith, since it is the Catholic faith. (On the Trinity, Book I.7 - NPNF 3.20 - bold emphasis mine.)

But if the Son is said to be sent by the Father on this account, that the one is the Father, and the other the Son, this does not in any manner hinder us from believing the Son to be equal, and consubstantial, and coeternal with the Father, and yet to have been sent as Son by the Father. Not because the one is greater, the other less; but because the one is Father, the other Son; the one begetter, the other begotten; the one, He from whom He is who is sent; the other, He who is from Him who sends. For the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son. And according to this manner we can now understand that the Son is not only said to have been sent because "the Word was made flesh," but therefore sent that the Word might be made flesh, and that He might perform through His bodily presence those things which were written; that is, that not only is He understood to have been sent as man, which the Word was made but the Word, too, was sent that it might be made man; because He was not sent in respect to any inequality of power, or substance, or anything that in Him was not equal to the Father; but in respect to this, that the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son; for the Son is the Word of the Father, which is also called His wisdom. What wonder, therefore, if He is sent, not because He is unequal with the Father, but because He is "a pure emanation (manatio) issuing from the glory of the Almighty God ?" For there, that which issues, and that from which it issues, is of one and the same substance. (On the Trinity, Book IV.27 - NPNF Vol. 3.83 - bold emphasis mine.)

28. Therefore the Word of God is sent by Him, of whom He is the Word; He is sent by Him, from whom He was begotten (genitum); He sends who begot, That is sent which is begotten...What then is born (natum) from eternity is eternal... But the Father is not said to be sent, when from time to time He is apprehended by any one, for He has no one of whom to be, or from whom to proceed; since Wisdom says, "I came out of the mouth of the Most High," and it is said of the Holy Spirit, "He proceedeth from the Father," but the Father is from no one.

29. As, therefore, the Father begat, the Son is begotten; so the Father sent, the Son was sent. But in like manner as He who begat an He who was begotten, so both He who sent and He who was sent, are one, since the Father and the Son are one. So also the Holy Spirit is one with them, since these three are one...That then which the Lord says, "Whom I will send unto you from the Father," shows the Spirit to be both of the Father and of the Son; because, also, when He had said, "Whom the Father will send," He added also, "in my name." Yet He did not say, Whom the Father will send from me, as He said, "Whom I will send unto you from the Father," showing, namely, that the Father is the beginning (principium) of the whole divinity, or if it is better so expressed, deity. He, therefore, who proceeds from the Father and from the Son, is referred back to Him from whom the Son was born (natus). (On the Trinity, IV.28, 29 - NPNF 3.85 - bold emphasis mine.)

And yet it is not to no purpose that in this Trinity the Son and none other is called the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit and none other the Gift of God, and God the Father alone is He from whom the Word is born, and from whom the Holy Spirit principally proceeds...This distinction, then, of the inseparable Trinity is not to be merely accepted in passing, but to be carefully considered; for hence it was that the Word of God was specially called also the Wisdom of God, although both Father and Holy Spirit are wisdom. If, then, any one of the three is to be specially called Love, what more fitting than that it should be the Holy Spirit ? namely, that in that simple and highest nature, substance should not be one thing and love another, but that substance itself should be love, and love itself should be substance, whether in the Father, or in the Son, or in the Holy Spirit; and yet that the Holy Spirit should be specially called Love. (On the Trinity, XV.29 - NPNF 3.216 - bold emphasis mine.)

We can ask whether we should understand the words "In the beginning God made heaven and earth" only in accord with history, or whether they also signify something in figures, and how they conform to the gospel and for what reason this book begins in this way. According to history one asks whether "In the beginning" means in the beginning of time in the principle, in the very Wisdom of God. For the Son of God said that he was the principle. When he was asked, "Who are you?" he said, "The principle; that is why I am speaking to you." For there is a principle without principle, and there is a principal along with another principal. The principle without principle is the Father alone, and thus we believe that all things are from one principle. But the Son is a principle in such a way that he is from the Father. (On the Literal Translation of Genesis, in  Fathers of the Church, vol. 84, p. 148 - bold emphasis mine.)

In this Beginning, O God, hast Thou made heaven and earth, in Thy Word, in Thy Son, in Thy Power, in Thy Wisdom, in Thy Truth, wondrously speaking and wondrously making. Who shall comprehend ? who shall relate it ? What is that which shines through me, and strikes my heart without injury, and I both shudder and burn ? I shudder inasmuch as am unlike it ; and I burn inasmuch as I am like it. It is Wisdom itself that shines through me, clearing my cloudiness, which again overwhelms me, fainting from it, in the darkness and amount of my punishment...I will with confidence cry out from Thy oracle, How wonderful are Thy works, O Lord, in Wisdom hast Thou made them all. And this Wisdom is the Beginning, and in that Beginning hast Thou made heaven and earth.  (Confessions, XI.11 - NPNF 1.166, 167.)

For it is true, O Lord, that Thou hast made heaven and earth ; it is also true, that the Beginning is Thy Wisdom, in Which Thou hast made all things. (Confessions, XI.28 - NPNF 1.183 - bold emphasis mine.)

What is it, then, that He "saith, hath given to the Son to have life in Himself" ? I would say it briefly. He begot the Son. For it is not that He existed without life, and received life, but He is life by being begotten. The Father is life not by being begotten; the Son is life by being begotten. The Father is of no father; the Son is of God the Father. The Father in His being is of none, but in that He is Father, 'tis because of the Son. But the Son also, in that He is Son, 'tis because of the Father: in His being. He is of the Father. 'This He said, therefore: "hath given life to the Son, that He might have it in Himself." Just as if He were to say, "The Father, who is life in Himself, begot the Son, who should be life in Himself." Indeed, He would have this dedit (hath given) to be understood for the same thing as genuit (hath begotten). It is like as if we said to a person, "God has given thee being." To whom ? If to some one already existing, then He gave him not being, because he who could receive existed before it was given him. When, therefore, thou hearest it said, "He gave thee being," thou wast not in being to receive, but thou didst receive, that thou shouldst be by coming into existence. The builder gave to this house that it should be. But what did he give to it? He gave it to be a house. To what did he give ? To this house. Gave it what ? To be a house. How could he give to a house that it should be a house ? For if the house was, to what did he give to be a house, when the house existed already? What, then, does that mean, "gave it to be a house" ? It means, he brought to pass that it should be a house. Well, then, what gave He to the Son? Gave Him to be the Son, begot Him to be life that is, "gave Him to have life in Himself " that He should be the life not needing life, that He may not be understood as having life by participation. (St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate XIX.13, NPNF 7.127 - bold emphasis mine.)

With the above selections in mind—and those from the AF thread linked to above—I am truly baffled by Andrew's deduction concerning "Augustinian trinitarianism" and the Son of God. Here again is Andrew's conclusion:

Its this identification of God with the Trinity instead of identifying God as the Father in particular that logically leads to a denial that Christ is the Son of God. Whatever monarchy and causality of the Son by the Father there is in this view, since it is within God, the Trinity, it ultimately doesn’t change this. The problem as I see it is not a lack of affirmation of the monarchy of the Father, but the identification of the one God with the Trinity rather than the Father.

Though Augustine does in fact term the Trinity "one God", it is not to the exclusion that the Father is in a unique sense "one God", "God alone", "God only", "the Supreme One",  "sole Principle", "Principle without principle", et al. Augustine also repeatedly informs us that it is the Father alone, who is the beginning/source of the Son of God. When all the evidence is brought together—with all due respect to Andrew—I ultimately find no basis for the belief that "Augustinian trinitarianism...logically leads to a denial that Christ is the Son of God."

As for modalism, and/or semi-modalism, I just don't find any trace of it in Augustine's extant corpus; but I do find plenty of anti-modalism. So, why is it some folk maintain that some degree of modalism exists in Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity? I would like to suggest two probable reasons:

1.) The failure to recognize that Augustine uses two different senses for the term God (Deus); one with reference to the Three as being one God (i.e. one divinity/essence/substance) and not three Gods; the second with reference to the Father as being the principium and fons (i.e. monarchia) of everything else that has existence—including the Son and the Holy Spirit.

2.) A misunderstanding of what the term trinity (trinitas) meant in Augustine's time; note the following:

The word "trinitas" is more merely numerical in meaning than the English "trinity," has come almost to demand a capital T. But it means no more than "threeness," or more concretely "threesome" "a three." My inclination will be to avoid the capital T mostly, and sometimes to substitute more numbersome English words. (Edmund Hill, The Works of St. Augustine - A Translation for the 21st Century, Vol. 5, The Trinity, p. 91.)

I shall end here for now; more later, the Lord willing...

Grace and peace,