Saturday, September 17, 2011

Colin Gunton’s Point

In his article, ‘Augustine, The Trinity and the Theological Crisis of the West’, which first appeared in the Scottish Journal of Theology for 1990 and then formed part of his The Problem of Trinitarian Theology (T & T Clark, 1991), the late Colin Gunton, whose friend and colleague at King’s College I was for several years, made a number of serious charges against Augustine. Since his death, that article, and Colin’s approach, have been subject to a certain amount of criticism. Here I wish to defend my old friend on one point, not on all his criticisms of Augustine, for some of them seem extravagant and rather hurried. But in this short piece I concentrate on the one charge, that in view of Augustine’s understanding of the persons of the Trinity as purely relational he imperils the personhood of the persons, and tilts towards modalism. But I believe that the point that Colin raised here is not so much an argument against Augustine as a general problem with Trinitarianism.


The business of contrasting Western with Eastern views of the Trinity, which Colin was very concerned about, has become quite an industry. But possibly an industry that has been financed with junk bonds? For surely the significance of this contrast, and with it the alleged superiority of the Eastern way of construing the Trinity, has been overdone. Suppose a triangle. How are we to understand it? Maybe one way, the ‘Western’ way, is to understand it as one plane-sided figure with three internal angles. Or maybe, the ‘Eastern’ work, as a three-angled or three-sided plane figure. It does not seem to matter much.

Nor does the charge that Augustine was a modalist in view of the three-personhood of the Godhead seem plausible.

The Point

But Colin did have a valid point in one of his charges, though I don’t think that it’s an argument in favour of ‘the East’, but in favour of social trinitarianism. But then ‘the East’ may be a form of social trinitarianism, if indeed there is ‘an East’ that is distinct from ‘a West’.

The point is as follows. First, in Colin’s words, and then in mine.

Colin’s Words

On the ‘Eastern’ view:

…concepts are developed, that is to say, by means of which the Christian God can be thought of as triune without loss to his unity. The second is that, as this is done, a new ontology is developed: for God to be is to be in communion….

When we look at Augustine’s treatment of the topic, it becomes evident that he has scarcely at all understood the central point….for despite his avowed reason for the use of the term, he has prepared the way for the later, and fateful, definition of the person as a relation….But where do the three persons fit? Uncomfortably, it must be confessed. Augustine uses the concept of relation to designate that which can be predicated of God in the plural but which is yet not accidental…..

In all this, Augustine is taking a clear step back from the teaching of the Cappadocian Fathers. For them, the three persons are what they are in their relations, and therefore the relations qualify them ontologically, in terms of what they are. Because Augustine continues to use relation as a logical rather than an ontological predicate, he is precluded from being able to make claims about the being of the particular persons, who, because they lack distinguishable identity tend to disappear into the all embracing oneness of God.

It is for reasons such as this that there is in Augustine, and in most Western theology after him, a tendency towards modalism. (39-42, Colin’s italics).

My words

What Colin is alleging here is that in Augustine’s account of the relations of the three persons in the one God, ‘relation’ is being used in a purely logical, not an ontological sense. And what he means by that, it appears, is that such usage robs the three persons of their distinctive ontological characters. For what it is that these relations are relations of, or between?

Let us separate the question of whether Colin was right to impute this view to Augustine from the view itself.

We could put the issue in the form of a dilemma: either the three persons are persons in their own right, or they are not. If they are persons in their own right, and each is fully divine, what is the status of the ‘personal distinctiveness’ that each is, or has? Is the fatherhood of the Father divine, the sonship of the Son divine, the spirituality of the Spirit divine? If so, then in turn, Father, Son and Spirit possess a divinity (or a feature or aspect of divinity) lacked by the other two. If they are not persons in their own right but (as Colin says Augustine is committed to) their personhood is merely relational, then that personhood looks altogether insubstantial; at best, modal.

From this dilemma it is easy to see that what Colin called the Cappadocian approach is no more satisfactory than the alleged ‘Western’ view. For in that view, according to him, God’s being is to be in communion, and the problem then becomes the apparent insubstantiality of the one God whom the three persons are persons of. For God’s oneness then consists only in the relatedness of the three persons. God is the point of intersection of the threeness. What sort of a substantial oneness is that?

(Incidentally, for those interested, Colin is not the only one who thinks that Augustine is committed to this insubstantial view of personhood. See A.C.Lloyd, ‘On Augustine’s Concept of a Person’ in Augustine: A Collection of Critical Essays ed. R.A. Markus (Doubleday Anchor, 1972))

This crux is not an issue for Augustine, or for the Cappadocians, but for the Trinity as such. This can be further illustrated from contemporary literature by something that Lewis Ayres says in his exposition of Augustine on the Trinity in Nicaea and its Legacy. (Oxford University Press, 2004) Ayres is to be applauded for expounding Trinitarianism in grammatical terms, as providing ‘appropriate rules’ (374) for the development of habits of mind, and also for being skeptical about the fashion of contrasting ‘East’ with ‘West’, usually to the disadvantage of the ‘West’. He insists that on Augustine’s view the persons are not just relations (378) and recognizes that on that view (and on the traditional view more generally, no doubt) we cannot comprehend the divine essence (385).

Maybe he should have left the matter there, applauding Augustine’s view as a way of avoiding self-contradiction (377) but he ventures further. Rather ominously he refers to ‘explanatory resources’ (371) and of deploying the principles, the irreducibility of the persons and the oneness of God, to ‘show how’ God can be three and one. In a further attempt to elucidate Augustine he goes on to claim that the Son has or is an essence (379), a truly simple essence, and then, and as a consequence ‘they are of one essence’. Notice the ‘of’ there. Is that warranted.? What is it to be ‘of one essence’? Or ‘of one being and substance’ (381) Is it to be one essence, one being, one substance? Or is it to be ‘generated by’ an essence? The Son has a truly simple essence and so that essence is one with the Father’s simple essence, and ‘more than we can grasp’ (379), to put it mildly.

Thus, in using the grammar of simplicity to articulate a concept of Father, Son and Spirit as each God, and as the one God, we find that the more we grasp the full reality of each person, the full depth of the being that they have from the Father, the more we are also forced to recognize the unity of their being. (379-80)

For if the essence of the Son is the essence of the Father, then there is one essence. But then (once again) what is it to be the person of the Father as distinct from being the person of the Son? Does the Son have a ‘standing’ that the Father does not share? In view of the simplicity of the godhead, hardly. Ayres claims that the Father generates the Son’s essence (378) and then, a page later, maintains that the Son’s essence is the one essence that is also the Father’s. (379) Granted that God’s essence is independent and self-sustaining, it is not a part of such aseity that God is self-creating, surely an incoherent notion if ever there was one.

This way of further elucidating the Trinity begins to court formal self-contradiction: The Father’s simple essence is both uncreated and the begetter of the Son’s simple essence with which it must be identical since according to the grammar there is but one simple essence which is God.

Why not resist the itch and stop? Why not merely ‘There is one God, three divine persons distinct from each other?’ Why not rest with the ancient ‘distinct but not divided’?

Anyhow, we can see that Colin has raised a good point, but one not about Augustine per se (as he claimed, nor about ‘East versus West ‘), but about the pellucidity of the entire Trinitarian ‘grammar’ if it is pressed into service to provide us with an explanation or two.