Tag Archives: augustine

Why Did Jesus have to Come?

This sketch depicts how it was necessary for the Word to become a man in order to connect to our lived experience and category of man. Otherwise, God would be perpetually invisible and unknowable to our conscious minds.
This sketch depicts how it was necessary for the Word to become a man in order to connect to our lived experience and category of man. Otherwise, God would be perpetually invisible and unknowable to our conscious minds.

I became distracted this morning while reading Augustine’s De Trinitate. He was discussing the idea that we can’t love something until we know it ((Book X, p. 288)). When we encounter a new thing—his example was a word that we had never heard—it must, somehow, be connected to a category in our mind that we already know, and love, in order for it to become interesting or attractive to us. Our love for the already-known category of things will propel us to investigate the not-yet-known thing. If, on the other hand, the new thing does not connect to an already-known thing, then the new thing will either (a) not draw us in to investigate it, or (b) not register at all on our consciousness, being rendered virtually invisible—undifferentiated—to us, because it does not connect to anything we already know.

Here’s where my distraction happened. The question popped in my head: Is this why Jesus had to come in the flesh?

Allow me to muse. God is, by definition, that which is completely other than us. God is infinite, we are finite; God is creator, we are created, etc. Many theologies take an apophatic approach to God and state that it is impossible to say what God is, because there is nothing in creation to which God can be compared. If that is true—which I am inclined to agree—then, according to my statement in the previous paragraph, God could never be knowable to us, let alone interesting enough to us to draw us into an investigation of God. God, in God’s fullness, is the giver and sustainer of life, in which we live and move and have our being, but can always only be present in our undifferentiated consciousness. In other words, we could never know God because there is nothing in our already-knowing to which God can be connected that will draw us in.

When the second person of the Trinity became flesh, that all changed. We know what a man is. We have the category “man” in our mind through our lived experience of men. Granted, many people do not have a positive experience of “man” and, thus, may not be attracted to investigate a male from first century Palestine. However, there is, at the very least, an already-known category to which the otherness of God can now be attached.

This produces two things. First, it differentiates the God-consciousness in our thinking by connecting it to an already-known category: male. ((I need to emphasize that it is not that God is male, but that, in order for God to become human, God had to become either male or female. This is the nature of particularity. God could have just as easily come as female, or hermaphrodite, or bunny. However, given the culture into which God incarnated, male was a logical choice. see Newbigin’s Quote regarding particularity and election. Also, see Kelsey in To Understand God Truly and Farley in Practicing the Gospel.)) Second, by connecting to the already-known, the potential for interest in God is created and the further investigation, beginning with the known category of the human being, can begin toward the unknown, and ultimately unknowable, category of God.

God’s practice of incarnation is not a new thing. It happened throughout the Hebrew stories, ((here I am referring to burning bushes, talking donkeys, smoke and fire, cherubim over the ark of the Covenant, showbread, etc.)) so Jesus was not the first time that God was knowable in this way. However, by incarnating (and not merely manifesting, but truly becoming) as a human being—that which is closest to our lived experience, and most loved by us—the potential for attraction to the God-discovery-process becomes its highest manifestation. In other words, by becoming just like us, God got our attention enough that we could start to actually formulate ideas about the nature of God that would draw us into a positive God-orientation that did not denigrate too quickly into idolatry. Is this, perhaps, what is meant in Colossians when Jesus is called the image of the invisible God? (Colossians 1:15)

Now let me connect this to the Trinity. Not only is it the category of “man” that connects us to God, it is also the category of “relationship” that connects us to God. The relationships between the divine persons is beyond the scope of our ability to comprehend. Three-in-one is not something that exists in our experience, therefore, there is nothing to which it can be compared. It is rendered undifferentiated and unknowable. It is a mystery. However, without the incarnation, it would not be rendered knowable enough to even label it as a “mystery.” It would simply be invisible. When Jesus spoke of the Father and of “doing the Father’s will” (cg. John 14:8-14) he connected to a relationship that we know through our lived experience. Again, all of us have the category “Father/Child relationship” in our consciousness. It may not be a positive experience, and the Father/Child relationship differs from culture to culture, yet the category exists, nonetheless. Therefore, when Jesus speaks of God as Father, the idea of God having inter-divine relationships can connect to a human category that, again, (1) differentiates it in our consciousness, and (2) connects it to a category that has a high potential to be a positive one that draws us in.

Discussing the relationality of God will never explain God. ((Here, again, is the apophatic nature of theology. We must resist the temptation to declare that any model we build to discuss God is the definition of God. It cannot be that. Every model is simply a human construct that perpetuates the conversation, by which we engage in the relationships of interdependence.)) We need to give up that enterprise. However, discussing the relationality of God and relational ontology heightens our awareness that we are interdependent creatures. We are not autonomous selves, breathing our own celestial air. ((This comment “celestial air” is an idea I imagine when I think about the myth of the autonomous self. To think that we can be completely detached observers of the object is to believe that we somehow breathe different air than that which we observe. It is a dualism similar to that which separates God completely from created matter. God “breathes celestial air” as it were, thus denoting God’s distinction. We, too, then, must breathe our own celestial air if we are completely autonomous selves.)) We must realize that we exist because of the relationships we have with all things: God, the physical world of air, water, plants, animals, etc., and each other. We must think first of the other’s best interest if we are to ultimately survive.

This interdependence is true at every level of human existence. It is true within the single human body as all diverse parts must work together for the good of the entire body. It is true of the marriage relationship as each partner must submit to one another for the good of the marriage. ((It is not my intention to subtly promote the traditional nuclear family as the model of the universe. It is my lived reality, but I realize that this is culturally contextual. That said, all cultures have core relational structures as the basis of their society that correlate to the relationality of God)) It is true of the family, the local community, the nation, the world of nations, and the entire universe. It is all connected and must work for the good of the whole, setting aside personal power and gain. This, I believe, is one of the main things that Jesus taught us and demonstrated for us, and it is the mission of the church to be an example of this—to be a prophetic public companion. ((Simpson. Critical Social Theory.))

Here is the sketch played out in sequence of thought:

Article | Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology by Michel Barnes

Michel_Rene_BarnesMy research relies heavily on the Social Trinity and draws upon theologians like Lacugna, Moltmann, Zizioulas, among others. It is important to note that not everyone agrees with their theological constructs. Michel Barnes is a key voice that has pointed out a fundamental flaw in the recent Trinitarian conversation. The flaw centers on a misunderstanding and misappropriation of Augustines’s doctrine of the Trinity. Barnes statement can be summarized:

I have argued that contemporary systematic appropriations of Augustine are based upon methods and accounts that are preselected for mirroring a widely held hermeneutic or ideology of systematic theology. These methods and accounts typically include an unconscious dependence on de Régnon, a tendency towards a logic of ideas, including a lust (operative even when unfulfilled) for encyclo­pedic comprehensiveness at the conceptual level coupled with a reduc­ tive use of primary sources, a retreat from the polemical genre, with an emphasis on the philosophical content of doctrine. The popular judg­ ment that Augustine’s trinitarian theology sacrificed the oeconomia is presently too burdened by the unreflective use of such hermeneutical presuppositions to be regarded as established or even likely. ((Barnes, Michael R. “Augustine in Contemporary Trinitarian Theology.” Theological Studies 56, no. 2 (1995): 237-250.))

My Highlights of the Article

Page 1,

Content: “time since Augustine’s trinitarian theological depth, the last decade has seen a significant and widely expressed interest on the part of systematic theologians in the implications of Augustine’s theology for the development of trinitarian doctrine.”

Page 2,

Content: “This belief, and the associated diagrams that one finds in de 7 Margerie and LaCugna, or the “plurality-model/unity-model” jargon that one finds in Brown, all derive from a book written about 100 8 years ago, namely Théodore de Régnon’s studies on the Trinity. For it is de Régnon who invented the Greek/Latin paradigm, geometrical diagrams and all. De Régnon’s paradigm has become the sine qua non for framing the contemporary understanding of Augustine’s theology. To this extent, works as otherwise diverse as LaCugna’s and Brown’s 9 10 both exhibit a scholastic modernism, since they both take as an obvi­ ous given a point of view that is coextensive with the 20th century.”

Page 4,

Content: “To take just one of these limitations, the standard division of trini­tarian theologies into the Greek tradition, paradigmatically expressed by the Cappadocians, and its opposite, the Latin tradition, paradig­matically expressed by Augustine, ignores the close affiliation that flourished between Alexandrian (“Greek”) and Roman (“Latin”) the­ologies a generation earlier.”

Page 5,

Content: “The overwhelming presence in systematic discussions of Augustine of a watered-down version of de Régnon’s paradigm, coupled with an ignorance of the origin of the paradigm, reveals the systematic pen­ chant for using grand, broad-stroked, narrative forms. Like turn-of-the-century historians, contemporary systematicians seem to be dis­tinguished by the confidence with which they will deploy such grand, architectonic narrative forms.”

Page 11,

Content: “If the judgment that the de Trinitate lacks polemical intention were not so automatic it would be infamous; the ideological need for de Trinitate to be free of polemical intent means that the well is poisoned on that judgment, even if it is true we cannot say that we know it to be so.”

Page 11,

Content: “Augustine’s treatment of trinitarian economy in de Trinitate occurs 41 primarily in Books 2 to 4; it is Book 2 particularly which has served as a scholar’s laboratory, as it were, of Augustine’s economic theology of the Trinity. Formally, there are three noteworthy features to Augus­tine’s argument in this book. First and foremost, it is a polemically charged argument, designed to combat a false “economy of the Trin­ity”: various clues (e.g., the debate over the exegesis of John 5:19), as 42 well as the evidence of Collatiocum Maximino 26 and Contra Maximinum 2, identify the proponents of this false economy as Latin Homoians (“Arians”). Anti-Nicenes excluded the Father from Old Tes­tament theophanies so as to argue from these appearances the Son’s changeability and materiality, and so Augustine must counter this argument. Another interesting feature of Book 2 is that it is cast as a series of exegeses of Scripture (primarily passages from the Old Tes­tament). Probably Augustine’s choice of scriptural texts to exegete, and thus to dispute interpretations, is governed by Old Testament passages Homoians have chosen in support of their arguments (as is the case for New Testament passages in Books 5 and 6). Nonetheless, the book remains structured around scriptural exegesis. The final noteworthy aspect of the argument in Book 2 is that while the specific passages disputed are determined in response to Homoian polemic, some scriptural passages cited in support of Augustine’s position are used because these have an older history, authority, and role in an economic theology of the Trinity. I am thinking, in particular, of the pivotal appeal to John 1:1-3 at de Trinitate 2.2.9, which resembles Tertulliano especially John 1:1 as the paradigmatic expression of the economy of the Trinity.”

Page 12,

Content: “Any substantial interpretation of Augustine’s argument in Book 2, like any credible characterization of Augustine’s argument in de Tri­nitate as a whole, would have to interpret the text in light of these three aspects, for otherwise Augustine’s argument would be repre­sented in a false context and thus misunderstood. However, I have not found that readings οι de Trinitate in light of aspects such as the three just enumerated are common among contemporary theologians. More­ over, given the importance of Book 2 for most modern patristics’ ac­ counts of Augustine’s economical theology of the Trinity (especially Catholic accounts), it is surprising to find e.g., LaCugna’s treatment.


Marked up using iAnnotate PDF on my iPad

The Humble and Passionate Search

A quote from Augustine’s De Trinitate on the theological task:

Indeed we find ourselves unequal, except with much difficulty, to achieving a scientific comprehension of what is accessible to our bodily senses or of what we ourselves are in the inner man. Yet for all that there is no effrontery in burning to know, out of faithful piety, the divine and inexpressible truth that is above us, provided the mind is fired by the grace of our creator and savior, and not inflated by arrogant confidence in its own powers. ((Augustine. The Trinity. Translated by Edmund Hill. Vol. 5 The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Edited by John E. Rotelle. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1990. Book V, Prologue.))

On Writing, Blogging, and the Vocation of the Theologian | inspired by Augustine

“So I cannot decently refuse the brethren when they insist on their rights over me as their slave and demand that I should above all serve their praiseworthy studies in Christ by my tongue and my pen, a pair of horses in my chariot of which Charity is the driver. I must also acknowledge, incidentally, that by writing I have myself learned much that I did not know. So this work of mine should not be dismissed as superfluous either by the indolent or the learned, since it is very necessary to many who are neither indolent nor learned, myself included.” ((Augustine. The Trinity. Translated by Edmund Hill. Vol. 5 The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Edited by John E. Rotelle. Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1990, 127.))

If I were teaching a Vocation of the Theologian class ((which I have taken. View my class notes.)) I might consider opening with this passage from Augustine’s De Trinitate. Augustine pauses at the beginning of Book III and contemplates this large task of writing that he is pursuing. The “brethren” to whom he refers are the Greek scholars that have already written about the Trinity in the Greek language. Here he is making the argument that very little has been written in Latin, his mother tongue.

His words highlight two important characteristics that are necessary to be an adequate teacher of the church:

  1. Charity (Love) must drive the chariot. Love is the motivation behind everything that we say and write. If this is not the case, then our words are clanging cymbals and the chaff of arrogance.
  2. The process of writing is not pursued with the end goal of what we have written being read so much as it is that in the process of writing the writer learns. This motivation inverts the intuitive suspicion that the scholar simply seeks to puff herself up to appear superior to others. Rather, the writing is the process of sorting through the data, to make sense of it, and to articulate it in such a way that thoughts coalesce. It is a discipline of meditation.

These words also help me understand why I want to blog. It is not that I want hundreds of people to follow my blog. It is in the discipline of creating the blog that my thoughts become organized and clear. The public nature of the blog also creates a necessary filter to temper my words and weigh them more carefully before they come to the light of the public eye.