On the Trinity

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Book III.

The question is discussed with respect to the appearances of God spoken of in the previous book, which were made under bodily forms, whether only a creature was formed, for the purpose of manifesting God to human sight in such way as he at each time judged fitting; or whether angels, already existing, were so sent as to speak in the person of god; and this, either by assuming a bodily appearance from the bodily creature, or by changing their own bodies into whatever forms they would, suitable to the particular action, according to the power given to them by the creator; while the essence itself of god was never seen in itself.

Preface.-Why Augustin Writes of the Trinity. What He Claims from Readers, What Has Been Said in the Previous Book.

1. I Would have them believe, who are willing to do so, that I had rather bestow labor in reading, than in dictating what others may read. But let those who will not believe this, but are both able and willing to make the trial, grant me whatever answers may be gathered from reading, either to my own inquiries, or to those interrogations of others, which for the character I bear in the service of Christ, and for the zeal with which I burn that our faith may be fortified against the error of carnal and natural men,(1) I must needs bear with; and then let them see how easily I would refrain from this labor, and with how much even of joy I would give my pen a holiday. But if what we have read upon these subjects is either not sufficiently set forth, or is not to be found at all, or at any rate cannot easily be found by us, in the Latin tongue, while we are not so familiar with the Greek tongue as to be found in any way competent to read and understand therein the books that treat of such topics, in which class of writings, to judge by the little which has been translated for us, I do not doubt that everything is contained that we can profitably seek;(2) while yet I cannot resist my brethren when they exact of me, by that law by which I am made their servant, that I should minister above all to their praiseworthy studies in Christ by my tongue and by my pen, of which two yoked together in me, Love is the charioteer; and while I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know: if this be so, then this my labor ought not to seem superfluous to any idle, or to any very learned reader; while it is needful in no small part, to many who are busy, and to many who are unlearned,and among these last to myself. Supported, then, very greatly, and aided by the writings we have already read of others on this subject, I have undertaken to inquire into and to discuss, whatever it seems to my judgment can be reverently inquired into and discussed, concerning the Trinity, the one supreme and supremely good God; He himself exhorting me to the inquiry, and helping me in the discussion of it; in order that, if there are no other writings of the kind, there may be something for those to have and read who are willing and capable; but if any exist already, then it may be so much the easier to find some such writings, the more there are of the kind in existence.

2. Assuredly, as in all my writings I desire not only a pious reader, but also a free corrector, so I especially desire this in the present inquiry, which is so important that I would there were as many inquirers as there are objectors. But as I do not wish my reader to be bound down to me, so I do not wish my corrector to be bound down to himself. Let not the former love me more than the catholic faith, let not the latter love himself more than the catholic verity. As I say to the former, Do not be willing to yield to my writings as to the canonical Scriptures; but in these, when thou hast discovered even what thou didst not previously believe, believe it unhesitatingly; while in those, unless thou hast understood with certainty what thou didst not before hold as certain, be unwilling to hold it fast: so I say to the latter, Do not be willing to amend my writings by thine own opinion or disputation, but from the divine text, or by unanswerable reason. If thou apprehendest anything of truth in them, its being there does not make it mine, but by understanding and loving it, let it be both thine and mine; but if thou convictest anything of falsehood, though it have once been mine, in that I was guilty of the error, yet now by avoiding it let it be neither thine nor mine.

3. Let this third book, then, take its beginning at the point to which the second had reached. For after we had arrived at this, I that we desired to show that the Son was not l therefore less than the Father, because the Father sent and the Son was sent; nor the Holy Spirit therefore less than both, because we read in the Gospel that He was sent both by the one and by the other; we undertook then to inquire, since the Son was sent thither, where He already was, for He came into the world, and "was in the world;"(3) since also the Holy Spirit was sent thither, where Healready was, for "the Spirit of the Lord filleth the world, and that which containeth all things hath knowledge of the voice;"(4) whether the Lord was therefore "sent" because He was born in the flesh so as to be no longer hidden, and, as it were, came forth from the bosom of the Father, and appeared to the eyes of men in the form of a servant; and the Holy Spirit also was therefore "sent," because He too was seen as a dove in a corporeal form,(5) and in cloven tongues, like as of fire;(6) so that, to be sent, when spoken of them, means to go forth to the sight of mortals in some corporeal form from a spiritual hiding-place; which, because the Father did not, He is said only to have sent, not also to be sent. Our next inquiry was, Why the Father also is not sometimes said to be sent, if He Himself was manifested through those corporeal forms which appeared to the eyes of the ancients. But if the Son was manifested at these times, why should He be said to be "sent" so long after, when the fullness of time was come that He should be born of a woman;(7) since, indeed, He was sent before also, viz., when He appeared corporeally in those forms? Or if He were not rightly said to be "sent," except when the Word was made flesh;(8) why should the Holy Spirit be read of as "sent," of whom such an incarnation never took place? But if neither the Father, nor the Son, but the Holy Spirit was manifested through these ancient appearances; why should He too be said to be "sent" now, when He was also sent before in these various manners? Next we subdivided the subject, that it might be handled most carefully, and we made the question threefold, of which one part was explained in the second book, and two remain, which I shall next proceed to discuss. For we have already inquired and determined, that not only the Father, nor only the Son, nor only the Holy Spirit appeared in those ancient corporeal forms and visions. but either indifferently the Lord God, who is understood to be the Trinity itself, or some one person of the Trinity, whichever the text of the narrative might signify, through intimations supplied by the context.

Chapter 1.-What is to Be Said Thereupon.

4. Let us, then, continue our inquiry now in order. For under the second head in that division the question occurred, whether the creature was formed for that work only, wherein God, in such way as He then judged it to be fitting, might be manifested to human sight; or whether angels, who already existed, were so sent as to speak in the person of God, assuming a corporeal appearance from the corporeal creature for the purpose of their ministry; or else changing and turning their own body itself, to which they are not subject, but govern it as subject to themselves, into whatever forms they would, that were appropriate and fit for their actions, according to the power given to them by the Creator. And when this part of the question shall have been investigated, so far as God permit, then, lastly, we shall have to see to that question with which we started, viz., whether the Son and the Holy Spirit were also "sent" before; and if it be so, then what difference there is between that sending and the one of which we read in the Gospel; or whether neither of them were sent, except when either the Son was made of the Virgin Mary, or when the Holy Spirit appeared in a visible form, whether as a dove or in tongues of fire.(9)

5. I confess, however, that it reaches further than my purpose can carry me to inquire whether the angels. secretly working by the spiritual quality of their body abiding still in them, assume somewhat from the inferior and more bodily elements, which, being fitted to themselves, they may change and turn like a garment into any corporeal appearances they will, and those appearances themselves also real, as real water was changed by our Lord into real wine;(10) or whether they transform their own bodies themselves into that which they would, suitably to the particular act. But it does not signify to the present question which of these it is. And although I be not able to understand these things by actual experience, seeing that I am a man, as the angels do who do these things, and know them better than I know them, viz., how far my body is changeable by the operation of my will; whether it be by my own experience of myself, or by that which I have gathered from others; yet it is not necessary here to say which of these alternatives I am to believe upon the authority of the divine Scriptures, lest I be compelled to prove it, and so my discourse become too long upon a subject which does not concern the present question.

6. Our present inquiry then is, whether the angels were then the agents both in showing those bodily appearances to the eyes of men and in sounding those words in their ears when the sensible creature itself, serving the Creator at His beck, was turned for the time into whatever was needful; as it is written in the book of Wisdom, "For the creature serveth Thee, who art the Maker, increaseth his strength against the unrighteous for their punishment, and abateth his strength for the benefit of such as put their trust in Thee. Therefore, even then was it altered into all fashions, and was obedient to Thy grace, that nourisheth all things according to the of them that longed for Thee."(11) For the power of the will of God reaches through the spiritual creature even to visible and sensible effects of the corporeal creature. For wheredoes not the wisdom of the omnipotent God work that which He wills, which "reacheth from one end to another mightily, and sweetly doth order all things"?(12)

Chapter 2.-The Will of God is the Higher Cause of All Corporeal Change. This is Shown by an Example.

7. But there is one kind of natural order in the conversion and changeableness of bodies, which, although itself also serves the bidding of God, yet by reason of its unbroken continuity has ceased to cause wonder; as is the case, for instance, with those things which are changed either in very short, or at any rate not long, intervals of time, in heaven, or earth, or sea; whether it be in rising, or in setting, or in change of appearance from time to time; while there are other things, which, although arising from that same order, yet are less familiar on account of longer intervals of time. And these things, although the many stupidly wonder at them, yet are understood by those who inquire into this present world, and in the progress of generations become so much the less wonderful, as they are the more often repeated and known by more people. Such are the eclipses of the sun and moon, and some kinds of stars, appearing seldom, and earthquakes, and unnatural births of living creatures, and other similar things; of which not one takes place without the will of God; yet, that it is so, is to most people not apparent. And so the vanity of philosophers has found license to assign these things also to other causes, true causes perhaps, but proximate ones, while they are not able to see at all the cause that is higher than all others, that is, the will of God; or again to false causes, and to such as are not even put forward out of any diligent investigation of corporeal things and motions, but from their own guess and error.

8. I will bring forward an example, if I can, that this may be plainer. There is, we know, in the human body, a certain bulk of flesh and an outward form, and an arrangement and distraction of limbs, and a temperament of health; and a soul breathed into it governs this body, and that soul a rational one; which, therefore, although changeable, yet can be partaker of that unchangeable wisdom, so that "it may partake of that which is in and of itself;"(13) as it is written in the Psalm concerning all saints, of whom as of living stones is built that Jerusalem which is the mother of us all, eternal in the heavens. For so it is sung, "Jerusalem is builded as a city, that is partaker of that which is in and of itself."(14) For "in and of itself," in that place, is understood of that chiefest and unchangeable good, which is God, and of His own wisdom and will. To whom is sung in another place, "Thou shalt change them, and they shall be changed; but Thou art the same."(15)

Chapter 3.-Of the Same Argument.

Let us take, then, the case of a wise man, such that his rational soul is already partaker of the unchangeable and eternal truth, so that he consults it about all his actions, nor does anything at all, which he does not by it know ought to be done, in order that by being subject to it and obeying it he may do rightly. Suppose now that this man, upon counsel with the highest reason of the divine righteousness, which he hears with the ear of his heart in secret, and by its bidding, should weary his body by toil in some office of mercy, and should contract an illness; and upon consulting the physicians, were to be told by one that the cause of the disease was overmuch dryness of the body, but by another that it was overmuch moisture; one of the two no doubt would allege the true cause and the other would err, but both would pronounce concerning proximate causes only, that is, corporeal ones. But if the cause of that dryness were to be inquired into, and found to be the self-imposed toil, then we should have come to a yet higher cause, which proceeds from the soul so as to affect the body which the soul governs. Yet neither would this be the first cause, for that doubtless was a higher cause still, and lay in the unchangeable wisdom itself, by serving which in love, and by obeying its ineffable commands, the soul of the wise man had undertaken that self-imposed toil; and so nothing else but the will of God would be found most truly to be the first cause of that illness. But suppose now in that office of pious toil this wise man had employed the help of others to co-operate in the good work, who did not serve God with the same will as himself, but either desired to attain the reward of their own carnal desires, or shunned merely carnal unpleasantnesses;-suppose, too, he had employed beasts of burden, if the completion of the work required such a provision, which beasts of burden would be certainly irrational animals, and would not therefore move their limbs under their burdens because they at all thought of that good work, but from the natural appetite of their own liking, and for the avoiding of annoyance;-suppose, lastly, he had employed bodily things themselves that lack all sense, but were necessary for that work, as e.g. corn, and wine, and oils, clothes, or money, or a book, or anything of the kind;-certainly, in all these bodily things thus employed in this work, whether animate or inanimate, whatever took place of movement, of wear and tear, of reparation, of destruction, of renewal or of change in one way or another, as places and times affected them; pray, could there be, I say, any other cause of all these visible and changeable facts, except the invisible and unchangeable will of God, using all these, both bad and irrational souls, and lastly bodies, whether such as were inspired and animated by those souls, or such as lacked all sense, by means of that upright soul as the seat of His wisdom, since primarily that good and holy soul itself employed them, which His wisdom had subjected to itself in a pious and religious obedience?

Chapter 4.-God Uses All Creatures as He Will, and Makes Visible Things for the Manifestation of Himself

9. What, then, we have alleged by way of example of a single wise man, although of one still bearing a mortal body and still seeing only in part, may be allowably extended also to a family, where there is a society of such men, or to a city, or even to the whole world, if the chief rule and government of human affairs were in the hands of the wise, and of those who were piously and perfectly subject to God; but because this is not the case as yet (for it behoves us first to be exercised in this our pilgrimage after mortal fashion, and to be taught with stripes by force of gentleness and patience), let us turn our thoughts to that country itself that is above and heavenly, from which we here are pilgrims. For there the will of God, "who maketh His angels spirits, and His ministers a flaming fire,"(16) presiding among spirits which are joined in perfect peace and friendship, and combined in one will by a kind of spiritual fire of charity, as it were in an elevated and holy and secret seat, as in its own house and in its own temple, thence diffuses itself through all things by certain most perfectly ordered movements of the creature first spiritual, then corporeal; and uses all according to the unchangeable pleasure of its own purpose, whether incorporeal things or things corporeal, whether rational or irrational spirits, whether good by His grace or evil through their own will. But as the mort gross and inferior bodies are governed in due order by the more subtle and powerful ones, so all bodies are governed by the living spirit; and the living spirit devoid of reason, by the reasonable living spirit; and the reasonable living spirit that makes default and sins, by the living and reasonable spirit that is pious and just; and that by God Himself, and so the universal creature by its Creator, from whom and through whom and in whom it is also created and established.(17) And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions. For nothing is done visibly or sensibly, unless either by command or permission from the interior palace, invisible and intelligible, of the supreme Governor, according to the unspeakable justice of rewards and punishments, of favor and retribution, in that far-reaching and boundless commonwealth of the whole creature.

10. If, therefore, the Apostle Paul, although he still bare the burden of the body, which is subject to corruption and presseth down the soul,(18) and although he still saw only in part and in an enigma,(19) wishing to depart and be with Christ,(20) and groaning within himself, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of his body,(21) yet was able to preach the Lord Jesus Christ significantly, in one way by his tongue, in another by epistle, in another by the sacrament of His body and blood (since, certainly, we do not call either the tongue of the apostle, or the parchments, or the ink, or the significant sounds which his tongue uttered, or the alphabetical signs written on skins, the body and blood of Christ; but that only which we take of the fruits of the earth and consecrate by mystic prayer, and then receive duly to our spiritual health in memory of the passion of our Lord for us: and this, although it is brought by the hands of men to that visible form, yet is not sanctified to become so great a sacrament, except by the spirit of God working invisibly; since God works everything that is done in that work through corporeal movements, by setting in motion primarily the invisible things of His servants, whether the souls of men, or the services of hidden spirits subject to Himself): what wonder if also in the creature of heaven and earth, of sea and air, God works the sensible and visible things which He wills, in order to signify and manifest Himself in them, as He Himself knows it to be fitting, without any appearing of His very substance itself, whereby He is, which is altogether unchangeable, and more inwardly and secretly exalted than all spirits whom He has created?

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FootNotes:

  1. [The English translator renders "animalium" by "psychical," to agree with yuciko/j in 1 Cor. ii. 14. The rendering "natural" of the A.V. is more familiar.-W G. T. S.]
  2. [This is an important passage with reference to Augustin's learning. From it, it would appear that he had not read the Greek Trinitarians in the original, and that only "a little" of these had been translated, at the time when he was composing this treatise. As this was from A.D. 400 to A.D. 416-, the treatises of Athanasius (d. 373), Basil (d. 379), Gregory of Nyssa (d. 400?), and Gregory of Nazianzum (d. 390?) had been composed and were current in the Eastern church. That Augustin thought out this profound scheme of the doctrine of the Trinity by the close study of Scripture alone, and unassisted by the equally profound trinitarianism of the Greek church, is an evidence of the depth and strength of his remarkable intellect.-W. G. T. S.]
  3. John i. 10.
  4. Wisd. i. 7.
  5. Matt. iii. 16.
  6. Acts ii. 3.
  7. Gal. iv. 4.
  8. John i. 14.
  9. See above, Book ii. chap. vii. n. 13.
  10. John ii. 9.
  11. Wisd. xvi. 24, 25
  12. Wisd. viii. 1.
  13. [The original is: "ut sit participatio ejus in idipsum." The English translator renders: "So that it may partake thereof in itself." The thought of Augustin is, that the believing soul though mutable partakes of the immutable; and he designates the immutable as the in idipsum: the self-existent. In that striking passage in the Confessions, in which he describes the spiritual and extatic meditations of himself and his mother, as they looked out upon the Mediterranean from the windows at Ostia-a scene well known from Ary Schefer's painting-he denominates God the idipsum: the "self same" (Confessions IX. x). Augustin refers to the same absolute immutability of God, in this place. By faith, man is "a partaker of a divine nature," (2 Pet. i. 4.)-W.G.T.S.].
  14. Ps. cxxii. 3. Vulg.
  15. Ps. cii. 26, 27.
  16. Ps. civ. 4.
  17. Col. i. 16.
  18. Wisd. ix. 15.
  19. 1 Cor. xiii. 12.
  20. Phil. i. 23.
  21. Rom. viii. 23.