Wednesday, March 16, 2011

St. Augustine and the Beginnings of the Trinity Doctrine

I've been getting a lot out of reading Hugh Nibley's works lately, if you can't tell . . . Here is another excerpt from his excellent book, The World and the Prophets. This time, he lays out for us the beginnings of the Trinity doctrine and the rejection of the early Christian knowledge that God had a physical body that was separate from Christ and the Holy Ghost.  The Trinity was only made possible when the Bible was no longer taken literally, but "spiritually".  Additionally, we see that the Trinity doctrine arose because the schools and philosophers of the day--not the Christians--were the ones teaching that God had to be immaterial.  The Trinity tried to reconcile the two opposing views.  Today, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints retains the ancient Christian doctrine of the Godhead, and it is because the Lord has blessed His people with revelations again in these latter days.

"For twenty years at least, Augustine was never able to find out just what the Christian church believed. He tells how he went to school as a boy and made fun of the things his mother believed, how he joined a strange Christian sect, the Manichaeans, which enjoyed enormous popularity at the time, and for once in his life thought he knew certainty; when he left the Manichaeans, he says the bottom of his world fell out, and he spent the ensuing years in black despair; he joined a group calling themselves the sancti, large numbers of whom were living secretly in Rome; and all the time his mother kept after him to return to the church of his birth, but this he could not do because their arguments could not stand up to those of the Manichaeans, from whom in a vague way he still hoped for light; when he finally became a catechumen upon the urging of his mother and St. Ambrose, easily the most important leader in the church of the time, he still did not know what to believe but was "doubting everything, tossed back and forth in it all." In listening to Ambrose, he says, he gradually came to the conviction that "if the Catholic Church did not teach the truth, at least it did not teach the kind of error I formerly attributed to it."15 Ambrose was another man with a thoroughly non-Christian education who had joined the church by compulsion late in life; it was he, says Augustine, who "drew aside the mystic veil, laying open spiritually those things which if taken literally seemed to teach perversity."16 Perversity to whom?—to Augustine and his fellow sceptics in the schools. Ambrose taught them that it was not necessary to believe all that childish literal-minded stuff in order to be a Christian. But why had he not known that from the first? He was born and reared a Christian by a singularly devout parent; now he was over thirty years old and had studied Christianity all his life—he was anything but stupid: why then had he been so thoroughly convinced that the church accepted the scriptures literally, as he and the other intellectuals never could? Simply because the Christians did accept them that way. Augustine says he could never accept the Bible until he realized that it was a double book, "so it might receive all in its open bosom, and through narrow passages waft over to thee some few."17
After this discovery, he tells us, a great hope began to dawn on him, namely, that the church did not teach as he had always thought it did, "that God is bounded by the figure of a human body."18 But why was he so convinced all those years that that was the teaching of the church? What had his earnest Christian parents and teachers been telling him about God all through his youth and adolescence if at the age of thirty he is still absolutely convinced that the Christians believe God has a body? "Since my earliest study of sapientia [that is, the learning of the schools]," he explains, "I had always fled [from the idea that God had a body]."19 It was the schools that taught him to do that; the Platonic God was the foundation of the current pagan instruction, and from it Augustine never freed himself. What he did free himself from was the beliefs of his mother—and I cannot doubt that the things which he thought his mother believed, after he had had constant and careful instruction from her from infancy to manhood, were what she and her church really did believe.
After describing the immense relief that came to him when he finally realized that he might become a Christian without giving up any of his philosophical ideas, Augustine says that he still did not have the vaguest idea how he should think about God!20 Couldn't the church tell him? Didn't Ambrose know? To make a very long story very short, he finally got his answer only when God procured for him, as he puts it, certain books of the Platonists. But he still thought that Christ as a man "had a human soul and mind," while Alypius, his inseparable friend, "thought the Catholics had a different idea about Christ; . . . that no human mind was to be ascribed to him." Many other people believed as Alypius did, he says, and many didn't.21 Where is the leadership of the church? Who could really tell him about God? Like Origen, he searched hard but found no one: in the end he had to work out the solution all for himself—from the ground up, and the church was only too glad to accept his solution.
"Augustine," says Thomasius, "is the true founder of the speculative theology of the Trinity,"22 which was to remain the most active branch of philosophy and theology for fifteen centuries. Convinced that the highest blessedness depended on a true and complete grasp of this mystery, Augustine exerted prodigies of energy and genius in trying to achieve it. For fifteen years he labored away at his thesis on the trinity, "without," says Thomasius, "ever reaching a satisfactory conclusion."23 Beginning with axiom No. 1 of the schools, the absolute oneness and immateriality of God, he tries to work a threeness out of it by a series of elaborate analogies with the human mind, only to reach the final conclusion that if such a procedure furnishes an inadequate answer, it is at least an answer: Impar imago, sed tamen imago!24 The Father and the Son "cannot be really different persons, yet neither can they be entirely the same"; and "since the Father has a Son, he cannot very well be the Father." Again, Augustine wants the Holy Ghost to be a person, but his philosophical training will not allow it. Here certainly is a place where revelation would be helpful; its intellectual substitutes break down at every point. We say there are three persons, Augustine sums it up, not because there are three, but because we must say something. (Non ut illud diceretur, sed ne taceretur).25 "Thus," Thomasius concludes, "this attempt, carried out with such labor and perspicacity by the great teacher of the Church, is only a proof that the Trinity is not to be proven in such a way."26 This is the same conclusion we reached regarding Origen, and a confession of Augustine to a friend in a letter reads exactly like Origen's frequent admission in the First Principles: The friend had asked why, since the trinity are in all things inseparable, Christ alone took on a human body? "This is such a supremely difficult question," the saint replies, "and such a very important matter that it cannot here be settled by a sententia, nor can we be sure of solving it by any investigation. I make so bold, therefore, in writing to you, to indicate what I have in mind rather than giving an explanation, that you might judge the thing according to your own best understanding."27
"Augustine," says Grabmann, "confronted face to face the hardest questions of Christian doctrine; those which have presented the greatest challenge to the human mind; and for years and for decades he worked away trying to solve them." That authority then lists the most important of these as unsolved, and says, "In these questions and others he has largely failed to work through to full clarity of understanding, and if dark and difficult passages on those themes are found in many places in his writings, he at least showed the way for all later theology."28 Wilhelm Christ, in the best-known "standard" history of Greek literature, writes that in the fourth century, Hellenism forced Christianity to go to its schools; "Christianity was squeezed into a system congenial to pagan-Greek-rationalist thought, and in that safe protective suit of armor was able to face up to the world, but in the process it had to sacrifice its noblest moral and spiritual forces." 29 How aptly this recalls Father Comb├Ęs' declaration that Augustine wanted to give the church a doctrine so strong that she would never again have anything to fear from her enemies. The armor was provided—and at what a price!
As to the administrative problems with which Augustine wrestled, we can do no better than quote from a recent study by the learned Jesuit, Father Bligh: "St. Augustine provides the perplexing spectacle of an extremely wise and holy man who began by condemning the use of force against heretics, but changed his mind after observing the good effects of coercive measures taken without his approval. . . . Reverence for Augustine," he concludes, "forbids me to say that his justification of persecution was wrong; but its fruits were evil in the centuries which followed, and we may suspect that, if he had had as much experience to reflect on as we have, Augustine would have reverted to his first opinion."30
Here two able Catholic scholars have described St. Augustine, the one as toiling away for whole decades trying to work out the basic problems of doctrine and failing to come out with a clear solution, and the other as doing his best in the light of his limited experience to work out a basic policy of church government—with unfortunate results. The Latter-day Saints have always maintained that guidance both in doctrinal and administrational matters can come to the church only by revelation. We couldn't ask for a better case to prove it than that of St. Augustine, precisely because he is such a good and great man. The better man he is, the better he illustrates the point, which is that no man, no matter how good, wise, hard-working, devoted, and well-educated he may be, can give us certainty without revelation. In Father Bligh's opinion, time has not vindicated Augustine's opinions. It has shown that we can trust only the prophets."

15.   Augustine, Confessions VI, 4, in PL 32:721. (Italics added.)
16.   Ibid., VI, 5, in PL 32:722.
17.   Ibid., VI, 11, in PL 32:729.
18.   Ibid., VII, 1, in PL 32:733.
19.   Ibid.
20.   Ibid., VII, 9, in PL 32:741.
21.   Ibid., VII, 18, in PL 32:746.
22.   D. Thomasius, Die Dogmengeschichte der alten Kirche (Erlangen: Deichert, 1886), 1:281.
23.   Ibid., p. 281, n. 2, and p. 282.
24.   Ibid., 283.
25.   Ibid., 283—88; the last passage is from De Trinitate V, 8; VII, 4, cited in ibid., p. 287, n. 3.
26.   Ibid., 287.
27.   Origen, Epistle 11, in PL 33:75—76.
28.   Grabmann, 2:44.
29.   Wilhelm Christ, Geschichte der Grieschen Literatur (Munich: Beck, 1924), 2:955.
30.   John Bligh, "The 'Edict of Milan': Curse or Blessing?" Church Quarterly Review 153 (1952): 309.

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