I just finished rereading Augustine’s On the Trinity (De Trinitate) in preparation for one of the courses I will be teaching this semester at the College of Transfiguration. It’s not necessarily a text I would have chosen to teach if it were up to me. But it wasn’t up to me. I am covering a course for a colleague who is going on sabbatical and the course-material was set by him.
On the one hand, it is hard to object to reading Augustine’s On the Trinity at a theological college. It is a classic (albeit a contested one) in the history of theology and philosophy. No doubt students will have a better understanding of the history of Christian thought (at least in the West), current debates on the doctrine of the Trinity (e.g., Have current advocates of a social doctrine of the Trinity misread and mischaracterized Augustine’s position?), and philosophy (e.g., an early version of Descartes’ cogito (“I think therefore I am”) argument appears in book 15).
On the other hand, On the Trinity is a complex and conceptually challenging text. The extent of the influence of Plotinus and Cicero on Augustine is debated, but some knowledge of their thought will surely be helpful in reading Augustine. And how much time does one really want to spend on that? More importantly, for folks who are preparing to be priests, the real challenge will be to see how Augustine’s text is still relevant in their ecclesial and pastoral context. I do find something deeply, spiritually significant in following Augustine’s inward ascent to a contemplative embrace of the Triune God who has revealed Godself in history. But it is tough climbing to say the least.
I have also been struck in my rereading of Augustine’s text by how often his argument ends up saying that the Trinity is incomprehensible. In fact, Augustine seems particularly intent on making this point. This runs counter to so many simple interpretations of Augustine’s book that say he was trying to provide psychological analogies in the human mind in order to explain the nature of the Trinity. And I suspect many theological students will want to read Augustine this way. After all, wouldn’t any future priest want to be ready for the inevitable question from parishioners: Can you please explain the Trinity in a way that makes sense? And yet, I really don’t think Augustine provides easy answers here. I rather think Augustine ends up saying something like the doctrine of the Trinity helps us to understand better our human nature in that we are created in the image of God, but that the human image, because so different from the original, doesn’t really help all that much in making the Trinity comprehensible to us. This is probably profoundly true but I suspect for the inquiring parishioner and for many priests in the making it may also be profoundly frustrating.
Please pray for all of us as we make our way through Augustine’s On the Trinity. Pray for wisdom and understanding, and for insight into the continuing relevance of Augustine’s thought in our churches and in our lives.