Academic journal article Theological Studies

Oppositional Pairs and Christological Synthesis: Rereading Augustine's De Trinitate

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Oppositional Pairs and Christological Synthesis: Rereading Augustine's De Trinitate

Article excerpt

EARLY CHRISTIAN LITERATURE IS DISTINCTIVE for its highly rhetorical construction. Whereas Scholastic theology privileges the logical movement from premises to conclusions, early Christian literature is more broadly concerned with the art of persuasion, including the confrontational "persuasion" of polemic. But, while a growing literature focuses on early Christian rhetoric, little attention has been paid to a specifically theological analysis of how this rhetoric structures the exposition of central Christian doctrines. (1) A significant case in point is Augustine's classic treatise, De Trinitate. Modern analysis has revisited the issues of the viability or otherwise of the "psychological analogy" and the relation between Augustine and Neoplatonism, and it has explored the polemical contexts in the framework of pro-Nicene and anti-Nicene theologies. (2) It has been concerned with whether Augustine's Trinitarianism is properly construed as privileging the essence over the persons, or whether it neglects the scriptural account of the "economic Trinity." (3) Attempts to delineate the structure of De Trinitate as a whole have been conspicuously rare in recent scholarship, while the few exceptions tend to construe "structure" in terms of thematic sections (i.e, "faith" and "reason") or movement of an argument. (4) Missing from among the undoubted riches of these approaches is close attention to the specific interplay of words by which Augustine constructed and communicated his theological vision in this classic work. (5)

The present moment in theological scholarship manifests a certain pressure to remedy this lacuna. Elizabeth Clark has advocated that study of early Christianity embrace the literary turn through a closer attentiveness to "the textuality of early Christian writings." (6) Her recommendation of strategies generated by the linguistic turn is shaped by her own commitment to a critical theory that seeks to agitate presumptions of stability of meaning and the integrity of referentiality. As such, Clark's program tends toward a poststructuralism inasmuch as it focuses on the indeterminacy, or absence of stable structures of coherence within a text. Indeed, Augustinian scholarship is already at the front ranks of attempts to read Augustine in postmodern perspective. (7) But Clark's recommendation of poststructuralist strategies can also be helpful in reminding us of the as yet relatively unexplored potential of structuralist strategies that seek to illuminate the production of meaning through the internal relations that form a given text. As a bishop and preacher, Augustine intended not so much to inculcate indeterminacy as to find ways to structure Christian meaning in communicable form. The retracing of his maneuvers to this end enables a valuable reappropriation of his theological vision, even if such reappropriation is to be succeeded by a postmodern interrogation of the stability and coherence of the text.

My proposal for a new reading of Augustine's De Trinitate derives from an approach that has been dubbed "structuralist poetics." As described by literary critic Jonathan Culler, such a strategy involves "an understanding of the devices, conventions and strategies of literature, the means by which literary works create their effects." (8) Toward such a structuralist poetics of Augustine's De Trinitate, I intend to explore here the applicability of an elementary tool of structuralist analysis to Augustine's classic. That tool is the discernment of "binary opposites," or "oppositional pairs," and their meaning-making interplay within a text. The full implementation of this strategy would involve a detailed reading of the work as a whole, showing how the interplay of a cluster of oppositional pairs is integral to the construction of its theological vision. For now, I intend to give only a preview of what such a reading would look like. Thus, I will briefly describe the structuralist notion of "oppositional pairs," which I see as corresponding to the ancient rhetorical trope of "antithesis. …

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