Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How Augustine Used the Trinity: Functionalism and the Development of Doctrine

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

How Augustine Used the Trinity: Functionalism and the Development of Doctrine

Article excerpt

At various stages in the development of doctrine there emerges something new that produces a change of course and direction. Such pivotal events in doctrinal development capture the imagination and become exciting turning points in the narrative of theology. For the doctrine of the Trinity, one thinks of Athanasius, Nicea, the Cappadocians, and Constantinople as obvious examples. One more obvious example is Augustine. This essay explores why Augustine represents such a pivotal change of course in the doctrinal development of the Trinity, and I suggest a revision of the common narrative.

First of all I should note that there are other calls for revision as well, and the revisions are diverse. In the recent past, Augustine fell out of Trinitarian favor in the retrieval of so-called Eastern emphases.1 Such anti-Augustinian trends essentially radicalized the standard account, exemplified by De Regnon's narrative that "Western trinitarian theology begins with . . . divine unity . . . while eastern trinitarian theology begins with divine diversity. . . ."2 I do not intend to engage that debate despite its importance. I do acknowledge a small but growing cadre of thinkers who are calling for another rereading of the history of Trinitarian theology.3 Scholars as diverse as Michel Barnes, Lewis Ayres, John Milbank, Carol Harrison, Basil Studer, Edmund Hill, Sarah Coakley, Mark McIntosh, and Rowan Williams(4) question this narrative, especially with regard to such pivotal figures as the Cappadocian Fathers and St. Augustine.

My proposal offers rather another kind of revision, and makes another kind of value judgment. I propose a developmental model that amends the standard account(5) to take into fuller consideration what I shall call the "post-formal functionalization" of doctrine, and its reverberations throughout the structure and content of theology. In simpler terms, I want to bring to our attention the way in which doctrine develops and then gets used in theology. In particular, the essay aims at learning how the doctrine of the Trinity was used by Augustine immediately following its formalization in the late fourth century.

A Brief History of Trinitarian Development

To make my proposal, it will be useful to recount a very brief history of Trinitarian development. I only have time to give, at best, a dictionary-entry definition of the narrative. But I hope it will serve to remind us of exactly what was achieved in the dialectical process towards formalization, and the concern for ecclesial unity that attended and even fueled that process.

From the monotheism and high Christology of the biblical witness, especially the Pauline and Johannine interest in the unity between Father, Son, and Spirit, the economic theologians(6) developed a way of speaking about the three activities of the one God, initiating the language of "Triad" or "Trinity" for God's involvement with the world. Dissatisfaction with Arius led a new wave of thinking about the unity and nature of God, especially in the relationship between the Father and the Son. The conclusion that the Father and Son shared the same substance was reached at Nicea under the ecclesial leadership of Athanasius and the political sway of Emperor Constantine. This Nicene concern for God's unity was extended to the Holy Spirit at Constantinople, where the nature of God was decided in radically unifying relational terms. The Conciliar creed, now called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, brought the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity to its formal completion.

In the ante-Nicene movement Bernard Lonergan saw two general developments in the learning of the church: (1) the development of Trinitarian and Christological doctrine; and (2) development of the very notion of dogma.7 The apostles themselves held "dogmas," though not the sort worked out through careful systematic reflection, but rather "rough and ready" dogmas developed in the service of mission and witness. …

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