Reflections from Seminary Students

Global Christian Heritage I

May 18th, 2010 § 1 Comment

The story of Christianity is littered with heretics, saints, and debates concerning the two.  For the most part, Christian history is a sometimes polite, sometimes violent discussion over the life, death, and miraculous resurrection of Jesus, a Galilean carpenter from Nazareth.  The impression Jesus left on his disciples altered the shape of history to the point that the Common Era is approximately distinguished by his birth.

The class, Global Christian Heritage I, is shaped by the mystery of Jesus and how subsequent followers systematized his teaching.  Even though we studied Irenaeus, Basil, Thomas Aquinas, and Julian of Norwich, I particularly enjoyed Book XV of Augustine’s De Trinitate.  Augustine’s use of analogy in order to explain the Trinity is certainly compelling.  The attempt of De Trinitate on the whole is to rationally explain the distinct Persons of the Trinity and yet uphold the orthodox belief that each part is fully God and fully One.  With this in mind, the basic analogy put forth by Augustine is that of memory, understanding, and love within a human mind.  All three aspects of the mind serve a distinct function and yet they exist wholly as a human mind.  Likewise, the Trinity exists as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each Person has a distinct role and yet exists as a cohesive One God.  However, in Book XV of De Trinitate, Augustine concludes by de-constructing the foundation of his main line of argumentation in the previous books of De Trinitate in typical Platonic fashion. More specifically, Augustine argues in reference to the analogy of the human mind:

But when these three elements exist in a single person such as a man, an objector may make the point that this triad of memory, understanding, and love, belong not to themselves but to me…and when in the process of thought I discover in my memory an existing understanding and love for something, an understanding and a love which were there already before I thought of them, it is my understanding and my love that I find in my memory, of which I am the subject and not they… In short: in all three it is I that remember, I that understand, I that love, and I am neither memory nor understanding nor love but the possessor of them. (169-170)

In other words, the analogy of memory, understanding, and love within a human mind compared to the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit falls remarkably short in the fact that the human triad exists within one individual who has the capability to control the three aspects of the human mind.  Playing a proper philosopher, Augustine carefully considers objections to his argument and unluckily finds one that he is unable to knock down.  The implication of the human triad as an analogy to the Triune God is that there is a greater ‘force’ which controls the aspects of the Trinity and Augustine certainly does not want to argue for such a scenario.

Thus, Augustine is compelled to move the understanding of the Trinity outside the realm of human knowledge.  Augustine argues that the previous attempts at explaining the Trinity by analogy are ‘mirrors’ and that:

If they [those looking at mirrors] knew it, they might be conscious of the need to seek and in some measure even now to see, through this mirror, him whose mirror it is: their hearts being purified by faith unfeigned, so that he who is seen now through a mirror may at last be seen face to face. (171-172)

In other words, the paradoxical claim of a Triune God who is likewise One God is a matter of faith.  It is imperative to understand that faith is not the antithesis of reason. The simplest illustration of this concept is to question why people tend to think that their reasoning faculties are giving them the correct answer.  In short, an individual must have faith that reason is giving a proper answer.  This understanding of faith allows a reasoning Augustine to grasp a concept that he has yet to comprehend.

– Donovan Richards

Augustine of Hippo. Later Works Volume VIII. Ed. John Burnaby. London: SCM Press, 1955.

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