Today Augustine is one of the most well-known theologians in church history. His influence on Christian thought, especially in Western Christianity, is enormous. After the Protestant Reformation, both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike continue to appeal to his teachings as a basis for their own.
Augustine’s influence extends to many areas of theology, including soteriology and trinitarian dogma. It is this latter part of Augustine’s corpus of teaching I want to examine in this article.
Augustine wrote at great length on the Trinity, a total of 15 volumes. These works are of monumental historical significance, not because they rightly elucidate the doctrine of the Trinity, but because they provide the first major systematic treatment of semi-modalism, and unfortunately, helped to popularize it.
That he teaches semi-modalism instead of the classical trinitarianism taught by theologians such as Irenaeus and Athanasius and confessed in the Nicene Creed, can be seen from the following passages, wherin he very obviously treats the Trinity itself as a person:
“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just; for which future joy he sighs, who says, One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord: that one God, therefore, Himself, I say, is alone good, for this reason, that no one sees Him for sorrow and wailing, but only for salvation and true joy.” (Book 1, Ch. 13)
Notice he defines the “one God” as three persons, yet afterwards refers to him using the singular personal pronoun “Himself”.
“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)
“For the Trinity is called one God, great, good, eternal, omnipotent; and the same God Himself may be called His own deity, His own magnitude, His own goodness, His own eternity, His own omnipotence: but the Trinity cannot in the same way be called the Father, except perhaps metaphorically, in respect to the creature, on account of the adoption of sons.” (Book 5, Ch. 11)
“O Lord our God, we believe in You, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless You were a Trinity. Nor would you, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. Nor would the divine voice have said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God, unless You were so a Trinity as to be one Lord God…
O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)
In teaching an explicitly semi-modalistic view of the Trinity, Augustine was treading on new ground. Yet, within his works, he does not seem aware of this, but seems to think himself to be following those who came before him. This can probably be accounted for by two things: an ignorance of classical trinitarian teaching by authors of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, who mostly wrote in Greek, and secondly, that Augustine was probably following the teaching of those who came immediately before him, such as Ambrose of Milan.
Ambrose had been present at a Council held in Rome in 382 where some of the first signs of semi-modalism can be seen, as the Trinity for the first time got referred to with singular personal pronouns by a council. Ambrose being Augustine’s teacher, it is possible to conjecture that Augustine may have simply been being faithful to what Ambrose his mentor had taught him.
This teaching that the Trinity as a whole may be conceived of as a person, and and implicitly regarded and spoken of as one, with the sole exception that the word “person” may not be applied to it, is false and contrary to scripture. Augustine helped influence untold numbers of people to conceive of a Trinity different than that taught in scripture and by the earlier church fathers, who taught that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father, with the Son standing in relation to Him as His only-begotten Son and Word, and the Holy Spirit regarded as His Spirit.
It is also noteworthy that Augustine gives us one of the earliest records of anyone praying to the Trinity, directing his prayer to “God the Trinity”. Throughout his volumes he uses this name for the Trinity as a whole conceived of as a single person, the person who is the three real persons of the Trinity.
By directing prayer to “God the Trinity” Augustine very clearly treats the Trinity itself as a person. He uses singular personal pronouns for it.
He also explicitly and repeatedly states that in his thinking, the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity (again we must note this stands in contrast to the teaching of earlier fathers like Irenaeus who regarded the one God as the person of the Father). His language on this matter clearly shows that for him, saying that the Father and Son are “one God” does not simply mean that they share one and the same divine nature (such as we see the Nicene fathers such as Athanasius speak), but rather that they are ultimately, even while remaining distinct persons, one person (“God the Trinity”).
The conceptual difference between Augustine’s semi-modalistic view of the Trinity and the classical trinitarianism of the earlier church fathers would be difficult to overstate. Instead of viewing the Trinity as a group of three distinct, inseparable, co-eternal persons as earlier church fathers had articulated it, Augustine consistently treats the Trinity as a single rational person who exists as the three real persons of the Trinity. The one he regards as the ‘one God’ is a different person than the one the earlier fathers and scripture regard as the ‘one God’.
Due to these enormous conceptual differences, it is fair to speculate that had Augustine lived a couple hundred years earlier, his teachings would have been unequivocally condemned as heresy by those earlier fathers. But by the time Augustine wrote, the west was receptive to his teaching, semi-modalism already having made significant inroads in the Latin church. Sadly, many other teachers have blindly followed Augustine in these errors, a pattern that must change if the church is to return to the classical trinitarianism taught by scripture.