Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Athanasius of Alexandria there exists a great deal of doctrinal agreement. Both theologians, for instance, worked to defend the divinity of the Son against the attacks of Arianism. But there are also some crucial areas of disagreement between these two influencial theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity conceived of as a single person itself. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“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…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…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)

“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 contrast, Athanasius was clear in affirming the well-established doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For there is One God, and not many, and One is His Word, and not many; for the Word is God, and He alone has the Form of the Father.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

“For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. And thus too we preserve One Beginning of Godhead and not two Beginnings, whence there is strictly a Monarchy” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

“For the one God makes and creates; but Him He begets from Himself, Word or Wisdom.” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

Not least of all would be the opening line of the Nicene Creed, a creed which Athanasius not only affirmed, but helped to author, and spent his life defending the truthfulness of its content, which begins by saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible…”

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

Contrasting Irenaeus and Augustine on the Identity of the One God

There is a great deal of doctrinal continuity between second century church father Irenaeus of Lyons and fifth century church father Augustine of Hippo. Both, for instance, articulated the divinity of the Son. But despite areas of doctrinal agreement, there is also some major doctrinal discontinuity between these two notable theologians, especially concerning the identity of the “one God” of the Christian faith.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity. We see this idea thus expressed by his own pen:

“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…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…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)

“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 contrast, Irenaeus of Lyons, on the other hand, can be noted to be equally emphatic in proclaiming that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter III. 6.)

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.)

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.” (Against Heresies, Book III. Chapter I. 2.)

“And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

While both theologians appeal to scripture in support of their position, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

It is also noteworthy, that although Augustine lived after the Nicene Council and knew of its Creed, it is Irenaeus, who lived prior to the Council, who is doctrinally in agreement with its decision, not Augustine:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” (First words of the Nicene Creed)

Another point of contrast, already noticeable above, is that Irenaeus is in agreement with and appeals to the church’s tradition as further testifying to the truth of what he says. He speaks not of his own novel opinions, but declares that the whole church believes what he is saying pertaining to the one God of the Christian faith being the person of the Father in particular. Irenaeus not only goes to great lengths to show what he is saying from the scriptures, but also includes the historical testimony of prior church fathers, and the contemporary church of his day.

Augustine, on the other hand, appeals to scripture to as supportive of what he says (although ultimately failing to provide any proof on this particular point of doctrine), but does not rely heavily on historical testimony or the church’s tradition on this point of doctrine. This is of course because most prior theologians did not hold his view, but rather that of Irenaeus.

Augustine makes some general appeals to those who came before him, but does not even seem to be aware that he is disregarding the doctrine of most orthodox theologians prior to him. It may be conjectured that this was due to his receiving his doctrine from his immediate predecessor, Ambrose, and other early semi-modalists in Rome and the west. If this is so, then we cannot fairly view Augustine as an innovator on this point, but as faithfully following a new school of thought that can be traced back to a few years before his conversion, which he received from his teachers. Thus he can appeal to those who came before him, while ultimately disagreeing with most of the ancient church.

Historically western theology since the time of Augustine has generally taken his position as fact without question, largely ignoring the testimony of the Irenaeus, and of scripture. Perhaps as Irenaeus’s position is better understood by western scholars we will see a return to the classical trinitarianism taught not only by him, but by many orthodox church fathers in the nicene and ante-nicene eras. Such a revival of interest in classical trinitarianism and Irenaeus’s articulations of that can be seen in the contemporary Eastern Orthodox church, a fact which may appear a bit ironic when we consider that he was a western church father (Lyons being in modern day France).

For more quotes from Irenaeus on the subject, as well as from other fathers, see here: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.

Contrasting Augustine and Cyril of Jerusalem on the Identity of the One God

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Cyril of Jerusalem there exists a great deal of theological continuity. Both church fathers, for instance, worked to defend the divinity of the Son against the attacks of Arianism. But there are also some crucial areas of discontinuity between these two notable theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“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…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…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)

“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 contrast, Cyril of Jerusalem, on the other hand, can be noted to be equally emphatic in proclaiming that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“For there is One God, the Father of Christ; and One Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of the Only God; and One Holy Ghost…” On the Ten Points of Doctrine (Lecture IV)

“Of God as the sole Principle we have said enough to you yesterday:  by “enough” I mean, not what is worthy of the subject, (for to reach that is utterly impossible to mortal nature), but as much as was granted to our infirmity.  I traversed also the bye-paths of the manifold error of the godless heretics:  but now let us shake off their foul and soul-poisoning doctrine, and remembering what relates to them, not to our own hurt, but to our greater detestation of them, let us come back to ourselves, and receive the saving doctrines of the true Faith, connecting the dignity of Fatherhood with that of the Unity, and believing In One God the Father:  for we must not only believe in one God; but this also let us devoutly receive, that He is the Father of the Only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Father (Lecture VII)

“But worship thou One God the Almighty, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Almighty (Lecture VIII)

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy

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 the first signs of semi-modalism can be seen, as the Trinity for the first time got referred to with singular personal pronouns. 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 broke new ground in giving us perhaps the earliest record 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-essential, 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 the Nicene Creed and scripture.