Why Can’t Protestants Affirm the Athanasian Creed?

The pseudo-athanasian creed, usually simply referred to by its supporters by the misleading name of ‘the Athanasian Creed’, was neither authored by Athanasius, nor does it represent his understanding of the Trinity. Athanasius strongly affirmed, for example, that the one God is the first person of the Trinity in particular, the Father:

“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, as the illustration shows, we do not introduce three Origins or three Fathers, as the followers of Marcion and Manichæus; since we have not suggested the image of three suns, but sun and radiance. And one is the light from the sun in the radiance; and so we know of but one origin; and the All-framing Word we profess to have no other manner of godhead, than that of the Only God, because He is born from Him.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

We see that unlike the creed, Athanasius’s theology was marked by a confession that the one God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; and Christ stands in relation to the one God, as His Word and Son. Rather than being truly Athanasian, then, in reality the pseudo-Athanasian Creed is representative of early medieval scholastic articulations of the Trinity, especially following the theology of Augustine.

Despite the creed’s anonymous authorship and its theological clash with the real teaching of Athanasius, it has gained very wide acceptance in the west, in traditions which in some way stem from that latin medieval scholastic tradition, out of which it was formed. Not only do the Roman Catholics affirm it, but also Lutherans, many Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestant groups. It is regarded by many Protestants (falsely so) to be an ecumenical creed; yet this is of course impossible, when we consider the contents of it in relation to the Eastern churches. Many Eastern Orthodox, for example, not only affirm the monarchical trinitarianism Athanasius taught in opposition to Augustinian semi-modalism, but they also universally reject the filoque- the doctrine that the Holy Spirit not only eternally proceeds from the Father, but also from the Son (‘filoque’ means, ‘and the Son’).

Yet, despite the creed being paraded around under so many false pretenses (false authorship, false claim to conceptually Athanasian theology, false claim to being ecumenical) it stills finds acceptance among many tradition-loving Protestants. I want to briefly observe here that this is in fact, grossly inconsistent with the founding principles and ideas of Protestantism; and this is not a difficult point to demonstrate. To do so, we need not dive into the theology presented in the creed itself, but only note that which frames the confession. It begins by saying:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

After 25 lengthly lines of words about the Trinity, we read:

“He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”

After going on talking about the incarnation for many more lines, the creed closes by reiterating:

“This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Perhaps the only thing in the entire creed that can truly be said to be clear or intelligible to the average person, are these threats against the eternal salvation of anyone who dares not lend their assent to all the things this creed says. Yet, as we noted above, this creed goes into detail explaining not only what is more widely accepted regarding the Trinity by those following Nicea, but a specifically western, latin, and augustinian version of these doctrines. It includes this line, for example, that no professing Christian from, or in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox churches, would ever assent to:

“The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.”

Here we can spot the filoque -the Holy Spirit is said not only to proceed from the Father, but also the Son. This doctrine is repugnant to all Eastern Orthodox, and anyone in the West who happens to side with them on this point. Yet, here it is included in this creed, among things which, according to the repeated expression of the same creed, must be believed in order to be saved, and without which, no one can be saved. In other words, everything in the creed is effectively part of the gospel; for that which must be believed to be saved, and receive Christian baptism, and to be received into Christian fellowship, is the gospel. All then which is included in this creed is gospel, apart from which there is no salvation; for “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

Yet, such a confession is completely opposed to the founding principles of Protestantism; among which, is that no one may add to or alter the gospel preached by the apostles. For it was on account of this very sin that the various Protestant groups have felt free to depart from the Roman Catholic church, and often to declare it no church at all. They rightly appeal to these verses:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel more than what we have preached to you, he is to be anathema! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel more than what you received, he is to be anathema!” (Galatians 1:6-9 NASB)

‘Anathema’ simply means accursed, and has since the time of the above epistle’s authorship frequently been declared by churches upon those they consider heretics. In this case, there can be no question the legitimacy of the anathemas; these are not the decisions of any human council, but of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they no not anathematize a trinitarian error: they anathematize anyone who preaches a gospel more than what the apostles preached. This is extremely serious; anyone adding to the gospel, by doing so, jeopardizes their own standing, according to scripture.

For this reason, Protestants rightly protested various ways in which the Roman church had added to and/or altered the apostolic gospel. Yet, here we see a great hypocrisy among many Protestants: while condemning others for altering the gospel, they do so themselves, by adding so many lines of incoherent ramblings about the Trinity to the gospel. And, if one of them should argue that every line of those Augustinian speculations is not only biblical, but part of the gospel, he shall have an enormously difficult time trying to prove that even a small portion of it was preached by the apostles as part of the gospel. For all through the book of Acts, we see men were saved by believing a gospel that included almost none of what the pseudo-athanasian creed says. If this is so, then the doctrines of the creed are not part of the apostolic gospel- and to add them to that gospel, is to be accursed by Paul himself, who spoke in the authority of the Lord Jesus, under the inspiration of the Spirit.

But one will argue that all of Augustine’s dogmas are found in scripture, and perhaps that they are even part of the gospel; so be it, we need not address this question, to prove that the creed adds to the gospel. The Protestants who accept the creed need only answer this question: is it possible for one to be saved without believing the filoque? Or put another way, is the filoque itself part of the gospel, and so, something which a person must believe to be a Christian?

If they answer ‘no’, they do well, in not adding to the gospel, and avoiding the anathemas of Galatians chapter one. But if this is so, then why do they affirm a creed which adds to the gospel? By teaching people to believe that creed, they will by their own admission be encouraging people to learn from it a gospel more than that preached by the apostles. If, on the other hand, they should answer in the affirmative, and say that the filoque is part of the gospel, and required for salvation, they will be far more consistent in affirming the creed; only they will have this problem, that they are anathema. For by adding to the gospel, as they say Rome does, they are just as accursed as they say Rome is, for the same sin.

It is plain then that no Protestant can consistently affirm the pseudo-Athanasian creed, unless they are prepared to deny the possibility of salvation of everyone who sides against the filoque; namely, all Eastern Christians, and all western Christians who agree with them. If they do, they certainly add to the gospel, by teaching that which the apostles did not teach is required for salvation. If they do not however wish to proclaim all Christians who do not believe the filoque to be damned, then let them forsake the pseudo-athanasian creed as something wicked, as something which adds to the apostolic gospel and is anathema for it. For if one can be saved while rejecting the filoque, what good will come from reciting a creed which damns to hell those who you admit may well be your brothers in Christ, over such a minor disagreement? For the creed is as unbending as it is incoherent: there is no leeway given to accept the greater part of it, yet reject some, but it declares “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

It is the duty of all true Christians to reject additions to the gospel, and to preserve whole and intact the gospel, as preached and delivered by the apostles. We have no right to add any doctrine or work to it, which they themselves did not enjoin as part of it. Yet that is precisely what this creed does. Given the pattern of the Roman church, it is unsurprising that they rush into this great sin; but those who keep themselves separate from the Roman church on that very account, would do well to pay heed that they do not, like the Roman church, add to the gospel by way of this wretched creed. Those that do, are inconsistent Protestants; they ought either to reject the creed for its additions to the gospel, or else side with Rome, and accept all of their additions to the gospel beyond that found in this creed, if additions to the gospel are acceptable.

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Highlights from Maximinus’s Debate With Augustine

The debate between Augustine of Hippo and Maximinus the Homoian is well worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the theology of either Augustine or the Homoians. Maximinus’s lengthly explanations of his views provide one of the best primary sources we have on the details of fifth-century Homoian trinitarianism. It is noteworthy for its close resemblance to the theology of prominent second and third-century church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Novatian of Rome. Below are a few brief selections from Maximinus’s portion of the debate.

These excerpts show, among other things, that Maximinus and the Homoians at large, as represented by the ecumenical council of Arminium, were not Arians, as they are so often slandered as being. The thematic stress on the Father’s supremacy and infinitude, although something Arians agreed with, can be seen in the ante-nicene fathers going back to Novatian, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr; it is by no means a mark of Arianism.

Maximinus said:

“In the case of God you should use a worthy comparison. I am, of course, displeased and pained at heart over what you go on to say, namely, that a human being generates a human being, a dog a dog. You should not use so foul a comparison for such greatness.†106

15, 7. “Who does not know that God begot God, that the Lord begot the Lord, that the King begot the King, that the Creator begot the Creator, that the Good begot the Good, that the Wise begot the Wise, that the Merciful begot the Merciful, and that the Powerful begot the Powerful? In generating the Son, the Father took nothing away from the Son. He is not envious, but as the source of goodness he begot this great good.†107 All of creation bears witness to his goodness, in accord with your statement, which I highly praise.†108 You drew from the divine scriptures the words, From the creation of the world his invisible reality, having been understood, is seen through those things that have been made, even his everlasting power and divinity (Rom 1:20).”
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“Moreover, it is proper and a mark of order that you employ worthy comparisons. After all, you are speaking of God, of that immensity, to which, even if one draws a comparison as great as possible in terms of human thought or even in accord with the authority of the divine scriptures, one finds that the comparison is inadequate in every respect to him who is incomparable.

15, 10. “In accord with the testimonies that I have produced, I say that the Father alone is the one God, not one along with a second and a third, but that he alone is the one God. If he alone is not the one God, he is a part.†122 I deny, after all, that the one God is composed of parts; rather, his nature is unbegotten, simple power. The Son before all ages is himself begotten as power. The apostle spoke of this power of the Son, When you and my spirit are gathered together with the power of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4). I state and profess what the holy gospels teach us. I state and profess that the Holy Spirit is also power in his proper character. The Lord bore witness concerning him, when he said to his disciples, Remain in the city of Jerusalem, until you are clothed from on high with power (Lk 24:49).
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15, 12. “The apostle says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings. He calls the Father alone powerful, not because the Son is not powerful. Listen to the Holy Spirit crying out and bearing testimony to the Son, Lift up the gates, you†125 princes; be raised up, eternal gates, and the king of glory will enter. He continues, Who is this king of glory? Listen to the answer, The Lord strong and powerful (Ps 23:7-8). How can he fail to be powerful, when every creature proclaims his power?

15, 13. “How can he fail to be wise, when the Holy Spirit cries out in praise of his wisdom and says, How magnificent are your works, O Lord! You have made all things in wisdom (Ps 103:24). Since all things were made through Christ, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly praises him when he says, You have made all things in wisdom. Since that is so, we must ask how blessed Paul can say, The blessed and alone powerful. In my opinion, he calls him alone powerful, because he is alone incomparable in power. In awe before his incomparability, the prophet said, O God, who is like you? (Ps 82:2). Do you want to know that he alone is powerful? Look at the Son and admire the power of the Son. Recognize in the Son that the Father is alone powerful, because he has begotten one so powerful. In his immense power the Father begot the powerful creator.†126 In his power that he received from the Father, the Son did not create the creator, but established creation. He says, All things have been handed over to me by my Father (Mt 11:27). In awe of this power of God the Father, Paul said, The blessed and alone powerful. Job was a powerful and true man. We read, That man was a true and just worshipper of God, and in further describing his region, it says that he was powerful and great among all those in the East (Jb 1:1.3). How then can the Father alone be powerful? It says alone, because no one is comparable to him, because he alone has such greatness, such might, such power.

“In the same way, the blessed apostle Paul proclaims that the Father alone is wise, when he says, God who alone is wise (Rom 16:27). But we must look for an explanation of why he alone is wise, since Christ is also wise. You have already cited Christ the power of God and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24). We too have given testimonies that he created all things in wisdom. But the Father alone is truly wise. We believe the scriptures, and we venerate the divine scriptures. We do not want a single particle of a letter to perish, for we fear the threat that is stated in these divine scriptures, Woe to those who take away or add! (Dt 4:2). Do you want to know how great is the wisdom of the Father? Look at the Son, and you will see the wisdom of the Father. For this reason Christ himself said, One who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9). That is, in me he sees his wisdom; he praises his might; he glorifies the Father who, one and alone, has begotten me, one and alone, so great and so good before all ages. He did not look for material out of which to make him, nor did he take someone as an assistant. Rather, in the way he knew, he begot the Son by his power and his wisdom.†127 We do not profess, as you say when you falsely accuse us, that, just as the rest of creation was made from nothing, so the Son was made from nothing like a creature. Listen to the authority of statement of the Synod; for our fathers in Ariminum said this among other things, ‘If anyone says that the Son is from nothing and not from God the Father, let him be anathema.’†128 If you want, I will offer testimonies. For the blessed apostle John speaks as follows, One who loves the Father also loves him who was born from him (1 Jn 5:1).
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“This is painful to hear, for you do not compare that great magnificence to the nobility of the soul, but to the fragility of the body. Flesh is, of course, born from the body, a bodily offspring. But the soul is not born from a soul. If, then, our soul generates without corruption and passion, not experiencing any lessening or any defilement, but lawfully in accordance with God-given rights generates an offspring, in wisdom giving its consent to the body,†130 it itself remains whole. How much more will the omnipotent God do so?†131 I said just before that words fail us in every human comparison with God,†132 though we try to put it as best we can. How much more incorruptibly has the incorruptible God the Father begotten the Son? He has, however, begotten him. Note my carefulness, for I have the testimonies of the holy scriptures, Who will tell of his generation? (Is 53:8). He begot as he willed, as one with power,†133 taking nothing away; he begot one with power without any envy entering in.
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“You say that God is one. Show me whether the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God or whether we should call the Father alone God, whose Son, Christ, is our God. Are you urging us to profess one God the way the Jews do? From the subjection of the Son, are we not shown, as the Christian faith holds, that there is one God whose Son is our God, as we have said? Believe Paul that the Father and the Son are not a single one (unus), as he proclaims in nearly every letter. He says, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3 and Eph 1:2). He also says, One is God the Father, from whom are all things, and we are in him,
and one is the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are in him†166 (1 Cor 8:6). This is the one whom we Christians preach as the one God, and the Son proclaims that he is good, when he says, No one is good save the one God (Mk 10:18). It is not that Christ is not good, for he says, I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It is not that the Holy Spirit is not good; hear the prophet as he cries out, Your good Spirit will lead me in the right path (Ps 142:10). Hear too the witness of the Savior who says, A good man brings forth good things from the treasure of his heart (Lk 6:45). Moreover, every creature of God is very good. If a creature is good, if man is good, if the Holy Spirit is good, if Christ is good, we must investigate how there is one who is good. The Savior, of course, said, No one is good save the one God, because he is the source of goodness and has received his goodness from no one. Christ has received his goodness from his Father so that he is good, and every good creature of God has received through Christ its goodness. But whether it is the Son or those who were made through him, each has drawn his goodness from that one source of goodness in accord with the measure of his faith. But the Father has received his goodness from no one. Thus Christ says, No one is good save the one. In that way, then, there is one God, because there is one who is incomparable, because there is one who is immense, as we have already stated.†167
15, 24. “We do not deny that the Son loves the Father, for we read the scripture, So that this world may know that I love the Father, and I do just as he has commanded me (Jn 14:31). It is clear that the Son is loved and loves and that he carries out the commandment of the Father, as he says. Thus they are one, in accord with his words, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30). Insofar as he says, He who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9), we must believe with certain faith that he who sees the Son sees and understands the Father through the Son.

15, 25. “You professed that the Father is greater on account of the form of the servant.†168 That strikes me as quite foolish. We know that you also said that he was made less than the angels in the form of the servant.†169 You have not sufficiently proclaimed†170 the glory of God in professing that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Even the angels are greater than the form of the servant. Christ did not come to teach us that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Rather, the Truth came to us to teach and instruct us that the Father is greater than the Son and greater than this Son who is the great God. We glorify the Father and profess that he is greater than the great God; we proclaim that he is higher than the high God. Is this the honor we owe to God that the Father is greater than the servant form?

15, 26. “You say that the divinity showed itself to the Patriarchs, and just before that you said that the divinity was invisible.†171 The Father, who is invisible, surely did not show himself. Otherwise, if we say that the Father was seen, we make a liar of the apostle, who says, No human being has seen him or can see him (1 Tm 6:16). Moreover, we find ourselves not only in opposition to the New Testament, but we are equally in opposition to the Old Testament as well. After all, Moses speaks this way too, No one can see God and live (Ex 33:20).

“This same Moses wrote in the Book of Genesis that from that first man up to the incarnation it was always the Son who was seen. If you demand testimonies, you have, of course, the passage in which the Father speaks to the Son, Let us make man to our image and likeness. There follows, And God made man (Gn 1:26-27). Which God made him if not the Son? You yourself have explained this in your treatises.†172 This Son, then, who is the prophet of his Father, also said, It is not good that man be alone; let us make a helper for him like him (Gn 2:18). This Son appeared to Adam in accord with what we read that Adam said, I heard your voice as you walked in paradise, and I hid myself because I was naked. You certainly have what God said to him, And who told you that you were naked unless you have eaten from that tree about which I commanded you that you not eat? (Gn 3:10-11). This God was seen by Abraham;†173 if you are willing to believe, the only-begotten God himself declared in the gospel that the Son was seen by Abraham. He said, Abraham, your father, rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad (Jn 8:56). This Son was also seen by Jacob in the form in which he was to come, that is, in the form of a man; he is found to have wrestled with Jacob as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Jacob said, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life has been preserved, and the name of this place was called The Vision of God. The God, who wrestled with Jacob, foreshadowing what we see fulfilled in the passion of Christ, attested to this. He said to Jacob, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but your name will be Israel (Gn 32:28), that is, one who sees God. We prove that he was seen in the New Testament as well. The apostles said of him, And we have seen his glory, the glory as if of the Only-Begotten by the Father (Jn 1:14). But, if you claim, as you try to do, that the Father was seen, all the scriptures are for you filled with lies. Paul proclaims that the Father is invisible, and in the gospel the Lord affirms it.

“You often make the accusation against us that we boldly and presumptuously say things that we should not say. That will be up to the judgment of the reader to test. After all, we do not speak to obtain praise from someone, but out of the desire to strengthen the brotherhood we have. Perhaps you wanted to challenge us to make an answer so that those you have observed to belong to us might agree, as I said, with what you profess. For this reason, I had to answer you on account of the fear of God. It was not only by your words that you tried to take from me the discipleship of these men; you also gave me your treatise to which I had to answer those things which you have professed concerning the invisibility of the omnipotent God. Though with another intention, still in your own words, you stated that the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove as well as in the form of fire and that the Son was seen in the form of man, but that the Father was seen neither in the form of a dove nor in the form of a man. He never turned himself into any forms and is never changed. Scripture says of him, I am who I am, and I have not changed (Ex 3:14 and Mal 3:6). The Son who, of course, had already been established in the form of God has, as you have stated, taken the form of the servant, but the Father has not. Likewise, the Holy Spirit took the form of the dove, but the Father did not. Acknowledge, then, that there is one who is invisible; there is one who is incomprehensible and immense. I pray and desire to be a disciple of the divine scriptures; I believe that Your Holiness recalls that I earlier gave the response that, if you produced the evidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one power, one substance, one deity, one majesty, one glory, that, if you state this from the divine scriptures, if you produce any passage of scripture, we are eager to be found disciples of the divine scriptures.”

“I, Maximinus, bishop, have signed this.”

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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. But there are also some crucial areas of disagreement between these two influential 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 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

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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.

Church History