Date of Award
Master of Arts in Philosophy
In De Trinitate Augustine of Hippo (354-430) gave his most complete analysis of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The most crucial part of his logical analysis, Books V-VIII, shows Augustine attempting to handle the seeming logical dilemma of one God, yet Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the outset of his investigation, Augustine apparently had two concepts in mind. First, he accepted the Bible as authoritative; and obviously he accepted the idea that this authoritative Bible taught that Go was one, and yet also three in some way. Also, Augustine worked from the contemporary understanding of Aristotle’s categories in attempting his language analysis to decipher what could and should be said of the Godhead.
Augustine tried to remove terminological confusion which obscured the discussion of the Trinity in the late fourth century, and he also attempted to strip from the terms used of the Godhead the things which could not be said of God. Basically, he affirmed that God is one, yet three, and that God is immutable. In his estimation, for God to be God there could be no change in the Godhead. Three primary words were us ed to describe this Godhead: substance, person and relation. But, if these terms entailed the idea of mutability, they were inaccurate and could not apply to the Godhead. But language must be used if anything is to be conveyed about God. Therefore, because Augustine accepted the thesis, on Biblical authority, that God is one God, yet Father, Son and Spirit, he had to strip from the terms that which entailed mutability. His result might be called spiritual substance, persons, and relations.
The view of reality projected by the Bible was, for Augustine, the true projection, and the scientifically demonstrable was not all of reality. He made no pretense of giving a proof of the Trinity; rather, he acknowledged the precedence of faith over knowledge, and tried to make more credible that which faith affirmed.
The real point of criticism, then, is one’s frame of reference. Either there is a spiritual world, or there is not. If it exists, perhaps language must be adjusted to describe it. Certainly reality is not known independently of language; yet language may distort the view of reality by inaccurately protraying it. Augustine redefined his language to portray that which he accepted as reality. Words, for him, were functional, and not determinative. Although human language can hardly describe the spiritual world which is immutable, only by using this language with carefully guarded definitions can the spiritual world be discussed.
Therefore, if one expects De Trinitate to be a testable proof of the Trinity, it fails miserably. However, if one grants the possibility of a triune God, Augustine's work is most helpful in coming to a better understanding of the nature of that God.
Elkin, James Davis, "The Role of the Categories in Augustine’s Formulation and Defense of the Trinity" (1975). Open Access Master's Theses. Paper 1762.