Home / Trinity in You Blog / Relational Theology / A DIALOG WITH BEN MEYERS’ “TWEETING THE TRINITY” #10, #11, #12 – Dr Marty Folsom, PhD


This continues a dialog with Ben Myer’s Blog post with statements 10-12 on how to avoid heresy with the Trinity. We have begun to address the voices of the past in Eastern and Western theology:

#10. How does Augustine differ? He takes just one principle of “Greek” theology (the inseparability of persons in action) and proves that it’s not absurd or unthinkable. That’s all.

Well, this is a bit complex. Reading any ancient text is to enter another world. Read the City of God and see if your mind is not spinning at the state of the ancient Roman and Greek world. It was a world of absurdity. We may not be far away today, but in very different forms.

To avoid heresy with Augustine one must be very attentive, both to his own life, writings, and the many interpretations of him over the centuries. One must clarify which version of Augustine is being brought to the table before we can say he is the same as anyone else—or different.

Where Augustine is on the same page as the Greeks is that he wants to affirm the God revealed in the Bible and to see this God as Trinity. So far, so good.

In Augustine’s writings, he is on a quest. This is clear in his Confessions, the City of God, and his De Trinitate. What he does with this self-reflective travel motif has several implications. The Confessions are not just about the Trinity, but the emphasis on his own transformation and his transformed desire that made this spiritual biography a classic and a refocusing on the individual Christian life desiring God—but it neglects the initiative of the Triune God. Thus, western Christianity has had an emphasis on the internal, contemplative, spiritual life of the individual that has neglected the Trinity. This is not necessarily intended by Augustine, it is a byproduct. His psychological analogies may contribute to this. Augustine is not to be blamed for Descartes use of his thought, but many of his central thoughts come from Augustine and exemplify the door Augustine left open.

The City of God places an emphasis on the Spiritual City that is God’s and plays down the earthly city in a long description of the history of human failure—including how people seek gods here and for the afterlife in religion, politics, and philosophy Augustine has at least a hint of dualism here—the spiritual and earthly—with a clear preference for the spiritual. Humans were created with intellect and reason to connect with God. Where Calvin had God’s glory filling the earth, Augustine kept a sense of the eternal, spiritual, dwelling as superior to the earthly, material, experience—desiring heaven trumps the physical, sensual world. The human rightly seeking virtue seems to take a lot of the discussion. Does he discuss the Trinity? Yes, but briefly, and when the book finishes you have a lot of contrast in philosophy and not a sense of worshipping the Triune God made known. Once again, Augustine does not resist the Trinity, but neglects the Triune involvement in this world, as we are on a journey wrestling in this world.

In historical practice, the preeminence of the Life of the Triune God was replaced by a Church that took the authority to guide—the Roman Catholic do have the orthodoxy of the creedal tradition, but the Church and its authority took greater precedence in the West, this was not shed in Protestantism, it only was further fractured to groups and individuals.

Further, in making the church an avenue of seeking the spiritual worship of God, we end up with human desire leading the way to God. In James K.A. Smith’s books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, Smith builds on the Augustinian paradigm. He follows the path of human desires and liturgies to get to God. Where for the East, worship begins with the initiative of the Triune God into whose life we are brought to God by God, in this Western model, our desires shape our liturgies. In Smith’s book, subtitled How Worship Works, the Trinity does not substantially appear in the book until chapter 4! This would never happen in the East and comes from a long trajectory that goes back to Augustine’s methods.

In De Trinitate, Books I-VIII trace the biblical and theological tradition so Augustine can stand in it. But then he moves to the interior image of the human with memory, understanding, and will—the interiore modo—our interior life which makes God accessible to us! This is not the same. This is not a minor point in a bigger discussion, chapters IX-XV are built on the Psychological analogy—the construction of an argument built on the human as the image of God. This is not more of what the East had proposed. I would argue that at this point the unique three persons of the Trinity are dismissed as matchless persons and collapsed into a unity built on the human experience of self. God is conceived based on looking at the human. I am not saying there are not great things in De Trinitate, but it is not just the same as all other proposals. What it proposes as “thinkable” is based on thinking the human onto God. This is NOT how to avoid heresy.

Thus, Augustine’s long self-initiated conversations in these three books means that Augustine’s quest leads to an inward turn to interiority in contemplation of the spiritual which is superior to the physical world. This inadvertently makes Augustine individually focused, basing insight on human desire, not led by the Spirit through the Son to share in the Father’s life. Calvin, not Luther the Augustinian, brought this to the Reformation renewal (see Julie Canlis’ Calvin’s Ladder). Augustine makes the world of thought and the spiritual separate from and superior to the material world with the Triune Creator behind the scenes working to abide with and restore all things. But any actual discovery about the Triune God is tainted by seeing God in the unity of the individual with memory, understanding, and will, rather than the full vibrancy of the three persons depicted in the Bible. Augustine does not reject the three persons, but gives priority to the unity in a way that loses a bold presence, especially of the Father and the Spirit, in Western Theology in a way that never happened in the East. Jesus becomes a model rather than a mediator, and we are left to imitate Him and shape our desires to correspond with His—the opposite of falling in love where the other is what changes us instead of changing ourselves for the other.

It is obvious that studies of Augustine are varied, and the impact of Augustine on different people in history is diverse. But different parts of Augustine’s life and writing are not all equal—we need to see the dangers of how he is interpreted and applied. The history of Augustine’s interpreters is not consistent. Thus, if someone says, “Augustine thought…” we may be getting an interpretation of him that is selective, like proof texting the Bible. To say Augustine is no different than Eastern, Greek theologians misses too much. There are too many points to compare, all the way from the early Fathers right up to those who are Orthodox representatives today. To say we are all the same, and “our guy is right,” is problematic and dismissive of important distinctions. Among these is the filioque debate which is a trinitarian issue and is not fully settled, and was never a simple agreement. On some important uses of language for God’s being, Augustine said he could not see the difference.

Luther was an Augustinian monk, but he needed to be opened to God, and Grace, by the Bible—his Augustinian roots were not sufficient to restore or emphasize the Trinity. Thus, even Augustinians need to continually go back to the Bible and the God revealed there to keep reforming our thinking and live to participate in God’s life, not to just get our thinking right. We may need to go through the school of Augustine to understand theology, but we should not live there.

If we take Ben’s one example (the inseparability of persons in action—all the acts of Father, Son, and Spirit are acts of the one God), one can already see that there is an emphasis on the oneness or unity, even though the persons are mentioned. Augustine is not noted for his discussion on the particularity of the meaning of the persons of the Trinity in a way that affirms their uniqueness—he tends to focus on their unity. He discusses Jesus separately as mediator, but far less on Father and Spirit. To say that the Spirit is the Bond of Love between the Father and Son seems to lessen the Spirit. It does not give the full gravity of importance to having God revealed in the varied ways depicted in the Bible.

It is worth noting that many, if not most, of those who are trying to put Augustine back in the sameness camp with the Eastern, Greek theologians are Roman Catholic. I do not want us to have to choose between them, nor do I want to say they are basically the same. And this ancient fathers discussion does not even begin to explore the general neglect of the Trinity in Protestant theology along the way that either neglected the ancient voices, or selected in such a way to get an individualistic, internalized form of Christianity. I believe this was not Augustine’s intent, but was the fruit of his form of thinking where he could not see the implications of his philosophy and theological method.

We need to take Augustine seriously as a complex figure who has much to be mined, but also who has traces of problematic thinking that are not insignificant in the history of interpreting his work. If Augustine is pretty much the same as the Cappadocians, we might consider just sticking with them to avoid confusion.

#11. Cappadocians: it’s a simple doctrine even though we don’t know what it means. Augustine: yes, and it makes good sense to believe it!

The Cappadocians are not read by most modern Christians. So the specialists have an upper hand. But they represent the early formulation of Greek/Eastern theology. A few words from someone like Gregory Nazianzen gives a sense of the balance they have on the Trinity, “No sooner do I consider the One than I am enlightened by the radiance of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. When I bring any One of the Three before my mind I think of him as a Whole, and my vision is filled, and the most of the Whole escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that One in such a way as to attribute more greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one Torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided Light.”[1]

This kind of language does not suggest not knowing God, but does suggest a humility that engages a living presence that is the encounter which defines worship and the human life reconciled to the Triune Creator. Simplicity in describing God’s nature is not their aim. They desire an authentic life with mystery that enters into participation with the God who is revealed.

There is a lot of debate today about more modern Eastern Orthodox theologians and how they interpret the Cappadocians and the Triune God (Lossky, Zizioulas, etc). If we are to listen to modern Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians who are able to interpret their tradition, we need to allow for these Eastern Orthodox theologians to speak as well. We cannot dismiss them as foreign to the tradition in which they stand. We need to hear their different perspectives, especially on the Trinity, and to believe that there is a never-ending discovery of the Triune God without being heretical. I have sat with some of those who contend that modern Orthodox theologians are taking the writings of the Cappadocians where they originally did not go. But is the work contradictory or more explanatory? Is this not the very task of theologians—to develop what is meant and even find a clarity not evident to the original context because the language and ideas only could be developed later in history? The Cappadocians did provide language that we need to read, that Augustine would have read; even Augustine did not stay with all that the Cappadocians said. Why should we ask modern Orthodox thinkers to refrain from clarifying and developing within the thinking and also developing beyond the original thinkers to further their thinking? We cannot canonize the Classical Era over the Triune God or the Biblical text. They have an authority that all subsequent discussion must submit to in order to maintain a proper reverence for study and application. We can affirm the Nicene Creed and still find ways that are appropriately divergent to incarnate God’s life in our communities.

I am not advocating for a battle between East and West, but I think we need to clarify the differences to see the value of each. I am uncomfortable when someone proposes that any school of theology is basically the same, when they are not obviously so. I believe the Cappadocians and Augustine should be read, both in addressing their original context, the history of interpretation and misinterpretation, and for what they can say anew today.

To say we do not know what something means can simply imply that we cannot fit it into a box in our heads. Yet we can encounter the mystery and enter into its wonder—and language may be useful for this. We are apprehended by the God we cannot fully comprehend in our human frailty.

#12. Irenaeus (Greek tradition): this doctrine is shorthand for the unity of God in OT & NT. Tertullian (Latin tradition): ditto

Irenaeus is also interested in finding language to develop the life of the church. He engages the mystery that is encountered as God in the form of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He wanted to be true to Scripture and the Rule of Faith, but to find language to further the task of moving from talk about God to encounter the mystery who is God. He is not just interested in the unity of God. He wants to facilitate the relation of this revealed God to the human who comes to find life in this God. This Triune God is known through the Human-God becoming one of us and us giving access to God, not to grasp with the mind, but to engage in transformative encounter.

Tertullian deserves a little more than a ditto, in that he is the one credited with first using the term Trinity. Ditto implies something that has been done before—he is a pioneer. He is also challenged by some theologians for subordinationist views of the Trinity that need to be clarified—it got him excluded from being called a saint. He is complex, but one must recognize the uniqueness of the groundbreakers without overrating them. We need to see what he contributes that Augustine would use later and why it all matters.

I think we need more tweets that clarify differences and contributions than statements that say they are all the basically the same. I think that is a bigger problem—generalization misses the contexts that give the necessary meaning to see what we might mean today, not repeating what these early writers said, but seeing what we might say in our context because we understand what they said in theirs. We avoid heresy by gaining clarity on the points that matter and to see where the story shows us the failures and successes in talking about God, with God, and on God’s behalf so that the world is awakened to the wonder of the Triune God and is transformed by God’s disclosure, not what is in it for us.
[1] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), 112.