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An Augustinian grammar

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Augustine and the Trinity
By Lewis Ayres. Cambridge. Pp. 376. $80

Review by Kathryn L. Reinhard

As Augustine so famously asserted in Sermon 52, if you think you’ve understood something, whatever it is, it’s not God. The maxim might also be applied to Augustine himself. As much as scholars would like to make succinct references to Augustine’s “position” on any number of doctrinal points, the prodigious theologian is famously difficult to pin down as having one, unified, systematic view on anything.

St. Augustine’s corpus comprises a diverse range of texts of different genres, addressed to different audiences of various theological education and concern. Augustine’s slipperiness — his ability to evade easy doctrinal systematization given the contextual depth and breadth of his work — has frustrated many theologically-minded students and pastors, who pick up Confessions or De Trinitate or City of God hoping to grasp Augustine’s “take” on things. Augustine doesn’t have a take so much as an epistemology, a theological worldview. And no Augustinian scholar of recent memory has offered a clearer vision of this worldview than Lewis Ayres.

In articles and book chapters, Ayres has spent roughly the last decade persuasively and succinctly arguing for an Augustinian “grammar” — sets of guidelines, principles and commitments through which one best understands Augustine and his unique articulations of doctrine. His newest book, Augustine and the Trinity, represents his clearest, most comprehensive and in-depth exploration to date of Augustine’s theological principles, which govern Augustine’s articulation of Christian doctrine, in particular the doctrine of the Trinity.

This book is not a commentary on De Trinitate, nor is it a history — either of doctrine or of understandings and interpretations of Augustine. Rather, it represents an apex of Ayres’s distinctive approach to Augustinian theology: a nuanced and thorough (though not exhaustive or fully comprehensive) account of the main principles governing Augustine’s theological worldview, with an eye to how pro-Nicene trinitarian theology is uniquely vivified when seen through Augustinian-colored glasses.

Though Ayres is not especially interested in tracing other theologians’ understandings of and engagements with Augustine, he does find a substantial theological interlocutor in Olivier Du Roy. According to Ayres, Du Roy and his work L’Intelligence de la Foi en la Trinité selon Saint Augustin are the roots beneath some of the most prevalent and persistent platitudes attributed to Augustine and his trinitarian theology, platitudes which Ayres is at pains to complicate and in some cases dismiss.

Among these platitudes is the notion that Augustine is both broadly representative of Western trinitarian theology and responsible for some of its most egregious faults, including the specter of Platonism/Neoplatonism, long thought to have dictated Augustine’s “overly strong commitment” to divine unity (p. 1).

While Ayres acknowledges that he is one among a number of revisionist voices attempting to unsettle these platitudes, to my mind his book represents a unique contribution to situating Augustine’s theology in relation to both Platonic/Neoplatonic thought and to doctrinal articulations of the Fathers. For example, Ayres asserts that Augustine is a Platonist in approximately the same sense that Irenaeus is a Platonist — in that each man engaged the Platonism of his day (“middle” in the case of Irenaeus, “neo” in the case of Augustine), adapting its language as an exegetical tool to assist reflection on the nature of God (p. 16).

Ayres offers a detailed examination of how Christian theologians adopted and adapted different elements of Platonism starting as early as mid-Second Century, and put them to use expounding the principles of Christianity (p. 18). For Ayres, the specter of Platonism in Augustine, though to corrupt “authentic” Christianity is a piece of a larger theological constellation in whose orbit Augustine traveled in the good company of many Church Fathers, including Ambrose and Victorinus.

Ayres’s other great contribution in this book lies in his extended and detailed consideration of Augustine’s “Christological epistemology” as the means through which Augustine describes his vision of the Trinity. Ayres asserts that the incarnate Christ epitomizes Augustine’s general anti-Manichean principle, which sees the created order as capable of, and designed to facilitate, divine revelation.

Creation is intelligible as a starting point for the contemplation of God’s triune nature — a principle key in Augustine’s analogical consideration of the Trinity in relation to the triune structure of the human mind, which Ayres considers at length near the end of the book. However, contemplation of God only begins with creation, and Ayres emphasizes Augustine’s commitment to an epistemology of “ascent.” Ayres believes Augustine took the Christology which asserts that the “incarnate materiality” of Christ is intended to “draw us towards his nature as the immaterial and fully divine Son” and adopted it as an exegetical and dogmatic principle (p. 147).

Faith involves disciplining our seeing and imagining, because in contemplating the triune God through God’s intelligible creation we come to recognize that what leads us to God is not itself God (p. 151). For Augustine, this principle of contemplation and ascent from the intelligible to the unintelligible governed everything, from correctly reading and exegeting Scripture to living a spiritually grounded life capable of fostering knowledge and understanding of God who is Trinity.

Throughout his book, Ayres draws widely from Augustine’s writings to offer a nuanced account of his trinitarian thought: the distinction of persons, the monarchy of the Father, and the Holy Spirit (a tricky and under-theorized locus of Augustinian thought). In attempting to situate Augustine within the scholarship of the ancient world Ayres is meticulous in his attention to detail, tracing trajectories of themes, philosophical terms, and exegetical concerns.

My one complaint is that this undoubtedly thorough study serves to render the text mostly inaccessible to even the most learned non-academics. Augustine spoke and wrote and speculated for the Church. Ayres’s commitment to drawing out Augustine’s christological principles — understood first to guide faithful and attentive life and second to foster faithful and attentive theological understanding and articulation — would undoubtedly be of great interest to pastors and “classically minded” lay readers. While Ayres’s prose is clear and precise, the intricate and manifold detail with which he draws out his themes and trends can seem more dizzying than dazzling.

The great strength of Ayres’s text lies not in a picture it presents of how Augustine handles the Trinity, but rather in identifying and establishing the theological principles which act as bounds and limits within which Augustine attempts to articulate his pro-Nicene trinitarian theology. A reader who approaches Ayres’s text looking to come away with a clear takeaway of “Augustine’s Trinity” will be disappointed.

Patient readers will come away with something far more holistic: a vision of the framework, constructed by the good bishop of Hippo, which is itself not God, but within whose bounds one can ascend to contemplation of the ineffable Trinity.

The Rev. Kathryn L. Reinhard is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Fordham University and a priest associate at Christ and St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan.

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