Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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II. Basic principles of Patristic teaching

3. Augustine' s views


       In the previous lesson, we expanded on the Cappadocian Fathers’ theology, and mainly that of the Holy Trinity; we saw exactly how they promoted the dogma as compared to their predecessors.  May I remind you of the main points:

a)     they clarified terminology, by making the significant step of relating the term ‘hypostasis’ to the term ’person’.

b)     they disengaged the term ‘hypostasis’ from the term ‘essence’;  Even at the time of Athanasios the Great and his contemporaries and up to the time of the Synod of 362, these two terms were linked. They therefore made this distinction between essence and hypostasis, by transferring the term hypostasis from the realm of the essence to the realm of the person.  The terms ‘person’ and ‘essence’ are now related, and the reason they did this, was to give the person an ontological content, in order to say that the three persons are not three facades (which was what the term formerly implied), but three persons.  The term person normally signified a façade and a mask, thus always giving rise to suspicions of Savellianism.  So, after the Cappadocians, we were able to say that God is one essence, three persons, without the risk of Savellianism, because persons now signify hypostases, and hypostases are complete beings.

c)     they introduced the notion of ‘cause’ within God’s being. That is, they posed the question of who is the cause of God’s existence, of God existing, and the fact that He is God and exists as a Trinity.  The reply that they gave to this question, was that the  ‘cause’ is only the Father; and when we say ‘only the Father’, we are chiefly pointing out that the essence is not the cause (keep this in mind, because we shall see that it is of great importance) and secondly, we are denoting that neither of the other two persons are the ‘cause’.

So, the ‘cause’ is the Father; and from this ‘cause’, the Son is primarily evident, while the Holy Spirit proceeds from the ‘cause’ (who is the Father), through Him that is ‘from the cause’ (the Son). This may not be entirely clear, but we shall talk about it later on.  What interests us at this point, is to clarify the meaning of the term ‘cause’; to see how the existence of God is not simply a given reality.  It is a reality that is owed to something, and that ‘something’ is the Father; it is a person.  It is not the essence of God that broadens, expands or divides; and that is why only the Father can primarily be called God. The Father is God, in the sense that He does not owe His existence to anyone else; He is the very cause of existence, whereas in the case of the Son and the Holy Spirit, the fact is that their coming into being is owed to someone else – the Father – and subsequently, in God we have a narrowing down to one person,  one hypostasis and therefore an unshackled cause,  not a compulsory projection or expansion of God’s single essence.  We shall see what significant existential consequences this has.

Having set down these guidelines, the Cappadocians created a kind of theology (at least for the East, who followed them) where the person – the hypostasis – played a primary ontological role.  Whereas in ancient philosophy the leading ontological role always belonged to the essence (each human was in essence a person, since human nature preceded him; man does not bring human nature into being, hence the priority of essence or nature, with the person in a secondary role), with the Cappadocians this logic was overturned.  In God, essence does not come first; first comes the person of the Father, Who causes essence to exist. The Greek verb ‘exist’ is the root from which the word ‘hypostasis’ is derived; thus we say ‘he exists’.  Therefore, to exist means that you are you, and not someone else; that you are an individual.  Well, God exists, as hypostases. And God’s essence exists, only as hypostases. And that which makes it exist as hypostases is again a hypostasis and not any attribute that the essence itself may have. This means God exists independently, and not due to a given essence, or a given reality.  And the essence, which – as the Cappadocians and Vasileios said – cannot be bare, cannot be devoid of a hypostasis, acquires hypostasis, it exists, it comes into existence thanks to a person,  and in the form of these three Persons.  Therefore in this context, the Holy Trinity is a primary ontological meaning; it is not something that we add to God’s being, instead, it is that which makes God be.  In other words, if the Trinity were removed, God would not exist. Because the only way that God can exist, is as a Trinity; and this is attributed to the Father – a person – and not an essence.  Therefore the essence – albeit important and necessary – does not have that primary significance of causing God to exist.  That which causes God to exist, is the person of the Father.

       I have insisted on these details, because I wanted you to see what happens in the West with Augustinee, who moves in an entirely different way in theology, by not bearing in mind the Cappadocians’ theology. It is important to stress that the West never assimilated the Cappadocian Fathers’ theology, to this day. The FILIOQUE has also something to do with this problem, as we shall see.  And not only the FILIOQUE, but a number of other problems related to East-West differences are attributed to the fact that the Cappadocian theology was not assimilated historically by the West.  Augustinee’s theology had interposed, and especially during the Franks era, it became the West’s theological flag, in contradiction to eastern theology, from whence, tremendous problems ensued. But the roots of these problems are found in the fact that the Cappadocian theology was not assimilated by the West; instead, Augustinee’s theology was sanctioned. What, therefore, is Augustinee’s theology?

Augustinee mainly concerns himself with the dogma on God, in his writings “On the Holy Trinity” ( DE TRINITATAE ).  In it, he is not as concerned with documenting the dogma on the Holy Trinity, as he is in finding ways to make this dogma comprehensible, to find analogies in human existence, and to somehow assist the thinking person not to reject the theory on the Holy Trinity, which at first glance is so difficult for the human mind to accept.  So, while searching for these analogies in human existence, he makes a serious mistake from the very beginning, which will henceforth leave its mark on the theology of the Holy Trinity.  The mistake is that he searches for an analogy or a model in one single person, whereas the Cappadocian Fathers could never see the analogy of the Trinity through the observation of a single person.  They always needed three persons to draw the analogy.  In other words, for the Cappadocians each divine person was a complete entity, a complete being: thus, in terms of our human experience, an exact correspondence to a trinity would be a Peter, a Kostas and a John, whereas with Augustine this is exactly the mistake he made, in that he believed the Trinity to be found only in Kostas, i.e., by observing only the one person.

       Notice his train of thought:  By observing only one person, he perceived – under the neo-Platonic influence that he carried – that the essential thing in a person is the mind. This was the Platonic viewpoint: what is that which makes me be me?  my mind. And this is what later led to Augustinee’s theory, to be subsequently developed by Cartesian and western thought in general, which has all those introvert thoughts on seeking one’s conscience, of discovering myself on my own, without the need to observe anyone else nearby.  The ability to think, to be conscious of one’s self, is, for the West, the key to understanding one’s existence.  “COGITO ERGO SUM” – I comprehend, therefore I exist.  Therefore it is enough for you to say that you exist; it is enough to be on our own, in order to study your existence; that is why it is not necessary to look around you.  So, by looking at one person, we strive to find therein the analogies that will lead us to the existence of a trinity. We find the following elements that Augustinee has isolated, and on which he builds his theology:

a)                 The basic element is the mind

b)                 The basic element of this mind is memory, from which its entire existence springs.

Observe, why memory is of such importance.  It is the Platonic idea of remembrance.  Everything we understand, think about and know of is stored inside us. Each one of us has a soul, in which eternally exists a storeroom of – let’s say - the truth. To Platonic thought, knowledge is nothing more than a recollection of this truth. The derivative of the Greek word “truth” is “un-forgettable”.  When you cease to forget, that is when you find the truth; in other words, knowledge and reality emerge from oblivion.  This meant that memory is the source of existence.  Man’s mind has a source – memory – from which our existence springs.  If we now take from Athanasios and the Cappadocian Fathers the traditional expression “source of divinity”, we will observe that the Cappadocian Fathers did not dwell on the meaning of “source”, because “source” implies something that gushes perforce.  This traditional image of a source is what Augustinee embraced; he translated it from the Greek text and thenceforth related the source to the Father.  There is also the term “beginning” – the Source and the Beginning.  This is also used by Athanasios and the Cappadocians, but not overly stressed by the latter.  They state that the Father is the source, or that He is the beginning, but they use it in the context of a cause.  The differences between these terms are very subtle.  Anyway, the source and the beginning, all these are the Father, and all these are memory.  To human psychology, memory is the source from which primarily knowledge springs forth.  Knowledge is a basic characteristic of the mind and of the human being.   God is the Mind; the mind has a source of knowledge, and the knowledge that is produced is the Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity.

In order to prove that God as an intellectual being - and especially as a supreme Mind - is not without knowledge, he believed that precisely the Logos of God was the means by which God knows.  But, knowledge is always drawn from memory, and this he analyzes in great detail:  I would never know this table, if the notion of a table were not already stored in my memory bank. It is the basic Platonic concept, that the ideas of all things are stored within us.  Therefore, when I recognize this table, it is from within the source that is my memory, that the knowledge of the table springs from.  If I know nothing, then it would mean that I am not an active mind.  In order to be an active mind, I must express it, and God is an active mind; He has a Logos.  And Logos signifies knowledge.  So, from the source that is the Father comes knowledge that is the Logos – God’s knowledge.  But then, knowledge of what? (given that there is nothing else except God).  Naturally, He has knowledge of Himself – this is self-awareness. The Logos knows the Father – the object of His knowledge is the Father – consequently we have a circular reference, a self-knowledge of God.

But again in accordance with another basic Platonic theory, God is not only the Mind, He is also the absolute Good.  The absolute good cannot be just the Mind; it must be the Mind of absolute Goodness.  According to Plato, good always attracts love and Eros, and also beauty.  Just as beauty arouses Eros,  likewise goodness arouses Eros, love. Now, if God is goodness and if there is no other goodness except for Him, whose love would He arouse? The Logos has a separateness towards the Father and He recognizes Him, so, by recognizing Him, He recognizes Him as the Good, and that is when Eros is born, which is the love towards the Good, who is the Father.  This love between the Son and the Father is the Spirit.  The Spirit is a third form of existence, by which the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father; it is – as Augustine called it – the “NEXUS AMORIS”, the bond, the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Spirit has this – let us say – hypostatic attribute.

       However, this generates the following problem.  As you can see, by accepting the Father as memory, the Son as knowledge and the Spirit as love, you will have three separate definitions and descriptions of the contents of each person.   Each person has its own positive function; it has hypostatic attributes.  The Son has the attribute and the content of knowledge; the spirit has the content of love. Therefore, there is a way here to positively describe the hypostatic attributes of the three Persons.  If you compare this with the Cappadocian Fathers and the eastern Fathers in general, you will see that for them, something like this is impossible; they avoid giving any positive content whatsoever to hypostatic attributes.  When they are called upon to give their reply on what the hypostatic attribute is of the Son, or of the Spirit, and – more important – the difference between “being born of” and “proceeding from”, they avoid defining the difference between being born and proceeding from. Why? Because they do not want to give any positive content to the Hypostases.  The Son differs from the Father, simply because He is not the Father; and the Spirit – likewise – is not the Son, etc. etc.  Thus, we say that the hypostatic attributes are non-communing ones, as opposed to Augustine, who gives a positive content to each Divine Attribute. Straight away, the danger of anthropomorphism arises which is exactly what the eastern Fathers strove to avoid.  However, with Augustine, anthropomorphism became a part of western theology. They subsequently used other methods to circumvent it, by means of various innovations that they inserted in their theology; however, when we say that the Son is Knowledge or the Spirit is Love, what we are actually doing is projecting through God the psychological attributes and experiences that belong to humans.  In this way, the Trinity becomes a psychological conglomeration, a complex of psychological relations; obviously, this is not the Trinity that the Cappadocians wanted to speak of.

However, the problem is not only there; in giving an anthropomorphic content, a psychological content, one must find a way of referring to God, above and beyond the anthropomorphic, psychological experience. This is why Augustine doesn’t see the Holy Trinity as the primary classification of God’s existence.  Whereas for the Cappadocians it was imperative for one to begin from the Trinity, because it begins with the Father and it is not possible to escape the Trinity, exactly because it begins with the Father’s person.   Augustine does not place the person in a primary place because he does not begin with the Father.  With regard to the triadic existence, he considers the Father a source, a beginning etc., but with regard to what we call “God”, he does not relate this to the Father, as did the Cappadocians and the eastern Fathers in general.  In Augustine’s theology, God is related to the essence of God; i.e., there is that which the easterners call “godhood”.  There is a difference between the word god and the word godhood.  Godhood has the same meaning as the essence:  God is the Father (God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ).

       Well, this godhood is translated in the sense of DIVINITAS, which bears the meaning of essence.   With Augustine, it is clear that godhood is the impersonal, single, divine essence; thus, the one God – the essence - comes first, and logically the Trinity follows, as the means by which that one God, that one essence, exists. In other words, even the notion of the Father becomes secondary, with respect to God.  This is a very large mistake:  Who is the one God?  Are the Fathers monotheists? If so, then who is the One God in Whom they believe, when they say “ I believe in one God….”?  If we say that the one God is the essence (which is what Augustine did), then the three Hypostases – the Father, the Son and the Spirit – are all the same, from the point of view of ontological existence.  The Father is no longer the cause, in the strict ontological sense.  He is a “source”, but only a “source” in the sense of godhood, meaning that godhood pre-exists before Him. He is not the One who causes essence to exist.  Therefore, the one God is an essence.  This is also heard from many orthodox – that God is a single essence.  He is not an essence.  To us, God is the Father.

Now, where is the significance in placing the one God in the essence, and prioritizing the essence? The significance is this:  We lose the meaning of cause and we lose the meaning of independence in the existence of God.  When the essence is isolated and impersonal, it generates the existence of God out of necessity, because essence contains the element of necessity.  Essence is that which exists; we do not ask why and how it exists. When we do ask why or how, then we are turning away from the essence and are moving towards the hypostases.  When you say essence, you do not ask how. The “how” is a question placed by a person or a hypostasis.  With the essence, you simply make an ontological observation: that God exists.  And with this, you are also implying that He is not another essence; that He is not a man, but God.  As for how this essence exists, it is a problem of the hypostasis.  For the Cappadocians, the “how” cannot be a sequel to the fact that it exists.  Without the “how”, nothing existing exists. This is what they mean by “bare” essence.

We cannot consequently give priority to the essence. In Augustine however, priority is given to the essence.  First we say that God exists, then we ask how He exists.  Hence what occurred in the West.  Two things happened in the West: the one unfortunately also applies to us .  Mediaeval theology in the West divided Dogmatics - under the influence of Augustine’s teachings - into a separate chapter on the one God and another chapter on the Holy Trinity.  How can you speak of one God, if you don’t mention the Holy Trinity, given that you have accepted the equation: one God = the Father?  For Augustine, this is not a problem, since he does not accept the equation.  To him, the equation is : one God = one essence.  Well, according to him, we shall first talk about the one God as an essence – about His attributes; and this is where he lists all of God’s attributes. (Unfortunately, the same thing is done in our contemporary Dogmatics).  This is the first mistake, and it touches on the methodology of Dogmatics. However, there is another serious mistake with regard to monotheism, which continues to plague us orthodox.  We say that there are monotheist religions that accept the one God, while there are polytheist religions that acknowledge a number of gods.  Even today, attempts are being made on a common basis by all monotheist religions, to relate to one another.  This is happening, on account of the distinction that Augustine made, which allowed for the mention of “godhood” or “religiosity”.  This perception is so deeply rooted, that it is extremely difficult to remove from our mind; the fact is, the “how” God exists is equally primeval as the “if” He exists, and the “if” He is one.  Consequently, to us orthodox, the Trinity is a prerequisite for every discussion on monotheism, when discussing it with other religions.

There are other ways for one to approach the subject of monotheism, but we haven’t elaborated on them as yet.  What is important, is that between Augustine and the East, lies the chasm of the priority of the essence, which essence relates to the one God, whereas for us, the one God is the Father.

From these ideas have sprung the immense differences that we have, also with regard to a special point – the FILIOQUE – which we shall examine later on. 

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Greek text

Translation by A.N.

Article published in English on: 8-7-2005.

Last update: 4-8-2005.