Augustine: On the Trinity


Augustine (354-430). Augustine's mysticism is drawn from several sources already mentioned. There are strong elements of Plotinus. He draws on the Cappadocians and Origen.

The third place is
De Trinitate. The beginning he makes in the Confessions is extended here. The point again concerns what he is knowing when he knows God. But it is here that Augustine goes beyond Plotinus. For Plotinus, the vision of God is the goal; for Augustine, it is the starting point. Augustine gives us a kind of mysticism that is gradual, and is worked out progressively. The initial experience requires understanding, and the mystic spends the rest of his or her life trying to understand.

The path is through the investigation of the Trinities in the human person. Augustine assumes that the attraction to God can only come if there is some remnant of the divine in us. He already established this in his discussion of memory. However, he has not identified the true image of God in us. It should be noted that this is already a departure from tradition. It was argued before Augustine that only the Word of God (Christ) is the true image of God. We are created according to the image of God. Therefore, we are an image of an image. But Augustine cannot buy this, primarily because of his experience of battling the Arians. If the earlier version of image was true, then Christ would be subordinate. So, we are the image of God, and Christ is God.

There is therefore more Plotinus than Christianity at this point. Plotinus was also concerned about the image. It was something that derived immediately from its source (no demiurge involved here, nor is there any nature interposed), and seeks to return to its source. The image can know the archetype like can know like and by contemplating the archetype the image becomes more like the archetype. The act of contemplation is therefore the act of return. This act is introvertive.


On the patristic use of the image of God:

imago: unalterable link between humans and God;

similitudo: likeness lost through original sin, but capable of being regained through Christ.

Augustine uses these interchangeably most of the time. There were three places where the image of God was seen: 1. in the intellect; 2. in human freedom; 3. in intersubjectivity. While Augustine clearly leans toward the first, he draws on all three.

The image of God is the human person, or more precisely, the human rational soul. Since God is Trinity, the image must also be trinity. So, discovering God means discovering our true nature. It begins with a flash Plotinus' goal is Augustine's starting point. The soul is awakened, and longs for truth.

The first trinity (end of book 7) he identifies is that of the lover, the beloved, and the love between them. God loves the soul, and the soul loves God. But this is not a true trinity, because the lover and beloved are separate. So, he makes another try.

Within the human person, and more particularly the mind, he notes that there is only two of the original three left the mind, and its love. The object is not there. But he points out that the mind cannot love itself if it does not know itself. So, we have another trinity mens (mind), notitia (knowledge), and amor (love). The problem is that the image will only be a true image if all parts are genuine. We know that we could be mistaken (knowledge could be faulty). In fact, the soul that fails to know itself will turn out to be heretical. A mind that believes itself to be material, for instance, will debase its love. Mind, which is spiritual, will be higher than its self love, and this is wrong (Arian, in fact).

So, Augustine looks for a genuinely orthodox trinity. Although self knowledge could be mistaken, it cannot be completely fooled (he uses an early version of Descartes' cogito to argue this point). He finds that, if we consider the mind to be spiritual, there are three spiritual properties of which the mind is certain: memory, understanding, and will. This is the true trinity each part is co equal, each part depends on the other parts and is the basis for the other parts. It is knowledge of the "high" point of our being, the spiritual, which therefore brings us to knowledge of God.

Identifying this trinity is only the second step, though (after the flash). Now that we know the true image of God, we must begin the return to the archetype. This is a process, made possible by withdrawal and introspection. The problem is that even the divine trinity has, for us, the connection to this world. There is the thing seen, the process of seeing, and our intention in seeing. Even memory, internal vision, and will has this derived from the external world.

The next requirement is a distinction between scientia (knowledge) and sapientia (wisdom). The first deals with knowledge based on senses, and the second is knowledge based on eternal reality. How can the soul move from scientia to sapientia?

The answer is that we once (before the Fall) had access to sapientia. The fall provided us with opportunity for private (selfish) involvement with the senses. But scientia is not therefore bad. It has a good and a bad use. Used rightly, it enables us to govern ourselves in this world, directing us to the summum bonum.


But we still don't know how to get to sapientia. It is only possible by grace through faith. The truths inherent in the Incarnation are the only ones that will bring us to sapientia. In fact, there is a trinity of faith that corresponds to the trinity in the human soul: retentio (holding in the mind truths of faith), contemplatio (contemplating truths of faith), dilectio (delighting in the truths of faith). This trinity of faith belongs to scientia, but opens the door to sapientia. It requires purification and humility.

But of course, faith is not the final step either. Faith becomes vision when the soul is perfected. This is accomplished only by God, and is a reformation by God into the image of God. This will not end in this lifetime.


One Issue for Augustine: Is the mystical life in some sense "natural" to a person?