Theology for the Masses

November 16, 2006

Augustine and the Trinity

Filed under: Nature of God,trinity — Henry Imler @ 12:09 am

Augustine wrote On the Trinity around 419 C.E.. This was after the Church had established the doctrine of the Trinity and now people were trying to defend the doctrine against heretical formulations. Besides the common charge of tri-theism, the greatest challenge came from the formulation of the trinity as presented by Arius. This Arianism, not to be confused with the Indian and Nazi idea of Aryanism, was very concerned with the authority of the Father. Arius promoted this so far as to make the Son lesser than the Father in their essential natures. After all the Son was begotten; since He was begotten, He must have been created. As something created, there was a time before He was created. Augustine sought to dispel these claims and to show how each member of the trinity have the same essential natures and how the Trinity was a necessary configuration of God. He did this in an interesting manner.

Augustine starts out book eight On the Trinity by stating some simple postulates of the Trinity:

  • the greatness of the father + the greatness of the son = the greatness of the hs.
  • the greatness of the son + the greatness of the hs = the greatness of the father
  • the greatness of the father + the greatness of the hs = the greatness of the son
  • God is the greatest Love
  • God is the greatest Word
  • God is the greatest Knowledge.

It is at first odd that two parts of the trinity are not greater than the remaining part. To put it in mathematical terms Augustine maintains the following:

2p = 1p.How can this be the case? While I don’t think he explicitly says this, but if we take p to equal ∞, or infinity then I think it can work:

2∞ = 1∞Each aspect of God is infinite. But wait, if they are each infinite, then would they not be equal to each other? Yes. That is were Augustine demonstrates the idea that each member of the trinity shares the same nature.

Augustine then uses a argument from grammar to prove that God must have a triparte nature. He examines Love. In order to have love, there must be a lover, a loved, and the action of love. Since God is the very embodiment of love, and he loved himself, he must have the three natures. In order to be love, God must at the same time be the object, the subject and the verb. Restated:

1. God is the highest love
2. Love has three parts
3. ∴ God must have three parts

Augustine repeats this basic line of reasoning for the ideas of Word and Knowledge. Since each part of the equation is dependent on the other parts of the equation, no combination is greater than the remaining part and vice versa. Likewise, the distinctions between the parts are imbued in the very nature of Love, Word, Knowledge and God. In order for their to be the word (Jesus), there must be the speaking of the word (the Spirit) and the Speaker (the father). There is no before and after here. There is no speaker until there is the speaking and their is no word until the speech and or the speaker. In this sense, we can consider the word to be begotten from the speaker and at the same time co-eternal with it. This is how Augustine by-passed Arius’ charge that the son was created and therefore was lesser than the father.

Why is all of this such a big deal? Why does one have to have a correct view of God and therefore the Trinity? Augustine thought that in order to love something, one must know it. How can I love my wife if I do not know who she is? Likewise, if one does not know what God is really like, then one’s love is misplaced. Augustine says in chapter 4 of book eight, “But indisputably we must take care, lest the mind believing that which it does not see, feign to itself something which is not, and hope for and love that which is false.” In other words, if your view of God does not match the reality of God, you do not really love God and your faith is a false faith!

All of this begs the question of how one can know God. In looking around, I cannot see Him, much less observe his trinitarian nature. Augustine says we can. He draws off of the idea of imago dei, the idea that humans are made in the image of God. This, coupled with his Neoplatonism, led him to think that with the turning inward of the intellect, one could grasp the reality of God. We have a mind and we know our own mind. In order to do this, there must be a mind, the knowledge of the mind and the mind that the mind knows. This parallels God. It is this way that we can realize that as we have three parts, God also has three parts. We are a lower image of God’s true image. Augustine is quoted as saying, “As far as we know God, we are like God.” This process brings about mystical overtones. With enough introspection and prayer, one can get glimpses into the reality of God. These flashes are fleeting, however and soon we are brought back to the material world.



  1. I have not read very deeply in Augustine,certainly no rigorous study. It is never the less gratifying to see how much of my own thought flows from him as the headwaters formed by the spring at the fount on knowledge. For me, its bits picked up here and there, mostly from good teachers. I especially appreciate “in order to love something, one must know it” and “As far as we know God, we are like God”
    Wondering, have you read Bp. FitzSimmon Allison’s book “The Cruelty of Heresy”

    Comment by R. Eric Sawyer — April 13, 2009 @ 1:36 am | Reply

  2. Henry,
    Great essay. Was then Augustine posed the question, “where was the trinity before God spoke?”. Judaism retains the absolute Oneness of God with Ain Sof (without end) – G-d who remains prior to creation. According the the grammatical analogy presented above, if G-d has not yet spoken the world into existence, the there is no Word either. Of course when the Word is spoken, “he” is co-equal and co-eternal. Again, Jewish esoteric teaching echoes the same triad of creation with a 3-phase movement. I understand how Augustine avoids subordination here, but does he and others readily admit than that there was a time before the beginning of existence – before the Word existed?

    Comment by L.S. — August 11, 2009 @ 2:24 am | Reply

    • in the beginning was the word and the work was with God and the word was God (john1:1)

      Comment by brodjon — February 15, 2014 @ 4:47 am | Reply

  3. The Trinity is a post new Testament man made fabrication decided by a convention of men (some morally corrupt) and the vote was not unanimous. There is a book called “When Jesus became God” which went on at the council of Nicea and the political intrigue of the day.

    What is certain is the for the first 300 hundred years of Christianity, it was not accepted doctrine that Jesus was God. Yes, He is the Saviour and yes He is the Son of God. No, he is not God. Augustine was a great man, no doubt, but he got that wrong.

    Comment by Ted Wegener — August 29, 2011 @ 12:44 am | Reply

    • Augustine maybe wrong. your pastor maybe wrong. But the church cannot be wrong because it is the foundation of truth (1timothy3:15)and the Holy spirit guides it to the whole truth (john16:13)

      Comment by brodjon — February 15, 2014 @ 4:55 am | Reply

  4. did augustine change anything in the way we view christianity today

    Comment by ricky — September 12, 2012 @ 9:35 pm | Reply

  5. Entendo como importantíssimo o Estudo do Tema Doutrina da Trindade; e pulsa de maneira intensa no meu coração (cognição, mente) o desejo de vê-la estudada e discutida de maneira madura e séria ─ quer defendida ou contestada ─, e nessa minha obstinada visão e intenção; postei um Blog com o título THE DOUTRINE OF THE TRINITY IS HERESY, endereço , para o qual peço toda atenção, como estou tendo para o seu Blog. E termino dizendo que o Blog em apreço é um Estudo de certa extensão textual de pesquisa séria: sujeita à também séria contestação de quem se dispuser a fazer.
    Atenciosamente JORGE VIDAL – BRASIL

    Comment by JORGE VIDAL — January 17, 2013 @ 10:48 am | Reply

  6. Excellent. Reawakening my. college days. I am doing a refresher course in Theology

    Comment by Sean Page — June 2, 2017 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

  7. Augustine has done his best to unfold the mystery of the Trinity to us. God cannot be fully comprehended by mortals.

    Comment by Dauda — June 26, 2017 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

  8. There is no difference between a person and their word. If you know someone very well, even as Augustine rightly said, you know them also by their word, to the extent that when they say something, you, knowing them too well can say ‘that does not sound like you’ or someone says something about your father/mother/wife and you say ‘No, that is not my wife/father/mother. You can actually swear that they are innocent even without verifying the facts from them and you’ll be totally right. That is the kind of knowing that we refer not fake /half knowledge of someone. My word for instance is my bound and people know me for this, if I say I’m coming to you that means I’m coming and if you do not see me then worry because something terrible must have happened. And that is me being my word.

    God’s Word was with Him from the very beginning, not separate from Him, the word/message who was Himself, and not different from Him; and the Holy Spirit was ever present hovering over the face of the deep (waiting for the Word to be spoken) Nothing would have happened if the word was not present or spoken. Everything in creation happened at the emergence of the Word. The Trinity is not an after thought but one God.

    Comment by Nwaeze — November 9, 2017 @ 4:59 pm | Reply

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