Augustine on Presuppositions in the Study of the Trinity

The first page of Augustine’s work on the Trinity (I am quoting the New City Press edition, published in 1991) is a helpful reminder in our discussions on John 1:1, the deity of Christ, and the discussions about the Trinity. Here it is in full:

“The reader of these reflections of mine on the Trinity should bear in mind that my pen is on the watch against the sophistries of those who scorn the starting-point of faith, and allow themselves to be deceived through an unseasonable and misguided love of reason. Some of them try to transfer what they have observed about bodily things to incorporeal and spiritual things, which they would measure by the standard of what they experience through the senses of the body or learn by natural human intelligence, lively application, and technical skill. There are others whose concept of God, such as it is, ascribes to him the nature and moods of the human spirit, a mistake which ties their arguments about God to distorted and misleading rules of intepretation. Again, there is another type; people who indeed strive to climb above the created universe, so ineluctably subject to change, and raise their regard to the inchanging substance which is God. But so top-heavy are they with the load of their mortality, that what they do not know they wish to give the impression of knowing, and what they wish to know they cannot; and so they block their own road to genuine understanding by asserting too categorically their own presumptuous opinions, and then rather than change a misconceived opinion they have defended they prefer to leave it uncorrected.”

7 Comments

  1. theologian said,

    November 1, 2006 at 2:54 pm

    There is a good quote from Luther over on Reformation Theology…

    http://www.reformationtheology.com/2006/11/warning_against_false_teachers.php

    that has some relevance to the topic of false teaching…

    “But we labour, both by preaching and writing unto you, to uncharm that sorcery wherewith ye are bewitched, and to set at liberty those who were ensnared therewith.” – Martin Luther

  2. greenbaggins said,

    November 1, 2006 at 3:51 pm

    Yes, good stuff. And I especially like what he says about correcting false doctrine being loving. So often, we think that the loving thing is just to tolerate every error that comes down the pike, when in fact, it is most unloving. We wouldn’t want our cancer doctor saying to us, “There is nothing to worry about, you’re just fine, as fit as a fiddle,” when in fact we have cancer that needs treatment. That would be an unloving thing in the extreme. There is objective truth, just as there is objective error, and we need to have the boldness to say that something is wrong if it is.

  3. Steve said,

    November 2, 2006 at 11:57 am

    The Church Fathers—Advocates of Bible Truth?

    Whether you profess to be a Christian or not, your perception of the God of the Bible, of Jesus, and of Christianity may well have been influenced by them. One of them was called Golden-Mouthed; another, Great. Collectively, they have been described as “the supreme embodiments of the life of Christ.” Who are they? They are the ancient religious thinkers, writers, theologians, and philosophers who have shaped much of today’s “Christian” thinking—the Church Fathers.

    “THE Bible is not the totality of God’s word,” claims Greek Orthodox professor of religious studies Demetrios J. Constantelos. “The Holy Spirit that reveals the word of God cannot be confined to the pages of a book.” What could possibly be another reliable source of divine revelation? Constantelos asserts in his book Understanding the Greek Orthodox Church: “Holy Tradition and Holy Scriptures [are] viewed as two sides of the same coin.”

    The core of that “Holy Tradition” includes the teachings and writings of the Church Fathers. They were prominent theologians and “Christian” philosophers who lived between the second and fifth centuries C.E. How much have they influenced modern “Christian” thought? Did they hold fast to the Bible in their teaching? What should be the solid basis of Christian truth for a follower of Jesus Christ?

    Historical Background

    In the middle of the second century C.E., professed Christians were defending their faith against Roman persecutors and heretics alike. However, this was an era of too many theological voices. Religious debates regarding the “divinity” of Jesus and the nature and workings of the holy spirit caused more than just intellectual rifts. Bitter disagreements and irreparable divisions over “Christian” doctrine spilled over into the political and cultural spheres, at times causing riots, rebellion, civil strife, even war. Writes historian Paul Johnson: “ Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. . . . The central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves. . . . From the start, then, there were numerous varieties of Christianity which had little in common.”

    During that era, writers and thinkers who felt that it was imperative to interpret “Christian” teachings using philosophical terms began to flourish. To satisfy educated pagans who were new converts to “Christianity,” such religious writers relied heavily on earlier Greek and Jewish literature. Beginning with Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 C.E.), who wrote in Greek, professed Christians became increasingly sophisticated in their assimilation of the philosophical heritage of the Greek culture.

    This trend came to fruition in the writings of Origen (c. 185-254 C.E.), a Greek author from Alexandria. Origen’s treatise On First Principles was the first systematic effort to explain the main doctrines of “Christian” theology in terms of Greek philosophy. The Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), with its attempt to explain and establish the “divinity” of Christ, was the milestone that gave new impetus to interpretation of “Christian” dogma. That council marked the beginning of an era during which general church councils sought to define dogma ever more precisely.

    Writers and Orators

    Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote at the time of the first Council of Nicaea, associated himself with Emperor Constantine. For slightly more than 100 years after Nicaea, theologians, most of them writing in Greek, worked out in a long and bitter debate what was to be the distinguishing doctrine of Christendom, the Trinity. Chief among them were Athanasius, the assertive bishop of Alexandria, and three church leaders from Cappadocia, Asia Minor—Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus.

    Writers and preachers during that age achieved high standards of eloquence. Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom (meaning “Golden-Mouthed”) in Greek as well as Ambrose of Milan and Augustine of Hippo in Latin were consummate orators, masters of the most respected and popular art form of their time. The most influential writer of that period was Augustine. His theological treatises have pervasively shaped the “Christian” thinking of today. Jerome, the period’s most distinguished man of letters, was chiefly responsible for the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible from the original languages.

    However, important questions are: Did those Church Fathers adhere closely to the Bible? In their teaching, did they hold fast to the inspired Scriptures? Are their writings a safe guide to an accurate knowledge of God?

    Teachings of God or Teachings of Men?

    Recently, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Methodius of Pisidia wrote the book The Hellenic Pedestal of Christianity in order to show that Greek culture and philosophy provided the infrastructure of modern “Christian” thought. In that book, he unhesitantly admits: “Almost all the prominent Church Fathers considered the Greek elements most useful, and they borrowed them from the Greek classical antiquity, using them as a means to understand and correctly express the Christian truths.”

    Take, for example, the idea that the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit make up the Trinity. Many Church Fathers after the Council of Nicaea became staunch Trinitarians. Their writings and expositions were crucial to making the Trinity a landmark doctrine of Christendom. However, is the Trinity found in the Bible? No. So where did the Church Fathers get it? A Dictionary of Religious Knowledge notes that many say that the Trinity “is a corruption borrowed from the heathen religions, and ingrafted on the Christian faith.” And The Paganism in Our Christianity affirms: “The origin of the [Trinity] is entirely pagan.”—John 3:16; 14:28.

    Or consider the teaching of the immortality of the soul, a belief that some part of man lives on after the body dies. Again, the Church Fathers were instrumental in introducing this notion to a religion that had no teaching about a soul surviving death. The Bible clearly shows that the soul can die: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4) What was the basis for the Church Fathers’ belief in an immortal soul? “The Christian concept of a spiritual soul created by God and infused into the body at conception to make man a living whole is the fruit of a long development in Christian philosophy. Only with Origen in the East and St. Augustine in the West was the soul established as a spiritual substance and a philosophical concept formed of its nature. . . . [Augustine’s doctrine] . . . owed much (including some shortcomings) to Neoplatonism,” says the New Catholic Encyclopedia. And the magazine Presbyterian Life says: “Immortality of the soul is a Greek notion formed in ancient mystery cults and elaborated by the philosopher Plato.”

    The Solid Basis of Christian Truth

    After even this brief examination of the historical backdrop of the Church Fathers, as well as the origins of their teachings, it is appropriate to ask, Should a sincere Christian base his or her beliefs on the teachings of the Church Fathers? Let the Bible answer.

    For one thing, Jesus Christ himself ruled out the use of the religious title “Father” when he said: “Do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One.” (Matthew 23:9) The use of the term “Father” to designate any religious figure is unchristian and unscriptural. The written Word of God was completed about 98 C.E. with the writings of the apostle John. Thus, true Christians do not need to look to any human as the source of inspired revelation. They are careful not to ‘make the word of God invalid’ because of human tradition. Letting human tradition take the place of God’s Word is spiritually lethal. Jesus warned: “If . . . a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit.”—Matthew 15:6, 14.

    Does a Christian need any revelation besides the word of God as contained in the Bible? No. The book of Revelation cautions against adding anything to the inspired record: “If anyone makes an addition to these things, God will add to him the plagues that are written in this scroll.”—Revelation 22:18.

    Christian truth is embodied in the written Word of God, the Bible. (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 John 1-4) The correct understanding of it does not hinge on secular philosophy. Regarding men who tried to use human wisdom to explain divine revelation, it is fitting to repeat the apostle Paul’s questions: “Where is the wise man? Where the scribe? Where the debater of this system of things? Did not God make the wisdom of the world foolish?”—1 Corinthians 1:20.

    Moreover, the true Christian congregation is “a pillar and support of the truth.” (1 Timothy 3:15) Its overseers safeguard the purity of their teaching within the congregation, preventing any doctrinal pollutant from creeping in. (2 Timothy 2:15-18, 25) They keep out of the congregation ‘false prophets, false teachers, and destructive sects.’ (2 Peter 2:1) After the death of the apostles, the Church Fathers allowed “misleading inspired utterances and teachings of demons” to take root in the Christian congregation.—1 Timothy 4:1.

    The consequences of this apostasy are evident in Christendom today. Its beliefs and practices are a far cry from Bible truth.

  4. greenbaggins said,

    November 2, 2006 at 2:16 pm

    Steve, you can post your thoughts on my blog. I have no problem with that. But could you keep your comments shorter and more to the point? This comment of yours is longer than most of the sermons that I have *blogged* on this site! It would be helpful, I think. If you continue to post these long comments, I shall be forced to edit them. I think you would probably prefer you to edit them than me. To respond.

    Your read of Christian history does not seem to take into account any favorable or sympathetic histories of church dogmas. On the Trinity, for instance, from a sympathetic stance, you should read Robert Letham’s masterpiece. You are presenting as fact (the rooting of the Trinity in Greek philosophy) what is only theory, when many others more sympathetic to Christian doctrine say just the opposite. Read Pelikan’s magesterial 5-volume history of Christian doctrine, or Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Latourette’s History of the Christian Church, or others. They would all dispute that claim most vigorously. You must take care not to say that just because some of the *terms* used in Greek philosophy are used in the discussion of the Trinity, that therefore the Trinity is pagan philosophy thinly disguised. This makes the word-concept fallacy.

    And the Trinity is in Scripture. Just because the word is not there does not mean that the doctrine is not there. What you are advocating in completely and utterly disregarding church history is what Paul said in Corinthians, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.'” You are denying that the Holy Spirit worked in those early church fathers to defend the truth. But the Trinity is evident in Matthew 28, in many of the doxologies of the NT at the end of Paul’s letters, Ephesians 1 is very clear.

    The problem with sticking only to the very words of Scripture is that it was the very words of Scripture which were in dispute, as to their meaning. In the attempt to clarify the truth, extra-biblical language of necessity had to be used (as is used in any sermon today, so the practice is hardly a problem, unless you are biblicist).

  5. Steve said,

    November 2, 2006 at 5:44 pm

    Dear Greenbaggins,

    You asked, “could you keep your comments shorter and more to the point?” Yes, of course. I understand and appreciate this request. I will keep this in mind on any future posts.

    Regarding your comment: “The problem with sticking only to the very words of Scripture is that it was the very words of Scripture which were in dispute, as to their meaning. In the attempt to clarify the truth, extra-biblical language of necessity had to be used (as is used in any sermon today, so the practice is hardly a problem, unless you are biblicist). ”

    Yes, I understand the dilema. There are obviously passages that are in dispute. And for thousands of years, there have been a multitude of conflicting opinions voiced on these various scriptures.

    In my opinion, the Scriptures themselves should have the highest authority in explaning themselves because imperfect men, no matter how sincere, are voicing their own opinions to the best of their ability. For example, Paul spoke very highly of the value of studying the scriptures, for setting things straight, making you wise for salvation, and becoming fully competent as a man of God.

    (2 Timothy 3:15-17) and that from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through the faith in connection with Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired of God and beneficial for teaching, for reproving, for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be fully competent, completely equipped for every good work.

    I am far more prone to be facinated at other people’s understanding of Scriptures than to brand them idiots, morons, ignorant or any other mean-spirited, condescending terms.

    By ultimate extention, the concept of “believe what I have decided to be absolute truth or die” (which I understand kept Isaac Newton from actively publishing his beliefs in the invalidity of the Trinity) is incomprehensible.

    -Steve

  6. greenbaggins said,

    November 2, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    I hope you are not interpreting my as saying what your last paragraph is saying, because it wouldn’t be true. God judges mankind. I can only judge beliefs by what Scripture says. If Scripture says that there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, One God in Three Persons, then all other beliefs are false. That is what I believe. Therefore, I believe all other beliefs to be false. I don’t hold to postmodernism at all. You should know that in future debates.

  7. Steve said,

    November 2, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    No, I was referring to several sources that state that at the time Isaac Newton lived, there was a penalty of death for not believing what the Church had stated regarding the Trinity.

    For example, here on this site

    http://www.galilean-library.org/snobelen.html

    it says:

    SS: What Newton was doing was dangerous. Denial of the Trinity was illegal in Britain until 1813. The last person burnt at the stake in England for the denial of the Trinity was in 1612, only three decades before Newton’s birth. Antitrinitarians were seen as arch-heretics by the Anglican establishment. It was partly for this reason that Newton largely kept his antitrinitarianism to himself. Similarly, denial of the immortality of the soul and a personal devil were viewed as extremely radical doctrinal moves in Newton’s day. For many, denial of the Trinity, the immortality of the soul and evil spirits was, ironically, tantamount to atheism — even though these denials are also associated with positive teachings (the Oneness of God, the resurrection and strict monotheism). Because of the civil and ecclesiastical laws against such forms of heresy, Newton would have lost his position as Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge if he had publically revealed his heresies while serving in this capacity. We can be absolutely sure of this because Newton’s successor at the Lucasian Chair, William Whiston, was ousted from Cambridge in 1710 precisely for denying the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. So the stakes were very high indeed.

    -Steve


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