Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Gerald Bray on Augustine's Conception of the Spirit as Love


The link between the Trinity and human salvation is clearer in Augustine than in any other ancient writer, and it has indelibly marked the entire Western tradition. The belief that God is love is now such a commonplace that we seldom realize what a new and powerful idea it was to Augustine. Unfortunately though, Augustine formulated his belief in a way which leaves it open to serious question. As he understood it, the essence of God was both spirit and love. Despite serious hesitation, Augustine eventually argued himself into believing that spirit and love were the same thing, with the result that the Holy Spirit must also be the personification of holy love.

The basis for this equation come from a comparison of John 4:24 ('God is spirit') with 1 John 4:16 ('God is love'). Today we would say that the word 'spirit' refers primarily to the nature of God, whereas love is the way in which God functions. To tie the two together as Augustine eventually did is to unite essence and function in a way which distorts the biblical data. This conjunction later became a standard feature of Western theology, which to this day likes to claim that pure being is the same as pure act. During the centuries when the emphasis was ontological, however, love tended to become a remote abstraction. Now that the emphasis has shifted to the functional, the opposite tendency has asserted itself, and love tends to be regarded mainly as a subjective feeling, which is then somehow identified with the very being of God.

In fairness to Augustine, it must be said that he himself never went anything like as far as that. He did not regard 'Spirit' as the personal name of the third person of the Trinity, but only as a designation of the divine nature. As such, the word could and did refer equally to the Father and the Son. On the other hand, Augustine toyed with this question of finding the personal name of the Holy Spirit, but never really came up with a satisfactory answer. At one point he suggested that it might be 'gift' (donum), although that is hardly a personal name in the sense that we would understand it. Later on, he put forward the view that the Spirit's personal name was Holy. this was slightly better than 'gift', but it suffered from the fact that, like Spirit, it was a term which could be applied to the other persons of the Trinity as well.

Augustine's difficulty here is symptomatic of his whole approach, which locates the unity of the Father and the Son in the person of the Holy Spirit. But because the unity of God is expressed at the level of nature, there is an inescapable tendency to think of the Holy Spirit as a personification of the impersonal qualities which constitute the being of God. Admittedly, this tendency is helped to some extent by the impersonal name which is given to the third person, even in the Scriptures, although of course he is also called Comforter (Paraclete). Augustine was aware of this, but neither he nor his successors made much of it when discussing the names of the Trinity in their writings.

--Gerald Bray, The Doctrine of God (Intervarsity, 1993), pp. 171-2.

2 comments:

Thomas said...

“To tie the two together as Augustine eventually did is to unite essence and function in a way which distorts the biblical data. This conjunction later became a standard feature of Western theology, which to this day likes to claim that pure being is the same as pure act.”

This certainly sounds like the popular Orthodox criticism of Augustine and Western metaphysics. However, I suspect Bray’s source for it is a little closer to home. I wish he would explain his negation of the last phrase ("pure being is the same as pure act"). This is not the familiar argument that God is beyond his own acts on account of his being beyond being in the Neo-Platonic sense. Bray’s point seems to be that there is an ontological difference between being and act. In other words, to be is not necessarily to act. But I don’t think this can be maintained.

With regard to the distortion of biblical data, this seems to be an evasion of the metaphysical implications or questions raised by the text of Scripture. The biblical writers give phenomenal accounts of the world and their encounter with the divine in it. In other words, they describe the appearances of things in the same way ordinary experience goes today. There was no metaphysical or hypothetical speculation in ancient Israel. However, that is not to say that there are not philosophical and scientific problems or questions raised by the sacred text. Just as the poetic description of a six day creation must be illuminated by a proper scientific understanding of the nature and history of the cosmos, those poetic and narrative descriptions of the holiness, power, and being of God must be illuminated by a proper metaphysical analysis of the nature of being. One ought not to condemn fundamentalism in the former sense only to embrace it in the latter.

lexorandi2 said...

Actually, I agree with you in part, Thomas. I would have described it in terms of "confusing person with nature," rather than "uniting essence and function." That being said, with a little adjustment, Bray's statement would be an excellent observation.