Augustine, de Trinitate, Books VIII-IX: Truth and Love

How Book VIII of De Trinitate represents a shift in Augustine’s method

Augustine has repeatedly stated that we must start with faith in treating of the Trinity, for reason cannot bring us to a knowledge of the Triune God. Any rationalism in treating of the revealed mystery of the Trinity is to be ruled out.  Unless you believe, you will not understand. Yet at the same time, we do not simply acknowledge the statements of our faith without seeking to understand them and certainly avoid Tertullian’s “it is absurd, therefore I believe.” Faith and reason are distinct, but compatible.

In Book XIII, Augustine shifts to a more direct seeking of how we may know God, and in doing this, he must show that we cannot analogously know Him by some sort of image we know on earth.  We know what a virgin is and what a man is, and therefore, without ever seeing a man born of a virgin, we can at least know what this means when we say “He was born of a virgin.” With God, however, we cannot point to anything on this earth, it would seem, and say “this is how I know what it means to believe in a God who is one being and three persons.”

We must, therefore, look and see if we can find a way past this. Augustine’s answer is to look within, not without. We are created in the image and likeness of God, and it is in us that we may find, not a perfect image, but one that at least will give us some understanding of the triune reality that can exist in a single being. Starting in Book VIII, we are no longer asking primarily “what does the Scripture say” but rather “how can we intellectually ponder this reality by comparison with some knowledge we already have.”

The significance of truth in books VIII and IX of De Trinitate

Ontological truth is the truth as located in beings themselves as toward the mind, and epistemological truth is truth as located in the mind towards beings. Truth in the general sense then is conformity of the mind and being.

God, as the “one who is,” is truth in the ontological sense, to its fullest. He is truth itself. If we take the correspondence theory of truth, say, as per Aristotle, for example, then we know the truth when what is in our mind corresponds to what is in reality. The ultimate reality, ultimate being and truth, of course, is God.  If we know the truth, the truth itself in its fullness, we know God.

Augustine warns us that “’He is truth.’ Do not ask what truth is; immediately a fog of bodily images and a cloud of fancies will get in your way and disturb the bright fair weather that burst on you the first instant when I said ‘truth.’ Come, hold it in that first moment in which so to speak you caught a flash from the corner of your eye when the word ‘truth’ was spoken; stay there if you can.”

The only things we know we know from experience, and all knowledge starts with sensation. It is hard for us, and it was certainly hard for Augustine (read his Confessions) to overcome the thought that everything that “is” is material. This, of course, is a very widespread fallacy today, especially in the scientific community, where truth is often limited to what can be empirically observed and verified.

Augustine goes on, however, to show us that to know truth is truly to know God, and to know at least something of truth is to know something of God. In this way we can begin to overcome the limitations mentioned earlier, where while “we cannot point to anything on this earth,” we can look at truth itself, known from within, and gain a starting point in knowing something of God.

The role of love in books VIII and IX of De Trinitate

“This is good and that is good. Take away this and that and see good itself if you can. In this way you will see God, not good with some other good, but the good of every good.” Augustine tells us that this is what we love:  Good.  We love good food and love good people and love good sunsets, because we ultimately love good, and the source of good in anything is Goodness Himself. “…there would be no changeable good things unless there were an unchangeable good.”

Of course, in this way, good is a transcendental of being, for there would be no beings if there were not being itself, nor truths if there were not truth itself, etc.

But as intellect goes out to being and to truth, the will goes out to the good. We love, and we love (or should) ourselves. In this way, we are both the lover and the loved. And further, the lover loves the loved, so there is lover, loved, and the love. Here, we can start to put together an image analogous with God who is, perhaps as Aristotle might say, thought thinking thought or understanding understanding understanding, which means that “Understanding” is understanding Himself.

Love is Augustine’s first internal image, in man, that we can look towards and see something of the relation of the three persons that are the one being of God, and further, the no one of them is greater or lesser than the others, or even of the whole.  That is, the Father is no greater or less than the Son, and likewise, the Father is no less than the Son and Holy Spirit together, or even any less than God as one Being.  Augustine discusses how we can see this in the lover loving the beloved that he has imaged in man, and thus come to some understanding that this is true in God, of course, without any of the imperfections of the image in man.


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