Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Augustine on the Trinity

I've recently come across a good illustration of how the function of the doctrine of the Trinity differs in East and West, allowing each perspective to contribute a unique theological insight while retaining remarkable harmony in the underlying theological sensibilities. On the Western side, my recent work has centered around the influence of Stoicism, and in the larger sense, I think that Zubiri's metaphysical system (or something very like it) will be vindicated as the Western metaphysical system par excellence. The reason that I find these ideas (Stoicism and Zubirianism) particularly useful is their emphasis on the metaphysical concepts of personhood, experience, and communion (in the sense of relationships between person). But what provides historical leverage for these concepts in the West is the 800-pound gorilla of Western tradition, St. Augustine of Hippo, whose intuition about the concept of personhood is second to none (as the Confessiones makes clear). Here's a good article on how, in addition to his brilliant doctrinal synthesis between the Cappadocians and the Western Fathers (putting the emphasis on the as-yet-undeveloped concept of metaphysical relationship), Augustine integrated these doctrinal insights into redemptive theology centered on personhood. Of note is the nod the author gives to St. Bonaventure's dependence on this theology, which impels me to repeat the reminder that all Occident-o-philes need to read the Itinerarium, study it, and internalize it.

One other thing to note is that Augustine was well-versed in the Trinitarian controversies of the time, a characteristic quite in contrast with the members of the current fad to make anything that can be described in threes a "Trinitarian doctrine" (e.g., the "Trinitarian theory" of language of Frame and Poythress). Also, one ought to pay careful attention to the bibliography of this article, in which the author notes the growing weight of scholarship against the idea that Latin theology centers around the metaphysical unity of the essence while Eastern theology starts with the metaphysical concept of person. The growing factual picture of history, contra the neo-myrmidons (i.e., people like John Romanides who are convinced that nothing good ever came outside of Greek culture), is that the theological intuitions about perichoresis were virtually identical, and the alleged "disharmony" between East and West has been retrojected into the fourth century from later controversies.

I will note that the latter criticism applies equally to those Western scholars, be they Catholic triumphalists or Protestant skeptics, who have attempted to downplay the significance of Cappadocian theology for the West out of a misguided desire establish the West's theological independence, including Robert Jenson (who now regrets the error), T. F. Torrance, and various neo-Thomists. The article notes, in FN 1, that this effort often involved presenting the theology of Richard of St. Victor as an exemplar of the "Latin" view as against the East without acknowledging the debt of Abbot Richard to St. Augustine or St. Augustine to the Cappadocians. For regular readers of this blog, both the dependence of Richard on Augustine and the fact that it had not been acknowledged until recently ought to come as no surprise. As I have repeatedly pointed out, the basic insights of Western theology (captured singularly in Zubirian metaphysics) are entirely harmonious with both the Cappadocian Fathers and St. Cyril of Alexandria, and, more specifically, with those elements of their respective theological views that are entirely dismissed in the triumphalistic Photian view of church history. The perverse and self-destructive effort of some Western theologians to identify themselves with the caricature of Western theology presented by the East and to futilely defend this straw man of Greek making is, if the signs in this article are true, finally meeting its well-deserved end.

EDIT -- It just hit me that there is an excellent summary of the paradigm pitting East vs. West that was written by my friend Dr. Paul Owen. The theological "breathing room" that Dr. Owen describes is, to my way of thinking, exactly that space of dialogue among the Fathers of the fourth century, in which the common doctrines were "built up" rather than set against one another. The lengthy quotation from Torrance perhaps best exemplies the now-obstolete technique of driving a wedge between the Cappadocians and the catholic (Nicaean) faith, while the "dispute" between the social and psychological models described by Dr. Owen is exemplary of the scholarly weakness that I have noted above (viz., failing to appreciate the harmonious resolution between the ontological and the moral/ethical achieved by St. Augustine in the West and by St. Cyril in the East). Dr. Owen's survey is probably the best summary of the scholarly quarrels over the Trinity that I have encountered, and accordingly, it highlights exactly the sorts of problems that result from attempting to read the Fathers of the fourth century in a polemical context, instead of perceiving the fundamental harmony between them.