Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Augustine on the Ineffability of the Trinity

After his distinction between things and signs in 1.2 and his discussion of enjoyment and use in 1.3, Augustine has this to say about the Trinity:

“The things therefore that are to be enjoyed are the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, in fact the Trinity, one supreme thing, and one which is shared in common by all who enjoy it; if, that is to say, it is a thing, and not the cause of all things; if indeed it is a cause. It is not easy, after all, to find any name that will really fit such transcendent majesty. In fact it is better just to say that this Trinity is the one God from whom are all things, through whom all things, in whom all things (Rom 11:36). Thus Father and Son and Holy Spirit are each one of them singly God and all together one God; and each one of them singly is the complete divine substance, and all together are one substance…” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.5)

And this to say on the ineffability of the Trinity:

“Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something; but if I have said anything, it is not what I wished to say. How do I know this? I know it because God is inexpressible; and if what has been said by me were inexpressible, it would not have been said. And from this it follows that God is not to be called inexpressible, because when even this is said about him, something is being expressed. And we are involved in heaven knows what kind of battle of words, since on the one hand what cannot be said is inexpressible, and on the other what can even be called inexpressible is thereby shown to be not inexpressible. ” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.6)

Despite the inadequacy of our language, God accepts our praise:

“And yet, while nothing really worthy of God can be said about him, he has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wished us to rejoice in praising him with our words. That in fact is what is meant by calling him God. Not, of course, that with the sound made by this one syllable any knowledge of him is achieved; but still, all those who know the English language are moved, when this sound reaches their ears, to reflecting upon some most exalted and immortal nature.” (Augustine, Teaching Christianity, I.6)

I find this section very interesting in light of my (limited) knowledge of the contemporary discussion regarding theology of language. Augustine seems to avoid at least two potential problems: (1) an overemphasis on God’s transcendence, as found in thinkers like Tillich (rightly criticized for vicious circularity), and (2) an underemphasis on language’s ability to speak of God, as found—if I’ve understood him through J√ľngel correctly—in Barth.

Regarding (1): The proposition ‘nothing we say about God applies to God’ is self-refuting. For if it is true, it is false; and if it is false, it is false. For what if it is true? Then it is true that one thing we say about God does apply to God; namely, that God is a God of whom nothing can be said. In that case, the proposition is false. I think Plantinga charges Tillich with this sort of vicious circularity somewhere in Does God Have a Nature? If he represents Tillich’s views accurately, Plantinga is surely right. And the same critique would apply to a number of similar views (‘God is infinitely transcendent, and cannot be brought to speech’, ‘none of our concepts apply to God’, etc.). Augustine does not fall into this trap. Whatever God’s ineffability consists in, it is not some extreme transcendence that involves the utter impossibility of human speech being about God.

Regarding (2): It seems that Barth argues that language in itself has no capacity to be about God; but rather, that language is only about God on the basis of God’s free self-disclosure in Jesus Christ. This is not self-refuting like (1), but it is a bit odd. For what is language ‘in itself’? Suppose a Muslim says, “God is good.” Barth (or some Barthians I’ve talked to, at any rate) would argue that this abstract goodness, disconnected as it is from God’s self-disclosure in Jesus Christ, is not true. But the proposition “God is good” seems to be true regardless of who utters it. Hence, I’m inclined to be a bit skeptical toward this view. Augustine’s view has the advantage of avoiding such oddness, insofar as he can happily acknowledge that in one sense, philosophers and Muslims can speak truly regarding God: if God is good, than it is true that God is good, and one who says so speaks truly. Average people know that the word “God” relates to some “exalted and immortal nature,” even though they may have no personal knowledge of God, no relationship. (This is what I take Augustine’s denial of “knowledge” to relate to: “Not, of course, that with the sound made by this one syllable any knowledge of him is achieved…”) Thus, language about God can be true regardless of who speaks it.

Most importantly, Augustine’s teaching here has the humility lying behind (1) and (2): God is utterly unlike anything in the created universe, and our speech can never exhaust his being. That we can praise God with the words from our mouths is God’s gift to us, a gift for which we can never be thankful enough.

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