A critique of Colin Gunton's appraisal of Augustine's trinitarianism
Author(s)Heinrichs, Steven J
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AbstractThroughout his writings, Colin Gunton sought to articulate a doctrine of the Trinity that was like that of the Cappadocians, and most unlike that of Augustine. Gunton was convinced that Augustine had completely misunderstood the Cappadocian revolution of "treis hypostaseis, mia ousia," in which God is reckoned to be, in John Zizioulas' words, "Being in Communion." Instead of formulating a doctrine of God in which Father, Son and Spirit - "each with his own distinctive and particular being" - comprise the one God because they are so "bound up with one another's being," Augustine is said to have espoused avague theism, due to his obsession with Neoplatonic thought, in which abstract substance was rendered primary, and the three persons - void of any real distinctions - secondary. l According to Gunton, this Neoplatonic subversion of a truly Triune God is evidenced in a number of problems: Augustine's rational and non-economic methodology; his separation of the Father from the divine essence; the definition of persons as non-distinct "relations"; an anti-incarnational doctrine of Christ; the use of mental analogies, an emphasis on interior ascent to the Eternal Mind; a pneumatology that is sub-personal and turns the Trinity in on itself; and a Platonic doctrine of creation which is divorced from redemption. The result of all this, Gunton contends, is that God's threeness is subverted, swallowed up by an "under- or over-lying" impersonal oneness2 and thus the God of Scripture is no longer mediated to us, as Irenaeus said, "by the hands of the Father... by the Son and the Holy Spirit."3 In the end Gunton opines, Augustine's God is not only un-Triune, but also fundamentally unknowable, for the One God cut off from the three persons "can in no way make himself known."4 Through an examination of the various arguments and evidences that Gunton proffers to support his negative appraisal of Augustine's doctrine of God, and a close reading of the bishop's trinitarian thought, this thesis will argue that Gunton has radically misread the ancient father. Far from setting aside Scripture and the tradition's testimony concerning plurality in the Godhead by positing a Neoplatonic "divine stuff that... in some way lies behind"5 Father, Son and Spirit, Augustine rigorously confessed a God who was simple and triune, a God who could not be divided into persons and an underlying substrate, and backed up his confession with a method and doctrines that were truly trinitarian. Augustine's teaching is not at odds with the tradition, but can be situated well within the boundaries of Pro-Nicene trinitarian theology, a theological matrix that did not shy away from a careful, yet chastened use of Neoplatonism. 1 Colin Gunton, Christ and Creation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1992), 74; idem, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Essays Toward a Fully Trinitarian Theology (London: T. &T. Clark, 2003), 12. 2 Colin Gunton, The One, The Three. and The Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 167. 3 Irenaeus Against Heresies 5.6.1. 4 Colin Gunton, "Augustine, The Trinity and the Theological Crisis of the West,' Scottish Journal of Theology 43, no. 1 (1990): 33. 5 Gunton, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, 12.