Thomas L. Humphries Jr. on Chad Tyler Gerber’s The Spirit of Augustine’s Early Theology
Saint Augustine of Hippo was a latecomer to Christianity. He joined the Church during a period of deepening articulation of the Trinity. Baptized into the late fourth century Catholic Church, Augustine came to believe that when the Son of God became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, more than one mystery was revealed. But his understanding of these mysteries developed as he matured. His mature articulation of the Catholic faith has given his fellow Christians a wonderful way of understanding the Trinity as love. Love requires a lover, a beloved, and a love by which one loves the other. This analysis of love shows how the eternal Son reveals not only an eternal Father, but also an eternal Spirit. But Augustine’s earliest discussions of the Trinity do not use this analysis of love, leaving room for scholars to debate when and where he might have learned new phrases and ideas. Augustine famously tells his own complicated story of conversion in his autobiography, The Confessions, where he mentions that he read a few books written by “Platonists.” This has raised a longstanding question about the degree of influence the largely Greek neoplatonic philosophy had on the young Latin theologian.
Nearly two centuries before Augustine, a philosopher named Plotinus studied Plato’s works and came to the conclusion that the universe has three interrelated layers of being. Plotinus thought that the universe emanates from “the One,” through “Intellect-Mind” (nous in Greek) and “Soul” (psyche). Each of these three was called a hypostasis. By Augustine’s time the Greek term had become the accepted designation for the “persons” of the Trinity. Obvious parallels present themselves between the three neoplatonic hypostaseis and Augustine’s description of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Two recent scholars, Olivier Du Roy and R.J. O’Connell, have argued specifically that Augustine’s early understanding of the Holy Spirit was based on Plotinus’s third hypostasis and his understanding of reason-logos.
Chad Gerber’s new book disputes the claims that Augustine’s theology of the Holy Spirit (pneumatology) depends on Plotinus’s formulation of Soul and reason. His welcome critique of previously accepted scholarship charts the development of Augustine’s understanding of the Holy Spirit from the simple certainty that the Holy Spirit is fully divine to an exposition of the Holy Spirit as the love of God who maintains peace and order within creation. He also provides a keen analysis of the ways in which Augustine’s earlier considerations of the Spirit blossomed into his more mature positions, arguing for much more organic continuity in his understanding of the Trinity than others have sometimes supposed. Agreeing with many recent scholars, Gerber argues that Augustine was never faced with a simple dichotomy between following Platonic thought and following Christianity. Rather, Augustine’s theological mentors had already digested a great deal of neoplatonism. Augustine was not simply baptizing Plotinian philosophy; he used it to further his own insights.
Whereas O’Connell had linked the Plotinian Psyche to Augustine’s exposition of the Holy Spirit, Gerber shows that Augustine’s use of this philosophical concept relates much more to created realities (i.e., human souls) than to divine realities. Gerber’s response to O’Connell is convincing in ways that his response to Du Roy is not. Du Roy had argued that Augustine appropriates reason, especially Plotinian logos, in his early pneumatology. Gerber agrees that Augustine explores the theme of rationality as part of his early pneumatology but asserts, “it seems significantly less plausible that Augustine would have perceived the Holy Spirit, much less a third divine reality, in Plotinus’s account of Logos.” His claim is true but seems to miss the larger point. The issue is not whether Augustine learned of the Trinity from Plotinus, but whether Augustine used Plotinian insights to further his pro-Nicene Catholic Trinitarianism. Gerber does not separate his own position from Du Roy’s with this part of his argument.
Arguing sharply against Du Roy in the minutiae, Gerber claims that Augustine does not appropriate reason to the Spirit in any particular passage. Augustine thinks of reason sometimes as human reason and sometimes as a reference to Christ, but never as a reference to the Spirit, as Du Roy had argued. This critique of Du Roy concerning what the Spirit is not stands in some tension with Gerber’s own exposition of what the Spirit is. Gerber criticizes Du Roy for reading the Spirit into discussions of rationality but endorses a very similar position. Gerber acknowledges Augustine’s early pneumatology identifies the Spirit as a quo inducaris in veritatem (the one by whom you are lead to the truth) and makes a technical distinction between appealing to Christ as reason and the Spirit as the illuminator of rationality. But the attempt to separate discussions of reason from illumination of reason results in a problematic interpretation of Augustine’s early treatments of the Trinity. If Augustine is not thinking of the Spirit in passages that mention reason, then the passages which Du Roy had read as Trinitarian only give us evidence of “binitarianism.”
Gerber never returns to those passages to consider what effect removing the Spirit has on his understanding of Augustine’s Trinitarianism. Yet, he explains that “the Holy Spirit is not absent from the subjective dimension of the soul’s ascent for Augustine firmly believes that the Spirit is the immanent divine agent of the soul’s journey to the vision of Truth, even if he sometimes fails to express this belief where one might expect him it [sic].” Gerber argues that the Spirit has the role of leading us to truth, illuminating truth, and maintaining order in the world. In this, Gerber seems to build upon more than he rejects Du Roy. Thus, while some of his individual responses to Du Roy’s claims are compelling, Gerber’s overall position agrees with Du Roy much more than he admits.
There is a lot of technical vocabulary in this book, which is potentially troubling to readers. Some will find Gerber’s use of “hypostasis” and “anagogy” difficult. In this book, “anagogy” does not refer to a method of reading Scripture. The Church Fathers often speak of anagogy as when one thing in Scripture points to another, higher reality. For Gerber, “anagogy” announces that a passage from Augustine discusses the divine activity of the Trinity as opposed to purely creaturely activity. “Hypostasis” sometimes has the basic meaning for Gerber as it did for the neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus: the interrelated, yet distinct layers of the Triad which explains the whole universe. On the other hand, Gerber often uses “hypostasis” with a later, Christian, sense. Christians use the term to designate the divine persons (i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Spirit) after some particularly difficult debates about the Trinity at the end of the fourth century. Gerber’s use of the term in a text that studies Augustine, who himself reflected on the awkwardness of the term in translation, is somewhat jarring, but it enables Gerber to avoid using “person,” which also has a history of difficulty in these discussions. The alert reader will see how seriously Gerber takes Augustine’s pro-Nicene Catholicity in using the Greek term to discuss Augustine’s (Latin) Trinitarian theology.
The Spirit of Augustine’s Early Theology is a helpful book that illuminates the way in which Augustine deepens his understanding of God. It successfully argues for continuity within Augustine’s pneumatology. One might say the ancient theologian continually organized the pieces of a puzzle he knew well, all the while adding new pieces as soon as he realized their worth. Gerber’s own consideration of the Spirit as the love of God in Augustine’s earlier work admirably helps modern scholars organize our understanding of Augustine’s thought and even adds a few new pieces to our puzzle.
Also Recommended from MRB:
- Developing Genre: St. Augustine and David Foster Wallace – By Bradley M. Peper
- Always a Student: Remembering François Bovon
- Lies, Damned Lies, and Patristics – By David Lincicum
- How did Origen Vindicate God Amidst the Horrors of Evil and Suffering? – By Peter Martens