Nicene and Post Nicene-Fathers, Vol. I:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Confessions: Chapter XI
Chapter XI.—That the Symbols of the Trinity in Man, to Be, to Know, and to Will, are Never Thoroughly Examined.
12. Which of us understandeth the Almighty Trinity? 1204 And yet which speaketh not of It, if indeed it be It? Rare is that soul which, while it speaketh of It, knows what it speaketh of. And they contend and strive, but no one without peace seeth that vision. I could wish that men would consider these three things that are in themselves. These three are far other than the Trinity; but I speak of things in which they may exercise and prove themselves, and feel how far other they be. 1205 But the three things I speak of are, To Be, to Know, and to Will. For I Am, and I Know, and I Will; I Am Knowing and Willing; and I Know myself to Be and to Will; and I Will to Be and to Know. In these three, therefore, let him who can see how inseparable a life there is,—even one life, one mind, and one essence; finally, how inseparable is the distinction, and yet a distinction. Surely a man hath it before him; let him look into himself, and see, and tell me. But p. 194 when he discovers and can say anything of these, let him not then think that he has discovered that which is above these Unchangeable, which Is unchangeably, and Knows unchangeably, and Wills unchangeably. And whether on account of these three there is also, where they are, a Trinity; or whether these three be in Each, so that the three belong to Each; or whether both ways at once, wondrously, simply, and vet diversely, in Itself a limit unto Itself, yet illimitable; whereby It is, and is known unto Itself, and sufficeth to Itself, unchangeably the Self-same, by the abundant magnitude of its Unity,—who can readily conceive? Who in any wise express it? Who in any way rashly pronounce thereon?
As Augustin constantly urges of God, “Cujus nulla scientia est in anima, nisi scire quomodo eum nesciat” (De Ord. ii. 18), so we may say of the Trinity. The objectors to the doctrine sometimes speak as if it were irrational (Mansels Bampton Lectures, lect. vi., notes 9, 10). But while the doctrine is above reason, it is not contrary thereto; and, as Dr. Newman observes in his Grammar of Assent, v. 2 (a book which the student should remember has been written since his union with the Roman Church), though the doctrine be mysterious, and, when taken as a whole, transcends all our experience, there is that on which the spiritual life of the Christian can repose in its “propositions taken one by one, and that not in the case of intellectual and thoughtful minds only, but of all religious minds whatever, in the case of a child or a peasant as well as of a philosopher.” With the above compare the words of Leibnitz in his “Discours de la Conformité de la Foi avec la Raison,” sec. 56: “Il en est de même des autres mystères, où les esprits modérés trouveront toujours une explication suffisante pour croire, et jamais autant quil en faut pour comprendre. Il nous suffit dun certain ce que cest (τί ἐστι); mais le comment (πῶς) nous passe, et ne nous est point nécessaire” (Euvres de Locke et Leibnitz). See also p. 175, note 1, above, on the “incomprehensibility” of eternity.193:1205
While giving illustrations of the Trinity like the above, he would not have a man think “that he has discovered that which is above these, Unchangeable.” (See also De Trin. xv. 5, end.) He is very fond of such illustrations. In his De Civ. Dei, xi. 26, 27, for example, we have a parallel to this in our text, in the union of existence, knowledge, and love in man; in his De Trin. ix. 4, 17, 18, we have mind, knowledge, and love; ibid. x. 19, memory, understanding, and will; and ibid. xi. 16, memory, thought, and will. In his De Lib. Arb. ii. 7, again, we have the doctrine illustrated by the union of being, life, and knowledge in man. He also finds illustrations of the doctrine in other created things, as in their measure, weight, and number (De Trin. xi. 18), and their existence, figure, and order (De Vera Relig. xiii.). The nature of these illustrations would at first sight seem to involve him in the Sabellian heresy, which denied the fulness of the Godhead to each of the three Persons of the Trinity; but this is only in appearance. He does not use these illustrations as presenting anything analogous to the union of the three Persons in the Godhead, but as dimly illustrative of it. He declares his belief in the Athanasian doctrine, which, as Dr. Newman observes (Grammar of Assent, v. 2), “may be said to be summed up in this very formula on which St. Augustin lays so much stress,—Tres et Unus, not merely Unum. ” Nothing can be clearer than his words in his De Civ. Dei, xi. 24: “When we inquire regarding each singly, it is said that each is God and Almighty; and when we speak of all together, it is said that there are not three Gods, nor three Almighties, but one God Almighty.” Compare with this his De Trin. vii., end of ch. 11, where the language is equally emphatic. See also Mansel, as above, lect. vi. and notes 11 and 12.
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