Giulio & Gioia PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Friday, 05 November 2010 09:33

Luigi Gioia, The Theological Epistemology of Augustine’s De Trinitate.  Oxford Theological Monographs.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.  Hardback, 330 pp.

Guilio Maspero, Trinity and Man: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium.  Supplement to Vigiliae Christianae.  Leiden, Brill, 2007.  Hardback, 216pp.


Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa are two primary patristic coordinates for contemporary work on the Trinity.  Augustine has often been cast in the role of Western bogeyman.  A recovering Manichean haunted by Plotinus, Augustine never shook off his modalist instincts, never really made room for the incarnation and redemptive history.  For Augustine, it is thought, the Trinity is at base a monadic divine mind, the persons no more than operations of that mind.

If saying “Augustine” has elicited hoots and catcalls, one need only say “Nyssa” to whip a crowd into a social Trinitarian frenzy.  Augustine wasn’t sure what to think of the idea of divine “persons,” but Nyssa and his Cappadocian cronies revolutionized philosophy by setting “personhood” on the ontological throne.  Social Trinitarians love Nyssa, and social Trinitarianism has been ascendant for some time.

This casting of villain and hero is in part testimony to the influence of Eastern Orthodox theology on the contemporary Trinitarian revival.  Zizioulas begat Gunton, who begat a tribe of anti-Augustinian pro-Cappadocians.  Inevitably, though, simplistic casting such as this created a clamor and a market for revisionism.  Both Nyssa and Augustine are too complex, and too similar, to stay put in their assigned roles.

The two monographs by Luigo Gioia, Director of Studies at the Abbey of Maylis, France, and Guilio Maspero, who teaches at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, are part of that revisionist trend.  Both are widely read in patristic and contemporary Trinitarian theology, but both focus on a single treatise, Gioia on the massive de Trinitate of Augustine and Maspero on Nyssa’s much slimmer ad Ablabium.  Though the narrowness of each book will doubtless produce a comparably narrow audience, the books are valuable precisely because they attend so closely to the twists and turns of a single work.

Gregory’s treatise ad Ablabium, also known as “On ‘Not Three Gods,’” has long been cited in support of the claim that Eastern Trinitarian theology “starts with” the three persons, in contrast to Western theology that “starts with” the single substance.  (As Michel Rene Barnes has demonstrated, we inherit this contrast from the highly influential and hitherto virtually invisible Catholic historian Theodore de Regnon.) Early in the treatise, Gregory asks why we cannot say “There are three Gods.”  Though they share the same human nature, Peter, James, and John are “three men.”  Why can’t we say the same about God?  Aha, say the social Trinitarians: Nyssa draws an analogy between human and divine persons, and hence the Trinity is a communion of persons, the model for human communities.

Maspero’s book is a revision of revisionism.  In reaction to inflated claims about Nyssa’s proximity to social Trinitarianism, scholars such as Lewis Ayres have argued that Gregory does not give any aid and comfort to social paradigms of the Trinity.  While Maspero avoids exaggerating the importance of social analogies in Gregory’s theology, he does not think it “possible to liquidate [the social analogy] as one of so many analogies used by Gregory.”  Gregory uses other analogies (arrows and juice from grapes), but these are not rooted nearly so deeply as the analogy between God and His created image.

Hence, Maspero concludes that for Gregory humanity is destined to be knit together in a Trinitarian unity rooted in and reflecting the unity of the divine Persons: “Reunited by the Spirit in the one Body of Christ, men will have access to the Father, to the love of the Father.  One can thus speak of an analogous human perichoresis, realized by the third Person, since all men, in the Son, can have part in the intra-Trinitarian perichoresis.”  Social trinitarianism, chastened, makes a comeback.

For his part, Gioia claims that the aims and argument of Augustine’s treatise are best understood when approached from the perspective of the knowledge of God.  God is invisible and unchangeable: How can we know Him?  He makes Himself known in revelation, but this is inexact for Augustine.  Gioia spices Augustine with a dash of Barth: “The Trinitarian identity of God is the only way to explain how we come to know him. . . . the principle of God’s unknowability appears as the touchstone of theological epistemology and explains why knowledge of God can only be Trinitarian: for the Father to reveal himself while remaining unknowable we need Christ and the Spirit.”

A Trinitarian epistemology is an epistemology of charity, and Gioia concludes that for Augustine, at every point, “love comes first.”  Love is the inner life of the Trinity.  In the incarnation, the Son “extends his personal union of love with the Father in the Holy Spirit to the human nature he assumes.”  The love displayed in the Son’s incarnation is persuasive, eloquent, convincing sinners to turn toward God, healing our pride and turning us from covetousness to charity.  Love reconciles and love is what constitutes the restored image of God in the redeemed.

The nexus of love and knowledge is evident to every commentator on Augustine, but more than most Gioia emphasizes that this has a Christological focus.  Since the fall, human knowledge is divided between scientia, knowledge of this world, and sapientia, the wisdom that is the knowledge of God.  Knowledge of this world should raise us up to knowledge of God, but under the dominion of sin we become infatuated with this world and seek our enjoyment and satisfaction in it rather than in its Maker.  By the incarnation, the flesh of the Son comes into the realm of scientia. Knowledge of the historical events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, does not automatically lead to wisdom, but still the incarnation heals the wound of human knowledge.  As Augustine puts it, “through him we go straight toward him, through science towards wisdom, without ever turning aside from one and the same Christ.”  Far from ignoring the incarnation and work of Christ, Augustine makes it central to his entire project.

Neither book is perfect: What book is?  Yet both books cut past clichés, and thus display the subtlety and suppleness of classic Trinitarianism.  Both books, especially in tandem, clarify the early history of Trinitarian theology, and thus clarify the ways in which we, heirs of both Gregory and Augustine, can build faithfully on their legacy.

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Last Updated on Monday, 15 November 2010 09:11