Augustine's Epistemology

The central question for philosophy, says Cornelius Van Til, is the question of the one and the many or the universal and the particular.1 The question is central to the Greek philosophers especially as found in Plato. Plato, confronted with particularity in experience, advanced a universal realism, a realm of forms from which the soul is able to draw on ideas which connect particular things. For instance, a particular “chair” is connected (or participates) with a universal form, “chair.”2 The problem of the one and the many continues to plague philosophy in the modern period. David Hume contends that universals are nominal, found solely in discourse about particulars.3 The question is of epistemological significance. How can we reconcile our encounter with the particulars in experience and in that encounter be conscious of universals? Philosophers generally emphasize one at the expense of the other.

Augustine confronts the question in his treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity in his work of the same name. Some accuse him of “baptizing” Plato in his emphasis on unity to the expense of plurality.4 Others argue that Augustine succeeds, on this point at least, in unshackling himself from Plato's grip on his intellectual life and aligns himself, somewhat uncontroversially, with the Council of Nicea.5 While most of the discussion in this debate revolves around Augustine's articulation of the doctrine itself, Van Til contends that the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Van Til argues that by defending an ontological Trinity that maintains the equal ultimacy of unity and diversity, Augustine defends the triune God as the precondition to all human knowledge. It is my contention in this paper that Van Til is correct in his thesis that Augustine “furnished the basis of the principles of unity and diversity in human knowledge.”6

Augustine achieves this not by abstraction from sense experience, as Plato had attempted, but by a reliance on the self-disclosure of God in scripture. Augustine presents no hypothesis when it comes to demonstrating the Trinitarian nature of God as found in the image of God in humanity. Nor does he abstract the idea of unity from his self-knowledge. Rather, Augustine contends that the triune nature of God is the foundation for understanding creation and for human knowledge. It must, therefore, be presupposed in order to make sense of all particulars and universals. Thus, the analogy found in Book VII is not an analogy from which we derive the notion of unity in diversity, and only then apply the notion to a divine being. Rather, as Burnaby points out, Augustine's “discoveries are in large measure predetermined. If there is indeed an image of God in the human soul, it must be a unity in trinity.”7 Thus, in his doctrine of the Trinity Augustine makes a break from his earlier thinking and the work is “the decisive moment in his own liberation from skepticism.”8

Human thought, as its necessary condition, is analogous to the Trinity. It contains unity and diversity in a derivative sense and the only explanation for this is God as he is understood as one substance eternally existing in three persons. Whilst the doctrine itself, of one in three, is ably argued, Augustine's contention is that the doctrine is necessary to all human understanding. As Herman Bavinck puts it, Augustine “brought to light the relation between the doctrine of God and the doctrine of the whole universe.”9 It is precisely in Augustine's rendering of an equally ultimate unity and diversity in the very being of God that forms the relation between the two spheres. Without such a precondition, human knowing is impossible. Without it we are left, like Plato, to endlessly propose one over the many, many over the one. Augustine maintains, in respect to the equal ultimacy of unity and plurality in God, that, “to God it is not one thing to be, another to be a person, but it is absolutely the same thing.”10

Augustine's method might be said to be rationalist in the sense that he begins with what can be reasoned before experience. Augustine is convinced that knowledge of experience is secondary to the knowledge of God and self: “I desire to know God and the soul. Nothing more? Nothing whatever.”11 However, knowledge of God is not exhaustive. Although knowing God is prior to all other knowledge, one cannot know God comprehensively: “We are speaking of God. Is it any wonder that you do not comprehend? For if you comprehend him, he cannot be God... To have a very slight knowledge of God is a great blessing. To comprehend him is altogether impossible.”12 Since God knows all things prior to their happening, God's knowledge is comprehensive. Our knowledge of God could not be comprehensive and our knowledge of all other things is obtained only after God knows them. God, therefore, knows himself exhaustively. In him there is no mystery. Our slight knowledge is not a limitation, but a gift from God to us. Augustine's conception of the human knower parts company with his platonic heritage by suggesting that knowledge begins in God not in the human. The human only knows after God's knowing.

Since Augustine begins with knowledge of God and self as the foundation from which to know all things it cannot be then argued that knowledge of God springs from an investigation into the temporal from which the eternal can be derived. Rather, knowledge of temporal things requires a prior knowledge, a light which makes human knowledge possible. Augustine does not consider this knowledge to be derived from the objects of sense. If this was our source we would be no more than the animals.13 He also does not think that the ideas are innate to an eternal soul as Plato and Plotinus had assumed. Rather, human beings are rational as they are in “contact with eternal truth.”14 Therefore, human beings do not originate such eternal categories; they require a “spiritual sun”15 for their operation. Whereas Plato had relied on innate ideas left over in the memory of a former life, Augustine argues that this is defunct in the face of the requirement for an outside light. Augustine contrasts his own view with that of Plato while recognizing that both insist on the contemplation of eternal forms.16

Furthermore, eternal forms are not abstracted from sense perception as was the case for Plato; rather, Augustine sees the expression of these forms being in the thought of God in Christ. For Augustine, in the Word incarnate we have the thought of the Father, the “perfect expression”17 of God. Etienne Gilson summarizes Augustine's conception of the incarnation by saying, “the Word is the light of the world, because He is the source of its intelligibility, of its order, and of its beauty.”18 Gilson describes the resemblance of Christ to the Father in Augustine's thought as, “Resemblance itself, and the model of all other minor resemblances. That is to say that the perfect resemblance of absolute “being” is the model of all that which is, or can be. The Word then contains within himself, or, rather, he is all the intelligible patterns, or “reasons,” of all that which is capable of existence.”19 So being, Gilson concludes, Augustine makes the claim that the Word is “the light of the world, because he is the source of its intelligibility.”20

Whereas Augustine had before conversed with his inner reason,21 now he converses with God, who is reason. Reason, ideas and wisdom are no longer conceived as existing outside God and man, but are now in God himself: “The supreme wisdom, then, is God himself; and the worship of God is human wisdom.”22

Two things are important to note in this statement. First, it is important to notice that Augustine ascribes such wisdom to a unified conscious God. It is not one substance devoid of consciousness that is then conscious in three diverse centers, but one unity of conscious knowledge. This plays greatly in Augustine's description of human psychology which stresses the unity of consciousness.

Second, in his answer to the ancient Euthyphro question, Augustine locates the “good” in the being of God. Thus, according to Van Til, Augustine has “found his Concrete Universal.”23 In contrast to Plato who had asserted a necessary, but abstract, universal world of forms, Augustine presupposes the concrete personal being of the Triune God from which humanity derives knowledge of universals in its encounter with particulars.

For Augustine, eternal, universal ideas cannot be allowed to operate outside God. Instead all that God possesses is what God is: “God is absolutely simple.”24 Human knowledge, then, cannot be of the same kind as God's otherwise it would also be eternal. Instead, argues Augustine, it must be analogical. Van Til concludes that Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity is corollary to his theory of knowledge:
A corollary from the doctrine of the Trinity is that human knowledge is analogical. Human knowledge must always depend on divine knowledge. Anything that a human being knows must first have been known to God. Anything a human being knows he knows only because he knows God. For that reason too man can never know anything as well and as exhaustively as God knows it.25
Since God is, in his being, equally plural and one, simple and absolute, then human knowledge cannot know universals or particulars in the same way God knows them. He must only know analogically. That is to say, humankind thinks God's thoughts after him. For Augustine, this is couched in terms of the imago dei. Human thinking is of a derivative nature to God's thinking. The soul, far from being the eternal reason of Greek philosophers, is created. The mind, then, is designed to derive thought from God:
Where indeed are these rules written, wherein even the unrighteous recognizes what is righteous, wherein he discerns that he ought to have what he himself has not? Where, then, are they written, unless the book of that Light which is called truth, whence every righteous law is copied and transferred (not by migrating to it, but by being as it were impressed upon it) to the heart of the man that worketh righteousness; as the impression from the ring passes into the wax, yet does not leave the ring.26
The mind of man is not primarily active since it is by way of “imprint” that he comes to knowledge.27 Humankind's way of knowing is by reception of knowledge not only by the gaining of it through its own avarice. Warfield says of Augustine's theory of knowledge, “If the condition of all knowledge, then, is revelation, and therefore all knowledge is in its source divine; yet it is equally true that the qualification of all knowledge is rooted in the human nature that knows, and in the specific state of the human being whose particular knowledge it is.”28

Since all human knowing is derivative of God's complete knowledge it strikes Augustine that, since the human is made in the image of God, he must contain in his thought a unity and diversity. Consequently, Augustine's psychological analogy for the Trinity serves as more than a pedagogical tool for understanding the Trinity. It serves to demonstrate the imprint of the revealed God of scripture in the human. For Augustine, the human is analogical to God by virtue of his bearing the image of the Triune God. We might say that the human is an analogy. Consequently, Augustine finds in the reasoning of the human the analogue of the reasoning of God – a mind of unity and diversity. It is by correcting the order in which he comes to this conclusion that Augustine corrects his former Platonism. For Plato unity and diversity, found first in sense experience and then in rationality, are abstracted and posited in ideal form. Augustine reverses this order by his placing unity and diversity in God first and then coming to the make up of the human. As Augustine describes the analogy he already knows the Creator of all creation and, consequently, expects to find it in the mind of the human creature:
The mind... cannot be adventitious to itself... Assuredly, from the moment of its beginning to be, the mind has never ceased to know itself, to understand itself, and to love itself... Therefore, in its act of turning upon itself in thought, a trinity is presented in which it is possible to recognize a “word”—formed from the act of thinking, and united by its original will. Here, then, is where we may recognize the image for which we are seeking.29
Colin Gunton argues that Augustine is, at this point, being modalistic. Gunton suggests that Augustine has not understood the theology of his predecessors, that he has abandoned the conception of divine unity found in the community of persons, and that Augustine smuggles in an underlying substance for the Trinity.30 Gunton also suggests that Augustine's analogies of the mind serve not to show the triunity of God, but to stress the unity. Augustine's analogies, according to Gunton, serve as support for his doctrine of God.31 Finally, Gunton suggests that due to Augustine's overemphasis on the mind of God and the mind of man, Augustine pays precious little attention to the the “economy of creation and salvation.”32 “Augustine is almost, if not quite explicitly, to be found at times saying that when we know ourselves correctly, we know God in the same act.”33

There are four things to be said in this regard. First, as we have already seen, Augustine says that God is a unified consciousness. His unified thoughts are the precondition for all unified thinking. This does make Augustine stress the unity of God's mind, but it is not, as Gunton argues, based on Platonic assumptions. Augustine argues that God's thinking in unity is the necessary precondition for unity of thought in his creatures. This is certainly stronger than to say that God thinks in community. A community is reliant upon the generation of unity from diverse centers of consciousness. Augustine, in contrast, says that the unity of God's thoughts are centered in one center of consciousness, “as we do not say three essences, so neither do we say three wisdoms.”34

Second, since it is not merely a pedagogical tool for which Augustine employs his psychological illustration, it cannot be said that he merely provides support for his doctrine of God. From that point of view, modalism is indeed produced in all Augustine's illustrations.35 But, in the context of the argument in Book VII, can we say that Augustine is seeking to provide illustrations by which we may see how God's nature is reflected in creation.

Augustine is not arguing that we can comprehensively understand the Trinity. Instead, Augustine gathers illustrations from daily experience in which we are constantly confronted with the problem of the one and the many. He contends that, while we have no difficulty in our use of “horse” in describing the particular and the universal, with the ineffable God, language is unable to contain God exhaustively.36 When comparing the Latin model to the Eastern, Augustine says that the language used, if equally stressing both the one and the three, “is understood only in a mystery.” It is “sufficient, in order that there might be something to say when it was asked what the three are... because the super-eminence of God surpasses the power of customary speech.”37

Third, Augustine differentiates between language used to describe unity and diversity in human knowledge of the temporal and language used to describe the ontological Trinity. The latter is not in the temporal realm, cannot be abstracted from the temporal realm and is ineffable. Furthermore, Augustine differentiates that which is in need of underwriting with conceptual framework—temporal sense knowledge—and that under which there is no underwriter—God himself. It is the Trinity which makes universality and particularity comprehensible, but nothing outside the Trinity can make the Trinity understandable. Consequently, we reach the bottom of Augustine's thought; he can go no further than God as he is revealed to us in the scripture. Therefore, we might alter Gunton's statement to read, “when we know anything whatsoever, we know God in the same act.”

For our purposes in regard to epistemology, we can say that Augustine began to realize that eternal knowledge was in God comprehensively and was given to us in revelation in accordance with the human ability to comprehend. It was not a great leap, then, for Augustine to state that, in regard to the ontology of God, we are short on conceptual reach.

Finally, it may appear that Augustine is less than interested in the historical nature of salvation. And perhaps we might agree that Augustine's writings are all somehow diverted from concrete events to the intellectual life. But it does not follow that because less time is spent on the historical that within Augustine's conception of God lies a mistrust of revelation in concrete history. Letham argues that Augustine's insistence that Christ be the heart of theology and his all pervasive reference to scripture (significantly lacking, Letham comments, in Gunton's writing) “undermines Gunton's trenchant claims.”38 That said, it must be noted that Augustine's argument is precisely that knowledge of any historical event is predicated on knowing God and self (in one act). Indeed, Augustine appears to be saying that if it were not, then no knowledge of anything would be at all possible.

Whilst many do espouse a doctrine of God based on a Latin model in modalistic terms, I am not convinced that Augustine makes this mistake. Rather, Augustine bases his model both what is revealed in scripture and the mystery of God. However, unlike Plato, the mystery does not surround both God and man. For Augustine, God's knowledge of himself and of all things is exhaustive while man's knowledge is limited. Since human thought follows after God's thought, our understanding of God proceeds from faith in Him. As the precursor to a Trinitarian statement, Augustine says:
A sure faith is itself a beginning of knowledge; but sure knowledge will not be perfected till after this life when we shall see face to face. Let us then be thus minded, convinced that the temper of the truth-seeker is safer than that of rashly taking the unknown for known... Let us shun all doubt concerning matters of faith, let us refuse all hasty affirmation concerning matters of understanding: in the one, holding to authority, in the other, seeking out the truth.39
Of significance to Augustine's theory is putting human limitation and mystery in the right place. Plato had sought comprehensive knowledge and origination in the human mind through participation with eternal forms. Augustine, in contrast, argues that human beings cannot know comprehensively. However, this does not lead to skepticism since God does know comprehensively: “He was never in ignorance of what he was to create: he created therefore because he knew, he did not know because he created.”40 This doctrine, for Augustine, depends on the fact that, “God's knowing and being here are one.”41 Human beings can be confident, therefore, in the uniformity of their knowledge, even though it is limited, because God can be trusted in the comprehensive unity of his knowledge. It should not matter, therefore, that human knowledge is limited, partial, temporal or any other limiting factor since, “in us there is no identity of being and knowledge.”42

Furthermore, Christians should not doubt. This is because they can have faith in the authority of God for their knowledge. Since they are not the originator of knowledge, they are to seek out understanding in full acknowledgement of their limitations. If anyone were to reply that faith is leaping in the dark, Augustine would reply that everyone believes before they understand. It is the content of that belief that is so crucial.43 Doubt is excluded from faith since it is faith in the one who knows comprehensively. At the same time, seeking to understand, when proceeding from faith in God, should be done with humility. Augustine's warning seems to be that if one subverts this order mystery will be found in the wrong place and human knowledge becomes impossible.

Augustine spent his life unshackling himself from his former intellectual life. In establishing his doctrine of the Trinity, he removes some of the last chains which bound him. As Van Til concludes, “the Augustinian doctrine of the Trinity could not be a development of but had to be a reversal of the Platonic theory of knowledge.”44 In as far as Augustine obtains the doctrine of the Trinity, he obtains a theory of knowledge derived from an ontological Trinity as being the precondition to human knowledge when it comes to universality and particularity. Van Til goes on to claim that not just one epistemological problem is solved in the doctrine (the problem of the one and the many), but an entire theory of knowledge is given ground: “Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity is the very axle upon which his entire theory of knowledge turns.”45

Furthermore, Augustine's contribution to a Christian epistemology grounds the view that knowledge is originated in God and not in man. This, for Van Til, is central to the antithesis between Christian thought and anti-Theistic thought: “One who embraces the doctrine of the Trinity holds that human knowledge is analogical. One who does not embrace the doctrine of the Trinity holds that human knowledge is original.”46 Since human knowledge is thinking God's thoughts after Him, humankind's deepest epistemological problems can only be solved “in God and by God, and therefore are solved for us.”47

1Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 31.
2James Gould, ed., Classic Philosophical Questions (Columbus: Merrill Publishing Company, 1989), 350-360.
3Ibid., 361-366.
4For example, Colin Gunton, Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 31-57. Also G.L Prestige, God in Patristic Thought (London: SPCK, 1952).
5For example, Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship ( Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2004) and Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation: The Faith of the Early Church (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1993).
6Cornelius Van Til, In Defense of the Faith Vol II: A Survey of Christian Epistemology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), 47.
7John Burnaby, ed., Augustine: Later Works (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 23.
8Etienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (New York: Random House, 1955), 76.
9Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1951), 284.
10Augustine, The Trinity, VII, 6
11J.H.S Burleigh, ed., Augustine: Early Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 26.
12Augustine, from Sermon 117, quoted in Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1951), 33.
13The Trinity, 93.
15Ibid., 94.
17History of Christian Philosophy, 71.
18Ibid., 72.
19Ibid., 71.
21Augustine, Soliloquies in J.H.S Burleigh, ed., Augustine: Early Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 19-63.
22The Trinity, XIV, 1, i
23A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 54.
24The Trinity, IV, 6, vii.
25A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 48.
26The Trinity, XIV, 21, xv.
27Augustine makes a distinction between wisdom (knowledge of God) and knowledge (knowledge of human things): The Trinity, XIV, 3.
28B B Warfield, Studies in Tertullian and Augustine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1930), 150.
29The Trinity, XIV, 13, x.
30Promise of Trinitarian Theology, 38-42.
31Ibid., 47.
32Ibid., 48.
34The Trinity, VII, 4.
35The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, 196-197.
38The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology and Worship, 190.
39The Trinity, IX, 1, i.
40The Trinity, XV, 22, xiii.
41Ibid., XV, 23, xiv.
42Ibid., XV, 22, xiii.
43Ronald Nash, The Light of the Mind: St. Augustine's Theory of Knowledge (University of Kentucky Press, 1969), 26.
44A Survey of Christian Epistemology, 49.
47Ibid., 55.