Basil vs. Augustine: A Holy Spirit Smackdown (Wheaton Theology Conference 2)

Okay, so “smackdown” might be a bit of a stretch. But Gregory Lee‘s paper on the first day of the Wheaton Theology Conference addressed the common idea that eastern and western theologians have long had fundamentally different theologies of the Spirit. Taking Basil the Great and Augustine of Hippo as representative figures given the undeniable influence that each has exercised in their respective traditions, Lee argued that there is far more that unites the pneumatologies of these towering figures than divides them. Differences remain, but should be viewed in light of the overwhelming common ground.

human brains and war rope

Basil and the Holy Spirit

I won’t try to summarize everything that Lee did to explain the context and significance of these two pneumatologies. But Lee started with a useful explanation of the opponents that Basil faced in his day. The immediate occasion for Basil’s famous On the Holy Spirit was a controversy that broke out regarding the proper use of prepositions. (And we thought today’s grammar police were bad!) Two of Basil’s doxologies attributed equality to the Spirit in the Trinity, saying things like “Glory to the Father, with the Son, together with the Holy Spirit.” Instead, they thought it more appropriate to use “from whom” for the Father, ”through whom” for the Son, and “in whom” for the Spirit. Although this might sound like a minor grammatical point, it manifests radically different visions of who God is.

Using the subordinationist logic of people like Aëtius and Eunomius, the pneumatomachians argued that since the Spirit receives its being from the Father, it is, therefore, “caused” by him. And anything “caused” necessarily has a different kind of being from the eternal Father who alone is “uncaused.” Thus, the Spirit is not God. And this logic is what drove the prepositional debate. If the Spirit is less than God, he should not be given equal glory with God. Any doxology that suggest otherwise is encouraging idolatry, worshipping the created alongside the Creator.

Basil’s theology of the Spirit unfolds against this background. After a striking critique of their theology as (1) overly rationalistic, presuming to peer into the divine being and understand precisely what it means for a divine being to be “begotten” or to “proceed,” and (2) overly creaturely, applying our experience of creaturely causation/begetting and assuming that the divine persons must work the same way, Basil moves into a series of biblical arguments defending the full deity of the Spirit. But Lee focused his attention primarily on the “common operations” of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. According to Basil, the three work inseparably in everything they do. As Lee summarized:

In all this activity, the Spirit is to be ranked alongside the Father and the Son, each of whom operates inseparably with the others in every act of redemption.

Although we can still identify differences in the way each is involved in every action (e.g. the Father as initiator, the Son as agent, and the Spirit as perfecter), we cannot separate them in any way. Three three are all involved in every divine act. And the inseparability of their actions, alongside the strong biblical data on the Spirit’s equality, together generate a convincing argument that there is no way to view the Spirit as ontologically less than the Father (or the Son), even while we continue to affirm the essential mystery of God’s being and our ultimate ignorance as to precisely how these three equal person’s relate to one another.

Augustine on the Holy Spirit

The second second rather unsurprisingly focused on Augustine’s pneumatology, primarily as explained in his famous De Trinitate (On the Trinity). Lee began by distinguishing between the trinitarian “missions” and the trinitarian “relations.” The missions deal with the biblical language of the Son and the Spirit being “sent” into the world and whether this entails some kind of subordination in the Trinity. Augustine clearly rejects this conclusion, arguing instead that this language reflects only the soteriological focus of their work in the world.

To see this, Lee walked us through Augustine’s extensive discussion of theophanies on the Old Testament (e.g. the “angel of the Lord”). Unlike some who see all such theophanies as manifestations of the pre-incarnate Son, Augustine does not believe the theophanies can or should be associated with any particular person of the Trinity. Against those who think that only the Son is ever manifested in this way, Augustine points to the strange story of Abraham’s three visitors (Gen. 18). For Augustine, this is a clear instance of all a theophany of all three persons. And since all three can appear in this way, it becomes difficult to be certain which is involved in any of the other theophanies. Thus, the theophanies do nothing to manifest the proper relations among the persons of the Trinity.

And this is where all of this relates to the trinitarian missions. Unlike theophanies, Augustine thinks that the Trinitarian missions differ precisely in that they do reveal the three persons in relation to one another. As Lee explained:

What it means for the Son to be sent, then, is for the invisible Son to be made visible in such a way that humanity can see that he is from the Father….The missions are rather God’s redemptive mechanism for directing us toward himself through the revelation of the Son’s identity in relation to the Father, and the Spirit’s identity in relation to the Father and the Son. The Son is sent by the Father in time because he is begotten of the Father outside time. The Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son because he eternally proceeds from both.

The “economic” Trinity (i.e. the way God reveals himself as he is at work in the world) manifests the “immanent” Trinity (i.e. the way God is in himself). In other words, in the sending of the Spirit and the Son, we catch a glimpse of who God is, the three eternal persons that comprise the fullness of God himself.

Lee then turned to the second half of De Trinitate and Augustine’s “psychological” analogies for the Trinity. But Lee’s real focus here was to explain this entire section soteriologically. Augustine’s real purpose in discussing the Trinity here was not to speculate on the precise nature of the triune relations, he clearly admits at the end of the book that all trinitarian analogies fall radically far short of God’s transcendent being. Instead, Augustine wrote to help us direct our minds to God as we reflect on his “image” in us. And the Spirit plays a fundamental role in this process. Rather than focusing on abstract questions like whether viewing the Spirit as the “bond of love” between the Father and the Son somehow depersonalizes the Spirit, Lee argued that Augustine’s language was intended to focus our attention on the fact that the gift of the Spirit as the outpouring of divine love was that which draws us into the divine life. Here is Lee again:

Pneumatology only makes sense for Augustine within a broader theological framework that explicates the trinitarian missions, the intra- trinitarian relations, and humanity’s participation in the divine life. The purpose of the missions is to reveal the identities of the Son and the Spirit in relation to the Father, the relations show us how the persons can be coequal yet distinct, and the image of God in the mind directs us to the Father through the Son by the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son is thus the unique agent of the triune God who completes our salvation by enabling us to love God and neighbor.

So What?

After these two admittedly brief summaries, Lee drew two conclusions. His historical conclusion was that claims of significant differences between “eastern” and “western” pneumatologies are exaggerated.

Both stress the unity of the substance alongside the irreducibility of the persons, both distinguish the persons according to the intra-trinitarian relations, and both affirm the unity of divine will and action while also acknowledging the persons’ variegated contribution to the inseparable operations.

Second, we should appreciate how much theological “innovation” was at work in all of these trinitarian discussions. The difference between the “orthodox” (i.e. pro-Nicene) party and their opponents was not a difference of biblical faithfulness verses unbridled innovation. Both understood that they were wrestling with new questions and new implications, and the orthodox party firmly believed that the new theological ideas there were developing were necessary to preserve the apostolic deposit that had been entrusted to them. Citing Rowan Williams, Lee concludes with a robust affirmation of the necessity of theology:

There is a sense in which Nicaea and its aftermath represent a recognition by the Church at large that theology is not only legitimate but necessary. The loyal and uncritical repetition of formulae is seen to be inadequate as a means of securing continuity at anything more than a formal level.

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