Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume III/Doctrinal Treatises of St. Augustin/On the Holy Trinity/Translator's Preface
The history of St. Augustin’s treatise on the Trinity, as gathered by Tillemont and others from his own allusions to it, may be briefly given. It is placed by him in his Retractations among the works written (which in the present case, it appears, must mean begun) in A.D. 400. In letters of A.D. 410, 414, and at the end of A.D. 415 (Ad Consentium, Ep. 120, and two Ad Evodium, Epp. 162, 169), it is referred to as still unfinished and unpublished. But a letter of A.D. 412 (Ad Marcellinum, Ep. 143) intimates that friends were at that time importuning him, although without success, to complete and publish it. And the letter to Aurelius, which was sent to that bishop with the treatise itself when actually completed, informs us that a portion of it, while it was still unrevised and incomplete, was in fact surreptitiously made public,—a proceeding which the letters above cited postpone apparently until at least after A.D. 415. It was certainly still in hand in A.D. 416, inasmuch as in Book XIII. a quotation occurs from the 12th Book of the De Civitate Dei; and another quotation in Book XV., from the 90th lecture on St. John, indicates most probably a date of at least a year later, viz. A.D. 417. The Retractations, which refer to it, are usually dated not later than A.D. 428. The letter to Bishop Aurelius also informs us that the work was many years in progress, and was begun in St. Augustin’s early manhood, and finished in his old age. We may infer from this evidence that it was written by him between A.D. 400, when he was forty-six years old, and had been Bishop of Hippo about four years, and A.D. 428 at the latest; but probably it was published ten or twelve years before this date. He writes of it, indeed, himself, as if the “nonum prematur in annum” very inadequately represented the amount of deliberate and patient thought which a subject so profound and so sacred demanded, and which he had striven to give to it; and as if, even at the very last, he shrank from publishing his work, and was only driven to do so in order to remedy the mischief of its partial and unauthorized publication.
His motive for writing on the subject may be learned from the treatise itself. It was not directed against any individual antagonist, or occasioned by any particular controversial emergency. In fact, his labors upon it were, he says, continually interrupted by the distraction of such controversies. Certain ingenious and subtle theories respecting types or resemblances of the Holy Trinity, traceable in human nature as being the image of God, seemed to him to supply, not indeed a logical proof, but a strong rational presumption, of the truth of the doctrine itself; and thus to make it incumbent upon him to expound and unfold them in order to meet rationalizing objectors upon (so to say) their own ground. He is careful not to deal with these analogies or images as if they either constituted a purely argumentative proof or exhausted the full meaning of the doctrine, upon both which assumptions such speculations have at all times been the fruitful parent both of presumptious theorizing and of grievous heresy. But he nevertheless employs them more affirmatively than would perhaps have been the case. While modern theologians would argue negatively, from the triplicity of independent faculties,—united, nevertheless, in the unity of a single human person,—that any presumption of reason against the Trinity of persons in the Godhead is thereby, if not removed, at least materially and enormously lessened, St. Augustin seems to argue positively from analogous grounds, as though they constituted a direct intimation of the doctrine itself. But he takes especial pains, at the same time, to dwell upon the incapacity of human thought to fathom the depths of the nature of God; and he carefully prefaces his reasonings by a statement of the Scripture evidence of the catholic doctrine as a matter of faith and not of reason, and by an explanation of difficult texts upon the subject. One of the most valuable portions, indeed, of the treatise is the eloquent and profound exposition given in this part of it of the rule of interpretation to be applied to Scripture language respecting the person of our Lord. It should be noticed, however, that a large proportion of St. Augustin’s scriptural exegesis is founded upon a close verbal exposition of the old Latin version, and is frequently not borne out by the original text. And the rule followed in rendering Scripture texts in the present translation has been, accordingly, wherever the argument in the context rests upon the variations of the old Latin, there to translate the words as St. Augustin gives them, while adhering otherwise to the language of the authorized English version. The reader’s attention may allowably be drawn to the language of Book V. c.x., and to its close resemblance to some of the most remarkable phrases of the Athanasian Creed, and again to the striking passage respecting miracles in Book III. c.v., and to that upon the nature of God at the beginning of Book V.; the last named of which seems to have suggested one of the profoundest passages in the profoundest of Dr. Newman’s University Sermons (p. 353, ed. 1843). It may be added, that the writings of the Greek Fathers on the subject were, if not wholly unknown, yet unfamiliar to Augustin, who quotes directly only the Latin work of Hilary of Poictiers.
It remains to say, that the translation here printed was made about four years since by a friend of the writer of this preface, and that the latter’s share in the work has been that of thoroughly revising and correcting it, and of seeing it through the press. He is therefore answerable for the work as now published.
A. W. Haddan.
Nov. 5, 1872.
In the Retractations (ii. 15) Augustin speaks of this work in the following terms:—
“I spent some years in writing fifteen books concerning the Trinity, which is God. When, however, I had not yet finished the thirteenth Book, and some who were exceedingly anxious to have the work were kept waiting longer than they could bear, it was stolen from me in a less correct state than it either could or would have been had it appeared when I intended. And as soon as I discovered this, having other copies of it, I had determined at first not to publish it myself, but to mention what had happened in the matter in some other work; but at the urgent request of brethren, whom I could not refuse, I corrected it as much as I thought fit, and finished and published it, with the addition, at the beginning, of a letter that I had written to the venerable Aurelius, Bishop of Carthage, in which I set forth, in the way of prologue, what had happened, what I had intended to do of myself, and what love of my brethren had forced me to do.”
The letter to which he here alludes is the following:—
“To the most blessed Lord, whom he reveres with most sincere love, to his holy brother and fellow-priest, Pope Aurelius, Augustin sends health in the Lord.
“I began as a very young man, and have published in my old age, some books concerning the Trinity, who is the supreme and true God. I had in truth laid the work aside, upon discovering that it had been prematurely, or rather surreptitiously, stolen from me before I had completed it, and before I had revised and put the finishing touches to it, as had been my intention. For I had not designed to publish the Books one by one, but all together, inasmuch as the progress of the inquiry led me to add the later ones to those which precede them. When, therefore, these people had hindered the fulfillment of my purpose (in that some of them had obtained access to the work before I intended), I had given over dictating it, with the idea of making my complaint public in some other work that I might write, in order that whoso could might know that the Books had not been published by myself, but had been taken away from my possession before they were in my own judgment fit for publication. Compelled, however, by the eager demands of many of my brethren, and above all by your command, I have taken the pains, by God’s help, to complete the work, laborious as it is; and as now corrected (not as I wished, but as I could, lest the Books should differ very widely from those which had surreptitiously got into people’s hands), I have sent them to your Reverence by my very dear son and fellow-deacon, and have allowed them to be heard, copied, and read by every one that pleases. Doubtless, if I could have fulfilled my original intention, although they would have contained the same sentiments, they would have been worked out much more thoroughly and clearly, so far as the difficulty of unfolding so profound a subject, and so far, too, as my own powers, might have allowed. There are some persons, however, who have the first four, or rather five, Books without the prefaces, and the twelfth with no small part of its later chapters omitted. But these, if they please and can, will amend the whole, if they become acquainted with the present edition. At any rate, I have to request that you will order this letter to be prefixed separately, but at the beginning of the Books. Farewell. Pray for me.”