I am about to embark on an intricate defense of Saint Augustine’s Pneumatology as fundamentally Orthodox. This is a difficult topic because, on the face of it, the appearance that Augustine is Pneumatologically heterodox is obvious.
In all of this, if I prove to be wrong and Augustine is deficient on this specific issue of theology, I want to make the following observations from the onset:
Augustine admittedly was speculating and did not assert he was preserving the Church’s tradition. In Book I, Par 4 he writes:
He was aware of the Nicene (and probably also the Constantinopolitan) Creed and was attempting to offer a defense of these, as best he can, against a Germanic, Arian opposition. So, he was aware of an authoritative tradition which he located in the east, but was by his own admission not completely cognizant of it. Augustine writes about this:
[W]hat we have read upon these subjects is either not sufficiently set forth, or is not to be found at all, or at any rate cannot easily be found by us, in the Latin tongue, while we are not so familiar with the Greek tongue as to be found in any way competent to read and understand therein the books that treat of such topics, in which class of writings, to judge by the little which has been translated for us, I do not doubt that everything is contained that we can profitably seek…I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know (On the Trinity, Book III, par 1).
As we can see, Augustine admits that “everything” necessary to discuss the question of the Trinity and other theological questions is already contained in the writings of the Greek fathers. Because he is unaware of these he “by writing” speculates about things which he does “not know” about as he otherwise would if he had more complete knowledge from the Greek writers.
This admission is extremely important. It is not good enough to say “the West preserves one legitimate theological strain of Pneumatology and the East another.” If Augustine were to be found to contradict the consensus of Greek theology, he literally tells us to disregard his writings:
Assuredly, as in all my writings I desire not only a pious reader, but also a free corrector, so I especially desire this in the present inquiry, which is so important that I would there were as many inquirers as there are objectors. But as I do not wish my reader to be bound down to me, so I do not wish my corrector to be bound down to himself…Do not be willing to yield to my writings as to the canonical Scriptures (Ibid., par 2).
The last sentence of On the Trinity literally asks for forgiveness if he has erred in what he knows is not a compilation of tradition pertaining to a consensus of the Church’s teaching, but his own speculations:
[W]hatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.
Just because Augustine, by his own admission, may have got things wrong, this does not make him a lousy theologian. Augustine was working from a premise, alien to us now, that theology reflects a sacramental presence of God in human beings. In few words, this is relevant because if man is made in the image of God, an informed observer should be able to look at man and make conclusions about God. Hence, Augustine’s method makes sense because though he may not have had access to enough Greek writers, he does see image-bearers of God every day in which He can infer knowledge about the Trinity.
This is no trivial observation. Much of On the Trinity contains Augustine’s observations and subsequent speculations of how what he sees in man pertains to this or that Trinitarian reality. The importance of this is two-fold: First, as it pertains to the previous discussion, it shows that Augustine was not preserving a tradition but rather speculating a novel theology because he felt incapable of re-presenting orthodox Greek thought on varying subjects. His goal was to backwards-engineer correct doctrine and arrive at an orthodox conclusion.
Second, it means that the interpreter of Augustine cannot simply take a sentence or even paragraph out-of-context and say that this or that is his supposed Pneumatology. Rather, it is absolutely necessary to unpack Augustine’s boring, laborious, and arguably scientifically incorrect speculations so one can actually understand what his treatment of Pneumatology actually means.
If one’s interpretation of an Augustinian Pneumatological statement contradicts his sacramental speculations, then chances are that the interpretation is wrong. My thesis undergirding all of my articles on this subject is that people are interpreting Augustine wrong, including Roman Catholic apologists and the bishops at Lyons and Florence, because they are taking his words to mean something other than what his vivid, quasi-sacramental examples pertaining to human nature are trying to illustrate.
Before we make this case, let’s first make the Roman Catholic case for a Florentine Filioque from Augustine. After doing this, we will unpack Augustine’s Orthodox Pneumatology.