Augustine (Lewis Ayres)

Ayres, Lewis.  Augustine and the Trinity

Continuing the argument in his Nicea and its Legacy, Ayres wants to posit Augustine as a faithful exponent of the “pro-Nicene” tradition.  In order to do so, he must rescue Augustine from the charge that Augustine simply framed Trinitarian theology around explicitly neo-Platonic categories.    Thus, Ayres argues that Augustine used a number of non-Christian sources ranging from Platonic to neo-Platonism; therefore, a 1:1 parallel between Augustine and Plotinus is unwarranted, or so Ayres argues.  Ayres continues with a Latin context for Augustine, and here we are treated to some excellent expositions of Hilary and Ambrose.  

Pro-Nicene, but…

I grant Ayres’ argument that Augustine was not a full-orbed neo-Platonist.  Further, I can even agree with him that Augustine did not use the idea of “hypostases” in the Plotinian sense (he may well have, but I lack the ability to judge that topic).  Notwithstanding, though, Augustine did say he was heavily influenced by Platonists and did admit he framed his doctrine of simplicity around Platonic categories (City of God, books 8 and 11).  Elsewhere in the book, Ayres routinely says that Augustine’s models often follow Platonic categories (Ayres: 209, 314, 316).  So, do we see Augustine as a neo-Platonist or not?  Why not?  Ayres has certainly advanced the scholarship on Augustine and neo-Platonism, but he has come nowhere close to overturning the earlier scholarly consensus.  Earlier scholars, therefore, are not off-base for seeing Augustine within at least some category of neo-Platonism.  

Ayres also wants to argue that Augustine held to a robust view of the irreducibility of the divine persons:  in other words, an emphasis on the “three-ness” of the Trinity.  A few questions arise, though:  if the persons are irreducible, how can they subsist in the essence relatively?  It seems the concepts of “relative subsistence” and “irreducibility” are mutually exclusive, especially given the fact that Augustine didn’t even like the term “persons!”  Secondly, if the Holy Spirit is the love between Father and Son, or the love of the Father and Son, then one must immediately ask, “Is the Holy Spirit now an attribute of the other persons, or is he an irreducibly divine person?”  

The book ends with a thorough discussion of how Augustine used the Trinitarian analogies.  This book is quite fine in many ways.   Ayres gives us careful arguments and advances much recent scholarship.  I do not think his “pro-Nicene” thesis is as strong as he presents it, nor do I think he successfully disengages Augustine from the neo-Platonic model.  

Nicea and its Legacy (Ayres)

Ayres, Lewis.  Nicea and its Legacy.

For the most part Ayres gives us a magisterial survey and exposition of the Nicene era.  His goal is to identify and commend what he terms a “pro-Nicene” theology.  His second goal is to combat a problematic understanding of Trinitarian theology:  Eastern personalism vs. Western monism, also known as the “De Regnon” Thesis.  

He begins his narrative as most do—with a discussion of Origen.   Ayres helpfully notes that early Christian thinkers were reticent to use the term “homousios” since it implied a material division in God.   Also, “hypostasis” was seen as connoting a reality; therefore, thinkers were reluctant to confess multiple realities in God.  

Ayres then continues with a long discussion of Athanasios.  While he gives us much useful information and helpfully establishes the context, he really isn’t breaking any new ground.   Ayres’ key sections deal with explicating his “pro-Nicene” theology, particularly as the Cappadocians relate to Augustine.  He gives us very helpful analyses of the two Gregories and Hilary.

Of his erudition and scholarship there can be no doubt.  This will likely serve as a standard reference for doctoral students, and rightly so.  I do not think his analyses are wrong, just incomplete. I agree with Ayres that simplistic readings of “Greek vs. West” are wrong.  

De Regnon did not make up this “persons vs. essence” historiography.  St Hilary of Poitiers was acutely aware of it.  No one is claiming that the Evil Latins begin with the one essence while the Trinitarian Greeks begin with the Persons.  Rather, one is making the argument that formulating theology within a specific philosophical framework reduces the persons to the one essence (shades of Aquinas!).  St Hilary specifically identifies this problem in De Synodis 67-69.  He said if you start with the one essence (homousion) as a template for theology, you will end up with modalism.   

While I can agree with his arguments on what constitutes a pro-Nicene theology, I don’t see how this category is any more logically tight than de Regnon’s.  I suspect that Ayres commits the “Word = concept” fallacy in his chapter on divine simplicity.  He appears to work under the assumption that the “pro-Nicene” guys used the term “simplicity” (aplosis) univocally, notably Augustine.  I think one example will suffice.  In de Trinitate Book VII (and numerous other places) Augustine identifies person and essence, along with identifying within God all of God’s attributes.  If all of the attributes are identifiable with the divine essence, and the divine essence admits of no distinctions, then all of the attributes are identifiable (synonymous) with each other.  Interestingly, this is what Ayres’ student Andrew Radde-Galwitz calls the “Identity Thesis.” 

In Letter 234 St Basil specifically identifies the Identity Thesis and rejects it (along similar lines as recent analytical philosophers did).  Therefore, I don’t see how Ayres can claim that Augustine and the Cappadocians taught the same thing on simplicity.   


This book is outstanding on so many levels.  The student gets much information on key passages in Athanasios and the Cappadocians.   The book occasionally borders on overkill and Ayres’ constant raising and rebutting the “De Regnon” Thesis gets old very quickly.