Ayres, Augustine and Ascent

Ed and Ed have both been posting on the topic of the end goal of Theology, insofar as Theology is a part of the fulfillment of Christian existence.  My holiday theological reading has involved looking at Ayres’s Augustine and the Trinity (here specifically chapter 6), which provides some interesting thoughts on the Augustinian picture of the goal of Trinitarian Theology. Primarily, the emphasis is on contemplation and “sight” as the ultimate goal of Christian life and theology: the Christian life is one of ascent towards the vision of God, as guided by Christ.  Perhaps the key question is how our Theology now relates to the sight which it is supposed to anticipate, and how such a connection is forged (and I think this is a question that is very much on the mind of Ed Watson!)  Of course, since this is Christian Theology the one word answer is “Christ!”, but I think Ayres draws out some interesting points from Augustine on how this might work in the context of thought about the Trinity.

The Trinity is the ultimate example of the mysterious goal of Christian Theology: it is ultimately God in Himself.  God in Himself may be far beyond our comprehension in this life, but according to Augustine we should still be fuelled by a desire for this “sight”.  In this life, “we walk by faith and not be sight” (2 Cor 6:7), yet the faith must be faith in the sight to come, and anticipation and confidence in a future reality.  Faith for Augustine involves a looking beyond the material things of the universe, to an as yet unseen and truly mysterious reality.  Ayres discusses Augustine’s reference in De Trinitate 1: 8.17 to Phillip’s words: “Lord, show us the Father”, where Augustine suggests that Christ not only points Phillip towards his unity with the Father, but also points to the need for faith in the absence of sight (hence the need to believe that the Father is in me and I am in the Father).  We need to look beyond what we now see, turning our attention away from the world of material things, toward the one whom we now cannot see.  This involves looking beyond the material, human Christ toward the divine reality.

The basis of faith in things beyond is thoroughly Christological, following the key insight that Christ adapts himself to the needs of human beings to bring about their ascent to God.  Augustine makes use of what Ayres terms “Christological epistemology”, a sort of structure of knowledge based on the Incarnation: Christ becomes human so that he might lead us from the material world to the mystery of God.  We can see this sort of logic in thinkers such as Origen, for whom the intellectual and immaterial existence is always clearly superior.  Augustine shares a deep sense of the need to turn away from the material and temporal: within such a context it is crucial to find a way to do justice to the reality, appropriateness and soteriological necessity of the Incarnation.  The Incarnate Christ is not the goal of Christian life, but the way toward Christ in Himself, understood as person of the Trinity.  The Incarnation is an adaption to human needs, which for Augustine (as for Origen) can be viewed in epistemological terms: Christ redirects our knowledge of God.  Christ is God, yet God in created form, and therefore guides us towards God in Himself.  His materiality catches our attention and desire, yet then directs us towards the higher desire for the immaterial (Bernard of Clairvaux develops this idea in a classic account of divine love).  Ayres describes Augustine’s notion of this transition as a “movement of attention”, by which Christ and Scripture move us from the corporeal to the incorporeal, from created to uncreated.  This involves knowledge, but knowledge as shaped by desire: we need to really desire sight of God, which fallen human beings do not really desire of their own accord.

So Christ guides human beings toward contemplation of the Trinity, through his existence as a man.  It is this soteriological motivation which, according to Augustine, must be understood in order to understand the Gospel accounts of Christ.  Verses that might seem problematic on the Nicene account can often be explained by understanding them as words of Christ “in the form of a servant”, rather than Christ in himself.  This points to a sort of two natures Christology, but I think one where we should not look for a symmetry between the divine and the human.  Rather, the human nature is a lowering, a created form of the divine person. One of the most important points of Augustine’s Trinitarian Theology is his refusal to see theophany as purely the work of the Son: to be a consistent Nicene, one should not regard the Son as any more visible or closer to created than the Father. It’s the full rejection of the notion that the second person is by nature somehow in a mediatory position between God and creation.  Rather, it is purely by a contingent lowering that the Son becomes created, in order that we might follow Him in return to the Trinity itself.  It is still crucial to emphasise that the Son really is human, and somehow goes beyond all other theophanies, though the Son is by nature God and the exact nature of the Father.  We might want to say that the Son really has a human nature, but this human nature is contingent, and does not belong to the essential identity of the Son (the Son would still have been the same divine person without taking on a human nature).

As I interpret it, for Augustine the goal of Theology must be true knowledge of God as He is, though this is not something that we can have in this life.  Yet, it is within the context of anticipated eschatological fulfillment that Augustine takes it we can understand the purpose of Theology – it is part of the journey of ascent.  It is based on faith, but this faith has a basis in the tangible Christ as created.  The human Christ shows us that he is more than a man, and leads his followers to look beyond his created form, to believe in his unity with the Father (though this is, as yet unseen). Though Augustine also wishes to emphasise the need for humility, there is a sense that the Christian Theologian should trust the correspondence of God with his revelation, and so should not be too skeptical of our theological knowledge.  In part, this is by trusting that the ascent of Christ back to God foreshadows our own ascent, because Christ took human form.  It is crucial that human beings seek a fuller knowledge of God, and desire what is beyond us, with confidence that it will be granted in Christ (Augustine often cites Moses’s request for sight of God in Exodus 33 with approval).  I think it is interesting to see this emphasis in Augustine, because he also has such a strong notion of human inadequacy and our inability to know or love God.  Yet still, it is requiredthat we desire sight of God, not in the sense of wanting to raise ourselves, but because we truly long for God to bring us to greater knowledge in whatever way He pleases.

I definitely don’t do Theology with much thought of ascent toward the beatific vision through following of Christ, but it is at least an interesting way to look at how knowledge could fit in to a picture of Christian life.  It cannot for Augustine be separated from prayer and contemplation, which are also earthly foreshadowings of heavenly worship.  At points, it sounds quite intellectualist, and Augustine draws on Platonist models of ascent, but the crucial factor is humility to follow Christ and be raised by Him.  Yet there is certainly not the clear separation that we might see in later (particularly reformed) thinkers, between the pursuit of wisdom in a philosophical sense and the pursuit of God.  This allows Augustine to be freer with the sense of desiring knowledge of God, and pursuing it through our human wisdom, without seeing such a longing as idolatrous. It allows for a more experimental approach to the Trinity, drawing on human analogies, whilst always retaining a clear sense of mystery and desire to be raised by Christ rather than ourselves.  There is a sense of confidence that through Christ God guides the thinking of the Christian, and draws it towards Himself, so that through prayer and humility there can be a confidence in the fruitfulness of Theology.


3 thoughts on “Ayres, Augustine and Ascent

  1. Hi Emily,

    Thanks for the post. I hope your summer is going well.

    The goal of the beatific vision seems to me to tie in with what I was saying about transformation. 1 John 3:2 makes this connection explicit.

    I wonder, however, whether the goal of the beatific vision needs to be a bit more carefully formulated to guard against gnosticism and also against the pantheism that would result from a negation of the Creator-creature distinction in the eschaton. Surely belief in bodily resurrection means that eschatological life is not immaterial. Won’t the knowledge of God that will belong to his people in the beatific vision still be human knowledge and so distinct from God’s own self knowledge?

    Is Ayres argument that the human nature of Christ is a temporary created form that the divine Son of God adopts? Is the human person Jesus Christ truly divine on this account?



  2. I think this is generally right, and reflects defects in my presentation of the ideas. I do think that Augustine does actually put more emphasis on immateriality as the mark of God, and the tendency of the highest point of human nature, than many theologians would today. But the key point is in seeing incorporeality as the mark of God as creator, in contrast to creation, though God creates human nature to be such that it shares in the divine incorporeality in its higher faculties, reflecting the divine image. Though human nature is directed by God towards the immaterial, I don’t think this suggest an assimilation of the divine and the creaturely, but rather a sharing in what is divine from a position of dependence. The language of union inevitably makes a narrow line though, and there are many questions regarding human identity in the beatific vision, if the object is the following of Christ and union with the divine.

    On the Christological question, I realise the language of “created form” can sound adoptionist. The point I was trying to make was the idea that Christ is a truly divine person, yet somehow exists as a man. Augustine, like many other defenders of Nicene orthodoxy, appeals to a reading of Scripture that distinguishes ways in which it speaks of Christ as God and as man, as a defence against anti-nicene readings of key verses. Ayres suggests that this is not just a distinction between two natures, but “relies on an understanding of Christ as one subject who may be spoken of as he is eternally and as he is having assumed flesh.” To me, this sounds like an emphasis on single subjectivity, that Christ is truly a divine person that takes on a human existence, not a combination of man and God, nor a being with an intermediary ontological status. Given an account of divine timelessness, caution would be needed in describing the sense in which the human nature is temporary (it is temporal, unlike Christ himself, but united to the eternal person), though it is at least contingent. I hope that this sort of account does make Christ truly human: he really does exist as a human being, though in Himself He is God.

    Hope this is clearer/ better!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ed, as far as I understand it, the general catholic consensus is that the beatific vision may be enjoyed before the Last Judgement and the general resurrection. Is a pre-resurrection beatific vision more problematic in terms of the Creator-creature divide? I find it hard to conceive of what unembodied human knowledge of God (or of anything else) might be like.

    Biblically, a key question presumably has to do with the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”


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