Why Augustine Centered His Life on the Trinity
And Why We Should Care
In the first paragraph of Confessions, Augustine penned his now famous line, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
This phrase is a fitting summary of Augustine’s theology. First, it reveals that man is utterly restless without God, lost and wandering. Second, it reveals that only God can provide true rest for the human heart. Augustine finds great comfort and affection in the character, nature, and works of God.
Augustine’s understanding of life and conversion is tethered to the salvific work of the triune God in his own life. He can only make sense of his salvation through the lens of God’s sovereignty and redemptive purposes, through the work of the Godhead. For Augustine, the whole of theology and life flow from God. Reflecting on his own transformation, Augustine confesses, “You, my God, brought that about. . . . How can salvation be obtained except through your hand remaking what you once made?”
Augustine: “You have made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
Augustine’s Trinitarianism is a helpful reference point for us. His view can, at least in part, provide a template for considering the Trinity in our own lives. We can summarize Augustine’s teaching like this:
1. The Father as Initiator
For Augustine, the Father’s role in the creation narrative is as the one who begets the Son through the Spirit, and the one who creates all things through them. This is one of Augustine’s most pointed emphases on the work of the Father.
Yet, he does not promote hierarchy. He’s not necessarily treating the Son and Spirit as mere bench players. Augustine explains that “the Trinity, my God — Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit [is] Creator of the entire creation.” So God the Father creates with and through God the Son and God the Spirit, giving the divine persons co-equal tribute for the creation of all things. This, for Augustine, is derived from the statement, “let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26).
2. The Son as Mediator
In Confessions, he critiques his pre-conversion Neo-Platonism, saying that though they helped him understand aspects of abiding in Christ, they did not “contain that ‘at the right time he died for the impious’ (Romans 5:6), and that ‘you did not spare your only Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8:32).” Without this, it is only foolishness masquerading as wisdom. Without the incarnation or paschal elements of Christ’s work, there is no true reflection of his work on man’s behalf.
For Augustine, a living relationship with Christ must include reconciliation to God through the payment for sins. This is why the Son of God “appeared among mortal sinners as the immortal righteous one, mortal like humanity, righteous like God. Because the wages of righteousness are life and peace (Romans 6:23).” Christ “came into the Virgin’s womb . . . so that mortal flesh should not for ever be mortal.”
Arrogance should not exist for the believer. It is the humility of God that humbles us.
For God himself to condescend to the earth, after man’s disobedience, means that arrogance for the believer should not exist. It is the humility of God that humbles us. This is what the Neo-Platonists missed. They were arrogant in thinking that the divine life could be achieved alone, through human means. But only through the “true Mediator” God in the flesh could man find salvation.
3. The Holy Spirit as Unifier
Returning to the initial quote from Augustine, “You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you,” Augustine brings this quote full circle near the end, saying that:
At one time we were moved to do what is good, after our heart conceived through your Spirit. But at an earlier time we were moved to do wrong and to forsake you. But you God, one and good, have never ceased to do good. . . . [W]e hope to rest in your great sanctification. But you, the Good, in need of no other good, are ever at rest since you yourself are your own rest.
The Holy Spirit dwells within believers and unites them to the Godhead. By sharing in God’s life, believers will share in his rest for eternity. So finding rest in God is not only a disposition of the affections or the will; rest is something intrinsic within God and therefore intrinsic within the souls of those united with him.
Understanding God as triune is a theology-driving, awe-inspiring, life-giving truth.
Augustine also explains that the Holy Spirit is the giver of the knowledge of God. Hostile-minded unbelievers “do not see your works with the help of your Spirit and do not recognize you in them.” No one knows or loves the things of God except through receiving his Spirit.
The Trinity-Shaped Gospel
Augustine poetically states in Confessions that God is “the life of souls, the life of lives. You live in dependence only on yourself, and you never change, life of my soul.” The triune God revealed in the Scriptures, confessed by the creeds, and experienced through the life-altering work of the Holy Spirit was a reality that Augustine could not escape. And once he was gripped by God, Augustine’s theology and life were subject to him.
For us, the Trinity is sometimes assumed, overlooked. We say, “The Trinity. Ah, of course: three-in-one. Water, snow, ice. Got it.” The Trinity becomes a dusty Sunday school fact, not a fresh-every-day source of wonder. Understanding God as triune is a theology-driving, awe-inspiring, life-giving truth.
The triune God is reclaiming his kingdom and redeeming all things, including you and me. The gospel has an inescapably Trinitarian shape. The Father has chosen to reveal his love to us through the sacrifice of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:9–14).
As Alister McGrath has said, “God is both the goal of our journey and the means by which we find him.”
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