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Augustine and the psychological analogy

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 25 September 2017

In Karl Rahner's 1970 book The Trinity he states that "despite their orthodox confession of the Trinity, Christians are in their practical life, almost 'mere monotheists'." While the incarnation is incorporated into belief it does so in a way that does not necessarily infer Trinitarian theology. If this is the case inside the Church. "mere monotheism" is the staple diet of those outside of it both atheists and theists alike. Any idea that Jesus is the Word, the eternal logos of the Father made flesh, is dismissed as a fairy tale. Jesus becomes at most a very nice man like any other very nice men who got caught on the wrong side of authority. The Father in this common scheme is a disembodied being who created the earth and has a "plan" for humanity from which morality is to be devised. This being may interfere with events on earth and will do so in answer to prayer. There is really no room for the Spirit unless he/she takes the place of the Father as being active in creation especially for those who desire ecstatic experience.

Various theologians in the 20th Century attributed the failure to incorporate Trinitarian theology among the faithful to deficiencies in how the doctrine was developed in Latin Christianity as opposed to the way it developed in the Greek world. It has been thought that if only Augustine had read Greek, then history would have been changed for the better. Many theologians joined the chorus that condemned Augustine for his Platonism that limited his understanding of the incarnation and for an analogy he made between the human mind and the persons of the Trinity, called, in the trade "the psychological analogy". This was seen as a mistake because it likened the operation of the human mind to that of the three persons of the Trinity and was seen as anthropomorphism.

However, the above view has been examined and found wanting and Augustine rescued, particularly, his doctrine of the Trinity expressed in his incomplete book De Trin. Rather than expressing God in an anthropomorphic fashion, the psychological analogy it is what it is said to be: an analogy i.e. it is a conceptual guide. Augustine uses the sense of sight as the basis of his analogy. Our experience of any corporeal reality consists of three things. Firstly, there is the object itself. Secondly, there is the image we have of it which is different from the object itself. Thirdly, when the object is taken away from our sight and the image of it disappears, we remember the image and would recognise that object if it again intruded on our line of sight.


These three things correspond to the three persons of the Trinity. The object of our sight is the Son, the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. The image of him corresponds to the Father. Thus in the Gospel according to John we find: "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known." John 1:18. God is thus not the object of our knowledge, we only see God by experiencing the image of the Son. Our memory of that image is the Spirit by which God remains with his Church into the future.

This analogy helps us use a language about God that is formed by Trinitarian theology. For example, we may describe the people of God as those who live in the truth (Father) that we see through the Son by the power of the Spirit. While this example emphasises the triune nature of God, our experience of God is always of a unity as is our sight of any corporal object. This explains Augustine's insistence that the persons of the Trinity cannot be experienced individually. The simplicity of God exists in the fact that He is one, that God is the truth seen through the Son in the past and in the future.

The Trinity is not an arithmetic impossibility but conforms to the way we experience and know and remember anything. It is a conception that reaches to the very depths off human experience which is why Paul, the earliest writer of the New Testament, can give a blessing in 2Cor. 13:13. "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This was written in the mid 50s, before any of the gospels were written and before a formal doctrine was announced by the Church at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

So, far from being mumbo jumbo from the early Church, or impenetrable Scholastic thought from the middle ages, or elite priest craft, or impenetrable mystery that simply has to be believed, the doctrine of the Trinity connects how our minds cannot but operate with the experience of God. We can speculate that if this had become apparent among Christians of the last five centuries, then Enlightenment thinking and the atheism that stemmed from it would not have occurred and the Church and the communities it nurtured would not now be in such a sorry state. "Mere monotheism" is such a sitting duck for doubt.

The difficulty with the Trinity is that the natural religious response in many cultures and over millennia is to project the existence of a powerful spiritual being, often dwelling in the sky, and who can intervene in the events of the world. This natural religious response coincides with our orientation towards relations with persons. This is why religious projection is always personal. The Force of Star Wars fame will never cut it. This is why many devout Christians are "mere monotheists" because they believe in the dominion of a loving God perhaps with Jesus as an example of what faith in such a God looks like. It seems that common belief may be summed up in the belief in the existence of such a being who loves us unconditionally as would a parent. This is insecure and childish projection. Surely, we would wish more maturity for ourselves! Such religious imaginings feeds into our therapeutic culture in which we desperately seek a cure for our fragility.

I think that Rahner has a point. The failure of the Church in our time is largely due to its failure to differentiate itself from common religious belief and has simply been seen through. While there continues to be a resurgence of Trinitarian theology in academic circles, common Christian belief has remained as "mere monotheism" even though the Trinity is named multiple times in formal liturgies. The Church has become captive to the world and will continue to decline as this remains so.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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