Augustine and The Spirit as “Love”


I recently quoted Augustine in De Trinitate VIII at length where he sees in the very act of love, a trace of the Trinity itself. Augustine ponders on the Jesus’ words in Matt. 22:40. There, Christ tells us that the whole of the Law and the prophets can be summed up by loving God and loving your neighbor. Yet we are often instructed in Scripture to love God in one instance and to love our neighbor in another, but not both simultaneously. What then? Are the biblical writers contradicting what Christ has said? Not so, Augustine remarks. For God Himself is love (I John 4:7-8), and the man who loves his neighbor loves love itself (much as the man who loves good things loves the good itself), and thus the one who loves love actually loves God. In Augustine’s words: because God is love, the man who loves love certainly loves God; and the man who loves his brother must love love.

So then this loving act of the mind itself is Trinitarian for there you have three equally necessary things in the act of loving—the one who is the lover, the one being loved, and the love itself. For the mind to love, it must love something, and for it to love something, it must love love. “There you are with three, the lover, what is being loved, and love.” Now Augustine does not immediately attempt to identify which member of the Godhead is the Lover, the Beloved, or the Loving. However, he will later return to this and give some hints of his insights. It seems clear that Augustine, while emphasizing the unity and equality of all three members of the Godhead, wants to carry on the tradition he inherited from the East of the Father being Fons Divinitas—or the “fountainhead of deity.” So then, the Father is the Lover. The Son is the Beloved as the Scriptures often presents Him, e.g. Eph. 1:6: which he freely bestowed upon us in the beloved one. The Spirit then is the Love, or the gift of mutual love that ties the both together. And the mutual love between the Father and the Son is actually a love of Love itself, and this Love is the Holy Spirit. (Parenthetically centuries later, Richard of St. Victor will elaborate even more holding that for mutual love to be perfect, there must be love shared with a third person. So then perfect love is not in the I-thou relationship but instead when there is a “co-beloved” as the Holy Spirit is to the Father and the Son. So the Trinity is a communion of love: The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, but for either to love the other, each must love Love Itself, which is the Holy Spirit).

Now Augustine’s analogy is just that. An analogy. And he himself after stating it, promptly sets it aside to find something better. But this analogy doesn’t sit well with many contemporary theologians. According to some of my professors, the doctrine of the Trinity is in dire straights in the West. The Holy Spirit, it is said, has been so depersonalized that He is hardly ever considered in Christian scholarship, and has nearly vanished into irrelevance in the religious life of believers. But what has brought this about? Why is the Holy Spirit so often depersonalized? Was it one of the ill effects of the Enlightenment? The net result of the “every man for himself” approach to Scripture interpretation practiced by Protestants? The work of the Enemy? Bad hermeneutics? The tendency among evangelicals to emphasize the work and person of Christ to the neglect of the other divine Persons?

“Nay,” I was told. It was none of these things. Rather, the problem of depersonalizing the Spirit that is so prevalent in the West actually finds its root cause in that dreaded analogy of Love that Augustine propounded in De Trinitate VIII. And for a long time I parroted this notion. After all, in the analogy, the Father is personalized as a Lover. The Son, moreover, is personalized, being called “the Beloved One.” But the Spirit is referred to as the impersonal Love that is shared with the Father and the Son. This notion of the Spirit as an impersonal seems to be reflected in Western art where the Father and Son are often depicted in the form of persons, while the Spirit is depicted using impersonal objects like doves, and even inanimate entities like fire. What choice then, did Christians in the West have, but to think of the Holy Spirit as non-personal.

I sometimes wonder whether these theologians are secretly suspicious of the biblical writers themselves, what with all those neuter names given to the Holy Spirit like רוּחַ and πνεύματος, “breath” or “wind” (well at least it’s neuter in Greek since Hebrew has only masculine and feminine). While the Father and Son are expressly objectified for us (the Father in His miraculous works, the Son in His incarnation), the Spirit is often elusive, frequently seen as an agent of power—the means by which the Father accomplishes great acts, or the saints endure suffering; He is experienced subjectively. Even more, we are regularly reminded in the Gospels that the Son came to do naught but to glorify the Father. We are also told that the Spirit comes to do naught but to glorify the Son. But nowhere are we told that the Father or the Son comes to glorify the Spirit. And why is it that the Spirit is so often imaged as non-personal objects? In the baptismal scene of Luke 3:21-22, the Son comes to the water as a man. The Father speaks with a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son…” But the Spirit comes as a mere dove. And again, when in Acts 2:1-4 the Spirit came upon the believers gathered at Pentecost, he did not come with a human-like voice from heaven as the Father does, nor was He incarnate as a man like the Son. Instead, He came as a wind and as tongues of fire.

So do contemporary theologians fault the writers of Scripture for de-personalizing the Spirit too? It seems to me that there is a certain hiddeness to the Person of the Spirit and perhaps it is intended to be just so in the economic Trinity. It is this hiddeness, I think, that Augustine is trying to capture by giving the Spirit the name “Love” (he also uses “Gift”).

2 Responses to Augustine and The Spirit as “Love”

  1. Have you read liber IX of De Trinitate? I’m dying on one part of it:

    But yet, even so, love and what is loved are still two things. For there is no love when any one loves himself, except when love itself is loved. But it is one thing to love one’s self, another to love one’s own love. For love is not loved, unless as already loving something; since where nothing is loved there is no love.

    For the life of me I can’t figure out the jump between “there is no love when anyone loves himself” and “except when love itself is loved.” Help a brother out?

  2. Mafuta Singh says:

    Augustine teaches, there are traces of the divine Trinity in humanity. He considers because human persons are made in God’s image and likeness, there exists a type of trinity in humanity. Part of this trinity, Augustine believes is love. When a person is said to love themselves, inadvertently, they love a dying love, a love not reflective of the living and sinless love that God is. Pure and sinless love is God. Augustine admonishing the scripture in 1 John that “God is love” reasons that when love Himself is loved, than the love which abides in true love is made to truly love. Whereas when love loves itself, love turns away from God into a lifeless love.

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