When the Trinity said, “Let there Be Light”

lightOne of the problems with reading Augustine as a blogger is the pain at not being able to write about every little choice tidbit or argument you run across. Unfortunately, it’s not possible without simply turning your blog into a commentary on City of God (a not unworthwhile proposition). For now I simply want to highlight one fascinating bit of trinitarian theology Augustine does in his discussion of creation in book 11.

In this section, he begins to treat the truth of the Christian faith against the pagans and so moves to discussing the reality of the world, God’s creation ex nihilo and the fact that creation had a beginning. At one point he sets himself to meditate on the statement, “God saw that it was good” after declaring “let there be light.” He argues that this doesn’t mean that God found out after creating that he’d managed to do a good job. Scripture indicates God’s delight in what he has made according to his own eternal wisdom and will. God’s thoughts are not successive or time-bound like ours. He knows all with a perfect knowledge we cannot imagine. After some elaboration in this vein, he concludes by reflecting on the way Scripture communicates the truth of God’s creation in Genesis 1:

For this reason, if we were merely being asked, ‘Who made the light?’ it would be enough to answer, ‘God.’ If further information regarding the means by which it was made had been intended, it would have sufficed to say, ‘And God said, Let there be light, and there was light,’ that we might know not only that God had made the world, but also that He had made it by the Word. But there are three things above all which we need to know about a created thing, three things we must be told: who made it, how he made it, and why he made it. That is why the Scripture says, ‘God said, “Let there be light, and there was light.  And God saw the light that it was good.”‘  If, then, we ask who made it, it was ‘God.’  If, by what means, He said ‘Let it be,’ and it was.  If we ask, why He made it, ‘it was good.’  Neither is there any author more excellent than God, nor any skill more efficacious than the word of God, nor any cause better than that good might be created by the good God. (Bk. XI.21)

Three questions give three answers. Who made the world? God. How did he make it? His Word. Why did he make it? Because a good God makes good things. Where is the Trinity is all this? Well, just a couple of chapters later he concludes a section critiquing Origen by asking:

As I suggested above, there are three questions to be asked in respect of any created being: Who made it? How? and Why? I put forward the answers: ‘God’, ‘Through His Word’, ‘Because it was good.’ Now whether this formula is to be regarded as a mystical revelation of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or whether there is anything which prevents this interpretation of the passage in Scripture is a question meriting extended discussion; and we are not to be forced to unravel every question in a single volume. (Bk. XI.23)

So it seems he might be shutting the question down. But then he moves on to discuss the revelation of the divine Trinity in Creation in the very next chapter, suggesting an answer to the question. He begins that section by affirming the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and the Holy Spirit’s procession from both so that we have these three who are co-eternal and consubstantial with each other, one, undivided, distinctive according to the persons, but inseparable according to the divine nature and action. He then begins to connect some interesting dots by way of examining the Holy Spirit’s relationship to the Father and the Son. He says this:

As for the question whether the Holy Spirit of the good Father and the good Son can rightly be called the goodness of both, as being common to both, I should not dare to hazard a rash judgment about that. I should however be more ready to risk the statement that he is the holiness of them both, not as a mere quality, but being himself a subsistent being — a substance — and the third person in the Trinity. What lends probability to this suggestion is the fact that although the Father is spirit, and the Son is spirit, and the Father and the Son are both holy, it remains true that holiness is the distinguishing attribute of the Spirit, which suggests that he is the holiness of both, in substantial and consubstantial form. Now if the divine goodness is identical with the divine holiness, it is evidently not a rash presumption but a reasonable inference to find a hint of the Trinity in the description of God’s creative works, expressed somewhat enigmatically, so as to exercise our speculations. This hint we may find when we ask the questions. Who? How? and Why? (Bk. XI.24)

Now we come to the heart of Augustine’s speculative investigation of whether God’s act of creation points us to God’s Trinitarian being.

It was, of course, the Father of the Word who said, ‘Let it be made.’ And since creation was effected by his speaking, there can be no doubt that it was done by means of the Word. And the statement, ‘God saw that it was good’ makes it quite plain that God did not create under stress of any compulsion, or because he lackes something for his own needs; his only motive was goodness; he created because his creation was good. And the assertion of the goodness of the created work follows the act of creation in order to emphasize that the work corresponded with the goodness which was the reason for its creation.

Now if his goodness is rightly interpreted as the Holy Spirit, then the whole united Trinity is revealed to us in its works. Hence comes the origin, the enlightenment, and the felicity of the Holy City constituted by the angels on high. If we ask whence it arises, God founded it; if whence comes its wisdom, it receives light from God; if whence comes its bliss, it rejoices in God. It receives its mode of being by subsisting in God, its enlightenment by beholding him, its joy from cleaving to him. It exists; it sees; it loves. It is strong with God’s eternity; it shines with God’s truth; it rejoices in God’s goodness. (ibid.)

All of this may seem a bit far-fetched and strained to modern readers and exegetes. And that may be. Staring at the sun too long can strain the eyes, and Augustine as known to strain a bit in his ardent desire to see the glory of the Triune God in all things. Of course, we might stop and consider that it is our eyes are weak from lack of effort to penetrate beyond the shallows into the depths of Scriptural texts by reading it in light of the broader confession of the Canon and the Church.

In either case, Augustine has given us hints at a rich vision of activity and purposes of the Triune God in creation. God does not create in some impersonal, mechanistic fashion, but via his powerful, personal Word. Father and Son are good with the goodness that is the Holy Spirit. For that reason, God does not make in order to fulfill some existential gap in his own being, but because the good God makes good things. It is from the fullness of his own Triune life that God says, “Let there be light” and rejoices in the good work of his Word.

Soli Deo Gloria

One thought on “When the Trinity said, “Let there Be Light”

  1. “Of course, we might stop and consider that it is our eyes are weak from lack of effort to penetrate beyond the shallows into the depths of Scriptural texts by reading it in light of the broader confession of the Canon and the Church.”

    Heard. That.

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