Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy

Today Augustine is one of the most well-known theologians in church history. His influence on Christian thought, especially in Western Christianity, is enormous. After the Protestant Reformation, both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike continue to appeal to his teachings as a basis for their own.

Augustine’s influence extends to many areas of theology, including soteriology and trinitarian dogma. It is this latter part of Augustine’s corpus of teaching I want to examine in this article.

Augustine wrote at great length on the Trinity, a total of 15 volumes. These works are of monumental historical significance, not because they rightly elucidate the doctrine of the Trinity, but because they provide the first major systematic treatment of semi-modalism, and unfortunately, helped to popularize it.

That he teaches semi-modalism instead of the classical trinitarianism taught by theologians such as Irenaeus and Athanasius and confessed in the Nicene Creed, can be seen from the following passages, wherin he very obviously treats the Trinity itself as a person:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just; for which future joy he sighs, who says, One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord: that one God, therefore, Himself, I say, is alone good, for this reason, that no one sees Him for sorrow and wailing, but only for salvation and true joy.” (Book 1, Ch. 13)

Notice he defines the “one God” as three persons, yet afterwards refers to him using the singular personal pronoun “Himself”.

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“For the Trinity is called one God, great, good, eternal, omnipotent; and the same God Himself may be called His own deity, His own magnitude, His own goodness, His own eternity, His own omnipotence: but the Trinity cannot in the same way be called the Father, except perhaps metaphorically, in respect to the creature, on account of the adoption of sons.” (Book 5, Ch. 11)

“O Lord our God, we believe in You, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless You were a Trinity. Nor would you, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. Nor would the divine voice have said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God, unless You were so a Trinity as to be one Lord God…

O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In teaching an explicitly semi-modalistic view of the Trinity, Augustine was treading on new ground. Yet, within his works, he does not seem aware of this, but seems to think himself to be following those who came before him. This can probably be accounted for by two things: an ignorance of classical trinitarian teaching by authors of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, who mostly wrote in Greek, and secondly, that Augustine was probably following the teaching of those who came immediately before him, such as Ambrose of Milan.

Ambrose had been present at a Council held in Rome in 382 where some of the first signs of semi-modalism can be seen, as the Trinity for the first time got referred to with singular personal pronouns by a council. Ambrose being Augustine’s teacher, it is possible to conjecture that Augustine may have simply been being faithful to what Ambrose his mentor had taught him.

This teaching that the Trinity as a whole may be conceived of as a person, and and implicitly regarded and spoken of as one, with the sole exception that the word “person” may not be applied to it, is false and contrary to scripture. Augustine helped influence untold numbers of people to conceive of a Trinity different than that taught in scripture and by the earlier church fathers, who taught that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father, with the Son standing in relation to Him as His only-begotten Son and Word, and the Holy Spirit regarded as His Spirit.

It is also noteworthy that Augustine gives us one of the earliest records of anyone praying to the Trinity, directing his prayer to “God the Trinity”. Throughout his volumes he uses this name for the Trinity as a whole conceived of as a single person, the person who is the three real persons of the Trinity.

By directing prayer to “God the Trinity” Augustine very clearly treats the Trinity itself as a person. He uses singular personal pronouns for it.

He also explicitly and repeatedly states that in his thinking, the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity (again we must note this stands in contrast to the teaching of earlier fathers like Irenaeus who regarded the one God as the person of the Father). His language on this matter clearly shows that for him, saying that the Father and Son are “one God” does not simply mean that they share one and the same divine nature (such as we see the Nicene fathers such as Athanasius speak), but rather that they are ultimately, even while remaining distinct persons, one person (“God the Trinity”).

The conceptual difference between Augustine’s semi-modalistic view of the Trinity and the classical trinitarianism of the earlier church fathers would be difficult to overstate. Instead of viewing the Trinity as a group of three distinct, inseparable, co-eternal persons as earlier church fathers had articulated it, Augustine consistently treats the Trinity as a single rational person who exists as the three real persons of the Trinity. The one he regards as the ‘one God’ is a different person than the one the earlier fathers and scripture regard as the ‘one God’.

Due to these enormous conceptual differences, it is fair to speculate that had Augustine lived a couple hundred years earlier, his teachings would have been unequivocally condemned as heresy by those earlier fathers. But by the time Augustine wrote, the west was receptive to his teaching, semi-modalism already having made significant inroads in the Latin church. Sadly, many other teachers have blindly followed Augustine in these errors, a pattern that must change if the church is to return to the classical trinitarianism taught by scripture.

13 thoughts on “Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy”

  1. You keep referring to the use of God in the singular. Are you advocating for reference to God in the plural?


    1. I think God should be referred to in the singular, as He is one. Referring to the Trinity, however, as a single person is problematic- God and His Son are two distinct persons. Thus when referring to Them together, we should use plural personal pronouns.


  2. The Bible in both testaments, thousands of times cumulatively, refer to God using singular pronouns. If that is “semi-modalism,” then so be it. The Bible never uses the term “persons” relative to God. So, if you’re going to accuse Augustine of heresy for departing from what you think is biblical doctrine, then you’d better excise “persons” from your vocabulary.


    1. A great observation- the one God is always spoken of as a single person in the Bible. What does that tell us? That He is one person, and therefore, not three- the Bible knows of no triune God. Augustine wants to say that God is three persons, yet keeps falling back into speaking of God as a single person; that ends up making a total of four persons that are the one God for Augustine. That’s of course quite different from creedal orthodox trinitarianism.

      As for the term ‘person’, why cut that? It’s a useful word to describe something in reality: a rational individual being. As I’m not accusing Augustine of having done anything wrong simply in using extra-biblical language, but rather for how he conceives of the trinity as a person which is three persons, I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent in my continuing to use extra-biblical terms.


      1. You need to re-read my comment. I never said to cut the word “person” from our theology. I specifically used the word persons. The plural term persons is never used relative to God in the Bible. Augustine clearly believed in three divine persons, so his continued use of the singular pronoun relative to God cannot be labeled “heresy” due to the fact that the Bible uses the same pronouns (thousands of times) in reference to God.

        Your “inconsistency” is in attacking Augustine for being biblical whereas you insist on using an unbiblical term relative to God.


      2. Augustine was being biblical by speaking of the one God as a single person, using singular personal language. The problem is that he is unbiblical in defining that one God as three persons, where the Bible reveals God as one person. This makes Augustine inconsistent with himself, on the one hand saying that God is three persons, and on the other treating Him as a single person. Of course, it’s a contradiction to say that God is both one person and three persons, and contradictions are false. So, since (as you rightly observe) scripture only speaks of God as one person, and never as three, it is the latter belief that must be rejected if we are to remain faithful to the teachings of Jesus.


  3. My apologies. My comments are in light of another post (in addition to the “About” section) that God, the Son and the Holy Spirit “share” the divine nature. I did not make the connection that this is actually a unitarian site.

    Nonetheless, my criticisms of this essence participation doctrine that this site affirms from Nicea stands: It is tritheistic by definition.


    1. I’m not aware of any post in which I advocate the view that the Father, Son, and Spirit share a divine nature- could you be thinking of a time when I simply describe the Nicene view, in contrast to later/other views? I do agree that the Nicene trinitarian view is tritheistic in a sense.


      1. Yes, within your column entitled Van Til’s Views on the Trinity wherein you wrote:

        We see from these three quotations that Van Til did not mince words in declaring that he believed the three real persons of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be together a single person. This is blatant semi-modalism, the false doctrine that has received much attention on this blog for denying the doctrine of the Trinity as taught by scripture and believed and confessed by the Christians of the ante-nicene and nicene eras.

        Nicene trinitarianism distinguishes between the persons of the one God, His Son, and His Spirit, and the single divine nature that all three persons share. This divine nature in nicene trinitarianism is not a person, but a nature considered in abstract.

        The key words are, “…denying the doctrine of the Trinity as taught by scripture and believed and confessed by Christians of the ante-nicene and nicene eras. You then describe that belief as the assertion that the three persons share the same divine nature. You pull that all together by saying that said belief is “taught by scripture.” If that’s merely a mistake in wording, then I again offer my apologies for misunderstanding you.

        When I initially replied, I did not know that your site is unitarian. The way you worded your post led me to believe that you are a trinitarian who finds fault with the way other trinitarians formulate their arguments/statements.


      2. Sorry for the confusion. I wrote that post as a trinitarian, but have since become a Biblical Unitarian. I went around revising my language and taking down some old articles, and evidently I missed something in this post on Van Til. Thanks for making me aware of it.


      3. Thanks for the clarification. It’s a good thing you moved away from trinitarianism, but I definitely disagree with you over Christ’s deity (I am a Oneness Pentecostal).


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