Essay / Theology

Good without Quality, Great without Quantity

In the fifth book of Augustine’s On the Trinity (Prologue), having declared for the umpteenth time his inadequacy in writing about such subjects, he lays down some rules for how we should think about God:

Thus we should understand God, if we can and as far as we can, to be good without quality, great without quantity, creative without need or necessity, presiding without position, holding all things together without possession, wholly everywhere without place, everlasting without time, without any change in himself making changeable things, and undergoing nothing.

How far will these paradoxical guidelines get us? They may not enable us “to discover altogether what he is,” but at least we will be “piously on guard against thinking about him anything that he is not.”

I’m quoting¬†Edmund Hill’s translation from the New City Press edition, mainly because Hill tosses in a helpful clue in an endnote to the passage: “Augustine runs through Aristotle’s nine categories of accidental predication…”

Ah, that’s interesting. Quality, quantity, location, and so on. Here’s Augustine’s Latin for the key terms:

sine qualitate bonum,
sine quantitate magnum,
sine indigentia creatorem,
sine situ praesentem,
sine habitu omnia continentem,
sine loco ubique totum,
sine tempore sempiternum,
sine ulla sui mutatione mutabilia facientem,
nihilque patientem.

The details are hazy (at least to me; I can’t navigate the gap between Aristotle’s Greek and Augustine’s Latin with any precision), but Hill is right that Augustine must have in the back of his mind an authoritative account of the many ways to, er, say things about stuff. And in this prologue to book 5, he wants to signal that the predicamenta all apply oddly to the divine substance. That is, he wants to invoke the categories to remind us that God exceeds categories.

This will be important for Augustine, and for anybody who wants to think rightly about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as he makes his crucial distinction between how we talk about God substantially versus how we talk about God relationally. Especially in considering the relation of the Father and the Son, trinitarian speech has to say a lot of things about God substantially: everything about every divine perfection is substantially predicated of God, and therefore applies to both the Son and the Father. But the relation between the Father and the Son is predicated differently: to talk about the sonhood of the Son or the fatherhood of the Father is to say something relational rather than substantive. On the basis of revelation, we can talk meaningfully about the persons of the Trinity even as we admit we haven’t mastered divinity itself.

Every line of the quoted passage is tough. You have to imagine saying the simple prayer, “God is great, God is good,” and then being corrected by Augustine: When we say God is great, we are using quanitity or size language, but the great God in fact exceeds those categories. And when we call God good, we don’t mean we have identified the quality of goodness and brought God into comparison with it to show that he has measured up to it. So you can keep on saying that God is great and God is good, and you can go on thanking him for your food, but you should remain aware that you have not succeeded in putting God into the categories of quality and quantity. “Sine qualitate bonum,¬†sine quantitate magnum,” and so on.

It’s no wonder that Augustine returns to the same movement of thought, and some of the same language, in the first book of the Confessions, and it sounds better as prayer. He calls God

unchangeable, yet changing all things; never new, never old; making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud without their knowing it (Job 9:5); always working, yet ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing; sustaining, pervading, and protecting ; creating, nourishing, and developing; seeking, and yet possessing all things. You love, yet do not burn; are jealous, yet free from care; You repent, yet do not suffer; are angry, yet serene; You change Your ways, leaving Your plans unchanged; You recover what You find, without ever having lost it; You are never in want, while You rejoice in gain; never covetous, though requiring interest.

There at the beginning of Confessions, this movement of thought is a prolegomena to talking about, or to, God at all. “And what does anyone say when He speaks of You? Yet woe to them that keep silence…”


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