The One Christ: St. Augustine's Theology of Deification

The One Christ: St. Augustine's Theology of Deification

by David Vincent Meconi

Paperback(New Edition)



Provocative passages on deification abound in St. Augustine of Hippo. He relies on the term "deification" far more than other Latin fathers do. Even more important, the reality of the deified life runs throughout every major aspect of Augustine's presentation of Christianity.

By tracing how deification and related metaphors appear throughout Augustine's writings, David Meconi corrects generations of faulty readings on this crucial patristic theme. For Augustine, the Christian life is essentially an incorporation of the elect into the very person of Christ, forming his mystical body inchoately now in via and perfectly
in patria. This is the "whole Christ," the totus Christus, where Christ and Christian become one through the charity of the Holy Spirit and the church's sacraments that elevate and enable men and women to participate in God's own life. This work opens by showing how the metaphysic of deification are set in principio, as all creation is an imitation of the Logos. Among all creatures, though, the human person alone bears the imago Dei, and emerges as the one called to appropriate God's life freely. For this purpose, the Son becomes human.

By treating Augustine's passages on deification both chronologically and constructively, Meconi situates Augustine in a long chorus of Christian pastors and theologians who understand the essence of Christianity as the human person's total and transformative union with God.


David Vincent Meconi, SJ, is assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University.


"In recent years, many Western Christians have shown growing interest in what is usually thought of as a theme peculiar to the works of the Eastern Fathers: that committed participation in the life and prayer of the Church can open up for a believer the path to 'divinization' - to a geniune share by human creatures, through Christ and in the power of the Spirit, in the life of God himself. Fr. David Meconi's new book reveals, by careful analysis of many texts, that this kind of transformation is also a major theme in the thought of St. Augustine, even though it is not always expressed in the same terms that his Greek contemporaries used, and that divinization thus also lies at the source of mainstream Western Christian theology and spirituality. This is an original and important piece of scholarship on a largely neglected subject, and should be welcomed by all who are nourished by Augustine's thought"

- Father Brian Daley, SJ, the Catherine F. Huisking Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame

"For decades scholars have debated Augustine's theology of deification. David Meconi culminates that debate with a clear and persuasive account of the evidence. Of particular importance is Meconi's attention to the full implications of Augustine's insistence that Christians live and are transformed within the totus Christus, the 'whole Christ.' The book opens new avenues for students of Augustine himself, and also for all who want to see increased understanding between the Church's eastern and western 'lungs.'"

- Lewis Ayres, Bede Professor in Catholic Theology, Durham University

"Meconi goes to the heart of Augustine's life and thought: we are called to become Christ. Much has been written about the human condition as if Augustine only saw its downside. This book invites us to revel in the many ways that Augustine highlights human destiny as deification. It is a must-read for anyone who is 'stuck' on Augustine's supposed pessimism and—even more so—for those who want to explore what Augustine is really saying about God's plan for us."

—Allan Fitzgerald, OSA, The Augustinian Institute, Villanova University

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813231167
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 04/04/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x (d)

About the Author

David Vincent Meconi, SJ, is assistant professor of theology at Saint Louis University.

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St. Augustine's Theology of Deification


The Catholic University of America Press

Copyright © 2013 The Catholic University of America Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8132-2127-4




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non omnino essem, nisi esses in me —conf. 1.2.2

As our introduction chronicled, critics of Augustine are correct to point out how the degree of communion between God and creation parallels the extent to which a creature can be divinized. In his Saint Augustin, Patric Ranson likewise uses this relationship to argue that the absence of deification in Augustine forbids any union between creator and creature. Ranson rightly sees how creation and salvation are organically linked in Augustine's thought; he is also accurate in stating that the mariage of the created and the uncreated is the sens premier of Christianity. However, is he correct in judging that a close union between the created and the uncreated is actually forbidden in Augustine's thinking? Exactly how does Augustine describe this relationship between creator and creature?

This chapter shows how creation is a dialogue between the Word who never ceases receiving the Father, and the created beings he never stops forming. The world's very first moment bespeaks a type of contingent existence which can never be self-sufficient but must receive all it is by turning back with and in the Logos to the Father. In this way we shall see how creation for Augustine is essentially a conuersio ad Deum. The Trinity brings other beings into existence by creating them to adhere instantaneously to God and thus to receive existence and all their specific attributes. As such, contingent existents are created so as to turn toward God, thereby receiving what the creator continuously bestows. This is how Augustine's theology of creation is clearly Logocentric: each created existent must imitate the Word's eternal turn toward and presence before the Father in order to receive existence and the qualities which make it what it is.

This chapter proceeds by way of three main sections. We begin by seeking to understand what this world tells us of God. Augustine sees in all creatures a triadic ontology pointing us not only to an omnipotent God, but to a Trinity of persons. Augustine clearly desires to emphasize how it is not some incommunicable power that creates, nor is it any one divine person, but it is the Trinity who has chosen to create. Second, we examine the life of this Trinity as rooted in eternal reciprocity, a timeless relatedness whose very being is constituted by the Father's eternal begetting of the Son, these two being joined by the Holy Spirit. The third and final section considers the purpose of God's creating. Augustine carefully distinguishes two ways to answer the question "Quare fecerit?"—"Toward what end did he create?" The first way of asking this question is to demand an answer of God's will. Fiercely intent on preserving divine freedom, however, Augustine admonishes those who presume God must have created out of some lack or need. Instead, he constantly emphasizes God's free will in creating. God creates out of neither coercion nor obligation. But what then is the purpose of creation itself? This is the second way to ask "quare fecerit?" not by asking what motivated God to create but by asking what purpose did God implant within creation when he willed it. We thus discover Augustine's two-fold answer for why creation was brought about: for the sake of creation's union as well as for praise of the supreme Trinity.

Readers may recognize how the divisions of this chapter follow Augustine's suggestion at De Ciuitate Dei 11.21, that there are always three factors one should know about a created thing: who made it [quis fecerit?], how he made it [per quid fecerit?], and why he made it [quare fecerit?]. For within the Augustinian narrative, it is impossible to talk of a creature without also talking about its creator (quis) as well as the efficient (per quid) and final (quare) causes for that existent. To answer these questions this chapter will analyze mainly selections from Augustine's various commentaries on Genesis, the latter books of the Confessions, and selections from De Genesi ad litteram.


Since creation is God's original revelation of self ad extra, we approach it as the fundamental prologue to divine union. For Augustine, creation and deification are related in two ways. First, they are both utterly free, traceable only to God's graciousness. Second, in their own measure, both creation and salvation reflect the interpersonal life of the Trinity. Both creation and salvation show us how God is utter goodness, incapable of any jealousy, instead revealing himself as one who wills to share his life. As Augustine would have learned from Plato's Timaeus, God generated the visible world because his goodness disallows any jealousy ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]): God is not only good and free, but actually desires all things to be like him insofar as their natures permit. God has no need of creation and he is neither conditioned nor improved upon in the act of creation. It is therefore fitting that God chooses to bring other beings into existence in a wholly gratuitous manner, seeking to perfect and not destroy the integrity of the other.

In his De Genesi ad Litteram, Augustine argues that it is unfitting that the Father would have the ability to perform a beautiful act and yet refuse to do so. But since he is both omnipotens et bonus, he chose not only to create, but to create all things "very good." Years earlier (c. 391), Augustine used this same argument of God's lack of jealousy (inuidia) to show the fittingness of the Father's eternal begetting of the Son. Because God is both omnipotent and wholly good, and therefore incapable of jealousy, Augustine relied on this coupling of the Father's power and goodness to account for the Son's eternal procession: "Him whom God begot, because he could not beget one better than himself (for nothing is better than God), he begot as his equal. For if he wanted to do so and could not, he is weak; if he could do so and did not want to, he is envious. From this it is clear that he begot his Son as his equal."

Our author could describe God's tri-relational substance as either a simplex multiplicitas or a multiplex simplicitas. The Father and Son and Holy Spirit are consummately united as well as perfectly individuated. Because God's very nature is constituted by personal relationship with the other, the Father is the Father for no other reason than that he begets the Son, the Son is entirely identified with his being begotten by the Father, while the Holy Spirit is defined by a simultaneous origination and uniting of both Father and Son. As Augustine would argue, against any Arian tendencies, the only difference between the persons of the Trinity is relational, never substantial. As such, this interrelatedness of the Trinity demonstrates an unequaled type of being whose identity is completely constituted by personal relation.

Augustine sees this equality of the divine persons as a constant teaching of all the Catholic commentators (catholici tractatores) who have written before him, namely that, "Father and Son and Holy Spirit in the inseparable equality of one substance present a divine unity; and therefore there are not three gods but one God; although indeed the Father has begotten the Son, and therefore he who is the Father is not the Son; and the Son is begotten by the Father, and therefore he who is the Son is not the Father; and the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son, but only the Spirit of the Father and of the Son, himself coequal to the Father and the Son, and belonging to the threefold unity." Augustine could see such generosity in the very life of the Trinity. That is, the Christian distinction of the divine persons reveals how union with a divine person does not obliterate personal characteristics or differences. While of course the unity enjoyed within the Trinity and the unity God grants to creatures is not identical, we nonetheless see how the perfect otherness of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit prepares us to understand how creatures can be called to be partakers of the divine life without foregoing their alterity as well.

Augustine was aware that the triune agents of Genesis 1 were not conspicuously clear. Nonetheless, in spite of the lack of conspicuous clarity, he was delighted to see how a careful reading of Genesis 1 revealed how the entire Trinity is found there. In the opening two lines of scripture he thus discerned how: "The Father in the word 'God' and the Son in the word 'beginning'; the beginning, not for the Father but for the creation created at the start through himself, and chiefly for the spiritual, and consequently for the totality of creation; while with scripture saying: And the Spirit of God was being borne over the water (Gen. 1:2), we recognize the complete indication of the Trinity." God's act of creating mirrors the self-giving that eternally occurs within the Trinity: the Father is the one who speaks, the Son is the principium in whom all things are made, and the Spirit hovers over the waters as a sign of God's unifying order and dominion.

Both Augustine's Platonism as well as his Christianity allowed him to see how the corporeal world images the intelligible world. Together, both schools of thought equipped him to see the visible world as the externalization of God's goodness which participates in and consequently manifests signs of God's life. Eugene TeSelle also suggests that the concept of God's holding all things together in a purposeful whole (continet, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) could have easily come to Augustine by way of Cicero, Varro, and Porphyry. Moreover, in Plotinus's final treatise against those Gnostics who denigrate the material universe, Augustine would have gladly read there that to love God is also to love the visible world which God has providentially brought about.

Evident throughout his Timaeus, Plato presented this world as an imitation of the imitable and perfect pattern. Plotinus would later maintain that visible existents in this world are beautiful because of that original beauty in the other world. Plotinus came to liken those who belittle the material order to ingrates who, ignorant of the goodness of the lodging provided them, have the audacity to revile both the house and its maker. The philosophical tradition from which Augustine works clearly maintains that the visible world is (1) a good work and (2) an icon capable of lifting human minds to the creator. Accordingly, Augustine recounts in his Confessions: "I put my question to the earth, and it replied, 'I am not he'.... And to all things which stood around the portals of my flesh I said, 'Tell me of my God...._You are not he, but tell me something of him.' Then they lifted up their mighty voices and cried, 'He made us.' My questioning was my attentive spirit, and their reply, their beauty."

If the Platonic books prepared Augustine to find vestigial traces of the divine within this acclamatory creation, his study of scripture poised him to look for a triad within creation. Pierre Courcelle correctly argues that Augustine was present for Ambrose's preaching on Genesis after 385, and accordingly would have heard the Bishop of Milan develop his triadic structure of creation. Drawing from Paul's a quo, per quem, in quo (Rom. 11:36), Ambrose delineated the creative act as one of beginning and origin [principium et origo], the continuation of all being [continuatio], and the end for which all creatures have been brought into being [finis]. These three properties are then reinterpreted as the material [materia], the binding and linking [ligauit atque constrinxit], as well as the endurance [manent] of all creation. We shall see how Augustine reworks these triads, but it is Ambrose who first comes to provide him with a new way of reading Genesis.

Departing from Milan, Augustine quickly made this schema operative. In Rome (387–88), he initially utilizes Rom. 11:36 to describe how all things come to be. Later, having landed in North Africa, he next discovers how the triad found at Ws 11:21 could be a way to identify the Father with Measure, the Son with Number, and the Holy Spirit with Order. Very early on in his intellectual development, then, creation is understood to be doxologically deiform in that all creatures are iconic and derivatively divine. Each creature is ontologically good and perpetually confesses its triune creator.

By 389, Augustine arrived at the understanding of how such divine symmetry clearly manifests triadic traces in all created substances. He eagerly writes to his dear friend, Nebridius, that he now sees how every substance displays three characteristics: that it exists [sit], that it is either this or that [hoc uel illud], and that it remains in so far as it is able [maneant, quantum potest]. By contemplating this triadic nature of every creature he encountered, Augustine came to realize how: "Every particular thing, you see, or substance or essence or nature, or whatever else you like to call it, has simultaneously these three aspects: that it is one something, and that it is distinguished by its own proper look or species from other things, and that it does not overstep the order of things." Even though Augustine's taxonomy varies throughout his writing, he consistently sees how every creature displays three distinct factors. In this passage from De Vera Religione we see how every creature (1) is one thing [unum aliquid sit], (2) is a particular kind of something [species propria], and (3) strives to remain in its proper ordering [ordinem non excedat]. Later on, these created triads would be indiscriminately described as esse, essentia, manentia. Augustine also calls these triads mensura, numerus, and pondus. At other times he presents them as mensura, numerus, modus, modus, species, ordo. Or, finally, they are called unitas, species, and ordo. While the terms may differ, Augustine is consistent in expressing how (1) the first term of each of these triads is always a capacity or "measure" of existence, (2) the second term is a certain reason or formed beauty, and (3) the third represents an existent's importance or place within the divine arrangement of things.

May we simply attribute these three effects to each person of the Trinity respectively? Picking up on St. Paul's counsel to find the invisible God in his visible creation, Augustine advises that we should know the creator by understanding the things that are made (Rom. 1:20) and to understand him as triune [trinitatem], as traces [uestigium] of this Trinity appear fittingly throughout creation. Although evidence of the Trinity is discernible in creatures, are we able to delineate the proper action of each divine person? Are we able to predicate bestowal of all existence to the Father, the nature of what something is to the Son, and the continual sustaining of a creature's being to the Holy Spirit? One noted authority does just that. Commenting on the letter to Nebridius mentioned above (ep. 10), Serge Lancel writes that, "Each of these three dimensions—or properties—of the substance refers to one of the persons of the Trinity: the first, existence [esse] makes known the Principle (or Cause) of nature and relates to its creator, the Father; the second, Form [species], refers to the Son, while one must recognize in the Holy Ghost the Permanence [manentia] in which all things are."

Although he fails to admit that Augustine nowhere puts forth such a crisp equation as he suggests here, Lancel's interpretation does hold up when we examine other primary texts. First, it is clear that ontological primacy lies with the Father. All that exists does so because of his willingness to impart existence. The Father is the agent, with all esse attributed to him. Accordingly, Genesis's depiction of God's "rest" on the seventh day must be understood to imply the heavenly sovereignty in creating and not in the Father's ceasing to create. The Father is at work (cf. John 5:17) during every temporal moment because every contingent creature necessarily relies on an existence that it cannot possess through its own nature. The working of the Father is a continuation [continuationem] of the same work achieved at the world's original foundation [conderet]. Since all is continuously derived from the Father, his work must be incessant. The inability of the creature to sustain itself is the result of the nothingness from which God makes all things (a point we shall return to later). All existents are in constant need of the Father's agency and ceaseless bestowal of being.

Excerpted from THE ONE CHRIST by DAVID VINCENT MECONI. Copyright © 2013 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
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Table of Contents

Abbreviations ix

Introduction xi

1 Creation as the Unifying Prologue 1

2 Made to be Godly: The Divine Image Bestowed and Broken 34

3 The Son's Descent 79

4 The Holy Spirit's Indwelling 135

5 Ecclesial Reception of the Divine Life 175

Conclusion 234

Appendix: Augustine's Works 243

Selected Bibliography 251

Index of Augustine's Works 261

Index of Scripture 267

General Index 269

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