The Icon of the Invisible God, Augustine's work on the Trinity and the Theophany at Mamre

Scutum fidei
A common representation of the Godhead, with subtle overtones of Tetratheism, centred on an abstract Divine Essence rather than in the Father.

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The Lord Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World’, the One Who reveals His Father to us. John tells us plainly, 'No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.' John 1.18. The Messiah is the only means by Whom the Father may be plainly seen. Paul describes Him as, ‘the Image’ or literally the Icon ‘of the Invisible God’, Col.1.18 and the glorious light of the Gospel is the presentation of that Icon of God, Who is Christ, 2 Cor.4.4. When asked by Philip, the Lord says to him, 'Have I been so long time with you, and yet have thou not known Me, Philip? He that has seen Me has seen the Father; and how say thou then, “Shew us the Father?”' John 14.9. In the absolute God could not be seen by sinful men, (Exod.33.20, Jn.6.46, Deut.4.12, 1 Jn.4.12) but He frequently received worship through manifestations of His glory and His Word.

In the scripture tradition, the theophanies to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were of the Son. The Similitude seen by Moses at Sinai 'face to face' was the Word. The redeeming Angel witnessed in real time by Gideon, Manoah, Joshua, and in vision by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah is Christ. Daniel, alone among his colleagues, sees the Father with the Son (Dan.7.9,13), but this is a symbolic vision in a dream, with beasts representing empires, not actual sight. The other encounters were in daytime consciousness and some formally met the criteria for incarnation, the tests used by the Saviour to show His resurrection was physical not amaterial Acts.1.3, 10.41, Lk.24.42-3, Jn.21.12-3. They too were accompanied by real physical contact Gen.32.24, 18.4 and by eating and drinking Gen.18.8. That this should be the case is deeply mysterious, but it should not deter us from reading the text all the more seriously.

Augustine is a giant in Western thought and theology. His work on the Trinity is one of his most celebrated and is widely regarded as a definitive statement of catholic orthodoxy. He warns there are three classes of mind that will oppose his writing, those who attribute to God bodily ideas, who attribute to Him human principles of thought, and those who seek to transcend created principles to extrapolate His being above all created being. As lovers of His Lord, we too hope to follow his bold profession, 'I would rather be censured by any one whatsoever, than be praised by either the erring or the flatterer. For the lover of truth need fear no one’s censure.' Scripture is our only safe chart in these deep waters, nothing else. To the Law and to the Testimony, if they speak not according to this Word there is no light in them. (Isa.8.20) Let us ask the aid of His Holy Spirit to guide us by this chart.

However Augustine's explanation of Genesis 18 raises eyebrows (bk.2 ch.11,18 p.58,71 ; bk.3 ch.25 p.88). He claims the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit appeared to Abraham as three men, who ate and drank with him and whose feet were washed at the plains of Mamre.

'But since three men appeared, and no one of them is said to be greater than the rest either in form, or age, or power, why should we not here understand, as visibly intimated by the visible creature, the equality of the Trinity, and one and the same substance in three persons'.(bk.2 ch.11 p.61)

Nor is this an incidental slip. It is central to his construction of the Trinity and he defends the thesis with much ink. He even persists in its defence, when two men depart, leaving the third with Abraham, by suggesting two men represent two Persons of the Godhead to Lot (bk.2 ch.12 p.62).

Quite apart from categorically contradicting Gen.18.33, which identifies Who YHVH was, the One who stayed with Abraham, the appearance of three separate individuals as three distinct and separable manifestations of Deity strikes the modern Christian mind as very odd indeed, from any other source we might think it almost blasphemous. It is more reminiscent of the words of the polytheists of Lycaonia, 'the gods are come down to us in the likeness of men' (Acts 14.11) or of Hindu avatars, than Bible theology. What leads him to this near tritheistic position? How does he defend it? How has he strayed so far from the Shema' (Deut.6.4)?

First we should examine the text more carefully to determine the right sense. It is YHVH Who appears (singular) to Abraham v.1. Three men stand (plural) and Abraham runs to greet them (pl) v.1. He speaks as to One party only 'Thine eyes' (s), do not Thou pass (s) from Thy servant (s). Is Augustine right, is Abraham addressing the Whole Trinity in three separable, visible men as if they were one Person? Or is he simply addressing One Who was evidently the head of the party, Whom he recognised from previous encounters as YHVH (Gen.12.7; 17.1,22) and addressed Him alone with the honorific title usually used for God, Adonai? If Augustine is right, when Abraham switches to the plural to meet the needs of the whole party, wash ye (pl) your feet (pl) and rest (pl), v.4, he now deliberately addresses three individual men as God. Is there one focus or three in Abraham's devotion to the whole Godhead? He may be but One God, but in Augustine's estimation, there are three separate hearts (pl) to be comforted, v.5. After which ye shall pass (pl) for that is why they have come (pl) to your servant (pl), v.5. The three men confirm his request in unison but in plural, they said (pl), v.5. He sets the meal before them (pl) and they eat (pl) he stand by them (pl) v.8. Are these three all God, but also men who all eat and drink, and have their feet cleansed? God forbid!

After a plural enquiry, they said (pl) where is thy wife, v.9? When the Divine Spokesman promises seed, it is only in the singular person, 'I will return unto thee', twice v.10,14. He too is singular in reproving Sarah, He said (s) v.15.

When One Person stays with Abraham alone, with Whom Abraham intercedes persistently for mercy, with the Judge of the whole Earth, as He weighed the life or death of five whole cities, He alone is explicitly identified as YHVH, v.22. He is distinguished from the two delegates being sent away, v.22, 19.1. Only One remains. Is the narrator really now identifying the Speaker as God the Father alone as YHVH, now apart from the manifestations of Son or the Spirit, as Augustine suggests? When the two angels arrive in Sodom 19.1, their explicit mission is being sent by YHVH, v.13. They speak of YHVH as a third party, v.13, which Abraham's interlocutor never does, in 18.4 for example He makes things crystal clear by speaking of Himself as YHVH in the first person, which the angels in ch.19 never do. They (pl) are sent by YHVH (s), v.13. Are these two not only distinguished from but also physically separable from YHVH, whom YHVH has sent, also themselves YHVH? So Augustine claims. This goes far beyond proper description of the manifestation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in for example Matt.3.16-7. It explicitly and multiply transgresses what Israel was told in Deut.4.15. Whilst YHVH (s) is said to be about to destroy the city, 19.14, but that is easily seen as an act effected by delegated angels. True too, YHVH is merciful to Lot, but it is through the agency of His two servants acting together 19.16.

There are many problems with Augustine's construction of these events. Did the Eternal Father eat and drink and have His feet washed, with the Holy Spirit? It is one thing for the preincarnate Word to fulfill the very same criteria He applied Himself for bodily incarnation (Lk.24.39, Acts 1.3,10.41), it is quite another for the Father and Holy Spirit to do so as well. The claim is without parallel, except in pagan literature. When Abraham bowed to the Earth, did He worship each man as God? Were there not then three human Godlike manifestations before Him? The tritheistic implications are irresistible if so. When the Son and Spirit parted from the Father bodily, what does it signify that His own personal representation was alone in some limited sense? Were the Son and Spirit representative of the whole Godhead or of just two Persons? They too again both fulfilled the same strict criteria for incarnation Gen.19.2,3.

I have argued here echoing the exegesis of many commentators that the Son of God, the Angel of Redemption alone is the visible Manifestation of God as man here. The other two companions were created angels. Messiah was the One in Whom Abraham rejoiced in seeing His day (Jn.8.56), Who is the I AM.

Augustine's interpretation runs so deeply counter to the natural sense of the passage, it will take us a little care to unravel his explanation and trace his steps.

Augustine's primary concern is the laudable defence against Arianism. In particular he resists the misuse of 1 Tim.6.16 to demean the full Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Arian opponents claim, because 'the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords..Whom no man hath seen, nor can see' proves if applied to God the Father singly that Christ is less Divine than His Father. In applying the text to this appearance at Mamre, Augustine cites their use of the parallel text in 1 Tim.1.17, 'since it is said, they say, of the Father, “To the only invisible God.”' ( Augustine reacts by insisting the text applies to the whole Trinity, not the Father particularly, 'But since three men appeared, and no one of them is said to be greater than the rest either in form, or age, or power, why should we not here understand, as visibly intimated by the visible creature, the equality of the Trinity, and one and the same substance in three persons?' (

Bringing both passages in Timothy together, he argues and I quote at length to avoid misrepresentation:

'so that it would be too rash to say that God the Father never appeared by any visible forms to the fathers or the prophets. For they gave birth to this opinion who were not able to understand in respect to the unity of the Trinity such texts as, “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God” and, “Whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” Which texts are understood by a sound faith in that substance itself, the highest, and in the highest degree divine and unchangeable, whereby both the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit is the one and only God. But those visions were wrought through the changeable creature, made subject to the unchangeable God, and did not manifest God properly as He is, but by intimations such as suited the causes and times of the several circumstances' (

How then does Augustine square the circle he has now created of the invisible God appearing visibly?

To protect against what he fears will result in a denigration of the Son, Augustine asserts all three Persons are truly invisible prior to the Incarnation (bk.2 ch.8 p.57). It is precisely because of Augustine's insistence that no single member of the Trinity appeared really & visibly before Abraham that he presses this strange position about the triple theophany at Mamre. Each Person was represented by a created form. They 'appeared to bodily eyes'..'through the corporeal creature made subject to His own power'. ( p.58) Earlier he suggested created angels acted as Divine carriers, 'whether angels, who already existed, were so sent, as to speak in the person of God, taking a corporeal form from the corporeal creature, for the purpose of their ministry, as each had need' ( p.56) Again later, Augustine writes, 'Was it because it was one of many angels, who by an [arrangement] bare the person of his Lord?'(bk.2 ch.13 p.87). Each created form stood for One Person (bk.2 ch.11,12 p.61-3).

Let us imagine Gabriel undertook this sacred mission, as he did so with others. Then Gabriel was identified and addressed by Abraham as YHVH, spoke and promised in his own person as God, and freely received intercessory prayer and worship as YHVH, without hindrance. Abraham, the narrator and generations of believers have thought YHVH appeared when in fact it was Gabriel in His place. Does that not sound like angel worship? Is that not prayer to a creature? Is that not yielding the glory of the incorruptible God to the man form of an angel? What is the distinction between that and idolatry? There is none (Ex.32.5) except that it is ordained by the Lord, God forbid. Is that not exactly what Peter and the angel in Revelation refused twice? To pray to or worship an angel is strictly forbidden by holy creatures (Rom.1.25, Acts 10.26, Col.2.18, Rev.22.9, 19.10) - how then could this be a holy impersonator, not the Divine Word? Does Augustine’s created form bearing each Person then sound like a holy angel or a deceiving one? How could this possibly be legitimate? Augustine's proposal that the 'Father, may have given intimations of Himself to mortal senses by a corporeal form or likeness' (bk.2 ch.18 p.72) contradicts the very text he is seeking to explain.

Augustine's position is also novel, for example, Irenaeus freely confessed the Father only to be invisible (Ad.Her. Bk.4. ch.20 pt.11) John 1.18 and the Son to be His visible representative, not only at the Incarnation but also before in Daniel. Athanasius writes, 'He manifested Himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father' repeatedly citing in his works with fondness, Col.1.15 (On the Incarnation of the Word, sn.54, p.234 CCEL pdf).

As we have seen the problems with this position are manifold. They result from taking an a priori assumption and reasoning into the text. The resultant dislocation of the sense of the text is not confined to a right understanding of the passage, or even of theophanies in general, but touches on a more primary defect at the core of Augustinian theology.

So in his eager defence of the Biblical doctrine of the eternal Son of God, in Whom all the Godhead dwells bodily, against Arianism's denials has Augustine's zeal outrun the scripture?

It is in Augustine's defence of the invisibility of the Divine Essence that he writes, 'Yet these people, endeavoring, as it were, to prop up their error in its fall by testimonies of the divine Scriptures, adduce the words of the Apostle Paul; and take that, which is said of the one only God, in whom the Trinity itself is understood, to be said only of the Father, and neither of the Son nor of the Holy Spirit: “Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever”' (bk.2 ch.8 p.57)

The expression the Trinity itself (trinitas ipsa) is a common one in his thesis, occurring 47 times. As an expression connoting the whole Godhead, God in three Persons who can object to its scriptural propriety? However Augustine often uses the term to give distinct personality and agency to the Essence, in contradistinction to the particular personality of the Father or other Persons. For example, when describing converse between God and Adam in Eden, 'Who then was He? Whether the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit? Whether altogether indiscriminately did God the Trinity Himself speak to man in the form of man?' (on this single occasion the translator feels obliged to supply the male gender, though it's not in the original) (bk.2 ch.10 p.59)'

Or again, 'Neither does anything forbid us, not only to understand those words spoken to Adam as spoken by the Trinity, but also to take them as manifesting the person of that Trinity.' (bk.2 ch.10 p.60) Augustine has a view of the Godhead, in which the Divine Essence or the undergirding Being of all three Persons, also has personality. He distinguishes this in the next sentence from the Person of the Father speaking distinctly, 'For we are compelled to understand of the Father only, that which is said, “This is my beloved Son.”' (bk.2 ch.10 p.60)

Again, take the passage where Augustine introduces the scene at Mamre, 'therefore, neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity' (bk.2 ch.10 p.61)

Or again, of the appearance as a column of smoke or fire, 'But it is not similarly apparent whether the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, or the Trinity itself, the one God.' (bk.2 ch.14 p.64)

Now we do not believe that God is One Person in Three Persons. Usually when the scripture speaks of God we properly defer this to the Father, for example when Peter preaches of 'The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers' in Acts 3.13 it is the Father Who is in focus, 'Who has glorified his Son Jesus', or in refuting the Sanhedrin in Acts 5.30, 'The God of our fathers' it is the Father in mind, Who 'raised up Jesus, Whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.' When Paul writes in Eph.1.17 of 'the God of our Lord Jesus Christ' or in 1 Cor.8.6 'But to us there is but one God', the Father is the Person intended, 'of Whom are all things, and we in Him' whilst giving equal and full honour to His Creator Son, 'one Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom are all things, and we by Him' or when the Saviour speaks of ' the only true God', He naturally intends the Father, indicating that 'Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent' is also true God of true God and the only Way to the Father, as is confirmed for us in 1 Jn. 5.20. The scripture rule is we refer indistinct or general descriptions of God to the Father first, unless there are contextual reasons to do otherwise.

Augustine's repeated attribution of what should be the Father's to a distinct, impersonal Divine Substance, Nature or Essence , in which all three Persons subsist, almost as though it were a fourth Personality or a single collegiate representation in a single Person of the whole Council of the Godhead seems problematic and out of harmony with scripture. Without exploring this connection or its ramifications fully as yet, this I suggest is at the root of Augustine's strange view of the triple appearance at Mamre.

The only true Icon of God is our dear Saviour, through Whom alone we would honour His Father, by the Holy Spirit. We must cleave to Him.

1. Printed page refs for the CCEL pdf of Clark and Shedd's translation of Augustine's De Trinitate.
2. The original seems just as opaque, 'non proprie sicuti est, sed significatiue sicut pro rerum causis et temporibus oportuit ostendentes Deum'.
3. 'sed etiam personam demonstrantes eiusdem trinitatis accipere'
4. 'aliqua ex trinitate persona an deus ipse trinitas'
5. ousia in Gk transliteration or essentia or substantia in Latin.

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