book review: scott dunham

The Trinity and Creation in Augustine: An Ecological Analysis. By Scott A. Dunham. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2008. 198 pages. $65 (cloth).

Scott Dunham’s contribution to the discussion around religion and the environment promises a lot. Specifically, it aims to wield the trinitarian thought of a great fourth-century saint to parry modern claims of orthodox Christianity’s complicity in environmental degradation.

This intellectual feat is executed in three steps. First, Dunham outlines Augustine’s understanding of the Trinity as manifest in De Trinitate as well as in various polemical works. Second, Dunham relates this understanding to Augustine’s exegesis of the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. Last, the author unites the findings of the prior two steps with Augustine’s philosophical distinction between use (uti) and enjoyment (frui) to mount an argument for the viability an ecologically responsible—and thoroughly Augustinian—ethic of dominion.

Like most doctoral dissertations (this one was completed at McMaster University under the supervision of Peter Widdicombe), Dunham’s introductory chapters read like an overview of recent scholarship on the issue dealt with in the body. If you’re already familiar with the debate that begins with Lynn White’s 1967 article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” please skip to page 13. If you’re familiar with contemporary appraisals of Augustine (“hierarchical” versus “social” trinitarianism and the like), skip to page 31. While helpful to situate the thrust of his argument in Chapters Two through Six, Dunham’s voice is ultimately stifled amidst the cacophony of critics. It is not until we are dealing exclusively with Augustine on his own terms that the rigor and seriousness that pervades Dunham’s analysis becomes apparent.

The thrust of the opposition’s stance is a conceptual bias for interrelatedness over against hierarchy as the ordering principle for creation. Dunham aims to right this bias, beginning with God and working his way inward to consider all of creation and finally humankind’s special place within creation. In step one (Chapters Two and Three), a case is delivered for a new understanding of hierarchy in Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity. Such is an understanding in which “divine action” in the created world is actually made possible by—not, as the critics would have, precluded by—hierarchy. Dunham’s concludes that this consideration refigures hierarchy to “[resemble] modern concerns about interrelationality” (p. 55).

Any evaluation of the ordinance for “dominion” in Genesis 1:26 hinges not only on assumptions about the imago Dei but also on those about the nature of the dominated, the created world. Thus, Dunham next proposes to examine how Augustine’s trinitarian theology governs his doctrine of creation. Chapters Four and Five continue the trajectory begun in Dunham’s treatment of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, charting the consequences of a redefined theology of hierarchy for Augustine’s interpretation and use of the biblical creation accounts. Though his paraphrasing can be burdensome, the author proves himself an able expositor of western patristics in these chapters. For example, he prizes and deftly amplifies key ideas (economy, participation, activity/passivity) that will function to mobilize his reasoning in the last and most innovative chapter of the book.

Chapter Six orients the previous discussion to one of the best-known philosophical distinctions Augustine penned: that our desires ought to be ordered first with respect to what is to be enjoyed (primarily, God) and second with respect to what is to be used for the sake of this enjoyment. Dunham classifies the work of human dominion in the second category, use that points toward rest and enjoyment in God. In this connection, Dunham claims, the imago Dei operates as a “limiting concept for how dominion may be understood” (p. 116). In other words, the human power exercised in dominion is not a raw model of God’s power as Creator and Lord of all; rather, it is a power enlightened by a proper recognition of humanity’s place in the order of creation as well as a respect for the wisdom manifest in God’s ruling activity.

Ultimately, Dunham believes Augustine’s distinction between use and enjoyment provides an “external rule” (albeit “contextual” within lived Christian experience; p. 131) by which to judge acts of dominion as either beneficial or detrimental to the love of God and other creatures. Instead of mapping this conclusion onto some current examples of environmental crisis, Dunham settles for a more modest finish: “The ecological significance of Augustine’s trinitarian theology is its development of a trinitarian worldview that provides a clear and substantial account of the relationship between God and the world as it is found in the scriptural and doctrinal traditions” (p. 134).

This book is academic in the worst sense. Yet it brings into focus many relevant aspects of Augustine’s thought. If ever you’ve had a hunch that the bishop of Hippo is not so nasty and negligent of 21st century concerns as modern commentators make him out to be, yet you find his rhetoric difficult to parse, Dunham performs some pivotal legwork for you. A knockout in neither the environmental camp nor the historical theology camp, what this book presents is the sparkling possibility of negotiations between the two.

Over thirty years after Lynn White proposed St Francis as the patron saint of environmentally responsible Christian theology, Dunham suggests St Augustine may be a more promising fit. I’m liable to believe him; but we’re going to need a constructive Augustinian thinker—not a specialist in Augustine’s theology—to convince the others.

Scott Clyburn

Eugene, Oregon


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