A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

English Translations of Augustine’s De Trinitate

You have three choices if you want to read Augustine’s De Trinitate in English: Haddan, McKenna, or Hill.

I’m not aware of any full English translations of Augustine’s De Trinitate before the 19th century. While the book exerted plenty of influence on English-language theology down until then, it probably did so by way of key ideas and substantial quotations. But scholars may have thought, with some justification, that anybody interested enough to read all XV books of it straight through should just do so in Latin.

The Haddan Translation

The first full translation I know of is the one published as volume 7 of the series The Works of Aurelius Augustine: A New Translation, edited by Marcus Dods and published by T. & T. Clark. As the series title shows, the editor and translators were aware that Augustine’s anglophone fortunes needed some attention. Here are the editor’s remarks about City of God in volume 1 of the series:

Of English translations there has been an unaccountable poverty. Only one exists, and this is so exceptionally bad, so unlike the racy translations of the seventeenth century in general, so inaccurate, and so frequently unintelligible, that it is not impossible it may have done something towards giving the English public a distaste for the book itself. (xvi)

The translation of De Trinitate in volume 7 of that series is by Arthur West Haddan (1816-1873). But in his “Translator’s Preface,” Haddan includes this curious note:

It remains to say, that the translation here printed was made about four years since by a friend of the writer of this preface, and that the latter’s share in the work has been that of thoroughly revising and correcting it, and of seeing it through the press. He is therefore answerable for the work as now published. A. W. H. Nov. 5, 1872.

So what we think of as the Haddan translation is actually an anonymous translation revised and corrected by Haddan. We simply don’t know the identity of the actual first translator of Augustine’s De Trinitate. To heighten the mystery, when Haddan’s volume appeared in the T. & T. Clark series, it was prefaced with this note:

WHILE the last sheet of this volume was passing through the press, the labours of the accomplished translator were terminated by death. Mr. Haddan is mourned by all who knew him as an accurate and careful scholar, and an able and earnest man.

There is a volume of The Remains of the late Rev. Arthur West Haddan (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1876), but it barely mentions the translation and offers no clues to the identity of the “friend of the writer.” Conspiracy buffs may want to try to make out that it was John Henry Newman (Many Connexions Do Exist), but it was more likely to be William Stubbs, and most likely to be somebody with no publishing history or scholarly ambitions.

The Haddan Translation, Continued

The most widely available English version of De Trinitate is in volume 3 of Schaff & Wace’s Select LIbrary of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series. It’s everywhere! CCEL.org, Newadvent.org, etc. This 1887 edition is once again Haddan’s translation, revised by W.G.T. Shedd. In years of using both editions, I have only rarely found any discrepancies in the text, but Shedd says they are there:

The translation of this treatise is the work of the Rev. Arthur West Haddan, Hon. Canon of Worcester, who, according to a note of the publisher, died while it was passing through the press. It has been compared with the original, and a considerable number of alterations made. The treatise is exceedingly difficult to render into English—probably the most so of any in the author’s writings. The changes in some instances were necessary from a misconception of the original; but more often for the purpose of making the meaning of the translator himself more clear. It is believed that a comparison between the original and revised translation will show that the latter is the more intelligible. At the same time, the reviser would not be too confident that in every instance the exact meaning of Augustin has been expressed, by either the translator or reviser.

Shedd’s intro and notes are great additions, but for all practical purposes, if you’re using Schaff/Shedd’s edition, you’re reading the Haddan translation. (Actually I suppose what I’m saying here is that Shedd isn’t Shedd and Haddan isn’t Haddan.)

The McKenna Translation

So after Haddan, The Trinity wasn’t translated afresh until Stephen McKenna’s volume in the Fathers of the Church series (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1961; volume 18). This volume stays in print and is quite solid. It’s an essentially literal translation with very few bells and whistles; there is a short introduction, and running footnotes to Scripture passages. I like it a lot. But its tendency toward minimalism extends even to being a bit stingy with punctuation, and a desire to retain Augustine’s sentence structure when possible. This does make for pretty hard reading in the technical passages. For example, in book 5 we get:

Therefore, they say, the Father is called the Father in relation to the Son, and the Son is called the Son in relation to the Father, but unbegotten refers to the Unbegotten One Himself, and begotten to the Begotten One Himself, and consequently, if whatever is said in reference to the subject Himself is said according to the substance, then to be unbegotten is different from begotten, and consequently their substance is different.

If you’re wide awake and already kind of know what Augustine is about to say anyway, this is no problem. And it’s great for close analysis in seminar! Everything is right there on display. But I’ve always been afraid to assign it to any but the best students, because its style makes several demands and few concessions. I think I prefer it for personal study but not for classroom assignment. So I usually go with…

The Hill Translation

This is Edmund Hill, O.P.’s 1991 New City Press translation, in the series called The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century. Where McKenna is minimal, Hill is maximal. He’s the NIV to McKenna’s NASB, sometimes trading accuracy for readability. But he definitely gets readability. You can zip right along in Hill’s Augustine, though his slanginess sometimes leaves you second-guessing what in the world the Latin must be for IOU and upshot, or for “relationship-wise” and “creature-control” (relationalitier and per subiectam creaturam, respectively). I suspect the clock is running out pretty fast on how long his up-to-date tone of voice will sound contemporary to younger readers. But for now, it presents very few stumbling blocks, and students really grasp the reading.

Hill’s notes are a substantial book on their own –as I said, the maximal approach. They really are a bit much at times. Hill is usually belligerently loyal to Augustine, but occasionally only by pressing him in Dominican directions. As a veteran of the ’90s theological scene, I have to say that Hill’s Trinity was a refuge against the prevailing storm winds of anti-Augustinianism. It was a time when every theology book you picked up had a potted theory of how Augustine’s trinitarianism ruined everything: this was not just in revisionist Trinity studies like that of LaCugna, but in major systematics writers like Rahner, Torrance, Jenson, Gunton, Moltmann, and so on. These were dark days for Augustine reception in systematics, but you could always turn to Hill’s notes and get a glimpse of a possible world where Augustine’s De Trinitate was more right than blight. Things are better now: the anti-Augustinian temper didn’t stand up very well to an actual reading of the texts. And the large-scale bulwark of Hill’s notes may actually be more in the way now.

Another problem that comes along with using Hill is that he and the publisher have decided to ignore the traditional chapter structure of De Trin. There are occasional (why?) occurrences of it, but mostly it’s omitted. This puts the volume out of touch with wider scholarship. It’s hard to describe just how annoying this is. It tends to cut students off from being able to negotiate standard reference works, since Hill just can’t serve as a solid textual foundation for launching out into references. After years of working with this volume, I still struggle to turn to the right passage.

Still, Hill is a very solid study experience overall for students, and it’s been my usual choice.

The Wrong Right Answers

When I ask real-deal Augustine scholars for the best translation, they sigh and point me to the annotated French translation in Bib. Augustinienne v.15 (1955/1997). A great resource, but a non-starter for my classroom. If I wanted to read French, I’d read Latin instead. Speaking of which, the Latin edition to cite is apparently CCSL 50/50A, Corpus Christianorum: Series Latina (Turnhout). So expensive. The Migne edition is apparently not scandalous, and easy enough to find online, but typically hard on the eyes. There’s web-friendly Latin De Trin all over the place, but I don’t know which text underlies it.

I’ll be providing silent updates and links to this post when I get new info.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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