In De Trinitate Augustine’s christology develops in conjunction with a couple of well-known pairings: exemplum/ sacramentum and scientia/ sapientia. Recently, a strong case has been put forward for the centrality of the exemplum/ sacramentum pairing. In this paper I will explore this pairing, and Augustine’s interpretation of exemplum in particular, as he develops it in conjunction with his claims on the imago dei. The paper will focus on De Trinitate 7.3.5, which is a central passage where Augustine succinctly lays out the contrasting ways exemplum operates vis-à-vis the imago dei in the human soul and in the Son. The passage is suggestive of the fluidity in Augustine’s use of exemplum/ sacramentum, and so has wider ramifications for how we interpret such pairings in De Trinitate. We will see that in part Augustine moves outside the well-trod interpretation that exemplum refers to the outward, moral reform of the person and sacramentum to the inner, spiritual redemption of the soul.
In the passage Augustine refers exemplum to both the Son’s imaging of the Father and to Christ’s humble obedience to God. We ought to imitate not only the humble example of Christ but also the example of the Son who, in being the divine image, imitates the Father. The context of this latter claim—inner, trinitarian relations—is clearly spiritual, and suggests Augustine is using exemplum to address issues that go beyond historical, moral action. In this context, he draws on the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 and the concept of imitatio to describe how the Son is an exemplum for human beings. This further complicates Augustine’s use of exemplum, suggesting again a more nuanced meaning than simply that which pertains to the outward, moral actions of the person.
One of the key implications of this use of exemplum is its potential to help account for how Augustine develops the ideas of relation and participation: specifically, how he makes sense of the distinct ways the soul and the Son participate in the Trinity through their imaging of God.