The approach I have taken in examining each author owes much to the method of rhetorical criticism. The initial selection of texts was based on identifying when and in what texts a writer would have the opportunity to address issues of unity, or contemplate the mysteries of the Trinity.
Identifying the context in which that work was written, and under what rhetorical and social conditions can also shed light on how much weight we are to give certain positions the author takes up. For example, Augustine’s autiobiographical Confessions are oftentimes not taken in their full rhetorical context. Augustine had to prove himself a philosopher to a very small and specific audience, and his selection of material to present about himself owes much to this task. If later generations have seen in Augustine a philosopher more than a Christian or a theologian, that is due to an oversight of the basic social context of his writing. Along the same lines, knowing the author’s responsibilities can help us understand the social relationships he or she cultivated, in addition to the sort of results the author would have hoped for from his or her work. Knowing the particular social network or “emotional community” to which the author belongs can help us pick out key words and themes which have a greater resonance than we would otherwise acknowledge.
Knowing the context in which a topic is discussed also allows us to see how a particular position was framed so that the author’s ideas could be best understood. To cultivators of the vine and soil, one uses one set of images; to scribes and authors, another. More exactly, one speaks with certain terms to members of one’s own party, and to those of an opposing faction, one selects a different mode of address, glossing over weaknesses of one’s own position and exploiting those of the adversary.
Looking at the actual work, we might ask ourselves what are the author’s sources? Did he or she make any notable or creative changes to earlier work, subtle or not so subtle? Did the author choose a particular narrative framework to highlight certain themes over others, or to make a stronger case? How did this affect and reflect the reception of the work at hand? What exactly is the rhetorical problem the author must overcome in order to convince his audience to take one action rather than another, or to persuade them to adopt a different viewpoint — or hold fast to one they already have adopted.
Even after these initial situating factors are taken into account, we must not overlook the exigencies of history. Why would such a discussion be copied out and transmitted to later generations? Why should it, over other works, be preserved? Where were these manuscripts transmitted, and by whom? Not all texts are equally distributed to all regions of the Mediterranean, and some, in fact, might be found only outside the boundaries of the empire — in Ireland, for example, or Germany. Who selected the text for transmission, and why? Is the text bound up in a codex with texts which together form a coherent theme, or is the text isolated? Is it part of the collected works of an author, or was it part of some other corpus, passed down under another name?
Finally, we can look at the particular theme which concerns us, as presented in the work before us, and ask how does that theme in this work relate to the author’s other works? Does the author change position? Does he or she nuance the position in light of other political, doctrinal, or even literary events?
Not all these questions can be answered for every work we will examine. However, it is important to keep them in mind as guidelines in examining any work which has a long and well-traveled history, especially a history of application to contexts much different from those of its inception.