The Trinity Matters: Relations of Origin

Eamonn Clark, STL

See Part 1 here – it is really hard to jump in without at least seeing Part 1 (Question 27).

We are looking now at Question 28. Article 1 regards the question of whether there are real relations in God (there are); Article 2 is about whether the relations are the Divine Essence (they are); Article 3 is on the distinction of the relations between each other (they are really distinct); Article 4 asks whether there are four relations, namely, paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession (there are only these four).

Article 1 has a clear opponent, as stated in the “sed contra”: Sabellianism. If there are not real relations in God, then there are only relations in our way of understanding God. That would mean God only “appears” as Father, or as Son, or as Holy Spirit, depending on how we encounter God, but that God is not actually these Three in reality. But what does it mean for there to be relations in God, Who is absolutely simple, with no parts whatsoever? This is the point of Article 1… it’s not a simple text, so let’s go through it carefully.

The first thing that is done is to describe what exactly “relation” is to begin with. Nerds will recall that relation is one of the 9 genera of accidents set forth in Aristotle’s Categories, the others being quantity, quality, habitus, time, location, situation, action, and passion. Relation is that which signifies regard to another. The stone has a relation with the Earth (or rather with bodies in general), which is its inclination to move towards the center. The son has a real relation to his father, but not to a tree, at least not in the same way (procession of the same nature – man from man… there is a kind of relation by position as well, or by action and passion, such as being on this side of a tree, or touching the tree, etc., but this kind of relation more “formal” than “accidental” – but we are getting ahead of ourselves). The man also has a relation to animality (that is, “animal-ness” as an idea, or as a genus), which is that he is a part of that genus. This is a logical relation, not a real relation, because the genus as such does not even exist really except in its individual instantiations, like in “this animal.” So it is something which the mind does – it pulls apart these ideas and compares them. This is quite unlike the man in relation to his father, or the stone in relation to the Earth – these are relations inherent in the things themselves, and thus they are real relations. The Persons have (or are) real relations because the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from principles of the same nature (the Divine Essence), which is analogous to the man and his father who generated the other man who is his son (both are men). The Son is really from the Father, and the Holy Spirit is really from the Father and the Son. It’s not just a way of speaking.

The Objections are difficult, but worth a shot.

Objection 1 quotes Boethius’ De Trinitate (a strikingly short but rather dense text), where he seems to deny relation in God. Thomas makes a fine distinction developed out of the body of the answer (which, to be honest, seems to depart a bit from Aristotle… but I digress and am probably wrong anyway). Relation exists in God in a way that is not “inherently towards something else” (viz., creatures), but only denotes “regard to another,” viz., one Person with respect to another Person. This is unlike creatures in relation to God, and unlike mere logical relations which only exist in our way of thinking.

Objection 2 again quotes Boethius, saying that God’s relations are relations of “the same to the same,” but since “the same” is only a logical relation (because we have to create a mental image of a thing being related to itself in order to grasp the idea), it seems that only logical relations exist in God. Well, of course, Boethius himself is not looking to deny real relations in God, and Thomas distinguishes between that which is absolutely and numerically the same and that which is the same according to a genus or species. In this “genus,” God, there are three Persons, related in a certain sense like three men – there are three, but they are all “man,” which is one specific substance, or all “animal,” which is one generic substance. Of course, the difference with the Trinity is that there is only one God numerically (unlike with the three men who are three persons), so the comparison is only partial.

Objection 3 compares and contrasts God’s relation to creatures (which is only a logical relation, as God in no way depends on creatures and exists totally “apart” from them, perfectly subsistent in Himself) and the Father to the Son. The Father and the Son are of the same Divine Nature, unlike creation, so it is a real relation between Them.

Objection 4 is maybe the most interesting. If logical relations are those which only exist in the mind, and the Word is generated by the Divine Intellect, how is there anything but a logical relation? Well, logical relations exist by observation, not by procession. The intellect is real, that which comes from it is also real, so there is real relation between them, just like between a father and a son – or in this case, the Father and the Son.

The question posed by Article 2 sounds bizarre but is quite important for us to consider: are relations in God the same as His Essence? The short answer is, yes. We “adore the distinction of the Persons, and the Equality of Their Majesty,” as the Church’s liturgy teaches us.

The controversy that this Article takes on was all the rage at the time, if I recall correctly. Is the Father “paternal” because of the Son (viz., “Look! This Divine Person has a Son, so He has the quality of paternity from His Son!”), or is the Father “paternal” in Himself (viz. “Look! That is the Father! He must have a Son!”)? Gilbert de la Porrée said the former, Thomas says the latter; Gilbert later retracted his position at Rheims, as Thomas notes.

The Cathedral at Rheims.

There are two ways a relation can be predicated of something (meaning “said” of something). The first way is the way Gilbert exclusively considered… The dog bites the cat, so the dog is in a “biting” relation to the cat, and the cat is in a “bitten” relation to the dog; this is the most formal kind of relation, but it is not the real accident of relation. The accident of relation actually inheres in (or exists in) the subject, like the father’s paternity (“father-ness”) exists in him because of his real relation to his son (by a procession of the same nature – man from man). But God has no accidents in Himself due to His perfect simplicity, so whatever is predicated of God is the same as God, so what would normally be an accidental real relation would be an essential or substantial relation after the manner of an accidental relation. (Confused yet? Take a deep breath and buckle up.) So too, the way a father is related to his son is that of a procession of the same nature which inheres in the father and in the son with regard to each other, viz., a real relation inhering in the subject insofar as it regards another. However, unlike creatures, not only does God not have a real relation to whatever is not God, but God also does not change, and so His Persons are those specific unchanging Persons from all eternity, in all their distinct Personalities – the Father is Father always, and the Son is Son always. So paternity and filiation (“sonship”) do not “happen” but are eternal, therefore inherent to the Father and Son respectively, and therefore are not affixed or “assistant” as a result of some relation. (NB: I am going a bit beyond what Thomas says here.) In the end, the relations are therefore actually what God is Himself in His Persons, though not in His Essence when considered apart from the Persons. What this means is that to know the Divine relations (paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession) is to know the Divine Persons, which is to know the Divine Essence (though the Persons may be spoken of as such rather than as the Divine Essence “in general”), but to know the Divine Essence is insufficient for natural reason (without revelation) to know the relations and the Persons, because to know the Divine Essence from reason alone (without faith) is not to know that there are opposing terms within the Divine Essence (which are signified by the relations).

Objection 1 develops this last point about the Divine Essence and relations being spoken of independently; the relations are the Divine Essence, but they are not spoken of under the mode of substance, as this would imply a relation improper to Divine Simplicity, namely, one unlike a relation of the three men to each other in their nature as men in the relevant sense (identity), more like a stone in relation to the Earth.

Objection 2 sounds more complex than it really is. In creatures, relation exists within the creature, and the creature is more than the relation it possesses (the dog is more than its “biting-ness,” the father is more than the father of his son, the stone is more than its character of being drawn toward the Earth, etc.). In God, this is not so – the relation is the same as the Substance, which is God. But the descriptor “relation” does not exhaust the mystery of what God is – nor is “relation” even used in the normal way, as we have seen.

Objection 3 follows upon the preceding Objection and says that even though relation signifies in some real way what God is, this is not everything that God is (which would be a problem for His perfection, as it would mean God exists in relation to something else entirely, thus not being Self-subsistent and fully actual). God contains all perfections within Himself, as He is their source.

Onto Article 3, a short one which is taking on Sabellianism yet again. This might be one of if not the most important Articles in the entire Treatise. If the relations are all really the Divine Essence (God), wouldn’t they all actually be themselves the same? No, says Boethius, says Thomas, and says the Church. How?

The argument is simple. We have established that there are real relations in God, which have “regard to another.” We have established that the terms of these relations are opposed to one another by the logic of procession (the Intellect generates the Word, the Will spirates the Holy Spirit), which means that there is real relation, as already discussed in Question 27 and the last post in this series. To have real relations means to have opposing terms – a real “from where,” and a real “where to,” so to speak, as we see in processions, including interior processions (i.e. the thought I have of myself is not actually myself). The key is this: that which is really opposed necessarily implies a real distinction. Just as “left” is really distinct from “right,” so too is Intellect distinct from Word, and Will distinct from Love/Spirit/Gift (more on the Names of the Holy Spirit later). The terms are opposed, therefore they are really distinct, while still being contained within the same Substance, viz., God. There’s the Mystery: the fact that there is within this single and perfectly simple Substance, God, a collection of oppositions, thus allowing for real distinctions within God. Three Whos, One What.

The Objections are basically clarifications of this point, so we leave them aside, though they are worth a read.

We’re almost done. Article 4 is asking whether there are only four relations in God – paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession. This Article is curious in that it does not have a “sed contra” but only an opposing wrong answer proposed in the final Objection (5), which, unlike the first four Objections that propose more than four relations, instead argues that there are fewer.

There are only these four relations. Relation can be based either on quantity (like double and half) or based on an action/passion (doing/receiving action, like the dog biting the cat, or even like the human father generating his son who receives being from him). There is no quantity in the Divine Essence, as God is infinite Being. So, the relations must be action/passion. They are the acts of the interior processions, of course, which have already been described: the Intellect generating the Word, and the Will spirating the Holy Spirit. Now, the relations are described “from both ends” as it were – from the origin and the final term (the “beginning” and “end”). It’s clear with the Father and the Son: paternity and filiation. With the Holy Spirit, there is no “normal” vocabulary, so we designate the relation of the principle of the Holy Spirit (the Father and the Son) as “spiration” and the relation of the Holy Spirit to His principle as “procession.”

Objection 1 is worth a look. The argument is that the relation between a mind and its object is a real relation (as with the will and its object which it loves, so the following argument holds also for the Holy Spirit) because they are really different things. So it seems that there are more than four relations in God. But since God is knowing and loving God, the Divine Intellect and Will are the same as their objects (and therefore only logically distinct and logically related, like the way anything is “related to itself”). How then, can there be such diversity in these acts (knowing and loving) as to allow for real relations? Well, the Word is in a real relation by the opposition found in intelligible and interior procession, as described previously… The Word is that by which God understands Himself, which has the real relation, real opposition, and real distinction spoken of earlier, even though the Word is also the Divine Essence, the object of understanding. As described above, the key is the real distinction that is allowed for by the opposition of terms – intellect and word – which leads us to this strange but coherent “both/and” with the Word being both not the object of understanding but the concept by which the object is understood insofar as He is the Word, and as the object of understanding which is God Himself, the Divine Essence.

Objections 2 through 4 deal with some other errors about what counts as relation in God. Objection 5 is our last stop. Isn’t there only one relation between the Father and the Son, a paternal-filial relation? Just as there is one road between Athens and Thebes, it seems there is only this one relation between the Father and the Son. However, we already see the problem in the proposed name for this single relation (which is my own invention, mind you): there are two parts. The human son is not father to his own father, nor is the father son to his own son. While one takes a single road from Athens to Thebes and from Thebes to Athens, you go northwest and southeast respectively. You could say, however, that some things have this “absolute” mutual relation, perhaps like numbers, though we leave this discussion aside. The point is that to describe filiation is not to describe paternity, and this also applies to the spiration-procession relations which are between the Holy Spirit and the Father and the Son.

Whew. We made it. Next time, we finally answer the burning question: what exactly is a person anyway?

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