Friday, 3 December 2010

Question 33 - The Person of the Father


Aquinas has dealt with the Persons of the Trinity in general in Questions 29-32 and will return to a more detailed comparison of the Persons in Questions 39-43. In the meantime, as the next step in this subsection, he looks at each individual Person. He devotes one question to the Person of the Father (Question 33), two to the Person of the Son (Questions 34-35) and three to the Person of the Holy Spirit (Questions 36-38).

Why this Question Matters.

Devoting questions to each individual Person of the Trinity allows Aquinas to go into greater depth concerning questions particular to each Person. For the Father, Aquinas introduces the idea that He is the principle of the other Persons of the Trinity and discusses and disposes of objections to the notions of the Father introduced in the previous question.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: One of the ancient Trinitarian errors that Aquinas wishes to avoid in his account of the Trinity is that of subordinationism. This error is a collection of ideas that suggests that the Persons of the Trinity are not co-equal: one may be prior to another; one may be cause of another; one may be superior to another; with many variations on this theme. However, we do wish to acknowledge that there is some sort of structure, of ordering, within the Trinity. In this article, Aquinas introduces the idea that the Father is the principle of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and he explains the sense in which the term “principle” can be used in an orthodox way.

Aquinas’s argument is very brief: used in this theological sense, a principle is simply that from which something proceeds. As the Son and the Spirit proceed from the Father, we can truly say that the Father is principle of the Son and the Spirit. The bulk of the article is taken up in answering objections that are designed to hone the precise meaning of what Aquinas has stated. Maintaining Augustine’s teaching that “the Father is the principle of the whole divinity”, the key is that “principle” used in this sense does not imply “inferior” or “posterior” or any other terms that imply subordination.

The first objection is that Aristotle teaches that a principle is the same as a cause and that we do not call the Father a cause of the Son. Aquinas replies that the Greek theologians use the words we translate as “cause” and “principle” interchangeably but that Latin theologians use the corresponding Latin terms more precisely. For the latter a principle is more general than a cause. As more general terms are more appropriate to God (Question 13, Article 2) it is appropriate to use the term “principle” of God. With this distinction we can see that “cause” implies a dependence of one thing upon another but that “principle” does not.

Another sense of the word “principle” suggests that something is the principle of something else if it is responsible for the beginning of that thing. This cannot be the case with the Father as principle of the Son as the Son has no “beginning”. Again, there is a difference in terminology between Greek and Latin theologians: this sense is not allowed in Latin theology. The Latin theologians are willing to go so far as saying that the Father is the “author” (Latin auctoritas) of the Son, but insist that this term does not imply any subordination.

Finally, the term “principle” is related etymologically to the term “priority”; this would seem to be a problem. However, Aquinas insists that the signification of “principle” here relates to priority in the sense of origin and not in the sense of prior/posterior.

A2: Scripture applies the term “Father” to the first Person of the Trinity. Aquinas is happy to build on this by asserting that proper names signify that which distinguishes an individual from other individuals. Since the Father is distinguished from the other Persons of the Trinity by his paternity, the proper name of the first Person is “Father” as this is the name that signifies that paternity.

Although the term “Father” is a strictly relational one as far as we are concerned, this is no objection to applying it to the first Person of the Trinity on the basis that it is not a term pointing to an individual substance, because relations in God are subsistent. Similarly, although we speak metaphorically of a word being begotten by its “father”, when we apply the terms to the Trinity they are applied properly and not metaphorically.

The final objection suggests that the notion of “generation” and therefore of “father” is derived from its application to creatures and subsequently applied to God. This would contradict the proper application of terms to God that are said primarily of God and subsequently of creatures by analogy. Aquinas denies this order of priority, teaching that the more perfect notion of generation is where the thing generated has numerically the same form as that generating (i.e. God generating the Son) as opposed to simply the same species as that generating (i.e. as in creatures).

A3: When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray to the entire Trinity, yet we pray to “Our Father”. It would seem that the term “father” can apply both to the individual Person of the Father and to the whole Trinity. Which of these applications really has priority? One might argue that a common term (i.e. applied to the whole Trinity) has precedence over a personal term (i.e. applied to one Person of the Trinity). Similarly, one might argue that there is no priority of one application over the other; the term applied to the relation between the Father and the Son is applied on the same basis as it is applied to the relationship between the Father (as God the whole Trinity) and us creatures.

In a move that might remind us of how analogical predication works, Aquinas claims that priority is to be given to names applied in situations where the whole meaning of the name is exhibited in its use rather than where it is exhibited in a certain respect. We might call a man a “lion” because of his character, but this meaning is secondary to the application of the term to the large feline animal. In the case of the terms “father” and “son” it is clear from previous arguments (Question 27, article 2; Question 28, article 4) that these are most perfectly found in the relation between the Divine Persons. Aquinas brings a number of scriptural arguments to bear to prove that the term applied to the relationship between God and creatures is derivative of this Trinitarian application.

In reply to the objections, Aquinas points out that although common names do take priority over proper names, the argument that he has just made shows that common names associated with a relation to creatures are posterior to proper names associated with relations between the Divine Persons. This mirrors the fact that the procession of creatures from the mind of God is posterior to the procession of the Word through which those creatures are created.

A4: In Question 32, Aquinas introduced the notions of the Persons of the Trinity. In this article, he concentrates on the notion that the Father is unbegotten. Connecting this idea with that of principle introduced in Article 1, he observes that the Father is unbegotten in the sense that He is a principle-not-from-a-principle just as the Son is begotten of the Father in the sense that He is a principle-from-a-principle.

There are still a number of problems with the term “unbegotten” and the corresponding property of innascibility that have to be addressed. The first is that these terms appear only to deny something of the Father rather than posit a positive property. But Aquinas replies that first things and simple things are known through negation, so that this really is no problem.

Trickier is the problem that a term like “unbegotten” can either be taken as a privation or a negation. The former is ruled out because privations correspond to lacks of perfection and this cannot be said of God. However, if “unbegotten” is taken as a negation then we can surely apply it to the Spirit who, although He proceeds, is not begotten. This would mean that the term is not proper to the Father. Aquinas answers that this reasoning depends on too shallow an analysis of “privation”. There are some uses of the term “privation” which do not imply imperfection: a mole is blind whereas other animals are not but this does not imply that a mole is an imperfect mole as it has no need of sight for its perfection. In this sort of sense, it is no problem to consider being unbegotten to be a privation. However, this still leaves the problem that the Spirit might be considered unbegotten. This may be addressed in two ways: the term “unbegotten” may either be associated with the idea of not-from-a-principle or with the idea of not being from another in any way (and not just by generation). Either of these approaches makes the term proper to the Father.

Another problem is that “unbegotten” is not a relational term and therefore if it is applied to the Trinity it must denote the substance rather than a particular Person. This would have some difficult consequences. Aquinas identifies two senses of the term “unbegotten”, one of which can be taken as referring to the substance of God and whose application simply implies the uncreatedness of the Divine substance. The other sense of the term can be taken relationally, as it gains its reference from the term “begotten” which is relational. So, for example, the Father and the Son are distinct because a particular relation holds for one but not for the other.

The Father is not begotten, but also He does not proceed, so why is non-procession not a notion of the Father? The point here is that the Father’s not-being-from-another is fully described by reference to the Father-Son relation in which the Son is begotten and the Father is not. The procession of the Spirit presupposes the generation of the Word, so once we have denied being begotten of the Father, it follows that the Father does not proceed.

Handy Concepts

  • The Father is principle-not-from-a-principle in the Trinity.
  • Orthodox Christian theology avoids any idea of subordination amongst the Persons of the Trinity. Although the Father is principle-not-from-a-principle, this does not make Him superior to the other Persons of the Trinity.
  • Although the name “Father” is proper to the first Person of the Trinity, it is also used to refer to the entire Trinity as when we pray to the Father in the Lord’s Prayer.

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