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.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Question 32 - Our Knowledge of the Divine Persons

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas believes that the fact that God is Trinity is purely a truth of revelation indemonstrable by human reason. However, although indemonstrable it is not unreasonable, as he has shown in previous questions. So far, we have seen how a metaphysical picture of God as Trinity can be built up consistent with (and possibly implied by) the data of revelation. This still leaves open questions about what we can know of the underlying reality of God as Trinity (the question of epistemology rather than ontology). In this question, Aquinas introduces facts about God that allow us conceptual access to the Persons of the Trinity; the notions in God that allow us to characterize and distinguish between the Persons.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas has shown (in question 12) that our natural knowledge of God (i.e. the things that we can know about God in the absence of revelation) is derived purely from our knowledge of creatures. This means that our natural knowledge of God is restricted to what we can know of Him as causing the being of creatures. However, God’s creative power is common to the entire Trinity and is therefore associated with His essence rather than with the distinction of the Persons. Hence, our natural knowledge of God does not extend to a demonstrable knowledge of the Persons.

Aquinas goes further, saying that attempts to prove the Trinity of Persons are actually damaging to the faith. On the one hand, truths that are purely of the faith by their very nature surpass and excel human reason; to bring them down to our level is to undermine their dignity. On the other hand, attempts to prove such truths of faith (which are bound to have metaphysical holes in them) bring the faith into disrepute amongst unbelievers because it would appear to the latter that Christians base their beliefs on nonsense. Truths of the faith, such as the Trinity of Persons in God, should be received only through authority; theologians should concentrate their arguments on showing that such faith is not metaphysically impossible.

In the replies to the objections, Aquinas gives a forward reference (Question 39) to the idea of the appropriations: some attributes of God which are really associated with His essence can be appropriated to one of the Persons of the Trinity with which this attribute has a special affinity. We appropriate God’s power to the Father, His wisdom to the Son and His goodness to the Holy Spirit, for example. Aquinas is willing to admit that philosophers are able to infer the existence of such essential properties amenable to appropriation to the Persons.

In the reply to the second objection, Aquinas discusses the nature of explanation. In doing so he gives a nice illustration of a sophistication in medieval science that some may find surprising. He points out that an “explanation” can, on the one hand, have the nature of a proof or, on the other hand, it can simply provide a consistent description of matters of fact and that there may be other equally valid consistent descriptions. As an illustration of the former, Aquinas claims that the uniform motion of the celestial bodies is amenable to proof. For the latter, he describes the fact that although epicycles and eccentrics give a consistent explanation of the observed behaviour of astronomical objects, some other explanation may be superior.

A2: Aquinas now introduces the twin ideas of the Properties and the Notions in God. Simply put, the properties in God are what belong to each Person, as a Person, which allow them to be distinguished one from another; the notions are these distinguished characteristics inasmuch as they are known by us and allow us to distinguish the Persons (with a technical caveat concerning the common spiration of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son). This article considers whether it makes sense to posit notions (and therefore properties) in God. The usual objections can be made: scripture does not talk explicitly of such things therefore neither should we; such ideas confuse the already complex distinction between essence and personhood in God; one shouldn’t start to posit such things about a purely simple being. Despite the objections, Aquinas is able to rally patristic support in favour of the idea of the properties and notions: we simply do recognize that there are paternal, filial and processional properties and that we can know about them.

In the medieval period there were a number of solutions to this question offered by a variety of theologians. The “classical” position had been put forward in the standard textbook of the time by Peter Lombard. This stated that there are five such notions in God: the Father’s unbegottenness (or innascibility) and paternity; the Son’s filiation; the procession of the Spirit and the spiration of the Spirit common to the Father and the Son. Aquinas begins his answer by introducing the figure of Praepositonius of Cremona (Chancellor of the University of Paris at the start of the thirteenth century) as representative of those theologians denying such notions in God. Praepositonius identified statements such as “the Father distinguishes Himself from the Son through paternity” as simply being the equivalent of “the Father is the Father”. Statements such as the former are simply ways of speaking that actually say no more than that the Persons are distinct and that God is one.

Aquinas will have none of this! He recalls that we name in the way that we understand and that we understand things as concrete realities (named by concrete words) or as principles or forms of such things (described by abstract words). Applying our use of language to God does not destroy Divine simplicity: we can still apply abstract names when we talk of God’s essence and concrete names when we talk of the subsisting relations. If we were unable to do this, then we would be completely unarmed to argue against Trinitarian heretics: we need to be able to talk of God’s substance as a “what”; of the Persons as a “who”; and of the relations as a “that by which”. Within the Father there is no real difference between what He is, who He is and that through which He is; but in order to understand and describe Him we must be able to perceive and distinguish these three. A further consideration is that if we were unable to distinguish notions in such a way, we would not be able to distinguish between the two relations that the Father has with the Son and the Spirit respectively. However, it’s important to note that the filiation and the spiration are not distinct realities within the Father so the corresponding notions do not divide the Father but simply distinguish His relations.

A3: Having introduced the notions in the previous article, Aquinas now sets about defending the “classical” list. In order to account for the notions, Aquinas claims that Divine Persons are multiplied by their origin and that this can arise in two ways: by being source of another or by being from another. The Father is known by being not from another, the notion of innascibility (or unbegottenness). He is also known by the facts that the Son and the Spirit are from Him and these give us the notions of Paternity and Common Spiration. Similarly the Son is known by His Filiation and also by the Common Spiration and the Spirit is known by the Procession. There are thus five notions in God, only four of which are relations (innascibility is not relational, for which, see Question 33, Article 4). Similarly, only four of the notions are properties (as the common spiration is not a personal property). Aquinas completes his account with the rather obscure distinction between “notions of persons” and “personal notions” (which will be explained further in Question 40, Article 1) to claim that three of the notions are personal (Paternity, Filiation and Procession) whereas the other two are simply notions of persons.

A4: It might have seemed so far that Aquinas defends the notions in God as being of the Faith itself, especially in the light of his argument in favour of the notions based on the need to be able to refute heretics. But this would leave Aquinas in a difficult position: many distinguished theologians of the recent past disagreed with the account that Aquinas gives. Does this mean that Aquinas considers them all heretics?

In order to address this problem, Aquinas makes a distinction. One can identify those things that pertain directly to faith as revealed to us. For example, that God is both one and three. To deny any of these truths would be to fall immediately into heresy by the very nature of the denial. On the other hand, there are matters that pertain indirectly to the faith rather than directly. For example, a denial that Samuel was the son of Elkanah is not a direct denial of a truth of the faith, but the denial implies the proposition that sacred scripture errs in places which is a direct denial of the faith. In this case, the inference is pretty straightforward but in many cases the chain of reasoning from a particular proposition to a direct denial of the faith may be highly complex (and, indeed, inaccessible to many people). If this is so, then one cannot accuse of heresy those who hold such mistaken beliefs because the proof of their erroneous nature was not available to them.

Handy Concepts

  • Our knowledge of God, derived from created causes, reveals the essence of God, but not the Persons as created causes are actions of the entire Trinity.
  • The notions are distinct characteristics of the Divine Persons by which we can distinguish between them. We can go on to distinguish notional acts (where we think of the Divine Nature from the point of view of its relations) and essential acts (where we think of the Divine Nature absolutely).
  • Cajetan identified that “This question does not concern the reality considered absolutely in itself, but the reality insofar as it is described and apprehended by us”.
  • One cannot accuse of heresy those who were not in a position to be able to comprehend that a particular position implies a denial of the faith.


  • Relations, notions and properties are all the same reality, differing from one another only conceptually. This distinction is not available to reason alone but is itself guided by revelation.