In Ia q.32 a.2, Aquinas introduced the ideas of the properties and of the notions or characteristic acts in God. We recall from there that the properties in God are what belong to each person, as a person, which allow them to be distinguished one from another and that the notions are these distinguished characteristics inasmuch as they are known by us. Thus the notions were introduced from the point of view of epistemology (how we may know the distinction between the persons of the Trinity) rather than ontology (the reality of the persons of the Trinity). It is the notions that allow us to know of the distinction between the persons. In the rest of Ia q.32 Aquinas defended what might be called the classical view of the notions; now it is time for him to give a lengthier account of them.
The Thread of the Argument
A1: In returning to the theme of the notions from Ia q.32, Aquinas has to join the treatment given there up with the discussion in Ia q.40. In the latter, when considering the ontology of the Trinity Aquinas had to give the idea of relation priority over the idea of origin. However, we recall that in Ia q.40 a.4 Aquinas was willing to admit that, conceptually speaking, we could think in terms of the relations constitutive of the persons as being presupposed by origins, which are themselves associated with the notions. The very short answer to this question summarizes this discussion by saying that in order to designate the order of origins among the persons, we have to attribute these notions to them.
In addition to this recapitulation, Aquinas addresses some further objections to the idea of the notions. For example, Boethius observed that when one attempts to apply Aristotle’s categories of being to God all of the nine accidental categories collapse down into substance, except for relation. Since the notions would naturally fit into the category of action, this would seem that we could only apply notion to the essence of God rather than to the persons. In reply to this objection, Aquinas distinguishes between two orders of origin (with corresponding acts) in God. The first is the procession of creatures from God, to which the reasoning of this objection does apply; this is an action of the whole essence of God. The second is the procession of divine person from divine person. But here the reasoning from Ia q.32 a.2-3 applies: in their being (as opposed to how we know about them) the notions simply are the relations.
Similarly, one might argue that what can be truly said of God must either be said of the essence or of the persons and that what we can say of the persons is limited to their names and the names of their properties. In answer, Aquinas recalls the difference between reality and what we can say of reality, and amplifies this with a demonstration of how we think of action as the origin of motion in created things contrasted with how we must think of this in God where there is no motion.
A2: Aquinas next asks whether the notional acts are voluntary (that is, are they a result of some definite act of His will) or whether they are necessary. In view here are mistakes such as those made by the Arians (and various other types of subordinationist) that would see the Father as supreme, bringing forth the Son and the Holy Spirit by acts of His will. But another problem is the opposite error of thinking that God is in some way made, by the force of necessity, to bring forth the Son and the Holy Spirit.
At the foundation of these errors is a misunderstanding of the analogy between the way creatures proceed from the Godhead and the way in which the persons of the Trinity proceed, leading to confusion between the two. It is clear from what has been said before about God’s intellect and will that he does bring forth creature by an act of His will. But it should by now be equally clear that the procession of the persons in the Godhead pertains to the very nature of the Godhead itself. In this sense it is true to say that the notional acts are necessary rather than voluntary. But we must remember that it is in the nature of God Himself for these personal processions of the Trinity to exist. Therefore we must to note that this type of per se necessity is not a necessity that can be in any sense considered as forcing God’s hand. Rather it is a necessity that reflects the nature of God Himself. One might make an analogy with the observation that it is necessary for me to be rational in order to be a human being.
A3: Having set forth his Trinitarian theology, Aquinas will move on next (in Ia qq.44-49) to talk about creation. We will see that Aquinas’s theology of creation is strongly Trinitarian in that he sees the procession of creatures from God in analogy to the procession of the persons from the Godhead. Here, some of that discussion is anticipated when Aquinas asks whether we are to understand the notional acts as processions from something-or-other or ex nihilo (that is, from nothing at all). It might at first sight seem as though the immanent procession of the persons has to be understood as a procession ex nihilo in the same way that the procession of creatures from the Godhead is a procession ex nihilo (Ia q.45 a.2). However, Aquinas denies this: the Son (for example) is not generated from nothing but from the very substance of the Father.
The root of the difficulty for this question, as Aquinas identifies it, is that when we talk about creation or about the making of things we distinguish between created makers who make things out of other pre-existing things but when we talk about God creating, we acknowledge that He creates from nothing. It’s therefore obviously very tempting to apply this to the procession of the persons from the Godhead and identify this as such an act of creation. This, however, is mistaken as it repeats the error made by the Arians in interpreting various scriptural passages as implying that the generation of the Son is such an act of creation. This is why in the creed we say that the Son “was begotten, not created”: the idea of generation from the Godhead must be clearly distinguished in reality and in the way we understand it from the creation of the created order. We must also remember (against other heresies that “divide the substance”) that the Father does not transfer some part of His nature to the Son in generating Him, but rather communicates the whole of His nature to Him.
A4: As the objections point out, there may be reason to doubt that we can associate the idea of a “power” in God with the notional acts. For example, the Son proceeds as the conception of God’s intellect and the Spirit proceeds as love in an act of God’s will. The argument of Ia q.25 a.1 might suggest that we shouldn’t consider God’s acts of understanding and will as coming under the purview of God’s power. However, as the idea of power is intimately tied up with the idea of being a principle of some act, Aquinas insists that we should consider the notional acts as deriving in some way from a power of God.
Aquinas emphasizes that we must recall that when we predicate things of God there are two different ways of distinguishing between them and that it is vital not to confuse the two. There is a real distinction between such predicates and there is a conceptual distinction. There is a real distinction between His essence and those things that He creates; similarly there is a real distinction between persons that we recognize through the notional acts. However, because there are no accidents in God, there is only a conceptual distinction between an action and the agent of that action. These considerations apply to the implicit distinction between a power and that of which the power is a principle. So those things that correspond to real distinctions, such as the coming forth of created things from God or the coming forth of persons from the Godhead can be associated with the idea of power in the sense of principle. But when we consider acts of God’s intellect or of His will, remembering that in reality will and intellect correspond with essence, we have to recognize that we can only make a distinction of reason and we use the notion of power as principle in an analogical sense.
A5: Continuing on the theme of the power of God associated with the notional acts, Aquinas asks whether the “power to generate” and the “power to spirate” are themselves real relations in the Godhead. Aquinas denies this on the grounds that a power in any agent is that by which the agent acts and that in so acting the agent produces something similar to itself with respect to the form by which it acts. This is precisely why the Son in being generated by this notional power of God is of the same essence as the Father.
A subtlety that Aquinas deals with is related to the fact that as realities, the divine essence and the relations are identical. We might think that, for example, “the power to generate” is associated with the corresponding relation through the identification of essence and relation. No ground is given here, though, as distinction must be made between the person who generates and that by which He generates. The Paternity of the Father is not that by which He generates; rather the essence is that by which the Father generates and the Paternity is that which constitutes the person who generates. The “power to generate” can, of course, be identified indirectly in this way with the person who generates but directly it is identified with the divine essence.
A6: Having established that one may talk about powers associated with the notional acts, it is important to nip in the bud incorrect idea that may flow from this. For example, the existence of such powers might suggest that it they be actualized more than once; why, for example, can the Father not bring forth more than one Son? To say that He cannot do so would appear to be limiting the limitless!
Aquinas recalls, in the sed contra, that in God the possible and the actual coincide and that this would therefore lead to the heretical assertion of more than three persons in the Godhead. To swat away this impious suggestion, Aquinas goes back to basics in giving a number of reasons why this line of thought is faulty. For example, at the root of the Trinity is that fact that the persons are defined and distinguished by being subsistent relations; we can count these as handed to us in revelation and there is no mechanism by which they may be multiplied. Similarly, the processions are associated with acts of God’s will and of His intellect; these acts are single simple acts again giving no basis for their multiplication.
- Notions or characteristic acts in God are concerned with how we may know the distinctions in the Trinity rather than simply how they are.
- Although there is an analogy between the procession of the persons in the Trinity and the procession of creatures from God, pushing the analogy too far leads to some of the classical heresies.
- The notions are necessary in the sense of being natural to God.