Friday, 22 April 2011

Question 43 - The Missions of the Divine Persons

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas has built his theology of the Trinity around the immanent processions of the divine persons from the Godhead; his major focus has been to give an account of God-in-Himself. But now, as we begin the transition between Aquinas’s treatment of the Trinity and his so-called “Treatise on Creation”, notions associated with the idea of the “Economic Trinity” as opposed to the “Immanent Trinity” start to come to the fore. In this question Aquinas considers the divine missions; we immediately see one of the fundamental problems that may have motivated Aquinas to organize his Trinitarian treatise as he has. If God is omnipotent and omnipresent, what sense can we make of the notion of the Economic Trinity? How can He go anywhere or do anything if He is already everywhere and responsible for the being of everything?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: When we start to think about the economic Trinity, we’re immediately faced with a fundamental question: if God is omnipresent, how can it make sense to say that the divine persons are sent anywhere or to anything? In order to answer this question Aquinas enquires into what we might mean by a “mission”. The first component of a mission is the relation between the sender and the one sent; the second is the relation between the one sent and that to which he is sent (the terminus of the mission). When we think about the divine persons, and the theory that Aquinas has already developed, we can identify the relationship between the sender and the sent as that of origin. The second component seems trickier: God is omnipresent, therefore a divine persons cannot become present where previously He was not present; the only alternative left is that He is present in a different way, in a different mode of being, to any previous presence. So, for example, in the incarnation the Son became present to us in the flesh.

A2: Likewise, the concept of a mission might seem to clash with divine immutability; going on a particular mission with a particular objective in view would seem to imply something temporal which would imply change. This might force us to think that missions must be eternal, stretching the meaning of the word beyond breaking point. In order to answer this problem, Aquinas distinguishes carefully between the things implied by the different divine names; in particular he teases apart the significations relating to the two relations implied by mission that he described in a.1. Names like “generation” and “spiration” are associated with both an eternal relation to the principle as well as an eternal terminus; they describe the processions from the point of view of that which processes eternally. Names such as “mission” and “giving” imply a temporal terminus in addition to the eternal relation to the principle; a new mode of existing of a divine person in some aspect of creation is something temporal.

Therefore Aquinas insists that the idea of “mission” includes within itself the temporality of its effect. However, that a divine person exists with a new mode of being to a creature does not imply any change in God, but simply a change in the creature.

A3: Having identified that a divine person sent on a mission to a creature starts to exist in that creature in some new mode of being, Aquinas now turns to the possibility that there could be several new modes of being for the divine person. He frames this discussion in terms of some of the types of grace recognized by Christian theology. In particular he focuses on the notions of sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens), which is that by which we are made holy by participation in the divine life; and gratuitous grace (gratia gratis data), the gift given to one for the benefit of others.

Aquinas wishes to argue that a divine person is present to a creature in a new mode of being associated simply with sanctifying grace. This may seem quite counterintuitive because it might seem to be mistaking a cause (the new mode of being of a divine person, an uncreated grace) with its effects (sanctifying grace or gratuitous grace, both created graces). Similarly, one might wish to simply identify uncreated grace, gratuitous grace and sanctifying grace as different modes of being of a divine person in a creature. It must be pointed out (see “Difficulties” below) that Aquinas’s stand on this issue has been much misunderstood (especially outside the Catholic tradition) as over-favouring created grace to the detriment of the uncreated grace of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

The reason that Aquinas adopts this point of view is that when he enquires into how a divine person might be present to a creature by a new mode of being, he identifies that there are limited possibilities. We know that God exists in everything through His essence, power and presence as a cause (Ia q.8 a.3). For the rational creature there are only two new ways by which a divine person may be present: as that which is known in the knower and as that which is loved in the lover. It is precisely sanctifying grace that allows us to know and to love God and it is therefore this by which God is present to us in a new mode of being. In simple terms, God is always present to us in as intimate a way as is possible as far as being is concerned; but sanctifying grace opens up a new mode of His being present to us by transforming our receptivity to Him. In terms of the common misunderstanding of Aquinas’s position, uncreated grace is always present where there is fruitful created sanctifying grace, but it is the created sanctifying grace that opens up the possibilities of the uncreated grace that is always potentially there. As the reply to the first objection puts it: “Through sanctifying grace rational creatures are perfected not only in order that they might use this created gift, but also in order that they might enjoy the divine person Himself.”

A4: Is the Father sent on a mission to us? If we consider the indwelling of the Trinity as promised in John 14:23, it might seem so. However, if one notices that “mission” includes the idea of procession then one has to recognize that as the Father does not proceed, He is not sent on a mission. We have to distinguish between the fact that the Father dwells within us and how He gets there! It is not by mission in the way that the Son and the Spirit are sent to us.

A5: One might recognize that some missions of divine persons are visible (the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, for example) and that others are invisible (a gift of gratuitous grace, for example). One’s first thought might be that the missions of the Son are precisely those that are visible and that the missions of the Holy Spirit are precisely those that are invisible. In this article (can the Son be sent invisibly?) and in a.7 (can the Spirit be sent visibly?), Aquinas tests this hypothesis.

In support of the hypothesis identifying visible and invisible missions with the Son and the Spirit respectively, one might claim that the invisible missions are those that occur through the gift of grace and that these gifts are associated with the Spirit rather than with the Son. However, this line of thinking is too simplistic: Aquinas argues that the whole Trinity dwells in the mind through sanctifying grace and that a divine person being sent on a mission through invisible grace implies both the new mode of being present to the mind and an origin from another. Hence the Father, the Son and the Spirit are present though invisible grace; the Son and the Spirit are present as through a mission (see a.4) and are present together.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are truly attributed to the Holy Spirit (Ia q.38 a.2) but this does not prevent them from being attributed also, by appropriation, to the Son. To attempt to make a simple identification of a gift of grace with the Spirit is to miss an inter-relatedness of the Trinity; it is to attempt to prise the persons too far apart. Similarly, it is mistaken to simply identify the Son as purifying the intellect and the Spirit as purifying the will; the Son is the Word who spirates the Love, sent to us to form the intellect so that it might “break forth into the affection of love”.

A6: a.1 implies that divine mission involves the coming to be of a new mode of existence of a divine person to a creature. This, in combination with the argument of a.3, implies that anyone who participates in grace is the recipient of an invisible mission of a divine person; grace perfects them, opening them to the presence of the divine person. The objection (on the basis of John 7:39) that divine missions could not have been sent to the Old Testament patriarchs fails; Aquinas distinguishing between the invisible mission of the divine persons and the visible signs given at Pentecost.

In replying to the second objection, Aquinas makes an important connection with the theology of the virtues that he will develop in the second part of the summa. The idea of participation with grace might seem to imply an instant step-change in the person participating in that grace; but this would seem to be inconsistent with the gradual process of perfection in the virtues, suggesting a disconnect between grace and the virtues. Aquinas insists that, although it must be true in some sense that there is such a step-change, this does not exhaust the possibilities for the action of grace. In particular, grace does act through the gradual perfection of the person through the developing virtues.

Similarly, connection is made with the theology of the sacraments to be developed in part III of the summa. The sacraments are instrumental causes of grace, so divine missions are not made to the sacraments themselves, but to the recipients of the grace through the sacraments.

A7: Aquinas now turns to the question dual to that posed in a.5: is the Holy Spirit sent on visible missions? The objections home in on the difficulties we might have in actually distinguishing between what we mean by visible and invisible missions. For example, we might wish to assert bluntly that if the Holy Spirit were to be sent on a visible mission, this would involve Him being made incarnate or by Him being made intimately connected with a creature in some other way. At the opposite extreme, we might argue that idea of an invisible mission is incoherent as all divine missions must, in some way, make themselves visible through their effects.

To answer this question, Aquinas returns to what might be considered one of his foundational theological principles: that God provides for everything according to its mode. The mode most proportionate to man is to be led to invisible things through the visible (Ia q.12. a.12), therefore it is quite reasonable to suppose that even when God acts through an invisible mission it is made manifest in some visible way. However, we may distinguish the missions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in that the Son was sent as the author of sanctification and the Holy Spirit as the gift of that sanctification. Putting these together, Aquinas arrives at the conclusion that the Son is sent visibly as author and the Holy Spirit visibly as sign of sanctification.

In answering the objections Aquinas actually enumerates the visible missions of the Holy Spirit (ad.6): the appearance of a dove at the baptism of Christ; the appearance of a cloud at the transfiguration; the breathing of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles related in John 20:22-3; the tongues of fire at Pentecost. We notice that not all manifestations of the Holy Spirit are considered as visible missions: notably the reply to the first objection, building on the teaching of Augustine, distinguishes between prophetic visions which are made manifest through spiritual images rather than through corporeal forms and visible missions that are made manifest through creatures. Similarly, in the reply to the fourth objection, Aquinas distinguishes visible mission made manifest through a rational creature (as in the incarnation of the Word) and visible mission made manifest through any other creature. That made manifest through a rational creature is witness to the author of sanctification, whereas that made manifest through any other creature is simply a sign of that sanctification.

A8: Finally, Aquinas asks whether a divine person can only be sent on a mission by the person from whom He proceeds. The objections suggest a number of reasons why this assertion might be true, but Aquinas points out that theological opinion was divided on the issue. His resolution is to point out that both positions, pro and contra, can be considered true in some sense. If the person who sends another person is considered from the point of view of being the principle of Him who is sent, then the proposition must be taken to be true. However, if the “person who sends” is considered from the point of view of being the principle of the effect of the person that is sent, then one can rightly claim that the whole Trinity sends the person.

Handy Concepts

  • The distinct notion of mission is consistent with the omnipresence and omnipotence of God insofar as mission denotes the coming to be of a divine person to a creature in a new mode of being.
  • The dynamic notion of mission is consistent with divine immutability in that it represents a new real relation to the creator in the creature, but not a real relation or any coming-to-be in the creator.
  • Sanctifying grace (gratia gratum faciens)is that by which we are made holy by participation in the divine life; gratuitous grace (gratia gratis data) is a gift given to one for the benefit of others. The new mode of being of a divine person is an example of a created grace, whereas the indwelling person is an uncreated grace.
  • The new mode of being of a divine person in a creature corresponds to sanctifying grace. Anyone who participates in grace is the recipient of an invisible mission of a divine person.
  • We may distinguish visible from invisible missions of the divine persons, the former often associated with the Son and the latter with the Spirit; but as Aquinas argues, it is less cut-and-dried than that.


  • We’ve suggested above (a.3) that Aquinas is often misunderstood as arguing in favour of created grace (the way in which we are transformed and conformed to the image of the Trinity) to the detriment of uncreated grace (the indwelling of the Trinity through the agency of the Spirit). This may be because commentators miss the (necessary) subtlety of his argument that mission corresponds to sanctifying grace. That this misunderstanding is a misunderstanding can be amplified by referring to a beautiful passage from Aquinas’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (Chapter 4, Lecture 2) that emphasizes the intimate connection between created grace and the uncreated grace that creates it:

“Now water is of two kinds: living and non-living. Non-living water is water which is not connected or united with the source from which it springs, but is collected from the rain or in other ways into ponds and cisterns, and there it stands, separated from its source. But living water is connected with its source and flows from it. So according to this understanding, the grace of the Holy Spirit is correctly called living water, because the grace of the Holy Spirit is given to man in such a way that the source itself of the grace is also given, that is, the Holy Spirit. Indeed, grace is given by the Holy Spirit: “The love of God is poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). For the Holy Spirit is the unfailing fountain from whom all gifts of grace flow “One and the same Spirit does all these things” (1 Cor 12:11). And so, if anyone has a gift of the Holy Spirit without having the Spirit, the water is not united with its source, and so is not living but dead: “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:20).”

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Question 42 - The Co-Equality of the Persons

Why this Question Matters.

One of the great threats to the orthodox doctrine of God comes from those who would identify subordination amongst the persons of the Trinity. Typically the Father would be placed first followed by the Son and then the Holy Spirit in an order of dignity or of power or even of temporal existence. This position is in marked contrast to the creedal faith of the Church which insists on the co-equality of the persons of the Trinity but which allows for a certain sort of ordering in the Trinity (see Ia q.27 a.2 et passim) associated with the idea of being a principle. In this question Aquinas concentrates on rebutting these erroneous positions whilst bolstering the orthodox doctrine.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: We are probably used to an informal idea that the divine persons are co-equal, but what does it mean to say that two divine persons are equal? When we think about material things, we tend to think in terms of equality of quantity or of quality; there is some attribute of the things concerned about which we claim equality or inequality. When we think mathematically, we can put forward some absolute notions of equality as when we say that two sides of an equation are equal. When we think about the divine substance and the persons of the Trinity, we have to be careful to specify what we really mean. Aquinas starts his treatment of equality in the Godhead from the point of view of a negation of “greater than” and “less than”. The only thing there is in the Godhead to which we might apply the idea of such inequalities is the divine substance; this clearly cannot be unequal among the divine persons as they are each individually fully God. Hence we must consider the divine persons equal in this sense.

One might be concerned that with a notion of equality based purely on essence, there is nothing left upon which to base any distinction between the persons! We certainly do not believe that the Father is identical to the Son, but is this not implied by saying that they are equal? Aquinas answers that, as far as talking about God is concerned, we can signify equality (and likeness) with either names or with verbs. When thinking in terms of names, we identify the essence of the Father with that of the Son and there is a sort of convertibility between equality and likeness (a property not shared with created things). When we think in terms of verbs, there is a sort of reception by the Son from the Father of the divine essence: this allows us to say that the Son is made equal to the Father, but the Father is not equal to the Son.

Similarly we might have the concern that equality is a relation and it is by relations that the persons of the Godhead are made distinct. However, we recall from our discussion of relations in general that Aquinas does not consider equality to be a real relation but only a relation of reason. These relations of reason do not compromise the real relations that distinguish the persons.

A2: A fundamental creedal belief of Christianity is the co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity. Aquinas defends this belief with a discussion of the relationship between agents and action. He identifies that voluntary agents choose the time of their action and that natural agents produce their action when they have the power to produce the action. We might think of a natural and voluntary agent like a man as having to accrue the necessary power after which time it is down to his power of choice as to when he acts. When we think about actions, we tend to consider actions that have successive stages (they start to happen, they continue and then they cease). In this case, we cannot think of the effect as existing until the action is complete. When we consider God, we realize that He generates the Son because of His nature rather than as an act of His will and that He has the necessary power of generation from eternity. We also recognize that the generation of the Son is not a successive action (otherwise the generation would be a change in the Godhead, contradicting divine immutability). Put together, these imply the Son is eternally generated from the Father. A similar argument proves that the Spirit is co-eternal with the Father and the Son.

As one might expect, the major target of this question is the Arian heresy. The first objection is based on the Arian identification of the possible modes of generation that might be applied to the Son. Aquinas sweeps this objection aside by noting that there is no mode of procession amongst creatures that perfectly captures the generation of the Son by the Father and that the modes put forward by the Arians do not include the one that most nearly approaches the Son’s generation. This is the procession of a word from an intellect; as the intellect of God is pure act, thus not having to pass from potentiality to actuality, the procession of the word from the divine intellect is co-eternal with the divine intellect.

A further objection put forward is that if the Son is being generated eternally from the Father, this might seem to imply that the Son’s generation is not yet complete (and will never be complete). This would seem to imply that the Son lacks the perfection of having His generation completed. However, we have to remember that God exists in eternity rather than in time; there is no temporal now in which the generation of the Son is taking place; but rather an indivisible analogy of now that always abides. In a sense, one is justified in saying that the Son is eternally being born as well as that He is always already born.

A3: We’ve seen above that the divine persons are equal in terms of essence as well as co-eternal. Does this imply that we can’t identify some sort of “natural ordering” amongst the divine persons? As the Athanasian creed implies, we must never “divide the substance” or “confuse the persons”, but the lack of an ordering in the Trinity might seem to confuse the persons. Aquinas rescues the situation by appeal to the idea of “principle”. We saw in Ia q.33 a.1 that there is a “principle” in God with respect to origin that does not introduce any notion of priority. It’s on the basis of origin that we may rightly associate a natural ordering in the Trinity. Aquinas quotes St. Augustine as making the distinction that this is not “an ordering whereby one is prior to another, but whereby on is from another”.

A4: Examples from scripture (such as John 14:28, “The Father is greater than I”) strongly suggest that the Son is in some way less than the Father. Similarly, paternity is associated with the Father but not with the Son. Although Aquinas has already asserted equality amongst the persons, there still seems a lingering doubt that the Father is greater than the Son in some way. This is the challenge that various subordinationist heresies presented to the orthodox doctrine of the co-equality of the divine persons.

Aquinas’s defence of the orthodox position returns to the theme already suggested in a.1; God’s greatness is the perfection of the divine nature and this greatness is associated with the divine essence. Part of the perfection of the divine nature involves the paternity of the Father and the filiation of the Son and it is through the filiation that the Son attains to the perfection of the nature that is in the Father. Divine paternity and filiation provide an analogy with human paternity and filiation; but the analogy cannot be pushed too far as human paternity and filiation involve successiveness (see a.2). Paternity is of the essence of the Father because that is what constitutes the Father as Father; similarly filiation is of the essence of the Son. Therefore we can rightly claim that the same essence that is the paternity in the Father is the filiation in the Son and consequently the Son has the same dignity as the Father.

When we consider the scriptural witness, we can also observe the words of the Apostle Paul that “He thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (Philippians 2:6). It is clear that scripture that teaches any notion of non-equality actually refers to the humanity of Christ in the hypostatic union.

A5: John 14:10 tells us that the Son is in the Father and that the Father is in the Son; what does this mean? If we think of “being in” in the way that Aristotle took it to apply to created reality we seem to be left befuddled; it doesn’t work. Similarly, how can relational opposites “be in” each other?

Aquinas claims that the Father and the Son are “in” each other in three ways corresponding to essence, relation and origin. As far as essence is concerned, the Father is His own essence which is the same as the essence of the Son. If we think about the relation between the Father and the Son then it is clear that, conceptually speaking, the Father is in the Son is the same sense that the relation is in the Son and vice versa. As the procession of the Son is immanent to the Father, we also see that the Son remains within the Father. Conversely, everything is said by the Word and thus the Father is in the Son.

A6: Rounding off his survey of the equality amongst the divine persons, Aquinas turns to the power of Father in comparison to that of the Son. Following the strategy of a.4, Aquinas notes that power is associated with the perfection of the nature of God which is therefore associated with greatness.

A tricky objection suggests that the power of the Father enables Him to generate a Son equal to Himself, but that the Son cannot do likewise. Aquinas’ answer again alludes to the approach in a.4. Just as it is the same essence that is the paternity in the Father and the filiation in the son, so it is the same power by which the Father generates and the Son is generated. Although the power is the same, the Son is not able to generate because this omnipotence comes with a relation that differs between Father and Son.

Handy Concepts

  • The starting point for understanding the equality amongst the persons of the Trinity is a recognition that ideas of equality and inequality pertain to the persons as they are the divine essence. Having grasped this, the co-equality of the persons follows naturally as does their equality in terms of power.
  • The persons of the Trinity are co-eternal.
  • The natural ordering of the persons in the Trinity does not imply any ordering of priority.
  • Scriptural references to the Father being greater than the Son refer to the human nature in the hypostatic union.

Question 41 - The Persons and the Notional Acts

Why this Question Matters.

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.

Handy Concepts

  • 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.