Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Question 28 - The Divine Relations

Why this Question Matters.

In the previous question, Aquinas identified as foundational to the explication of the Trinity the scriptural affirmation of processions within the Godhead. The fundamental points were made that these processions are immanent to the Godhead and that mistaking these immanent processions for the economic activity of the Trinity was at the root of the two important ancient heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism. Aquinas is now faced with the task of putting metaphysical flesh on the bones of this traditional interpretation of scripture. The basic tool that he has available to him is that of the category of relation. The strategy is quite straightforward: the processions within the Godhead define relations; as there are no accidents in God, these relations must be substantial rather than accidental; these relations are the persons within the Trinity. Aquinas will lay out the foundations for this strategy of persons-as-relations in this question and will complete it and elucidate the detailed consequences in the subsequent questions. All the while, he will navigate between the heresies of Arianism, Sabellianism and Tritheism.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas is immediately faced with a fundamental problem in applying the category of relation to the processions in the Godhead. In the Categories, Aristotle identified relation as an accidental category. We know there are no accidents in God; hence such a category is inapplicable to God. This problem was well known by the time of Aquinas and had led to a realization that Aristotle’s notion of relation (set out in the Categories) had to undergo development and modification if it was to apply to the divine substance. Therefore Aquinas’s first question: “Are there any real relations in God?” is an entirely natural one to address. The objections home in on the obvious problems: there can be no accidents in God and it looks as though the relations involved here are actually “relations of reason” rather than “real relations”. The sed contra points out that if paternity and sonship are not real relations then God is not the Father or the Son in reality but only as a construct of our minds; an obvious lapse into a form of Sabellianism. In his reply, Aquinas observes that it is only in the category of relation that we find terms that express what is conceptual as opposed to real. Sometimes the relations between things are of the very nature of the things involved; sometimes, though, they are simply because of our understanding of the world. The processions in God are of the former type, because what proceeds from the Father has the same nature as the Father; this is paradigmatically a real relation.

A2: Having established that there are real relations in God, Aquinas now spells out the consequences of this by asking whether these relations are identical with His nature. One might doubt that this is so because in the normal course of events relations are something different from the substances in which they inhere. One might also point out that if God’s nature is fundamentally relational, this would seem to make His nature dependent upon something other than itself, which is clearly wrong. The sed contra points out that anything that is not the divine nature is a creature and yet, in the liturgy, we worship these relations as co-equal to God.

Aquinas briefly discusses two aspects of the accidental categories when we are talking about created things: their inhering in a subject (that is, their being is a being-in) and their specific character (or their essence). In the accidental categories other than relation, the specific character of an accident also inheres in its subject. So the accident of height inheres in a subject and is to do with the subject alone. For the accident of relation, though, things are different: the relation inheres in a subject but its specific character is associated with being directed to something outside the subject. One possible mistake to make here (which St Thomas ascribes to Gilbert de la PoirĂ©e as the reason for the latter’s condemnation by the Synod of Rheims) is to take account only the essence of a relation whilst neglecting its being-in a subject. If one does this, then a relation appears to be something that is not intrinsically associated with a subject.

Once one has realised this double aspect of the accident of relation, then the consequences of transferring this notion from creatures to the divine substance is that the being of a real relation can no longer be accidental, it has to be substantive. Therefore a real relation in God has the being of the divine essence and is therefore the same as the divine essence.

It might be objected at this point that in identifying the being of the real relations in God to be identical with His essence we have collapsed the persons of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into one another. But we have to remember here the dual aspect of relations: they have a being-in a subject (which has here been identified with the divine essence) but they also have a specific character to do with going-out-to (or pointing-to) something (its “relational opposite”). So the being of the relations are the same, but their pointing-to their relational opposites differ. This fact is taken up explicitly in the next article.

A3: It would appear that since the relations in God are identical to His substance, then they cannot be distinct. Similarly, one might view the only real relation in God to be that of procession (or origination); any two examples of such could not be really different, but only conceptually so. Aquinas’s answer is disarmingly simple: if we attribute something to a thing then we attribute to it everything that is contained in the definition of the attribution. In the case of relation, the definition doesn’t only include the being-in of the relation but also the pointing-to of the relation. It is by the latter that the relations within God are distinct. Therefore we can quite happily affirm that when we think of the being of God, then unity follows on this being; when we think of the relations in God, distinction follows.

A4: Having established that there are real relations in God, now is the time to count them. Aquinas has already implied that there are four: those associated with Fatherhood, Sonship, Spiration and being-Spirated. The objections list a number of putative examples which would seem to suggest a multiplication of relations even as far as infinity. Equally one might object that Fatherhood and Sonship (respectively Spiration and being-Spirated) go together as a pair and should therefore only be counted once, giving us less than four.

When Aristotle discussed relations in the Metaphysics (as opposed to the Categories) he identified that relation is either founded on quantity or upon action (or being acted upon). As there are no quantities in God, the real relations in God must be founded upon action. Therefore the real relations in God are founded upon the internal processions in God (because the external relations with creatures do not define real relations in God). Therefore, from the investigations of Question 27, there can only be two opposite relations each corresponding to the two immanent processions within God. The procession of the Son from the Father gives us the relations of Paternity and Filiation; the Procession of the Holy Spirit gives us Spiration and being-Spirated). These pairs of opposed relations are genuinely distinct as each member of a pair has a different pointing-to. The examples of possible other relations presented in the objections fail, as they each boil down to a misunderstanding of God in His single act of being.

Handy Concepts

  • Following the tradition that he inherited, the fundamental metaphysical tool that Aquinas uses to build his theology of the Trinity is the notion of relation. Although the category of relation is not the most immediately given datum of revelation (that place belongs to the processions), Aquinas sees it as inevitable that any orthodox theology of the Trinity will necessarily be resolvable to one of relation.
  • The real relations in God correspond to the procession revealed in scripture.
  • In the created world, relations do not only have their being in some subject, they also have a going-out-to or pointing-to their “relational opposite”. We can distinguish between their being and their specific character. This twofold aspect of relations becomes critical for distinguishing the persons in the Trinity, when we generalize the notion of relation to the divine substance.
  • In using relations in this way, Aquinas has explained the unity of the substance (their being-in is the same) as well as the distinction of the persons (their pointing-to is different).
  • There are four real relations in God because that is what scripture reveals to us.
  • The connection between the real relations in God and the person of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit will be made in the next question.


  • It was well known by the time of Aquinas that Aristotle’s conception of relation as set out in the Categories needed to be developed in order to deal with the divine substance. (Indeed, Aristotle himself carried on developing the theory in the Metaphysics.) It is reasonable to ask whether the theory of relation was adequate by the time Aquinas applied it in his Trinitarian theology. Some would argue that his conception of relation was inadequate; others would say that it’s been downhill all the way since his time.

1 comment:

  1. Hey I am a very conservative Presbyterian Minister. I did my seminary work at Reformed Theological Seminary and I also earned a ThM from the University of Aberdeen. But I have always been and remain terribly interested in Aquinas. I disagree with him on a number of key things, but time and again I have found him very helpful, especially from a philosophical point of view. So I'm fairly well versed in theology and I have read a lot of the Summa.

    Having said all that, Aquinas was looked at with great suspicion at RTS and all they ever wanted to talk about in Aberdeen was Barth (Barth, Barth, Barth... it drove me flippin nuts). So I've had very little help over the years with Aquinas. Usually after I read him again and again and again(!) I can finally begin to figure out what he is saying. But I need to read a lot more from Aristotle and just haven't found the time necessary to do so.

    So anyway, with all that background in mind, no matter how hard I try I can't understand how relation and essence can be identical in God. I am a firm believer in the simplicity of God (although I don't think I have this doctrine down which may be playing a role in my confusion here), so I appreciate what Aquinas is trying to protect here, but no matter how hard I try I cannot wrap my mind around this concept. I keep running into this conundrum: If the divine essence is fully present in each person, which has always been my understanding of the Trinity, and if paternity, filiation, etc., are identical with the essence, then I do not see how we are not led to the inevitable logical conclusion that paternity, filiation, etc., must exist in each person, which would of course make an utter mess of the doctrine of the Trinity.

    I need an analogy to understand what Aquinas is driving at here. I know analogies are very dangerous, but that has always been the way I have best understood difficult theological concepts. I used to force my professors to do their best to give me one even when they were reluctant. But I am ministering in Hawaii right now and I have no professor to ask.

    Your help would be so greatly appreciated here. Can you email me at djensen13@live.com to let me know if you answered. I don't use my gmail account very often anymore. Thanks so much.