Monday, 24 January 2011

Question 38 - The Name "Gift"

Why this Question Matters.

In Acts 2:38, Peter foresees the gift of the Holy Spirit to those who repent and are baptized. The final topic in Aquinas’s trilogy of questions on the Holy Spirit concerns “Gift” as a name for the Holy Spirit.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: The first question that Aquinas asks is whether the term “Gift” can even be considered as the name of the name of a Person of the Trinity. In order to overcome objections to this idea, Aquinas has to define the sense in which “Gift” is to be used. “Gift” indicates something apt to be given as well as indicating a relationship with the giver and with the receiver. For a gift to be given it has to be able to belong to the giver and to the one receiving. In the case of the Holy Spirit there is no problem with the idea of the gift belonging to the giver, but the case of belonging to the receiver (us) is more difficult. Aquinas argues that “to belong” implies that receiver must be able to use or enjoy the given in freedom. For rational creatures this is only possible when the creature is in some sense conjoined to God. But that we are able to participate in the divine Word and in the Love that proceeds is the supernatural end of man, lifted up by God. Hence in this sense, the gift that God gives to us can be possessed by us.

In reply to the objection that the name “Gift” does not really distinguish a person in God, Aquinas answers that for a gift to belong to someone can be understood in three ways. In the first sense anything can be considered to belong to itself; in this sense the Holy Spirit can be considered to give Himself. In the second sense, something belonging is a possession and as such is different in essence from the giver; in this sense the gift of God can be something created (such as a created grace). In the third sense, something belongs when it has its origin in the one to whom it belongs. This is the sense in which the Son belongs to the Father and the Holy Spirit belongs to the Father and to the Son. In this last sense we see that the giver and the given can be considered Persons of the Trinity.

A2: We’ve seen that “Gift” can be considered as a name for a Person of the Trinity, but how can it be considered as a proper name for the Holy Spirit? As scripture tells us that “A Son is given to us” it would seem that the name could not be proper to the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this name does not seem to signify any property of the Holy Spirit; it is not characteristic of Him.

Aquinas quotes Aristotle to the effect that a gift is given with no intention of being recompensed; a true gift expresses true love, the willing of good for another. Therefore the first gift is of the love itself which stands as the primary gift through which all gifts are given. As the Holy Spirit proceeds as “Love”, He therefore proceeds as if the primary gift. Therefore the name gift is proper to the Holy Spirit, expressing His character as the primary among all gifts. Even though the Son is truly given, the fact that the Son is given is on account of the Father’s love.

Handy Concepts

  • The Holy Spirit can be considered as “Gift” to us as his origin is in the Father and the Son and we can possess him when we are elevated to the supernatural.
  • “Gift” is a name proper to the Holy Spirit as love is the very foundation of any true gift.

Question 37 - The Name "Love"

Why this Question Matters.

In the second of this trio of questions concerning the Holy Spirit, Aquinas asks about how we can consider the name “Love” to be used of the Holy Spirit. The bulk of the arguments in this question concern the precise use of language to express precise concepts; a problem made harder for the lack of terminology given to us to talk about the Holy Spirit. Despite its technical clothing, this question is important because it allows Aquinas to steer a course between many Trinitarian errors, maintaining a coherent account of the three Persons and the one essence.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Following a by now well established pattern, Aquinas asks whether the name “Love” can be considered a proper name for the Holy Spirit. There are some difficulties: we already attribute the term “Love” to God, how then can it be proper to the Holy Spirit? “Love” doesn’t really seem to signify a subsistent person, rather it signifies an action; love is a bond between persons, not something that proceeds from them; if the Holy Spirit is “Love” that loves then there will be a love that belongs to “Love” and therefore a Spirit from the “Spirit”.

The basic problem that Aquinas has to face in answering these objections is the lack of words that we have to describe the different modes of love. Consequently, much of the effort in this question describes the need for precision in how the word “Love” is being used in saying that “Love” is a proper name for the Holy Spirit. He immediately points out that the name “Love” can be taken both with respect to God’s essence and with respect to a Person of the Trinity. To illustrate this he makes an analogy with the procession of the “Word”. When thought of as a Person, God’s “Word” is his self-understanding insofar as it comes forth from Him. But we recall that “understanding” and “an understanding” are also predicated of the divine essence; God’s knowledge and understanding of things is creative of them, for example. In similar fashion, “love” and “to have affection for” are predicted of the divine essence. But whereas in the case of understanding in the intellect, we have words such as “word” and “to speak” in order to express what proceeds from the intellect, we have to make double use of the word “love” to express both what exists in the will and what proceeds from the will. Therefore, as long as we understand “Love” to be the name that refers to “Love insofar as it proceeds from the divine will” then we can rightly claim “Love” as a proper name of the Holy Spirit.

In answering the objections, Aquinas is able to expand upon this explanation. When we think of ourselves, we realize that love is something that remains within the lover in a sense similar to how the “inner word” (verbum cordis in Latin, “word of the heart”) remains within the one expressing a conception; yet there is also a relation to the thing loved or to the thing expressed by the word. When this is raised to the consideration of God, the relational aspect gives us the subsistent Persons. In replying to the third objection, Aquinas points out that the Holy Spirit is not some sort of “medium” between the Father and the Son, but rather one of the Persons of the Trinity; He provides the “bond” between the Father and the Son because of the single relation of love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Father. For the final objection, Aquinas points out the parallel with the Son. Understanding belongs to the Son only insofar as He is the Word proceeding; He does not have an understanding that is in any sense separate from the understanding that God has of Himself. There is no word that proceeds from the “Word” and likewise, there is no love that proceeds from the “Love”.

A2: The second article probes further the idea that the Father and the Son love one another by the Holy Spirit. Aquinas approaches this question from the point of view of a grammatical analysis as he believes that other scholars have been led into error by misunderstanding how “by” should be taken. In Latin, this idea is expressed with the use of the ablative case (Spiritu Sancto) which is often interpreted as indicating instrumentality (“I hit the nail with the hammer”), although it can also be used in many other ways including to give a sense of origin (“He came from the village”). Aquinas points out that taking the ablative in its instrumental sense here, as if the Holy Spirit were some sort of cause, is to get things back to front. He then runs through a list of misunderstandings that originate with this mistake.

Aquinas singles out the opinion of Richard of St. Victor: the ablative should be taken here as indicating a “formal effect”. To explain what this means and to justify the interpretation, Aquinas points out that we often name things from their forms (a man from humanity, for example) and that the expression of this formal cause of things often uses the ablative case. But in a phrase like “he is clothed with a garment”, also using the ablative, what is expressed is not the fact that the garment is a form in the sense of signifying something in the subject (“he”) but rather points to one of the ten categories (or modes of being) giving the sense that “he is having the garment”. Similarly, when we say that “a tree blooms with its flowers”, we are not saying that the flowers are the form of the tree’s blooming but rather that the flowers are the effect of the tree’s blooming.

It is in this latter sense that we can say that the Father and the Son love by the Holy Spirit. But we also have to restrict “love by the Holy Spirit” to the Persons (or more strictly to the characteristics or “notions” that identify the Persons); if we take “love” in an essential sense (as discussed in Article 1) then the Father and the Son love by their common essence. If we take “love” as characteristic of the Persons of the Father or of the Son, then we are using it the sense of “to spirate love”. So, with these restrictions, just as we can say that the Father utters himself by His Word, so we can say that the Father and the Son love by the Holy Spirit.

The reply to the third objection anticipates some of the themes that Aquinas is going to cover in his teaching on creation (QQ. 44-49). The Father loves not only the Son but also Himself and us by the Holy Spirit. Taking “love” in its notional sense, characteristic of the Father, includes both the bringing forth of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Himself. In the same way that in uttering the Word the Father completely expresses Himself (including us!), by the Holy Spirit He loves us in loving His Word.

Handy Concepts

  • As long as we understand the name “Love” in the sense of the love that proceeds from the divine will, we can rightly claim “Love” as a proper name for the Holy Spirit.
  • As long as we don’t mistake “by” as indicating a cause but rather an effect, we can say that the Father and the Son love each other by the Holy Spirit.
  • In his reply to the second objection, Aquinas uses the terminology of “notions” (or “characteristics”). Notions are basically abstract concepts that allow us to identify and distinguish the divine Persons. There’s a close connection with the idea of a “property” (where the word is taken in a technical sense) as something that belongs strictly to one subject or class of subjects. A property of a divine Person provides something notional (or characteristic) of them. To illustrate this, that the Father speaks his Word is a notion of the Father and His speaking that Word is a notional action. The term “love” can be taken as an essential action of God but also as a notional action of the Father and the Son jointly.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Question 36 - The Name "Holy Spirit"

Why this Question Matters.

Having devoted one question to the Person of the Father and two the Person of the Son, Aquinas continues the Trinitarian sequence with three questions devoted to the Holy Spirit. Following the pattern of the previous questions in this series, a question is devoted to each of three names for the third Person of the Trinity: “Holy Spirit”, “Love” and “Gift”. Considering the name “Holy Spirit”, Aquinas has to return to face the problems associated with the shortage of precise scriptural terminology associated with the Spirit; the spirit is much harder to grasp firmly. Aquinas goes on to consider some of the key questions (then as now) for ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Churches: does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father and the Son or from the Father only? Can we say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son and, if so, what does “through” mean in this context? How are we to understand the Father and the Son as “principle” of the Holy Spirit?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: We’ve already seen that talking about the Holy Spirit is more difficult that talking about the Father or the Son; scripture seems much less precise over terminology for the Holy Spirit than for the Father and the Son. For example, the term “proceed” is overloaded; both the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father, but the term has a particular affinity with the Holy Spirit. Why is this particularity not recognised with a distinct term? When Aquinas comes to consider whether the name “Holy Spirit” is a proper name of one the Persons of the Trinity (following the pattern of previous questions) he has to face up to similar objections. “Holy Spirit” is a name made up of terms (“holy” and “spirit”) that both have wide applicability; is such generality consonant with it being the name of a divine Person? Similarly, the name has no obvious relational connotations in the way that both “Father” and “Son” do; as relation is central to the notion of personality within the Trinity, this seems strange.

Aquinas gives a striking answer: Question 27 Article 4 showed that of the two processions in God, one does not have a proper name; this was carried over in Question 28 Article 4 to a recognition that the corresponding relation does not have a proper name. Consequently, this divine Person simply does not have a proper name! However, we are still justified in using the name “Holy Spirit” of the third Person of the Trinity, recognizing the fact that scripture and the usage of the Church has created this name to identify that person. Although the name “Holy Spirit” cannot be said to be proper to the third Person of the Trinity in the sense of being uniquely applicable to Him, Aquinas sets out three arguments to show that the name does at least contain elements that point to aspects proper to Him. For example, the term “spirit” is suggestive of impulse and movement; thoroughly appropriate to the Holy Spirit.

A2: Does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son? In favour of a procession from the Father alone, Aquinas assembles some powerful witnesses. From scripture and tradition: John 15:26 appears to ascribe the procession to the Father alone; the Nicene creed as developed at the Council of Constantinople ascribes the procession to the Father alone and the later Council of Ephesus prohibited addition to this creed; St. John of Damascus (who in many ways represents the culmination and summit of the ancient Eastern theological tradition) ascribes the procession to the Father alone; the apocryphal Acts of St. Andrew (apostolic founder of the Byzantine Church), dating from the third century, ascribes the procession to the Father alone. Likewise, there are some purely theological arguments favouring this position: if we recognize the analogy between the procession of the Word and the Spirit in God and the procession of our “word” and “spirit” from our intellect and will then the analogy breaks down as our “spirit” does not appear to proceed from our “word”; it simply appears superfluous to demand procession from the Son when procession from the Father would of necessity be perfect; Anselm had already anticipated and answered the objection that procession from the Son is necessitated in order to be able to differentiate the procession of the Son from the procession of the Spirit. Against these positions, the Athanasian Creed affirms the double procession.

Aquinas claims that the double procession is necessary in order to be able to distinguish the Persons of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He argues that we cannot distinguish between the Son and the Spirit by looking to anything to do with the divine essence, as this is common to the Persons; in other words, anything absolute (i.e. non-relational) simply will not help us. Therefore only the relations distinguish the Persons.

The relations can only distinguish between the Persons inasmuch as they are “opposed” relations. To illustrate this notion we observe that the relations between the Father and the Son are opposed, therefore the Father is not the Son; likewise we note that there are two relations in the Father (to the Son and to the Holy Spirit) but these relations are not opposed, so they do not “divide” the Father into two Persons. The trouble is that if the only relations in the Son and the Holy Spirit were those by which they are related to the Father, they would not distinguish the Son and the Holy Spirit as they are not opposed relations. This would imply that the Son and the Spirit are the same one Person, which would make a bit of a wreck of Trinitarian faith. Therefore there must be an opposed relation between the Son and the Spirit, and since the only opposed relations in God are relations of origin (Question 28 Article 4), it follows that either the Son is from the Holy Spirit or the Holy Spirit is from the Son. The latter is the only possibility consistent with scripture and tradition.

Aquinas argues that this is consistent with the analogy of the Word as proceeding from God in the mode of intellect and the Spirit proceeding from God in the mode of will as we do not love something unless we apprehend it.

Turning to Greek theology, Aquinas claims that they understand the procession of the Holy Spirit as having something to do with the Son, even going so far as teaching that the Spirit “flows” from the Son. They resist, however, the idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. Thomas is, at this point, thoroughly puzzled: why do the Greeks not understand procession in the sense of origin? Are they ignorant or stubborn?

Turning to the objections, Aquinas notes that, in talking about God, we are not restricted to the exact words and phrases of scripture but can also use those things that are implied by scripture. So in this case we can look to John 16:14 (and elsewhere) to bolster the case for the double procession. He also proposes an hermeneutical rule by which anything said of the Father must be understood of the Son unless what is said involves a relation of opposition between Father and Son. Similarly, although Ephesus did teach that the creed was not to be altered, what the Fathers of the Council intended was that later creeds were not to teach a faith different from the earlier creeds. Clarification by expansion was not ruled out. This is illustrated by the fact that Constantinople itself expanded the creed of Nicaea in order to develop the teaching about the Holy Spirit and ecumenical (and other) councils after Constantinople and Chalcedon propagated their own creedal statements (whilst affirming the Creed of Constantinople). As later councils had to face the threat of new or resurgent heresies, they were free to address such threats by expansion and elucidation of the one faith. Against the opinion of St John of Damascus, Aquinas flatly disagrees, pointing to the authority of the Council of Ephesus against the Nestorians.

The rest of the objections are swiftly dispatched by careful analysis of the terminology

A3: Having dealt with the question of the double procession, Aquinas now turns to the formula, amenable to Greek theology, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son. Clearly, one of the main issues to be clarified consists in what this statement means. Each of the objections, in its own way, points to ambiguity in the term “through” being applied to the procession of the Holy Spirit.

Aquinas distinguishes two separate senses of the preposition “through” when it is concerned with action caused through another. He illustrates this distinction by examples. In the first case we can talk about a craftsman acting through a desire for money (final cause); he can act through the craft that he works (formal cause); and he can act through the command of another (efficient cause). The sense here is that the agent acts because of something – it is through the something that he acts. In the second case, however, we can talk of the craftsman acting through his hammer. The difference here is that it is not the hammer that causes the craftsman to act but rather that the hammer receives its causative action from the craftsman and it “passes along” the causative action of the craftsman. Similarly, Aquinas offers the example of a king acting through a magistrate. The magistrate receives the power to act from the king and in so doing carries out the intentions of the king and of himself.

It is this second sense that we can rightly say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son: the very fact that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son is something that comes to the Son from the Father.

In the replies to the objections, Aquinas amplifies what he has said in his answer. The power by which the Father and the Son spirate the Holy Spirit is unmediated as it is just one thing; however, when considered as Persons, although the Spirit proceeds in common from the Father and the Son, the procession is mediated through the Son. He insists that because there is no distinction in the power to spirate between the Father and the Son, then we mustn’t think of the Son as being a secondary or instrumental cause of the Father spirating. This is where the analogy of the craftsman and the hammer might mislead as the hammer is most certainly an instrument of the craftsman. An important point to note is that, in the reply to the second objection, Aquinas admits that the Spirit can be said to proceed “principally” from the Father because the Son receives the power of spirating the Spirit from the Father. This does not mean, of course, that the Son is in any way subsidiary to the father insofar as He spirates the Spirit.

A4: Having stated that we may say that the Spirit proceeds “principally” from the Father and “through” the Son, Aquinas balances this position by insisting that the Father and the Son are a single “principle” of the Holy Spirit. Although the Father and the Son breathe the Holy Spirit as two persons, they breathe Him together as one power, in no sense dividing the Holy Spirit.

One of the problems that Aquinas has to face in this article is that he has set up his system using concepts and terminology taken from the field of logic. This means that he has to answer a whole battery of technical objections to do with the applicability of these terms in this situation. Indeed, in the main body of the article he takes one of these objections in order to clarify his terminology.

Aquinas’s main answer is deceptively straightforward and follows immediately from the superstructure that he has already erected. The only thing that distinguishes Father from Son as Persons of the Trinity is relational opposition; they are not relationally opposed as far as being a principle of the Holy Spirit is concerned, hence there is no distinction between them when considered as principle of the Holy Spirit. The objection in the main body of the answer is that, strictly speaking, the term “principle” denotes a property of some subject rather than denoting a subsisting being (that is, a person). Therefore “principle” is acting as an adjective and “one” must be acting as an adverb. Putting this together, this means that describing the Father and the Son as “one principle” of the Holy Spirit simply means that they are principle of the Holy Spirit in one way, which is much weaker than what Aquinas wishes to claim. Aquinas resists this saying that “principle” is acting as a noun, giving the examples of “father” and “son” from ordinary language. (The point that Aquinas is claiming here is that “father” determines a subject relationally by being father of a son but that it also determines that subject because the father is the principle or source of origin of that son). Now he can argue that just as we say Father and Son are one God, so also they are “one principle” of the Holy Spirit because there is genuine unity in the property signified by the term “principle”.

The first objection argued that the Holy Spirit could not proceed from the Father and the Son as far as the one nature is concerned, because the Holy Spirit is of the same nature as Father and Son and would therefore proceed from Himself. Likewise He could not proceed from them as far as one property is concerned as properties inhere in single subjects. Hence He must proceed as if from two rather than from one principle. To answer this, Aquinas claims that the Father and Son are one in the power by which the Holy Spirit proceeds from them and that because they are of one nature there is no puzzle about them sharing one property. He points forward to the discussion in Question 41 Article 5 which will concern the coincidence of nature and property. But Aquinas still wants to maintain a balance: the Holy Spirit does proceed from the Father and the Son as from two subjects; He proceeds from them as uniting them.

The next five objections, based on a variety of logical fallacies, are dispatched in similar fashion; the seventh objection concerns the reconciliation of various different opinions that affirm that the Father and Son are two spirators, or should be considered two “authors” of the Holy Spirit; opinions which would seem to lie uneasily with Father and Son being one principle. Aquinas’s solution is delicate, distinguishing between noun and adjective forms of spiration: we can say that the Father and the Son are “two spirating” (considering “spirating” as an adjective, not a verb) but not that they are “two spirators” (considering “spirator” as a noun) as there is only one spiration.

Handy Concepts

  • The third Person of the Trinity does not, strictly speaking, have a proper name; however, we should refer to Him as “Holy Spirit” as scripture and the Church have associated this name with Him.
  • As the only thing that distinguishes the Persons in the Trinity is relational opposition, the Holy Spirit must proceed from the Father and the Son (as opposed to from the Father only), otherwise the Son and the Holy Spirit would be indistinguishable.
  • The double procession of the Holy Spirit is supported by scripture, especially when we remember that that we must co-attribute things to the Father and the Son unless they are explicitly distinguished by relational opposition.
  • We can rightly say that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son as long as we understand this to mean that the Son receives the power to spirate the Spirit from the Father, and not in an instrumental sense.
  • The Father and the Son are jointly a single principle of origin of the Holy Spirit.
  • These questions on the Holy Spirit were written at a time when ecumenical relations with the Eastern Orthodox were being actively discussed. Indeed, Aquinas died on his way to the Council of Lyon in 1274 where his work “contra errores Graecorum” (not his own title) was to be used in the discussions with the East. There was a great deal of motivation at the time to understand the terms of the debate between West and East. It’s one of history’s great “what ifs” to consider what might have happened had Aquinas got to the council.
  • In the summa we only see a relatively short consideration of the double procession. In Question 10 Article 4 of his work de potentia 24 objections are made in favour of the procession from the Father alone.


  • In article 2, Aquinas quotes the so-called Athanasian Creed in support of the double procession as though this were evidence from Eastern theology in support of the double procession (Athanasius was patriarch of Alexandria in the fourth century and is counted among the Doctors of the Church, both in the East and the West). However, it is now believed that the Athanasian Creed is Gallican in origin (i.e. from the West), dating from the fifth century.
  • Aquinas makes little enquiry here into differences of approach between the East and the West as to the relationship between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity; this may mean that he misses some subtleties of the debate.
  • Although the fact that Aquinas asks whether the Eastern theologians are being ignorant or stubborn in Article 2 may seem anti-eirenic, this should probably be seen more as a sign of Aquinas’s complete incomprehension at the Eastern position rather than as a condemnation of the Easterners. Aquinas’s basic position is one of great respect for Eastern theology; other contemporary Western theologians were much more willing to dismiss the Eastern Orthodox as heretics.
  • Good starting points for study of the debate over the double procession (the so-called “filioque” debate) are Emery’s book “The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas” and the document “The Greek And Latin Traditions Regarding The Procession Of The Holy Spirit” from the Pontificial Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Question 35 - The Name "Image"

Why this Question Matters.

Continuing his discussion of the Person of the Son, Aquinas now dedicates one of the shortest questions in the summa to the name “Image” (Colossians 1:15). How are we to understand this name in the context of Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology?

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas argues that to be an image means at least to have some likeness to another. More is required than this though, as one thing may be a likeness of something else completely accidentally. What is required is for the image to proceed in some way from the other. As an example, a photograph may provide a likeness of a person but it has also come to be by light reflected from that person being collected and focussed by the lens of the camera; the image has, in a sense, proceeded from the original. It is therefore entirely reasonable to apply the word “Image” to God when we think of the second Person of the Trinity proceeding from the Father.

A2: The slickness with which Aquinas justified the name “Image” to the second Person of the Trinity appears to run into difficulties when one points out that the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Father and also that scripture tells us that man is the image of God (1 Corinthians 11:7, for example). It would seem that “Image” is not simply a proper name for the second Person of the Trinity but has to be shared. Aquinas points out that the Greek Fathers of the Church are willing to apply the name “Image” to the Holy Spirit whereas the Latin Fathers restrict the name to the Son because that is the use made of the name in scripture (as far as God is concerned). He rehearses a number of arguments about this simply in order to reject them as inadequate before settling on an argument that parallels the rejection of the application of the term “begotten” to the Holy Spirit. It belongs especially to the notion of “Word” to be a likeness of that from which it proceeds whereas one simply cannot say the same about the notion of “Love”.

When one considers that man is made in the image of God, one has to recognize that the word “image” is being used in a different way to when it is applied to the Son as the Image of God. The Son is the perfect Image of the Father and He agrees in nature with the Father; man in a sense is tending towards the image of the Father as he is perfected, but remains of a different nature to the Father.

Handy Concepts

  • An “image” of an object is something that is like the object (including the sense of being of like species) but which also “proceeds” from that object in some sense. Therefore it is reasonable to apply the name “Image” to God as second Person of the Trinity.
  • One may apply the name “Image” to the Son as a proper name by observing that the “Word” of God pre-eminently images the Father.
  • Man is in the image of God, but in a way that is fundamentally different to the way that the Son is the Image of the Father.


  • The arguments rejecting the application of the term “Image” to the Holy Spirit (including Aquinas’s) appear to be rather weak.

Question 34 - The Name "Word"

Why this Question Matters.

Aquinas now turns to the Person of the Son. We already refer to this Person of the Trinity as “Son” but there are other names that are used of Him. In particular, He is referred to as “Word” (especially at the beginning of the Gospel of John) and “Image” (Colossians 1:15). How are we to understand these latter two names in the context of Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology? In this question, Aquinas describes how we may understand the second Person of the Trinity as “Word”.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: Aquinas claims that when we apply properly the term “Word” to God it refers to the second Person of the Trinity. To justify this claim he describes the different meanings that we apply to the token “word”. In common use we think of a word as a sound that signifies something in a definite way. One might think that a word written on a page provides a counter example to the specificity of this claim, but one should note that the actualization of the signification of a written word occurs when a mind reads and internally or externally “vocalizes” the word. So a word is associated with an external procession of something conceived interiorly by a mind. As such Aquinas claims that the principal meaning of the term “word” refers to the interior conception by the mind and that secondary meanings refer to the sound that signifies this conception as well as the imagining of this sound. Aquinas also identifies a fourth, improper, meaning of “word” in the thing signified by the word. When we apply the principal meaning of “word” to God, with its associations of procession from the mind, then we see that this accords perfectly with the procession of the Son. Therefore it is perfectly proper to associate “Word” with the Person of the Son.

Aquinas still has a number of awkward objections to deal with. One might argue, as Origen did, that one applies the term “word” to God in a metaphorical sense. Aquinas claims that if one does so, then one must also recognize that this metaphorical sense is grounded in the proper sense. To insist that a metaphorical sense excludes the proper sense would be to make a move similar to that made by the Arians in trying to justify their claims about the relationship between the Father and the Son. In other words, you’d have to be pretty desperate to make this move!

Another problem is that one has to argue carefully that the “speaking of a word” is truly associated with the personal relations in God rather than simply being associated with His essence. It is clear that we associate the notion of “word” with cognition, with thinking and with seeing (in the sense of fully grasping something). But when we apply these to notions to God’s intellect, we stay within the realm of God’s essence; God’s understanding simply is God’s essence, for example. Aquinas identifies the radical difference between a knower’s act of understanding (something entirely internal to the knower) and what the knower’s intellect conceives in its act of understanding (which proceed from the intellect by means of a word). This objection is framed in terms of the writings of Sts Augustine and Anselm: one of Aquinas’s implicit points is that when one reads authorities such as these, one must be very careful to elucidate the way in which they are using theological terms. Here, St Augustine appears to limit the term “word” to being a substantial predicate but other works of his show that this is a misreading. Similarly, St. Anselm is misread if one fails to appreciate how he is using his terminology.

Again, apparently following Anselm, one might argue that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all intelligent and that when “God speaks”, each of the Persons speaks. So, in a sense, the speaking of a word by God is associated with the whole Trinity and therefore arguably is associated with the divine essence rather than with the Persons. Aquinas resists this analysis by affirming that “speaking” is properly predicated of a Person in God and that one should resist the idea that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one “speaker”. One can say, however, that each of the Persons of the Trinity is “spoken” but one can distinguish the ways in which they are spoken. All of them are “spoken” in the sense of how a thing understood in the intellect of God is spoken (the fourth, improper meaning that Aquinas identified above), but only one of them (the Son) is “spoken” in the way that a word is spoken. Aquinas absolves Anselm of heinous error by observing that the latter is really using “speak” as an improper sense of the word “understand”. When we think of God understanding Himself, then we are in the realm of the divine essence (because God’s understanding is His essence); but when we think of God speaking his Word, we are in the realm of the Persons of the Trinity.

A2: The body of this article simply summarizes what we’ve already seen. A “word” signifies what emanates from the intellect; in God the Person who proceeds by an emanation of the intellect is the Son. Hence “Word” is reasonably a proper name for the Son. The article is largely made up of a collection of objections and their replies, most of which are routine fare for Aquinas to dispose of. The fourth objection is possibly the trickiest: understanding involves the conception of a word; but the Son understands. Therefore surely the Son brings forth His own Son. To answer this, Aquinas notes that divine understanding belongs to the essence of God and therefore the Son understands as God rather than as anything that should be considered as really distinct from God. There is no separate understanding that would be the source of a further procession.

A3: From the beginning of the Gospel of St John we know that all things were made through the Word of God; there is an intimate relation between the Word and creatures. In this article Aquinas starts laying the groundwork for his Trinitarian theology of creation that will he will develop in Questions 44-49. Here he simply recalls that in God’s single act of understanding His single Word expresses not only Himself but also His creatures; indeed, he recalls that His understanding is itself creative of creatures. Thus Aquinas can claim that “Word” implies a reference to creatures; whenever “Word” is mentioned, the idea of what God creates is present.

The first objection suggests that anything in the divinity connoting an effect in creatures is an essential name (that is, it refers to the essence of God). However, since a “person” is an individual substance of a rational nature, the name “person” has itself a weak reference to “nature”. Therefore, Aquinas argues, although a divine name does not involve a reference to creatures as far as the Personal relation is concerned, it can be taken as providing such a reference through that weak association of the name with the nature.
Another objection is that terms like “Lord” or “Creator” that certainly do involve a reference to creatures involve relations between creatures and God that occur in time. However, “Word” is an eternal procession and therefore differs qualitatively from such terms. Aquinas merely points out that some effects of God on creatures, such as “creating” and “governing” are transitive (involving a “going out” from God) whereas other are immanent, such as “knowing” or “willing”. These latter occur from eternity (thought the effects may be brought to actuality at a particular point in time in creation), so there’s no reason to worry about the eternity of the “Word” in this respect.

Handy Concepts

  • When we correctly identify the principal meaning of the term “word” as referring to the interior conception by the mind, we can properly apply “Word” as a proper name of the second Person of the Trinity.
  • The name “Word” as applied to the Second Person of the Trinity has a reference to the creative activity of God and therefore to creatures themselves built into it.
  • The beginning of St John’s Gospel is built around the idea of the Word as second Person of the Trinity. Aquinas gives us a powerful and extended treatment of “Word” in his magnificent commentary on the Gospel of St John.


  • Some English translations of Article 3 refer to the “relation” between the Word and Creatures. I think that this has the potential to be misleading given the technical meaning of “relation” in Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology. In Latin, the title of this article is “utrum in nomine verbi importetur respectus ad creatoram”. Following the later English Dominican translation, the “respectus ad” is more safely rendered as “reference to”.