Friday, 14 January 2011

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”.


  1. Perhaps another Handy Hint,

    I recall the importance of "logos spermatikos" in understanding the creative Word. The idea being, "God said let there be,,," (Genesis 1). Therefore God's Word (spoken - "God said") created.

  2. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the comment!

    The topic of the “logos spermatikos” is one of those things properly covered under the rubric of investigating the potential sources for St John’s use of the word “logos”. Was he inheriting basically Jewish notions, Greek notions, Greek flavoured Jewish notions or was he synthesizing his own expression under the influence of the Spirit? In favour of the latter one might point to the fact that the notion of an incarnate logos appears to be original to Christianity. Looking to Jewish thought and Greek flavoured Jewish thought one must meditate upon Proverbs 8:22-31 and upon the beginning of Wisdom 9, considering the interplay between logos (“word”) and sophia (“wisdom”).

    In the case of “logos spermatikos”, it’s one aspect of the (basically) Stoic notion of “logos” as the rational principle of the universe. So the “logos spermatikos” was considered the aspect or portion of the logos indwelling within human beings as a sort of germinal principle; the “logos endiathetos” was considered as an unspoken “word” in the mind of God; the “logos prophorikos” was considered as that “word” in the mind of God once it reached expression. Perhaps “logos endiathetos” gives the closest parallel to immanent Trinitarian theology and perhaps “logos propherikos” stands astride the immanent and economic Trinities? Perhaps “logos spermatikos” might better fit with the theology of the indwelling of the Word as an action of the economic Trinity.

    Does anyone else have any thoughts on this? I’m not really up to date with this sort of stuff.

  3. While I'm here in the comments...

    One of the things I noticed when reading through the sections of the Trinity is that QQ 33-35 seem to me a bit subdued compared to the rest of the treatise. But when Aquinas gets to the three questions (QQ 36-38) on the Holy Spirit it all suddenly blossoms and fits together. Or maybe I was suffering winter blues when I read QQ 33-35!

    Also, I assume the 1, 2, 3 structure of QQ 33-38 is Aquinas's little Trinitarian joke...