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.

1 comment:

  1. The Orthodox reject the filioque, i.e., as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas and the other Scholastic theologians, because from their perspective it involves a blurring of the distinction between the Spirit's procession of origin as person (ekporeusis), which is from the Father alone, and His progression (proienai) or flowing forth (procheisthai), which is from the Father through the Son.