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).”

No comments:

Post a Comment