D Why Investigate Notions Relations and Properties

In his treatise on the Trinity, Thomas seeks to clarify the relations of the persons, that is, the properties which, by distinguishing the persons in a way which accounts for their plurality, enables us to perceive the features proper to each person. Why did the Schoolmen and Thomas devote such painstaking attention to relations, properties, and notions? Was it necessary or wise? At Wrst glance, it is tempting to see it as a brilliant logical exercise, a sort of theological Glass-Bead Game.

51 SCG I, ch. 8 (nos. 49-50). Cf. Hilary, De Trinitate II. 10-11 (SC 443, pp. 294-297); as we noted, he is speaking about the eternal begetting of the Son.

52 When they come from Thomas' hand, the terms 'contemplative' and 'speculative' mean practically the same thing and designate the same reality (speculativus is more often used in the treatises that are inspired by Aristotelianism, whereas the word contemplativus appears more frequently in the treatises drawing on Christian sources; cf. S. Pinckaers, 'Recherche de la signification veritable du terme speculatif', NRT 81 (1959), 673-695).

This is not a new problem. St Thomas met and reflected on it, under a different guise. The opinions of Praepositinus of Cremona gave him his opportunity. Chancellor of the University of Paris at the outset of the thirteenth century, Praepositinus sparked off a great debate about the 'notions' (notiones) in God. This technical term in Trinitarian theology means the proper characteristics of the persons, enabling us to distinguish the persons. Since the three divine persons are distinct, it is necessary to recognize something which is proper to each of them, by which they distinguish themselves and through which we can know them. For Peter Lombard, whom most Masters had followed since William of Auxerre,54 there are five notions: the Father's unbe-gottenness and paternity, the filiation of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, and his spiration (the latter is common to Father and Son, who breathe or 'spirate' the Holy Spirit).55 We will return to this much later in the investigation of the relations and persons.156 In the twelfth century and even into the thirteenth century, there was an animated debate about this: some theologians computed that these 'notions' are infinite in number; others considered that there are six, others three, and still others refused to accept that there are any at all.57

Praepositinus of Cremona positioned himself with the latter solution: he found no place for such notions. He claimed that when we say that the Father characterizes himself through paternity, or that 'The Father distinguishes himself from the Son through paternity,' these propositions just mean 'the Father is the Father.' The persons' relative properties (fatherhood, filiation, procession) are only 'manners of speaking.' Our concepts and our analogical language, in as much as they signify the truth of God himself, are therefore reduced to the common essence of the three persons and to the three persons themselves: all that we can properly say is that the three persons are distinct and that they are one God. All the rest of it can be eliminated: God has no 'properties,' and it is not for us to recognize 'notions' in God.58

Faced with this question, St Thomas began by recalling God's simplicity. God is not composed of this and that element: in God, the person is really

54 William of Auxerre, Summa aurea I, tr. 7, ch. 2 (ed. J. Ribaillier, Paris and Grottaferrata, 1980, pp. 116-118). Cf. J. Schneider, Die Lehre vom dreieinigen Gott in der Schule des Petrus Lombardus, Munich, 1961, pp. 172-180.

55 This was what the Masters commonly taught in Thomas' time. See ST I, q. 32, a. 3.

56 See below, in Chapter 5, 'Relative Opposition: Paternity, Filiation, Spiration, Procession', and in Chapter 8, 'Unbegottenness: the Unengendered Father'.

57 Praepositinus of Cremona, Summa 'Qui producit ventos', Book I, ch. 12.2 (ed. G. Angelini, L'ortodossia e la grammatical Analisi di struttura e deduzione storica della Teologia Trinitaria di Prepositino, Rome, 1972, p. 277). Praepositinus stood on the shoulders of earlier writers; cf. J. Schneider, Die Lehre vom dreieinigen Gott, pp. 172-180.

58 Praepositinus of Cremona, Summa I, ch. 12 (ed. Angelini, pp. 275-280); see G. Angelini's exposition, which discerns a certain 'nominalist orientation' in Praepositinus' thought (pp. 154ff., especially pp. 181-185).

identical to the divine essence and is not composed of a property. 'But our natural reason cannot know the divine simplicity as it is in itself: this is why our mind apprehends and names God according to its own mode, that is, from the milieu of sensible objects, whence its knowledge is derived.'59 In our world, we employ concrete words to designate concrete realities (such as a flower or a bird), and abstract words to signify the principles or 'forms' of these realities (like the whiteness of the flower, or the animality of the bird): language parallels our knowledge of things, and this knowledge itself is based in the composition or the complexity of the bodily realities which we can observe. We cannot do otherwise when we speak of God, since we speak about God in our own human language: we speak of the wisdom or the goodness of God (abstract names) and even of God himself ('concrete' name), and in the same way we speak of the Father (concrete name) and of his paternity (abstract name). In so doing, we are not claiming that the property or the relation of paternity is really something different from the person of the Father himself, but our grasp of the mystery is affected by the double mode of our knowledge and our language. Why must one take this into account in reflecting on the mystery of the Trinity? Thomas' answer is that,

We are obliged to do so for two reasons. The first is at the insistence of heretics. For since we confess the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit to be one God, they demand to know: How can they be one God, and how can they be three Persons? And to the first question, we answer that: they are one through their essence or deity; so there must also be some abstract terms whereby we may show that the persons are distinguished: these are the 'properties' or 'notions', that is, abstract terms like 'paternity' or 'filiation'. Therefore, the divine essence is signified as What (quid), the person as Who (quis); and the property as Whereby (quo).60

These explanations are very instructive. They take us back to the questions which the Cappadocian Fathers met when they were dealing with Arianism and Sabellianism. The faith professes three hypostases or three persons in God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But how can one show that the Three, whilst being the same God, are not mixed up with each other? That is, how does one show that the Father is not the Son or the Holy Spirit? To disclose the true divinity of the three persons, it is necessary to draw on the concept of essence (ousia), through which each of the three persons is truly God; and in the same way, to show the genuine plurality and distinction of the persons, one must pick out the characteristic through which the Father is Father, the Son is Son, and the Spirit is Spirit. The theory of the properties, such as one finds in Gregory Nazianzus, for instance, comes from this question: in seeking out the

60 Ibid.

characteristics of the persons, one can show their distinction in unity, in the teeth of Arianism, which denies the true divinity, and Sabellianism, which denies the real plurality of the persons.6! Thomas' investigation of persons and properties has the same goal. The theologian who rejects this undertaking will have no means of contesting Arianism or Sabellianism, and will not be able to account for Trinitarian faith. We see once again that, being aware of theories that distance themselves from doing so, Thomas took care of the requirement to give an account of the faith in relation to Trinitarian theology.

So, in attempting to refine our understanding of relations and properties, Trinitarian theology will examine 'that through which' the persons distinguish themselves, through which they are constituted as such (for instance, that through which the Son is Son, that through which he is distinguished from the Father). This question about properties as signified by abstract names is less a matter of the divine reality in itself than of our human knowledge of the mystery6 The person of the Father is simple: there is not, within the Father, a difference between what he is (God), who he is (Father), and that through which he is Father (paternity). But our grasp of the mystery requires that we perceive that through which he is Father, in order to be able to know and disclose his personal distinction, that is to say, to be able to account for the mystery of three persons being one God.

St Thomas puts this in another way as well: to be able to show how the Father distinguishes himself from the Son and the Holy Spirit, one must show that the Father has one relation with the Son and another, different relation with the Holy Spirit; so it is necessary to distinguish the relation of paternity (the relation of the Father to the Son), and the relation of spiration (His relation to the Holy Spirit), without which one could offer a very fine affirmation of the Trinity of persons, but could not explicate the distinction of persons. But, in the Father, paternity is not a different reality from spira-tion; the two 'notions' of paternity and spiration do not divide the person of the Father: the Father is one. To account for Trinitarian faith, one has to use the 'abstract' language of notions and properties, with the ultimate purpose of showing 'that through which' the Father distinguishes himself from the Son and the Holy Spirit, they themselves being distinct from one another.63

61 See, for example, Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31. 8-9 (SC 250, pp. 290-293).

62 This has been rightly stressed by Cajetan, who observes, in relation to 'notions': 'This question does not concern the reality [the divine reality: the three persons] considered absolutely in itself, but the reality in so far as it is described and apprehended by us' (InIam q. 32, a. 2; Leon. ed., vol. 4, p. 352).

63 ST I, q. 32, a. 2; this is the second reason which compels us to recognize notions or properties. For a more prolonged discussion, see H. Dondaine, La Trinitée, vol. 1, pp. 211-214.

We will return to this in the course of our exploration of relation and person; for the meantime, our discussion suffices to indicate the purpose of investigating processions, relations and properties. The goal is far-reaching: to show that Trinitarian faith can be thought out in a reasonable way. But it is also modest: in presenting the persuasive reasons through which to reply to objections raised against the faith, the theologian carries out a contemplative exercise in order to grasp a droplet of the divine knowledge communicated by revelation, without losing sight of the limits of our knowledge. For St Thomas Trinitarian theology is a spiritual exercise for believers.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Positive Thinking As The Key To Success

Positive Thinking As The Key To Success

Download this Guide and Discover How To Find And Monetize on Your Expertise And Strengths. Inside this special report, you'll discover: How positive thinking is one of the key factors in a successful life. Five ways and tools to help you stay positive. Use these to help you keep on track. Case studies that'll inspire you to stick to your dreams. Plus much, much more.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment