Relation The Heart Of Trinitarian Theology

Once we have got hold of the divine person as a 'subsistent relation' Thomas follows up his meditation by systematically comparing persons and relations. This thorough analysis is carried out in question 40 of the Summa, in the section devoted to comparing the persons with what we conceive as the other aspects of the Trinitarian mystery, so far as we can grasp it. This question deals with 'The most arduous problems in Latin Trinitarian theology'.88 Here the points of divergence between the schools are especially noticeable. After the end of the thirteenth century, the scholastics abandoned themselves to 'interminable disputes' on these topics.89 St Thomas is more restrained but, despite this self-denying ordinance, expresses ideas which can doubtless count amongst the most difficult in the whole of his theology. Their degree of subtlety discourages readers from working them out. It is certainly not through question 40 that one should commence one's study of the Trinitarian treatise in the Summa. But, for all its complexity, we would not want to give up on saying something about this question, however briefly, because it shows the unique approach of Thomas' Trinitarian theology.

Set out in four stages, it shows that the personal relations are identical to the persons themselves, that they distinguish the persons, and, what goes deeper, that they constitute these persons in such a way that if we mentally abstract from the relations, we cease to be able to grasp the divine persons: the person cannot be known independently of the relative property which constitutes it as such. To understand this thesis properly, one most observe that the investigation does not touch only on the reality of the three persons in themselves in their divine transcendence, but also bears on the persons in so far as these persons are apprehended by our minds, and designated by us in the language of faith.90 In the precise meaning of the term, this is a theological exercise.

St Thomas begins by showing that, in God, the relation is the person. When he explained that a person is a subsisting relation, he was envisaging the question from the aspect of the persons. Now he is looking at it from the aspect of the relations, so as to bring out the same conclusion. To this end, he reconfigures Gilbert de la Porrée's view of relation as 'positioned from outside' and also corrects Praepositinus of Cremona, who had reduced relative properties to 'ways of speaking'^1 He reminds us that 'in so far as it is a divine

91 On Praepositinus, see above, Chapter 2, in our discussion of notions; on Gilbert of

Poitiers, see above, in Chapter 5, 'The Being of Divine Relations'.

reality, relation is the essence itself'. This is what the discussions ofthe being of relations showed; relation formally consists in a connection to another, and its being is identical to that of the divine essence.92 The person is likewise not 'something other' than the essence (each person is God). For these reasons, 'the relation is identical to the person'^3 This is a direct consequence of the theory of subsistent relations.

Because of this theory of subsistent relations, Thomas can stake two claims on behalf of the divine simplicity. The first is that all the divine attributes are really identical to the very essence of God. Since there does not exist within God a collocation of this, that and the other, there is no genuine difference between God's goodness, his power, and his essence. The second is that what we mean by the concrete names is not really different from what we signify by the abstract names: God is his deity. Thus, the relative properties are really identical to the divine person, not only because everything we recognize in God is the divine essence itself,94 but also because what we concretely signify, the 'person', in God is really identical to what we speak of abstractly ('properties', 'relation'). Another way of putting it is that relative property and person designate the same reality, even though their mode of signifying it differs. In the final analysis, this identity of relative property and person rests on the nature of a divine relation, and, as the study of relation in question 28 showed, divine relations formally possess the being of the divine essence. This applies in full to the three personal relations, that is, to the three relative properties which constitute the persons: paternity, filiation, and procession. These relations or relative properties 'are the subsisting persons themselves': paternity is the Father himself, filiation is the Son, and 'procession' is the Holy Spirit.95

In the second stage, which gives us one of the governing ideas of his Trinitarian theory, Thomas explains that the distinction and constitution of the persons comes down to relation. We are here in the order of the Trinitarian mystery, such as we can grapple with it. In God, the relations are persons: there is no other reality than that of the three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But how to grasp the distinction of these persons, so far as it

92 ST I, q. 28, a. 2; see above, Chapter 5, 'The Being of Divine Relations'.

93 ST I, q. 40, a. 1; cf. I Sent. d. 33, q. 1, a. 2.

94 ST I, q. 40, a. 1, ad 1. It is by means of this rule of the real identity of the divine attributes and essence that Thomas shows that the other relations, which are not 'personal subsistent relations' are identical to the divine essence and to the persons. This is applied first to the real relation of 'spiration' which the Father and Son have with the Holy Spirit; the relation of spiration is really identical to the persons of the Father and the Son. This can then be applied to the other relations (for instance, the mutual knowledge of the three persons), which are not the sources of personal distinction in God.

can be achieved at all? This point is so important in Thomas' eyes that he deals with it in all of his great synthesizing works and even in his biblical commen-taries.96 What is at stake for him is nothing less than the possibility of giving an account of the real plurality of persons which are one single God, according to the teaching of Scripture as received within the Church.

We touched on this a long way back, when we were speaking of the processions: the essential attributes are incapable of giving an account of personal distinction in God. Because they are essential attributes, understanding and will cannot create such a distinction.97 St Thomas rigorously forbids us to conceive the personal plurality as if it were a derivative of the divine essence: this leads to Sabellianism. Neither can the distinction result from the divine attributes which the Son receives in his begetting and those the Holy Spirit receives through his procession, for each receives divinity in its fullness. The Three have each the same divine nature in all its plenitude.

This is where the theological schools reach their crossways. For one large theological current, it is the origin of the persons which accounts for their distinctness, that is, the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit: the Son is begotten, the Holy Spirit proceeds (from Father and Son)—so that is what constitutes the principle of personal distinction in God: the Father is distinguished from the Son as his begetter, the Son is distinguished from the Father because he is begotten by the Father, and the Holy Spirit is distinct from Father and Son in that he proceeds from them. In that case, relation will not be presented as the principle of the distinctness, but rather as a result of the origin which it expresses. From Thomas' perspective, this opinion considers relation in the light of its being founded in action and thus as resulting from this action. This thesis could invoke the authority of Richard of Saint-Victor, who had insisted that, 'in God, it is solely in origin that one should seek the distinction of the persons or existents'd8 To a great extent, Bonaventure sets the stamp of his approval upon this theory. For the Franciscan master, the property which distinguishes the persons implies origin and relation, but the priority must be given to origin (generation and procession).99 If one enquires into the source of the personal distinctions, one would then have to reconsider the origins, looking to the generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit.

96 See Inloan. 15.26 (nos. 2063-2064); 16.14-15 (nos. 2110-2115).

97 See above, in Chapter 4, 'The Order of the Trinitarian Processions'.

98 Richard of Saint-Victor, De Trinitate IV.XV (SC63, pp. 260-261). According to St Thomas, Richard's thesis leads to holding that the persons are distinguished by origin, not by relations (cf. De potentia, q. 8, a. 3, arg. 13).

99 Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 26, a. un., q. 3. See A. Stohr, Die Trinitatslehre des heiligen Bonaventura, Miinster, 1923, pp. 114-120.

St Thomas finds this response unsatisfactory or that it goes too fast: 'it cannot be held'.100 In the world as we know it, when two realities are distinct, they are distinguished not only by the respective processes of their coming into being, but by their own, idiosyncratic properties.101 What makes for the differences between a cow and a horse is the nature or 'specific form' of a cow or a horse; what makes two colts out of the same mare different is the 'matter' into which the horse's nature is concretely diversified, and this is how the two colts are distinct individuals. 102 Whatever the stretch between these examples and the divine transcendence, they show that plurality is grounded in a property which is internal to the distinct individuals. And, with God, the plurality consists neither in matter, since the divine persons are non-material, nor in the specific nature, since the three persons are the same God, nor in a difference between the nature and the concrete subject in possession of this nature, since each person is the divine nature.

Thomas goes on from here to take a look at what the words 'origin' and 'relation' reflect about their objects. Origin signifies the kind of act that is a process moving from a principle to an end-result. And so generation means an action which comes out of the Father and comes to completion in the Son: within the exact inflection of its meaning, generation picks out the operation which, so to say, 'lands up' in the distinct existence of the Son; it does not indicate what characterizes the Son as such, it intends the operation that 'results' in him. Even if one conceives it as entailing a relation, origin is not enough formally to distinguish and to constitute the Father and the Son.103 One still needs to show what precisely in the Father distinguishes him from the Son, and what it is about the Son that makes him distinct from the Father. And relation does this because it really means an intrinsic character of a subject, like a form: filiation is a property, one exclusively belonging to the Son. So it is filiation, rather than generation, which can distinguish and constitute the Son's personality. 104 Thomas' analysis plumbs everything there is to relation: relation then distinguishes and constitutes the person in that relation is the person himself. One can see elsewhere how Thomas gives a lot of thought to the relations signified in the divine persons' names, like Father, Word, Love, so as to show that these relation-names intend the subsisting person.

Thus, so as we can grasp the Triune mystery, and if we pay attention to our own language, 'origin' means a process: generation means the 'way' (via) of an action which goes from the Father to the Son; 'birth' signifies the way into

102 Cf. SCG IV, ch. 24 (no. 3615). 103 De potentia, q. 8, a. 3.

104 ST I, q. 40. a. 2; see also I Sent. d. 26, q. 2; De potentia, q. 8, a. 3; Quodlibet IV, q. 4, a. 2.

the constitution of the Son as person, but it does not signify that which distinguishes and constitutes the Son in himself. 'The hypostasis of the Son must be formally constituted and distinguished by Filiation and not by its origin [birth, begetting] ... since the origin signifies something not as yet subsistent in the nature but as tending toward it.'i05 Properly speaking, the distinction and the 'constitution' of the divine persons comes down to relations, that is, to the three relative properties: paternity, filiation, procession. 'It is thus better to say that the persons or hypostases are distinguished by relations rather than by origin. For, although they are distinguished in both ways, nevertheless in our mode of understanding they are distinguished mainly and primarily by relations.'106

To understand why relation is given this role, we have to go back once again to the preliminary investigation of relation. When he takes the two aspects of relation into account (reference to another and being of the divine essence), St Thomas shows that relation distinguishes the persons: paternity is not filiation, for these two real relations are mutually opposed. And if one takes a good look at relations within the divinity, one finds that relation exists here as the divine essence, it subsists, thus constituting the persons: paternity is the subsisting of the Father, filiation is the Son, the property of procession is the Holy Spirit himself.107 Thomas turns to relation, as that which distinguishes the persons and constitutes them as such. If relation 'constitutes' the persons, it is because it is endowed with the divine being. And it has this divine being not only because it is necessary to recognize that everything which is in God is identical with the divine being itself, but also because this belongs to relation in virtue of its formality as a divine relation. It is thus relation which enables one to understand personhood in God. In reference to the Son, Thomas explains that: 'it is through his relation that the Son is a subsisting person, for his relation is his characteristic personhood'.108

Cajetan has accurately remarked in this context that, it is one thing to say that relation has this prerogative to the extent that it is otherwise identical to the divine essence; and another thing to say that relation has this prerogative because it is formally identical to the divine essence. In the debates amongst the schools,109 in which the Thomists themselves were divided, Cajetan seems

105 De potentia, q. 8, a. 3. Cf. ST I, q. 40, a. 2.

106 ST I, q. 40, a. 2. 107 Cf. De potentia, q. 10, a. 3.

108 I Sent. d. 19, q. 3, a. 2, ad 1: sua enim relatio est sua personalitas.

109 There were heated controversies about this in the fourteenth century, particularly between Thomists and Scotists. Using Bonaventure as his authority, Duns Scotus was in fact tempted to conceive the constitution of a divine person, not as a relation but rather as an absolute reality; see especially Scotus' Lectura on I Sent. d. 26, q. 1 (Opera omnia, vol. 17, Vatican City, 1966, pp. 328-337); cf. F. Wetter, Die Trinitatslehre des Johannes Duns Scotus, Miinster,

to us to have grasped Thomas' thesis which he clarifies by interpreting it in this way: 'Relation constitutes the person through its own condition as relation'n0; and again, 'relation constitutes the person in this way alone: by positing itself, since it is the person as such'.111

St Thomas presents his famous formula for this by way of an extension to this discussion: 'It is because he is the Father that the Father engenders' (quia Pater est, generat).n2 Bonaventure, because he thinks that it is origin which makes for the constitution of the divine person, affirms that the Father is Father because he engenders.w The Dominican master adamantly asserts the reverse: if one considers the property of the Father not just in terms of relation to another, but on the basis that his property constitutes his personality (by being identical to the divine substance paternity is subsistent being itself), then one has to acknowledge that the Father is Father through his paternity. It is thus as constituted by his relative property that the Father exercises his own particular actions, the chief of which is generation. It is because he is God the Father, in virtue of his relative property of paternity, that the Father engenders the Son. In this sense, the relative property of the Father is 'presupposed' in all that he does as person.

This question may seem over subtle, but its outcome is not trivial. What Thomas is rejecting is the idea that the person who exercises an action can be conceived extra-relationally, independently of his constitution as person through his relative property. Otherwise put, the role of relations is not restricted to putting the persons on show. The relative properties are not adventitiously added on to persons who have already been constituted in some other way. We can express it as St Albert does: one cannot think a distinct person other than by grasping his relative property.n4 Since the actions are not performed by the divine essence but rather by the persons as such (it is the person of the Father which engenders), the Father cannot be grasped as an acting subject outside his relative property of paternity. This is why, in the order of our understanding of the mystery, getting hold of

110 Cajetan, In Iam, q. 40, a. 4 (Leon. ed., vol. 4, p. 419, nos. 6 and 8). The debate largely bore on the issue of how to interpret the Summa Theologiae and the De potentia (q. 8, a. 3, ad 7) in relation to one another. See P. Vanier, Théologie trinitaire chez Thomas d'Aquin, Montreal and Paris, 1953, pp. 77-80; id., 'La relation trinitaire dans la Somme théologique de St Thomas d'Aquin', Sciences ecclésiastiques 1 (1948), 143-159, cf. 156-159.

m Cajetan, ibid. (no. 10); see our article, 'Essentialisme ou personnalisme dans le traite de Dieu chez St Thomas d'Aquin?', RT 98 (1998), p. 36; Trinity in Aquinas, pp. 205-206.

112 ST I, q. 40, a. 4; cf. I Sent. d. 27, q. 1, a. 2; De potentia, q. 10, a. 3. This is also the teaching of Albert the Great, who Thomas follows in this. Cf. Albert, I Sent. d. 27, a. 2; Super Dion. de div. nom., ch. 2, no. 26 (ed. Colon., vol. 37/1, p. 60).

113 Bonaventure, I Sent., d. 27, p. 1, a. un., q. 2.

114 Albert, Super Dion. de div. nom., ch. 2, no. 25 (ed. Colon., vol. 37/1, p. 60).

paternity, the property of the Father, comes before grasping the personal action performed by the Father. Otherwise, one would have conceive the Father independently of his relative property or anteriorly to this relative property. Attached to his doctrine of relation, St Thomas shows that this is not possible, because it boils down to conceiving the Father in some way as a pre-relational divine being. He does not conceive the Father as the 'absolute person of God'U5 but rather conceives the one who is the Father through his paternity.

For the same reason, if we prescind from the relations which are the three personal properties (paternity, filiation, procession), then the divine persons evaporate from our thought. 116 Without an understanding of the relations, one can still conceive the divine essence; this is why believing Jews or nonChristians who recognize the existence of God understand God as a being who exists or subsists, and also perceive his essential attributes (wisdom, power, etc.). If we abstract from the relations, then within our minds at least, the tri-personhood of God vanishes. Without the relative properties of paternity, filiation, and procession, it becomes impossible to conceive the divine persons, since it is these relative properties which distinguish and constitute the persons. The reason which Thomas gives for this goes back to one of Albert's formulae. There is not, on the one hand, person, and on the other hand, relation, but 'the relations bear their supposits within themselves'.ii7

The meaning of this reasoning must be understood properly. It is not a matter of putting the Trinitarian faith, so to speak, into parentheses, but rather of authenticating the depth at which the person in God is attached to relation. Thomas' reflection manifests the fact that our grasp of the divine persons is totally bound up with the relations. And when one considers relation in a divine condition properly, such as Christian theology recognizes it to be (according to its two aspects: relation to another and the being of the divine essence), then if we mentally suppress the relations, the whole divine reality vanishes within our minds. There will remain neither the persons, since they are constituted by the relations, nor the essence, since relation is formally identical to the divine essence; nor will hypostasis remain, nor even

115 The expression is used by W. Kasper, whose position borders on the one Thomas is challenging: see Walter Kasper, The God of Jesus Christ, trans. Matthew J. O'Connell, London, 1983, p. 298.

116 ST I, q. 40, a. 3; cf. I Sent. d. 26, q. 1, a. 2; De potentia, q. 8, a. 4.

117 Thomas, ST I, q. 40, a. 3; Albert, Super Dion. de div. nom., ch. 2, nos. 25-26 (ed. Colon., vol. 37/1, p. 60); Albert, I Sent. d. 28, a. 4, ad 5 ('I am obdurate!', Albert explains in the main body of his reply: without the relational property, we cannot conceive the divine person as Trinitarian faith understands it).

the divine absolute, since that absolute is itself also identical to the subsistent relation: 'nothing remains'.118

One could scarcely formulate more forcibly and profoundly the central role of relations in the theological disclosure of Trinitarian faith. The doctrine of subsistent relation, which exhibits the persons and their plurality, is the soul of Thomas Aquinas' speculative Trinitarian theology.

118 Thomas, I Sent., d. 26, q. 1, a. 2: 'Unde, abstracta relatione proprie loquendo nihil manet, neque absolutum, neque relatum, neque hypostasis, neque essentia.' Thomas shows himself here a true disciple of his master, Albert the Great. See Albert, Super Dion. de div. nom., ch. 2, no. 25 (ed. Colon., vol. 37/1, p. 60): 'et ita nihil manet'; cf. I Sent. d. 26, a. 5. From this viewpoint, even the divine nature or essence will disappear from our minds, because the divine essence is not determined by relations as a substance is determined by an accident.

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