Relations

For St Thomas, the relations which distinguish the divine persons constitute these persons. Relation thus becomes the basis of a theological understanding of the divine persons. In working this out, Thomas is following the path opened up by his teacher, St Albert the Great, which diverges from that of the Franciscan school. The theme of relation does not occupy a comparable position in the theology of St Bonaventure, for example. But for Thomas, even more than for Albert the Great, the notion of relation is of utmost significance. The treatise on the Trinity begins with a consideration of the processions precisely in order to show that this is its foundation.

Hence, the theory of relations will be found throughout the Summas Trinitarian treatise: it is not confined to question 28, but influences the whole of the subsequent meditation. When we trace out the main stages of question 28, we will see that Thomas is laying the groundwork out of which the treatise develops. He shows the existence of real relations in God, the identity of these relations with the single divine essence, the mutual distinction of the relations, and he provisionally completes his reflection by pinning down what sort of relations we are talking about. Once he has completed this part of the construction, the elements which give us the ability to conceive a divine person have been put on view.

The first time St Thomas tackled the question of relation, he observed that, 'for all Catholics, it is certain that there are relations in God'.1 'The truth of the faith (Veritas fidei) implies that the only distinction that can be in God is taken from opposed relations.'2 And when he explains that these relations are absolutely real ones, he begins his exposition with a similar observation, zeroing in on the fact that, like the preceding one, this question arises because of issues raised by the heresies of the patristic era:

Those who follow the teaching of the Catholic faith must hold that there are real relations in God. The Catholic faith acknowledges that there are in God three persons of one single Essence. And, any number results from a distinction. So there must be in God a distinction [not only] in comparison to creatures, which essentially differ from i I Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 1.

God, but also a distinction in respect of that which subsists in the divine essence. And this distinction cannot issue out of a reality that is absolute, for anything that is attributed to God as an absolute reality signiWes the divine essence, so it would follow from that that the divine persons are distinguished through their essence: this is the heresy of Arius. But this distinction cannot be purely conceptual either, for ...it would follow that the Father is the Son, and that the Son is the Father, . . . and thus the divine persons are only verbally distinct from one another: this is the heresy of Sabellianism. It remains thus to be said that the relations in God are real. So, in following the teaching of the saints [the Fathers], one must try to work out how this can be, although of course our reason cannot fully grasp it.3

This takes us back to the themes which we indicated earlier, in studying processions. Theological investigation ofthe relations comes from the encounter between Catholic faith and Arianism or Sabellianism. St Thomas understands his own work as the extension of that of the Fathers of the Church who prized relation as a way of expressing an authentic Trinitarian monotheism, as against the heresies. This project is not an attempt to 'comprehend' the Trinity, because our reason cannot fully grasp the mystery of relations in God. When the theologian tries to perceive the divine relations, he wants to show believers that there is a rational basis from which to resist objections to faith in the Trinity. By enabling them not to be confused by erroneous reasoning, theological research opens believers to contemplation of the mystery.

St Thomas is not very forthcoming about the patristic sources of his theory of relation. He makes his debt to Augustine and Boethius explicit, but his references to the Greek fathers are less numerous, even though he was at least indirectly aware of them.4 To get a perspective on what the idea of relation means within his Trinitarian theology, and to grasp its roots, we must brieXy retrace our steps to the Fathers.

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