Subsistent Relations

St Thomas has shown what a person is, and, when he explained the parallels in the Greek theological terminology, he established that the name is sovereignly fitting to God. When he drew on the rules of analogy, he pinpointed the fact that the person exists in God in a different way from in creatures. Faith recognizes three 'distinct subsistents' in the unity of the divine substance: it was precisely in order to articulate this that the Church called on the words person and hypostasis. What becomes of our notion of person, and what is the meaning of the term when it is applied to God? Here one is touching on the mystery of the irreducible features of the person at the heart of the Trinity (the individual of Boethius' definition), or the incommunicable properties (Richard of Saint-Victor's incommunicable existence).

This question gives rise to the theory of the 'subsistent relation'. Using his preliminary analysis of relation, Thomas makes 'subsistent relations' the synthesizing agents in his speculative Trinitarian theology. In the Summa Theologiae, the heart of the synthesis emerges in question 29, the investigation of the meaning of the word person. The discussion is pursued later on in the treatise, with the comparison of person, essence, and relations (qq. 39-40).

The question is tackled from the perspective of language: What does the word 'person' signify when it is applied to God? This is not just a verbal matter, because in trying to see where our doctrinal language points us, the theologian is actually considering the divine reality. What does it mean for Father, Son, Spirit to be the distinct and incommunicable reality which we call 'person'? The scholastics have a common formula for putting this question: Does the word 'person' indicate the substance or the relation, the essence or the distinctive character of each of the Three? Every time he examines this question, Thomas begins by discussing the different current opinions about it: 'One finds multiple responses in the masters.'61 The opinions are almost more numerous than the theologians pronouncing them. For instance, St Albert described no fewer than seven different verdicts in the masters,

60 One can see the file on this material put together by Peter Lombard in his Sentences, bk. I, dist. 23-26. St Thomas connects his own thinking on the translation of hypostasis to Jerome (I Sent. d. 26, q. 1, a. 1, ad 1; ST I, q. 29, a. 2, ad 3).

before giving the eighth, which he adopts!62 For Thomas the discussion of the sources is restricted to the listing of the three most important opinions. We will briefly look at them, in the same order as we find them in the Summa.63

Thomas begins by marking his distance from an essentialist conception of person for which, properly understood, it purely and simply signifies the divine substance, just as the word God does. In that case, the use of the term 'persons', in the plural, to indicate the distinct Three would be merely an accommodation to our way of speaking, a verbal convention based on the Church using it in the ancient Councils. If we examine this opinion, we can see the problem arises for those who take Augustine too literally (Peter Lombard is no exception to this).64 For St Augustine, the term person is effectively, in and of itself, an absolute name: 'in this Trinity, when we speak of the person of the Father, ...we mean nothing other than the substance of the Father. ... Person is an absolute term [ad se dicitur] and not a term which is relative to the Son or the Holy Spirit, like absolute terms such as: God, great, good, just, and other qualitatives of that kind.'65 It is clear that Augustine's analysis ultimately fails, for he has to say that person means the substance, and cannot genuinely refer to the distinct Three: 'If one asks oneself, three whats? Human language is too bare so say. But one can reply: three persons, less in order to say what is there than in order not to be reduced to silence.'66 Thomas considers that this solution is completely unsatisfactory. If one accepts that it is only by linguistic convention or because of historical accident that the word person is used to refer to the distinct Three (the 'relatives'), then, when it introduced this word to articulate the Trinitarian faith, the Church exposed itself to even more serious error than the heresies it was dealing with at the time.67

Other theologians had maintained that the word person directly refers to the divine essence, and only indirectly indicates the relation: it would thus be a substantial name with the connotation of, or 'co-signifying' a relation. This opinion, advanced by Simon of Tournait leaves the problem exactly where it

62 Albert, I Sent. d. 23, q. 1, a. 2. St Thomas evidently utilized the research assembled by Albert, and Bonaventure: one often finds the listed opinions in his writings, couched in very similar phraseology.

63 ST I, q. 29, a. 4. These discussions are nearly all paralleled in the Commentary on the Sentences (I Sent. d. 23, q. 1, a. 3) and in the Disputed Questions De potentia (q. 9, a. 4). For a historical analysis, see M. Bergeron, 'La structure du concept latin de personne', Etudes d'histoire littéraire et doctrinale du XIIIe siècle, Second series, Paris and Ottawa, 1932, pp. 121-161.

64 Thomas (De potentia, q. 9, a. 4) explicitly attributed this opinion to Peter Lombard (Sentences, Book I, dist. 25).

65 Augustine, De Trinitate VII.VI.11.

66 Augustine, De Trinitate V.IX.10; cf. De Trinitate VII.VI.11.

68 Simon of Tournai, Disputatio 83, q. 1 (ed. J. Warichez, Les Disputationes de Simon de Tournai, Namur, 1932, p. 241). Cf. M. Schmaus, 'Die Texte der Trinitatslehre in den Sententiae des Simon von Tournai', RTAM 4 (1932), 62-63.

was, because it puts the main stress on the divine substance or essence which is common to the Three. It is hard to see how one can justify the use of 'persons' in the plural on this basis. Conversely, a third opinion holds that person refers primarily to the relation, and only in the second place to the divine essence. Albert reports that this was the approach suggested by William of Auxerre.69 But William of Auxerre's solution is shaky. It doubtless disengages person from the essentialist meaning it took on in the Augustinian tradition, but only by an argument which has a utilitarian flavour: if that is what persona means, it cannot be used without making mistakes.7° And if, Thomas adds, person primarily means a relation, an individual person can hardly be described as being an 'in itself' or a 'for itself'.

On this question, Albert and Bonaventure took the middle ground, holding that person simultaneously means substance and relative property. Bonaventure explains that the name person is aiming at the essence, plus the relation: this is how our minds can grasp the hypostasis which is distinct through a property^1 Albert's solution is similar to Bonaventure's: he prudently explains that, in God, the word person refers to the essence or substance and additionally to the singular property, in such a way that once we add the relative property to the substance, 'person' includes both.72

Thomas is more resolute in seizing on the direction pointed out by William: those who go this way 'are closer to the truth'.73 He thought the middle way tried out by Albert and Bonaventure was unsatisfactory because it divided the meaning of person or conceived it as a kind of specification or addition. And, by definition, 'person' means that which is distinct in an individual nature, including its individuating principles. 'Hence ''person'' in human nature refers to this flesh, these bones and this soul which are the sources of a human being's individuality.'74 Consequently, when we attribute the name person to God it must also express, in the fullest sense of the term, that which entails distinction amongst the divine persons. This is where the preparatory study of relation enters the question. 'Relation does not exist in God like an accident inheres in a subject: it is the divine essence itself, it is thus subsistent just as the divine essence is.' On this basis, Thomas explains that,

The 'divine Person' means relation as something subsisting (relatio ut subsistens). Otherwise put, it means the relation by way of that substance which is the subsistent hypostasis in the divine nature (relatio per modum substantiae quae est hypostasis

69 Albert, I Sent. d. 23, a. 2 (this is the sixth opinion Albert lists).

7° William of Auxerre, Summa aurea I, tr. 6, ch. 3 (ed. J. Ribaillier, Paris and Grottaferrata, 1980, vol. 1,pp. 84-90).

71 Bonaventure, I Sent. d. 25, a. 1, q. 1. One notices that Bonaventure is guided by the Masters' definition of the person, not that of Boethius.

72 Albert, I Sent. d. 23, a. 2. 73 ST I, q. 29, a. 4. 74 ST I, q. 29, a. 4.

subsistens in natura divina); though that which subsists in the divine nature is nothing other than the divine nature.75

One can very easily see the originality of Thomas' thought on this, and the advance which it marks by comparison to Bonaventure or Albert. His doctrine of the person rests on his analysis of relation. We have already seen that, as far as its proper notion or ratio is concerned, relation consists in a pure reference to another (a connection of origin) but in its own being it is purely and simply identical with the existence of the divine essence.76 This is worked out in such a way that, in God, the principle of distinction (the relation) is no different from the reality thus distinguished (the person).77 It is no longer seen as an 'addition', as in the previous explanations, but rather as an 'integration', so to speak, since what is involved is a divine relation under the aspects of its personal distinction and essence: this is, therefore, what we mean by the word person in God. To clarify this, and ensure that there is no ambiguity here, this is not a matter of a relation considered simply according to its ratio (the pure connection) to the exclusion of its being; as has been discussed earlier, it is very much relation taken in its integral status in God. In this way, the divine person is the relation in so far as it is a subsisting relation; it is the relation of origin in God, enjoying the prerogatives of the absolute in the mode of the hypostatic incommunicability, and it is this subsisting relation which is signified by the word person. It is thus in an entirely fitting way, and not just by linguistic convention, that we confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as distinct persons in God.

Yet person does not simply mean relation as relationality, but relation as subsistence. The words relation and person continue to signify in their own distinct modes. Throughout his discussion, Thomas ceaselessly pays attention to our language, since this language expresses the notions and concepts through which we grasp the realities in question. When we say that the Father is a person, we do not signify the Father as one would a relation, but in the style due to a subsistent. In the same way that the notion of relation is conceptually distinct from that of person, their mode of referring also differs: if you pay attention to how our language works, what relation naturally signifies is a form, a reference to another; whereas what person naturally signifies is a concrete subject, a subsistentJ8 The word person 'thus does not signify relation after the manner of relation, but after the manner of the substance which is the hypostasis'.^ Relation derives this capacity to be referred to hypostatically

75 ST I, q. 29, a. 4. This response is already clear in the Commentary on the Sentences: 'I thus affirm that ''person'' in God means a relation in the mode ofsubstance . . . , not the substance which is the essence but the substance qua the supposit possessing the essence' (I Sent. d. 23, q. 1, a. 3).

76 ST I, q. 28, a. 2; see above, Chapter 5. 11 De potentia, q. 9, a. 4, ad 16.

78 ST I, q. 40, a. 2. 79 ST I, q. 29, a. 4, ad 1; cf. I Sent. d. 26, q. 1, a. 1, ad 5.

from its being situated in God: it perfectly preserves its formality of'relation to another' (relation of origin) and simultaneously really identifies itself exist-entially with the divine subsistent essence.so

Having set out the heart of his own position, Thomas can draw out the truth in the other responses to the question. The first opinion is right to say that it belongs to Christianity to have disengaged the profound significance of the person, as happened during its confrontation with Arianism and Sabellianism, for the authentic meaning of this word 'was not grasped before the heretics abused it'. The defence of the faith was therefore the occasion for the discovery of the Trinitarian meaning of the word 'person'. This explanation involves a particular understanding of the theologian's vocation. Without reducing it to the historical circumstances which produced it, he has communicated the truth of the dogmatic expression put forward by the Spirit-led Church to express its faith. If the name person is applied to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, it is not just a matter of convention, however venerable, but because of what this term means.

Likewise, the second opinion is correct to say that in a certain way 'person' signifies essence plus relation, so long as one sees that the essence is really identical to the hypostasis and that the axes of distinction amongst the hypostases are their relations. It is also true that, as the third solution had it, the name person signifies the relation directly and the essence indirectly, on condition that one grasps that this is a matter of signifying 'in the mode of an hypostasis', as Thomas put it in his own explanation.si One can then see what makes Thomas' explanation different from this third opinion. Properly speaking, person does not mean relation first and essence afterwards but rather, relation as subsisting. It is not an addition to or juxtaposition of relation with essence, but their integration or identity, thanks to a precise idea of what relation is. It is this integrative approach which enables Thomas to draw together all the other patristic and medieval contributions to the subject.

Thomas restricts his discovery of'person-relation' to the divine persons. He observes that 'it is one thing to research the meaning of person in general, and another to study the meaning of the divine person.82 Human beings are very much persons but they are not subsistent relations! Because of the analogical character of the name person, it is necessary to recognize, in the first place, a common notion of person which applies analogically to God, human beings and angels, and, in the second place, a formal notion of person which comes s0 ST I, q. 28, a. 2. s1 ST I, q. 29, a. 4.

s2 Ibid., cf. De potentia, q. 9, a. 4. The advantage of Boethius' definition is precisely that of offering a 'common' meaning for person, whereas Richard of Saint-Victor's definition, although it is valuable in other respects, is restricted to the divine person.

back to God alone, along with another notion ofpersons which is exclusively attached to creatures. The common notion had been expressed in Boethius' definition, and Thomas summarizes it like this: in all these cases, a person is 'a distinct subsistent in an intellectual nature'.83 To be able then to carve out a more precise notion of person as it belongs to God and as it does to human beings, it is necessary to determine the mode of individuation appropriate to it. That is, it is necessary to bring into the discussion the individuating principles which account for the person's incommunicability, whether it is human or divine. If one considers the human person by itself, its 'formal meaning' is specified by the human principle of individuation, that is, the union of this soul and that body, according to the Aristotelian conception of individuation through matter. If one considers the Triune God, the 'formal meaning' of the word person is the 'distinct subsistent in the divine nature', that is, a 'relation by way of subsistence' or in other words, 'the relation by way of substance . . . qua hypostasis'.84

So one must not conflate Boethius' common and analogical definition with the 'formal' signification of person in God (the person as subsisting relation). St Thomas does not bring relation either into the common definition of the person or into the particular signification of the human person: 'Even though relation is contained in the meaning of the divine person, it is not like this for the meaning of person in angels or the meaning of the human person.'85 This means in practice that 'in creatures the distinction of supposits does not come back to relations, but to essential principles; because in creatures, relations are not subsistent'.86 The relational understanding of person is set aside for the Trinity, because of the status which relation has in God, that is, because only in God are there 'subsistent relations'.87

This theory of subsistent relation provides the key to Thomas' theological understanding of the mystery of the divine tri-personhood. This is his means of disclosing the plurality of persons, their genuine alterity, the mystery of 'number' in God, the identity of relation and person with the divine essence, and the distinction and the actual constitution of the persons through their relations. Without going into every shade of meaning or exhibiting a complete portrait of the different aspects of this teaching, one must at least indicate them, so that we can estimate the extent of the implications of this discovery.

83 St Thomas had already taken on this definition when he wrote the Commentary on the Sentences; see for instance I Sent. d. 23, q. 1, a. 4: 'persona dicit aliquid distinctum subsistens in natura intellectuali'.

84 De potentia, q. 9, a. 4. 85 ST I, q. 29, a. 4, ad 4.

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