The Cycle Of The Trinitarian Processions

In the Summa Theologiae, after having set out the procession of the Word and Love, St Thomas concludes his investigation of the processions by showing that no other procession takes place in God (q. 27, a. 5). This last stage could seem odd. Since, effectively, it is solely by faith that we hold the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, one could ask why anything should be added to this. The final article actually supplies a synthesis, which successfully authenticates the value of the earlier explanations of the processions:

One can only conceive a procession in God that derives from actions which remain in the agent. In a nature that is intellectual and divine, there are only two actions of this type: understanding and volition. The act of sensation, which also seems to be an operation that remains immanent to the sensing subject, does not belong to an intellectual nature; nor is it entirely alien to the sphere of ad extra actions, since the act of sensation is brought about by the action of a sensible object on the senses. It follows that no other procession is possible in God except that of Word and Love.97

This takes us back to the foundation of the study of the processions: the immanent actions of understanding and volition, the only actions enabling one to disclose the origin of the persons. And, since God knows in a pure and simple act, we are led to perceive that the procession of the Word is unique, just as the procession of Love is unique.98 St Thomas is very rigorous about this: the other divine attributes cannot account for the immanent processions.

The apparent subtlety of this question should not hide what is at stake in it. Faith teaches us that the processions of the Son and the Holy Spirit do in fact take place within the Trinity. Neither Arianism nor Sabellianism can succeed in showing this: 'Only the Catholic faith, which affirms the unity of the divine nature in really distinct persons can assign a reason why there are three [persons] in God.'99 This 'reason for the tripling' (ternarii numeri ratio) is the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit, these two being

98 ST I, q. 27, a. 5, ad 3; cf. SCGIV, ch. 13; De rationibus fidei, ch. 3; De potentia, q. 9, a. 9. This is also how Thomas conveys the notion of the 'only begotten' (Jn 1.14-18); cf. In loan. 1.1 (no. 27); SCG IV, ch. 13 (no. 3485).

really distinct persons who are yet consubstantial with the Father. Theology receives this as a gift of faith; it cannot prove it. But the only way to disclose such processions, according to Thomas, is the origin which one can observe in the immanent actions of intellect and volition, because this is the only way we can perceive, in a way that fits God's spiritual nature, the intimate personal fertility in the Trinity. Thomas' expressions are very clear: one can not grasp them in any other way (accipi non possunt), one can not think another procession (nulla possit), without being caught in the trap of heresy or abandoning trying to illuminate the faith.100 Otherwise put: this is all we have at our disposal for giving a reasonable account of the faith, but it is still to be highly valued, since it permits us to succeed here, 'in some way', or 'in as much as we can'.ioi St Thomas is so profoundly convinced of this that he explains, in the De potentia:

In God there cannot be any origination but what is immaterial and consistent with spiritual nature: such is the origin of Word and Love. This is why if the procession of Word and Love is not enough to insert a personal distinction (ad distinctionem personalem insinuandam), no distinction of persons will be possible in God. Thus St John both in the beginning of his Gospel and in his first canonical epistle employs the term Word to designate the Son.io2

If there is another procession, it will be of a different order, of a different kind: this is the 'procession' of creatures, the divine economy. When he considers the 'cycle' of processions, Thomas says that,

There is in God, as there is in us, a sort of'circulation' (circulatio) in the operations of mind and will: for the will returns to that which understanding initiated. But with us the 'circle' (circulus) closes in that which is outside of us: the external good moving our intellect, our intellect moving the will, and the will returning through its appetite and love to the external good. But in God, the 'circle' is completed within himself: for when God understands himself, he conceives his Word which is the 'rationale' of everything known by him, since he understands all things by understanding himself; and through this Word, he 'proceeds' to the love of all things and of himself.. .And the circle being completed, nothing more can be added to it: so that a third procession within the divine nature is impossible, although there follows a procession toward external nature.103

In this passage, St Thomas shows that since God's actions in the world ('procession toward external nature') 104 add nothing to the processions which

100 ST I, q. 27, a. 5. 101 SCG IV, ch. 13 (no. 3496); CT I, ch. 36.

103 De potentia, q. 9, a. 9. Cf. SCG IV, ch. 26 (no. 3632): 'There is no other procession in the divine nature, only a procession toward external effects.'

104 The terminology of procession (like that of distinction) enables one to make an analogous connection between the immanent life of the Trinity and its action in the world: 'There is a constitute a perfect 'circle', they are not to be numbered amongst the intra-Trinitarian processions. God's actions in the world are of a different order, even though they are attached to the intra-Trinitarian processions. On the one hand, the intra-Trinitarian processions somehow include God's principles of creative and salvific action: God knows all things through the begotten Word; God loves all beings through the Love which proceeds. St Thomas explains this in more detail in his study of the persons, and in that of the divine missions and creation. i°5 On the other hand, the creative and salvific action is somehow especially connected to the procession of the Holy Spirit. Love is responsible for our own external acts: 'there is a procession toward external effects, when our spirit proceeds to do something, by means of its love'.i°6 In the same way, it is by his Love (the Holy Spirit) that God 'proceeds' toward external effects. This is why the procession of the Holy Spirit is responsible for the creative impulse initiating the cycle of the procession of creatures: 'the cause of creation is the Love through which God loves his own goodness.'1°7 The investigation of the Trinitarian processions, whose principal object remains the distinction of the persons in God, also opens another chapter in theology: the study of creation and grace.


We must pinpoint one further element of the 'action' which we have been discussing. Thomas has explained that the relations are based on an action giving rise to a procession. So we conceive procession, or the divine nature communicated, as the basis of relation.1°8 This basis is important, enabling Thomas to account for the real relations in God.

These three words, action, procession, relation, do not designate different entities within the God who is simple. The plurality of terms derives from the use of our intelligence in tackling the mystery of the Trinity under many different aspects, because our way of thinking is tied to the worldly realities double procession: one is that in which one person proceeds from another, and this is how the divine persons are mutually distinguished [...]; the other procession is that through which creatures proceed from God: and this is how the multiplicity of things appears, and the distinction of creatures from God' ( Super Dion. de div. nom. II, lect. 2; no. 153).

105 ST I, q. 34, a. 3; q. 37, a. 2, ad 3; q. 45, a. 6. See below, Chapter 14.

107 SCG IV, ch. 20 (no. 3570). We will come back to this in the investigation of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 10.

ios De potentia, q. 10, a. 3; I Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 1.

amongst which we belong (how could we do otherwise?). So one single reality is envisaged from many different angles. First of all, it can be considered under the aspect of the action in which one person communicates the divine substance to another. This is a matter of generation and spiration. This action is signified in a dynamic way, 'like the surging of one person toward another'. To designate the personal action of the generation of the Son and the breathing of the Holy Spirit (the Father 'begets', the Father and the Son 'breathe'), Thomas speaks of a 'notional' act or action.lfl9 This same reality can also be considered under the aspect of the process of the 'outcoming' person: this is then the procession, signified as the 'pathway' leading to the constitution of that person; the Son 'is begotten', the Holy Spirit 'proceeds'. The very same reality can be further considered in the light of the property or characteristic which the persons possess in virtue of the processions: this is then a matter of the relation which distinctly characterizes each person. Thomas explains it like this:

generation signifies the relation to the manner of an operation [...] And it is through one and the same action that the Father begets and the Son is born, but this action finds out two distinct relations in the Father and the

Finally, the same reality can be considered under the aspect of that which possesses this relation, based on procession: this is the person, signified in the manner of the reality which exists or subsists.m

In the Summa Theologiae, St Thomas devotes an entire question (q. 41) to the 'notional acts' (the act of begetting and the act of spiration) which correspond to processions. One must acknowledge that such acts exist, since 'these acts are the only fitting way to designate the origination [of the Son and the Holy Spirit]'."2 Without going into every aspect of this topic, we must at least mention its patristic roots, which are especially apparent when St Thomas explains that notional acts are actions which come about 'through nature'. Arius maintained that the Son was engendered 'through volition': the

109 ST I, q. 41, a. 1. 'Origin can only be designated by actions. So, to signify the order of origin in the divine persons, we must attribute notional acts to the persons.' This way of speaking (notional) indicates the idea of 'notions', which have been an issue earlier, in Chapter 2. It enables one to distinguish, on the one hand, generation and spiration, and, on the other hand, the acts that are common to the three persons (essential acts) which are also acts exercised by the persons, but which do not entail a real procession within God.

no I Sent. d. 20, q. 1, a. 1, ad 1. This is difficult to think through, and yet it is compelling: the fact of being begotten does not imply any 'passivity' in the Son. To be begotten is an action— that is, to be born. For the Son to receive the divine nature is to be born of the Father. And when one says that the Son 'receives the divine nature from the Father' this 'reception' refers to a pure relation of the Son to the Father: this is the relation of origin.

111 ST I, q. 40, a. 2; q. 41, a. 1, ad 2; De potentia, q. 8, a. 3.

Father did not beget the Son out of his own substance, but rather produced him as he does creatures, through his 'will', or 'as a gift'. Because of this, Arius claims that the Son is not of the same nature as the Father, but is created 'out of nothing' (ex ouk onton, ex nihilo).113 Thus, for Arius, the Son is a work issuing from God's will: to say that the Son is engendered volitionally is to say he is not Son naturally but as a free creation of God, something which he has cheerfully volunteered to do. Before Arius, many Catholic authors (such as St Justin, for instance^) had affirmed that the Son was begotten 'by will'. Because of Arianism, this was ruled out, for saying that the Son is begotten by a free choice boils down to designating him as a creature. In reply to Arius, Athanasius and many other of the Fathers explained that begetting the Son is not an act of God's will but rather an act of God's nature. This is what the council of Nicaea professed: The Son is begotten 'from the substance of the Father'. St Thomas knew the historical aspects of the discussion, particularly the discussions of Hilary and Augustine, which had been set out by Peter Lombard."5

When he employs his patristic armoury, St Thomas extends the question to the two processions: those of the Son and the Spirit. He puts this forward as a response to Arianism. The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit do not depend on the creative will of God (divine will being the principle of creation), but are a matter of the divine nature: the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed 'by nature'.n6 Divine will is concomitant with the Son's generation, but its principle is the divine nature.U7 Thomas also reminds us of the difference between immanent and transitive acts. With his idea of immanent processions, it is not difficult to show that the Son and the Holy Spirit are 'of the substance of the Father', since they do not proceed 'outside' of God, but 'within' God himself.n8 The power through which the Father begets the Son must be designated as the divine nature itself in the person of the Father.n9

113 Arius, Thalia and Letter to Eusebius; cf. Athanasius, Werke, vol. III/1, ed. Hans-Georg Opitz, Berlin and Leipzig, 1935, p. 3.

114 Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 61.

115 See Peter Lombard's Sentences, Book I, dist. 5 and 6.

119 ST I, q. 41, aa. 4 and 5. On this question of the 'power of begetting' (a notional power), one can look at our exposition in La Trinité cnatrice, Paris, 1995, pp. 455-562. Compared to the Commentary on the Sentences, the Summa Theologiae puts more emphasis on the divine nature or essence. This question had held Thomas' attention at length in the Questions De potentia (q. 2, aa. 1-6).

Thomas also uses his theory of immanent processions and his idea that 'notional acts' come about 'by nature' to show the 'co-eternity' of the divine persons. He realizes that one ofArius' basic theses is the negation ofthe eternity of the Son: the rejection of the co-eternity of the Son with the Father results in the denial of his consubstantiality.00 He replies to this by explaining that, the Father does not beget the Son by will but by nature. . . . the Father's nature is perfect from eternity. And again, the action through which the Father produces the Son is without successiveness, because if it were so the Son would be generated sucessively, and this generation would be material, and accompanied with movement; which is impossible. Therefore, the Son existed whensoever the Father existed. He is thus co-eternal with the Father, and likewise the Holy Spirit is co-eternal with both.m

The idea of immanent processions and notional acts enables one to sharpen the critique of Arianism by means of a more precise conception of the generation of Son and the procession of Holy Spirit.m The goal of giving reasons for faith as against heresies is thus found at the beginning as well as the end of Thomas' teaching on the processions in God, in a manner that is not unlike what took place in the patristic debates. For Thomas, its greatest fruit is that it enables him to give a basis for the theory of relations of origin.

121 ST I, q. 42, a. 2. This formulation is a reply to Arius' slogan: 'There was a time when God was alone and was not yet Father... There was a time when the Word was not.'

122 See G. Reichberg, 'La communication de la nature divine en Dieu selon Thomas d'Aquin', RT93 (1993), 50-65.

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