The Person

St Thomas conceives the divine person as a subsisting relation. Relation distinguishes and identifies the person which it 'constitutes'. His notion of person has been much studied, in connection with Trinitarian theology, Christology and anthropology.1 Instead of going into all of the aspects of his notion of 'person', we mainly plan to throw light on this conception of the person as relational. In the context of Trinitarian doctrine, the first thing we should note is that Thomas ties his own investigation to the Fathers of the Church, who developed the notion of person in response to various heresies:

The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments do not apply the name 'person' to God, although they often attribute to God what is meant by this name, namely that God exists sovereignly through himself and is perfect in knowledge. If, in speaking of God we could only employ the words which Scripture literally ascribes to God, it would follow that one could never speak of him in any other language than that in which the Old and New Testaments were delivered. We have to look for new words to express the ancient faith in God because of the necessity of arguing with heretics. And there is no need to avoid such innovation... —the apostle teaches us to 'avoid profane verbal innovations' (1 Tim. 6.20)—since it is not profane but is in harmony with the meaning of Scripture.2

This way of thinking goes hand in hand with the purpose of speculative theology. It also reminds us of the observations which have already been formulated in connection with the notions of procession and relation. St Thomas tests the use of the word 'person' in theology against the patristic criterion which came down to him through Pseudo-Denys: one must not think or speak of God 'outside of that which has been divinely revealed by the sacred Scriptures'.3 The sole aim of our reflections on the person is to help us understand what revelation says about God. The meditation comes about because of the need to address heresies. In connection with the 'number' of

1 Amongst the many available works, we would like to note: E. Bailleux, 'Le personnalisme de St Thomas en théologie trinitaire', RT 61 (1961), 25-42; A. Malet, Personne et amour dans la théologie trinitaire de St Thomas d'Aquin, Paris, 1956.

3 Ibid., arg. 1; cf. SCG IV, ch. 24 (no. 3621); De potentia, q. 10, a. 4, arg. 12.

persons in God, St Thomas explained in his Questions De potentia that, without any pretension to 'comprehend' God, the theologian can grasp something of the truth, in a contemplative exercise which, clearing mistakes out of the path, gives believers a pre-glimpse of what they hope to contemplate in the beatific vision.4


St Thomas does not tell us much about the history ofthe word 'person'. In the context of Christology, he does present solid background information on the historical context, connecting the discussion of hypostasis and person to the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, particularly focusing on how these words emerge from the Nestorian controversy.5 The well-known definition by Boethius, whose Thomist interpretation we will be examining, itself arose within a Christological context. In Trinitarian theology, he alludes to the fourth-century patristic controversies,6 but without giving very much detail. Like all his peers, he discusses three main definitions of the 'person' in Trinitarian theology: those of Boethius and of Richard of Saint-Victor, and the 'definition of the masters', to which the early Franciscan school was much attached. He makes his preference for Boethius' definition very clear; for him, it eclipses the others. At least in the exclusive form it presents in Thomas' writing, this choice was not obvious. In the twelfth century, and likewise at the beginning of the thirteenth century, many authors criticized Boethius' definition for being 'more philosophical than theological', and thus inadmissible in Trinitarian theology.7 It was not unusual for theologians to rework the meaning of Boethius' definition in the light of other conceptions of the person.

St Thomas is much more decisive. His investigation of the person is clearly based on Boethius' definition, set within a Christological context which requires that one steers clear of Nestorianism and Monophysitism: 'The person is an individual substance of a rational nature' (persona est rationalis [rationabilis]

4 De potentia, q. 9, a. 5; see above, in Chapter 2, 'Understanding the Faith'.

5 Cf. ST III, q. 2, aa. 2 and 3; De unione Verbi incarnati, aa. 1 and 2. On the nature of Thomas' information of the Councils, see G. Geenen, 'En marge du Concile de Chalcedoine. Les textes du Quatrieme Concile dans les oeuvres de St Thomas', Angelicum 29 (1952), 43-59; M. Morard, 'Une source de St Thomas d'Aquin: le deuxieme concile de Constantinople (553)', RSPT 81 (1997), 21-56.

7 See for instance Peter of Poitiers, I Sent. 4 and I Sent. 32 (PL 211. 801 and 923).

naturae individua substantia).8 His explanation of this definition starts off from the conception of the individual: 'the individual belongs in a special way to the genus of substance. For a substance is individuated through itself'.9 The first thing which one sees about the person is its character as an irreducibly real singular, a determinate entity, singular and distinct from everything else. St Thomas immediately goes on to say that the 'individual' in question belongs to the genus of substance, in the sense of Aristotle's 'primary substance' (the concrete substance, subject, or hypostasis). An individual substance is characterized by its own 'mode of existence': it does not exist in and through another, but in and through itself. This fact of existing through itself is the fundamental characteristic of substance, and thus of the person. A person is the individual substance which possesses its own being in and through itself, having complete purchase on the exercise of its own act of existence. To specify what he means by individual substance, Thomas makes an analysis of action:

particularity and individuality are found in a still more special and perfect way in rational substances, which have control over their actions, and are not just acted upon as other beings are, but act of their own initiative; and actions are carried out by singular beings. It follows from this that, amongst all the substances, individual beings with rational nature have a special name: that of 'person'.10

The theme at the heart of this way of approaching the person is freedom of action: persons act through themselves. The presence of this theme shows that, when he talks about 'rational nature', Thomas is picturing all of the spiritual faculties of the person. Intellectuality implies volition and freedom: it characterizes a way of acting that is in step with beings who recognize and conceive goals in their minds and freely direct themselves towards them. Free will only belongs to those beings which have mind: they are not just 'driven' toward an attainable end, but have the capacity freely to take themselves off toward a goal upon which they have intelligently decided. This free inclination, or 'intellectual appetite', is free will.n A mode of action exhibits a mode of being: as one is, so one acts. The mode of acting freely through oneself is based on the mode of being through oneself.12 The experience of

8 ST I, q. 29, a. 1; cf. I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1; De potentia, q. 9, a. 2. Boethius, Contra Eutyches and Nestorius, ch. 3 (PL 64. 1343). Cf. C. Schlapkohl, Persona est naturae rationabilis individua substantia, Boethius und die Debatte uber den Personbegriff, Marburg, 1999, pp. 199-217.

9 ST I, q. 29, a. 1; cf. De potentia, q. 9, a. 2. On this topic see L. Dewan, 'The Individual as a Mode of Being according to Thomas Aquinas', The Thomist 63 (1999), 403-424.

11 ST I, q. 80, a. 1; q. 82, a. 1; cf. SCG IV, ch. 19 (no. 3558); De veritate, q. 23, a. 1.

acting enables one to apprehend the existence of the reality which founds this action. At the root of action is a 'self' which engages with and knows itself as such because it is so constituted through its ontological principles: free action manifests the genuine nature of persons. So we need not contrast Thomas' metaphysical attitude to the topic with one which stresses the 'psychological' elements of the person (such as the life of the mind: knowledge, freedom, action, and openness to another), because these elements are integrated into his own approach.

Thus, 'individual substance' is the genus nearest to the definition of a person, whilst its specific difference is tied to its being a 'rational nature'. The word 'rational' does not only indicate mental activity, but the power, capacity, or faculty of intellectual knowledge and spiritual life. Elsewhere, St Thomas clarifies that the adjective 'reasonable' should not just be taken in the strict sense of reason as a discursive faculty proper to human beings (unless one says this, one could not apply this definition of the person to God, since God knows without reasoning"); instead, it should be taken to embrace all the branches of intellectual nature, whatever its modalities (for instance, intuitive or discursive). It thus has an analogical fit with God, with angels, and with human beings. In addition, 'nature' is not only taken here in its original meaning of'principle of action' (the principle of movement or rest)/4 but denotes the specific essence. i5 Boethius used these features in order to draw up a complete definition which is targeted not only at a mental conception but at the whole concrete reality of the person.16

In conclusion, the person is defined by its existing through itself (subsistence), in an irreducible and entirely singular way (individuality), with a freedom of action which is drawn from its essence (intellectual nature). All of these character traits ground the dignity of the person. The theological use of this definition secures the divinity of the three persons (the divine intellectual nature), as against Arianism, it preserves the real distinction of the persons and the subsistence which fits them (the individual substance) against Sabellianism, and it founds their action (as an individual substance which is intelligent and free).

!3 ST I, q. 29, a. 3, ad 4; cf. q. 14, a. 7; q. 79, a. 8; I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1, ad 4; De potentia q. 9, a. 2, ad 10: 'Boethius takes the word ''rational'' broadly here, in the sense of ''intellectual''.'

14 Aristotle, Physics II.1 (192b21-23); Metaphysics D 4 (1014b18-20); cf. STIII, q. 2, a. 1.

!5 ST I, q. 29, a. 1, ad 4; De potentia, q. 9, a. 2, ad 11. It is a plausible assessment that, on this point, St Thomas distinguishes himself from 'most of the interpreters of his times' by interpreting Boethius' definition correctly (Schlapkohl, Persona, p. 209).

16 I Sent. d. 25, q. 1, a. 1, ad 8; De unione Verbi incarnati, a. 2.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment