The Processions

In the Summa Theologiae, the very first question in the treatise on the Trinity is about the processions. To see why he begins by asking about this, one must look at where the question is leading: St Thomas wants to show that, because it secures a roundly Trinitarian monotheism, relation enables one to grasp the divine person.

In the previous chapter, we noted the contribution of the systematic reflection in the Disputed Questions De potentia; the truth is that the role of the processions in understanding the relations is already apparent in the Commentary on the Sentences.1 The Summa Contra Gentiles also elucidates the matter, in the context of the procession of the Holy Spirit: faith in three persons implies that these persons are really distinct; and since it concerns consubstantial persons whose essence is indivisible, their distinctness can only be through the pure opposition of relation; relation itself must be founded on the origin of the persons, that is in an action giving rise to a procession.2 We see this in our own world: real relations do not spring from nowhere, but rather come from something which ensures its being real. Our mind perceives the foundation of personal relations in God precisely as procession. So, if one wants to use a relational conception of the person as a means of illuminating our faith in the Trinity, one must be able to give a presentation, in analogies, of the processions which allow us to account for the real relations in God.

It follows that the role which the investigation of the processions plays is propaedeutic: it prepares the way for the study of relations, which in its turn prepares the way for us to think about the persons. That means that the analysis of the processions and relations will be seen to have been worth it when we reach the study of the persons.3 What is at stake in the question of the processions is assuring the bases of the theories of relation and person. But what kind of procession are we talking about? The tonality of the entire

1 See particularly, I Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 1; a. 2, ad 4; cf. d. 11, q. 1, a. 1.

3 Cf. ST I, q. 29, prol: 'Now that we have dealt with what were seen as the necessary preliminaries about processions and relations (quae de processionibus et relationibus praecognos-cenda videbantur), it is necessary to grapple with the persons.'

Trinitarian treatise comes from this question. St Thomas regards it as necessary for the disclosure of the properties and consubstantiality of the divine persons. So it calls for our close scrutiny.


St Thomas considers the existence of 'processions' in God as a given, scriptural teaching: 'In relation to God, sacred Scripture uses words which indicate procession.'4 Theology attempts no rational proof of the personal processions: it simply offers itself as a disclosure of the sense of Scripture.5 But, so that the affirmation of 'processions' in God can make some sense to us, it is necessary for us to grasp what a procession is; and we can only do that by moving on by analogy from what is better known to us, processions in our own world. Unless one does this, one can assert the existence of the divine processions, but one will not have enlightened anyone's mind as to the meaning of such an assertion.

St Thomas also accepts as a scriptural fact (he was reading the Bible in Latin), that the word procession applies to the origin of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.6 But he also gathered from the Eastern terminology used by the Greek Fathers that procession designates, more precisely, the origin ofthe Holy Spirit. In the teaching on the properties, the word procession will actually be applied by Thomas to what belongs to the person of the Spirit, and not to the Son.7 The word procession thus exposes two meanings: in its common usage it refers as much to the origin of the Son as the Holy Spirit, and it also has a restricted sense which exclusively relates to the Holy Spirit. Here is the reason: 'In the created world, one finds a subsistent reality which proceeds by way of nature: this enables us to give the procession of the Son a proper name: generation. But we do not find, in the created world, a subsistent reality which proceeds by way of love, as the Holy Spirit proceeds; and this is why we are not able to give this procession a proper name, but only a common name.'s

4 ST I, q. 27, a. 1. St Thomas notes the language concerning the origin of the Son (ibid., sed contra) and the origin of the Holy Spirit (q. 27, a. 3, sed contra): 'Ego ex Deo processi' (Jn 8.42 Vulgate); 'The Spirit of truth which proceeds from the Father' (Jn 15.26). See also De potentia, q. 10, a. 1, sed contra 1-2; SCG IV, chs. 2 and 15.

7 See for instance ST I, q. 28, a. 4; q. 32, a. 3. See below, Chapter 5: 'Paternity, Filiation, Spiration, Procession'. In this context, the term processio corresponds to the Greek word ekporeusis which was used by Gregory Nazianzus to designate the personal property of the Holy Spirit; see for instance, St Gregory, Orations 31.8-9; 39.12 (SC 250, pp. 290-293; 358, pp. 172-177).

Thomas adds, 'But this procession can be called spiration, since it is the procession of the Spirit!9

St Thomas is quite well aware that the Holy Spirit has its own proper and distinct procession—he will show its characteristics later on—but the word which refers to it does not have as much precision as the word 'generation', which we use to designate the origin of the Son. One need not leap to the conclusion that this drawback in our way of talking about it automatically undermines our ability to think about it. Thomas knows that, in Greek theology, procession (ekporeusis) designates the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father as the sole 'primary source' ('principle without principle').10 We will come back to this in relation to the Filioque.11 For the moment, what we need to notice is that in speaking of the 'procession' of the Holy Spirit, the drawback is a matter of the language, and not of the reality which it is intended to designate.

Lastly, like every theologian, St Thomas immediately separates the conception of divine 'procession' from the sense of local movement (which only has a metaphorical sense when applied to God).i2 In the case of God, procession must be grasped as 'the drawing out of a reality that has issued from a principle', that is, as a pure 'relation of emanation'.i3


The genuine alterity of the divine persons requires the acceptance that there are such things as real relations. To show that there are, Thomas must establish that there is a difference between real relations and conceptual relations. So, what is the foundation for real relations? Answering this question involves us in a general reflection about the source of relations. Taking over and interpreting Aristotle's thought on this, Thomas accepts only two foundations for real relations. Within this analysis, the word 'foundation'w does not designate the substrate of the relation (the thing which carries the relation) but the cause or the source which entails the existence of a relation, that which brings the relation about. Thomas writes,

9 ST I, q. 27, a. 4, ad 3. 1» I Sent. d. 12, q. 1, a. 2, ad 3; In Ioan. 15.26 (no. 2065).

11 See below, Chapter 11, 'The Terminology: the Spirit ''Proceeds'' from the Father and the

12 I Sent. d. 13, q. 1, a. 1; De potentia, q. 10, a. 1; ST I, q. 27, a. 1, sol. and ad 1.

13 I Sent. d. 13, q. 1, a. 1; cf. ad 1; De potentia, q. 10, a. 1, ad 2.

14 Real relation is 'founded' (fundatur) on a reality giving rise to the existence of this relation. Cf. ST I, q. 28, a. 4; SCG IV, ch. 24 (no. 3612); etc.

According to the Philosopher, in Metaphysics V, every relation is founded either on quantity (for example, double and half); or on action and passion (for example, that which does something and the thing which it produces, or father and son, or master and servant). And there is no quantity in God: he is 'great without quantity', as Augustine says. It follows that a real relation in God can only be founded on action. 15

This analysis takes place in the context of the Aristotelian theory of the categories (the ten modes of being), amongst which Thomas is looking for the foundation for real relations. He considers all the possibilities, one by one. Amongst the accidents, he first excludes those which do not entail a relation but are, rather, consequent upon a relation. ifi He follows Avicenna's lead in ruling out the idea that a relation could really refer to something through another relation, or that this real relation could be founded on another relation.17 As to quality and substance, it is only 'accidentally' that they exercise a foundational role towards a relation, that is, in so far as they are reduced to action and passion (active and passive power) or so far as one considers them under the aspect of quantity (this is why unity of substance entails the relation of 'sameness', whereas unity of quality entails the relation of similitude). 18 These explanations leave nothing to chance. St Thomas makes a precise examination of the nature of relations in our world, and concludes to the existence of two possible foundations for the existence of a real relation: action/passion, and quantity. 'Hence the Philosopher, in giving the species of relations in Metaphysics Book V, says that some are founded on quantity and some on action and passion.'19

The reader may be surprised to find this Aristotelian analysis in the middle of a treatise on the Trinity. We will see later on that, in this field, the use of Aristotle goes back to the Patristics. For Thomas, the analysis is rooted in the following consideration. If there are real relations in God (and faith leads one to accept that there are), then these relations must be able to stand the test of comparison with the constitutive elements of any real relation; otherwise attributing such relations to God would add nothing to our understanding of our faith in the Trinity. To put it another way: if, when we speak of 'real relations' in God, the word relation means something to us, by analogy with

15 ST I, q. 28, a. 4; Cf. I Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 2, ad 4; SCGIV, ch. 24 (no. 3612); Depotentia, q. 7, a. 9; q. 8, a. 1; In Metaph. V, lect. 17 (nos. 1001-1004); In Physic. III, lect. 1 (no. 280). Aristotle, Metaphysics, A. 15 (1020b26-29). See M.-J. Dubois, Aristote, livre des acceptions multiples. Commentaire philosophique, Saint-Maur, 1998, pp. 123-130, 'Le relatif'.

16 Cf. In Metaph. V, lect. 17 (no. 1005); amongst the predicaments, this is the case for 'when', 'where', 'position', and 'habitus'.

17 De potentia, q. 3, a. 3, ad 2; q. 7, a. 9, ad 2. The 'relations of relations' are conceptual, not real (I Sent. d. 26, q. 2, a. 1; II Sent. d. 1, q. 1, a. 2, ad 5).

18 Cf. Depotentia, q. 7, a. 9; cf. SCG IV, ch. 24 (no. 3612).

relations in our world, it must be possible to pick out one of the two foundations of real relations from within the world. Unless one can do this, one will not be able to show how real relations exist.

St Thomas goes on to say that 'quantity' must be excluded from God. Augustine's explanation ('God is great without quantity') is enough to indicate this. A relation founded on quantity would imply a difference in the relative terms (such as 'greater', 'smaller') which is incompatible with the consubstantiality ofthe divine persons; or it would not entail a distinction but rather presuppose distinction without causing it.2°

The upshot of performing this philosophical analysis and integrating it into theology is that the only foundation which can account for real relation in God is action. More precisely, Thomas speaks of 'action and passion'. Action effectively involves a subject acting plus a terminus for the action, its recipient. In other words: action implies both an acting subject and some reality which issues from this agent, that is to say, something which proceeds from it. From this fact it follows that such action entails a double relation: the relation of the agent to the terminus of his action, and the relation of the terminus to the agent from which it issues. It is this analysis which serves as the analogy which helps one to pin down how to grasp the processions in God.

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