Three Divine Persons Distinguished by Four Real Relations: On the Correct Translation of ST I, Q. 30, A. 2

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BY JOHN O’NEILL, PH.D., CAND.

ST I, q. 30, a. 2: Whether there are more than three persons in God?

A Translation Correction and Theological Commentary

IN the English translation from the English Dominican Province there is a mistranslation in question 30, article 2, of the Prima pars. The reasoning of the text itself is rather difficult insofar as it requires a facility with the speculative principles of Trinitarian theology: immanent processions, relations of origin, real distinction based on mutual opposition, divine persons defined as subsisting relations.[1]  If one is familiar with these principles then the mistake jumps out in the text. Either Thomas has stated something obviously false and contrary to the principles he has just covered in questions 27 through 29, or there is a mistranslation. In this short essay I will examine this article in order to clarify its theological reasoning. My analysis will therefore be theological and not grammatical, although I will provide the Latin of the mistranslated text. The question concerns identifying the number of persons in God. It is an interesting article because Thomas has already identified four relations in God and defined a divine person as a subsisting relation. Why, then, are the four real relations not four persons? Or why are there not only three real relations that subsist? 

Here is the text in English, the mistranslation is bolded and italicized:

I answer that, As was explained above, there can be only three persons in God. For it was shown above that the several persons are the several subsisting relations really distinct from each other. But a real distinction between the divine relations can come only from relative opposition. Therefore, two opposite relations must needs refer to two persons: and if any relations are not opposite they must needs belong to the same person. 

Since then paternity and filiation are opposite relations, they belong necessarily to two persons. Therefore, the subsisting paternity is the person of the Father; and the subsisting filiation is the person of the Son. The other two relations are not opposed to each other; therefore, these two cannot belong to one person: hence either one of them must belong to both of the aforesaid persons; or one must belong to one person, and the other to the other.

Now, procession cannot belong to the Father and the Son, or to either of them; for thus it would follow that the procession of the intellect, which in God is generation, wherefrom paternity and filiation are derived, would issue from the procession of love, whence spiration and procession are derived, if the person generating and the person generated proceeded from the person spirating; and this is against what was laid down above (Q. 27, AA. 3, 4). We must consequently admit that spiration belongs to the person of the Father, and to the person of the Son, forasmuch as it has no relative opposition either to paternity or to filiation; and consequently, that procession belongs to the other person who is called the person of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds by way of love, as above explained. Therefore, only three persons exist in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

One can see an error in the italicized text without any recourse to the Latin. In the second paragraph Thomas identifies paternity and filiation as two opposite relations. The text in question refers to “the other two relations”, meaning spiration and procession.[2] If the italicized text were true, the following clause would be false: “therefore, these two cannot belong to one person”. If the “other two relations” are not opposed to each other, they must belong to the same person. This is Thomas’s statement in the last sentence of the first paragraph: “if any real relations are not opposite they must needs belong to the same person.” Furthermore, we also know that each of the two immanent processions contain two relations of origin,[3] and each of these pairs of relations are in mutual opposition to each other.[4] As paternity and filiation belong to the immanent procession of generation and are mutually opposed to each other, so the other two relations (spiration and procession) that belong to the other immanent procession (spiration)[5] must also be opposed to each other. 

Now let’s take a look at the Latin of the paragraph that contains the error:

Paternitas ergo et filiatio, cum sint oppositae relationes, ad duas personas ex necessitate pertinent. Paternitas igitur subsistens est persona patris, et filiatio subsistens est persona filii. Aliae autem duae relationes ad neutram harum oppositionem habent, sed sibi invicem opponuntur. Impossibile est igitur quod ambae uni personae conveniant. Oportet ergo quod vel una earum conveniat utrique dictarum personarum, aut quod una uni, et alia alii.

 Before looking at the Latin one might think that the text ought to read, “the other two relations are opposed to each other; therefore, these two cannot belong to one person.” However, this is not what the Latin says, and it would skip a step in Thomas’s reasoning in this text. A better translation would be, “The other two relations have opposition to neither of these, but are mutually opposed to each other.”  Thomas is stating that neither spiration nor procession is opposed to either paternity or filiation; rather, spiration is opposed to procession. The first statement is important in the reasoning precisely because of the principle stated in the first paragraph: “Therefore, two opposite relations must needs refer to two persons: and if any relations are not opposite they must needs belong to the same person.” Paternity and filiation are opposed and must belong to distinct persons. Spiration and procession are opposed and must belong to distinct persons. However, because neither spiration nor procession is opposed to either paternity or filiation, it is necessary that either one or both of these other two relations belong to the Father and the Son: where there is no opposition between relations, the relations belong to the same person.

Thomas provides two possible options for how these other two relations might belong to the Father and the Son. The first option he mentions is in fact the truth: “one of them must belong to both of the aforesaid persons…”. The Father and the Son are distinct by the mutually opposed relations of paternity and filiation. Neither of these relations, however, are opposed to spiration. It is logically possible then that spiration belongs to both the Father and the Son. If this is true, then the Father and the Son would together be distinct by the single relation of spiration from a third person who is constituted by the relation of procession. The second option, which of course is false, states “one must belong to one person, and the other to the other.” This option would consist in either the Father or the Son possessing spiration and the other person possessing procession. In this case, the two sets of opposed relations would belong to the same two persons. “Son” and “Spirit” would be two names belonging to the same person rather than two persons distinct by mutually opposed relations. The ‘first’ person in God would be the Father of the Son and the Principle of the Spirit; the ‘second’ person would be both Son and Spirit, and there would be no third person. 

Thomas rules out the possibility that procession belongs to both the Father and the Son, or to either of them, on the basis of what he has already established about the order of the processions in q. 27, aa. 3 and 4, namely, that “the procession of Love occurs in due order as regards the procession of the Word; since nothing can be loved by the will unless it is conceived in the intellect.” In q. 28, a. 4, Thomas identified the relation of the principle of the procession of Love as spiration, and the relation of the person proceeding as procession. To attribute the relation of procession to the Father and the Son, then, is to identify them with Love proceeding. However, because there is an order between the procession of the Word and the procession of Love, it is impossible that Love proceeding (procession) could in any way be the principle of the generation of the Word. Thus, procession cannot belong to either the Father or the Son.[6] 

Thomas concludes that “spiration belongs to the person of the Father, and to the person of the Son, forasmuch as it has no relative opposition to paternity or filiation, and consequently that procession belongs to the other person who is called the person of the Holy Spirit, who proceeds by way of love.” By ruling out the possibility that procession belongs to either the Father or the Son due to the order of the processions of Word and Love, Thomas rules out the possibility of both sets of opposed relations belonging to only two persons. Spiration, therefore, cannot belong to only one of them because that would require procession to belong to the other. The only remaining option is that spiration belongs to both the Father and the Son, and distinguishes them both from the third person who is constituted by procession

The logic of the reasoning is based upon the mutual opposition between the real relations included in the immanent processions, as well as the order between the two immanent processions of Word and Love. It is an important article because it helps us to understand the way that the divine persons are related to each other and therefore also distinct from one another. The solution to the question comes when it is concluded that the relation of spiration belongs to two persons that are constituted by two other relations: paternity and filiation. Given the definition of a divine person as a subsisting relation, this appears to be an odd conclusion. Is spiration a subsisting relation? Perhaps paternity and filiation subsist, and spiration belongs to each but does not subsist. This, however, would be problematic. To deny the subsistence of spiration is to deny it is a real relation. Thomas shows in q. 28, a. 2, that because of the divine simplicity real relations in God have the being of the divine essence; they subsist. If spiration does not subsist then it is not a real relation. Furthermore, if spiration is not a real relation then there is no basis for any mutual opposition between spiration and procession. Without mutual opposition there is no real distinction. Therefore, to deny the subsistence of spiration is to deny that the Holy Spirit is a person really distinct from the Father and the Son by the relation of procession. Spiration must subsist, but it is not one distinct person. Thomas addresses this in the reply to objection one: “Although there are four relations in God, one of them, spiration, is not separated from the person of the Father and of the Son, but belongs to both.”[7] Spiration does subsist insofar as it is the persons of the Father and the Son in distinction from the Holy Spirit. Paternity constitutes the person of the Father and distinguishes him from the Son. Filiation constitutes the person of the Son and distinguishes him from the Father. Although neither paternity nor filiation are opposed to procession, both the Father and the Son are distinct from the Holy Spirit by the relation of spiration, which they possess in common and therefore does not constitute a person. Procession constitutes the person of the Holy Spirit and distinguishes him from both the Father and the Son. 

  Why is all of this important? Are we not merely playing word games and doing mental gymnastics? It is important because as Thomas explains in q. 32, a. 3, we know the divine persons by how they are multiplied by reason of their origin: “origin includes the idea of someone from whom another comes, and of someone that comes from another, and by these two modes a person can be known.” The notions (the proper idea whereby we know a divine person) consist in the four real relations plus the notion of innascibility, which is the denial of a relation with respect to the Father. Innascibility denies that the Father is from another, i.e. is related to a principle. Understanding the mutual opposition and real distinction between the relations of origin included in the two immanent processions of Word and Love is how we have a speculative knowledge of the way that God is in Himself. In the Gospel of John, Our Lord tells us that eternal life is to “know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3). If we want to contemplate God as He is in Himself and as He is present in the world through the sending of the Son and the Holy Spirit, we need a familiarity with the speculative principles developed by the theological tradition, and present in and synthesized especially by Aquinas, that allow us to understand the divine persons in their relation to and distinction from one another within the two immanent processions of Word and Love. 


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[1] For an account of Thomas’s speculative Trinitarian theology, see the work of Gilles Emery. He has several books and countless articles covering every aspect of his Trinitarian theology, which goes so far as to include the role of the Trinity in creation and the divine missions of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation, as well as the Scriptural foundations for speculative Trinitarian theology. Gilles Emery, The Trinitarian Theology of St Thomas Aquinas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); “The Personal Mode of Trinitarian Action in Saint Thomas Aquinas” The Thomist 69 (2005): 31-77. La Trinité Créatrice: Trinité et création dans les commentaires aux Sentences de Thomas d’Aquin et de ses précurseurs Albert le Grand et Bonaventure (Paris : Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1995) ; “Theologia and Dispensatio : The Centrality of the Divine Missions in St. Thomas’s Trinitarian Theology The Thomist 74 (2010): 515-61 ; “Missions invisibles et missions visibles : le Christ et son Esprit” Revue Thomist 106 (2006): 51-99 ; The Trinity : An Introduction to Catholic Doctrine on the Triune God (Washington, D.C. : The Catholic University of America Press, 2011). See also the work of Fr. John Baptist Ku: God the Father in the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2013). Fr. Dominic Legge has also recently published a work on Thomas’s Christology in light of his speculative Trinitarian theology which includes the doctrine of the divine missions: The Trinitarian Christology of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[2] ST I, q. 27, a. 4: “But the procession of Love has no proper name of its own (Q. 27, A. 4); and so neither have the ensuing relations a proper name of their own. The relation of the principle of this procession is called spiration; and the relation of the person proceeding is called procession: although these two names belong to the processions or origins themselves, and not to the relations.”

[3] ST I, q. 28, a. 4: “In respect of each of these processions two opposite relations arise; one of which is the relation of the person proceeding from the principle; the other is the relation of the principle Himself.”

[4] ST I, q. 28, a. 3: “The idea of relation, however, necessarily means regard of one to another, according as one is relatively opposed to another. So as in God there is a real relation, there must also be a real opposition.”

[5] ST I, q. 27, a. 3: “We can name God only from creatures (Q. 13, A. 1). As in creatures generation is the only principle of communication of nature, procession in God has no proper or special name, except that of generation. Hence the procession which is not generation has remained without a special name; but it can be called spiration, as it is the procession of the Spirit.”

[6] ST I, q. 30, a. 2: “Now, procession cannot belong to the Father and the Son, or to either of them; for thus it would follow that the procession of the intellect, which in God is generation, wherefrom paternity and filiation are derived, would issue from the procession of love, whence spiration and procession are derived, if the person generating and the person generated proceeded from the person spirating; and this is against what was laid down above.”

[7] ST I, q. 30, a. 2, ad 1. The relation of spiration is unique in that it is the only relation possessed in common by two persons. Besides this relation that is common to the Father and the Son, the only thing common to the divine persons is the divine essence. The Holy Spirit has no relation in common with the Father or the Son. Although both the Son and the Holy Spirit are from the Father and relate to the Father, they are from Him by two distinct processions, and each has His own relation to the Father. The Son’s relation is to the Father alone. The Spirit’s relation is to the Father and the Son. The Son (or the Father) and the Spirit do not possess anything in common except for the divine essence, and all that is included with it as being really identical with it, i.e. the divine attributes, ideas, operations, etc. The common relation of spiration, of course, is related to the doctrine of the filioque. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son because the Father and the Son are a single principle of the Holy Spirit and therefore possess a single relation to the Holy Spirit in common. This, furthermore, is related to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the mutual Love of the Father and the Holy Spirit and a proper understanding of its meaning. The Holy Spirit is not ‘in between’ the Father and the Son (from the Father to the Son), but is the Love who proceeds from them both. 

Comment

Ryan J Brady

Subsequent to a few semesters of study at Thomas Aquinas College, Dr. Brady graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia with a B.A. in Religion. After receiving a Masters degree in Systematic Theology from Christendom Graduate School (where he was the valedictorian) he defended his doctoral dissertation “Aquinas on the Respective Roles of Prudence and Synderesis vis-à-vis the Ends of the Moral Virtues” with distinction and received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.