Question 31.The unity or plurality in God

In four Articles, the following are addressed:

  1. The word “Trinity”
  2. Can we say that the Son is other than the Father?
  3. Can an exclusive term, which seems to exclude otherness, be joined to an essential name in God?
  4. Can it be joined to a personal term?

Article 1. Whether there is trinity in God?

“The name ‘Trinity’ in God signifies the determinate number of persons. And so the plurality of persons in God requires that we should use the word trinity; because what is indeterminately signified by plurality, is signified by trinity in a determinate manner.”

It is the very idea of person that makes a trinitarian monotheism possible.  A clear understanding of what it means to say “person” is necessary to avoid the errors of Sabellius and Arius.

Each of these heresies viewed the processions as something that happened “as if in the world” rather than as something transcendent.  Sabellius viewed the procession of the Son, for instance, as being one of “being sent” in the world, and the truth of the Son’s separate existence was for him dependent on the Son’s mission in the world.  This is what we call modalism. Arius, rather, saw the procession as a kind of creation, a coming forth, viewed in the way we view change in the world.  For him the son is but “there was a time when he was not.”

Thomas’ understanding of the person, as relation, and this from the processions in the one being, leads us to understand (not comprehend) that God can be one and triune.

The [most] important points for extended reflection, besides Thomas’ sed contra given above, are a few lines from his replies to the objections:

  • In the strict meaning of the term (Trinity) it rather signifies the number of persons of one essence…Yet it does not mean the relations themselves of the Persons, but rather the number of persons related to each other;
  • Two things are implied in a collective term, plurality of the “supposita,” and a unity of some kind of order…In the first sense, this word “trinity” is like other collective words; but in the second sense it differs from them, because in the divine Trinity not only is there unity of order, but also with this there is unity of essence.
  • In God there is not triplicity, but Trinity (understanding this is THE KEY to contemplating the Triune God)

Article 2. Whether the Son is other than the Father?

“Heresy arises from words wrongly used, when we speak of the Trinity we must proceed with care and with befitting modesty.” We should, in all things we do, choose our words carefully.  Part of good communication is to clearly state to the other what we wish to convey.  Psychologically, much of our thinking is actually done “in words,” meaning that we contemplate things not in just some ephemeral fashion but often by thinking about things through the words we know and not merely the concepts.

All of this matters because it can affect the clearness or lack thereof in our thinking.  In few places does the use of words, and the clear consideration of exactly what they mean, become more important than in discussing the highest things in revealed truth.

“Now, in treating of the Trinity, we must beware of two opposite errors, and proceed cautiously between them–namely, the error of Arius, who placed a Trinity of substance with the Trinity of persons; and the error of Sabellius, who placed unity of person with the unity of essence.”

Because of this, Thomas will give us many terms that we must, for clarity, avoid when speaking of the trinity.

  • We must shun the term “singularity,” lest we take away the communicability of the divine essence.
  • We must avoid the adjective “only” [unici] lest we take away the number of persons.
  • We exclude from God the idea of singularity or uniqueness.
  • We must shun the use of the terms diversity and difference in God, lest we take away the unity of essence: we may, however, use the term “distinction” on account of the relative opposition.
  • We avoid the word “confused;” The word “solitary” is also to be avoided.

Thomas, however, realizes that orthodox teachers had used these words in orthodox writings, and says, for example, that “whenever we find terms of diversity or difference of Persons used in an authentic work, these terms of “diversity” or “difference” are taken to mean distinction.” As with all things in the development of our understanding of doctrine, it is with time and reflection that clarity comes more and more to the front. As the Church’s understanding of the great mysteries increases through the ages, more and more care will be taken in what statements we make.

A few excerpts deserve extra reflection

  • We can properly say that “the Son is other than the Father,” because He is another “suppositum” of the divine nature, as He is another person and another hypostasis.
  • There is a distinct substance in the sense of hypostasis or person. But diversity requires a distinct substance in the sense of essence. Thus we cannot say that the Son is diverse from the Father, although He is another.
  • There is one form in God, as appears from the text, “Who, when He was in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6).
  • Because in God distinction is by the persons, and not by the essence, we say that the Father is other than the Son, but not something else; while conversely we say that they are one thing, but not one person.

Article 3. Whether the exclusive word “alone” should be added to the essential term in God?

Once again, clear distinctions in terms, as well as a solid grasp on Aristotelian logic (or rather, logic; there is, in reality, no Aristotelian logic versus Kantian logic versus Matt Menkingian logic; things either conform to reality or they do not) are needed, and Thomas takes time here to refresh the memory of those students who have stuck with him thus far.

“This term “alone” can be taken as a categorematical term, or as a syncategorematical term. A categorematical term is one which ascribes absolutely its meaning to a given “suppositum”… If the term “alone” is taken in this sense, it cannot in any way be joined to any term in God… A syncategorematical term imports the order of the predicate to the subject… when we say, “Socrates alone writes,” we do not mean that Socrates is solitary, but that he has no companion in writing, though many others may be with him. In this way nothing prevents the term “alone” being joined to any essential term in God.”

The issue brought up in the first objection was that “he is alone who is not with another,” and that therefore it should not be said of God that He is alone, because of the “multitude” of persons.  This, of course, confusions what is being stated of God in one being, one essence, and in speaking of God the Father or God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.  Thomas answers that

  • “it is not properly said that the Father is God alone, or the Trinity is God alone, unless some implied meaning be assumed in the predicate, as, for instance, “The Trinity is God Who alone is God.” In that sense it can be true to say that the Father is that God Who alone is God, if the relative be referred to the predicate, and not to the “suppositum.”
  • For this proposition, “God alone is Father,” can mean two things, because the word “Father” can signify the person of the Father; and then it is true; for no man is that person: or it can signify that relation only; and thus it is false, because the relation of paternity is found also in others, though not in a univocal sense.

To some this seems so much technical jargon that one like Martin Luther would call Thomas the worst chatterbox of the Scholastics.  But if we are truly to contemplate God, to “seek His face” and “know the Truth,” such distinctions cannot be avoided.  Knowing God is more than a feeling; it requires a labor of love.

Article 4. Whether an exclusive diction can be joined to the personal term?

In the third objection to this article, we read that ‘an exclusive diction does not exclude what enters into the concept of the term to which it is joined. Hence it does not exclude the part, nor the universal; for it does not follow that if we say “Socrates alone is white,” that therefore “his hand is not white,” or that “man is not white.”’

Here, we return to the categorematical problem of the last article.  Remember that Thomas is seeking to defend and to unpack one of the most difficult mysteries of our faith: God is One and God is Triune.  There are three Persons, yet we are not polytheists.  We Worship one God, and we may pray to God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit.

Thomas answers that “When we say, “The Father alone is God,” such a proposition can be taken in several senses. If “alone” means solitude in the Father, it is false in a categorematical sense; but if taken in a syncategorematical sense it can again be understood in several ways.”

I will not list the ways here, but basically, we have to understand what we are predicating with the word “alone.”  Whenever Scripture speaks, for example, of God the Father, or of simply God, we cannot impose a different predication than the intended meaning of the passage.

A similar example occurs when Jesus says “The Father and I are one” or when Jesus says “The Father is greater than me.”  We must see that the I/Me being spoken of in each passage, to avoid a contradiction, must be somehow distinct.  The Father is greater than “me” when “me” is used speaking of the “man” Christ Jesus.  The Father and I are one is true when “I” refers to the divine Person, the second Person in the Trinity.

Likewise, we must be discerning when terms like alone are used to speak of the Father, or of God, or anything else. Again, clarity is needed to avoid heresy. Thomas again refers to uses of the word “alone” in writings of the Fathers of the Church, etc.

We reflect again on a few lines from Thomas’ replies to objections:

  • When we say, “Thee the only true God,” we do not understand it as referring to the person of the Father, but to the whole Trinity.
  • The exclusive diction does not exclude what enters into the concept of the term to which it is adjoined, if they do not differ in “suppositum,” as part and universal. But the Son differs in “suppositum” from the Father; and so there is no parity.

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