Question 32. The knowledge of the divine persons

Question 32. The knowledge of the divine persons

  1. Can the divine persons be known by natural reason?
  2. Are notions to be attributed to the divine persons?
  3. The number of the notions
  4. May we lawfully have various contrary opinions of these notions?

Article 1. Whether the trinity of the divine persons can be known by natural reason?

The answer is no, and we may go back to the second Question of the Summa, The Existence of God.

The existence of God is first of all not self-evident.  Thomas here differs from such men as St. Anselm, who thought that the existence of God was self-evident, merely by understanding what we meant when we say the name God.

Probably the single most famous “proof” in all of philosophy is refuted if the topic of our discussion is legitimate.  In his Proslogion, St. Anselm lays out the following argument for the existence of God:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”

St. Thomas, of course, rejects this “proof” of St. Anselm in his Summa Theologica, in Question 2:

“Granted that everyone understands that by this word “God” is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.”

The problem is basically this: to ask the question “is it?” the same as to ask the question “what is it?” Or is one a question of concept and the other a question of judgment?  For to say what something is, according to Aristotelian logic, is the understand an essence, but this is not the same thing as to affirm the existence of that essence.

Of course, Thomas does believe that we can prove the existence of God from reason alone, but for Thomas, we know of His existence from His effects. We reason from creatures and their contingency back to a necessary being on who’s being the contingent beings depend.

In article 2 of Question 2, Thomas states explicitly how we come to know God:

“Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called “a priori,” and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration “a posteriori”; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

Because of Thomas’ strict adherence to this truth, he can show that we cannot know of the existence of the Trinity apart from revelation.

“Man cannot obtain the knowledge of God by natural reason except from creatures. Now creatures lead us to the knowledge of God, as effects do to their cause. Accordingly, by natural reason we can know of God that only which of necessity belongs to Him as the principle of things… Now, the creative power of God is common to the whole Trinity; and hence it belongs to the unity of the essence, and not to the distinction of the persons. Therefore, by natural reason we can know what belongs to the unity of the essence, but not what belongs to the distinction of the persons.”

The very proof we can offer for the existence of God thereby excludes our “proof” from reason of the existence of the Trinity.  We know contingent being has a cause, and this cause we call God.  We cannot, however, derive from this an understanding of those things that go on within this transcendent being.

Thomas goes on to show the errors of those who try to prove the Trinity from reason alone. In this article, he states that “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.”

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he made this statement even more emphatically. Stating that some truths can certainly be defended by reason, that is, it can be shown that they are not contrary to reason, he goes on to say:

“The sole way to overcome an adversary of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture—an authority divinely confirmed by miracles. For that which is above the human reason we believe only because God has revealed it. Nevertheless, there are certain likely arguments that should be brought forth in order to make divine truth known. This should be done for the training and consolation of the faithful, and not with any idea of refuting those who are adversaries. For the very inadequacy of the arguments would rather strengthen them in their error, since they would imagine that our acceptance of the truth of faith was based on such weak arguments. (SCG Book I, Chapter 9)”

Article 2. Whether there are notions in God?

Objection 1. It would seem that in God there are no notions. For Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i): “We must not dare to say anything of God but what is taught to us by the Holy Scripture.” But Holy Scripture does not say anything concerning notions. Therefore there are none in God.

Thomas answers this charge, which seems to be contrary to the Divine simplicity, by saying that “he use of concrete and abstract names in God is not in any way repugnant to the divine simplicity; forasmuch as we always name a thing as we understand it… our human intellect apprehends and names divine things, according to its own mode…we use abstract terms to signify simple forms; and to signify subsistent things we use concrete terms.”

We are not, then, adding something extraneous to the divine simplicity, but are seeking to understand in the only way we can.  God is simple, but to us, we have to take in this simplicity in a multiplicity of ways.  Therefore, we understand God in diverse manners:

“To those who ask: ‘Whereby are They one God? and whereby are They three persons?’ as we answer that They are one in essence or deity; so there must also be some abstract terms whereby we may answer that the persons are distinguished; and these are the properties or notions signified by an abstract term, as paternity and filiation. Therefore the divine essence is signified as ‘What’; and the person as ‘Who’; and the property as ‘Whereby.’”

These notional acts belong to the persons.

Article 3. Whether there are five notions?

There are Five notions in God:

  • “innascibility,”
  • “paternity,”
  • “filiation,”
  • “common spiration” and
  • “procession.”

Of these only four are relations, for “innascibility” is not a relation.

Three are personal notions, that is, they  constitute a persons:

  • “paternity,”
  • “filiation,” and
  • “procession.”

“Common spiration” and “innascibility” are called notions of Persons, as Thomas will explain in later Questions.

From this, paternity is seen to belong exclusively to the Father.  He is not, however, “paternity” but Father. To the Son, likewise, belongs filiation, but He is not filiation, but rather, He is Son. Remember again that these notions are that whereby some Person is what they are, but it is not the relation itself.

Article 4. Whether it is lawful to have various contrary opinions of notions?

“The notions are not articles of faith. Therefore different opinions of the notions are permissible.”

A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith.  As long as this does not occur in contrary opinions of the notions, or in anything else of the faith, of course, then it is permissible to disagree.  However, if and when the Church makes a dogmatic statement on this or any other teaching it, of course, then becomes no longer permissible.


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