Question 33. The Person of the Father

Question 33. The Person of the Father

Is the Father the Principle?

Is the person of the Father properly signified by this name “Father”?

Is “Father” in God said personally before it is said essentially?

Does it belong to the Father alone to be unbegotten?

Article 1. Whether it belongs to the Father to be the principle?

The word “principle” signifies only that whence another proceeds: since anything whence something proceeds in any way we call a principle; and conversely. As the Father then is the one whence another proceeds, it follows that the Father is a principle.

This principle is not to be understood in the way we speak of contingent being.  It is not one of “priority,” of being “temporally first,” or as “cause.”

We have spoken before of the difficulty in translation, as well as the fact that we often “think in words” that we know.  Thomas speaks in this article to the fact that:

‘The Greeks use the words “cause” and “principle” indifferently, when speaking of God; whereas the Latin Doctors do not use the word “cause,” but only “principle.” The reason is because “principle” is a wider term than “cause”; as “cause” is more common than “element”…The wider a term is, the more suitable it is to use as regards God , because the more special terms are, the more they determine the mode adapted to the creature.’

As always, we acknowledge the divine simplicity as well as the complexity that we must use to understand it.  We always speak of God in terms of created things, as is natural to use as contingent beings living in time.  But we must recognize this fact and carefully consider the terms we use, as well as their changed meanings, when speaking of the things of God.

“The word principle, as regards its derivation, does not signify priority, but origin.” We likewise say that God is the explanation for His own being, but we cannot say He is the “cause” of His being, for He has no “cause.”

Article 2. Whether this name “Father” is properly the name of a divine person?

“We need to understand what Thomas is aiming at here.  His purpose is precisely to address the Language of Scripture…as a name, Father is neither an image nor a metaphor but a name which properly applies to the divine Person.  It signifies a ‘perfection’ in God.” (The Trinitarian Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, Giles Emery, OP)

Thomas says that “The proper name of any person signifies that whereby the person is distinguished from all other persons”… it is paternity which distinguishes the person of the Father from all other persons. Hence this name “Father,” whereby paternity is signified, is the proper name of the person of the Father.

“Among us relation is not a subsisting person. So this name “father” among us does not signify a person, but the relation of a person.“ My earthly father is not a person by way of him being my father, but he is and was a person apart from my existence.  In fact, part of natural generation is my separateness from my father.  I will still be me even when my father is gone.  The relation of father and son is dependent on the other, but not the very existence of the person.  In God, however, one in Being, this relation itself constitutes the Person.

The following may seem difficult, but deserve reflection:

  • The divine Word is something subsistent in the divine nature; and hence He is properly and not metaphorically called Son, and His principle is called Father.
  • The terms “generation” and “paternity” like the other terms properly applied to God, are said of God before creatures as regards the thing signified, but not as regards the mode of signification
  • Generation receives its species from the term which is the form of the thing generated; and the nearer it is to the form of the generator, the truer and more perfect is the generation
  • The very fact that in the divine generation the form of the Begetter and Begotten is numerically the same, whereas in creatures it is not numerically, but only specifically, the same, shows that generation, and consequently paternity, is applied to God before creatures.

Article 3. Whether this name “Father” is applied to God, firstly as a personal name?

It is mentioned in the first objection that: We say “Our Father” to the whole Trinity.

This is true, but is not the personal (what makes the Father to be Father) way of speaking.  We may for a moment reflect on this, however.  One should notice that Jesus never calls the Father “ours” when including Himself.  We are speaking of relation here, as it pertains to the Persons in the Trinity.  Christ is Son by nature, and we are sons by adoption and grace.

He clearly says  ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ When Jesus does use the words “Our Father,” He says “when YOU pray, pray like this.” Clearly, then, the created relation of man to the God and the relation of the Son to the Father are simply of two different realms.  We must never neglect to remember this.

St. Thomas gives his answer to the objections by reflecting on priority, not as we know things, but as they are:

“The eternal comes before the temporal. But God is the Father of the Son from eternity; while He is the Father of the creature in time. Therefore paternity in God is taken in a personal sense as regards the Son, before it is so taken as regards the creature…A name is applied to that wherein is perfectly contained its whole signification, before it is applied to that which only partially contains it…all imperfect things are taken from perfect things.

I spoke a moment ago of God’s relation to man being different than the Father’s relation to the Son (and the Holy Spirit).  But Thomas actually lists several ways that creatures are related to God.  (In fact, God is not “really” related to creatures at all, and that can be a discussion for another time, though it certainly has its implications here):

  • God is called the Father of some creatures, by reason only of a trace, for instance of irrational creatures
  • Of some, namely, the rational creature (He is the Father), by reason of the likeness of His image,
  • Of others He is the Father by similitude of grace, and these are also called adoptive sons, as ordained to the heritage of eternal glory by the gift of grace which they have received
  • Lastly, He is the Father of others by similitude of glory, forasmuch as they have obtained possession of the heritage of glory

Article 4. Whether it is proper to the Father to be unbegotten?

Because of the importance of this article (they are all important, but this one must be pondered at length) I will let Thomas own words be placed here at greater length than in other of my summations:

“As in creatures there exist a first and a secondary principle, so also in the divine Persons, in Whom there is no before or after, is formed the principle not from a principle, Who is the Father; and the principle from a principle, Who is the Son.”

Now in things created a first principle is known in two ways; in one way as the first “principle,” by reason of its having a relation to what proceeds from itself; in another way, inasmuch as it is a “first” principle by reason of its not being from another. Thus therefore the Father is known both by paternity and by common spiration, as regards the persons proceeding from Himself. But as the principle, not from a principle He is known by the fact that He is not from another; and this belongs to the property of innascibility, signified by this word “unbegotten.”

Innascibility, spoken of in the preceding question (32) is not a relation, and does not constitute a person. Nevertheless, it can be said to be a property of the Father, for we know Him as, again, the principle not from a principle.

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