Summa Theologica Question 28: Relations

Question 28. The divine relations

  1. Are there real relations in God?
  2. Are those relations the divine essence itself, or extrinsic to it?
  3. Can there be several relations distinct from each other in God?
  4. The number of these relations

“…we may consider that in relations alone is found something which is only in the apprehension and not in reality. This is not found in any other genus.” What we find is that, among the metaphysical accidents, there is a uniqueness to relation, for “relation in its own proper meaning signifies only what refers to another. Such regard to another exists sometimes in the nature of things, as in those things which by their own very nature are ordered to each other, and have a mutual inclination.”

“Relationship is not predicated of God according to its proper and formal meaning, that is to say, in so far as its proper meaning denotes comparison to that in which relation is inherent, but only as denoting regard to another.” The Father, for example, is Father related to the Son, but is not therefore other than the Son as relates to nature.  The Father is Father because of the relationship of paternity to the begotten one, but not because the Son, who is God, is different in any way than Father besides this relation itself.

Augustine likewise deals with this difficulty in Book VII of his de Trinitate, where he at one point makes the statement that “it is ridiculous that substance should be predicated by way of relationship; every single thing that is, after all, subsists with reference to itself.” (Book VII, Ch. 3)

Giles Emery, O.P. addresses this: “Relation is the only predicament that can have a purely logical existence: all other modes of being, St. Thomas says, properly signify something which concretely exists, that is, the substance or the accidents which inhere in a substance. The very nature of relation makes it an exception to this rule.”

We do not have to say, therefore, that the Father inheres in the substance of divinity, separately therefore from the way the son does, as green may inhere in grass, and therefore be other than “smoothness” which also inheres in grass.  Likewise, we cannot say that the green is the grass, but only that the grass is green.  But with the Persons of the Trinity, we rightly say that the Father is the One God, the Son is the One God, and the Holy Spirit is the One God. To say it again, the Persons do not inhere in the One God, but, because of the special “nature” of relation, each Person simply is the One God.

“In the genera, apart from that of “relation,” as in quantity and quality, even the true idea of the genus itself is derived from a respect to the subject…But the true idea of relation is not taken from its respect to that in which it is, but from its respect to something outside…if relation is considered as an accident, it inheres in a subject, and has an accidental existence in it…Now whatever has an accidental existence in creatures, when considered as transferred to God, has a substantial existence; for there is no accident in God; since all in Him is His essence.”

Are the relations in God, however, really distinguished from one another, if God is one, simple substantial existence? “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. The very nature of relative opposition includes distinction.”

After briefly discussing the Aristotelian sense of identity as regards relation, Thomas states that “although paternity, just as filiation, is really the same as the divine essence; nevertheless these two in their own proper idea and definitions import opposite respects. Hence they are distinguished from each other.”

This Question is concluded by showing that these four relations, paternity, filiation, spiration, and procession, are the only relations in God. Having established this, Thomas has prepared us to discuss, in the next Question (29) the Persons themselves, which are three. In a future short essay we will discuss further these four relations and how, from these four, we arrive at three persons.


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