Relations in the Trinity as the Foundation of the Persons


What do we mean when we say there are four internal divine relations of which only three are really distinct relations?

“…those who follow the teaching of the Catholic faith must hold that the relations in God are real…there are in God three Persons of one Essence. Now number results from some kind of distinction — wherefore in God there must be some distinction not only in respect of creatures who differ from him in nature, but also in respect of someone subsisting in the divine nature. But this distinction cannot regard anything absolute, since whatsoever is predicated of God absolutely denotes the divine essence, so that it would follow that the divine Persons differ essentially… It follows then that the divine Persons are distinct only by their relations.” (Aquinas, Disputed Questions on the Power of God)

In seeking to understand the Trinity of three Persons and one God, the subject of relations will be central.  The Persons who share one existence, one being, can only be understood as distinct in this way.

The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God.  God is one being, and each of these Persons is this one being.  Each is not a part of this one being, this one God, but fully this one being, this one God. However, the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, for example.

As we see in the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, an understanding of the processions must be grasped prior to seeking to unfold the significance of the relations within the Trinity. The divine processions can be derived only from the actions which remain within the agent. In a nature which is intellectual, and in the divine nature these actions are two, the acts are of intelligence and of will. There are processions in God, then, and these can be understood (but not reasoned to apart from revealed truth) by way of what follows in the pure absolutely simple intelligent being of God.

In the natural world, temporal generation founds two relations; that of son to father and father to son. So likewise does the eternal generation of the Word found the two relations of paternity and filiation.  The procession of love also found two relations, active spiration and “passive” spiration.

A word must be said about the special significance of relations. “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.” (Giles Emery, p.87)

Aristotelian categories of being show us that there is substance, in which accidents adhere, and accidents which only exist because of the substance, for example, quality and quantity. A substance exists of itself and is what underlies its accidents.  If we think of “rough” we ask “a rough what?” but when we think of rock we do not think of “a rock what?” for a roughness adheres in another, but a rock is that thing in which something adheres.

Unique, however, among the accidents is that of relation.  For, while it is this column, say, that is to the left of some other thing, it is not that left is really “in” the column.  To see exactly what is meant by this, and in the context of the Trinity, it is best to let St. Thomas explain:

“The attributing of anything to another involves the attribution likewise of whatever is contained in it. So when “man” is attributed to anyone, a rational nature is likewise attributed to him. 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. Hence, there must be real distinction in God, not, indeed, according to that which is absolute–namely, essence, wherein there is supreme unity and simplicity–but according to that which is relative.” (ST. 28, a3)

The idea of relation includes the idea of another.  It means there is something besides the substance itself. A column, as we said above, cannot be related except as to something else. A column can be white, and heavy, and long, and round, all without the existence of any other thing whatsoever. But it cannot be left or heavier or smoother without being left of something, smoother than something, or heavier than something else.

Since this is so, whatever the column is heavier than is likewise lighter than the column. Whatever the column is smoother than is rougher than the column. If it is double, that something else is likewise half.  There is, as Thomas said, a real opposition wherever there is a real relation. And when something proceeds from another, or is generated by another, there is, as said above, a real relation.

A conclusion follows from the foregoing discussion. Real relations in God are four: paternity, filiation, active spiration, and passive spiration, as we said above.  It is worth repeating here: The eternal generation of the Word founds the two relations of paternity and filiation.  The procession of love founds two relations, active spiration and passive spiration.

“But the third of these four, active spiration, while it is opposed to passive spiration, is not opposed to, and hence not really distinct from, either paternity or filiation.” (LaGrange, pg.) The relation of the Father to the Son is paternity.  That of the Son to the Father is filiation.  That of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son is passive spiration.  The relation of the Father and Son to the holy Spirit is active or common spiration.

If the Holy Spirit, we see here, did not proceed from the Father and the Son as one principle, then the Spirit would have a different relation to the Father than He does to the Son.  The principle of the Persons having their foundation in the relations would therefore fall, and there would no longer be a unity of “personhood” in the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, we see the importance of the fact that the Holy Spirit proceeds from “the Father and the Son.” And this procession is active spiration and, as termed here, “common” spiration.  This active or common spiration is not, however, mutually opposed to paternity or to filiation.  Again, if it were, there would be more persons than the three we refer to, for there would be a greater quantity of relations.

This problem of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Son can also be approached in another way, and this again is based on the relations. We may look at it as follows:

  1. The Father begets the Son.  We have a mutually opposed relation: paternity to filiation.
  2. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. We have a mutually opposed relation: active spiration and passive spiration
  3. Are, then, the Son and Holy Spirit related? How so?

Unless the spiration that distinguishes the Father and the Holy Spirit is shared by the Son as a common active spiration, the Son and Holy Spirit seem to have no relation at all, which is absurd.  But if they do have a relation, then it must be some additional relation, some additional mutual opposition, and at least a fourth divine person would seem to be produced (of course, this fourth person would have to relate to the Father somehow, and it would only fall to greater absurdity).

But the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principle, not two. There is no need, therefore, to multiply relations. As St. Thomas says in the Summa Contra Gentiles, “The conclusion, therefore, must be that the divine Persons cannot be distinguished except by relative opposition in origin. Therefore, if the Holy Spirit is distinguished from the Son, He is necessarily from the Son, for we do not say that the Son is from the Holy Spirit, since the Holy Spirit is, rather, said to be of the Son and given by the Son.”

It is important to restate the following: The three persons have but one existence. Hence “the divine relations do not enter into composition with the divine essence, since the three persons, constituted by relations mutually opposed, are absolutely equal in perfection.” (LaGrange)

No true understanding of the Persons can be arrived at without understanding first the processions “in” God and the mutually opposed relations that they “cause.” Reflection on the real existence (and not just logical) of the relations is necessary to avoid thinking of the Persons of God in a merely “modal” way, as has often been done in the past.  We may say that the distinction between a Person (in the Godhead) and the Nature of God is only mental: the Father is not part of God but simply is God, for example. But the distinctions between one Person and another are not merely mental but real. And these distinctions, once more, are based on mutually opposed relations.

Thus, by increasing precision, we reach the formula of the Council of Florence: “The Holy Spirit is eternally from Father and Son; He has His nature and subsistence at once (simul) from the Father and the Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration . . . . And, since the Father has through generation given to the only begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom He is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.”


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