Trinitarian Persons as Relations (Summa Theologica)

Question 29 -The Divine Persons

As in all things of the Trinity, there is great difficulty in understanding the three persons in one God.  The three are truly subsistent persons, yet each is fully the one God, one Being, one essence.  It is not like man who is differentiated by his particular self from the human nature he shares with others. No man is human nature, but rather has a human nature.  God, you might say, is “God nature” and has “God nature.” There is no difference between the particular and the universal when it comes to this “God nature.” There is no difference between the abstract and the concrete.  There are no accidents adhering in the substance.  God is, although three persons, absolutely one.

Article 4. Whether this word “person” signifies relation?

After laying our several objections that would deny that this word “person” signifies relation, Thomas, of course, quotes and authority; Boethius says that “every word that refers to the persons signifies relation.” But no word belongs to person more strictly than the very word “person” itself. Therefore this word “person” signifies relation.

I answer that, A difficulty arises concerning the meaning of this word “person” in God, from the fact that it is predicated plurally of the Three in contrast to the nature of the names belonging to the essence; nor does it in itself refer to another, as do the words which express relation.

To determine the question, we must consider that something may be included in the meaning of a less common term, which is not included in the more common term; as “rational” is included in the meaning of “man,” and not in the meaning of “animal.” Also, it is one thing to ask the meaning of this word “person” in general; and another to ask the meaning of “person” as applied to God. Therefore “person” in any nature signifies what is distinct in that nature: thus in human nature it signifies this flesh, these bones, and this soul.

As stated above, however, there is no difference in the nature of God and of God Himself.  He is the being one.  God is the one God, the only nature of its kind.  The distinction of persons in God, therefore, will be in a way where no different particular instance of this nature is recognized, as it would be between Matt (an individual with a human nature) and John (an individual with a human nature).

Now distinction in God is only by relation of origin, while relation in God is not as an accident in a subject, but is the divine essence itself; and so it is subsistent, for the divine essence subsists. Therefore, as the Godhead is God so the divine paternity is God the Father, Who is a divine person. Therefore a divine person signifies a relation as subsisting. And and such a relation is a hypostasis subsisting in the divine nature, although in truth that which subsists in the divine nature is the divine nature itself. Thus it is true to say that the name “person” signifies relation directly, and the essence indirectly; this word “person” was used just as any other absolute term. But afterwards it was applied to express relation, as it lent itself to that signification, so that this word “person” means relation not only by use and custom, according to the first opinion, but also by force of its own proper signification.

Even without stating the specific objections to which these replies are given, the following help to clarify what has been said above.

Reply to Objection 2. The term “what” refers sometimes to the nature expressed by the definition, as when we ask; What is man? and we answer: A mortal rational animal. Sometimes it refers to the “suppositum,” as when we ask, What swims in the sea? and answer, A fish. So to those who ask, Three what? we answer, Three persons.

Reply to Objection 3. In God the individual–i.e. distinct and incommunicable substance–includes the idea of relation, as above explained.

Question 40

Article 2. Whether the persons are distinguished by the relations?

“Relation alone multiplies the Trinity of the divine persons.”

I answer that, In whatever multitude of things is to be found something common to all, it is necessary to seek out the principle of distinction. So, as the three persons agree in the unity of essence, we must seek to know the principle of distinction whereby they are several. Now, there are two principles of difference between the divine persons, and these are “origin” and “relation.” Although these do not really differ, yet they differ in the mode of signification; for “origin” is signified by way of act, as “generation”; and “relation” by way of the form, as “paternity.”

There is really no actual difference between them in the simplicity of God, but the origin and relation differ in that it is the relation itself, not the origin (which is the “cause” of the relation) that is the Person.

Origin of a thing does not designate anything intrinsic, but means the way from something, or to something; as generation signifies the way to a thing generated, and as proceeding from the generator. Hence it is not possible that what is generated and the generator should be distinguished by generation alone; but in the generator and in the thing generated we must presuppose whatever makes them to be distinguished from each other. In a divine person there is nothing to presuppose but essence, and relation or property. Whence, since the persons agree in essence, it only remains to be said that the persons are distinguished from each other by the relations.

Again, the relations and not the origin of the relations (which is the essence) is what distinguishes the Persons.

The distinguishing principles themselves must constitute the things which are distinct. Now the relations or the properties distinguish or constitute the hypostases or persons, inasmuch as they are themselves the subsisting persons; as paternity is the Father, and filiation is the Son, because in God the abstract and the concrete do not differ. But it is against the nature of origin that it should constitute hypostasis or person. For origin taken in an active sense signifies proceeding from a subsisting person, so that it presupposes the latter; while in a passive sense origin, as “nativity,” signifies the way to a subsisting person, and as not yet constituting the person.

The origin presupposes the person rather than constituting him.  The origin of a son, even an earthly one, presupposes the person of the father, but it is the relation of the father to the son, again, even in earthly terms, that makes the father to be the father.

It is therefore better to say that the persons or hypostases are distinguished rather by relations than by origin.


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