A review of or primer on the Trinity


“If any one, therefore, says to us, “How then was the Son produced by the Father?” we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begot, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” -St. Irenaeus of Lyons

How, then, dare I try to make an attempt to tell of the mystery of the Trinity in my little blog, a man of little learning that I am?  I simply affirm what St. Irenaeus says; I am out of my mind. I agree with Aristotle and St. Thomas when I say that to achieve even a little knowledge of the highest things is far better than to know almost everything about worldly things.

In the prologue to Book II of St. Augustine’s de Trinitate, he confirms this saying “When men seek to know God, and bend their minds according to the capacity of human weakness to the understanding of the Trinity; learning, as they must, by experience, the wearisome difficulties of the task, whether from the sight itself of the mind striving to gaze upon light unapproachable.”

In all that will be said here, we must remember that it is by faith alone that we can know of the Trinity.  Theologians past, and with good intention, have tried to prove the existence of the Trinity.  I agree with St. Thomas that this is impossible, for we can only know things by reason because of the world we experience.  That is, to use reason alone is to confine ourselves to the starting point of the created world.

God is One, and He acts as one.  We can know that God exists through reason alone, but this is reasoning from cause to effect, and in this case, we recognize a “necessary cause” for all that is contingent. We can only reason to the one cause, which is the one nature, the one essence that is the one God.  There is no way to know there is a Trinity.

“The following dissertation concerning the Trinity, as the reader ought to be informed, has been written in order to guard against the sophistries of those who disdain to begin with faith, and are deceived by a crude and perverse love of reason” (de Trinitate, Book I) says St. Augustine of his work on the Trinity.  While never disdaining reason, we will keep in mind constantly that we are contemplating the greatest of mysteries, beyond the comprehension of any finite intellect.

We can, however, know that arguments against the Trinity are not demonstrable, that is, there is no argument that can show that the Trinity is against reason. Arguments against the Trinity, like any argument against the faith, are either sophistry (simply erroneous) or otherwise merely probable (meaning that they are not the only explanation that explains the data; similar examples can be found on other issues which cannot be known through reason alone, such as whether the world is eternal or had a beginning in time, etc).

Therefore, the investigation of the mystery of the Trinity can do two things, and these are not really separate. “The manifestation of truth and the criticism of errors constitute two aspects of one theological enterprise” (Giles Emery, OP). We will see, then, that throughout our contemplation of the Trinity, we will often use the errors of non-believers and heretics alike to show forth the true doctrine of the Trinity, inasmuch as we are able.  Of course, God can never be comprehended, but we can, through effort and grace, come to some knowledge of God.  And after all, “this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

‘”Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD.’ (Isaiah 1:18) We will attempt to do just that. Call me “out of my mind” if you will.

In the next post, I plan to, in summary form, lay out the basic principles of Trinitarian theology, to include

The immanent Trinity: processions, relations, persons, notions, and appropriations.

The economic Trinity: the “role” of each Person in the order of creation and of redemption, to include the missions. The understanding of the “economic Trinity,” (God as He is known and made known to us)of course, flows from the “immanent Trinity,” (God as He is eternally to Himself).


Two Processions

Our faith in the One but Triune God rests on the notion of persons, of which, in One God, we recognize three. To have any grasp of these Persons, we must first understand relations, and in order to do this, we must inquire as to the processions in the Trinity. “The role which the study of processions plays is propaedeutic: it prepares the way for the study of relations, which in its turn, prepares the way for us to think about the persons” (Giles Emery, pg. 51).

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 4, we read that “Sacred Scripture, then, hands on to us the names of “paternity” and “sonship” in the divinity, insisting that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Scripture has not been silent about the very name of “divine generation.” For in the Psalm (2:7), as was said, one reads: “This day have I begotten You” (Ch. 2). We certainly do not reason our way to the divine processions, but rather, present them as the teaching of revealed truth.

We must first ask then, whether there can be any processions in God, for “It would seem that there cannot be…procession signifies outward movement. But in God there is nothing mobile, nor anything extraneous.” What we must do is recognize that here, the processions are immanent, within the one God. “This objection comes from the idea of procession in the sense of local motion, or of an action tending to external matter, or to an exterior effect…This procession has been differently understood. Some have understood it in the sense of an effect, proceeding from its cause; so Arius took it…Others take this procession to mean the cause proceeding to the effect, as moving it, or impressing its own likeness on it; in which sense it was understood by Sabellius.”

Of course, these errors are easy to fall into, as this is our experience in the world around us.  Actions tend to terminate in other objects, or in other locations, or in other times. But we can, as Augustine showed us, and Thomas refined so well, see an analogous procession in ourselves in our intellect and in our will, allowing us to have some understanding of what immanent (internal) processions might be.

“As God is above all things, we should understand what is said of God, not according to the mode of the lowest creatures, namely bodies, but from the similitude of the highest creatures, the intellectual substances… Procession, therefore, is not to be understood from what it is in bodies, either according to local movement or by way of a cause proceeding forth to its exterior effect, as, for instance, like heat from the agent to the thing made hot. Rather it is to be understood by way of an intelligible emanation.”

After showing that, within God who is pure simplicity, there can still be processions, we move to the question of generation. “Generation has a twofold meaning: one common to everything subject to generation and corruption…for this kind of generation requires that there should be a procession by way of similitude in the same specific nature; as a man proceeds from a man, and a horse from a horse…In another sense it is proper and belongs to living things; in which sense it signifies the origin of a living being from a conjoined living principle.”

Now, in God, what is generated does not have its terminus in another subject, as it would in creatures.  When a human begets a human, the nature is shared, but the subject is a different human, in different matter and with its own form. It is this creaturely part of generation we must let go of when thinking of God.

“But if there is a being whose life does not proceed from potentiality to act, procession (if found in such a being) excludes entirely the first kind of generation; whereas it may have that kind of generation which belongs to living things [but] by way of similitude, inasmuch as the concept of the intellect is a likeness of the object conceived:–and exists in the same nature, because in God the act of understanding and His existence are the same.”

As St. Thomas says elsewhere, “That, then, is the supreme and perfect grade of life which is in the intellect, for the intellect reflects upon itself and the intellect can understand itself… God, because He understands Himself, the intellect, the thing understood, and the intention understood are all identical. God, therefore, must be in Himself as the thing understood in him who understands… The divine intellect, of course, since it does not pass from potency to act, but is always actually existent (which was proved in Book I), must necessarily have always understood itself and is co-eternal with God, and is not acquired by Him in time, as our intellect acquires in time its interiorly conceived word which is the intention understood” (SCG, IV, 11) As Fr. Lagrange puts it, “the Word, conceived from eternity by the Father, has no other nature than that of the Father. And the Word is not like our word, accidental, but substantial, because God’s act of knowledge is not an accident, but self-subsisting substance” (Reality).  We touched on this when asking if there were any procession in God, and what kind of procession (immanent) that might be.

But an objection may be placed here, if one has not grasped what was said above. It would seem that “anything that is generated derives existence from its generator. Therefore such existence is a derived existence.” Thomas reply is that “…what is generated in God receives its existence from the generator, not as though that existence were received into matter or into a subject…but… He Who proceeds receives divine existence from another; not, however, as if He were other from the divine nature.” This had been recently defined by the Church: The Fourth Lateran Council…declared…(The Divine Substance) does not generate, nor is it generated, nor does it proceed; it is the Father that generates, the Son who is generated, and the Holy Ghost that proceeds (Dogma, pg. 61)

We have spoken of generation, and this applies to the Word of God, whom we generally refer to as the Second Person of the Trinity. But can any other procession exist? As stated earlier, we can have some understanding of the answer to this by looking within ourselves, for we were created in the image and likeness of God. “We must observe that procession exists in God, only according to an action which does not tend to anything external, but remains in the agent itself. Such an action in an intellectual nature is that of the intellect, and of the will.”

The first procession, that of the generation of the Word, refers to the intellect.  When we turn to the procession of the Holy Ghost, we will speak analogously of the will. We might ask what difference there is in the procession of the Word and of the Holy Ghost, and why, if we call the first generation, we do not likewise call the procession of the Holy Ghost generation.

Fr. Lagrange puts it succinctly. “Further, this procession of the only-begotten Son is rightly called generation. The living thing, born of a living thing, receives a nature like that of its begetter, its generator. In the Deity, the Son receives that same divine nature, not caused, but communicated…But this second procession is not a generation, because love, in contrast with knowledge, does not make itself like its object, but rather goes out to its object…The second procession, spiration, presupposes the first, generation, since love derives from knowledge.”

Thomas tells us, as far as using the word procession and generation for the Son, but only the word procession for the Spirit, “As in creatures generation is the only principle of communication of nature, procession in God has no proper or special name, except that of generation. Hence the procession which is not generation has remained without a special name; but it can be called spiration, as it is the procession of the Spirit.”

There are, besides intellect and will, other perfections on God, such as power, goodness, and others.  Are there, then, other processions in God? “It would seem to some that… there are more than two processions in God, for goodness seems to be the greatest principle of procession, since goodness is diffusive of itself. Therefore there must be a procession of goodness in God. But, As Boethius says (De Hebdom.), goodness belongs to the essence and not to the operation, unless considered as the object of the will.”

In other words, “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.”

In summary, we may reflect on the processions in the following way:

  1. Our intellectual ideas are accidental, not substantial. God’s are substantial; it does not develop in time, as though it was discursive.  He has but one idea, one Word, that of Himself.
  2. This Word is begotten, generated, for knowledge makes itself like its object.
  3. The Holy Ghost proceeds as love, which does not make itself like its object, and thus in God is not by generation, but rather, love goes out to its object, and this, we may call spiration.
  4. To again quote LaGrange, “The second procession, spiration, presupposes the first, generation, since love derives from knowledge.” From this, we can know the Father as first principle, but also that the Holy Ghost proceeds from both the Father and the Son as from one principle.


Three Persons, Four Relations, and Five Notions

“…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) 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:

The Father begets the Son.  We have a mutually opposed relation: paternity to filiation.

The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. We have a mutually opposed relation: active spiration and passive spiration

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.”

We must add innascibility to the above named relations to arrive at the five notions. Of these five notions only four are relations, since innascibility is not a relation but the negation of the relation of origin in the Father. The Father, as already mentioned, has no origin, but is the origin of the Son and, with the Son, the origin of the Holy Spirit.


Personal Properties

Attributes like Wisdom and Power certainly apply to God as one, in His essence. Metaphysically, it would seem erroneous to say that one of the Persons of the Trinity is Wisdom and not the others. Yet the Scriptures seems to emphasis certain of these attributes as being important in the recognition of one or other Person of the Trinity.  This is a problem many prior to St. Thomas had discussed, very notably, St. Augustine in his de Trinitate, for example.

The Apostle says: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Thomas goes on to say that “For the manifestation of our faith it is fitting that the essential attributes should be appropriated to the persons. For although the trinity of persons cannot be proved by demonstration… it is fitting that it be declared by things which are more known to us. Now the essential attributes of God are more clear to us from the standpoint of reason than the personal properties; because we can derive certain knowledge of the essential attributes from creatures which are sources of knowledge to us, such as we cannot obtain regarding the personal properties…such a manifestation of the divine persons by the use of the essential attributes is called “appropriation.”

While we can know that the one God is Wisdom, Power, Truth, etc, we cannot know that the one God is Trinitarian apart from Revelation.  In understanding in some way the three Persons, it is helpful and quite appropriate that we see certain attributes of the essence of God as especially revealed through the specific Persons.

“The essential attributes are not appropriated to the persons as if they exclusively belonged to them; but in order to make the persons manifest by way of similitude.” We are not, again, saying that Christ is the power and the wisdom of God in a way that excludes the other two persons of the Trinity from sharing these same attributes in their essential oneness, but we are expressing, for example, that since the Son is seen as the Word, the proceeding knowledge of God to Himself, it is appropriate to recognize Him (the Son) as the Wisdom of God.

Article 8. Whether the essential attributes are appropriated to the persons in a fitting manner by the holy doctors?

Essence and operation are not found to be appropriated to any one person. The essence is one and the operations of the one God in this world are as from one source, the one Being. It is difficult for some, then, to reconcile certain sayings of the Fathers of the Church that seem to divide the essence or operations of the one God, such as Augustine when he says that “Unity is in the Father, equality in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost is the concord of equality and unity” or when “Further, according to Augustine, to the Father is attributed ‘power,’ to the Son ‘wisdom,’ to the Holy Ghost ‘goodness.’…Likewise Augustine says …”‘from Him’ refers to the Father, ‘by Him’ to the Son, ‘in Him’ to the Holy Ghost.”

Thomas answers that, “Our intellect, which is led to the knowledge of God from creatures, must consider God according to the mode derived from creatures. In considering any creature four points present themselves to us in due order. Firstly, the thing itself taken absolutely is considered as a being. Secondly, it is considered as one. Thirdly, its intrinsic power of operation and causality is considered. The fourth point of consideration embraces its relation to its effects. Hence this fourfold consideration comes to our mind in reference to God.”



Of course, in all that has been said, nothing of the mysterious nature of the Trinity is denied.  While we cannot comprehend God, we are not confined to agnosticism regarding Him and His interior life.  Both reason and revelation can help us contemplate God with greater understanding. While reason can never arrive at the existence of the Triune character of God, it is a great instrument in understanding what is revealed, and cannot be neglected if we are to “seek His face, always.”

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