Category Archives: SUMMA THEOLOGICA

Summa Questions 34-35: The Person of the Son

Question 34. The person of the Son

  1. Is Word an essential term in God, or a personal term?
  2. Is it the proper name of the Son?
  3. Is relation to creatures expressed in the name of the Word?

Immediately in these two questions pertaining to the Son we note the fact that some names, like Wisdom, Power, etc, that are attributed to the Son but are spoken essentially of God in His one nature, are not treated here. They will be treated when it comes to appropriations, but not as personal names of the Son.  The personal names used will be that of Word and of Image.

“The name of Word in God, if taken in its proper sense, is a personal name, and in no way an essential name… first and chiefly, the interior concept of the mind is called a word; secondarily, the vocal sound itself, signifying the interior concept, is so called; and thirdly, the imagination of the vocal sound is called a word… Word is also used in a fourth way figuratively for that which is signified or effected by a word…word is taken strictly in God, as signifying the concept of the intellect… Hence ‘Word,’ according as we use the term strictly of God, signifies something proceeding from another; which belongs to the nature of personal terms in God, inasmuch as the divine persons are distinguished by origin.”

The Word, then, signifies the person as person, and not the nature of that person, which is to be simply God.  The Word specifically refers to the person as the one who is generated as generated.

“’Word,’ said of God in its proper sense, is used personally, and is the proper name of the person of the Son. For it signifies an emanation of the intellect: and the person Who proceeds in God, by way of emanation of the intellect, is called the Son.”

The name Word does indeed apply to the Son in relationship to the creature, for it is in the Word that God sees all else, including every creature. God’s understanding even of creatures is not a discursive and empirical knowledge of those creatures, but rather, He understands them by first knowing them in Himself, of which knowledge (that of Himself, not just that of the creatures) is what we call the intellectual procession of the Word.

Question 35. The Image

  1. Is Image in God said personally?
  2. Does this name belong to the Son alone?

Having considered the name Word, Aquinas now considers the name Image as applies to the same Person of the Trinity, the Son.

“What is more absurd than to say that an image is referred to itself?” says Augustine in de Trinitate. Therefore the Image in God is a relation, and is thus a personal name.”

We mentioned this briefly when speaking of the relations in Question 28. The Image cannot be simply God as God, for an image of something cannot be simply that thing simply repeated. The image, rather, stands apart in some way. My image, perhaps in a mirror, stands apart from me as something truly distinct. In God, this Image is distinct as begotten is distinct from the begetter, although it is not distinct in its nature, which, of course, remains one.

“For a true image it is required that one proceeds from another like to it in species, or at least in specific sign. Now whatever imports procession or origin in God, belongs to the persons. Hence the name ‘Image’ is a personal name.”

“The Greek Doctors commonly say that the Holy Ghost is the Image of both the Father and of the Son; but the Latin Doctors attribute the name Image to the Son alone. For it is not found in the canonical Scripture except as applied to the Son.”

“The image of a thing may be found in something in two ways. In one way it is found in something of the same specific nature; In another way it is found in something of a different nature. In the first sense the Son is the Image of the Father; in the second sense man is called the image of God.”

In speaking of the Son as Word and Image, we cannot avoid speaking of the Holy Spirit briefly even in this question, given the unified view we must take of the Trinity.

“As the Holy Ghost, although by His procession He receives the nature of the Father, as the Son also receives it, nevertheless is not said to be “born”; so, although He receives the likeness of the Father, He is not called the Image; because the Son proceeds as word, and it is essential to word to be like species with that whence it proceeds; whereas this does not essentially belong to love, although it may belong to that love which is the Holy Ghost, inasmuch as He is the divine love.”

The Holy Ghost Himself is the topic of the following questions, and here, we cease discussion of the Son and His proper names in particular, although again, the Father and Son cannot go unmentioned when speaking of the Holy Spirit.

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.

Augustine, de Trinitate Book V: How to talk about God

In natural theology, it is almost a given that more can be said by way of what God is not than what He is. This is the via negativa, the negative way.  Of course, in Scripture, we can know things about God that we cannot know through reason alone, and among these is, of course, the Trinitarian nature of the one God. Still, Scripture often emphasizes those things that God is not, helping us to avoid comparing the Creator too directly with creation, where the temptation to pantheism, idolatry, and other dangers would creep in. For “whatever is said of a nature, unchangeable, invisible and having life absolutely and sufficient to itself, must not be measured after the custom of things visible, and changeable, and mortal, or not self-sufficient.”

Augustine certainly emphasizes this via negativa, even while restating his belief that the Trinity is something that God has positively revealed to us. “Whoso thus thinks of God, although he cannot yet find out in all ways what He is, yet piously takes heed, as much as he is able, to think nothing of Him that He is not.”

Augustine goes on to speak of the ways in which we may speak of God.  He is unchangeable, and thus, anything we say “happens to Him” or any human emotion we apply to Him is at best analogous, but more often than not, is actually expressing a change in creation.  For example, when God becomes angry with man, it is really that man has positioned himself differently toward the divine justice, for it is not God’s “emotions” that changed but man is the “relative partner.”

All that is “in” God is substantial, and never accidental (metaphysically speaking), and all things describing God must be viewed either as an aspect of this divine simplicity or otherwise as a metaphor for our understanding.  Either way, nothing can contradict this supreme simplicity and oneness of God and be taken in a literal way.

However, within the Godhead, it is not always true that everything is said substance-wise.  The one category, the one “accident” that is applicable to God is the unique category of relation, and it is by this that we begin to have an understanding of the Son as related to the Father, and likewise with the three Persons of the Trinity.  Of course, the Son differs in no way substantially (as substance) from the Father or the Spirit, but only by relation.

The remainder of Book V continues to look as substance, relation, person, and other words and the way they must be used and must not be understood when speaking of God, both as related to us but most especially as these words describe, as best as human language can, the immanent life of God.

After all, our entire language (any human language) is one built around the idea of expressing changeable being within time.  The jump from this language to things such as metaphysics takes great precision in speech and depth of thought.  Even further, then, is the stretch of human language to the Creator Himself, who is beyond even the subject of metaphysics but is, rather, its principle.

Processions in the Trinity

Here, we take a short look at what St. Thomas tells us about the processions in Question 27 of the First Part of the Summa. Quotes not labeled otherwise are from this treatise.

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.

The Principle Problem of Christology and the Chalcedonian Solution

The Christological heresies and the Chalcedonian solution to them focus on the problem of their being two natures and one Person in Christ.  “First, Jesus Christ is only one person, the divine Person, or the Hypostasis of the Son of God or of the Word. Second, this one divine Person subsists or exists in two natures, the Divine nature and the human nature, each of which is perfect as a nature, lacking no perfection of the nature. Thus His human nature has a human soul as well as a human body.”1

“The reason pagans could not conceive of anything like the incarnation is that their gods are part of this world, and the union of any two natures in this world is bound to be unnatural, because of the otherness that lets one thing be itself only by not being the other…The Christological heresies are a reflection of tendencies to make pagan the Christian sense of the divine.”2 Here, however, we are not dealing with pagans, but with Christians who are trying to understand the same problem.  Nowhere in the world of our experience is there anything like one existent with two different natures.  Likewise, within the world of created things, for a thing to be one thing necessarily entails it not being another. Part of the definition (if singulars could have definitions) of Matt, for example, would be that Matt is not John, or a rock, etc.

The problem, then, is how to understand Jesus Incarnate. Is He man with God related to Him in a close way, such as that of the saints? Are there actually two persons here, a human person and a divine person? Does the divinity of Christ replace the rational soul of the otherwise fully human man Jesus? Or are the two natures, somehow beyond our understanding, somehow mixed? All of these solutions and more have been proposed by men of faith seeking to understand the great mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God.

In 431 A.D., the Council of Ephesus decreed that the Virgin Mary is Theotokos, the God bearer, for her son Jesus is one person who is both God and man, divine and human. “Now, it was proved that the body of that man is the body of the natural Son of God, that is, of the Word of God. So it becomes us to say that the Blessed Virgin is ‘the Mother of the Word of God,’ and even ‘of God’.”3  Objection to the title “Mother of God” arose, due to confusion concerning the mystery of the incarnation. Nestorius stated that Mary gave birth to Jesus Christ, a regular human person. As such, Mary is not “Mother of God,” but simply the “Mother of Christ” or even the “Mother of Christ’s humanity.”

Another position, also heretical and indeed contrary to even reason alone, that was taken in opposition to the previous heresy of Nestorius is that of Eutyches. “Eutyches…says there is one nature, also. He says that, although before the union there were two distinct natures, the divine and human, they came together, nevertheless, in the union into one nature.”4 St. Thomas, among others, would demonstrate that this is both repugnant to Scripture and to reason.

“If…the human nature and the divine were two before the union, but from those in the union one nature was breathed together, this should take place in one of the ways in which it is natural that one comes to be from many.”5 In the next few articles, Thomas goes through the various ways this can be said to take place in nature, and demonstrates that all are untenable. The most important of these is the idea of a “mixture,” which can result in a single nature only through the destruction of both of the joined natures.

These two primary position, one of the Incarnate Christ being on person and one nature, and the other of Him being two distinct persons, one divine and one human, reflected the tendencies and arguments of the two primary “schools” of thought at Alexandria and Antioch.

With the 4th century debates between the Arians and the orthodox, especially Athanasius, we have “the emergence and development of two main types of Christology…: the so-called ‘Word-Flesh type, with its concentration on the Word as subject in the God-man and its lack of interest in the human soul, and the ‘Word-man’ type, alive to the reality and completeness of the humanity, but more hesitant about the position of the Word as a metaphysical subject…as it turned out, it was their head-on collision in these critical decades which precipitated the required synthesis.”6

Although most of the debate came in the East, primarily from the leading proponents of the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools, a key factor in the final confession was the Tome of Pope Leo.  At the Council of Chalcedon, in which more than 500 bishops took part, with the Pope represented by his legates, the Nicene Creed was upheld, and a formal confession of the doctrine of Christ’s two natures and one Person followed.  It can be summarized as follows:

“Jesus Christ is one and the same Son, the same perfect in Godhead and the same perfect in manhood…consubstantial with the Father in Godhead, and the same consubstantial with us in manhood..; begotten from the Father before the ages as regards His Godhead, and in the last days, the same, because of us and because of our salvation begotten from the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, as regards His manhood;…in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation, the difference in the natures being by no means removed because of the union,…coalescing in one prosopon and one hypostasis…”

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Notes:

  1. ICU, Patristics Course, Lecture 3: Christ’s Saving Work
  2. Sokolowski, The God of Faith and Reason, p. 36
  3. SCG Bk IV, 34, 15
  4. Ibid, 35, 2
  5. Ibid, 35, 6
  6. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 310

Early Witnesses to the Trinity in Christian Thought

St. Justin Martyr was a Christian apologist, born at Flavia Neapolis around A.D. 100 and a convert to Christianity about A.D. 130.  He is known as the first philosopher apologist, well instructed in the various Greek philosophical systems, as he switched from one school to another, always seeking the truth and never satisfied, until he came to know Truth Himself in the Person of Christ.

Among the mostly pagan Romans, he was therefore often accused of atheism.  No doubt one sees the similarities of St. Justin to Socrates, who, by proclaiming one true great god, was considered and tried as an atheist for now professing the gods of his common people.

Justin answers these charges thus:

“In our case, who pledge ourselves to do no wickedness, nor to hold these atheistic opinions, you do not examine the charges made against us; but, yielding to unreasoning passion, and to the instigation of evil demons, you punish us without consideration or judgment…And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that he was introducing new divinities; and in our case they display a similar activity…Hence are we called atheists. And we confess that we are atheists, so far as gods of this sort are concerned, but not with respect to the most true God.” (First Apology, Ch.5 and 6)

Turning our attention to St. Justin’s contribution to Trinitarian thought, we find that it is scarcely developed, yet it is there.  The focus is primarily on the equality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father, but most especially of the Son. In interpreting the Old Testament texts, for example,

“The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spoke to Moses, though He who spoke to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” (First Apology, Ch. 63)

Turning to his work Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, we see strong evidence of the beginnings of the “God from God, light from light” understanding that we are familiar with from the Creeds.

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled” (Dialogue, Ch 61).

Of course, we must see this for what it is; the beginning of speculative thought on the Trinity. The orthodox teaching today, of course, would not use such terms as to lead one to the false opinion that to be begotten means being somehow created.  The Son and the Spirit are co-eternal with the Father, something that is unclear at best in St. Justin. Likewise, the Son is not rightly said to be “begotten of the Father by an act of will.” This could make one think that the Father could have chosen not to will the begetting of the Son, which is false.  The Trinity is the essence of the one God, and just as necessary as the necessary being of God as first cause and existence itself. Nevertheless, St. Justin clearly demonstrates the early thought of the Church in its faith in one God and three Persons and a struggle to prayerfully understand it, explain it, and defend it.

Irenaeus of Lyon was Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul, (now Lyon, France) during the last part of the second century. He was an early church father and apologist, and his writings were formative in the early development of Christian theology. His writings Against Heresies are a wealth of early apologetics (defense of the faith) and of the thought of the early Church.

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to gather all things in one,  and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess (Against Heresies, BK I, Ch. 10)

St. Irenaeus writes about the heresy of Marcion and refutes it in great detail.  For our purposes, I will quote only a few lines to give an outline.

Marcion of Pontus…mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke, removing all that is written respecting the generation of the Lord, and setting aside a great deal of the teaching of the Lord, in which the Lord is recorded as most dearly confessing that the Maker of this universe is His Father…” (Against Heresies, I, 27)

But correct are those who “carefully preserving the ancient tradition, believing in one God, the Creator of heaven and earth, and all things therein, by means of Christ Jesus, the Son of God; who, because of His surpassing love towards His creation, condescended to be born of the virgin, He Himself uniting man through Himself to God, and having suffered under Pontius Pilate, and rising again, and having been received up in splendour, shall come in glory, the Saviour of those who are saved, and the Judge of those who are judged, and sending into eternal fire those who transform the truth, and despise His Father and His advent.” (Against Heresies, III, 3)

Deep reflection on the truths of the Trinity would take a back seat to the attacks on the Church that would soon follow on the true nature of Jesus the Incarnate Word of God.  But once these were more or less resolved, the Church would turn her attention again to more speculative thought on the inner life and metaphysical reality of the Triune God.  However, as all things that involve such things as transcend our finite minds, St. Irenaeus gives warning:

“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.” (Against Heresies, II, 28)

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.

Question 32. The knowledge of the divine persons

Question 32. The knowledge of the divine persons

  1. Can the divine persons be known by natural reason?
  2. Are notions to be attributed to the divine persons?
  3. The number of the notions
  4. May we lawfully have various contrary opinions of these notions?

Article 1. Whether the trinity of the divine persons can be known by natural reason?

The answer is no, and we may go back to the second Question of the Summa, The Existence of God.

The existence of God is first of all not self-evident.  Thomas here differs from such men as St. Anselm, who thought that the existence of God was self-evident, merely by understanding what we meant when we say the name God.

Probably the single most famous “proof” in all of philosophy is refuted if the topic of our discussion is legitimate.  In his Proslogion, St. Anselm lays out the following argument for the existence of God:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”

St. Thomas, of course, rejects this “proof” of St. Anselm in his Summa Theologica, in Question 2:

“Granted that everyone understands that by this word “God” is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.”

The problem is basically this: to ask the question “is it?” the same as to ask the question “what is it?” Or is one a question of concept and the other a question of judgment?  For to say what something is, according to Aristotelian logic, is the understand an essence, but this is not the same thing as to affirm the existence of that essence.

Of course, Thomas does believe that we can prove the existence of God from reason alone, but for Thomas, we know of His existence from His effects. We reason from creatures and their contingency back to a necessary being on who’s being the contingent beings depend.

In article 2 of Question 2, Thomas states explicitly how we come to know God:

“Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called “a priori,” and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration “a posteriori”; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us.”

Because of Thomas’ strict adherence to this truth, he can show that we cannot know of the existence of the Trinity apart from revelation.

“Man cannot obtain the knowledge of God by natural reason except from creatures. Now creatures lead us to the knowledge of God, as effects do to their cause. Accordingly, by natural reason we can know of God that only which of necessity belongs to Him as the principle of things… Now, the creative power of God is common to the whole Trinity; and hence it belongs to the unity of the essence, and not to the distinction of the persons. Therefore, by natural reason we can know what belongs to the unity of the essence, but not what belongs to the distinction of the persons.”

The very proof we can offer for the existence of God thereby excludes our “proof” from reason of the existence of the Trinity.  We know contingent being has a cause, and this cause we call God.  We cannot, however, derive from this an understanding of those things that go on within this transcendent being.

Thomas goes on to show the errors of those who try to prove the Trinity from reason alone. In this article, he states that “we must not attempt to prove what is of faith, except by authority alone, to those who receive the authority; while as regards others it suffices to prove that what faith teaches is not impossible.”

In the Summa Contra Gentiles, he made this statement even more emphatically. Stating that some truths can certainly be defended by reason, that is, it can be shown that they are not contrary to reason, he goes on to say:

“The sole way to overcome an adversary of divine truth is from the authority of Scripture—an authority divinely confirmed by miracles. For that which is above the human reason we believe only because God has revealed it. Nevertheless, there are certain likely arguments that should be brought forth in order to make divine truth known. This should be done for the training and consolation of the faithful, and not with any idea of refuting those who are adversaries. For the very inadequacy of the arguments would rather strengthen them in their error, since they would imagine that our acceptance of the truth of faith was based on such weak arguments. (SCG Book I, Chapter 9)”

Article 2. Whether there are notions in God?

Objection 1. It would seem that in God there are no notions. For Dionysius says (Div. Nom. i): “We must not dare to say anything of God but what is taught to us by the Holy Scripture.” But Holy Scripture does not say anything concerning notions. Therefore there are none in God.

Thomas answers this charge, which seems to be contrary to the Divine simplicity, by saying that “he use of concrete and abstract names in God is not in any way repugnant to the divine simplicity; forasmuch as we always name a thing as we understand it… our human intellect apprehends and names divine things, according to its own mode…we use abstract terms to signify simple forms; and to signify subsistent things we use concrete terms.”

We are not, then, adding something extraneous to the divine simplicity, but are seeking to understand in the only way we can.  God is simple, but to us, we have to take in this simplicity in a multiplicity of ways.  Therefore, we understand God in diverse manners:

“To those who ask: ‘Whereby are They one God? and whereby are They three persons?’ as we answer that They are one in essence or deity; so there must also be some abstract terms whereby we may answer that the persons are distinguished; and these are the properties or notions signified by an abstract term, as paternity and filiation. Therefore the divine essence is signified as ‘What’; and the person as ‘Who’; and the property as ‘Whereby.’”

These notional acts belong to the persons.

Article 3. Whether there are five notions?

There are Five notions in God:

  • “innascibility,”
  • “paternity,”
  • “filiation,”
  • “common spiration” and
  • “procession.”

Of these only four are relations, for “innascibility” is not a relation.

Three are personal notions, that is, they  constitute a persons:

  • “paternity,”
  • “filiation,” and
  • “procession.”

“Common spiration” and “innascibility” are called notions of Persons, as Thomas will explain in later Questions.

From this, paternity is seen to belong exclusively to the Father.  He is not, however, “paternity” but Father. To the Son, likewise, belongs filiation, but He is not filiation, but rather, He is Son. Remember again that these notions are that whereby some Person is what they are, but it is not the relation itself.

Article 4. Whether it is lawful to have various contrary opinions of notions?

“The notions are not articles of faith. Therefore different opinions of the notions are permissible.”

A thing is of faith, indirectly, if the denial of it involves as a consequence something against faith.  As long as this does not occur in contrary opinions of the notions, or in anything else of the faith, of course, then it is permissible to disagree.  However, if and when the Church makes a dogmatic statement on this or any other teaching it, of course, then becomes no longer permissible.

Question 31.The unity or plurality in God

In four Articles, the following are addressed:

  1. The word “Trinity”
  2. Can we say that the Son is other than the Father?
  3. Can an exclusive term, which seems to exclude otherness, be joined to an essential name in God?
  4. Can it be joined to a personal term?

Article 1. Whether there is trinity in God?

“The name ‘Trinity’ in God signifies the determinate number of persons. And so the plurality of persons in God requires that we should use the word trinity; because what is indeterminately signified by plurality, is signified by trinity in a determinate manner.”

It is the very idea of person that makes a trinitarian monotheism possible.  A clear understanding of what it means to say “person” is necessary to avoid the errors of Sabellius and Arius.

Each of these heresies viewed the processions as something that happened “as if in the world” rather than as something transcendent.  Sabellius viewed the procession of the Son, for instance, as being one of “being sent” in the world, and the truth of the Son’s separate existence was for him dependent on the Son’s mission in the world.  This is what we call modalism. Arius, rather, saw the procession as a kind of creation, a coming forth, viewed in the way we view change in the world.  For him the son is but “there was a time when he was not.”

Thomas’ understanding of the person, as relation, and this from the processions in the one being, leads us to understand (not comprehend) that God can be one and triune.

The [most] important points for extended reflection, besides Thomas’ sed contra given above, are a few lines from his replies to the objections:

  • In the strict meaning of the term (Trinity) it rather signifies the number of persons of one essence…Yet it does not mean the relations themselves of the Persons, but rather the number of persons related to each other;
  • Two things are implied in a collective term, plurality of the “supposita,” and a unity of some kind of order…In the first sense, this word “trinity” is like other collective words; but in the second sense it differs from them, because in the divine Trinity not only is there unity of order, but also with this there is unity of essence.
  • In God there is not triplicity, but Trinity (understanding this is THE KEY to contemplating the Triune God)

Article 2. Whether the Son is other than the Father?

“Heresy arises from words wrongly used, when we speak of the Trinity we must proceed with care and with befitting modesty.” We should, in all things we do, choose our words carefully.  Part of good communication is to clearly state to the other what we wish to convey.  Psychologically, much of our thinking is actually done “in words,” meaning that we contemplate things not in just some ephemeral fashion but often by thinking about things through the words we know and not merely the concepts.

All of this matters because it can affect the clearness or lack thereof in our thinking.  In few places does the use of words, and the clear consideration of exactly what they mean, become more important than in discussing the highest things in revealed truth.

“Now, in treating of the Trinity, we must beware of two opposite errors, and proceed cautiously between them–namely, the error of Arius, who placed a Trinity of substance with the Trinity of persons; and the error of Sabellius, who placed unity of person with the unity of essence.”

Because of this, Thomas will give us many terms that we must, for clarity, avoid when speaking of the trinity.

  • We must shun the term “singularity,” lest we take away the communicability of the divine essence.
  • We must avoid the adjective “only” [unici] lest we take away the number of persons.
  • We exclude from God the idea of singularity or uniqueness.
  • We must shun the use of the terms diversity and difference in God, lest we take away the unity of essence: we may, however, use the term “distinction” on account of the relative opposition.
  • We avoid the word “confused;” The word “solitary” is also to be avoided.

Thomas, however, realizes that orthodox teachers had used these words in orthodox writings, and says, for example, that “whenever we find terms of diversity or difference of Persons used in an authentic work, these terms of “diversity” or “difference” are taken to mean distinction.” As with all things in the development of our understanding of doctrine, it is with time and reflection that clarity comes more and more to the front. As the Church’s understanding of the great mysteries increases through the ages, more and more care will be taken in what statements we make.

A few excerpts deserve extra reflection

  • We can properly say that “the Son is other than the Father,” because He is another “suppositum” of the divine nature, as He is another person and another hypostasis.
  • There is a distinct substance in the sense of hypostasis or person. But diversity requires a distinct substance in the sense of essence. Thus we cannot say that the Son is diverse from the Father, although He is another.
  • There is one form in God, as appears from the text, “Who, when He was in the form of God” (Philippians 2:6).
  • Because in God distinction is by the persons, and not by the essence, we say that the Father is other than the Son, but not something else; while conversely we say that they are one thing, but not one person.

Article 3. Whether the exclusive word “alone” should be added to the essential term in God?

Once again, clear distinctions in terms, as well as a solid grasp on Aristotelian logic (or rather, logic; there is, in reality, no Aristotelian logic versus Kantian logic versus Matt Menkingian logic; things either conform to reality or they do not) are needed, and Thomas takes time here to refresh the memory of those students who have stuck with him thus far.

“This term “alone” can be taken as a categorematical term, or as a syncategorematical term. A categorematical term is one which ascribes absolutely its meaning to a given “suppositum”… If the term “alone” is taken in this sense, it cannot in any way be joined to any term in God… A syncategorematical term imports the order of the predicate to the subject… when we say, “Socrates alone writes,” we do not mean that Socrates is solitary, but that he has no companion in writing, though many others may be with him. In this way nothing prevents the term “alone” being joined to any essential term in God.”

The issue brought up in the first objection was that “he is alone who is not with another,” and that therefore it should not be said of God that He is alone, because of the “multitude” of persons.  This, of course, confusions what is being stated of God in one being, one essence, and in speaking of God the Father or God the Son or God the Holy Spirit.  Thomas answers that

  • “it is not properly said that the Father is God alone, or the Trinity is God alone, unless some implied meaning be assumed in the predicate, as, for instance, “The Trinity is God Who alone is God.” In that sense it can be true to say that the Father is that God Who alone is God, if the relative be referred to the predicate, and not to the “suppositum.”
  • For this proposition, “God alone is Father,” can mean two things, because the word “Father” can signify the person of the Father; and then it is true; for no man is that person: or it can signify that relation only; and thus it is false, because the relation of paternity is found also in others, though not in a univocal sense.

To some this seems so much technical jargon that one like Martin Luther would call Thomas the worst chatterbox of the Scholastics.  But if we are truly to contemplate God, to “seek His face” and “know the Truth,” such distinctions cannot be avoided.  Knowing God is more than a feeling; it requires a labor of love.

Article 4. Whether an exclusive diction can be joined to the personal term?

In the third objection to this article, we read that ‘an exclusive diction does not exclude what enters into the concept of the term to which it is joined. Hence it does not exclude the part, nor the universal; for it does not follow that if we say “Socrates alone is white,” that therefore “his hand is not white,” or that “man is not white.”’

Here, we return to the categorematical problem of the last article.  Remember that Thomas is seeking to defend and to unpack one of the most difficult mysteries of our faith: God is One and God is Triune.  There are three Persons, yet we are not polytheists.  We Worship one God, and we may pray to God the Father, or God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit.

Thomas answers that “When we say, “The Father alone is God,” such a proposition can be taken in several senses. If “alone” means solitude in the Father, it is false in a categorematical sense; but if taken in a syncategorematical sense it can again be understood in several ways.”

I will not list the ways here, but basically, we have to understand what we are predicating with the word “alone.”  Whenever Scripture speaks, for example, of God the Father, or of simply God, we cannot impose a different predication than the intended meaning of the passage.

A similar example occurs when Jesus says “The Father and I are one” or when Jesus says “The Father is greater than me.”  We must see that the I/Me being spoken of in each passage, to avoid a contradiction, must be somehow distinct.  The Father is greater than “me” when “me” is used speaking of the “man” Christ Jesus.  The Father and I are one is true when “I” refers to the divine Person, the second Person in the Trinity.

Likewise, we must be discerning when terms like alone are used to speak of the Father, or of God, or anything else. Again, clarity is needed to avoid heresy. Thomas again refers to uses of the word “alone” in writings of the Fathers of the Church, etc.

We reflect again on a few lines from Thomas’ replies to objections:

  • When we say, “Thee the only true God,” we do not understand it as referring to the person of the Father, but to the whole Trinity.
  • The exclusive diction does not exclude what enters into the concept of the term to which it is adjoined, if they do not differ in “suppositum,” as part and universal. But the Son differs in “suppositum” from the Father; and so there is no parity.

fghfgh

St. Augustine, de Trinitate, Book III

“…while yet I cannot resist my brethren when they exact of me, by that law by which I am made their servant, that I should minister above all to their praiseworthy studies in Christ by my tongue and by my pen, of which two yoked together in me, Love is the charioteer; and while I myself confess that I have by writing learned many things which I did not know.”

Writing continues to be, for Augustine, a pastoral project. As mentioned before, many would rather simply contemplate God, and this is indeed what we are called to do.  It is, as in the story of Martha and Mary, “the better part.” It is the “one thing necessary.”

Nevertheless, on earth we are called to love not only God but our neighbor.  It is hard to imagine a way in which we could love our neighbor more than by bringing them to the truth or, if they are there, confirming them in it, so that they may know the truth and it may set them free, both now and eternally.  We not only wish to know God, but to serve him, and Augustine, as pastor and bishop, continues to fulfill this.

Serving God, however, always has its rewards, although they certainly need not be temporal.  Here, however, Augustine notes that he learns much through his writing.  In being called again to the active life, he is not turned away from the contemplative. Indeed, we can only share the fruits of our contemplation after we have done the contemplating.  Teaching, as so many involved in such work will attest, is a great means of learning. And a bishop is a teacher.  He is arguably first a teacher, and then a sanctifier, and only then and because of these first two, a governor.  He is to follow his exemplar, who is Christ, as prophet, priest, and king.  He is to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.

Let us return, however, to the teaching of de Trinitate itself. Augustine had posed three questions in Book II, Chapter 3.  After a brief recapitulation, he proceeds here to formulate a response to the second of those questions…

“Let us, then, continue our inquiry now in order. ..the second head in that division the question occurred, whether the creature was formed for that work only, wherein God, in such way as He then judged it to be fitting, might be manifested to human sight; or whether angels, who already existed, were so sent as to speak in the person of God, assuming a corporeal appearance from the corporeal creature for the purpose of their ministry; or else changing and turning their own body itself, to which they are not subject, but govern it as subject to themselves, into whatever forms they would, that were appropriate and fit for their actions, according to the power given to them by the Creator.”

Augustine makes the point that there will be mystery in the exact “how” of God and His messengers.  Did the angels “assume” (and by this he does not imply a true incarnation) a matter that did not pre-exist so as to manifest themselves to man?  Or rather, did they assume (as in take over) pre-existing matter to do likewise? Certainly, it could have been both.  Perhaps “the three” that visited Abraham were created simply for these meetings, and then disappeared later, whereas, at the burning bush, a preexisting bush was set aflame yet was not consumed.

Whatever they (the angels, His messengers) did, they did with power from God, as authorized and derived from Him.  God is always the cause, at least in the sense of being the cause of something’s existence as such.  God is the primary mover, and nothing happens outside of His [consequent] will.  The difference between antecedent will and consequent will is not directly addressed here, but Augustine seems to demonstrate that the difference is to be understood in the way he repeatedly claims that all happens by God’s will, yet any evil acts are by His “permission.”  Later in Book III, he will say this in more explicit terms:

“But neither do the good angels do these things, except as far as God commands, nor do the evil ones do them wrongfully, except as far as He righteously permits. For the malignity of the wicked one makes his own will wrongful; but the power to do so, he receives rightfully, whether for his own punishment, or, in the case of others, for the punishment of the wicked, or for the praise of the good.”

Augustine tells us, indeed, that this path follows all the way up to God in all things, whether by inanimate object, as well as by creatures, rational or non-rational, although each in their own way:

“But as the more gross and inferior bodies are governed in due order by the more subtle and powerful ones, so all bodies are governed by the living spirit; and the living spirit devoid of reason, by the reasonable living spirit; and the reasonable living spirit that makes default and sins, by the living and reasonable spirit that is pious and just; and that by God Himself, and so the universal creature by its Creator, from whom and through whom and in whom it is also created and established. And so it comes to pass that the will of God is the first and the highest cause of all corporeal appearances and motions.”

Augustine has certainly assumed miracles in his exposition thus far, and the teaching is almost universally accepted by Christians.  I know of few who would deny miracles but still claim to be Christians before the time of David Hume and his contemporaries and followers.

Nevertheless, those who would deny the possibility of miracles, as spoken of in the Old Testament, are addressed. Speaking of God’s providence and His being the cause, as addressed above, of all things, Augustine states that it is the same God who does both.

“Who ordinarily clothes the trees with leaves and flowers except God? Yet, when the rod of Aaron the priest blossomed, the Godhead in some way conversed with doubting humanity.”

Augustine is not saying that miracles are merely unexplained happenings of the natural order, although one could possibly think this by a superficial reading of the text.  Certainly, one should not go around explaining everything as a miracle immediately simply because one doesn’t understand the cause.  Many things that seemed unexplainable in Augustine’s day may perhaps be explained today by the physical sciences (of course, many scientists try to explain too much with their method, and come up with such absurdities as “the law of gravity created the universe”).

We must not become either rationalists or fideists, as there is always a tendency to let happen.  This is what we see with the creationist vs. darwinianist controversy, and this type of debate is nothing new. Indeed, the existence and the movement of the heavens, and the progress of the species, are all to be looked upon with wonder, knowing God is the original source and designer, no matter what method He uses in their sustainment.  The existence of anything is amazing, whether the simply or the complex.

“Jacob’s stone, therefore, as I said, signified something better than did the serpents of the magicians; yet the deed of the magicians was much more wonderful. But these things in this way are no hindrance to the understanding of the matter; just as if the name of a man were written in gold, and that of God in ink.”

God came to humble the proud, but to exalt the humble. We should not be confused by the simple and think it is not sacred.  The humanity of Jesus and the Eucharist are prime examples of the lowly things God uses. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53). Yet we would look at human achievement and think these things to be the greater. God will let those who are proud wallow in the mire of their conceit, and remain confused:

“I see here what may occur to a weak judgment, namely, why such miracles are wrought also by magic arts; for the wise men of Pharaoh likewise made serpents, and did other like things. Yet it is still more a matter of wonder, how it was that the power of those magicians, which was able to make serpents, when it came to very small flies, failed altogether.”

The letter to the Hebrews confirms the main contention of Augustine: “God, who, at sundry times and in divers manners, spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all, in these days hath spoken to us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the world” (Heb 1:1-2).  Angels are, by definition, messengers.

“It is manifest, accordingly, that all those appearances to the fathers, … we say that they were wrought by angels; “

He again says that:

“…both by probable reason, so far as a man, or rather, so far as I am able, and by strength of authority, so far as the divine declarations from the Holy Scriptures have been made clear, that those words and bodily appearances which were given to these ancient fathers of ours before the incarnation of the Saviour, when God was said to appear, were wrought by angels.”

Noting as before that these things we do not know by our reason, although they are not in contradiction to our reason, we look to God’s revelation of Himself.  We trust not only what is said of God but the God who says it.  In fact, in faith, we must trust the message and the messenger:

“For the authority is extant of the divine Scriptures, from which our reason ought not to turn aside; nor by leaving the solid support of the divine utterance, to fall headlong over the precipice of its own surmisings, in matters wherein neither the perceptions of the body rule, nor the clear reason of the truth shines forth.”