The relations of the Trinity
Written on Wednesday 31 March 2004 for University of Cambridge, BA Theology Part IIB
© Ben Green 2004
Assess the merits of conceiving the relations of the Trinity as relations of 'origin', 'love' and 'regard'. Which seems the most fruitful?
With reference to Gregory Nyssen, Gregory Nazianzen, St Thomas Aquinas and Richard of St Victor
The problem for any theologian writing about the Trinity is that God is essentially unknowable; we, as finite creatures, can neither understand nor express the essence1 of God, as the infinite Creator. Yet that does not mean that the task of writing about the Trinity should be abandoned. As Augustine said, we cannot love what we do not know, and the more we know something the more we can love it. In order for our love of God to grow, we must seek to grow in knowledge of him. The texts I have studied for this essay can be read as attempts to come (and to help others to come) to a deeper knowledge, and therefore love, of God. They represent three different ways of thinking about the Trinity, all of which add a layer to our understanding of its mystery. But which of them is most successful, which of them is most fruitful?
The most fundamental and difficult concept in the doctrine of the Trinity is the 'one-in-threeness' of God, as Barth calls it; God is one God, and he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.2 One of the ways that the Cappadocians sought to address this difficulty was through what this question terms 'relations of origin'. The Father is the "fount" of divinity; the divine essence issues from him to the Son and the Spirit. When Gregory Nazianzen describes this in his Oration on Holy Baptism, he says that he is "afraid" to use the term 'origin' of the Father in case it implies the inferiority of the Son and Holy Spirit, "for the lowering of those Who are from Him is no glory to the Source." Rather, from the Father "flows both the Equality and the Being of the Equals."3 Each person of the Trinity is equally divine and exists from eternity; so all temporal senses must be removed from the term 'origin' if it is to be used of the Father. Another way of saying this is that, eternally, the Father is begetting, the Son begotten and the Spirit neither begetting nor begotten.
The major consequences of this teaching are threefold. First, it asserts the absolute and complete divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as the source of their divinity is the Father. This commonality means that if the Father is omnipotent (for example) in his divinity, then so are the Son and the Spirit, for divinity subsists fully in them. The divine essence is not split up, each person receiving some of the attributes but never all of them; rather, all the divine attributes subsist fully and equally in each person. Thus the unity of God is strongly asserted through the common essence of the persons.
Second, this teaching demonstrates clearly the threeness of God and the distinctions between the persons. It is not enough simply to state that God is three, one must also try to describe how it might be that God is three. Gregory Nyssen writes that first, there are two distinctions in the divine essence. One person is the Cause, another is of the Cause. Second, within the latter there are two further distinctions, "one is directly from the first Cause, and another by that which is directly from the first Cause."4 This does not indicate a difference in nature, but a "difference in manner of existence"; the Father is not caused to exist, and the Son does not exist without being caused to exist.4 Further, the Father is not sent, but the Son and the Spirit are; the Son is made incarnate, but the Father is not. Each person is separated by his "peculiar attributes" but still shares fully in the common essence. So even in their trinity there is unity, because when the persons 'come together' the sum total is no more or less than each of the persons on their own.5
Third, the way we are able to experience the Trinity demonstrates this "manner of existence."6 We do not experience God, as he is, in himself (the immanent Trinity), but rather God, as he is, in his Creation (the economic Trinity). And in his operations in his Creation we see unity.7 In this fact lies the difference between the divine and the human essences. For different hypostases of the human essence act differently, each according to his or her own situation, skills, and needs. Humankind as a whole does not act as one unified mass. Yet each hypostasis of the divine essence does not act independently of the other two; all three act as one. As before, there is threeness in this oneness, "every operation which extends from God to the creation... has its origin in the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit."8 The Father wills, and the Son and the Spirit obey, not out of inferiority but out of choice; for equality as well as divinity issues from the Father.
Aquinas' concept of 'relation', or 'regard'9 is central to the way he talks about the persons of the Trinity. Indeed, he says that it is only possible to distinguish between the persons by using that concept, that relations of origin alone are not enough to allow us to distinguish properly between the persons of the Trinity.10
This notion of opposition necessarily involves more than one subject, for one cannot be opposed to oneself, only to another; there must be some opposition between the subjects for the regard to be real. If the subjects were absolutely and completely 'the same' then there would be no opposition and therefore no regard.11 Conversely, if there were no common essence then the subjects would not be related in a real sense, but only logically, "distinction must be understood as resulting from something intrinsic to both."12 Thus both commonality and opposition must be present for there to be a real regard.13 Here we see the foundations of the idea that the persons of the Trinity are both one (in essence) and distinct (in personhood).
We will now look at three ways in which Aquinas shows that the relations in God are real and not logical. First, Aquinas shows that there really is origination and opposition in the divine essence. He looks at what he calls the "divine processions" (that is, word and spirit), which are real and exist intrinsically to the divine essence;14 that which proceeds and the source of procession are one and the same essence. There is real opposition between the two, as they are distinct, and genuine commonality, as they are of one essence. So there is real regard in God; when we talk of relations in God they are not logical (that is, invented by our minds). Thus the existence and nature of the divine processions show the presence of real distinctions within the divine essence.
Second, by a comparison with the way we as humans are related to things we can see that relations in God must be intrinsic to his essence. When we transfer to God what is accidental in us, it becomes substantial (essential) in him, for God is simple: all substance (essence) and no accidents. In us regard is always in relation to something external to ourselves, and so is accidental.15 This means that when we say that there are real relations of regard in God, we are attributing to his essence what in us is accidental. Indeed, because of God's simplicity, the relations become identical with the divine essence; the relation of paternity is entirely divine, as is the relation of filiation. However filiation is not paternity; each is the same relationship but in a different 'direction'. This distinction, which is part of God's essence, is therefore real, not absolutely (for there is only one essence) but relatively.16 Here we see a similar idea to one that we saw when we looked at the Cappadocians: each person of the Trinity on his own is 'equal' to the sum of all three together. Each relation in the Trinity is identified wholly with the divine essence, and yet all the relations together make only one divine essence.
Third, he shows that if we say that there are relations in God, we have also to say that there is opposition.17 This is unusual, for when we think of relations we normally think of 'togetherness' rather than distinction. However Aquinas rightly points out that distinction is 'the condition for the possibility' of relations of regard. Thus when we attribute 'regard' to the divine essence,18 we are, by implication, saying that there must be two subjects. Aquinas quotes Aristotle to illustrate what this means, "[i]t is the same way from Athens to Thebes, as from Thebes to Athens."19 By attributing the 'way' to God we necessarily say that there must be a 'city' at either end of that way.20
Both Gregory Nyssen and Gregory Nazianzen talk of distinctions in the divine essence only in terms of origin. However Aquinas says that there are two "principles of difference" between the divine persons: origin ("signified by way of act") and regard ("signified... by way of the form" - for example 'paternity').21 The act of origination means that all three persons share a common essence, and as God has no accidents the only way we can distinguish between the persons of the Trinity is by their relations. So although it is correct to call the Father 'begetting' and the Son 'begotten', it is better to call the Father 'Father' and the Son 'Son' because these names reveal the relations that make them distinct.21
Richard of St Victor's way of thinking about the Trinity differs markedly from the Cappadocians' and Aquinas'. His work was most likely the result of prolonged meditation on the Trinity, using his own experience of a monastic community to inform his reflections. The result of this is that he sees the Trinity as the perfect community, the relations between the persons being relations of perfect love, or rather, perfect charity.22
Richard uses constructions reminiscent of the ontological argument for the existence of God, and is steeped in the apophatic tradition of theology. In this text he seeks to show that God is indeed a trinity of persons. He begins by arguing that there must be charity in God, for "in that supreme and altogether perfect good there is fullness and perfection of all goodness," and, "nothing is better than charity, nothing is more perfect that charity."23 God, who is "altogether perfect" cannot lack that which is most perfect. If he did lack it then he would become 'more perfect' if he became charitable. But charity cannot exist without another to love. God loves Creation, but not supremely (Creation is not worthy of supreme love for it is not supremely good) or from eternity (Creation is not co-eternal with God). So there must be plurality in God, and those persons must be equally worthy of love and co-eternal.
Having looked at divine perfection to show that there must be more than one divine person, Richard derives the same result from divine happiness. For as nothing is more perfect than charity, so nothing is more pleasing. In the same way as before, "that than which nothing is more pleasing cannot be lacking in the fullness of supreme happiness."24 For God to be supremely happy therefore he must be charitable, and for him to be charitable there must be a "plurality of persons." And yet slightly more, for charity is only pleasing when it is mutual; everyone desires to be loved in return.25 This means that in the plurality of persons in God there must be mutual love in order that the persons be supremely happy. Richard uses this same argument a third time to show that for God to have "fullness of glory" there must be more than one divine person, so that the persons can share their divinity, for "nothing is more glorious... than to have nothing that you do not wish to share."26 Thus Richard shows that for the statement "God is love"27 to be true, there must be more than one divine person.
For supreme love to be mutual and for supreme sharing of glory, each person must be capable of loving and being loved supremely, and of sharing and receiving glory supremely. Thus again we see that the persons must be equal; "supreme fullness of love demands supreme equality of perfection in those loved mutually."28 This allows for the sharing of the attributes of divinity among the persons.29 Thus love, as well as origin and regard, brings us to the "individuality" of the persons, and yet also their "unity in substance and equality in majesty."30
So far we have only seen that there must be plurality of persons in God: that is, two or more. We will now look at the way 'fellowship' means that there must be at least three persons. For true charity not only desires that one be loved in return but also that another be loved as one is loved. Thus it is "a sign of great perfection" to be able to share love with another,31 in fact it would be a "great defect" in God if the persons were unable to experience such fellowship.32 It is "excellent sweetness" to be mutually loved by another, and "excellent joy" to be able to share the experience of that mutual love with another,33 "[s]hared love is said to exist when a third person is loved by two persons harmoniously and in community, and the affection of the two persons is fused into one affection by the flame of love for the third."34 At any one time, each of the persons loves another, is loved by that person, and shares that love with the third. This perfect community of love needs no fourth person.
All three of these modes include the basic elements of the doctrine of the Trinity.35 Each offers a way to think about the 'one-in-threeness' of God, showing both the unity and the trinity of the persons,36 and their equality.37 Each shows how the persons share all the attributes of divinity and yet remain distinct,38 and how each person on his own is as fully divine as all three together.39 Richard of St Victor could perhaps be charged with teaching three 'clones', but that would be unfair because in the text he is only seeking to establish the existence of three persons, and not to define what is distinct about them. For this reason he simply mentions, and does not expand upon, the idea that one of the persons 'loves first', or 'offers love', which is then returned.40
So although each contains the essential elements of the doctrine, I would argue that the third seems most fruitful, for two reasons. First, the problem with the first two modes is that they are difficult to envisage. The first requires that 'origin' and 'cause' be emptied of their temporal sense. But time is so intrinsic to their meanings that there is little left if one does this.41 Although one has to do something similar to 'regard' and 'opposition' with respect to their spatial sense, these two are not so dependent on that one aspect of their meaning. Rather, the problem with Aquinas' analogy is that it works better for three relationships of pairs, rather than for one relationship of three. Richard's analogy has neither of these problems, so intellectually it would seem that the Richard text bears fruit more easily because it isn't hindered by an analogy that is less than ideal.
Second, I see these texts as attempts to come to a deeper knowledge and love of God, and of the three only the Richard text leads naturally into practical application along the lines of the Augustinian criteria I highlighted in my introduction. As well as being unhindered by an inadequate analogy, the Richard text provides a description of the Trinity that anyone who has had an experience of a loving Christian community might be able to imagine. More than this: the Richard text should be seen as a model for that Christian community, so that through the fellowship and love in the Church people can come to a deeper knowledge, and also love, of God. The text teaches us how to love - to love as we love ourselves and to share that love in joy. So intellectually and practicably, Richard's 'relations of love' seem to be able to bear the most fruit.
Appendix A - The 'Athanasian' Creed
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
42. and shall give account of their own works.
43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
1 'Essence' in this essay is the translation of ousia.
2 ".. for they are divided without division, if I may so say; and they are united in division." - Nazianzen, 355B.
3 Nazianzen, 376A.
4 Nyssen, 336B.
5 Nyssen, 332A - we will meet a similar statement in Aquinas when he talks about paternity and filiation.
6 As Nyssen says (336B), we are talking here about "manner of existence", not that which exists. An understanding of the divine essence itself will forever be beyond the reach of humankind.
7 See Nyssen, 328B.
8 Nyssen, 334A.
9 I shall refer to this concept as 'regard' or 'opposition' to save confusion: 'relations of relation' is not an acceptable term. One cannot regard, or have regard for, another unless one is in some way opposed to that other. (Opposition is used here in its spatial sense rather than in its violent sense: for example, two people facing each other.)
10 ".. a real distinction between the divine relations can come only from relative opposition" - Aquinas 1a: 30.2.
11 Aquinas, 1a: 28.1. The persons of the Trinity are one in essence but distinct in regard.
12 Aquinas, 1a: 40.2.
13 Aquinas, 1a: 28.1.
14 Aquinas, 1a: 27.1-5.
15 I am human and related to my mother. My friend John is not related to my mother, but that does not affect his humanity because our relationships are accidental and not substantial.
16 Aquinas, 1a: 28.3.
17 Again, not violent but 'spatial'.
18 As we must, because of the divine processions - Aquinas, 1a: 27.1-5.
19 Aquinas, 1a: 28.4.
20 A problem with this analogy is that it only works for two subjects at a time, never all three together. This is a failing of the analogy, not necessarily the underlying theology.
21 Aquinas, 1a: 40.2.
22 That is, Christian love, especially loving another.
23 Richard, 374.
24 Richard, 376.
25 Indeed, love is precisely not pleasing when it is not returned.
26 Richard, 379.
27 See 1 John 4.8.
28 Richard, 380. - As we have seen in the previous modes, this means that if one person is God, then the other must be God also; each person on his own is fully God.
29 Richard, 383. On page 394 Richard relates this directly to omnipotence to show that each person is omnipotent.
30 Richard, 381 - quoting the 'Athanasian' Creed - see Appendix A line 6.
31 Richard, 384.
32 Richard, 386.
33 Richard, 389.
34 Richard, 392, see page 393 also.
35 According to the so-called 'Athanasian' Creed (see Appendix A). Although not everyone agrees that it is normative, it is the basis for orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.
36 Appendix A lines 3-5, 27.
37 Appendix A lines 6, 26.
38 Appendix A line 4.
39 Appendix A lines 6-19, compared with line 5.
40 See Richard, 376 etc (see also Appendix A lines 21-23). This is the only hint that Richard gives in Book III that the Father may, in some way, be the 'origin' or 'source' of divinity, to use the language of the Cappadocians.
41 The words are not completely devoid of meaning, but they are sufficiently so for it to be difficult to conceive what that might be.
St Gregory Nyssen, 'On the Holy Trinity' and 'On "Not Three Gods" ' in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume V, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (London: Parker & Co. 1984).
St Gregory Nazianzen, 'Oration on the Holy Lights' and 'Oration on Holy Baptism' in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Volume VIII, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (London: Parker & Co. 1984).
St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, tr. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Second Edition 1920, Online Edition 2003).
Richard of St Victor, 'De Trinitatae, Book III' (trans. GA Zinn) in Classics of Western Spirituality (London: SPCK 1979).
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. Timothy McDermott (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode 1989).
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