Lesson 7: Intellectual Generation of the Son

It is clear from the NT and from the Creed of the Church that the first Person in the Trinity is the Father, and that the second Person is the Son. Since God is pure spirit, that is, since he does not have a body, lacks all composition and potency and is completely independent of matter, it should be obvious that there is no sexuality in God. But if there is no sex in God, we might ask, then why are the first two Persons in the Trinity called "Father" and "Son"? Among human beings, the father-son relationship is based on the sexual act of procreation.

The first two Persons are called "Father" and "Son" because there is a generative activity in God which has some similarities to generation among human being and animals. "Generation" is defined as the origin of a living being from another living being, both having the same nature. Thus, oak trees produce oak trees, monkeys produce monkeys, and men produce men. You will note that the relationship in these examples is between material beings. But in all true generation there is a similarity in nature between the origin or source and what is produced.

In the preceding lecture we considered the two "processions" in God -- that of the Son and that of the Holy Spirit. At present we will confine our attention to the procession of the Son from the Father. We said that the Father "generates" the Son. How does the Father generate the Son if there is no sex in God? The Church, aided by her best theologians, teaches that the Father generates the Son by an act of intellect. I know that this is a hard point to grasp, so I will try my best to explain simply and clearly what is meant.

We all know that Jesus -- the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity -- is called the "Word" in the NT. For example, we read in John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Now a word is produced only by an intellect or mind. The external word, whether vocal or written, is a symbol of an idea in the mind, or what is called a "mental word." If there were no mental word, there would be no vocal word. Thus, animals utter grunts, groans, cries, and so forth, but they do not produce words. The reason is that, since they do not have a mind or intellect, they cannot produce an internal idea to which the word refers.

We have already seen that there are two processions in God. In a spiritual being like God there are only two internal activities -- knowing and willing. If there is to be a difference between the two processions, and there is, then one must be according to intellect and the other according to will. Basing its teaching on the Bible and Tradition, the Church says that the Son is generated by the Father by an act of intellect.

It is possible to use the word "generation" for this activity because generation means the production of one living being from another, both having the same nature. Intellectual activity is similar to sexual generation because the mind produces an idea which is the image or representation of the thing known. Thus, in order to know an oak tree some representation of the oak tree must be in my mind; if it were not, then I could not know an oak tree.

As we know, God is absolutely simple -- he has no parts, no composition. This means that he is identified with his knowing and willing. God therefore knows himself perfectly, that is, he has a perfect idea or image of himself. That perfect idea or image is the second Person of the Blessed Trinity. He has the same nature as the Father and is equal to the Father. On this point the Roman Catechism (III,9) teaches: "For just as our spirit, knowing itself, produces a picture of itself which theologians have called a 'word,' so God also, insofar as the human can be compared with the divine, knowing himself, generates the Eternal Word. Thus the generation of the Son from the Father is to be conceived purely as an intellectual generation or as an act of intellect."

Generation and intellection both involve likeness. Since the Son of God is the perfect image of the Father, we are entitled to say that he is generated by an act of intellect. In the NT the second Person of the Trinity is called the "Word of God" (see John 1:1ff). Since a word is produced by an intellect, this name indicates that the Son is the product of the knowledge of the Father.

In the NT the Son of God is called the Word. You will find that in John 1; Rev. 19:13; 1 John 1. The Fathers of the Church developed this notion and it is found in the definition of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (D 148). The argument here runs like this: The Word is a proper name of the Son of God in the NT. But by the name "word" is signified something pertaining to the order of intellect and having its origin through intellect. Therefore, the procession of the Word is through or by intellect.

The second Person is also called "the wisdom of God" in the Bible (see 1 Cor. 1:24). The personal name "Wisdom" indicates that the Son is generated by an act of cognition of the Father. If the Son proceeds from the Father by an act of intellect, then we can see why he is presented in the wisdom books of the OT as being born and personified (see Wis. 8; Prov. 8; Sir. 24). Since all three divine Persons are wise -- are substantial wisdom, the reason why the Son is called "Wisdom" is that by this name his way of origin is signified, for the source of wisdom is the intellect.

The expressions "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15) and "perfect copy of the substance of God" (Heb. 1:3) indicate that the generation of the Son takes place through that activity of the Father which tends to produce a likeness of himself, namely, through the activity of knowing. For an image of something must be similar to its source; it is intellect which produces the Word which is an image of the Father. (On this see S. Th. I, Q. 35, aa 1-2).

Therefore, since the Bible refers to the Son by using "Word," "Wisdom," and "Image," and since these terms are related to cognition, we are justified in saying that the Father generates the Son by an act of knowledge.

St. Thomas puts the argument briefly in I, Q. 27, a.1: Divine processions must take place according to the immanent operations proper to a spiritual nature. But the first operation of this kind is intellection. Ergo, the first procession in God is by intellect.

For, just as the human mind, when it knows, forms an image of the thing known, because by it the mind speaks with itself in some way, so also in his own way, the Father, when he knows by his infinite intellect, produces a term which is a certain expression of the thing known, which is properly called the "Word."

Thus, the divine Word agrees with the internal human word inasmuch as it is spiritual, permanent, immanent and naturally representing the known object. But the divine Word is very different from the human word: the human word is accidental, the divine is substantial; the created word is very limited, the divine Word is infinite in perfection.

Reading Assignment

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, QQ. 34 & 35.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of two to three pages explaining why the Church says that the Father generates the Son by an act of knowing.


St. Augustine, De Trinitate, Book VI.


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