Lesson 9: Internal Divine Relations

We believe that there are three Persons in one God -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is important to recall that there is only one God and that God is absolutely simple, as we saw earlier. Simplicity means that there is no composition of parts. An automobile is composed of parts; but my idea of a car is simple.

If God is absolutely simple -- having no parts or principles or elements whatsoever -- how can there be three Persons in him? How can God be three and one at the same time and still be absolutely simple? Does not the Christian doctrine of the Trinity involve a contradiction?

Obviously three is not one and one is not three. The only way we can get out of this seeming contradiction of three Persons and one God is by showing that "three" is meant in one way, and "one" in another. That is exactly what the Fathers and theologians did centuries ago. By reflecting carefully on Holy Scripture and employing the most advanced philosophical concepts, they came to the conclusion that the "three" in God are Persons and that the "one" in God is the divine essence (= nature or substance).

At this point the theologian must be able to show that the three Persons in one God, while retaining their distinctness in the divinity, are not three separate entities. For, if they were three separate individuals, like three human beings, we would have a multiplicity of beings in the Godhead, and there would be more than one God. Inevitably, we must ask: what constitutes the three Persons? The only suitable answer to this most difficult question is that they are relations within the divinity or Godhead.

We all know what a relation is, but very few are able to explain what it is, because it is one of the most difficult realities to grasp. Members of a family are related. There is a real relation between father and son. The father is related to the son by reason of generating him; the son is related to his father because he was generated by him. Thus, we define a relation as an ordination or reference of one thing to another. In every real relation there are three elements: 1) the subject (father), 2) the term (son), 3) the foundation of the relation (activity of generating). The essence of the relation consists in being ordered to another; in Latin this is called "esse ad" and the foundation is called "esse in."

Please note that a relation always exists in something else -- it is not a new, separate individual. John and Jane get married and have a son. At the birth of their son they are now called "father" and "mother." Why? because a new relationship has entered into their lives by reason of having a son. But they are still John and Jane.

Something similar takes place in God. The two internal divine processions of the Son and the Holy Spirit (which we have already considered) establish in God two pairs of real mutual relationships. Accordingly, there exist in God four real relations: 1) Father to Son, 2) Son to Father, 3) Father and Son to the Holy Spirit, 4) Holy Spirit to Father and Son.

The teaching of the Bible concerning the divine relations is found in the personal names of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The doctrine was developed by the Fathers of the Church, especially by St. Basil, the Two Gregorys and St. Augustine. St. Gregory Nazianzen said: "Father is not the name of the essence or activity but indicates the relation the Father has to the Son and the Son to the Father." The official teaching of the Church embodies this doctrine of the relations. It was taught by the Eleventh Synod of Toledo, Spain in 675 and defined by the Council of Florence in 1442. Thus the personal names in the Trinity are relative -- Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

From a proper understanding of revelation and its development in the tradition it follows that the mutual relations in God are not just logical, this is, they are not just in our minds; rather, they are real relations in God which exist independently of our thinking about them. Otherwise the Trinity of Persons would be just different names that we give to God -- and that is the condemned heresy of Sabellianism or Modalism. Since there is only one God, and he is absolutely simple, it must follow that the difference between the three Persons cannot be based on the divine essence (which is common to all three), but on the mutual relations of the Persons to one another.

Of the four real internal divine relations, three stand in opposition to one another and, therefore, are really distinct, i.e., fatherhood, sonship and passive spiration (= Holy Spirit). The active spiration stands in opposition to the passive spiration only; it is not opposed to fatherhood and sonship and, therefore, is not really distinct from them. So there are only three really distinct relations in God which constitute the three Persons.

It is very important to remember that the relations in God which constitute the Persons are really identical with the divine nature. Whatever is in God is God. The only difference in God is in the opposition of relations. Thus the Council of Florence officially defined that in God "everything is one where there is no distinction by relative opposition" (Denzinger 703).

That there are real relations of origin internally in God follows from the two processions already considered. For origin or production cannot be conceived without the concept of relation, and without relations between the producer and the produced. The question then arises whether these relative concepts imply some reality in God which is signified by the name of "relation."

Related beings in reality are defined as those whose existence is to be referred to another, that is, to something different from the related subject, for what is related to another is the subject, not immediately the relation itself. Therefore, the philosophers say that related things (as such) are known simultaneously, such as father and son.

In relations we must distinguish between the reality (esse in) and the reference (esse ad). For a relation is thought of as a form inhering in a subject. The fact that it refers to another in some way is added to a subject as it were accidentally. Thus the being of a relation is that it inheres in a subject and in this "relation" agrees with other accidents and so it has some reality (esse in). The concept of relation which distinguishes it from other accidents is that it refers to a term or to some other thing; in this regard it is called a reference (esse ad).

We say that in God there are real relations of origin internally, namely, between the divine Persons; so that subjects, terms and the foundation and whatever else is required for the reality of a relation is found in God independently of the mind's consideration. Such relations are implied in the two processions which we already considered. All Catholics who admit the reality of processions in God consequently hold for the divine relations -- and they hold that they are simply real relations. So the names of the three Persons are relative.

The names in Scripture are relative. Here is what St. Thomas says on this point: "The Father is denominated only from paternity; and the Son only from filiation. Therefore, if no real paternity or filiation existed in God [i.e. relations by which Father and Son are referred to each other], it would follow that God is not really Father or Son, but only in our manner of understanding; and this is the Sabellian heresy" (I, Q. 28, a. 1 sed contra).

The divine Persons cannot be distinguished by absolute perfections, for infinity consists in the summit of perfections by which a being becomes better. On the other hand, there cannot be in God a purely numerical multiplication because it presupposes a limitation in nature, and the infinite is unique in its own order. But the Persons can be distinguished by relative properties; for the being of relation as such does not mean, in adding something new, an intrinsic modification, but only a reference to another. Ergo, in God there are of necessity real relations by which the divine Persons are distinguished because a real relation demands a real distinction between subject and object.

In the next lecture we will analyze the statement made above that there are four real relations in God, but that only three of them are subsistent and so Persons.

Reading Assignment

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 28, aa. 1-4.

Writing Assignment

Write an essay of two to three pages on some aspect of the internal divine relations.


Read the two articles on relations in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 12: "Relation" on pp. 216-219, and "Relations, Trinitarian" on pp. 219-220. If you do not have access to the NCE, then consult some other Thomistic-oriented theological dictionary.


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