Lesson 11: Circumincession & Works Ad Extra

In the last lecture we saw that the three Persons are subsistent relations, that is, relations that are really identified with the divine substance.

When we reflect on our faith it is extremely important to realize that there is only one God, but that in God there are three distinct Persons. There is a question, then, obviously of both unity and multiplicity in God. We must retain both of them.

Many Christians, while verbally professing belief in the Trinity, in reality seem to think of God as just one Person. Thus, in their prayers they "pray to God," but they do not direct their attention to the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. When they neglect the three Persons and deal with God as if he were one Person, they are in effect functioning like Moslems or Jews who deny the Trinity. As instructed Catholics, we must be on our guard against this all-too-common tendency.

Another common misunderstanding of the Trinity is based on the multiplicity of the three Persons. Some Catholics think that the three Persons are separate, independent beings. In this view each of the three is thought of as having his own thinking, willing and separate consciousness. In other words, they are considered to be similar to three human persons, but only on a higher level and endowed with "divine" power. That view is false and is equivalent to affirming three gods. For, in God everything is one where there is not opposition of relation. Thus, in him there is only one thinking, one willing and one "consciousness." The three Persons share equally in all the divine actions and operations that are proper to the divine nature.

In order to stress the divine unity the Fathers of the Church emphasized the mutual or reciprocal penetration and indwelling of the three divine Persons in one another. We note among human lovers the drive toward union. Kisses and embraces are manifestations of this drive. The impulse of love towards mutual penetration which we witness among human beings is a faint reflection of the mutual indwelling of the three divine Persons.

St. Thomas Aquinas says that by reason of the undivided divine essence, each Person is in each other Person in the Trinity. Our Lord says in this regard, "I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:10). He also says, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30; see also 10:38). The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Father and in the Son is indicated in 1 Cor. 2:10, "The Spirit reaches the depths of everything, even the depths of God."

The doctrine of mutual penetration or indwelling of the three divine Persons was officially taught by the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century. The Council Fathers declared: "Because of this unity the Father is entirely in the Son and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Son is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is entirely in the Father and entirely in the Son" (Denzinger 704). In theology this mutual indwelling has been called, since the eighth century, "circumincession" which comes from the Latin circumincedere and means "to move around in." The point of the teaching is to stress that the three divine Persons are perfectly one in being, knowing and willing.

I have already mentioned the impulse of love towards union. In the Trinity each divine Person is irresistibly drawn, by the very constitution of his being, to the other two. Branded in the very depths of each one of them is a necessary outward impulse urging him to give himself fully to the other two, to pour himself out into the divine receptacle of the other two. Here we find an unceasing circulation of life and love. Thus, since each Person is necessarily in the other two, unity is achieved because of this irresistible impulse in each Person, which mightily draws them to one another.

In the Beatific Vision the blessed see and taste the divine unity and beauty. In this regard Pope Pius XII said in his letter on the Mystical Body of Christ (#80): "It will be granted to the eyes of the human mind, strengthened by the light of glory, to contemplate the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in an utterly ineffable manner, to assist throughout eternity at the processions of the divine Persons, and to rejoice with a happiness like to that with which the holy and undivided Trinity is happy."

Note that circumincession brings out the perfect equality of the three Persons. In a subtle, implicit way it expresses the whole doctrine of the Trinity -- consubstantiality, processions/origins, the mutual relations and the distinction of Persons.

Another point I want to bring up here is the external activities of the three divine Persons, that is, acts that terminate in creatures outside the Trinity. In this regard the Church, basing herself on the testimony of the Bible and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, teaches that all the external activities of God are common to the three Persons. In other words, no one of the three divine Persons can act separately and independently of the others on the created world that they produced acting as a single principle.

In support of the above let me point out briefly that the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 said that the three divine Persons are the sole principle of all things. In 1441 the Council of Florence declared that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three principles but one principle of all things (D 704).

A careful reading of the Bible will reveal the same truth. For Scripture often attributes the same activity in the created world now to the Father, now to the Son and now to the Holy Spirit. For example, the Incarnation of the second Person is attributed to the Father (Heb. 10:5), to the Son (Phil. 2:7) and to the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt. 1:20). The same can be said for a number of other divine activities in the world such as creation, redemption, sanctification and the forgiveness of sins. One reason for these statements is to bring out that all three Persons are equally active in the creation and salvation of the world.

The basic reason for saying all external activities of God are common to the three Persons is that God acts through his substance or essence and the three Persons possess that essence equally. The only distinction in God, as I pointed out before, is in the internal life of the Trinity where there is an opposition of relationship that arises from the eternal origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit. But all three Persons are equally identified with the divine Substance and, therefore, equally God. Accordingly when God acts externally all three Persons are acting.

Holy Scripture, however, very often attributes certain activities to the different Persons. Thus, works of power are attributed to the Father, the work of redemption to the Son and the work of sanctification to the Holy Spirit. These statements of the Bible do not mean that the Person in question acts alone and independently of the other two. Accordingly, even though certain "gifts" are attributed to the Holy Spirit, the actual production of those gifts in the faithful is common to all three Persons.

Why do the Bible and the Church speak in this way? Is it not confusing? It is not confusing if you reflect for a moment on what is meant. The purpose of these statements is to make manifest the differences between the Persons, that is, common attributes such as power, wisdom and goodness, and certain activities such as sanctification and creation, are attributed to a definite Person because they have a special relationship to the personal origin and property of that Person. Theologians call this use "appropriation." Appropriation is defined as a way of speaking about the Trinity in which acts common to all three Persons are attributed to an individual Person, such as sanctification to the Holy Spirit. The purpose for this is to bring out the differences between the Persons.

When we consider the divine perfections in their personal representative, they are more concrete than when we regard them in themselves or in reference to the divine substance. Thus, if I say, "God the Father, the source of the divine being, created and gives existence to the world and everything in it," that is clearer and more sublime than if I merely say, "God created the world." Likewise, do we not get a more vivid idea of the truth when we are told: "The Spirit of God moved over the waters, the Spirit of God animates everything that lives, the Holy Spirit sanctifies and purifies the creature," than when it is affirmed: "God moved over the water, God gave us life, sanctification and grace"?

It is to be noted that just as the divine nature is transmitted from the Father through the Son to the Holy Spirit, so also the external activity of the divinity is transmitted from the Father through the Son to the Holy Spirit. This does not imply that the three Persons act externally in different ways. Rather, it means that all three Persons have the same activity, but that they come into possession of it in different ways. Therefore, the external activities of the Trinity do not manifest to us the inner distinctions of the three Persons. We can know about that only through positive divine revelation.

Reading Assignment

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I, Q. 32, a. 1; Q. 39, aa. 7-8; Q. 42, a. 5.

Writing Assignment

Write a two-page essay explaining why all the activities of the three Persons, outside of their own internal life, are common to all three; or explain what is meant by the term "circumincession" in the Holy Trinity.


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