Chapter 7 – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
CONSIDER where we now are in our exploration. Concentrating upon His Own proper being and His Own proper life, we saw God first as Infinite Existence, possessing all that He is in one single act of being, living His life of infinite knowledge and infinite love, without change and without end. Then by revelation from God Himself we learned that the one divine Nature is possessed in Its totality by three distinct Persons. We must now see how these two truths about God are one truth.
God, we have said, knows and loves, for these are the proper operations of Spirit. Because He is infinite, His knowledge and love are infinite. Because He is infinite, His knowledge and love are simply Himself. It is in the further consideration of God living within His own nature a life of infinite knowledge and infinite love that we shall come to some further knowledge of the Three Persons and of their relations one to another.
We begin with the relation of the Second Person to the First. For this relation, Scripture provides us with two names: the Second Person is the SON, and He is the WORD. It must be understood that these two words refer to one and the same vital process in the Godhead. But in our human experience, each word provides an element that the other does not; we naturally think of a son as a distinct person, we naturally think of a word (a mental word of course), as within the same nature; and both are needed for our understanding of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. There is gain for us in examining the two words separately.
Take the word SON first. The relation of father and son is the most familiar of all relations to men. If we come to analyze our ideas about it, we find that the essence of being a son lies in these two elements:
that the son is like in nature to his father and
that he receives his nature from his father.
These two elements are combined in the philosophical definition of sonship: "the origin of a living thing from another living thing, by communication of substance unto likeness of nature." The "likeness in nature" simply means that the son of a man is a man, and the son of a horse is a horse; the "communication of substance" means that the father does not make the son from some external matter, as one might make a chair, but in some way produces him from within himself. All this is of the very essence of sonship. So that God, in teaching us to call the Second Person the Son, is teaching us both that the Second Person is like in nature to the First and that He proceeds from the First; not as a being that the First has made from some external matter or created from nothing, but as produced within the very nature of the First; further, since the Son is like in nature to the Father, the Son too is infinite in nature, is God?
Therefore, the Son is also infinite, omnipotent, eternal.
Fatherhood in man is a certain likeness of fatherhood in God. In man, the father has to exist first, and indeed for an appreciable interval, before his son. But we must ask ourselves whether this is because fatherhood is such, or because man's nature is such. We have seen the definition of sonship, the origin of a living thing from another living thing by communication of substance unto likeness of nature. Where you have that, you have the relation of father and son. In all this there is no question of a lapse of time between coming into existence and generating a son. That lapse of time arises not from the nature of sonship but from the finitude of man, specifically from the fact that he does not come into existence in full possession of all his powers, but has to grow slowly, before he is able to generate a son. But there is no question of God's needing a little eternity before He is able to generate a Son; there is no such thing as a little eternity, eternity is one indivisible thing; God simply is, and in one act of being is all that He is, and simply by being Himself is Father of His Son.
God never had any existence except as Father: Father and Son are coeternal: and it is but one consequence for us of their equality that we can see that they are equally necessary. Not for one moment must we think of the Father as necessary and of the Son as in some way contingent. There could be no equality between the necessary and the contingent. It is true that the Son receives His Nature from the Father, but not as a result of a decision that the Father might just as well not have made. By the same infinite necessity, the Father both is and is Father: that is to say that by the same infinite necessity the Father is and the Son is.
To make the one further step from likeness in nature to oneness of nature we must turn to the second word that Scripture provides for the relation of the Second Person to the First, the word, WORD. The explicit reference to the Son of God as the Word we get from St. John, and so, we may believe, from Our Lady, since Christ Our Lord on the Cross entrusted her to St. John that he might be her son and she his mother. To open his Gospel, he writes:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God ...
and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
And we saw His glory,
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.
It is clear that if God has a word it will not be a vocal word, a thing of air, shaped by lungs and throat and tongue and teeth. God is not like that. God is a pure spirit and His word must be a word in the mind, in other words, a thought or idea. We must follow very closely to see what is the meaning of the thought or idea in the mind of God, which was in the beginning with God, which was the only begotten Son of God, which became flesh and dwelt among us.
God lives an infinite life of knowledge and of love. Obviously the only adequate object of infinite knowledge is the Infinite, God Himself. By itself, reason would not go beyond that. It is only God's revelation that tells us what reason never could, that God, knowing Himself with infinite knowledge, thinking of Himself with infinite power, generates an idea of Himself. With that piece of information, the closed circle is suddenly opened, the barrier is down and the whole vast inner life of God invites us.
An idea is, so far as we can make it so, the mental double or image of the object we are contemplating; it expresses as much of that object as we can manage to get into it. Because of the limitation of our powers, the idea we form is never the perfect double or image, never totally expresses the object, in plain words is never totally adequate. But if God does, as we know from Himself that He does, generate an idea of Himself, this idea must be totally adequate, in no way less than the Being of which it is the Idea, lacking nothing that that Being has. The Idea must contain all the perfection of the Being of which it is the Idea. There can be nothing in the Thinker that is not in His Thought of Himself, otherwise the Thinker would be thinking of Himself inadequately, which is impossible for the Infinite. Thus, the Idea, the Word that God generates, is Infinite, Eternal, Living, a Person, equal in all things to Him Who generates It? Someone as He is, conscious of Himself as He is, God as He is. We can see how all this brings us to the same truths as the analysis of the word Son. The Son is like in nature, equal in all things to the Father, God as He is God. The Idea is like in nature to what the Infinite Thinker is thinking of, namely Himself, equal to Him in all things, God as He is God. So it is that St. Paul can speak of the Son as "the image of the invisible God". It is of the essence of a son, any son, that he should be like his father; it is of the essence of an idea, any idea, that it should be like what the thinker is thinking of. The Infinite Father generates an Infinite Son, resembling Him infinitely; the Infinite Thinker, thinking of Himself, generates an Infinite Idea, resembling Him infinitely.
The word, WORD, has brought us to the same truths about the relation of the Second Person to the First as the word Son. And we can find one further parallel. A son is not his father, and if God's Son is a Person, He is a distinct person. A thought is not the thinker, and if God's thought is a person, He is a distinct person. But with Word, we can now take a further step. For though the thought is not the thinker, the thought is in the nature of the thinker; it is not a separate nature, as the nature of a son in all our human experience is a separate nature from his father's. Thought is within the very nature of the thinker. We have God within His Own Nature generating an Idea which, because it is an idea, is wholly in that one same Nature, and because it is an adequate idea contains that nature wholly. The Son has nothing that He has not received from the Father; but the Father has nothing that He has not given to the Son. The One has the divine Nature as unreceived; the other as received: but each has It in Its totality, and there is no shadow of inequality between them.
The Second Person, as we have just seen, proceeds from the First by way of knowledge. The other primary operation of spirit is love, and it is by way of love that the Third Person proceeds. God's knowledge and love are not in themselves two distinct principles. But their reality and power and productivity are not thereby lessened. God can produce a perfect act of knowledge and a perfect act of love.
To a point the two "processions" are parallel. The First Person knows Himself; His act of knowing Himself produces an Idea, a Word; and this Idea, this Word, the perfect Image of Himself, is the Second Person. The First Person and the Second combine in an act of love, love of one another, love of the glory of the Godhead which is their own; and just as the act of knowing produces an Idea within the Divine Nature, the act of loving produces a state of Lovingness within the Divine Nature. Into this Lovingness, Father and Son pour all that They have and all that They are, with no diminution, nothing held back. This Lovingness within the Godhead is utterly equal to the Father and the Son, for They have poured Their all into it. There is nothing They have which Their Lovingness does not have. Thus, Their Lovingness too is Infinite, Eternal, Living, Someone, a Person, God. Observe that here again we are still within the Divine Nature. For love is wholly within the nature of the lover. But this love wholly contains the divine Nature, because God puts the whole of Himself into love.
The name of this Third Person of the Blessed Trinity is not in itself as revealing as the two names of the Second Person. It goes back to a prior meaning. The words Spiritus, Pneuma, and Spirit all convey the same idea of the movement of air, breath or breathing or the wind blowing. And Our Lord stresses this suggestion: He speaks of the Spirit that bloweth where It listeth; He breathes upon the Apostles and says: "Receive ye the Holy Spirit"; and when He sends the Holy Spirit upon them at Pentecost there is at first the rushing of a mighty wind. The connection with love is not immediately evident, but as we dwell with the idea, we begin to see a kind of aptness which we would find it difficult to pin down in words, and certain ideas do stir vaguely in the mind: as for instance the sigh that lovers breathe.
Let us repeat in a little more detail two of the truths already stated concerning the procession of the Third Person. The first is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son as from one principle of love. We have this in the Tantum Ergo where we salute the Holy Spirit as to Him Who proceeds from both; and this is a simple rephrasing of the Nicene Creed: He Who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
The word filioque, which means and from the Son, was not in the Creed as originally drawn up, but was added later in France, spread rapidly and was accepted by the Church as giving fullness and precision to the doctrine. The Council of Florence defined that "the Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son eternally, and has His essence and subsistence from Father and Son together, and proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and one single spiration".
Notice further that the word generate is reserved for the procession of the Second Person from the First. The Father and Son do not generate the Holy Spirit. For this second procession, the Church uses the word spirate, breathe. The Father generates the Son; the Father and the Son breathe the Holy Spirit. The reason lies in this, that the likeness of the Second Person to the First results precisely from the fact that it is by way of knowledge. It is a property of knowing to produce in the mind a likeness of the thing known, as it is a property of generation to produce a likeness of the being who generates. But it is not of the nature of loving to produce likeness. The Third Person is like the First and Second not because loving produces resemblance, but because in this instance the lovers have put themselves wholly into their love. As with the Son so with the Holy Spirit, the Divine Nature is possessed as a gift received, but as a gift truly received and in its totality; so that here again there is no shadow of inequality.
Thus, the Three Persons subsist: that is, they have the whole perfection of personality; each is wholly himself, not merely a modification of the divine Nature; each is the whole of himself, not a part of some greater entity. Using the technical word HYPOSTASIS for person, we can say that whereas our finite human nature is singly hypostatized, the infinite Divine Nature is triply hypostatized. It is wholly expressed, hypostatized, as Existence in the Person of the Father, as Knowledge in the Person of the Son, as Lovingness in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
We know that there is no succession in eternity, no change in God. God the Father did not first exist as a Person and then become a Father. God, by the very act of being God, generates His Son; God the Father and God the Son by the very act of being God spirate the Holy Spirit. The trouble that can result in error is that we have no language for what we are trying to say. We cannot make any statement at all without tenses, past or present or future; but God's actions have no tense. He has no past; He has no future. He has only an eternal present, but it is not our present, it is not a tense at all. Our nearest tense to His timelessness is the present tense. If we say God generated His Son in eternity, we are making it a past operation, at least verbally, and words do affect our thinking even when we know better. It would be closer to the reality to say God is generating His Son in eternity, for it is the very essence of the Father's abiding life as Father to be generating His Son: the trouble is that the phrase "is generating", although it does convey the notion of present operation, also conveys the notion of incompleteness - the operation is still going on because the operation is not yet complete; and this also is a shadow upon the truth. The truth is that each phrase - "God generated", "God is generating" - contains something that the other lacks. The one gives the notion of completeness, the other of present action. It may be well for the mind to use both phrases, moving from one to the other, until the mind finds itself in some way seeing both in one new verb for which it has no word.
As it is with the eternity of the Son, so it is with the eternity of the Holy Spirit. And it is in the eternal relations of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within the one divine Nature that the divine Life is utterly lived. The mind can form only the most shadowy notion of what that life of Three in One means in itself - what it means that within the divine Simplicity, Three should possess one another totally, give themselves to one another totally, utter their life secret to one another totally, in the changeless stillness of infinite Life.