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For Aquinas, the Trinity is at the heart of Christian teaching, and our understanding of it comes solely from Scripture (and church teaching which conforms to Scripture). He thinks we can reason to the existence of God, but not to the Trinity; if we know about the Trinity, it's only because of what Christ has said, not because of anything we could have figured out for ourselves. However, Aquinas thinks we can explore what the patterns might mean that are described in Scripture and Church teaching about the makeup of the unknowable cause of existence, and this he does.

Here's his take on the Trinity.

Aquinas thinks that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, while referred to as 'persons,' are not in any way like separate individuals in the category God (e.g., the Father as the 'old man,' the Son as the 'young man,' the Holy Spirit as the 'dove'). He thinks the essential distinction that makes up the Trinity is one of relationships (i.e., states of being connected or ways in which two or more things are connected) that occur within God. And what these relationships describe is God's self-knowledge and love. (You philosophers of consciousness out there ought to have a great time with this one.)

And what might that mean? Think about how you know yourself and how you feel about yourself. First of all, there is you. And because you are self-aware, you form a concept of yourself, which you can come to know. This causes you to have a relationship with yourself, between the two end-points of self and self-knowledge. Your self-knowledge is distinct from you but is definitely a part of you, and you could even say it proceeds from you. In humans, self-knowledge usually evolves in childhood when we reach the age of reason, somewhere around first or second grade (e.g., Lizzie, six years old, saying: "Mom, why do I have to be a separate person?"). So each of us, being self-aware, has a relationship of knowledge between ourselves and the concept we have of ourselves. And the two end-points of that relationship (self and self-knowledge) also have a relationship of varying degrees of love or hate: we either hate ourselves, or are rather pleased with ourselves, or are somewhere in the middle.

a relationship of self-knowledge

Aquinas, in line with a solid theological tradition and particularly with St. Augustine, thinks that the Trinity reflects the same sort of relationship of self-knowledge and love going on in God. God the Father represents God. Proceeding from God is God's concept of himself, or his self-knowledge; the self-knowledge of God is what Aquinas thinks of as God the Son. And the Holy Spirit is the relationship of love between God's self-knowledge and God.

Here's the analogy he uses to explain it, echoing the beginning of the Gospel of John and relating it to the use of language (which inevitably turns up when we speak of self-knowledge):

"Whenever anyone understands because of his very act of understanding, something comes forth within him, which is the concept of the known thing proceeding from his awareness of it. It is this concept which an utterance signifies; we call it 'the word in the heart' signified by the spoken word." (1a.27.1)

So Aquinas thinks that the Son of God (or the Word, as Christ is called in the Gospel of John), is God as known to God; the Son of God is God's self-knowledge or awareness.

a relationship of love

And what of the Holy Spirit? He sees the Holy Spirit as the loving relationship between God's self-knowledge and God.

When you love something, it makes an imprint on you:

"The object loved is present in the lover even as the object known is present in the knower." (ST 1a.27.3)

This imprint of the love between the Father and the Son is what Aquinas thinks of as the Holy Spirit. In the Trinity, the Father and the Son are known and loved by each other, and the love that proceeds from that relationship is the Holy Spirit.


This is the sense that Aquinas makes of what he has understood from Scripture about the three-part nature of God: the essential distinction that makes up the Trinity is one of relationship, with God as the Father, God the Son as the self-knowledge or awareness that proceeds from the Father (God as known to God), and the Holy Spirit as the love proceeding from the relationship between God's self-knowledge and God.


Aquinas also thinks that in knowing himself, God also knows his creatures, as he thinks us into existence as well, so we are a part of his self-knowledge.

"In knowing himself, God knows every creature ... Because by the one act he understands both himself and all else, his single Word expresses not only the Father but creatures as well." (3A, 34, 4)

So we are known, and also loved:

"The Father loves not only the Son but himself and us in the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit comes forth as a love of the primal goodness with which God loves himself and all his creatures." (3A, 37, 1)

The cause of the ultimate mystery of existence is self-aware and perfectly happy, a graced state filled with knowledge and love. Ah, truly, only a divine being could pull that one off. But we at least get some chance to partake.

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"Moreover the Word of God is born of God by the knowledge of Himself; and Love proceeds from God according as He loves Himself."
(I, 93,8)


"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
John 1:1-1


"St. Thomas likens the procession of the Word in God to our act of self-awareness when the mind is both naturally and objectively identified with itself. So it is as if in thinking of himself that God begets God. He is pure intelligibility, and his act of understanding issuing in his Word is identical with his very being."
- Ceslaus Velecky, as quoted in The Thought of Thomas Aquinas by Brian Davies, p.196




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