The Trinity: The Mystery of the One God (White)

White, Thomas Joseph. The Trinity: On the Nature and Mystery of the One God. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2021.

This is the best book ever written on the Trinity.  Not only is it intellectually superior to everything else, it illustrates how doctrines like divine simplicity increase our adoration. As parts of this review can get quite technical, I will place the key points below and the reader can work through the rest accordingly.

1. immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic missions.
2. the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.
3. Eternal generation is a relation of origin.
4. persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin.
5. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence.

Like most accounts of the Trinity, White begins with the revelation of the one God in Israel. God established his identity in sacred history.  We encounter a problem, however, as we examine how his covenant people reflected upon him.  Some terms for God are metaphorical and some analogical.  How do we tell the difference?

White notes five philosophical moments in Israel’s history (prior to the New Testament).  We cannot play off metaphysical speculation against divine revelation.  Divine revelation will not allow it.

  1. A form of Wisdom literature developed in Israel’s history.
  2. Isaiah’s use of ontological categories for the divine name: Isaiah 45:14-25 can be seen as a reflection upon Exodus 3:14.
  3. The LXX gave these passages a distinct metaphysical reading.
  4. Sirach and Wisdom, while not Scripture for Protestants, develop ideas of the afterlife and the soul’s immortality.
  5. 2nd Temple Judaism spoke clearly of protology and eschatology.

To be sure, the above does not prove the Trinity, but we see anticipations.  God creates all things in his Wisdom.  Is this wisdom analogical or metaphorical?  If it is analogical, then it can be seen as a generation of a personal agent.  There is evidence that it is.  God’s Word is active in creation and prophecy; He is the principal of God’s action.

The rest of the first part follows the standard accounts of biblical evidence for the Trinity.  For the sake of space, we will move to the Nicene and post-Nicene developments. The key idea for Trinitarian reflection is that the immaterial processions in the Godhead form the basis for the economic, if we even want to use that word, missions (129).

With Athanasius we see an important development in the concept of eternal generation: it is analogous to the intellect.  For example, substance is not multiplied in the case of a thought from the mind.  So it is with the Trinity: the internal procession of the Son from the Father does not logically demand a separation of essence.

Eternal generation is a relation of origin.  The Cappadocian Fathers clarify this language. Gregory of Nazianzus says that terms like “Father” or “Son” designate a relationship, not an essence or activity (Gregory, Oration 29, quoted in White, 144). There is a connection between the difference of mutual relations and the difference of names (Oration 31).

So then, how do persons relate to the divine essence? The Cappadocians give us another phrase: persons are subsistent modes of being and relate to each other by way of origin (White 146). That is the most important sentence in the book.  To the degree one is heretical or orthodoxy depends on whether one affirms that statement.

From personal relations of origin we now discuss personal or hypostatic characteristics: ingenerateness (or unbegotten), generation, and procession.  You identify the persons of the Trinity by their relations of origin and the terms (above) that flow from them.

The main focus of the book, not surprisingly, is Thomas Aquinas.  White begins this section by covering the standard arguments for the existence of God, but the main point for him, as it was for Thomas, was how they function in metaphysics.  We reason quia, not propter quid; from effect, not from cause.  We cannot reason quia because we do not know the essence of God.

Thomas then explains how we can name God analogically. Negative theology is not simply some New Age denying of everything in God, leaving us only with some vague essence to worship. Rather, we understand that God’s perfections are negative perfections.  As White notes, every negation is a mental act upon the prior admission of something existent (221).  We are denying the finite mode of our understanding of an attribute, not the attribute itself.  This is the difference between the modus significandi, the term analogically applied, and the res ipsa significata, the reality signified.

Divine Simplicity

If we are going to deny composition in God, we need to embrace the other metaphysical issues which this entails. God is not dependent on anything else.  So far, so good.  He is Pure Act. Potentiality is a source of imperfection. God cannot have any potency in him.  An actuation of potency implies a transformation.  With this in mind, we can explore his attributes

Divine perfection: Matter is a source of potentiality and indeterminateness (261).  This makes sense if you think about it.  Matter needs shape.  Matter by itself is potency.  It needs something to form it. This, among other reasons, is why God cannot be material.  This is why God is perfect.

Immutability: As God is infinite, he cannot acquire any new perfections.

Unity: a property of being (316).  It is the absence of division.  It follows from simplicity and perfection.

Prologue to a Thomistic Trinitarianism

There were three medieval Trinitarian models: the Franciscan or emanationist, the relationalist, and the nominalist.  The Franciscans, so reads White’s analysis, began with the Father as principle and then moved to the begetting of the Son.  The Father exists eternally in himself.  The problem is this is a very close resemblance to a human person.

The relationalist model is the Thomist one. Relation lets one affirm a distinction of persons without threatening the essence (386).  To wit, the Father is always “relative” to the Son by eternal generation.  Moreover, God’s simplicity demands these relations be subsistent.

Hearkening back to the Cappadocian model, Thomas notes the processions in God are immanent to him. They are relations of origin. They are correlative terms that are opposite to one another. It makes sense how this works with Father and Son.  It is not immediately clear how the Spirit can be “opposite” to two terms. Thomas uses the analogy of the human mind.  The Son as intellect or Logos moves from the Father. The Son loves the Father (and the Father, the Son). The intellect precedes love.  The love is the movement back. This is how the Father and Son spirate the Spirit (421).

From here White gives an excellent defense of the Filioque:

1) The Father emanates the Spirit as Father of the Son.  The Son is “always already” there.

2) We can only know the persons by relations of origin.

3) The Son’s relation of origin is “from the Father.”

4) If the Spirit’s relation of origin is only from the Father, then he is identical to the Son.

5) Ergo, the Spirit proceeds from the Son.

This is the best book written on the Trinity.  White also deals with modern Trinitarianism (Barth, Rahner, Bulgakov, Pannenberg). The modern Trinitarian movement reduces ontology to history and plays Hegel and Kant against one another (while using both).  That is why we should look to the classical model.

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