Thomas Torrance and Thomas Aquinas, The Trinitarians in ‘relation’

I must say, that Bruce McCormack’s claim that Thomas Torrance is really just a Thomist (in the footsteps of Thomas thomasaquinashaloAquinas) might just be spot on (but then Barth and Thomas A. are buddies too in some regard). I have just finished reading an essay by Bruce Marshall wherein he sketches and develops similarities and differences between Augustine and Aquinas on the doctrine of the Trinity, and in particular issues surrounding whether the essence (of God) generates the essence, or if there is another term or mechanism that better suits to provide the kind of predication of God’s being that does not fall back into a purported Augustinian essentialism (which Marshall shows Augustine elides as well, in contrast to some of Augustine’s critics–including Aquinas).

What I found interesting, is if Marshall’s development of Aquinas can be trusted, what Aquinas does with the usage of ‘relation’ in regard to a ‘being-constituting’ mechanism within the (inner) Triune-life, sounds almost self-same with Thomas Torrance’s notion of onto-relations; a mechanism that for Torrance identifies a subject-in-being relation as the self-constituting ground of the ‘essence’ or ‘being’ of God’s Triune life (or the Monarxia)–which emphasizes perichoresis (or interpenetration or the Divine dance) as a kind of dialectic movement back and forth between the persons as grounding and shaping the being of God, and yet the being of God grounding the persons of God. And even though there is some trepidation on Aquinas’ part in this regard, according to Marshall, this seems to be the kind of dance that Aquinas ends up engaging in as well; and most interestingly to me, Aquinas gives priority to the language and conceptuality of relation (which could correlate with Thomas Torrance’s conception of onto-relation) as the being constituting ground upon which the oneness and threeness of God can implicate each other in way that sustains the integrity of the ousia of God (de Deo uno) and the hypostasis of God (de Deo trino):

[S]o far Thomas’s suspicion of essentialist outcroppings in Augustine seems on Thomas’s own terms, simply unwarranted. When the question explicitly arises whether essence can do the work of person in God—in particular, whether the essence can do the work of generating the Son and bringing forth the Spirit, without which there would be no distinction of the Persons from one another—Augustine’s answer, like Thomas’s, is clearly no. But the problem remains of how exactly to account for the distinction of the Persons without sacrificing the unity of essence.

Here the concept of relation plays a pivotal role in Aquinas’s Trinitarian theology. “Is it relations that distinguish and constitute the [divine] Persons?” Thomas asks in the prima pars (ST I, q. 40, pro.), and here he gives an unambiguously affirmative answer (ST I, q. 40, a. 2). God is not a monad because there are present in divinis mutual and irreducible relations, which suffice to distinguish Father, Son, and Spirit from one another without prejudice to God’s unity. This is a contested claim in medieval theology; not everybody agrees with Aquinas’s reliance on relation, rather than mode of origin, to account for the real distinction among the Persons of the Trinity. Though Aquinas’s favorite authority on this point is Boethius, it is Augustine who introduces into the Western tradition the idea (which is not entirely original with him) that relation is the conceptual key to understanding the distinctions, utterly basic to Christian faith, between Father, Son, and Spirit. Thomas thus seems to follow Augustine at this crucial juncture. [Bruce D. Marshall, Aquinas The Augustinian?, in Aquinas the Augustinian, edited by Michael Dauphinias, Barry David, and Matthew Levering, p. 52-3.]

So relation, according to Marshall, is serves a key role in explicating an understanding God’s being. And here is how Aquinas (and this is where he sounds very much so like Torrance), according, once again, to Marshall, leaves this kind of essence/relation metric in dialectical mode (to my surprise!):

This Aquinas handles, as he does a number of cognate questions about the coherence of his Trinitarian theology, by appealing to the limits of our thought and language. We can say why we need to assert that relations subsist in God, but we cannot entirely understand what we mean when we say it. Augustine was right, thought perhaps not in quite the way he intended. There is more to God than what we can mean by our relative terms, like “Father” and “Son.” There is “something absolute,” which is what we mean when we speak of the divine essence. But when we speak of the essence we are not talking about a reality other than the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; the essence is not “more” than the personal relations in that sense. Rather it is more than what our concepts of the personal relations can contain, just as they are more than our concepts of the essence can contain. In God the indivisible essence and the irreducibly distinct Persons are “one and the same reality,” but we have no one concept capacious enough for the reality. The one God, Persons and essence, “is not fully expressed by any term, as if it could be completely included under the meaning of such a term.” [ibid., 60.]

What I find significant, is the role that ‘relation’ plays for Aquinas, in particular; even if he still somewhat wants to scholastically shroud it in mystery–which I think more positively can be expressed if we think dialectically. I will say though, it would have been preferable if Aquinas had taken more of his cues from Athanasius rather than Augustine; nevertheless, what Aquinas has done (if Marshall is a faithful guide) is provided or emphasized the category of ‘relation’ [onto] which, Torrance, especially, utilizes in his own Athanasian way to talk about God’s Triune being.



  1. Why does the Son and Spirit have to directly derive from the Father? Couldn’t the Son and Spirit exist without deriving?


  2. oft,

    I don’t believe they derive, per se. But within the “economy,” or revelation of God in salvation history, we see the Father sending the Son, and the Father and Son send the Holy Spirit; so there is a relative order to the way they operate soteriologically, but it is in this operation wherein their unity of being is given shape.


  3. That is what I thought, however from what I understand, Calvin and the Reformers (Westminster Confession) believed this “preceeding” and I’m reading Gregory of Nazianzus, who believed the same thing. It’s a mystery to me how the Reformers thought the Son can “proceed from the Father” yet be eternal. If the church now believes the Son has never proceeded from the Father; He just is, are you aware the reasons the Reformers gave to reject it? Maybe they thought it was too close to polytheism? I suppose it doesn’t matter, obviously above reason, but good to know.


  4. Calvin actually believed in auto-theos, that Christ had no derivation of any kind. I don’t think the issue of procession needs to end in a kind of tri-theism or subordinationism, per se. The issue becomes one of what grounds God’s Godness? Is there a substance or being of God from which the persons subsist? Is the Father’s person the ground which gives the other person’s their reality as persons, and does this ground the being of God? There are other things going on which I don’t have time to get into here.

    But I would say that I see no need to hold that procession equals something like Arianism, wherein the Son and the Spirit are creatures. Patristics would say the Father is ingenerate and the Son generate (and Spirit); but this is only a relative reality for them, and not an absolute one. So that is to say, that the economy (in salvation) reflects this kind of order within the Divine Monarchy or God-head, and thus there is this order in eternity or in God’s inner life–but it would be to simply note a theo-logical order and not an ontological one.