The Notion of Person in Augustine and Aquinas By David Fleischacker, Ph.D.

To some, the arguments about the notion of person may seem to be like trite linguistics gymnastics. Yet, one can see the confusion in the use of the term in a variety of areas, especially when discussing the unborn or those in persistent vegetative states. This points to a deeper crisis in today’s world. One can see in many writings of the late John Paul II that part of the crisis in the world today is one in which the modern mind does not know really know himself. At the heart of this crisis of self-knowledge is the need to understand ourselves as persons in the image of God, as the book of Genesis reveals, and the great thinkers of Christian history explore. One could say that many of us in this world tend to understand ourselves more as sophisticated animals than as human beings, let alone as children of God or as persons in the image of the Three Persons in God. In reaching for this solution, part of what is needed is the turn from a dramatic descriptive definition of the human person, something based largely on sensitive impressions, to a scientific, philosophical, and theology understanding. So, as a contribution to this recurrent need for self-knowledge, it is an interesting to compare and related two of the great figures in history whose contribution to the meaning of person has become part of rich theological tradition of the Catholic faith, St. Augustine and St.Thomas. In executing this comparison and relation, three questions will be posed. First, in what context and under what conditions do St. Augustine and St. Thomas introduce the notion of person. Second, what do each saint mean by person. Third, what are some of
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" So Augustine repeatedly states that faith is where to begin (241). says Augustine quoting the prophet. or of intervals. Important for Augustine is that the person in search of God does not think of the three persons as having any ". He writes "Since. faith seeking understanding." because this will lead to inequality among the persons and confusion of the persons (241). let us ask what three. For. St. St. 2. Augustine raises the same simple question and gives the same simple answer. though the human mind is wholly inadequate for searching the meaning of this great mystery. The Holy Trinity is the great mystery. bulk. but about the only explicit thing 2 . it can begin to do so. . The simple answer is that they are three persons. . and Augusine reminds us repeated at the beginning of nearly every book. therefore. with the help of God. . followed by an eye that has been lifted to see more than merely the sensible. you shall not understand. The Context in which Augustine Discusses the Notion of Person Augustine's book de Trinitate. . is a great paragon of one of his inherited phrases. the Father.the consequences that result from their notion of person. the Son. howsoever small . and the Holy spirit are three. and what they have in common" (231). "Unless you believe. or of any distances of unlikeness. Augustine: De Trinitate 1. In both books. then it is treated more fully in book seven. The Meaning of Person The meaning of the term person is first raised explicitly in book five.

" In addition. Persons Distinct by Relations Perhaps the most significant contribute which Boethius then picks up is Augustine’s contribution to the discussion about the basis of the distinction between the 3 . Augustine identifies many things about these three Persons in these early books. Already in book one. for only the Father says "Thou art my Son. In other books. wisdom. in many of these instances. They work together in creating and in redeeming the world. the Son is God. and justice. He does not further articulate this common meaning." only the Son says "The Father and I are one. what they have and do not have in common. we know they are one God." and only the Holy Spirit is identified when the Son says "I will be sending another. even though he does not discuss the meaning of Person as such until book five (though. as described by a number of passages in Scripture. he has been discussing these three in every book prior to the seventh. as he reflects upon Scripture. Augustine arrives at this point. he does apply the term Person). Characteristics and Activities of the Persons However. Augustine argues the Scriptural basis for knowing that they are distinct. and what they do or do not do in common. and have one and the same essence. that the Father is God. He clarifies who they are. we know that all three are equal because all three are the one God.that Augustine says about the notion of person is that he is using it in its common meaning. We know that each possess one and the same power. and Holy Spirit is God. Before St. that does not mean that we cannot discern more about his understanding of person from the text.

goodness. and Species Augustine does begin to raise some questions that move toward the definition of the term person in book seven. They are not distinct because of the divine essence as such. when he discusses the relation of the term 'person' to the terms 'substance.' Person and Substance Augustine. and justice. but he thinks person is more appropriate both because it apparently suggests the notion of relation while substance suggests being compound rather than simple. at times. such as wisdom. The Father is the Father. This formulation in turn will play into the construction of what becomes the Filoque subsequently affirmed at the local Council of Orange in 654.Three at the beginning of book five. Only because of the relations are they distinct. he is the Son because he is begotten by the Father. is willing to use the term three substances rather than three persons. Person as Compared to Substance. or God. chapter five. 4 . powerful. truth. Genus. just. And likewise with the Holy Spirit. The distinction of these three is solely due to the relations between them. the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit because he is the Gift of the Giver.' 'genus. Likewise with the Son. or any of the characteristics that are identical with the divine essence. but because he is the Father who begets the Son. good. being both the Son and the Father. not because he is wise. and then of the explicit clarity in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1274 that affirms the basis of the distinction between Persons being rooted in the opposed relations.' and 'species.

for example. Apparently some were trying to initiate definitions of a person in terms of genus and species. Three statues are more than one. Augustine argues how this illustration with statues and gold cannot properly be said to have a relation of species and genus). the form of the statues is distinct from that of the gold. the analog being three statues and one gold. Other analogues using genus and species are also rejected (238-239). But in God. but this did not work. there are no accidents. But there are other discussions about these terms which he discards. because even "man" is identified as a person (232).Substance is compound because it suggests subsistence. the material analog fails because of the lack of equality. Genus. but is the divine essence. This does not work for various reasons. Furthermore. implies a relation to accidents which reside in that which subsists. but the three Persons are not more than one person. Person. Using the illustration of the statues. The most prominent is the position that identifies the divine essence as a genus and the person as a species. whereas in the Trinty the Father is not a form made from the divine essence. Their equality exists because they are the one and identical divine essence (236237). primarily because the genus has a distinction from the species that does not exist between the persons and the divine essence. which for Augustine. 5 . St. and hence substance is not appropriate for identifying in God what is meant by essence or what is meant by person (235). just as is true of the Son and the Holy Spirit (as a note. and Species Augustine first identifies person as a kind of genus.

two. Scripture. The answer is that each is a person. or with God (189). Thus. a divine person is distinct by relation and can possess characteristics either based on that relation or on the divine essence. it is predicated in identity with the divine essence. or all three of the persons are said to speak or act in some event. the predication belongs to the person in their relation to another person. like being a Father. though some meaning of the term can be gleaned from his discussion of the Three Persons. Certain characteristics. Once Augustine clarified some of these points about each of the Three. He does not develop a definition of person in that context. No such definitions or discussions of person arise after book seven. these persons are distinct from each other because of their relations to each other. Consequences of this Notion of Person Augustine's discussions of person are within the context of Church teaching. though. Augustine did not. and thus 6 . and they can have events and characteristics predicated of them either in terms of their divine essence or in terms of their relations. and when they do so. without being based in the relations. belong to the person as person.So What can be said about person? Each one of the three is one and the same God. 3. which each one is. So. and tradition. Whenever though the predication is attributed to the person alone. Sometimes one. he then raised the question about what they had in common that was distinct from their sharing of the divine essence (or of being God). give a definition of person which would clearly articulate what was meant by the term.

The Context in which St. yet one. his discussions of the three persons in these earlier books have a role in examining the aptness of the various analogies that he discusses. he is searching for analogs of three and one. Of the three analogs that he accepts. will. Thomas discusses the Trinity are Church Teaching. chapter five). how there can be three. mind. see book nine. understanding. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica 1. because there are three Persons and one God. Augustine cannot give a reason why there are three persons in God using his analogies. We know by faith not by reason that 7 . Thomas Discusses the Notion of Person The grounds upon which St. What his analogies do is to help us to understand other aspects of the Trinity. No other role for the notion of person arises in these later books other than being the basis for searching for three acts and acts with particular characteristics that match Scripture and Church teachings. Though he does not further develop the term. Thomas. knowing. memory. and what are some characteristics of these three acts that explain why the Persons are identified in certain ways in Scripture. Thus. and love. but the many material analogs that he rejects. such as why they are equal (for example. and various Authorities in the tradition. loved. not only the three to which he gives some credence. Many of these further explanations would need to wait until St.Augustine does not introduce any further use for the term or give it any further definition when he introduces his three analogs of lover. Further. and loving. there is no other reason for limiting these interior acts to three. Scripture.

As rational. The fact that the analogical conclusions are always supporting of what is known about the Trinity and each of the persons supports the value of its analogical insights. Thomas introduces the notion of person following a discussion of the existence and characteristics of God in questions 2-25. Thus. we can make proposals and explore that faith. The Meaning of Person The four articles of question 29 discuss the Divine persons. these notions become important for grasping why there exist three divine persons. Critical to those earlier discussions was the grasping of the simplicity. trying to grasp analogical reasons for it. St. God is not compound. The second is substance as a hypostasis. which arises when considering a thing in terms of its common nature. in the Trinity. and from this proposal conclude to the existence of a Trinity of Persons. one could make the proposal about two processions in God. Thomas does in the course of his discussions in questions 27-43. As simple. God exists in himself and not in another. As subsistent. 2.there are three persons. This is what St. Thomas elaborates on what is meant by person by discussing three meanings of substance. and even identify their defining features and characteristics. Yet." A person is a perfected type of substance. It can be summarized as an "individual (singularis) substance with a rational nature. guided by faith. The first gives a definition developed by Boethius. and rationality of God. St. he possesses both intellect and rational appetite (though these are not discursive in God as they are in us). The first is substance as res naturae. As we shall see. subsistence. In article 2. which arises when 8 .

person comes to refer to an individual subsistence that possess the common nature of rationality. 3. In other words. I will presuppose Thomas' argument for the simplicity and subsistence of God. and discussing the characteristics of these persons would require more space than is allotted for this essay). In St. a Person possesses a rational nature. Person is all of these when "rational nature" is added. The third is substance as a subsistent. In the case of God. Because of limited space. namely the answer to why there are three distinct persons (going further. why are there three distinct persons? In Augustine. therefore. as well as the two processions (and why there are only two). Consequences of Defining the Notion of Person Defining person as an individual or a distinct subsistent in a rational nature allows for an exposition of the Trinity that explains why there are three distinct persons as well as the nature of their principle characteristics. which arises when considering the thing as existing in itself and not in another. Let me illustrate these consequences with one of the points. the question was answered doctrinally and scripturally. the 9 . So. so. there are no accidents. To identify a person. is that which possess a common nature (or two if we are speaking of Jesus). but not analogically.considering the thing as underlying these accidents (notice this is the notion of substance that Augustine has in mind when using the term substance). each of these terms must be fulfilled. So. exists in itself and not in another. Thomas. and is that which underlies accidents. we can answer this analogically.

the subsisting. for the "action remains in the intelligent agent. Thomas introduces the discussion of processions and relations first. There are two processions.individual. one of word and the second of love. the materiality of our particular bones and flesh distinguish us from other human beings (q. In the case of human being. even if I was completely identical. First. 29. Two processions in God lead to four real relations. St." something which is important if we are to discuss the immanent processions of God. enters into the notion of person indirectly" (q. or material uniqueness is a constituent element of my being. 27. and the rationality of the nature must be grounded. St. even to the location of cells and neurons as another. I am not going to reproduce the arguments and full discussion of q. and this was one reason that St. The procession of love proceeds from the procession of the word. In article 4. St. Linking relation into the definition of a Divine person is not enough to distinguish divine persons. Thomas identifies individual as meaning the distinguishing principle or basis that one subsistence is not another. and the highest created analogy to understand this event is the human intellect. as such. but only the conclusions. and hence a different principle of distinction must be found and that principle is found in real relations. which remain eternally 10 . 4). what does Thomas mean by individual. no such materiality exists. a. Thomas argues that the analogy must be taken from an inward not external procession (cause to effect). The relations themselves must be distinguished. 4). and not a constituent element of the other. I would still be distinct from that other because my spatial-temporal. a. In other words. 29. In the case of God. Thomas wrote that "while in God the hypostasis is expressed as distinct by the relation: and thus relation.

the understood begets the concept. hence persons. a conception issuing from our intellectual power and proceeding from our knowledge of that object. relations which could be identified as 'paternity' and 'filiation' respectively. Thus. analogically. In the third article of question 27. Hence. and once born. this word can be loved. They are relations which are opposed because they are defined by the opposite relations of two terms to each other. Thomas introduces the analogy for understanding the second procession. whereby the object loved is in the lover. that of word. With this similitude. when such mutual 'regard' exists in God. as. So." This is the analog of the first procession. it is the procession of the love from the word. 28). and the concept is begotten by the understood. the object spoken of or understood is in the intelligent agent. From the processions.in God himself. that of love. namely a word. He writes "the operation of the will within ourselves involves also another procession. what is this procession? St. in the first something is born in the knower. The procession of the word is an act that begets an object present which then can be loved. The processions result in relations which are opposed. that in God is an act of Understanding that issues forth in an emanation of an internal Word. which is a conception of the object understood.” These two processions are related. by the conception of the word. Thomas writes "For whenever we understand. we can then state. This order of processions is one key for distinguishing relations. When considering the understanding and the conception. St. by the very fact of understanding there proceeds something within us. which it does 11 . one can then move on to relations (q.

These can be expressed as understanding/conception to love. four comparisons can be made: spiration to paternity.if there is a procession of word in God. Thus. because from the understood and the concept emanates the love. 4). The relation of the first is spiration. So. because each one is identical to the divine nature) (q. spiration is not an opposed relation to paternity or filiation. where one considers love as emanating from the understood and concept is identified as 'procession' (for lack of better terminology). so it is from the point of view of the concept/Word that filiation is derived). nor is 'procession' an opposed relation to paternity or filiation. power. meaning that the distinction between them is real and not merely rational (distinctions such as between wisdom. and the fact that there are two. and love to understanding/conception. the first being paternity and filiation. procession to paternity. and the relation in the reverse direction.4). a. and procession to filiation (q. So. In trying to discover a possible distinction between the two sets of relations. the first set is not defined in mutual opposition to the second. a. if spiration 12 . 28. The comparison requires that one draws out a consequence about the processions if an identity is assumed between the base terms of two relations (a base term means the term from which the relation is derived. there exists real relations. 28. the second being spiration and procession. In other words. and justice in God are notional. spiration to filiation. Still. we have two sets of relations that are defined by mutual opposition to each other. Likewise with the relations derived from the procession of love. how can they be distinguished? This is where one reintroduces the order of the processions.

is considered from the viewpoint of concept/Word as is filiation.” Since three of the real relations are distinct from each other. hence. because God is subsistent and rational. if all the terms defining a 13 . Likewise. Thomas does not fully articulate all of these comparisons. then the understanding (who is the Father) is said to be that from which love proceeds. Nothing else in God is distinct. for the Son is Word. and conclude to three persons. which is not true. because the understanding (or the Father) does not proceed from anything (St. Hence that which proceeds as love is a relation that is distinct from filiation and paternity. then the understanding is said to be that which proceeds as love. and this is also true. Now we can return to the definition of person. leaving the procession intact. and this is true. then spiration is said of the Son. Since nothing in God is really distinct except these three relations. if procession is considered from the viewpoint of the understanding as is paternity. but spiration is not. which means that the relations are not really distinct from God's simplicity and subsistence and rationality. then the Son is said to be that which proceeds as love. then we have a principle of individuality. If procession is considered from the viewpoint of the concept/word as is filiation. Thus. This means that spiration can be equated with understanding and concept/word. each person is subsistent and rational. and the Son is said to be that from which love proceeds. but he does note them). but likewise. If spiration is considered from the viewpoint of understanding as is paternity. “A person is an individual subsistent in a rational nature. but the relation of 'procession' cannot. not even the relations from the essence. Hence there are three really distinct relations. which fulfils one term of the definition. this is not true. we have fulfilment of the other two terms of the definition.

Thomas then further articulates these points in discussions of each of the persons in a series of questions. then we have the actuality or reality of what of this definition in God. of the three distinct subsistents in an intellectual nature. This is a question that Augustine would like to have answered. of the relations. he then goes on to discuss the characteristics of these three persons. St. paternity. Augustine and St. Summary of Augustine and Thomas The notion of person as it is found in St. 30. one of which was a definition of person as an individual subsistent in a rational nature (and a clear understanding of what is meant by individual). of which there are five: innascibility. and procession.person are really fulfilled in God. Thomas underwent development. not three substances or three essences or three modalities. but could not. filiation. we actually have three Persons in God (q. and thus on the processions and emanations. The answer is three persons. Once St. For 14 . given the original procession of word and of love. Four of these are based on the relations. Thomas established the nature of the processions. The proper characteristics are articulated as notions. or the three persons. a.1 and 2). It required a number of developments. Thus. since we have three that fulfill the definition of person in God. of the status of the relations as real and distinct. common spiration. Augustine's explicit discussion of person is that it is the answer to the question "Three What?" (Which is the same question Tertullian Answered).

Thomas is not only able to explain St. in the case of a Divine person is rooted upon a real distinct relation. Augustine's analogy of memory. of which there are three. The three are three distinct subsistents in intellectual natures. but why. Thomas advance this exploration. He clarifies the meaning of individual as refering to the principle of individuation and the basis of distinctness. of course. St. his use of the term indicates a recognition that a Person is that to which certain characteristics and activities belong. Augustine's basic question: "Three What?". with modern twists. St. the answer is not merely negative. knowledge.Augustine though. though I did not deal with this above). and sometimes to all three. the modern world has further advanced this basic question of "Three What?" or whether it has forgotten these developments. and regressed to an earlier stage of development. Some events belong to God the Father. why Scripture identifies them as expressing these characteristics (as well as why they have the missions they are given. others to the Holy Spirit. but they do not explain why there are three persons or why these three persons necessarily have the various characteristics (once one proposes the two processions in God). 15 . and will). begin to suggest an explanation for certain characteristics of the three Persons. why they have the characteristics they possess. St. This distinctness. Augustine begins to explore these We will have to wait to see if things. as well as of processions and relations. knowledge and will (as well as his analogies of mind. others to the Son. He goes further and explains why there are three. St. Thomas uses Boethius' definition of person as an individual subsistent in a rational nature. By means of this precise definition of person.

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