The Procession Within the Trinity
by Matthew A. C. Newsome © 2004
In the Creed that we confess each Sunday at Mass, we proclaim our faith in “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, one in being (consubstantial) with the Father…” and in, “the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son…”
This capsule statement contains much information about the Catholic faith in the procession of the Son from the Father, and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Let us begin by examining the relation of the Son to the Father.
St. Thomas teaches us that “the divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.” As it applies to the Father and the Son, this means that, “Since Jesus… has the same divine nature that the Father has… he is equal to the Father in all things except to be Father.” The Father and the Son are alike in all ways, except that only one is Father, and only one is Son. The Father is not son and the Son is not father.
While the question we are commenting on speaks of the Son proceeding from the Father, it is more common to say that the Son is generated by the Father, or that He is begotten of the Father. It is not incorrect to say that He proceeds from the Father. St. Thomas says that “the word procession is the one most commonly applied to all that denotes origin of any kind.” So both the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father. But the Son’s relationship to the Father is unique, and not like the relationship between the Father and the Holy Spirit, or the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Look at the Nicene Creed. There the Son is said to be “only begotten,” “eternally begotten,” and “begotten not made.” A father, by definition, is one who has begotten a child. Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, is the only Son of God. “Jesus’ relationship to the Father is unique and exclusive.” The Sacred Scriptures call Him the only Son of God. In his Gospel, St. John writes, “we have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
The Nicene Creed goes on to say that the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father.” It is an error to believe that because the Son is generated by the Father that the Son is a created being. This is the error known as subordinationism. The main proponent of this teaching was Arius in the early fourth century. He believed that Christ was the highest of all created beings, but the He was created, and therefore not divine. This heresy is incompatible with faith in the Trinity, and was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
Though the Son is begotten of the Father, he is begotten from all of eternity. There was never a time when there was a Father, but no Son. The Second Person of the Trinity, also called the Word of God, has always existed. Again, in St. John’s Gospel, we find the strongest scriptural support of this. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him…” In this passage, John not only expressly states the divinity of the Second Person (“the Word was God”), but it is implied in the attributes of eternity and creation.
So the Son proceeds from the Father in the unique form of generation, of being begotten of – not by creation or manufacture – and the Father has beget the Son from all of eternity. There has never been a Father without the Son nor a Son without the Father. How then, does the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father, and what is the Holy Spirit’s relationship with the Son?
Father Leo Trese remarks upon the relationship within the Holy Trinity this way.
The image that God sees of himself, the silent word that he eternally speaks of himself, must have a distinct existence of its own. It is this living thought which God has of himself, this living word in which he perfectly expresses himself, whom we call God the Son. God the Father is God, knowing himself; God the Son is the expression of God’s knowledge of himself… Now God the Father… and God the Son… contemplate the divine nature which they posses in common… and so the divine will moves in an act of infinite love… Since God’s love for himself, like God’s knowledge of himself, is of the very nature of God, it must be a living love. This infinitely perfect, infinitely intense, living love which flows eternally from Father and Son is he whom we call the Holy Spirit…
In other words, the Holy Spirit proceeds, that is, originates, not only from the Father but from the Son, as well. St. Thomas echoes this when he writes, “the Son proceeds by way of the intellect as Word, and the Holy Spirit by way of the will as Love. Now love must proceed from a word. For we do not love anything unless we apprehend it by a mental conception.”
It would also be accurate to say that love, strictly speaking, must exist between persons, if it is to be an equal love. A man may love a thing, or love an animal, but only another person can reciprocate that love. Within the Holy Trinity we have two persons loving the other so perfectly that that love is itself a person.
Therefore the Holy Spirit can be said to proceed from both the Father and the Son. There are many other arguments for this dual procession. One has to do with the consubstantiality of persons of the Trinity. This concept, fully expressed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD with the Greek term homoousion, means that the persons of the Holy Trinity share in the same substance. “What the Father is in divinity, that is what the Son and the Holy Spirit are also.”
This means that the Son is “equal to the Father in all things except to be Father.” We know that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, for He is the “principle without principle” and therefore the first origin of the Holy Spirit. Since the Son receives from the Father all that He is except in being Father, this means that He also receives that the Holy Spirit proceeds from Him. Therefore, according to St. Thomas, “it can be said that the Father spirates the Holy Spirit through the Son, or that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, which has the same meaning.”
Moreover, since the Father and the Son are in everything one, it follows that they together are the one principle of the Holy Spirit. This is taught by St. Thomas, confirmed by the Second Council of Lyons, and recorded in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Council of Florence, in 1438, once more affirmed this fact.
The Holy Spirit is eternally from the Father and Son; He has his nature and substance at once (simul) from the Father and Son. He proceeds eternally from both as from one principle and through one spiration… And, since the Father has through generation given to the only-begotten Son everything that belongs to the Father, except being Father, the Son has also eternally from the Father, from whom he is eternally born, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son.
Another argument for the dual procession from the very nature of the Trinity comes in the distinction of persons by relations. If what St. Thomas says of the Trinity is true, and the divine persons are distinguished from each other only by relation,then we must ask what the relation is between the Son and the Holy Spirit. For if both of them were related to the Father in that they proceeded from Him, but neither Son nor Holy Spirit proceeded also from the other, then there would be no distinction between the Son and Holy Spirit. “Hence, as the person of the Father is one, it would follow that the person of the Son and of the Holy Spirit would be one, having two relations opposed to the two relations of the Father. But this is heretical since it destroys the Faith in the Trinity. Therefore the Son and the Holy Spirit must be related to each other by opposite relations.” St. Thomas points out that no one has ever claimed that the Son is from the Holy Spirit, but that the Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is from the Son.
More evidence for this very teaching is found in the Sacred Scripture, the written data of our faith. Again we turn to St. John for some of the basic scriptural affirmations of the Holy Spirit being sent by both the Father and the Son. In his discourse at the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples, “I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you forever.” This indicates procession of the Spirit from the Father, but the Son is still involved in that it will be at His behest that the Spirit is sent. Further in the same chapter Jesus speaks of “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.” Again, the Spirit proceeds from the Father, but in the name of, or through the Son.
Finally, Jesus says, “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.” Here we see Jesus telling us plainly that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. But He also claims that He, the Son, will send the Spirit, meaning that the Spirit also proceeds from the Son.
To summarize thus far, it has been established that the Son proceeds from the Father in that he is begotten, and furthermore has been begotten from all eternity. In this He is unique. The Holy Spirit is not begotten but proceeds from the Father and the Son, and again this procession is from eternity. The Holy Spirit is not a created being. He is a divine person. There has never been a time when there was not a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit coexisting in Trinity.
But the dual procession of the Holy Spirit has been cause for some disagreement in the Church. One of the many reasons that gets cited as a cause for the Eastern Orthodox schism is the filioque – the “and the Son” that was added to the Nicene Creed in the Western liturgy.
The teachings of the ecumenical councils are typically focused on combating some specific error or heresy. In the case of the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, from which we receive our Nicene Creed, the heresy was Arianism. This heresy denied the divinity of the Son, and so in our creed we find much more language about the Son, and His relationship with the Father, then we do about the Holy Spirit. Originally, the creed simply stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, which is true.
However, as early as 447 AD the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son was expressed dogmatically by Pope Leo I. It was being inserted into the creed in the Western liturgy beginning in the eighth century – as a teaching tool to better enunciate what the Church actually teaches. It is important to remember that the Church does not derive her teaching from any creed, but that the various creeds are made by the Church to aid in her teaching, and so can be changed in ways to make them more accurate and precise teaching tools.
This teaching, as it regards the procession of the Persons of the Holy Trinity, is neatly summed up in the Athanasian Creed, when it proclaims, “The Father is not made by anyone, nor created by anyone, nor generated by anyone. The Son is not made nor created, but He is generated by the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is not made nor created nor generated, but proceeds from the Father and the Son.”
Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica. At http://www.newadvent.org/summa
The Catechism of the Catholic Church. United States Catholic Conference; Washington, DC, 1994
The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version; Catholic Edition. Ignatius Press; San Francisco, 1966
Trese, Leo J., The Faith Explained, 3rd ed. Scepter Publishers; Princeton, NJ, 2001.