Thoughts Gymnastikos on Alternatives to Trinitarian Regiratio

Athanasius of Alexandria (4th century), always trying to put the best face on the writings of Origen (2nd century), once cautioned readers that Origen sometimes wrote dogmatikos (expressing his actual considered opinion and judgments), but at other times this “labor-loving man” wrote gymnastikos, as if trying out ideas, “as if inquiring and by way of exercise.” It is in the spirit of trying things out that I present this little blog essay –recalling that the word “essay” itself means something not definitive but exploratory, something not accomplished but attempted, “an irregular undigested piece,” as Samuel Johnson said.

Furthermore, I wrote the title of this post as cryptically, and the above paragraph as pedantically, as possible, to help wave off readers who ought to go read something else. If you’re still here and this is your idea of fun, then boy do I have some more fun for  you!

In the first half of his article “Neoplatonism, Regiratio and Trinitarian Theology: A look at Ruusbroec” (Hermathena 169 (Winter 2000), pp. 169-188), Rik Van Nieuwenhove sifts through the scholastic tradition to find theologians who made any use of the notion of regiratio, that is, flowing back or “circling back into.” Van Nieuwenhove is especially looking for theologians who are willing to use the idea in trinitarian theology, and more particularly in their account of the eternal relations of the Son and the Holy Spirit to the Father. Van Nieuwenhove’s motivation is that he is a scholar of Jan van Ruusebroec (also spelled John of Ruysbroeck), the fourteenth-century mystical theologian, and Ruusbroec used regiratio quite elaborately in his trinitarian theology. Does Van Nieuwenhove find regiratio in scholastic theology? 

Yes and no. He finds it in the doctrine of creation, but not in the doctrine of the immanent Trinity. “The notion of regiratio or motus circularis was well-known to the scholastics, such as Albert the Great who, however, prefers not to apply it to the intra-trinitarian life.” Albert uses the neoplatonic motif of exitus-reditus when talking about creation: “everything finds its origin in God and returns to him.” But it doesn’t seem like the right way of talking about the Son and the Holy Spirit in their eternal relation to the Father.

Thomas Aquinas has much to say about the creation of things as an exitus a principio, and also (think of the treatise on the virtues in the ST) on how

creatures attain their perfection when they attain their goal or finis. The principium corresponds to the finis: attaining your goal is returning to the principium or beginning. Creatures attain their goal following an order which corresponds to, and reflects, the processio from their origin. Thus, the exitus and the reditus in finem take place per eadem: our return to God corresponds to the procession of divine goodness towards us.

As van Nieuwenhove paraphrases what he finds in both Albert and Thomas: “the structure exitus-reditus refers to the economic Trinity, not the immanent Trinity;” there is no properly inner-trinitarian regiratio

The rest of van Nieuwenhove’s article looks at Meister Eckhart and finally settles on neoplatonic influence in the theology of Ruusbroec, who certainly had no timidity about applying all manner of ebbing-and-flowing language to the immanent Trinity, as well as to the mystic experience of the Trinity. And while it’s always possible that a couple of mystics may have taken a decisive step forward in doctrinal theology, I’m not inclined to see “only Eckhart and Ruusbroec taught this” as a commendation of any particular theologoumenon. What I’m looking for is more sober guidance, and preferably some trusted names like Nazianzus or Aquinas.

So first, I wonder if it’s true that Thomas Aquinas doesn’t make any use of a notion like regiratio. Of course van Nieuwenhove is right about the terminology (he’s checked the Index Thomisticus and found the word only four times). But there is an important passage at the end of the treatise on the Trinity in the Summa Theologiae that may come to the same point through different terms and concepts. I’m thinking of ST Prima Pars, Question 43, article 2, where Thomas is asking “whether mission is eternal, or only temporal?” On the way to sorting out that question, Thomas finds that he needs to go back and say a little bit more about the nature of the eternal processions  of the Son and the Holy Spirit than he had said initially (way back in Question 27). What he adds now is the idea of a terminus, or end-point. Here’s an expansive translation/paraphrase of the key section:

The Son and the Spirit come from the Father, but we should pay close attention to the different things that “come from” might mean. Some of the words we use to talk about this “coming from,” like “proceed” or “go forth,” are only intended to draw our attention to the way the Son and Spirit are related to the Father from whom they come. These words are only words about their from-ness, and they only direct our attention to the origin-point, or the relation of the Son and Spirit to the One they are from.

But other words we use to talk about this “coming from” are more comprehensive, and they include not only that relation to the origin-point, but they also include the end-point or terminating-point that is on the other end of that “coming from.”

But what is the terminating-point that is out there at the other end of a “coming from?” There are two very different kinds of terminating-points. One kind is eternal. Since the Son is eternally begotten from the Father, his eternal terminating-point is the divine nature. Where does he eternally come from? The Father. Where does he eternally end up? In God (or, the divine nature). He comes from the Father and comes into the divine nature. Likewise the Spirit eternally comes from the Father as the one who is breathed out, and he also eternally ends up in God. (All of this “coming-from” and “ending-up-in” that we have to talk about is not any kind of motion from location to location. It refers to a way of being. See Question 27, article 1, “On Procession in God.”)

Now this structure of coming-from and going-to is not in the same register as flowing-out-of and flowing-back-into. Among the many differences, Thomas would insist that divine processions exclude any notion of flowing “out of.” They are internal processions, or goings-forth that remain within. This is what Thomas had been very clear about back when he introduced the concept of processions, in 27.1:

Whatever proceeds by way of outward procession is necessarily distinct from the source whence it proceeds, whereas, whatever proceeds within by an intelligible procession is not necessarily distinct; indeed, the more perfectly it proceeds, the more closely it is one with the source whence it proceeds.

So by definition, any movement “out of” or “back into” is inadmissible. In fact, the more perfect a divine procession is, the more unity it manifests. The more the Son proceeds, the more he is one with the Father. If (per impossibile) he proceeded less fully, he would be less unified with the Father.

Yet a trinitarian procession apparently does include a terminus point, if it is described with reference to its whither rather than its whence. Perhaps this arrival or destination is worth explicating more fully. 

Why? Because there has always been a certain starkness in the patristic settlement regarding the relations of origin. As Stephen Holmes has recently summarized the classic doctrine, “the three divine hypostases are distinguished by eternal relations of origin –begetting and proceeding– and not otherwise.” Gregory of Nazianzus writes as if he would die to defend the eternal relations of origin, but also sounds as if he might kill in order to keep anybody from going beyond them in describing the Trinity. Are the three persons really not distinguished by anything richer than relations of origin? Can no other content be specified? Is the schema of processions really an adequate interpretation of the fullness of what we see in Scripture?

Relations of destination, or of arrival (or fulfillment, or termination/perfection/finalization/entelechy/something) could be a way of saying more than the church fathers said, without actually branching out into different relations among the three. If there are relations of arrival, they are not different relations than the relations of origin; they are the same relations from the other end.  A theology of the immanent Trinity that could speak coherently about such relations might be better equipped to explicate the interactions of the economic Trinity. Even if it is absolutely true that “missions reveal processions,” that may not be all there is to say about how God is made known in the comings and goings of the Son and the Spirit. Relations of arrival could be another conceptual tool in the toolbox of theological exegesis.

In addition to greater exegetical resourcefulness, relations of arrival might help modern theologians who are skittish about eternal generation warm up to the doctrine. If the Son and Spirit come from the Father without leaving the Father, then they arrive in deity without ever having been anywhere else. I suspect that grappling with this terminology might cause the lights to come on for some theologians, because thinking about an eternal dynamic is what the classic doctrine of eternal generation was always about.

I’ve described this as a chance to go further than the patristic limitations, but in another sense, I doubt we would be achieving more insight than the church fathers. Here and there in the patristic discussion you can find odd ways of putting things, ways that require a kind of dynamism in thinking about what is going on conceptually for these monotheists who recognize Father, Son, and Spirit as the one God. Athanasius reports a saying of Dionysius of Alexandria: “Thus we extend the Monad into an inseparable Triad, and we pack up the undiminished Triad again into a Monad.”

And Gregory Nazianzus himself describes the unity of the Trinity as “one which is made of an equality of Nature and a Union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a convergence of its elements to unity.” This “convergence of its elements to unity” is some kind of dynamic unity which Nazianzus assures us is “impossible to created nature.” And in the same Oration he serenely assures us that “unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost.” That’s a famously hard saying, one that Maximus the Confessor worked hard at creatively explicating. Whatever it means for Unity to arrive by motion at Duality and find its rest in Trinity, it’s probably not regiratio in the Ruusbroeckian sense. And it’s certainly not an entanglement of the divine being in creaturely process (this is Nazianzus we’re reading!). But I wonder what it is, and what kind of conceptual paraphrases of consensual teaching would be helpful in explicating it.


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