Today’s Aquinas: All in Proper Order

Today’s Aquinas: All in Proper Order January 17, 2016

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.
Today’s post is from Chapter 64, “64: Generation with Respect to the Father and with Respect to the Son”.

Some T's more obviously need to be crossed than others; and I'm afraid I'm not at all sure why Thomas felt the need to cross the particular T's he's concerned with in the current chapter. However, there are some interesting background ideas in play. The context is Thomas' on-going discussion of the properties that distinguish the persons of the Trinity.

However, we should understand that the order of active generation, with reference to paternity, is to be taken in one way, and that the order of passive generation, or nativity, with reference to filiation, is to be taken in another way.

Generation of offspring is a relation between parent and child in which the parent (or parents) are active and the child is passive. So we can speak of generation actively, as paternity, or passively, as natively. But I want to focus on the use of the world order in this chapter. Thomas often speaks of the order of this or that. The phrase, "the order of nature", which appears in the next passage, has a fine hifalutin' ring to it…but what does it mean?

In fact, Thomas is speaking precisely: he means a set of things in proper sequence or rank. Sometimes he means a set of things ordered from greatest to least; sometimes he means a set of things ordered in time; but most often, I think, he means a set of things ordered causally. We tend to think of a chain of linked causes as being ordered in time, but Thomas is working with the more general set of Aristotelian causes; and philosophy in his view is precisely about determining the ultimate causes or principles of things. For example, in the order of mathematics you might say that the operation of addition follows from number, and the operation of multiplication follows from addition (3 times 3 is 9 because 3 plus 3 plus 3 is 9). Here is a causal ordering, in Thomas sense, that has nothing to do with time.

So when Thomas refers to the order of active generation, he's thinking about the causes or preconditions of generation all causally linked in their proper ordering.

In the order of nature, active generation presupposes the person of the begetter. But in the same order of nature, passive generation, or nativity, precedes the begotten person, for the begotten person owes his existence to his birth.

For "birth" read "conception"; that human life begins at conception—i.e., that conception occurs when the sperm fertilizes the egg and cell division begins—was unknown before the invention of the microscope. The point here is that paternity, or active generation, exists in potential in the parent before generation actually occurs; and passive generation being merely the other side of the coin, does as well, before the begotten person exists at all.

Hence active generation, according to our way of representing the matter, presupposes paternity, understood as constituting the person of the Father. Nativity, however, does not presuppose filiation, understood as constituting the person of the Son but, according to our manner of conceiving, precedes it in both respects, that is, both as being constitutive of the person and as being a relation.

To put it another way, God the Father and his Fatherhood are logically the same, but the Son's sonship (as it were) is logically dependent on the Son's being fathered.

And whatever pertains to the procession of the Holy Spirit is to be understood in a similar way.


photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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