CT 61: Dependence of the Hypostases on the Personal Properties

It’s morning, I’m reasonably well rested, and I’ll try to keep my sense of humor under better control today. In Chapter 61, Thomas continues his discussion of the Persons of the Trinity:

This makes it clear that if we were to remove the personal properties by intellectual abstraction, the hypostases could not remain.

Remember that hypostases is the Greek word we usually translate as “persons”. So what does Aquinas mean by “remove the personal properties by intellectual abstraction”?

If a form is removed by intellectual abstraction, the subject of the form remains. Thus if whiteness is removed, the surface remains; if the surface is removed, the substance remains; if the form of the substance is removed, prime matter remains.

Any existent being we encounter has essence and accidents, and as we remove the accidental forms, as we abstract them away, in our analysis of that being, the being remains. Consider a white teapot. I can abstract away the whiteness, and consider just the shape and the function and the porcelain of which it is made. I can abstract away the shape, and consider just the porcelain–the substance, the shape being an accidental arrangement of the porcelain. I can abstract away the substance, the substantial form, retaining only prime matter.

But if the subject is removed, nothing remains.

So I can’t go any further than that, or there’s nothing left to contemplate. And although I can contemplate the concept of the prime matter of which the teapot is made, I can’t really separate the substantial form from the prime matter of the teapot–or there would no longer be a teapot.

But while I can do this kind of analysis with a teapot, God is not a teapot. As Thomas regularly points out, God and creatures are different, God is a special case.

Although, possibly, God is, in fact, the general case, and each teapot is a special case. Moving along:

In the case of God, the personal properties are the subsisting persons themselves. They do not constitute the persons in the sense that they are added to pre-existing supposita; for in the Godhead nothing that is predicated absolutely, but only what is relative, can be distinct. Therefore, if the personal properties are removed by intellectual abstraction, no distinct hypostases remain. But if non-personal notions are thus removed, distinct hypostases do remain.

There are some logical machinations going on here that I don’t understand, but the result is clear: the three personal properties are the relations are the three Persons of the Trinity. If you abstract them away, you can still contemplate the Godhead as a single unity, as we in fact did in the early chapters of the Compendium. But you can’t abstract them away and still contemplate a Triune God. Put simply, if you abstract away the Trinity, you’ve abstracted away the Trinity.

What the upshot of this is, I am unclear, but glancing ahead I see that Thomas isn’t done with this line of development.

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