Necessary or Free?

Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book One, distinction 6

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, Question 41, Article 2

You must fix in your heart that the Lord is God in the heavens above and the earth below, and that there is no other. (First Reading, Trinity Sunday)

Ready for a question that cannot be answered? It has to do with the foremost object of our affections. First a little background.

One single, almighty, infinite God. Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Perfectly one. But the Son is not the Father. How? How is the Son not the Father? Well, the Son proceeds from the Father. How is the Holy Spirit not the Father, nor the Son? The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The term “procession” refers to the eternal divine act by which the Son is distinguished from the Father, and the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.

We mortals lay no claim whatsoever to understanding this. We do not understand how the procession of the divine Persons occurs. We cannot imagine it, because it is infinite. We simply know that it occurs. We know that the divine Persons are distinct. The word we use to refer to the eternal act that distinguishes them is: Procession.

Everybody with me? Didn’t think so.

God is eternal and infinite, right? The Father is the eternal and infinite God. The Son is the eternal and infinite God. But the Father is not the Son. The Son proceeds from the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal and infinite God. But the Holy Spirit is not the Father, nor the Son. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

There is an act, an eternal act, an infinite act: Procession. The procession of the divine Persons.

Now, creating the world, sustaining it, fulfilling it: a big job. God has obviously done something huge by creating the universe. But it is nothing; it is a small enterprise, a simple flip of the wrist—creating the cosmos is nothing compared to the eternal, infinite act by which the Son proceeds from the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.

Okay. Ready for the unanswerable question? Wait. First, a little more background: the difference between necessity and choice.

Who has bird-feeder on the patio or the deck? How about one of those squirrel-proof models? The squirrel jumps up on it, and the thing lowers its gates, or it spins around, and flings the poor squirrel to the ground, like a rag. It’s like a slap in the squirrel’s face.

Now, why would the squirrel subject himself to this treatment? To this abject humiliation? Because he seeks the nut. The squirrel’s insatiable quest for the nut is not a choice. It is necessary. Desire for nuts is a law laid upon his very being. I am a squirrel. I go for the nut. No options; no choices. It’s necessary.

On the other hand, freedom means choices. Why do I choose McDonalds, when I could go to Hardees or Burger King? When you’ve got options, it could go either way. One restaurant has special sauce. Others don’t. A man makes a choice. I choose special sauce.

Okay. Here it is. The question that truly cannot be answered. This questions lies on the outer frontier of what might be called “esoteric.” This is not a question you will find on the back of many cereal boxes. And yet, this question concerns the eternal, primordial truth—the one single, essential, absolute fact.

God chose to create. He could have chosen not to create. He could have remained the Blessed Trinity, with no world, no cosmos, no universe. He chose to make this vast mess of stuff that is not Him, and to sustain, care for, guide, and fulfill it all.

He chose to create. But: Did He choose to be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? Did He choose to be the Trinity? In other words, have the eternal processions of the divine Persons occurred by choice? Or have the Persons eternally proceeded by necessity?

With me? We cannot answer this.

We cannot say that the divine processions occur by choice. If we did, we would imply that it could be different. We would imply that there could be a God Who is not the Trinity.

But that’s not true. It cannot be different. God is eternally triune. The eternal is triune. The Father has always been and always will be. The Son has always been and always will be. The Holy Spirit has always been and always will be. There is no way that it could be different.

But we cannot say that the processions occur by necessity, with no freedom of choice. If we did, we would imply that a law of some kind binds God. The Son has to proceed from the Father; the Holy Spirit has to proceed from the Father and the Son. Has to? Who says? Who gives God orders? Nobody.

Do the processions of the divine Persons of the Blessed Trinity occur by necessity or by choice?

A reasonable question. A good question. An interesting question. Perfectly unanswerable.

To the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—to Him be all glory and honor, now and forever.

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2 thoughts on “Necessary or Free?

  1. In the words of one of our second grade First Communion kids about the Trinity, “that’s a little bit awesome, and a little bit weird and confusing!”

  2. Is the devil’s dog his pet out of necessity or out of freedom of choice? When the dog appears repeatedly at my door for a dog biscuit, water, and a scratch behind the ears, plus a kind word, should I have compassion on it or draw my sword?

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