Appropriating Attributes to Persons of the Trinity

Fri, 16/08/2019 - 10:30 -- James Oakley

My sabbatical study project concerns a specific aspect of Trinitarian theology. (See my earlier post outlining what I planned to study).

Before reading books on this specific topic, I've been reading some more general works on the Trinity. My thinking is very rusty, and I need to enter the world of Trinitarian thought again at greater detail.

A few weeks back, I talked about how I'd been helped by Gilles Emery's introductory book, The Trinity, to understand how the Spirit is analogous to the love between the Father and the Son.

Today I want to run through another topic he's helped me understand, which is what I now know to be language of appropriation. See pages 164-168.

The Three Persons are One God

The place to start is by remembering that the three Divine Persons are one God. They have one will, and they always work as one. Everything they accomplish is the result of all three Persons working together.

This is sufficiently a matter of reminder that it scarcely needs explaining, but Emery gives two reasons for this on pages 164-5. First, they share a common divine nature. Second, insofar as we can distinguish between the three Persons of the Trinity, it is according to their relations to one another. So we might say that the Father alone is Father of the Son. Their distinction does not come from them relating to the created order in different ways. We can say that each has a "proper mode of action, … understanding that this proper mode regards the relations between the divine persons themselves" (page 165).

So we must never say that God the Father alone creates. God created the world, which means that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit created the world, as a single action performed by all 3 persons. We can say that God the Father does so as God the Father, God the Son does so as God the Son and God the Holy Spirit does so as God the Holy Spirit — each according to their proper mode of action.


So what, then, is “appropriation”?

We observe that the NT “frequently attributes an action or an effect to a divine person in a special way, without excluding the two others” (page 165). Here’s a definition: “the procedure of the language of the faith by which a reality common to the three persons (a trait that concerns the essence of God the Trinity, or a divine action, or an effect of the action of the Trinity in the world) is attributed in a special way to a divine person. … The foundation of the appropriation is the real affinity of an ‘essential’ attribute (common to the three persons) with the distinctive property of a person” (page 165).

To paraphrase: You find something that is true of God. It may be an attribute (holiness, power, love), or it may be an action (creation, judging). You observe first of all (as we noted above) that all 3 persons will have this attribute or do this action. But then you observe that one of the 3 persons has a particular "affinity" for it. Each of the 3 persons is distinctive, and their distinctiveness is found in how they relate to the other 2 persons. It may well be that there is something about that person's relational distinctiveness that means the attribute or action fits particularly well with them. If so, you may speak of it as being their distinctive attribute or work, not because the other 2 persons do not have / do it, but because it fits particularly well with the person in question.

This needs to be illustrated, which Emery does next.


His first example is that of “power”.

All 3 persons are all-powerful.

However, the attribute of “power” has a particular affinity to the Father, because he is the “Principle without principle”. The Son receives his divinity from the Father, without in any way diminishing or changing the Father's divinity because this is so.

This is why the Creed speaks of “God the Father Almighty”. When it does so, it does not in any way imply that the Son or the Spirit are not all-powerful.

By describing the Father in particular as the all-powerful one, we actually gain something by this use of language: “This better makes manifest the Father to our mind as principle without principle of the Trinity, and thus sheds light on the person of the Father” (page 166).

Don't Collapse Persons into their Appropriated Attributes

Some care is needed.

Staying with power, we need to remember that all 3 persons of the Trinity are all-powerful. So being all-powerful is not what sets the Father apart.

Having learnt to use appropriated language (whereby we speak of the Father as the all-powerful one), there is then the danger that we forget this is what we were doing and start to think of the Father's power as the thing that distinguishes him from the others.

It isn't. All 3 persons are all-powerful. What we're saying is that there is something about the way the Father relates to the Son and the Spirit ad intra, in eternity, that makes it most appropriate to speak of the Father's power when we wish to speak of God relating in all-power to the created order.

Emery runs this caution through at the end of page 166 and the start of page 167 using the example of "goodness". It is particularly appropriate to speak of the Holy Spirit as "good". This is because he is "in person, the Love of the Father and the Son", not because the Father or the Son are any less good as they relate to us.

Adoption as God's children

The next example is filial adoption, the wonderful truth that God adopts us as his children. Which of the divine persons has a particular affinity for this work?

This is a particularly illuminating example because we can distinguish different aspects of our adoption. He quotes Thomas Aquinas (Summa III q. 23, a. 2, ad 3) before expanding on this.

“Adoption, though common to the whole Trinity, is appropriated to the Father as its Author; to the Son, as its Model; to the Holy Spirit as imprinting in us the likeness of this Model.” (Page 167)


Emery sums this up with this neat paragraph, which (among other things) makes clear again that the benefit to us of appropriation is that we see the persons of the Trinity more clearly:

"Let us briefly summarize these elements. The three divine persons act in the world by a single action. The effects of the divine action are also common to the whole Trinity. In the one action of the Trinity, each person operates by virtue of the nature common to the Three, and each person acts according to the distinct mode of his property. The affinity of an action, or of an aspect of an action, or of an effect, with the property of a divine person lets us appropriate this action or this effect to a divine person, in such a way that the proper traits of persons are better manifested to us." (Page 168, emphasis mine)

Creator. Redeemer. Sanctifier

It's time to return to an earlier post of mine, in which I discussed whether we can replace the labels "Father, Son and Spirit" with new labels "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier". This is frequently put forward, I believe, to avoid using the gendered labels "Father" and "Son".

At the time I said we should not do this for two reasons.

1. "Father, Son and Spirit" convey how the 3 persons relate to one another. "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier" describe how they relate to the created order. Before there was a world to create, redeem and sanctify, God could not do those things. Crucially, we lose the wonderful truth that God is love. "God is love" is grounded in the fact that he existed in a Triune fellowship of love for all eternity; his love is intrinsic to who he is, and not contingent on him creating beings to love.

2. All 3 persons of the Trinity create, all 3 persons redeem, and all 3 persons sanctify. So none of the labels "creator, redeemer and sanctifier" allow you to differentiate the 3 persons from one another. Used without care, a Trinity of "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier" would probably collapse into modalism, where you only really have one divine person who exhibits multiple attributes. Why, after all, would God the Redeemer wish to pray to God the Creator, and how could God the Creator breathe out God the Sanctifier? By contrast, it makes perfect sense to see God the Son pray to his Father and God the Father breathe his Holy Spirit.

Revisiting Creator. Redeemer. Sanctifier

Let's look again at this. This language of appropriation modifies my initial response in two ways.

Firstly, in some ways I over-reacted. Yes, all 3 persons do all 3 works. But, provided the language used is that of appropriation, it may well be appropriate to speak of God the Father as Creator, God the Son as Redeemer and God the Spirit as the Sanctifier. After all, God the Son was the one who assumed our human nature, and so it was God the Son incarnate who bled and died to redeem the hitherto-lost human race.

But, second, I was actually more right to dislike this new Trinity than I realised at the time. Recall that the benefit of appropriation language is that we see more clearly the distinctiveness of the three divine persons, and that distinctiveness must be located in the ways they relate to each other. So, insofar as we speak of the Father specifically to be Creator of all, we do so in order to illuminate his particular relationship to his Son and his Spirit.

So if we use the language of "Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier" as terms of appropriation for the 3 persons of the Trinity, the result will be that we better appreciate what it means for God the Father to be Father, and so on. The moment these new labels are used to replace the names of the 3 divine persons (Father, Son and Spirit) this is no longer about appropriation. Appropriation actually brings the names "Father, Son, Spirit" into sharper focus, and makes them more precious to us, and not less.

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