Archive for Henry of Ghent

Henry of Ghent – Trinitarian Theology

Posted in Biblical Studies, Philosophy with tags , on April 23, 2013 by taylorvincentroche

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a doctrine that has sparked debate from its very conception. Disagreements over the constitution of the Trinity and the distinct composition of the three Trinitarian persons are quite familiar in the Church from the centuries directly following its birth all the way to contemporary times. There have been no shortage of theories, models, and analogies attempting to describe this uniquely Christian doctrine. Always existing along side of these models and theories is, Reason, the Creeds of the Church, and Holy Scripture itself. Each model or view of the Trinity must take each into account, weighing how much authority to grant to each and then begin the quest to give an account of such curious arithmetic as three equals one. Some have chosen Scripture alone. Others have included Reason along with Holy Scripture. Perhaps the most admirable attempts have taken all three, Reason, the Creeds (or orthodoxy), and Scripture, and though perhaps not assigning each category equal status, have sought a description of the Trinity that satisfies all three. In this paper I seek to describe one of those models. It is the model of Henry of Ghent, a thirteenth century scholastic. I hope to not only describe Henry’s position, but also to offer some analysis of it, in the end defending it as sufficiently satisfying all three “categories”, Reason, the Creeds, and Scripture. The best way to do this, I believe, is to start with a bit of history.

Throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there are roughly speaking two conceptions of how the Trinity is constituted. These two can be referred to generally as the ‘Dominican’ way (relation) and the ‘Franciscan’ way (emanation).  Dominican theologians follow the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, while Franciscan theologians draw from St. Bonaventure.

Late thirteenth century scholastic Henry of Ghent also contributed significantly to the Franciscan ‘emanation’ account of the Trinity, and it his developments that will be considered here. However before this can be done it is necessary to give some background on specifically the similarities and differences of the two views, in order to better understand the moves that Henry makes. I will begin with a brief survey of the Dominican conception of the Trinity, and after that an introduction into the Franciscan understanding as a segue into Henry’s own position.

I cannot however summarize both views without first pointing out the similarities between each view. Remember the primary concept in question is how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are unified as one, and yet distinct as three persons. Both the Dominican and Franciscan views agreed that each divine person was constituted.

This is to say that each person of the Trinity is made up of both a communicable essence and an incommunicable personal property or characteristic.

The debate arises however, over the nature of this ‘personal property’ (proprietas personalis). It is of course necessary that whatever this personal property be, it result in a real distinction between the persons, as described in the creeds of orthodox Christianity. So according to Richard Friedman in “Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham”, “The three divine persons, then, according to both the relation and emanation account, are essentially identical (i.e., they share completely the same divine essence) apart from one difference, which is the unique personal property that makes each of the persons distinct from the other two persons.”

As I have previously said, the personal characteristic must bring about a real distinction, but not “an essential distinction.”

Both sides make special use of Aristotle’s categories, specifically the category of relation. The relational, or Dominican account focuses in on what they term ‘opposed relations’, holding that the relation between Father and the Son is a real distinction capable of providing the kind of distinction necessary in the persons of the Trinity.

The relation account of personal distinction claims that the Father and the

Son are personally distinct in God since the Father is the Father only because

he has the Son. If the Father did not have the Son, then he would not be the Father.

If the relations between them are real and not mere mental constructs, then the

Father and the Son must be distinct in some way – not distinct essentially, but

distinct in persons.



So the relation account holds that the personal properties spoken of earlier, are in fact the relations between the members of the Trinity. However, those defending an emanation view of the Trinity proposed a different nuanced understanding of relations, again built firmly upon Aristotle’s categories.

Among the different types of relations Aristotle describes, there is the relation of producer to product.

Here Aristotle describes the relationship between a father and a son. However, Aristotle points out that logically prior to any discussion of a relation, the product must have been produced. That is to say, there is no point in talking about a father’s relationship to his son before he actually has a son. This led emanation theologians to reason that “divine relations are logically posterior to (and dependent upon) the divine productions.”

So the emanation theologians sought the incommunicable or personal property somewhere else, specifically that from which they get their name, the way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit originate. According to Friedman, “On the emanation account of the distinction or constitution of the persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the very same divine essence in three irreducibly distinct ways, the way that each one emanates or originates (proceeds).”

So as Friedman clearly states, it is not the opposed relations that grant distinction to the persons of the Trinity, but rather it is in how each originates or gets their being. So according the emanation view, the Father’s personal property is innascibility, because he is self-existent. The Son’s personal property is generation, because he is begotten, getting the divine essence from the Father. Lastly the Holy Spirit’s personal property is spiration, receiving the divine essence from both the Father and the Son.

By way of summary, one more concluding thought from Friedman,

The opposition of relations that was a key part of the relation account does

indeed exist between Father and generated Son, as well as between Father

and Son (as one spirator) and spirated Holy Spirit. Just as Aristotle’s example

of a father’s production of his son, in the emanation account the relations are

indeed opposed. Nevertheless, in contrast to the relation account, this opposition

does not play a central role; the stress in the later medieval emanation account

is on the three irreducibly distinct ways in which the persons originate: unemanated, emanated by way of nature, and emanated by way of will.

As Friedman acknowledges, relations do exist and play a role in the emanation account, but this role is of a different sort that in the opposed relation account. I will now turn my attention to the true topic of this paper, Henry of Ghent and his model of the Trinity. Henry fits in the emanation account but contributes significant nuances to the model. I will begin by summarizing Henry’s model in whole, and then work back to elaborating in more detail upon the necessary points. In order to do this, it is necessary to begin with St. Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity which Henry incorporates into the emanation account.

The opening verse of the fourth Gospel have long played a significant part in the discussion of Trinitarian theology. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos, λογοσ) and the Word with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 NRSV) This passage along with many others that refer to Jesus as the “Word” led St. Augustine to conceptualize the Trinity by using the analogy of human psychology. In Book XV of St. Augustine’s De Trinitate, St. Augustine distinguishes between a memory and a “begotten” word.

In order to do this he posited two nearly identical concepts, a mental word and knowledge in memory. This “mental word” could be thought of as the concept human beings form from memory of knowledge that is not explicitly being thought of prior to the this concept’s formation. Here the “dispositional knowledge”, as Friedman calls it, is identical to the “mental word” in every way save that the mental word is formed.

To make this more clear, consider one’s own intellectual memory. This “intellectual memory” carries with it many bits and pieces of knowledge that are yet unformed, indeed one could almost say that they lurk deep in the recesses of one’s mind and are rarely thought of or brought to the forefront of the mind. Yet when one is recalled or focused upon, it immediately becomes “formed” in such a way as to be identical to the once dispositional knowledge, yet distinct by nature of its formation. By way of this analogy St. Augustine came to describe the Son as the mental word that is identical to the knowledge that produced it, yet different in that it is formed or begotten.

This was St. Augustine’s attempt to answer that most central Trinitarian question, how the persons of the Trinity are both identical and yet distinct. With this model in mind, Henry sought to further explain both the constitutive properties of the persons and the divine production of the persons.

As I have already said, on the emanation account, the persons of the Trinity are distinct on the basis of how each persons originates or gets their being. More specifically, the Franciscan’s held that the Son “emanates by way of nature (a natural emanation like a child is born), and the Holy Spirit by way of will (a voluntary emanation like the way a gift is voluntarily given).”

Henry accepts this and seeks to combine this understanding with St. Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity.

Henry would use St. Augustine’s work as well as the contemporary understanding of “intellect” to conclude that the Son’s production is an intellectual production. During Henry’s time the intellect was considered a “natural faculty.”

This is in contradiction to a voluntary or willful action. So Henry summarized, that since the Son emanates by nature, this must be an intellectual production. Again following suite with the Franciscan conception while nuancing it slightly, Henry further concluded that the Holy Spirit emanates by way of will or “zeal”.


Thus, for Henry, the Father is unemanated, the Son is emanated by way of

the divine intellect as a Word or Concept, and the Holy Spirit is emanated

by way of the divine will as “Zeal” (zelus). Indeed, Henry claimed that it is

the very fact that the Son’s emanation is an intellectual emanation that explained

why the Son is distinct from both the Father and the Holy Spirit.



As Russell Friedman explains in this excerpt, Henry understood the Son’s emanation as a literal Word. Consequently the distinction between the Son and the Holy Spirit is clear, though they both have their being from the Father, the Son’s production is intellectual and the Holy Spirit’s production is voluntary. Now by this point it should be somewhat clear how Henry sought to distinguish between the persons of the Trinity. However what should not yet be clear is how the beings are one. In order to examine this it becomes necessary to look more closely at Henry’s understanding of divine production and then subsequently the constitution of the divine persons.

Again, think back to what I said much earlier about the similarities between the Dominican and Franciscan conceptions of the Trinity, namely that each side believed the persons of the Trinity to be constituted. That is made up of both the divine essence and an incommunicable personal property. I will start with Henry’s thoughts on the divine essence and from there move to his writings on the personal properties of the persons. For Henry, the divine essence is something similar to “quasi matter”.

What motivates Henry to conceive to the divine essence as quasi matter is an attempt to avoid the view that the Son is created.

By making this moving it allows Henry to say that the Son is made from this divine substance, as opposed to the Son being created from nothing. Again referring to the first chapter of the Gospel of John, which affirms that through the Son all things were created, clearly something can not be its own creator, so Henry is motivated to avoid the view that the Son is created. So Henry turned to the divine essence to function as this substance from which the Son was made. According to Richard Cross, Henry thought of the divine essence as a kind of “substrate of the persons”, and in greater detail, “The essence is like a material constituent of an object that is non-identical with is constituent, and the non-identity is ground in a difference of form…between the constituent and the object constituted.”

This is to say that the divine essence functions something like an underlying substance in each of the persons, each person constituted both by this underlying substance and what Cross calls a “relevant form” or personal property. This bears true for each of the Trinitarian persons. So Henry affirms that a single and same essence (which is his understanding of the divine essence) can “constitute three distinct persons.”


So to summarize what I have up to this point, Henry believes that the Son is generated by means of intellectual production from the Father. By this the Son is distinguished from the Holy Spirit, who emanates voluntarily, from the Father and the Son. All three of these divine persons are constituted by a single essence, the divine essence, and a particular property. Now I have already begun to speak, at least at it pertains to the Franciscan view, what the personal properties are. Yet in order to understand this more completely, it is necessary to engage them further. In his major work, Summa Quaestionum Ordinarium, under Article 56 and 57, Henry addresses the properties of the persons specifically.

Beginning in Question two Article 56, Henry asks the question whether or not there are multiple or many properties in the same divine person. Henry answers this by saying that although there are only three constitutive personal properties in the divinity, “speaking more broadly… it is plain that two are properly in the Father, namely innascibility and generation, and one is commonly in the Father and Son, namely common active spiration.”

This leads Henry directly into his third question of Article 56, whether the properties constitute the persons? In order to answer this Henry seems to draw a distinction between two kinds of forms. Those that actually constitute a person, or in his words, “consist in giving being to a suppositum” and a second kind of form, one that comes “to what is already constituted in being.”

It is this move that allows Henry to claim that certain properties do in fact constitute the persons, while other do not. This can be seen in his following excerpt from Article 56,

Properties of the first sort are simultaneously constitutive and distinctive, and

there are three such properties which are called ‘personal properties’, namely

paternity, filiation, and passive spiration, as Richard [of St. Victor] says in De 

Trinitate book four chapter seventeen: ‘a personal property is that form which

each thing has being in that which it is, by which any one thing exists, and is

discrete from every other.’ And also in chapter eighteen” ‘And so in the divinity,

a person is nothing other than an incommunicable existing thing, having super-

substantial being from a personal property.’… A property of the second sort is

common active spiration, which is not constitutive of a person although it does distinguish two from three.



In this excerpt the first sort of property is the same as the first sort referred to earlier, namely a property that constitutes a person. The second sort is, as Henry clearly says, not constitutive of person yet nonetheless a property of that person. Now in the final question of Article 56 Henry asks whether a property with the essence constitute a person? To this Henry replies that yes, there are two things in every person, “a common nature by which something exists, and the other of which is a property by which something subsists.”

Again, this is to say that each of the divine persons is constituted by the divine essence and an incommunicable personal property. The personal property of the Father being paternity, the Son filiation, and the Holy Spirit active spiration. From here Henry turns his attention the properties themselves, and in particular the properties of the Father, which he discusses in the very next Article of his Summa, Article 57.

Henry begins with the question, whether being ungenerated is a property of the Father? To which Henry ultimately concludes that it is. Henry takes the proposition, “The Father is ungenerated,” to be a negation that can be reduced to “he has the divine essence from himself and not another.”

So, Henry concludes that this statement contains both a positive and negative claim. The positive claim is that the Father is self-sufficient, and the negative that he has nothing from another.

As I have already stated however, Henry has affirmed paternity as the constitutive property of the Father. So the question arises, is this a different property? Remember in Article 56 Henry has already concluded that it is indeed possible for there to be more than one property in the same divine person. Now having claimed that the Father has both the property of being ungenerated and also the property of paternity, Henry asks whether being ungenerated is a property other than paternity? In response to this Henry relies heavily on what he has already stated about the nature of the proposition, “The Father is ungenerated.”

It should be said, therefore, that one property of the Father is being

ungenerated, and another is paternity, since paternity is a property by

which he is Father and by which he has a positive reference to that one

who is from him, and being ungenerated is a property by which he has

a negative reference toward which he is not, according to the way it was

explained above. And so each property is the basis of dignity in the Father,

as has been said.



So it is clear that Henry affirms that in the Father there are two properties, being ungenerated and paternity. But this affirmation raises the question which is prior? Now given that the Father, along with the two other persons of the Trinity are eternal, neither property can be truly prior. Yet Henry does ask the question, whether being ungenerated is prior by reason to paternity? In regards to this question Henry thinks that there are roughly two ways to consider it. The second way, which yields the best chance of results, consists on considering the question on the basis of the subject matter which in this case is the deity.

When said of the Father, “being not from another,” Henry believes this entails the reverse. Namely that this statement posits “from whom there is another.”

So Henry says “not from another” which could be thought of as “being ungenerated” mutually posits “from another” with could be said in “paternity”.

So it appears that although, like I said previously, neither property can be said to be properly prior, the property of paternity is logically prior to being ungenerated.

So now that Henry has affirmed two properties in the Father, and granted logical priority to paternity it remains to be asked whether being ungenerated is a constitutive property of the Father? Henry takes up this question in the final section of Article 57.

Referring back to the logical priority of paternity, Henry argues that being ungenerated is not a constitutive property of the person. The reason for this being that paternity has been granted logical priority and considered “first” so Henry believes that paternity “necessarily is constitutive of the person, otherwise, then, this [paternity] would not be a property of the person but of the divine essence.”

In defense of his position Henry cites both Praepositinus and St. Augustine as being in agreement with him. This point in the paper seems like an appropriate place to momentarily return to the beginning and point out a significant place of distinction between the Dominican and Franciscan models of the Trinity. It should be clear at this point, that Henry claims “that the Father is the Father because he generates.”

This is in good keeping with the Franciscan trinitarian tradition. The significant point of difference for the Dominican tradition, who hold that the Father generates because he is the Father. So in conclusion of these two Articles in Henry’s Summa Henry examines the nature of personal properties and the personal properties of specifically the Father.

Now that a short summary of Henry’s work on the Trinity has been offered something should be said in regard to its theological orthodoxy. Indeed perhaps the most important question that could be asked of any Trinitarian model is, can it stand the weight of orthodoxy? The main point to consider here is does the model offer real distinction between the persons of the Trinity without resulting in tritheism? It is my belief that Henry’s model does this. Each one the divine persons of the Trinity is truly distinct from both others on the basis of their respective personal properties. In this paper I focused primarily on the properties of the Father, such discussion should have been sufficient to articulate how it is that the Father it truly distinct from the Son and the Holy Spirit. Henry has offered a model containing real distinction, as opposed to some version of modalism and the like. But what of the unity of the Trinity? Has Henry done a sufficient job describing the unity of the members such that his model does not result in tritheism? Again, it is my belief that he has done so. Although the bulk of this paper was spent on the distinction between the persons, Henry does has sufficient grounds for Christians to continue to claim monotheism. Each of the divine persons is constituted in part by the divine essence, the Father receiving the divine essence “not from another” but having the property of being ungenerated. The Son receives the divine essence from the Father, being generated by him. Finally the Holy Spirit receives the divine essence from both the Father and the Son. Thus there is but one substance and essence shared between three persons. This seems sufficient for claiming monotheism on the grounds that there is one single communicable divine essence that which all the persons share.

In conclusion it is my opinion that Henry of Ghent a tenable model for the Christian Trinity. His model offers sufficient explanation of both the oneness of the Trinity, as well as the distinctive three persons through his usage of the divine essence and personal properties. Christians seeking to understand or study the Trinity should consider Henry a viable place to start or to include in their search for understanding. Henry’s model is able to bear the weight of Reason (though perhaps more work must be done to demonstrate this), the Creeds, and Scripture.  Consequently his model should be considered a plausible explanation of the Trinity.