Nature and Person


June 14, 2014 by lucieromarin

Jokes abound about how agonising it is to have to preach on Trinity Sunday. One priest told the story of a friend of his, who slaved over his sermon, only to overhear one elderly woman saying to another after Mass, “Well, I don’t care what Father says; I still believe in the Trinity.” Another always prefaced his Trinity Sunday sermon with the words, “It’s really hard to preach on this topic without accidentally falling into heresy.” Yet another priest I knew simply gave up trying, and just read the Athanasian creed to us on this day each year. Tonight, the preacher began with the words, “Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about any complex, detailed theology tonight.”

It’s true that most people could get by without knowing the difference between ‘generation’ and ‘spiration,’ but I can’t help thinking that Trinity Sunday is the ideal time to talk about the distinction between natures and persons.

So. We can ask two questions about a thing. We can ask, “What is it?” or we can ask, “Who is it?” The ‘what’ is the nature and the ‘who’ is the person.

We all know that everything is a ‘what’ but not everything is a ‘who.’

In fact, we know it even when we don’t know that we know it. You might have no working definitions of ‘nature’ and ‘person’ on the tip of your tongue, but you will never look at a great big chocolate cake and ask, “Who is that?” Likewise, if you hear the phone ring, you’re unlikely to ask, “What’s there?” You will only ask ‘Who?’ when you suspect or are certain of the presence of a spiritual soul.

Why? That is because, while the nature is ‘that which makes a thing be such,’  the person is an intellectual owner of a nature. Thus, a person says, “I am an angel” or “I am a man.’ ‘Angel’ and ‘man’ are the natures, but ‘I,’ the owner of the complete package, am the person.

Other definitions of ‘person’ include the following: ‘owner and exerciser of be,’‘complete substance of intellectual nature,’ and ‘intellectual supposit residing in a nature.’ You can see that, despite their various nuances, they all convey the same point, and they are the reason why no one ever says “Who are you?” to a cardboard box.

The Blessed Trinity is not three natures and one nature at the same time. It’s also not three persons and one person at the same time. In God, there is only one divine nature. There is only one answer to the question, “What is that?” But there are three owners of that Divinity; there are three answers to the question, “Who are you?”

There are not three parts to God; the three persons don’t own one third of the nature each. They each own the entire Divine nature. How they do that is a mystery.

Meanwhile, when clearing out my books I discovered an old attempt to arrange Thomistic definitions into some kind of alphabetical order. Presumably I was going to make a dictionary. Here’s some for you:

Organ, natural: heterogeneous part of some operative whole, which is substantially one, having a special operation, and through which the whole exercises that operation, and so disposed that its operation concurs to the good of the whole.

Generation: Origin of a living (being) from a conjoined living principle unto similitude of nature.

Growth: intrinsic quality of life ordered towards the increase of something unto a specific limit.

I don’t know why (being) is in brackets!

2 thoughts on “Nature and Person

  1. Charlie's sister says:

    We had a German priest delivering the sermon on the Trinity this year. He tried to explain the concept using a grammar analogy, which for some reason I found endearingly German of him. It got messy fairly quickly. I’m a grammar nerd so I kind of saw where he was going with it, but after ten minutes’ talk of subjects, objects and predicates, you could see that most of the congregation were thinking about lunch.

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