Trinitarian Processions

This paper summarizes Catholic teaching on the procession of the Son from the Father, and of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son.

Given that the Son and the Holy Ghost are consubstantial with the Father, that is, of the same substance and numerical nature as the First Person, the question arises: “If they are not created, where do they come from?”[1] The answer is that the origin or principle of each of these divine Persons comes by way of two internal[2] processions. That is, each of them comes forth[3] by an immanent act of the Divine Trinity. The word “procession” is the scriptural term for this reality, for Jesus says, concerning his own procession from the Father: “If God were your Father, you would indeed love me. For from God I proceeded, and came; for I came not of myself, but he sent me” (Jn. 8:42). Elsewhere, Our Lord calls the Paraclete, the “the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father” (Jn 15:26).

As there is no “before” or “after” in the Divine Trinity (all Three are coeternal), the processions themselves are eternal. Thus, the Nicene Creed says that Jesus Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all time.” Any reference to “origin,” “first” or any similar language of primacy or principle must, therefore, be purged of all notions of time. The only primacy that can be thought of in the Trinity is a primacy of origin.

Before describing the two processions, we should consider the one Person who has absolute primacy of origin because he does not proceed from any other, namely, the Father. The Athanasian Creed tells us: “The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.” From him proceed the other two Persons. For this reason, he is rightly called the First Person, not chronologically first, but ontologically first by way of origin.[4] He is also called the “principle without principle.”[5]

The proper name of the First Person in Scripture is “Father.” Jesus calls him “my Father” (Mt. 7:21 and many other places). Our Lord’s enemies accused him of blasphemy because “he said God was his Father, making himself equal to God”[6] (Jn. 5:18).

The first procession has the proper name of “generation,” which “Theologians define… as the origin of a living being from a living principle of the same nature.”[7] The Nicene Creed says that Christ is “begotten (genitum), not made,” and the Athanasian Creed, that “The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten (genitus).” This begetting is not a metaphorical generation, but a true and proper one which is analogous to human generation. The Second Person is, for this reason, called in strict truth, “the Son.” This was prophesied in the Old Testament (Ps. 2:7), as St. Paul observes in Hebrews (1:5) and in his preaching in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:33): “Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.” In the New Testament, the Father himself calls Jesus his “beloved son” both at the Baptism (Mt. 3:17) and the Transfiguration (Lk. 9:35).

Jesus’ divine sonship is not the same as ours. When someone is baptized, he becomes a “son of God,” but this is an adoptive sonship, one by grace. The Second Person is God’s Son by nature. Our divine adoption is entirely dependant on his natural sonship. This is why St. Paul could say, “For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).

The Son’s generation is of an entirely spiritual nature. The Son proceeds from the Father as his thought, his understanding, his adequate and necessary[8] self-knowledge. Because he proceeds by way of intellection, he is called, especially in the Johanine corpus, the “Word” (Logos, Verbum). Now a word is produced by an intellect or a mind. This is true even of human words, which, before they are ever spoken or written, are mental concepts or ideas in the mind. The Catechism of the Council of Trent explains that “as our mind, in some sort understanding itself, forms an image of itself, which theologians express by the term word, so God, as far as we may compare human things to divine, understanding Himself, begets the eternal Word.”[9]

St. Thomas posits that “Word” is the Son’s proper name in that it identifies his unique manner of procession.[10] In so arguing, the Master of Aquino draws a strict identity of meaning between the two names, “Son” and “Word”: “For it [Word] signifies an emanation of the intellect: and the person Who proceeds in God, by way of emanation of the intellect, is called the Son; and this procession is called generation.”[11]

There are two other names given to the Son which connote a generation of intellection or thought. The first of these is “Wisdom.” In the Old Testament wisdom literature, the word is used as a personification of God’s Wisdom (see Wis. 8; Prov. 8, Ecclus. 24). In the New Testament, it is applied to Our Lord, e.g., in 1 Cor. 1:24, where St. Paul calls Christ, “the wisdom of God.”

The second of these two names is “Image.” St. Paul calls Our Lord, “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) and also “the figure of his substance” (Heb. 1:15). St. Augustine affirms that Image is a personal name for Our Lord: “The Son alone is the Image of the Father.”[12] This is so because “image” expresses a relation between the image and the thing imaged. Now, in God such a relation of opposition can only exist between persons. Therefore, the Image must be a Person. Further, since Scripture assigns this name to the Son, and since image expresses not only the generic notion of procession, but also the specific notion of intellective generation or cognition, this name is proper to the Son.

St. Thomas explains why the generation of the Son is the first Trinitarian procession: “Divine processions must take place according to the immanent operations proper to a spiritual nature. But the first operation of this kind is intellection. Ergo, the first procession in God is by the intellect.”[13] From this, it follows logically that the second of the two processions will be of the will, therefore we proceed to treat of the spiration of the Holy Ghost, which is the volitional procession in the Blessed Trinity.

The Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son as one principle. The Athanasian Creed tells us “The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.”

That the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son is clear from Scripture, as we shall show, but the precise manner of this procession is not so clearly established in the Bible as is that of the Son. For this reason, we rely on the common opinion of such great theologians as St. Augustine and St. Thomas, who conclude that the Holy Spirit proceeds as the breath of love between the Father and the Son. The Catechism of the Council of Trent indicates the volitional nature of this procession: “the Holy Ghost proceeds from the divine will, inflamed, as it were, with love.”[14] The Holy Spirit is, in fact, Substantial Charity. It is for this reason that those things which particularly manifest God’s love for us (e.g., the Incarnation, sanctification, the gifts) are appropriated to the Third Person. It is also for this reason that he is called “Gift” and “Kiss of Love,” for both connote a manifestation of charity.

Because the Third Person is called Pneuma, which can be translated as spirit, breath, or wind, the name for his personal procession is “spiration.” Among other magisterial texts, the Fourth Council of Lyons, which we shall cite presently, gave it this name. It should be noted in this regard that the procession of the Holy Spirit is not a generation, as the Athanasian Creed expressly teaches, for the Logos is the “only begotten.”

That the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father is clara scriptura: “But when the Paraclete cometh, whom I will send you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceedeth from the Father, he shall give testimony of me” (Jn. 15:26). The Holy Ghost is called the “Spirit of the Father” in Mt. 3:16, 10:20, Rom 8:9 and I Cor. 2:12. The Creed of the Council of Nicea also affirms this procession from the Father. While the Paraclete’s procession from the son is not as plainly stated in Holy Scripture, it nonetheless can be inferred readily from his being called the “Spirit of the Son” (or “of the Lord Jesus”) in Acts 5:9 and 16:17, II Cor. 3:17f., Gal. 4:6, Phil. 1:19, and Rom. 8:9-11.

That the Holy Spirit proceeds also from the Son is a point of no small controversy. The Greek schismatics, at the time of Photius (ca. 870), used it as the excuse for their separation from Rome. The famous filioque (“and the son”) which was first added to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in Spain sometime around the year 800, was the convenient causa belli. St. Thomas points out that the Greek opposition on this point “seems to come from ignorance or obstinacy,” since “the Greeks themselves recognize that the procession of the Holy Ghost has some order to the Son. For they grant that the Holy Ghost is the Spirit ‘of the Son’; and that he is from the Father ‘through the Son.’ Some of them are said also to concede that ‘He is from the Son’; or that ‘He flows from the Son…'”[15]

The filioque was thus defined by the Fourth Council of Lyons: “We confess that the Holy Ghost proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son, not as from two principles, but as from one principle, not by two spirations, but by one single spiration.”[16] A similar definition is found in the Council of Florence, which, like Lyons IV, was a union council effecting a lamentably short-lived union between the Greeks and the Latins.

With great precision, the Council highlights the singleness of the spriation in response to the Greek polemicists present at Lyons: it is not one procession from the Father and another from the Son (which would result in the absurdity of four persons). St. Thomas is so careful on this point that he prefers to call the Father and Son “two spirating,” not “two spirators.”[17] The unity of procession can be inferred, along with the filioque itself, from the scriptural passages cited three paragraphs supra: the one same Spirit is called both “of the Father” and “of the Son.” He is, therefore, breathed (spirated) from both together.

Father Baker sums up one theological argument for why the procession should come from the Father and the Son: “Everything the Father has he communicates to the Son, except being Father (paternity). But it belongs to the Father that the Holy Spirit proceeds from him. Ergo, he also communicates that to the Son. Ergo, the Holy Spirit also proceeds from the Son.”[18]

Another argument is this: The order of missions in time follows the order of processions in eternity. All would admit that, as the Father generates the Son in eternity, so he sends him in time. But the same is true of the Holy Ghost, for his mission in time is from the Father (Jn. 14:16: “I will ask the Father, and he shall give you another Paraclete”) and from the Son (Jn 15:26: “But when the Paraclete cometh, whom I will send you from the Father” and Jn. 16:7: “if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you”). Therefore, his procession in eternity is from both.

Another passage seems to point literally both to the procession[19] and the mission of the Holy Ghost: “He shall glorify me; because he shall receive of mine, and shall shew it to you” (Jn. 16:14).


St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 2003. Online, available at: [accessed 6 June 2006].

The Catechism of the Council of Trent. Issued by order of Pope Pius V. Online Edition: James Akin, 1996, Online, available at: master/trent/tindex.htm [accessed 7 June 2006].

[1] DVD of Lecture Six, “Two Processions and Three Persons.”

[2] This is as distinguished from an external procession, that is a coming forth of one substance from another. In an internal procession, that which proceeds is of the same substance as its principle.

[3] To proceed = to come forth.

[4] So, too, the Second and Third Persons are properly referred to as such – by way of origin, not time or subordination.

[5] The Son is also a principle (of the Holy Ghost), but the Second Person is not “without principle,” because he comes from the Father.

[6] Their theological inference regarding the ramifications of Our Lord’s claim was correct (and in this, they were better than Arius), while their conclusion could not be more wrong.

[7] Class notes, Lesson Seven, “Two Processions & Three Persons,”

[8] He is necessary because he is of the very substance of the Father, therefore consubstantial with the “Necessary Being,” whose very essence is to exist. He is not a being freely created.

[9] Online Edition:

[10] It is only by relation of origin that the Persons are differentiated from one another, therefore such a determination of the procession (“Word”) must be a personal, proper name.

[11] Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 34, A. 2.

[12] De Trinitate vi. 2., cited in the Summa, Ia Q. 35, A. 2.

[13] Summarized by Father Baker in the class notes: Lecture Seven, “Intellectual Generation of the Son,”

[14] Online Edition:

[15] Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 36, A. 2.

[16] Denz. 460.

[17] Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 36, A. 4.

[18] Lesson Eight: Spiration of the Holy Spirit,

[19] St. Thomas applies it to the procession, Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 36, A. 2, ad 1.