BITE-SIZE THEOLOGY (44) – What makes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit different from one another?

– Rev José Mario O Mandía


We have studied how the Son proceeds from the Father, and how the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. We may ask: in what way, therefore, are the three Persons different from one another?

To answer this question, it is important to recall what we have said in Bite-Size Theology no 42 about the philosophical terms that theology has adopted in order to help us deepen our understanding of our faith. Let us quote once more CCC 252:

“The Church uses (I) the term ‘substance’ (rendered also at times by ‘essence’ or ‘nature’) to designate the divine being in its unity, (II) the term ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’ to designate the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the real distinction among them, and (III) the term ‘relation’ to designate the fact that their distinction lies in the relationship of each to the others.”

There are two processions in God, that of knowledge and love. Sacred Theology also uses other terms to designate these two processions: generation and spiration. Both terms are inspired by Scripture. Generation is the procession of the Son from the Father: the Father generates the Son. Spiration is the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. Why is it called “spiration?”

In the Bible, the Holy Spirit is referred to as “ruah/ruach” (Hebrew for “breath”):  Ruach Elohim (Spirit of God), Ruach YHWH (Spirit of Yahweh), Ruach Hakmah (Spirit of Wisdom). In Latin, ruah/ruach is translated as spiritus (“Spirit” in English). This is why the procession of the Holy Spirit is called “spiratio” (“spiration”) (cf Summa Theologiae I q28, a4; q36, a1).

From these two processions arise four relations: fatherhood (paternity), sonship (filiation), active spiration, passive spiration. From generation arises the relations of filiation and fatherhood. From spiration arises the relations of active spiration (Saint Thomas calls this simply “spiration” – Summa Theologiae I q28, a4) and passive spiration (Saint Thomas calls this “procession”). Let us examine these four relations.

(1) Fatherhood distinguishes the Father from both the Son and the Holy Spirit;

(2) Sonship distinguishes the Son from both the Father and the Holy Spirit;

(3) Passive spiration distinguishes the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son. These three relations are “opposite relations” (Summa Theologiae I q28, a4; q36, a2).

(4) Active spiration distinguishes both the Father and the Son from the Holy Spirit, but it does not distinguish the Father from the Son.


Only three of the four relations are opposite relations: Fatherhood, Sonship, Passive Spiration. There are as many Persons in God as there are opposite relations. The opposite relations are what distinguish the Persons from one another.

Thus, the CCC (no 255) states: “The divine persons are relative to one another. Because it does not divide the divine unity, the real distinction of the persons from one another resides solely in the relationships which relate them to one another: ‘In the relational names of the persons the Father is related to the Son, the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to both [11th Council of Toledo (675). Symbolum] … Indeed ‘everything (in them) is one where there is no opposition of relationship’ [Council of Florence (1442)]. ‘Because of that unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit is wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son’ [Council of Florence (1442)].”

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