A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Appropriation of Blessedness

I have sometimes wondered about the doctrine of God’s blessedness: to which of the persons of the Trinity should this divine attribute be appropriated?

Appropriation is “a process…by which certain absolute divine attributes and operations, which are essentially common to the entire Trinity, are ascribed to one of the Divine Persons in particular, with the purpose of revealing the Hypostatic character of that Person..”1 The main positive rule of its use can be stated as requiring that “between the Hypostatic character of the Divine Person to whom an attribute is appropriated, and that attribute itself, there must exist some special intrinsic relationship.”2 Among the negative rules governing it are warnings that nothing appropriated can ever be treated as exclusively belonging to a single person of the Trinity, or even of belonging to that person to a greater degree than to others. Appropriation is not about shutting out the other trinitarian persons; it is about using a common attribute to pick out something especially characteristic of one.

Blessedness, the divine attribute of perfect happiness, has puzzled me in this regard. It seems to be instructively similar to the Father’s “Hypostatic character” as the fountain of fullness. To recognize the Father’s fontal plenitude, which he has as the principle of the Son and the Spirit, is to glimpse the life of God as a fullness of joy founded in the Father. On the other hand, there is a strong case for appropriating blessedness to the Holy Spirit, who, as the third person in the trinitarian taxis, equally the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son, has the hypostatic character of completion or fulfilment. To recognize the Spirit as the fullness of blessedness is to gain further insight into his telic perfection. I have to admit that the value of appropriating blessedness to the Son has never naturally occurred to me, though I can imagine reflecting on how the delight of the Father (well pleased in the beloved Son) and the complacence of the Spirit (resting and abiding on the Son) both seem to terminate on the second person. To see the Son as the converging point of all divine joy is to glimpse something of his personal preciousness.

But surely, by the time we’ve considered how blessedness aligns with each of the three persons, we’ve defeated the point of theological reasoning by appropriation. It has seemed to me that one of these answers must be righter, even if the others aren’t wrong.

To the rescue comes Thomas Aquinas, in an important passage not from the Summa Theologiae, but from the Disputed Questions on Truth. He is investigating a complicated question about what the biblical phrase “book of life” means, when he makes this observation about appropriation:

There is no inconsistency in something being appropriated to different persons if this is done under different formalities [ratione]. For example, the gift of wisdom is appropriated to the Holy Spirit in so far as it is a gift, because love is the reason for all gifts, but it is also appropriated to the Son in so far as it is wisdom. Similarly, memory is appropriated to the Father in so far as it is a principle of understanding; but, in so far as it is a power of knowing, it is appropriated to the Son.

This is helpful. I admit there still lingers some suspicion that, with enough ingenuity, any common attribute could be assigned by appropriation to any person. But the ingenuity would have to be exercised by way of reflection on the already-known hypostatic distinctives of each person. In this case, the invitation to ponder which person is best to appropriate blessedness to, is an invitation to reflect on how such a divine attribute is from the Father, though the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. And that kind of careful contemplation of the hypostatic character of the three persons, in their constant relation to each other, is the point of trinitarian theology anyway.


1Pohle-Preuss, The Divine Trinity: A Dogmatic Treatise by Joseph Pohle, adapted and edited by Arthur Preuss (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1930), p. 244. It’s a fine, clear definition, but I would not use the word “reveal” in this context. Pohle-Preuss footnotes Summa Theologiae Ia Q39, art. 7, and would have done better to follow more closely Thomas’ preference in using the word “manifest” for the way appropriation conveys knowledge. It seems to me that we can hardly speak of God revealing himself by way of trinitarian appropriation. Appropriation is rather the faithful discernment of a correlation between two sets of revelata.

2Pohle-Preuss, 245.

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Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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