Each is identified based on their relationship to one another.
The question on the role of the divine Persons – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – is a complex one. In an attempt to get a clearer picture, let’s begin by presenting the two obviously erroneous views known to us from the history of the Church.
The first of these errors posited that there is no specific role or operative mode that can be attributed to any one divine Person in particular: the triune action being solely the work of the three in common. In other words, the distinction between the divine Persons concerns how they relate to one another, but not their action. This theory promoted an important aspect of the triune effort: the three persons of the Trinity being the common source of their actions, on the account of the divine nature they all share. This view tried to play up the divine Oneness, at the peril of overlooking the unique properties of each divine Person of the Trinity.
On the other hand, there were also those who promoted a different theory: each of the divine Persons operates on our behalf in a quasi-exclusive manner. So, charity comes from the Holy Spirit, as if it didn’t also come from the Father and the Son. What this error focused on were the individual properties of each divine Person, at the peril of neglecting the unity of the Trinity. So, what can we say to provide a clear answer on the role of the divine Persons?
The answer hidden in the appropriation doctrine
We must keep in mind that the action of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is always one and the same. Each act of God is the work of Trinity as a whole. So, we cannot attribute a property or an action to one specific divine person alone. But to this, we must immediately add that the way the divine persons operate depends on how one of them relates to the others: the Father to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, and vice-versa. So, in the Trinity, the Father is the One who loves – the source and the beginning of all things; the Son is the beloved and the Holy Spirit is their love for one another. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stipulates: “… each divine person performs the common work according to his unique personal property” (§258).
To (somewhat) address this mystery, the Church has conceived of the so-called “appropriation” doctrine. By appropriation here we mean “a theological process by which an essential aspect of the Trinity – common to all three divine Persons – is specifically attributed to one of them,” explains the Dominican Gilles Emery. For example, the Creation is attributed to the Father, the Redemption to the Son, and the sanctification to the Holy Spirit; the omnipotence to the Father, the wisdom to the Son and the goodness with love to the Holy Spirit.
So, appropriation is a way of attributing to one Person of the Trinity what all three of them do in common. So, if the Father is the Creator, He creates with the Word, that is, with the Son, and in Love, which is the Spirit.
The doctrine of appropriation is a way of demonstrating each of the individual properties of divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is there to help us learn more about this great mystery: One God in three Persons.
Father Nicolas Buttet