John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith

May 13, 2015

I read through Damascene’s On the Orthodox Faith in 2009.  At the time I had hyper-Palamite lenses on and really didn’t let Damascene speak for himself.  I am rereading him now, years and paradigms later.  He’s really quite interesting.  Contrary to the neo-Palamite Orthodox today, he isn’t afraid of “rationality” or using proofs for God’s existence.  In fact, he sounds VERY Aristotelian.  To be fair, he does anticipate later Orthodox mysticism by calling God “hyper-ousia” (I.4).

Existence and Nature of God

He does use Scripture and does allude to the Fathers, but the main thrust of his argument is natural theology. His argument for God’s existence is as follows:

(1) All things that exist are either created or uncreated. 

(2) If created, then mutable and subject to change and perishing

(3) But things that are created must be the work of some Maker

Damascene anticipates the infinite regress rebuttal and handles it in an amusing (if not entirely convincing manner)

(4) “For if he had been created, he must have been created by someone, and so on until we arrive at something uncreated.”

Perhaps not the most persuasive argument, but historically it is very telling.  The holy fathers were not averse to using “logic,” even logic apart from Scriptural and Patristic considerations, to prove points about God.

Damascene follows standard Patristic and classical usage in that the nature of God is incomprehensible.

(5) His essence is unknowable

How then can we speak about God?  In what sounds like a later Palamite move, John says, “God does not show forth his nature, but the qualities of his nature” (1.4).  Is this the same thing as saying “We can’t know God’s nature but only his energies”?  Not quite.  John does not use any of the cognates of energein.

A note on apophaticism

If we say, as John does, that God is not “darkness,” but above darkness.  Not light, but above light–why can’t we carry it through and say “God is not love, but above love.”  God is not a, b…z.  If God is above every reference point, then how can we truly predicate anything of him?  We are no longer using analogous language but equivocal language.

Pre-Notes on the Word

He doesn’t deal with Christology until Book 3 but he gives short comments here. 

(6) God always possesses his Word, proceeding from and existing within Himself (I.6).

John reasons analogously from our words proceeding from our minds, and is not identical with mind but not separate from it, so the Word has its subsistence from God.  Probably not the best analogy in the world.I find it ironic that we are always warned against Theistic Analogies, but John and Augustine go haywire on them.

(7) If a Word, then the force of the Word, which is the Spirit (1.7).

God and Being

(8) God is outside of being, yet the fountain of all being (I.8).

Along with this John gives the classic summary that God is one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, and one energy. John then gives a classic summary of the Trinity, but I want to highlight one point:

(9) “Whenever we say God is the origin of and greater than the Son, we mean in respect of causation.”

Here is the problem: Isn’t a cause different in substance to an effect?

Back to Divine Attributes

(5*) Goodness et al belong to the nature but do not explain it.

What does that even mean? 

(5′) We do not apprehend the essence itself, but only the attributes of the essence.

Will this hold water? Later thinkers, with echoes from Athanasius, identify attributes and essence.  If we apprehend the attributes, how are we not apprehending the essence also?

Angelic Personalities

(10) Angels are not spatial entities, but a mental presence and energy.

This is quite interesting and is backed up by numerous accounts of spiritual warfare.  An angel cannot be in more than one place at one time (“cannot energize two different places at the same time”).

Concerning this Aeon or Age

John notes that “age” has many meanings (II.1).

(11) An age is used to denote the temporal motion and interval that is co-extensive with eternity.


John has a really interesting section on angels.  It’s too long to replicate here, except to note several points:

(12) Angels are immaterial, mental presences. He notes some are set over nations, and ceterus paribus, this would apply to demons as well (though John fails to cite the most obvious texts to prove his point, Daniel and Revelation).

Days of Creation

John’s discussion of the days of creation is more on the nature of air, winds, constellations et al than concerning timing.  Interestingly, John says the four rivers are Tigris, Euphrates, the Nile, and the Ganges (I didn’t see that last one coming, though I suppose it could work).

Man in Creation

John’s view is markedly different from later views and apparently from the text.  He writes, “He meant for us to be free from care and have on work to perform, to sing as do the angels” (II.11).  This is no doubt true, and I suppose we wouldn’t have anxiety, but God very much intended us to subdue the earth and fill it.

God dwells in the soul, not in the body, and the soul is far more glorious than the body.  To be fair, this isn’t gnosticism or even chain of being, but a hard push can make it so.  However, he does speak of the Tree of life as “a divine thought in the world of sense and we ascend through that to the cause.  Here is the heart and definition of later monastic anchoretism.  The Christian life is one of participation and ascent from sense to hyper-ousia.

John correctly affirms substance-dualism (II.12).  Unfortunately, he holds to the flawed image/likeness dichotomy which can’t stand up to scrutiny.

Free will:  John affirms it, but what does he mean by it?  He says “there is no virtue in mere force,” which seems to be a rejection of materialistic determinism, which no Christian tradition holds today.

On the Soul

While John takes the body-soul dualism in an unhealthy direction, he does have some perceptive remarks on the soul:

  1. Mind is the purest part of the soul.
  2. The soul is free.  (Remember, R.L. Dabney argued that the soul, not the faculty of will was where true freedom lay).
  3. It is mutable because it is created (II.12).
  4. Sensation is the faculty of soul whereby material objects are discriminated (II.18).  This is a remarkably modern observation.  Sensation is not reducible to the matter.  We do not feel the faculty of sensation.  Rather, by sensation we feel pain, pleasure, etc. John reduces sensations into numerous sub-faculties, which need not detain us.
  5. The soul also has the faculty of thought, and it is this faculty which prophecies to us.
  6. Faculty of memory.
  7. Faculty of conception.

Energy:  energy is that which is moved of itself (II.22) and in harmony with nature. .  Our energy is the force within our nature that makes present our essence (II.23).  However, John will call our natural faculties “energies,” as well.  Most importantly, an energy is moved of itself (and here is where the Reformed will ultimately differ with John).  

Our soul also possesses the faculties of life:  

The Movement of the Will

Given that Maximus the Confessor was tortured less than a century earlier for his dyotheletism, it is understandable John will devote a lot of space on the will.   Here we go:

  1. Will as thelesis: faculty of desiring in harmony with nature.
  2. Will as boulesis: a wish for some definite object.  We can only wish for something within our power.
  3. Will as gnome: inclination.  Jesus’s soul did not have a gnomic will
  4. The faculties of will are called energies (II.23).

Jesus has two wills, natural and divine, and his volitional faculties aren’t the same.  However, since the subsistence is one, the object of his will, the gnomic will, is one.

The Act of Choosing

(13) A voluntary act is one which originates from within the actor (II.24).  

John does make distinctions between providential necessity (seasons, laws of nature)

(13*) John says all mental and deliberative acts are in our hands.

This is no different from Reformed Scholasticism, which affirms that we have freedom of contradiction and freedom of contraiety (Muller 1995, 2007)..  

Side note: Elsewhere, John says that Christ, strictly speaking, did not have judgment and preference (gnome; III.14). Judgment and preference imply indecision and unknowing, which Christ, as fully God, could not have had. 

(14) Free-will is tied with man’s rationality (II.27)

If we are going to say, with John, that will is the faculty of willing, we must make a further distinction between that faculty and “choice” (arbitrium), arbitrium being the capacity of will to make that choice.  


John divides the works of providence into things that come from God’s will and God’s permission.  John justifies the misfortunes men experience under providence with the assumption that it works for a greater good (teaching, lead to repentance, etc).  


God knows all things but does not determine all things (II.30).


Much of what John says on the soul and the will is quite good.  This allows the Reformed an opportunity to robustly affirm what we believe about the will, given the confusion of the day. I do think his sub-categories of the will simply become unwieldy and his discussion is too minute.  

John is simply following Maximus, but I wonder how coherent Maximus’s discussion of dyotheletism is.  I affirm dyotheletism, but how many people can understand the difference between will, act of willing, and a mode of the act of willing?  


The Divine Economy

Gives an extended discussion of the two natures.  Standard classical Christology

(15) “But this is what leads heretics astray: they look upon nature and person as the same thing” (III.3)

Communicatio Idiomata

(16) “The Word appropriates to Himself the attributes of humanity” (III.3)

This is good Reformed Christology…so far.  The attributes of humanity are predicated, not of the divine nature but of the Person.

(16*) … “And he imparts to the flesh his own attributes by way of communication”

And here John sounds like a Lutheran.  The flesh receives the attributes of deity.  John wants to preserve several values:

(16a) The flesh is deified (which as to be the case if his teaching on the Lord’s Supper holds water).
(16b) Divine impassibility is not threatened (which is why the communication appears to be a one-way street).

Does John elucidate upon this problem?  

(17) Essence signifies the common, subsistence (person) the particular (III.4).

This lets John say in III.3 that the flesh receives the Word’s attributes while in III.4 he can claim that the flesh doesn’t receive the properties of divinity.

(18) Conclusion: “Each nature gives to the other its own properties through the identity of the Person and the interpenetration of the parts with one another.”

How are they united?

(19) The Word of God was united to flesh through the medium of mind, which stands midway between purity of God and grossness of flesh (III.6).

(See Bruce McCormack’s lecture on Patristic Christology where he deals with this passage).   Does this work?  It seems like “mind” is acting as a metaphysical placeholder between the two natures.  “The mind is the purest part of the soul, and God the purest part of the mind.”  It looks like this:

(gross matter) body—-> soul——>mind ——> better part of soul—>God (Pure Spirit)


“And so the Word was made flesh and yet remained wholly uncircumscribed” (III.7)

John comes back to the question of communication and sounds a Lutheran strain:

(18*) “It [The Divine Nature] imparts to the flesh its own peculiar glories”

Make of it what you will.

From Christology to Liturgy

John demonstrates that Christology informs our liturgy, and gives a defense of the Trisagion

“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us” (repeat 3x).  The church learned it when a lad was snatched to heaven and taught the hymn by angels, and so the city averted disaster (III.10).  


Energy is the efficient activity of nature (III.15).  Therefore, Christ has two energies.  John says he works his miracles through the divine energy.  This is false.  He works his miracles because of the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Matthew 12:28: “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of god has come upon you.

Acts 10:38: “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and power…”

Luke 4:1, 14, 5:17: “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness…And Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit…and the Power of the Lord was present for him to perform healing.”

(19) The flesh acted as the instrument of the divinity (ibid).

John mentions this in passing, but it is at the heart of Orthodox deification soteriology. What does this mean?  A deified flesh is not one that changed its nature, but received the permeation of the divine nature.  

I think we have a potential contradiction at this point.  John is very clear that Christ’s human nature has a human energy, which is its efficient power.  I have no argument with that.  But if the human energy is what John says it is, then what is its relevance in an instrumental humanity?  If humanity is just the instrument of divinity, then why bother speaking of energy at all?  Further, since the subsistence of the Word does everything, then there is no way to say that the human energy of Christ ever activates.

(19*) The flesh received the riches of the divine energies (III.17).  

What is the upshot of all of this?  John says he was able to cleanse the leper because of his divine will.  Will this hold water?  Maybe.  We’ve already established that Christ did his miracles because of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  However, the text elsewhere speaks of Christ’s power going forth from him.  Further, those engaged in deliverance ministries speak of a heightened sense of Christ’s power after they have fasted.  

(19’) The riches of the divine energies heighten the power by which the Holy Spirit works in the believer.

Can John maintain both impassibility and divine suffering?  Maybe.  He has an interesting argument.  

(20) The soul shares in the pain but is itself not changed by the pain (III.26).

John gives an example:  if I cut myself with a knife, my soul feels the pain but the soul, being simple and immaterial, is not cut by the knife.  This is consistent (at least on the first level) with what John said in (19).  If the soul is the medium between God and man, or God’s nature and man’s nature in Christ, then the divine person can be truly present in the suffering without his immaterial nature undergoing change.

This seems to work, but it opens another question:  if the soul participates in the divine nature, and if there is an open street between them, it’s hard to see how the divine nature isn’t also experiencing perturbations.  

Book IV

Book IV is something along the lines of “soteriology” and the “life of the church.”   

Concerning Baptism:  While John, like most of the fathers, probably holds to baptismal regeneration, it’s interesting he doesn’t take it in extreme directions. He says others who have not had a Trinitarian baptism should be rebaptized (IV.9).  Regeneration takes place in the spirit, not necessarily in the act of baptism (p. 78, col. 2).  John justifies the church’s use of oil in baptism because of Noah and the flood (p. 79 col. 1).

The Power of the Cross

The power of God is the Word of the Cross (p. 80 col. 1).  All of this sounds good but John now moves into dangerous waters:

(21) We ought to worship the sign of the Cross because the honor passes from the image to the prototype.

A warning sticks in my head:  something about not worshiping man-made pesels.  

Further, we should worship towards the East (IV.12). John argues:

(22) Since God is spiritual light, and since the sun rises in the East, we should worship towards the East.

This doesn’t follow–at least not yet.  John refines his argument:

(22*) We are composed of visible and invisible nature.  Therefore, our visible nature corresponds to the physical sun rising and our invisible nature corresponds to God’s being spiritual light.

I’m not convinced.  Perhaps there is one other argument:

(22’) Christ will appear in the East and our worshiping towards the East is a joyful anticipation of his return.

It’s a pious sentiment and I suppose it hearkens us to vigilance, as long as we don’t make it a law.  John acknowledges this tradition is unwritten and he says many apostolic traditions are.  The problem he now faces is proving that tradition x is part of the apostolic tradition.  It simply cannot be done without asserting the consequent (and that one argument is why Orthodox Bridge is terrified of me). 

The Sacraments

(23) The bread and wine are changed into God’s body and blood (p. 83 col. 1).  

John warns us not to ask how.    Nor does he give any argument.  He does deny ex opere operato, for he says it only forgives sins for those who receive it with faith.  John appears to contradict himself:

(23*) The bread of communion is not plain bread but bread united with divinity (p. 83 col. 2 paragraph 3).

If the bread is changed into God’s body (23), then how can it be united with God’s body (23*).  It doesn’t make any sense to say that my body is united with my body.  

(24) The bread (used metonymically for “bread and wine”) is our participation and communion in Christ’s body.  

On Mary

(25) Mary did not have pain in childbirth (p. 86 col 1).

John has to make this claim if the EO view of Mary’s being uncorrupt holds.  To put it crudely, her “lady parts” were not damaged in childbirth, for how could the one who heals corruption (death, physical destruction) cause physical corruption in someone?

Of course, he holds that Mary never had sex with Joseph and that the phrase “first born,” simply means Jesus was born first, not that there were others.   This is strained almost to credulity.  Further, the argument that Mary knew that she gave birth to God and wouldn’t pollute herself with sex won’t work, for Mary often showed ignorance to Jesus’s identity.

Venerating the Saints

John says saints had God dwell in their bodies, and so should be venerated.  But the verse he quotes to prove his point (2 Cor 3:17) simply proves that God dwells in all of the believers.  The only way John’s discussion makes sense is if “saints” refers to departed believers.

Should we venerate their relics?  John says yes and this is his argument:

(26) God did amazing things like springs from the desert and killing people with the jawbone of an ass, so why should we be surprised that God works miracles in the relics of his saints?

This isn’t an argument.  I suppose it’s possible that oil can burst forth from a martyr’s remains, but even if that is true (and I’ll grant for argument that it sometimes happens), how does it follow that we are to bow down and venerate created pesels?  We can rephrase John’s position:

(26*) We should give honor to these heroes.

No one disputes this.


(27) The honor given to the image passes to the prototype (IV.16)

John says the warning in the 2nd Commandment doesn’t apply because it only concerns worshiping false gods (the demons of the Greeks).  Further, God the Father is incorporeal, so he can’t be imaged by art.

This isn’t John’s full argument.  He spells that out in Three Treatises on Divine Images (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press).


He has a good and profitable section on Scripture.


John posits a future Antichrist (IV.26). He is aware of John’s admonition but uses Antichrist as short-hand for the Man of Sin/Beast.  Enoch and Elijah will come and witness against him, which will convert the Jews to Christ.  Much needs to be filled in, but I agree with John. 


2 thoughts on “John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith

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