Thursday, May 26, 2016

John of Damascus on the Trinity - selections from his Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith)

My studies into the Church Fathers began in the early 1980's with my purchase of the Schaff-Roberts 38 volume set. This set begins with the Apostolic Fathers and ends with Second Council of Nicaea in 787 (also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council). Though I have read the entire set, my main focus has been on the period between Justin Martyr and Augustine; supplementing the 38 volumes with hundreds of germane books, articles, essays, theses and dissertations. I would like to shift that focus—at least for now—to the period that followed the advent of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. This shift has been prompted by my recent reading of the book, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700 - 1700 (Google Books). I purchased this book after some online research revealed that a number of the anthologies included apologetic treatments on the doctrine of the Trinity. I wanted to see how Trinitarian Christians—in lands of early Islamic rule—defended the Christian view of God.

Now, though the above book is a collection of anthologies from Christians who wrote in Arabic, this post is going to focus on a Christian whose corpus was written in Greek—John of Damascus (b. John Mansur ca. 650 [or 675?] - ca. 749). I am starting this shift in studies with John Damascene, for as the introduction of book points out his apologetic works on Islam, "represent the earliest direct Orthodox responses to Islam" (p. 19). Though John Damascene was fluent in Arabic, he wrote in Greek, and this because the Muslim conquerors of Damascus, the Umayyad's, "maintained the Byzantine administrative system and even for a time kept Greek as the language of bureaucracy" (p. 16).

John of Damascus occupies a unique position among the Church Fathers, and this for a number of reasons: first, as mentioned above, he produced "the earliest direct Orthodox responses to Islam"; second, his works influenced the subsequent Christian apologists who wrote in Arabic, works that were being produced a mere generation after those of John Damascene; and third, not only was he held in high esteem among Arab Christians, but also among Eastern Orthodox and Latin Christians—quoted by such Latin notables as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas—he was even elevated to the position of "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

Rather than start with John Damascene's apologetic works that are directed to Muslims, I think it best to begin with his elucidations on the Trinity that are found in his rather extensive Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith) [1]. Though written after his apologetic treatments on Islam, I am convinced that the insights gleaned from this later work are essential for one to obtain a good understanding of his theology. The following selections are from S. D. F. Salmond's English translation in volume IX of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers -second series (PDF copy HERE):

We have, then, adequately demonstrated that there is a God, and that His essence is incomprehensible. But that God is one and not many is no matter of doubt to those who believe in the Holy Scriptures. For the Lord says in the beginning of the Law: I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt. Thou shall have no other Gods before Me. And again He says, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And in Isaiah the prophet we read, For I am the first God and I am the last and beside Me there is no God. Before Me there was not any God, nor after Me will there be any God, and beside Me there is no God. And the Lord, too, in the holy gospels speaketh these words to His Father, And this is life eternal, that they may know Thee the only true God. (Book I, Chapter V - p. 4.)

So then this one and only God is not Wordless. And possessing the Word, He will have it not as without a subsistence [2], nor as having had a beginning, nor as destined to cease to be. For there never was a time when God was not Word: but He ever possesses His own Word, begotten of Himself, not, as our word is, without a subsistence and dissolving into air, but having a subsistence in Him and life and perfection, not proceeding out of Himself but ever existing within Himself. For where could it be, if it were to go outside Him? For inasmuch as our nature is perishable and easily dissolved, our word is also without subsistence. But since God is everlasting and perfect, He will have His Word subsistent in Him, and everlasting and living, and possessed of all the attributes of the Begetter. For just as our word, proceeding as it floes out of the mind, is neither wholly identical with the mind nor utterly diverse from it (for so far as it proceeds out of the mind it is different from it, while so far as it reveals the mind, it is no longer absolutely diverse from the mind, but being one in nature with the mind, it is yet to the subject diverse from it), so in the same manner also the Word of Gods in its independent subsistence is differentiated from Him from Whom it derives its subsistence : but inasmuch as it displays in itself the same attributes as are seen in God, it is of the same nature as God. For just as absolute perfection is contemplated in the Father, so also is it contemplated in the Word that is begotten of Him. (Book I, Chapter VI - pp. 4, 5.)

After explaining in chapter VII (pp. 5, 6) that in addition to the Word, God also has His Spirit, John Damascene goes on to expound his understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity:

Concerning the Holy Trinity

We believe, then, in One God, one beginning, having no beginning, uncreate, unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen, the fountain of goodness and justice, the light of the mind, inaccessible; a power known by no measure, measurable only by His own will alone (for all things that He wills He can), creator of all created things, seen or unseen, of all the maintainer and preserver, for all the provider, master and lord and king over all, with an endless and immortal kingdom: having no contrary, filling all, by nothing encompassed, but rather Himself the encompasser and maintainer and original possessor of the universe, occupying all essences intact and extending beyond all things, and being separate from all essence as being super-essential and above all things and absolute God, absolute goodness, and absolute fulness : determining all sovereignties and ranks, being placed above all sovereignty and rank, above essence and life and word and thought: being Himself very light and goodness and life and essence, inasmuch as He does not derive His being from another, that is to say, of those things that exist: but being Himself the fountain of being to all that is, of life to the living, of reason to those that have reason; to all the cause of all good: perceiving all things even before they have become: one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration, believed in and ministered to by all rational creation, united without confusion and divided without separation (which indeed transcends thought). (We believe) in Father and Son and Holy Spirit whereinto also we have been baptized. For so our Lord commanded the Apostles to baptize, saying, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(We believe) in one Father, the beginning, and cause of all: begotten of no one: without cause or generation, alone subsisting: creator of all: but Father of one only by nature, His Only-begotten Son and our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and Producer of the most Holy Spirit. And in one Son of God, the Only-begotten, our Lord, Jesus Christ: begotten of the Father, before all the ages: Light of Light, true God of true God: begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Whom all things are made: and when we say He was before all the ages we shew that His birth is without time or beginning: for the Son of God was not brought into being out of nothing, He that is the effulgence of the glory, the impress of the Father's subsistence, the living wisdom and power, the Word possessing interior subsistence, the essential and perfect and living image of the unseen God. But always He was with the Father and in Him, everlastingly and without beginning begotten of Him. For there never was a time when the Father was and the Son was not, but always the Father and always the Son, Who was begotten of Him, existed together. For He could not have received the name Father apart from the Son: for if He were without the Son, He could not be the Father: and if He thereafter had the Son, thereafter He became the Father, not having been the Father prior to this, and He was changed from that which was not the Father and became the Father. This is the worst form of blasphemy. For we may not speak of God as destitute of natural generative power: and generative power means, the power of producing from one's self, that is to say, from one's own proper essence, that which is like in nature to one's self. (Book I, Chapter 8 - pp. 6, 7.)

A bit later, from the same chapter, we read:

Accordingly the everlasting God generates His own Word which is perfect, without beginning and without end, that God, Whose nature and existence are above time, may not engender in time. But with man clearly it is otherwise, for generation is with him a matter of sex, and destruction and flux and increase and body clothe him round about, and he possesses a nature which is male or female. For the male requires the assistance of the female. But may He Who surpasses all, and transcends all thought and comprehension, be gracious to us.

The holy catholic and apostolic Church, then, teaches the existence at once of a Father: and of His Only-begotten Son, born of Him without time and flux and passion, in a manner incomprehensible and perceived by the God of the universe alone: just as we recognise the existence at once of fire and the light which proceeds from it: for there is not first fire and thereafter light, but they exist together. And just as light is ever the product of fire, and ever is in it and at no time is separate from it, so in like manner also the Son is begotten of the Father and is never in any way separate from Him, but ever is in Him. But whereas the light which is produced from fire without separation, and abideth ever in it, has no proper subsistence of its own distinct from that of fire (for it is a natural quality of fire), the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father without separation and difference and ever abiding in Him, has a proper subsistence of its own distinct froth that of the Father.

The terms, 'Word' and 'effulgence,' then, are used because He is begotten of the Father without the union of two, or passion, or time, or flux, or separation : and the terms 'Son' and 'impress of the Father's subsistence,' because He is perfect and has subsistence s and is in all respects similar to the Father, save that the Father is not begotten : and the term 'Only-begotten' because He alone was begotten alone of the Father alone. For no other generation is like to the generation of the Son of God, since no other is Son of God. For though the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father, yet this is not generative in character but processional. This is a different mode of existence, alike incomprehensible and unknown, just as is the generation of the Son. Wherefore all the qualities the Father has are the Son's, save that the Father is unbegotten, and this exception involves no difference in essence nor dignity, but only a different mode of coming into existence. We have an analogy in Adam, who was not begotten (for God Himself moulded him), and Seth, who was begotten (for he is Adam's son), and Eve, who proceeded out of Adam's rib (for she was not begotten). These do not differ from each other in nature, for they are human beings: but they differ in the mode of coming into existence. (Book I, Chapter 8 - pp. 7, 8.)

After explaining the difference between ἀγένητον and ἀγέννητον, John then writes:

For the Father alone is ingenerate (ἀγέννητον), no other subsistence having given Him being. And the Son alone is generate, for He was begotten of the Father's essence without beginning and without time. And only the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father's essence, not having been generated but simply proceeding. For this is the doctrine of Holy Scripture. But the nature of the generation and the procession is quite beyond comprehension. (Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 8.)

And in the next paragraph we read his interpretation of John 14:28:

So then, whenever we hear it said that the Father is the origin of the Son and greater than the Son, let us understand it to mean in respect of causation. Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 9 - bold emphasis mine.)

He ends the chapter with the following:

The subsistences then we say are perfect, that we may not conceive of the divine nature as compound. For compoundness is the beginning of separation. And again we speak of the three subsistences as being in each other, that we may not introduce a crowd and multitude of Gods. Owing to the three subsistences, there is no compoundness or confusion: while, owing to their having the same essence and dwelling in one another, and being the same in will, and energy, and power, and authority, and movement, so to speak, we recognise the indivisibility and the unity of God. For verily there is one God, and His word and Spirit. (Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 10.)

I shall end my quotations from Salmond's translation here—with the hope that interested readers will take the time to read the entire work—and will move on to my own thoughts on what we have read.

Clearly, John Damascene stands firmly within Nicene and post-Nicene Byzantine/Eastern Orthodox traditon. He quotes from the Nicene Creed and follows suit with a number of earlier Greek Church Fathers (e.g. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) by placing an emphasis on the Father as, "the beginning and cause of all : begotten of no one : without cause or generation", while maintaining the full equality of the nature that he shares with the Son and Spirit; as such, we can add John Damascene to our list of Church Fathers who support the Monarchy of God the Father.

Grace and peace,



1. Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith) is actually part 3 of a larger work titled The Fount of Knowledge (Πηγὴ γνώσεως). Part 1 deals with philosophical issues; and part 2 with heresies. (For the Greek texts, see Migne's, Patrologia Graeca vol. 94 - PDF copy here.)

2. The Greek word that Salmond consistently translates as subsistence/s is ὑπόστασις. John provides the following definition for this term in part 1 of his The Fount of Knowledge:

The term hypostasis has two meanings. Sometimes it means simple existence. In this sense, substance and hypostasis are the same thing, which is why certain of the holy Fathers have said: 'the natures, that is to say, hypostases.' At other times, it means the existence of an individual substance in itself. In this sense, it signifies the individual, that which is numerically different, which is to say, Peter and Paul, or that certain horse...

One should know that the holy Fathers used the term hypostasis and person and individual for the same thing, namely, that which by its own subsistence subsists of itself from substance and accidents, is numerically different, and signifies a certain one, as, for example, Peter, and Paul, and this horse. Hypostasis has been so called from its ὑφεστάναι, or subsisting. (Saint John of Damascus - Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase, Jr. - Vol. 37 of the Fathers of the Church series, pp. 66-68 - Google Books preview here.)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Gregory of Nazinazus on the Father as "greater" than the Son (John 14:28)

I have been rereading the Orations of Gregory Nazianzen (Nazianzus). I started with the 19 orations translated into English by Martha Vinson, published by the Catholic University of America Press (volume 107 in the Fathers of the Church series - Google preview). None of these orations are included in the collection of Gregory's works published in volume VII of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (second series - PDF copy).

From Oration 20 we read:

We must neither be so partial to the Father that we actually strip him of his fatherhood, for whose father would he in fact be if his son were different in nature and estranged from him along with the rest of creation? Nor by the same token, should we be so partial to Christ that we fail to preserve this very distinction, his Sonhood, for whose son would he in fact be if there were no causal relationship between his Father and himself? Nor again should we diminish the Father's status as source, proper to him as Father and generator, since he would be the source of small and worthless things were he not the cause of deity contemplated in the Son and Spirit. It is our duty then both to maintain the oneness of God and to confess three individual entities, or Persons, each with his distinctive property.

The oneness of God [i.e. the Father] would, in my view, be maintained if both the Son and Spirit are causally related to him alone without being merged or fused into him and if they all share one and the same divine movement and purpose. And all three individually existing entities will be maintained if we do not think of them as fusing or dissolving or mingling, lest those with an excessive devotion to unity end up destroying the whole. And the individual properties will be maintained if, in the case of the Father, we think and speak of him as being both source and without source (I use the term in the sense of causal agent, fount, and eternal light)...The Father, then, is without source: his existence is derived neither outside nor from within himself. In turn, the Son is not without source if you understand "Father" to mean causal agent, since the Father is the source of the Son as causal agent... (Pages 111, 112.)

The teaching of Gregory that the Father is the "causal agent", "source", "fount" of the Son (and Spirit) is a foundational aspect of his doctrine of the Trinity, and is found in a number of his works. Directly related to this teaching is his understanding of the Father as "greater" (John 14:28) than the Son. Note the following from Oration 30:

As your third point you count the Word Greater ; and as your fourth. To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument ? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature ; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause ; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man ? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater. (NPNF 7.312.)

Gregory follows the majority of pre-Nicene Church Fathers that the Biblical description of the Father being "greater" than the Son (John 14:28) should not be limited to the Son's incarnation; and that, the Father is in a very concrete sense "greater" than the Son because he is the "causal agent" of the Son.

My rereading of Gregory's orations has impressed upon me some important aspects of his reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity: first, the monarchy of God the Father, which includes His function as the "causal agent", "source", "fount" of the Son and Holy Spirit; second, his emphasis on the individuality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without diminishing their equality of nature; and third, his ability to refute both Sabellianism and Arianism at the same time while engaged in the process of expounding his own Trinitarian thought.

Grace and peace,