Saturday, May 9, 2015

John of Damascus: Prolegomena

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.

(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?

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").


  1. Interesting read. I am at a Protestant seminary. One of my professors reads the Philokalia this same way. Everytime he sees the word "mind" he translates it "intellect". And each time he reads the word "reason" he translates it as "rationality".

    I think your observations here are important for us to consider when trying to wrestle with the epistemological grounds for faith.

    You say the Fathers were not adverse to using "logic" even apart from scripture and partistic consensus. That is a statement I think you would want to explore and unpack.
    I think that we miss in the early churches writing the basic presuppositions that they understood...that reason independent Kenosis is bare knowledge and cannot be true rationality. It is clear that ALL humanity wrestles with being observers and judges of the world around them. Clearly, Christians throughout history have struggled with the basic root of epistemology. I fear though that the reading we give to their words are often lost in a low semantic range in which we do not differentiate between dianoia, nous, kardia, splangchna, I fear that often, like my dear professor we read these things so woodenly as to evacuate them of the meaning they truly had when they spoke of reason and intellect and rationality which could never be independent of the revelation of God and being subject to the Spirit in the church bound by Love.

    There is always an energizing work of the Spirit in gnosis, which can be darkened by our own self will. True logic and true rationality are presupposed and often clearly cited as being not speculative but revelatory with the disvernment between the two being Love and mutual submission within the ecumenia and the consensus of Tradition.

    I truly believe that this issue gets to the heart of "faith" as either a rational excercise or an ontological act of selfless love.

    I liked reading your thoughts on this and the questions you asked.

    1. Whether that is true or not, John completely rejects Romanides's claim on natural theology. As to the fathers not using logic, logic includes basic things like
      a = a
      a = ~~a

      If that isn't true, and if people don't use that, they cannot communicate.

    2. It seems to me, that even a cursory reading of the On the Orthodox Faith counters your contention here, as Saint John clearly lays out the preconditions for proper exploration of reason. In the very first Book and Chapter Saint John lays out his presupposition and the very foundation upon which everything which he lays out afterwards. " He revealed that which it was to our profit to know; but what we were unable to bear He kept secret. With these things let us be satisfied, and let us abide by them, not removing everlasting boundaries, nor overpassing the Divine Tradition.

      So it seems to me, that at the outset, you are still not allowing John to speak for himself, but hope to bootleg your own values into his writings. His entire work is predicated on reason firmly set within Holy Tradition and not outside of it. That which agrees with Tradition therefore is reasonable - that at variance is unreasonable. For many of the Fathers, including Augustine, discourse using reason or natural theology was allowable, but would need to be reigned in by Tradition as the final arbiter. This is why Augustine began writing a book of Retractions before his death attempting to correct many things he had said or written in debate that did not have firm grounding in Tradition. No Church Father felt that their explorations into were valid unless they conformed to the broad consensus of the Spirit and the Holy Traditions protected by that Spirit.

      Thus the plumbline of true rationality is clearly the revelation of God through the living Traditions of the Church, not through scholastic rationalism. Submission in Love and parity to the Church defined kenosis and true opposed to natural reason.

      The problem here is that true "Logic" - "reason" and "rationality" for the Fathers is quite different from scholastic rationalism and the "logic" and "rationality used by Western theologians and to which you are speaking and see. Your analysis of Saint John relies on eisegesis rather than exegesis, for even as he speak of natural theology, he leaves himself open to correction and alignment with the whole of Tradition alone. For John, reason is to be kept within the bounds of Tradition in order to protect it from human twisting as much as possible.

      Since you are at variance with the Divine Traditions that John himself defends, rejecting his approach, your very definition of reason is at variance with the limits he sets to reason. You and he are not speaking about the same thing.

      This is why it is difficult for you and I - and for you and John to communicate. Our formulations of what constitutes "logic" are set upon different foundations. Just as trinitarians and unitarians do not speak of the same God while using the same words and same neither do you and Saint John speak of the same "logic" when you use the same word.

      Blessings to you and yours. You are in my prayers by name daily.

    3. John uses rational arguments to prove:
      a) God exists
      b) the divine being is not plural
      c) the divine being is immutable.

      Further, I am not sure what you think I am saying.