A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Trinity, Father, and “God” in John of Damascus

John of Damascus

Very early in John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith, he says this about God:

We also know and confess that God is one, that is to say, one substance, and that he is acknowledged in three hypostases and exists as such, by which I mean as Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in every respect except with regard to unbegottenness, begottenness, and procession, and that for our salvation the only-begotten Son and Word of God and God … was born of the holy Virgin… (On the Orthodox Faith, Ch. 2; p. 61))1

I’ve added underlining to draw attention to what John means when he says “God.” In this passage, he links “God” to “one substance” existing “in three hypostases.” He does not use the word “Trinity,” but that is what he extends the word “God” to cover. After specifying that these three are “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he goes on to say that the Son became incarnate. And he says it by naming the Son with a series of titles (“only-begotten Son and Word of God”), the last of which is simply: “God.” That is who was born of the virgin. Not the Father or the Spirit, of course, but only the Son. The point here is that John can extend the word/name “God” to the Son.

Now consider another passage from a few chapters later, chapter 8:

We therefore believe in one God, who is a single principle without beginning, uncreated, unbegotten, both indestructible and immortal, eternal, infinite…… (On the Orthodox Faith, Ch. 8, p. 70)2

Again, I’ve underlined some key referents, and stopped the quote after the first few attributes because it goes on for a very long time. But I wanted to make sure to include the word “unbegotten.” That is a word that cannot be applied to the Son (or to the Spirit: though that point is less obvious, I think you can see it if you note the three words that distinguish the persons in our first quotation, above). In a very long list of adjectives, it’s the only one that picks out the Father. So this second quotation seems to treat “one God” as being the unbegotten Father.

Or, it could be a rare instance of John of Damascus using “unbegotten” to refer to the divine essence. The case against him calling the essence unbegotten is that it’s very rare indeed; perhaps singular. But the case for him calling the essence unbegotten here is that the word occurs in a list of words about the essence.

There’s some tension between the two ways of talking, and a close read of On the Orthodox Faith chapters 1-8 could draw it out more. The short quote above runs on for dozens more lines, by the end of which it has definitely turned the corner to talking about the entire Trinity (“known and worshipped in three perfect hypostases that are believed in and adored in a single act of worship,” p. 71). And in the following pages of chapter 8 (in a section closely following the structure of the Nicene Creed), John takes up the three persons for serial consideration.

There is a section beginning “We believe in one Father, the principle and cause of all things, not begotten of anyone, who alone exists as uncaused and unbegotten, the maker of al things…” But here “who alone exists as… unbegotten” (note the verb huparchos in ἀγέννητον μόνον ὑπάρχοντα) could be a rather delphic way of acknowledging that while all three persons have the unbegotten essence, the Father also has the hypostatic distinction of being personally unbegotten as well. Maybe.

And when John follows the Nicene Creed’s structure to the section on the Son, he again uses the word “God” to mean “the Father,” as in the sentence “the eternally existing God begets his own perfect Word.” (74)

Chapter 8 (which is a kind of capstone within the architecture of the treatise on knowledge of God which runs from chapter 1 to chapter 83) comes to its conclusion with a memorable image: “the Godhead…is like the single mingling and union of light in three suns that adhere to each other and are not separated.” (82) And then John gives us this account of what it is like to think about the three and one:

When we are focusing our attention on the Godhead and the first cause, monarchy, oneness, and identity, so to speak, of the Godhead’s movement and will, and on the identity of the essence, power, energy, and sovereignty, we form a conception in ourselves of oneness. But when we turn our attention to those things in which the Godhead exists, or to put it more precisely, those things that are the Godhead, and those things that come from the first cause timelessly, unanimously, and without separation, that is to say, the hypostases, what we adore are three. (82)4

The only thing I would add to that is that when John’s mind makes this movement, the Father shines forth in his mind with particular emphasis, as the one in who anchors the unity and the Trinity.


1 Καὶ ὅτι εἷς ἐστι θεὸς ἤγουν μία οὐσία, καὶ ὅτι ἐν τρισὶν ὑποστάσεσι γνωρίζεταί τε καὶ ἔστιν, πατρί φημι καὶ υἱῷ καὶ ἁγίῳ πνεύματι, καὶ ὅτι ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ὁ υἱὸς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον κατὰ πάντα ἕν εἰσι πλὴν τῆς ἀγεννησίας καὶ τῆς γεννήσεως καὶ τῆς ἐκπορεύσεως, καὶ ὅτι ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς καὶ λόγος τοῦ θεοῦ καὶ θεὸς … ἐκ τῆς ἁγίας παρθένου … Μαρίας γεγέννηται [TLG]

2 Πιστεύομεν τοιγαροῦν εἰς ἕνα θεόν, μίαν ἀρχὴν ἄναρχον, ἄκτιστον, ἀγέννητον ἀνόλεθρόν τε καὶ ἀθάνατον, αἰώνιον, ἄπειρον… [TLG]

3 Is it too cheeky to point out that by starting On the Orthodox Faith with a treatise on the knowledge of God that climaxes in an outsized chapter on the Trinity (chapter 8 is 13 pages long, dwarfing all preceding chapters), John of Damascus happens to be making the same move that will be made by John Calvin, who starts his Institutes with a treatise on the knowledge of God that climaxes in an outsized chapter on the Trinity (I:13 sprawls above its preceding chapters). Of course John of Damascus and John of Geneva disagree on numerous other issues.

4 Ὅταν μὲν οὖν πρὸς τὴν θεότητα βλέψωμεν καὶ τὴν πρώτην αἰτίαν καὶ τὴν μοναρχίαν καὶ τὸ ἓν καὶ ταὐτὸν τῆς θεότητος, ἵν’ οὕτως εἴπω, κίνημά τε καὶ βούλημα καὶ τὴν τῆς οὐσίας καὶ δυνάμεως καὶ ἐνεργείας καὶ κυριότητος ταυτότητα, ἓν ἡμῖν τὸ φανταζόμενον. Ὅταν δὲ πρὸς τὰ ἐν οἷς ἡ θεότης ἤ, τό γε ἀκριβέστερον εἰπεῖν, ἃ ἡ θεότης καὶ τὰ ἐκ τῆς πρώτης αἰτίας ἀχρόνως ἐκεῖθεν ὄντα καὶ ὁμοδόξως καὶ ἀδιαστάτως, τουτέστι τὰς ὑποστάσεις τρία τὰ προσκυνούμενα. [TLG]

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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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