John of Damascus on the Divine Unity

John of Damascus definitely “starts with” the unity of the divine nature.  In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, under the chapter heading of “Concerning the Holy Trinity,” John writes:

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.

~ Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1.8

Notice that he says there is one energy.  This is because the energy is an attribute of the one essence.

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About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, FL. He is also a founder and general editor of The Calvinist International. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), a full-time minister, and occasional classical school teacher, Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, and daughter.

18 thoughts on “John of Damascus on the Divine Unity

  1. I’m not sure if you are disputing my point or not, but whatever category we place the energy in, it is the same as the one power, one will, one divinity, one beginning, etc. It is a point of unity identified with the godhead.

    Even if you say it “comes from the Father,” (which is also correct), it is still a point of oneness because the Father begets and spirates His whole essence.

  2. Mark,

    “Energies/energy”, outside of the neo-Palamite, basically just means “operation(s)”. So, what Steven is saying is just the catholic axiom of the inseparability of the operations of the three persons, or as JBJ once put it somewhere “all of God does all that God does”.

  3. Oh, OK. Though the fact that “suffer” is a verb means we need to do work explaining what “does” means. But that helps a lot.

  4. Mark,

    Yeah, it does get tricky trying to do what the catholic tradition did, holding together a denial of patripassianism and an affirmation of the inseparability of operations. I think that’s the point at which we reach paradox. But maybe Steven has a better answer.

  5. Not really sure where I stand on this. I am a Reformed christian, but I think I affirm the energy/essence distinction. Considering most of Rome’s Absolute Divine Simplicity comes from Aquinas the Empiricist, it’s already on shaky ground. Basically, operations are unique to persons, correct? I don’t think anyone denies this. The divine essence doesn’t “do” anything, the persons “do” things just as my person “sleeps” but my essence doesn’t sleep. So, if we agree on that, and if we affirm with all orthodox christians that there is a distinction in the Godhead between essence/persons (1 essence, 3 persons), then there must be a essence/energy distinction since energies are unique to persons. If there is no distinction, how can we distinguish between the F, S, and HS? Ultimately there would be no trinity. Where is the fault in this understanding?

  6. “Considering most of Rome’s Absolute Divine Simplicity comes from Aquinas the Empiricist, it’s already on shaky ground.”

    Aquinas says nothing the ECF’s didn’t. Steven can elaborate on this, but this is a discredited historical thesis.

    “Basically, operations are unique to persons, correct? I don’t think anyone denies this.”

    Well, this post contains a quote which denies this…

    “So, if we agree on that,”

    That’s precisely what’s under dispute, I think.

    “Godhead between essence/persons (1 essence, 3 persons)”

    There’s a distinction between the persons, but not between each individual person and the Godhead; they are identical. There is only one God, after all, and the one God is not just a shared genus.

  7. AG,

    I think you’ve got the categories mixed up. Persons “do” things, but they do them with their “energy,” “will,” “mind,” and “power,” all of which are shared by all three Persons, and the operation is always one.

    https://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/nyssa-and-absolute-divine-simplicity/

    https://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2007/11/13/inseperable-operation/

    https://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2008/05/20/nyssa-on-the-unity-of-divine-operations/

    https://wedgewords.wordpress.com/2008/05/16/nyssa-on-essence-and-energies/

  8. I’ll post a few more thoughts on John’s theology as it relates to our later use of language like “essence.”

    There is certainly a difference in language, but the conceptual framework is the same.

  9. Andrew,
    Sorry I didn’t clarify. I wasn’t commenting to debate what St. John meant or believed. I simply saw the topic and was interested in hearing thoughts from a Reformed perspective. This is the only quote I’ve ever read from St. John, even though it’s possible he didn’t mean “one energy” in the sense that there are no distinctions. We say there is “one” God, but we do believe there are distinctions within God (not to say God is made of parts, even the East affirms he is simple). I’ve heard it defended that in later books of his, St. John does in fact affirm the e/e distinction. Just rumors though. 🙂

    Steven,
    Thanks for the reply and the links. I’ll definitely check them out. We agree that persons can only do things that their nature allows. For example, the Trinity cannot lie for it would violate their nature. And I affirm that there is only one will in the trinity, since will is a property of nature, not persons. But, I guess the reason I don’t get Absolute Divine Simplicity (ADS) is because we wouldn’t say the operation of regeneration by the HS is the operation of Christ dying on the cross, or the operation of the S healing the sick is the same operation of the S perfectly obeying his parents. The distinct persons in the Godhead do distinct things. It seems like if Thomas says it’s all one, then ultimately he’s saying there is no distinction in the persons either. For example, how would we know who was doing what? How would we know which operation we are experiencing? Or if I experience God’s love and mercy am I also at the same time experiencing his hate and wrath? Furthermore, does this not violate the law of non-contradiction?
    p.s. I was hoping to download your lectures on Romanism/Orthodoxy. Is the AA website the only place to obtain them?

  10. AG,

    You raised some historical claims about what “everyone” agrees, and my comment was mostly directed at correcting what I believe is a large historical error in that regard. But I, like you, am ultimately more concerned about the truth than about historical debates, which was why I moved on to mention what the “oneness of God” means. I think you will find that arguments against on this issue quickly move to a dilemma of accepting apparent contradictions or of affirming some heresy. Supporting the e/e distinction pushes towards seeing the persons as three independent centers of consciousness sharing a genus, which is what the ancient world would call “polytheism”. I think Steven will probably reply along the lines that while the persons have distinct appropriations within the economy, each of the persons acts “through” the Godhead; the persons are the one God acting (though this latter clause should not be interpreted modalistically, as the persons exist eternally as well, in the processions; but even the processions are the processions of the one God from the one God).

  11. AG,

    I’m responding to your comments to Steven here, but I think it may help:

    “But, I guess the reason I don’t get Absolute Divine Simplicity (ADS) is because we wouldn’t say the operation of regeneration by the HS is the operation of Christ dying on the cross, or the operation of the S healing the sick is the same operation of the S perfectly obeying his parents.”

    I think you’re confusing two senses of the operations’ “distinctness” here. Everyone admits the obvious historical fact that the death of Christ, an act of God, is not the same as the ministry of Christ (for example), a different (set of) act(s) of God. The point of saying the operations of God are inseparable is to affirm that each of these distinct historical acts/operations are the operations of the one God.

    “The distinct persons in the Godhead do distinct things. It seems like if Thomas says it’s all one, then ultimately he’s saying there is no distinction in the persons either. For example, how would we know who was doing what?”

    I think the last sentence raises the answer, in a way. Which person was operating in the death of Christ? The quick answer may be “the Son, obviously”, but consider:

    firstly, that the death of Son is also the act of the Father “crushing/handing over (Isa 53, Romans)” the Son, and that the Son offered Himself up “through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews);

    and secondly, (and this is more of my own thoughts than the historical tradition, I think) that the way the Divine son was active in the human nature of Christ does not violate the way the one God is active in all creation: by His creative/sustaining will. The distinction between creator and creature, and the infinite distance between the two, is preserved even in the hypostatic union. It is by the human nature of Christ willing the same thing as the divine Son that the person of Christ acts consistently in his two natures; the one divine person acts in both natures, but truly though two distinct natures, and so in two different ways.

    Put these together, and I think it becomes harder to understand exactly how we distinguish “who was doing what”, except to simply repeat what the scriptures have taught us. Once again, we run up against an apparent violation of the law of non-contradiction which is nonetheless revealed and therefore true, even if we can’t explain how.

  12. AG,

    I don’t mean to be rude, but if this really is the first time you’ve ever looked into John of Damascus, you might wish to leave the later Eastern and postmodern polemics to the side and just uncover the traditional view first. Then weigh your concerns and see if they remain.

    On this question of inseparability of operations in the Divine as it relates to the outward economy, Lewis Ayre’s essay “Remember that You Are a Catholic” is quite good: http://muse.jhu.edu/login?uri=/journals/journal_of_early_christian_studies/v008/8.1ayres.html

    You’ll need to get to a theological library to access it.

    Michel Barnes’ book Dunamis in Gregory of Nyssa is also very helpful.

  13. Steven,

    Thanks for posting this stuff. It’s helping me get a historical perspective in preparing for my Prolegomena to Theology final up here at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philly. Thanks for your work!

    Yours,
    ~Jacob

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