St John of Damascus on the Holy Trinity

Perhaps the greatest theological challenge of the early Church was the articulation of the trinitarian identity of the one God. How do we express both the unity and distinctiveness of the divine persons, or as Charles Twombly puts it, their “identity and difference”? It appears to have been easier to identify the heresies. On one side was the Scylla of modalism; on the other the Charybdis of tritheism and subordinationism. Eventually the Nicene Fathers navigated their way through these two perils by taking synonymous philosophical terms, ousia and hypostasis, and creatively reworking their meaning: ousia came to signify the divine essence, and hypostasis the divine persons. Yet something was still missing. The assertion of one essence and three hypostases states the antinomy, but it does not suggest how we might think the two terms together. St John of Damascus found the solution in perichoresis:

The abiding and resting of the Persons in one another is not in such a manner that they coalesce or become confused, but, rather, so that they adhere to one another, for they are without interval between them and inseparable and their mutual indwelling [en allais perichoresin] is without confusion. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit is in the Father and the Son, and Father is in the Son and the Spirit, and there is no merging or blending or confusion. And there is one surge and one movement of the three Persons. It is impossible for this to be found in any created nature. (De fid. orth. I.14.11)

John’s assertion of perichoresis (mutual indwelling, coinherence, interpenetration) takes us beyond the fourth century formulations of St Athanasius and the Cappadocians “to a higher level of conceptual refinement by providing a linguistic vehicle that sums up and becomes the condensed expression of a more sophisticated way of relating identity and difference” (Perichoresis and Personhood, p. 9).

Critics of classic trinitarianism will of course argue that perichoresis makes no more sense than the Nicene claim of the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son; but the Damascene would respond that all of our analogies must fail when speaking of the mystery of the transcendent God. The Creator is radically different from the world he has made from out of nothing. The inner life of divinity is not mirrored in the world; hence creaturely parallels to the hypostatic indwelling do not exist. “It is impossible for this to be found in any created nature.” And if they do not exist, then this must mean ultimately mean that the trinitarian unity is, as Twombly remarks, “fundamentally unthinkable” (p. 12).

We dare to think the unthinkable only because the ineffable God has revealed himself in Holy Scripture. “Each hypostasis,” writes Twombly, “is able to reveal because each speaks, as it were, from the inside. And what each reveals … is one or more of the other hypostaseis, though not necessarily the one making the revelation” (p. 14). Only God himself can bridge the chasm between Creator and creature.

For John revelation employs the language of creation (what other language is there?) but uses it both to express truths that the mind unaided would never discover and to point to realities that lie beyond the power of any language to express. As the opening section of the Fount of Knowledge amply shows, John has no hesitancy in “plundering the wealth of Egypt” in his borrowing of philosophical terms and concepts. … But he constantly stretches language to the limits of its conventional usages and strains after that which he believes lies beyond all language. (p. 25)

The theologian does not seek to explain the divine mystery—certainly not in any way that would satisfy philosophers and mathematicians—but simply to state it.

Twombly covers a lot of theological ground in his chapter on the Trinity. Not only does he ably present the teaching of St John Damascene, but he also provides a succinct introduction to the Eastern Christian construal of the Holy Trinity.

(Go to “St John of Damascus and the Incarnation”)

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16 Responses to St John of Damascus on the Holy Trinity

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Thank you for these two posts! That interesting taker-up of the term, Charles Williams, included one quotation from St. John’s great work in his collection of daily readings, The New Christian Year, from III.27, in this translation: “Although Christ died as man, and His holy soul was separated from His spotless body, nevertheless His Godhead remained unseparated from both—from the soul and from the body.”

    I have (however ‘crazy’ that seems to me) not read much of St. John, yet. But Book III looks like where to go, to see how what “is impossible […] to be found in any created nature” pertains to the perichoresis of created human nature and Divinity in Jesus the Incarnate Son.

    But perhaps that’s already part of what you’re planning to get to, next!


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I wonder, David, whether St John’s reflections on perichoresis (whether trinitarian or christological) influenced Charles William’s reflections on coinherence. Is that possible?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        It is certainly possible – and these two posts have got me wondering how likely it is! The translation of the passage he quotes in New Christian Year is that found in the “Second and Revised Edition, 1920, Literally translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province” of St. Thomas’s Summa Theologica Part III, Q. 50 Art. 3 ‘Sed contra’. We know he owned some of the Summa and at least read around in it – and, for example, there are several selections from it in The Passion of Christ and The New Christian Year (there is a handy index with selections linked from the Charles Williams Society homepage, though as far as I know not all the selections have been reproduced there). He may have encountered a lot of St. John by way of quotations in St. Thomas – and various other works, and, for instance the Watson and Pullan translation must have been widely available. Maybe someone has already tracked his debt to St. John down – but I cannot recall seeing it, if so, and don’t know how best to go about it, easily…


      • brian says:

        Gave a like for the suggestion. Don’t know if it’s true or not, but Charles Williams was very influential on my youthful imagination.


  2. So Twombly argues that the Damascene is, basically, an irrationalist? –not only can reason not swim upstream, but the deliverances of revelation make no sense, yet are to be submitted to nonetheless?

    If the Trinity, on this account, is “fundamentally unthinkable”, then I don’t see how it can be believed. As far as I can see, we can only trust when we know _what_ to trust, and mere sounds –and that’s all that this kind of speech seems that it can be, if it cannot be thought; otherwise this kind of speech seems to function as no more than a flag to rally a clan– cannot be trusted.

    “We dare to think the unthinkable only because the ineffable God has revealed himself in Holy Scripture.” But this seems to sidestep the issue of unintelligibility (and its child, unbelievability) with an emotional ejaculation of affirmation of belief in the text of the scripture as revelatory.

    The language of universal essence and instance of an essence seems to take us somewhere; the journey seems to be cut short by derailing the train of thought and language, sending it off a cliff into a chasm, and calling it an ascension to what is transcendent.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      An irrationalist, Gregory? It’s hard for me to think of someone who is as obviously committed to rigorous reasoning as John of Damascus as irrational. Would it be fair to say that what you are really objecting to are divine revelation claims?

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      • I have wrestled with whether that is indeed the target of my objection, and my answer is no: no, I am not objecting to claims of revelation. I am objecting to the idea that there are truths beyond reason or thought or thinkability. If there are, indeed, truths beyond reason, then the real and the rational are no coeval, and denying this seems to me, at present, to be equivalent to nihilism, or at least to _lead_ to nihilism, which conclusion is arrested only by artificial means.

        To be honest, I am also not clear about whether this is really the consistent position of the early fathers.

        It is certainly not the position of Ps. Denys, and does not seem to be the position of Maximus. I only came to this through reflecting on Ps. Denys. I welcome your feedback.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          Thanks for this clarification, Gregory. I don’t know how either St John Damascene or Charles Twombly would respond. Perhaps Brian Moore can be persuaded to join the conversation.

          But after looking over what I wrote in this blog article, I think you may have misinterpreted Twombly. When he says that the trinitarian unity is unthinkable, he is specifically referring to the inability of finite creatures to come to a knowledge of God as Trinity through what we might call natural or philosophical theology. All Christians affirm that the Trinity can only be apprehended via God’s self-revelation, not by reflection upon the structures of the world.

          Liked by 1 person

          • The question about how a thought is acquired seems to be quite separate from whether something is thinkable, and can be reflected upon publicly, and can be shown. No?

            I apologize for adding another question to an already back-pained one, but also: isn’t “finite creatures” a tautology? If something is a creature, isn’t it already finite by nature? This seems to be as redundant as “finite being”.

            These two questions –I sincerely hope I’m not baiting (by some type of unnoticed or selectively-ignored habit), but am actually asking– may seem unrelated, but, to me, seem tightly intertwined. I wonder what you’d reply to them?

            Thank you for your earlier replies!


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            I agree. Adding the adjective “finite” to “creature” is probably redundant. But sometimes redundancy serves a purpose. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

          • Sometimes it _is_ helpful! –and sometimes it obfuscates. At our parish the senior priests are in the habit of prefacing the readings from the Gospel with “The reading is from…according to the holy…St. ___.” One wonders whether a saint might not be holy (and have some other adjectival qualifier), or whether “saint” is really like a title in a hierarchy, rather than a qualitative description said honorifically. 😀

            I worry that “finite creature” necessarily makes “creature” something that might be modified by something else, like “infinite”. Same for being — “infinite being” seems to be a contradiction, given that _to be_ and _to be limited_ seem to be the same thing.


          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “I worry that “finite creature” necessarily makes “creature” something that might be modified by something else, like “infinite”. Same for being — “infinite being” seems to be a contradiction, given that _to be_ and _to be limited_ seem to be the same thing.”

            Gregory, now I’m confused even more. Are you now suggesting that God is finite? If so, I think we have a real debate on our hands. 🙂

            To help me here get a better handle on your position, could you perhaps name a couple theologians who express your views (or something close to them). As I said, I’m really confused.


  3. brian says:

    Hi. I have adverted several times to D C Schindler’s fine work, The Catholicity of Reason. I think Gregory would find it helpful. If one posits a reality that is somehow “beyond thought” one is perhaps in danger of a form of voluntarism. Voluntarism is what logically follows when the will operates within a context a nihilism. The question is does apophatic theology equate to a radical negating of what we can know about God to the point where one is left with an “irrationalism”? The answer is surely too complex for pithy treatment, but my short response would be two-fold. First, as DB Hart has emphasized, one cannot subvert the analogy of being to the point where our creaturely understanding of the Good is untethered from the divine Good. This would indeed lead to theological nihilism. Hence, negative theology cannot be understood as radical ignorance or a qualification of positive knowledge that would amount to the same thing. Second, one would have to investigate a kind of perichoresis of the transcendentals in human knowing. (This is what Schindler does, following Balthasar, in the work adverted to above.) Reason ultimately must be understood as “always already” constituted by a “transcendent vector.” It reaches out beyond itself in order to be itself. To suggest this properly, of course, would require a longish argument. One might look at Maritain’s notion of cardiognosis. There are forms of knowledge outside of discursive reason. I think it’s more proper to call these kinds of knowledge rational. The medievals had a distinction between the ratio and the intellectus. The intellectus was, if anything, a higher form of reason, but moderns tend to reduce reason to the ratio alone.

    And to just touch upon a few other things mentioned in this dialogue: I think it’s evident that Triune reality requires a revelation of Godself, but once that revelation is received, the light of grace then shows that creation was always a gift of Triune love. Hence, one may speak of finite creatures, but finite creatures in their depths are participations in an infinite Logos. Finitude is real “for us,” but there is a sense in which everything is a divine word with a divine destiny because coming from a divine root. This brings one into the controversial territory of panentheism, but I prefer not to discuss that because it is so easily demagogued and misunderstood and because there are multiple understandings of such, many of which are quite wrong.

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  4. Charles Twombly says:

    William Franke’s PHILOSOPHY OF THE UNSAYABLE may be some interesting things to add to the “beyond reason” discussion.


  5. Rob says:

    Hi Father,
    I’ve admired you’re blog for quite some time but I am just now coming to comment on anything.

    Brian mentioned the medieval distinction between “intellectus” and “ratio” and it is an excellent point: classical philosophy has always privileged what might be called “immediate insight” over discursive reasoning. For example, Plotinus is quite explicit that philosophy has come up short if it does culminate in experiential vision of God that transcends discursive reasoning (for him it is a tool that can be left behind). However, he thinks a type of this knowledge is present to us in some sense already present in our experience of the world. And if one thinks about it he’s obviously correct. When I am interacting with a friend I am tacitly somehow aware of countless things (their mood, past interactions -our conversation is embedded within a a long and on going history, maybe a lack of time makes our remarks direct) that inform that interaction. But this knowledge is mysteriously present to me all at once and not dependent on conscious reflection. In fact, conscious reflection can hinder what I would have known immediately. Needless to say this is different than the knowledge of God with which this discussion started, but its worth knowing how various our experiences of knowing are.


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