St John of Damascus and the Incarnation

“John Damascene’s presentation of the Incarnation,” writes Charles  Twombly, “is insistent at the outset on two claims: Christ’s human nature is real and complete; and the person of the united humanity and divinity is God and not a human or a combined God-human” (Perichoresis and Personhood, p. 60). These two claims raise a host of interesting questions, competently, albeit briefly, analyzed by Twombly. Two in particular deserve mention.

(1) How is the integrity of the divine and human natures of Christ preserved?

The Council of Chalcedon appealed to the notion of union, asserting that the incarnate Christ is to be “acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation”; but many found the decree ambiguous and vulnerable to a Nestorian reading. The Second Council of Constantinople sought to provide the necessary clarification by dogmatically declaring that the hypostasis of the incarnate Christ is identical to the Second Person of the Holy Trinity: “If anyone does not confess his belief that our Lord Jesus Christ, who was crucified in his human flesh, is truly God and the Lord of glory and one of the members of the holy Trinity: let him be anathema.” Standing in this ecumenical tradition, the Damascene proposes that the relationship between the divine and human natures of Christ be understood as a mutual interpenetration. Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit perfectly indwell each other without compromising their divine identities, so the divine and human coinhere in intimate union, without confusion or adulteration:

Now, as the three [hypostaseis] of the Holy Trinity are united without confusion and are distinct without separation and have number without the number causing division, or separation, or estrangement, or severance among them—for we recognize that the Father and the Son and Holy Ghost are one God—so the same way the natures [physeis] of Christ, although united, are united without confusion, and, although mutually immanent [perichorousin], do not suffer any change or transformation of the one into the other. (De fid. orth. III.5.21-29)

As we saw in the previous article, John emphasizes the singularity of the trinitarian perichoresis. Given the simplicity of the divine essence, it can have no creaturely analogy. “For it is impossible,” he writes, “to find in creation any image which exactly portrays the manner of the Holy Trinity in itself. For that which is created is also compounded, variable, changeable, circumscribed, having shape, and corruptible; so, how shall it show with any clarity the superessential divine essence which is far removed from all such?” (De fid. orth. I.8.165-171). But when speaking of the union of the divine and human natures in the one incarnate Lord, he is happy, as was St Cyril of Alexandria before him, to appeal to the union of body and soul: “Union by composition is the mutual association [perichoresis] together of the parts without detriment to any of them, as in the case of the soul and the body” (Dialectica 104-13; emphasis added). But the analogy must inevitably fail. The divine nature is not a finite thing that can be mixed or joined together with another thing. It exists on a totally different plane of reality—indeed, transcends all planes of reality. But the analogy does give an added intelligibility to the hypostatic union. Writes Twombly: “Perichoresis, in the thought of John Damascene, functions as a magnet drawing various iron filings together into a coherent pattern” (p. 74).

(2) Given the union of the two natures in the one hypostasis of the Word, how are we to understand Jesus as a willing and acting subject?

The Sixth Ecumenical Council repudiated monothelitism and dogmatically defined the existence of two wills in Jesus the Christ. John subsequently gave the dyothelite position its classic expression:

Since, then, Christ has two natures, we say that He has two natural wills [duo … physika thelmata] and two natural operations [duo … physikas energeias]. On the other hand, since these two natures have one Person [mia … hypostasis], we say that He is one and the same who acts and wills naturally according to both natures … And we say that He wills and acts in each, not independently, but in concert [hanomenos]. For in each form He wills and acts in communion [koinonias] with the other. For the will and the operation of things having the same substance is the same, and the will and operation of things having different substance is different. Conversely, the substance of having the same will and operation is the same, whereas that of things having a different will and operation is different. (De fid. orth. III.17.1-12)

As with St Maximus the Confessor, so with the Damascene—the struggle of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemene is paramount. If we do not acknowledge the genuineness of the struggle, we fall into a practical monophysitism. Hence we must logically posit the following: the human will of Jesus freely subordinates itself to the divine will:

Thus it was with the permission of the divine will that He suffered what was naturally proper to him. And when He begged to be spared death, He did so naturally, with His divine will willing and permitting, and He was in agony and afraid. Then, when His human will willed that His divine will choose death, the passion was freely accepted by it, because it was not as God alone that He freely delivered Himself over to death, but as man also. (De fid. orth. III.18.36-40)

As a human being Christ voluntarily embraces that which he naturally abhors and fears, namely, suffering and death.

(To be honest, Damascene’s argument at this point sounds like somethng one might find in a treatise written by a Latin scholastic; but this kind of formal, logically rigorous reasoning was not uncommon in early Byzantine Christianity and was crucial for the monothelite/dyothelite debate. As Fr Patrick Reardon has remarked, “Scholasticism was born in the East, not the West.” So much for the popular caricatures.)

We will of course continue to wonder how the human will of Jesus can be said to be genuinely free (free to disobey?) when the personal agent is God himself. Twombly offers this reflection:

The human will for John, then exists in the hypostasis of the Logos. To affirm such, however, is not to claim that the Logos directs that will—from the outside, so to speak—in a way that renders it inoperative. That will is the Logos’s own (human) will; in this sense, there is no inside/outside. But more importantly for our present concern, the human will of the Logos, when given scope, responds in a “naturally” human way. (p. 81)

John then goes on to make a critical distinction: the faculty of volition belongs to nature but the decision-making belongs to the person. “Now, one must know that willing is not the same as how one wills,” he states.” This is because will … is of the nature, since it belongs to all men. How one wills, however, does not belong to nature but to our judgment” (De fid. orth. III.14.30-42). The capacity to choose belongs to that which one is, i.e., the nature which one shares with other beings within one’s species, but the actual exercise of will, with all that entails, belongs to the individual hypostasis.

Readers of Maximus will immediately wonder whether John might be attributing a deliberative, gnomic will to Jesus, which Maximus denied in his later writings. Unfortunately, Twombly does not analyze John’s position on this question. Those who are curious are encouraged to read Paul Blowers’s essay “Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus on Gnomic Will (γνώμη) in Christ.”

I commend to you Perichoresis and Personhood by Charles Twombly. After reading it, you may feel, as I do, that you really want to read St John of Damascus.

(Return to first article)

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9 Responses to St John of Damascus and the Incarnation

  1. Kenn Lutz says:

    Thank-you, Father Aidan, for recognising these consequential questions, in your evaluation of Twombly’s tome (I had quite a time wanting to end that term with a ‘b’). There is a LOT to cover here, but what first jumped out at me:

    “Union by composition is the mutual association [perichoresis] together of the parts without detriment to any of them, as in the case of the soul and the body” (Dialectica 104-13; emphasis added). … The divine nature is not a finite thing that can be mixed or joined together with another thing. It exists on a totally different plane of reality—indeed, transcends all planes of reality.

    It seems, perhaps, this precludes falling to foot of the Cross to be resurrected as the New (divinized) Man of Christ. Does not the activity of the Holy Spirit within us, the most intransigent of God’s creation, proclaim the admixture of divine and human nature, unified in the Body of Christ?

    (Forgive me. I have just begun to catechize. My nomenclature comes from an Arminian fundamentalism through Far Eastern mysticism, American dominionism, my wife’s premature death, hedonism, metanoia, search for The Church, the Bride of Christ.)

    Lord, have mercy.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Good question, Kenn. In response may I suggest that it is precisely the radical transcendence of God that allows him to join himself to human nature without abolishing or crushing it. If God were a finite being, then other finite beings would need to move over for him or get out of his way in order for him to be present in our universe, just as one needs to empty a carton in order to put more items into it. But God is not a being, as classical theologians like to remind us. He is Being or Beyond Being. Hence his presence and activity in our midst is more mysterious than we can describe. Have you by any chance read David Hart’s The Experience of God? He touches on some of this in the early chapters of the book.

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  2. “when He begged to be spared death, He did so naturally, with His divine will willing and permitting, and He was in agony and afraid. Then, when His human will willed that His divine will choose death, the passion was freely accepted by it” –I must admit, this language sounds like it is talking about a negotiation between two beings, and permission granted by a political superior to a political inferior.


    • Tom says:

      If one understands ‘will’ hypostatically (every ‘will’ = a ‘person’), then to multiple wills is to multiple ‘persons’. If one associates ‘will’ with ‘nature’ (as the Fathers did), then one and same person can be the subject of several ‘wills’.

      While the distinction between divine and human wills is necessary, I’m not sure we can always segregate out the exercise of divine and human wills as if plotting them on a chart.

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      • When a will wills and permits, that means it deliberates — and does this not make it sound like a will is the activity of a subject that might do otherwise? It is not the case that one can blanketly assert that “the Fathers” associated “will” with “nature”, as they seem to generally say that “will” is the activity of “intellect”. Jesus does not have two intellects.

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        • Tom says:


          Maybe one could begin with the Sixth Ecumenical Council (not to begin with an appeal to authority but just to inform the conversation) where monothelitism was condemned. That’s as big a blanket as we need. If you know of Patristic voices who reject this, I’d love to hear about them.

          I don’t see why an act of will should be thought of a necessarily preceded by deliberation. I think it’d be very strange to suppose God (per the divine nature) “deliberates” in the sense we mean it of ourselves (i.e., God “takes time” to “ponder” or “think through” reasons for this or that option).

          If we mean by “Jesus” the constraints of the human consciousness/subjectivity, then of course we’re picking out the one human experience assumed by the Logos/Son. We don’t “stuff” the divine nature in its essential infinitude into the finite constraints of Jesus’ human brain/consciousness. We don’t need to, because we don’t reduce the Logos without remainder to the constraints of the physical. There is more to the Logos than there is to Jesus’ human experience. God is ‘personally’ (hypostatically) present as incarnate in Christ, yes, but that is not to say God the Son is reduced without remainder to the constraints of the Incarnate state. So while the human consciousness of Jesus brain is not split into two subjectivities or minds, each with its own set of natural attributes, one divine and one created, we can say the divine mind and will have assumed a fully human life having its own mind and will. But the former transcends the latter, just as it must transcend all created finitude.


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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Have a look at the discussion in III.18 as translated by Watson and Pullan (as transcribed and edited at New Advent), e.g., “Therefore, God the Word, wishing to restore that which was in His own image, became man. But what is that which was in His own image, unless mind? So He gave up the better and assumed the worse. For mind is in the border-land between God and flesh, for it dwells indeed in fellowship with the flesh, and is, moreover, the image of God. Mind, then, mingles with mind, and mind holds a place midway between the pureness of God and the denseness of flesh.” And, “Of His own free-will, moreover, He exercised His divine and human will. For free-will is assuredly implanted in every rational nature. For to what end would it possess reason, if it could not reason at its own free-will? […] So that the soul of the Lord being moved of its own free-will willed, but willed of its free-will those things which His divine will willed it to will. […] He Himself, Who was one and yet both God and man, willed according to both His divine and His human will. Wherefore it was not in inclination but rather in natural power that the two wills of the Lord differed from one another.”

          (I have only been sampling the work and only in this translation – it would be great to have (annotated) translations to compare… so I do not know if he anywhere explicitly addresses the possibility of His rational human nature reasoning at its own free-will such that it, in a particular instance, it could come to be in inclination that the two wills of the Lord differed from one another.)

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    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Fr. Aidan, thank you, indeed, for these posts! They already make me feel the more sharply that I really want to read St John of Damascus!

      And this post especially makes me think that, if Charles Williams did not have a large conscious debt to St. John, he nonetheless ended up very ‘Damascene’ in much of his thought. (It makes me want to reread his essay on the Cross, with these chapters of Book III next to it.)

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  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    It is fascinating to think this (insofar as we can trust the later Life by John, Patriarch of Jerusalem) was written after his time of service at the court of the Caliph and under the rule of the Caliph. It seems to me that, without being polemical or apologetic, its lucid explanation is there for any contemporary (or later) Muslim scholar who wants to read it seriously.


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