The Fathers and Theistic Arguments (3): St. John of Damascus

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This is the third part in an ongoing series of posts on the use of arguments for God’s existence in early Christian theology. I hope to explore the implications of the use of these arguments by early Christians (to distinguish carefully what is being said from what is not being said by these theologians), and to hopefully gain a better grasp of the relationship between reason and faith, and the role of intellectual persuasion in the discourse of evangelism.

In Chapter 3, book 1 of On the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus writes the following about the existence of God:

Proof that there is a God.

That there is a God, then, is no matter of doubt to those who receive the Holy Scriptures, the Old Testament, I mean, and the New; nor indeed to most of the Greeks. For, as we said the knowledge of the existence of God is implanted in us by nature. But since the wickedness of the Evil One has prevailed so mightily against man’s nature as even to drive some into denying the existence of God, that most foolish and woe-fulest pit of destruction (whose folly David, revealer of the Divine meaning, exposed when he said, The fool said in his heart, There is no God), so the disciples of the Lord and His Apostles, made wise by the Holy Spirit and working wonders in His power and grace, took them captive in the net of miracles and drew them up out of the depths of ignorance to the light of the knowledge of God. In like manner also their successors in grace and worth, both pastors and teachers, having received the enlightening grace of the Spirit, were wont, alike by the power of miracles and the word of grace, to enlighten those walking in darkness and to bring back the wanderers into the way. But as for us who are not recipients either of the gift of miracles or the gift of teaching (for indeed we have rendered ourselves unworthy of these by our passion for pleasure), come, let us in connection with this theme discuss a few of those things which have been delivered to us on this subject by the expounders of grace, calling on the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

All things, that exist, are either created or uncreated. If, then, things are created, it follows that they are also wholly mutable. For things, whose existence originated in change, must also be subject to change, whether it be that they perish or that they become other than they are by act of will. But if things are uncreated they must in all consistency be also wholly immutable. For things which are opposed in the nature of their existence must also be opposed in the mode of their existence, that is to say, must have opposite properties: who, then, will refuse to grant that all existing things, not only such as come within the province of the senses, but even the very angels, are subject to change and transformation and movement of various kinds? For the things appertaining to the rational world, I mean angels and spirits and demons, are subject to changes of will, whether it is a progression or a retrogression in goodness, whether a struggle or a surrender; while the others suffer changes of generation and destruction, of increase and decrease, of quality and of movement in space. Things then that are mutable are also wholly created. But things that are created must be the work of some maker, and the maker cannot have been created. For if he had been created, he also must surely have been created by some one, and so on till we arrive at something uncreated. The Creator, then, being uncreated, is also wholly immutable. And what could this be other than Deity?

And even the very continuity of the creation, and its preservation and government, teach us that there does exist a Deity, who supports and maintains and preserves and ever provides for this universe. For how could opposite natures, such as fire and water, air and earth, have combined with each other so as to form one complete world, and continue to abide in indissoluble union, were there not some omnipotent power which bound them together and always is preserving them from dissolution?

What is it that gave order to things of heaven and things of earth, and all those things that move in the air and in the water, or rather to what was in existence before these, viz., to heaven and earth and air and the elements of fire and water? What was it that mingled and distributed these? What was it that set these in motion and keeps them in their unceasing and unhindered course? Was it not the Artificer of these things, and He Who hath implanted in everything the law whereby the universe is carried on and directed? Who then is the Artificer of these things? Is it not He Who created them and brought them into existence. For we shall not attribute such a power to the spontaneous. For, supposing their coming into existence was due to the spontaneous; what of the power that put all in order? And let us grant this, if you please. What of that which has preserved and kept them in harmony with the original laws of their existence? Clearly it is something quite distinct from the spontaneous. And what could this be other than Deity?

Analysis of the Passage:

There are two arguments given here. The first section offers a cosmological argument. Cosmological arguments work from the fact that reality in general must be dependent to the conclusion that God exists for reality to depend on for existence. The first step is that some kind of distinction is drawn between one kind of reality (a) and another (b). For some philosophers this distinction is between “necessary” and “contingent” being; Aquinas, Leibniz and more contemporary philosophers such as Steven Davis, Alexander Pruss, and Timothy O’Connor have made this appeal. For others like Aristotle, it is “unchanging” and “changing” beings. For still others it is “beings that don’t come into existence” and “beings that come into existence”, as is the case with Al Ghazzali and among contemporary philosophers William Lane Craig. The two categories are thought to be exhaustive: everything falls into either one or the other. They must be intuitively obvious categories, or there must be an argument for the legitimacy of them. Next, this distinction is shown to require an explanation: (a) kind of reality has to exist to ground the (b) kind. The need for an explanation requires the rejection of an infinite regress of (b) kind of reality; if there can be an infinite chain of (b) kind of reality, with each (b) member dependent on another (b), then there is no need for the (a) kind to explain the existence of the (b) kind. So (a) kind of reality exists. Finally, (a) kind of reality is considered, and it is concluded (sometimes intuitively, other times by way of additional arguments) that (a) kind of reality must be God. The distinction St. John draws is between those things that are “created” and those that are “uncreated”. This is an important and interesting move, as Fr. Andrew Louth points out:

This had become the fundamental ontological distinction for Christian metaphysics. Whereas Platonic metaphysics worked with a fundamental distinction between the spiritual and material, from the fourth century onwards Christian thinkers had asserted the fundamental significance of the divide or gulf between uncreated and created: uncreated being comprising the Holy Trinity (the Son and the Spirit consubstantial with the Father, to use the terminology that in the latter half of the fourth century became the hallmark of Orthodox ‘Nicene’ theology), all else being created out of nothing. For Gregory of Nyssa and, later, for Maximos the Confessor, this distinction assumed a fundamental significance, which is reflected in the theology of the Damascene. Its relevance here is to provide the premiss for an argument for the necessity of an uncreated creator. The argument develops by equating the distinction between created and uncreated with that between changeable and unchangeable (the idea that created beings were essentially changeable, as their very origin, from nothing, involved a change, is an argument found in the Fathers from at least Athanasios), and then arguing that change stands in need of explanation, which can only be provided by the unchangeable: a variant of Aristotle’s argument for an unmoved mover. It might well be thought that the argument conceals its conclusion (the existence of a creator God) in its premiss (the distinction between uncreated and created).

Andrew Louth, St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology, p. 93

The Christian metaphysics that is implicit in the premises of the argument might seem to be question-begging. In one sense Fr. Louth seems correct; the argument’s conclusion is concealed in its premises. But even if all the members of the category “created” are members of the category “mutable” and all the members of the category “uncreated” are members of the category “immutable” this does not imply that there is no conceptual distinction between “created” and “mutable”, and “uncreated” and “immutable”. Just because all animals that fall into the category “has a kidney” also fall into the category “has a spine” and visa versa does not imply that “has a kidney” is the same as “has a spine”. When St. John says “things which are opposed in the nature of their existence must also be opposed in the mode of their existence, that is to say, must have opposite properties” he presumably means to say that “created” is what is predicated of nature, and “mutable” is what is predicated of mode. So they are conceptually distinct, but always accompany each other in the real world (everything that is created is mutable, etc.).

If there is indeed a conceptual distinction between these properties, then perhaps someone who accepts the categories of “mutable” and “immutable” would on reflection conclude that mutable things must be created; and for them, it seems that this kind of argument would work. St. John apparently thought that the connection between “created” and “mutable” was plausible, because he asks “who, then, will refuse to grant that all existing things, not only such as come within the provenance of the senses, but even the very angels, are subject to change and transformation and movement of various kinds?” Unfortunately, the way that this connection is worked out seems backwards: St. John seems to offer arguments for the conclusion that created things are mutable, not that mutable things are created. But if he is trying to get non-believers to accept his conclusions, then he should be appealing to the distinction between mutable and immutable, and arguing that mutable things are created things; after all, a pagan audience is more likely to buy into the mutable/immutable distinction (even if some accept the created/uncreated distinction). This problem doesn’t require that St. John’s argument fail to be persuasive. It just limits the range of people that would be persuaded by it to those who already accept the created-mutable/uncreated-immutable distinction, or who find it plausible upon reflection, or who can be persuaded of it somehow.

After producing the distinction, St. John writes that there cannot be an infinite regress of created things. Created things must have a Creator. This standard move–the denial of a regress–is not supported, but is rather assumed to be a plausible and acceptable premise in its own right. Indeed, it has not been frequently challenged until recent philosophical work on the cosmological argument. Notice that he appeals to the impossibility of an infinite regress of created beings, not to the impossibility of an infinite regress of mutable beings. This means that (as mentioned in the previous paragraph of the analysis) this second step of the argument can only be accepted, as it stands, by someone who already buys into some of the basic elements of a Christian metaphysic. The conclusion drawn is that there is a Creator who, because He is uncreated, must be likewise immutable; for all uncreated things are immutable (because “things which are opposed in the nature of their existence must also be opposed in the mode of their existence, that is to say, must have opposite properties”). In words that would be echoed by Thomas Aquinas, St. John says “And what could this be other than Deity?” Stated differently, if you agree there is an uncreated Creator of created reality, then this has to be God.

The second argument is a teleological argument. Teleological arguments work from the orderliness of reality to the conclusion that it must be ordered by a Designer. The first step is to identify some phenomena of order. This can be a very general appeal, such as the fact that things are distinct spatially and temporally, as Richard Swinburne has famously argued in modern times, or the fact that parts of reality in general seem to be ordered towards ends or goals, as Thomas Aquinas argued. The phenomena can also be slightly more specific, such as the fine-tuning of the laws of nature, as John Leslie and Robin Collins would say, or the fine-tuning of numerous features of our galaxy, planetary system, or planet, as Jay Wesley Richards would argue. Or the phenomena could be highly specific, such as a kind of biological structure that seems difficult to explain without appealing to design–perhaps the first living cell as numerous biologists have argued or conceded, or the “irreducible complexity” of cellular processes, organelles and biological molecules, as Michael Behe has proposed. The second step is to explain why the phenomena of order that is pointed to is so peculiar and in need of an explanation in terms of design. This is done by either an intuitive appeal, a calculation about probability, or some kind of argument about the impossibility of an explanation in terms of “chance” and “necessity”. Once the phenomena is shown to require design, the identity of the Designer can be debated.

Saint John Damascene’s version of the design argument appeals to some very general phenomena, namely harmonious distinction, temporal order, and teleology. Opposite natures require a power to join them together and make them work alongside each other. In order to maintain these distinctions, that power must continue to act. This power must be present within created things and must give them direction and purpose. At the end of the argument, St. John adopts dialogical language and distinguishes three different features of the world that require explanation: the world coming into existence, the world being ordered, and the world being maintained in order according to its original laws (which seems to lump together temporal order and teleology). Though it may be possible that “the spontaneous” could explain the universe coming into being, or even could explain the world coming to be ordered, it seems implausible, St. John seems to say, that the maintenance of created natures in their order could be done without the help of divine omnipotence.

(1) Theistic arguments do not provide the foundation of theological belief-structures in Saint John. Before even introducing the argument, St. John makes clear the intellectual acceptability of Christian faith without philosophical argument. The power of miracles and the word of grace can confer knowledge of the truth about God to human beings. Also, it is interesting to think about the order in which St. John’s argument shows up when compared with the theological method of Thomas Aquinas. John begins with a confession of faith and a denial of the knowability of God (presumably God’s essence), whereas Aquinas’s Summa begins with a discussion of theological method, then offers an argument for God’s existence, and then goes on to analyze the simplicity of God. Aquinas does not totally ignore revealed principles in his introductory section, and St. John does not ignore or repudiate intelligibility and reason.

Aquinas, however, seems to reveal a kind of methodism about theology by starting with considerations about the way theological reasoning happens. Saint John, on the other hand, begins with particulars–the transcendence of God, and the experience of him by human beings in creation, law, prophets, and Incarnation. (for explanation of methodism and particularism see here and here) Saint John also notes at the beginning of chapter 1 that without grace it is impossible to see God, which is clearly a denial of “unaided natural reason”.

It is also interesting that St. John appears to imply that the content he is offering is something that has been given by tradition. For he invites the reader to “discuss a few of those things which have been delivered to us on this subject by the expounders of grace”. What exactly is implied by this is not entirely clear, though it seems to connect the arguments with the content of Christian tradition. Perhaps the “delivered” content is that God is Creator and Artificer; perhaps more details of the arguments are included as part of what is delivered by tradition. Does this imply that Saint John thinks we couldn’t have good arguments for God’s existence if Christian revelation had not told us that God is Creator and Artificer? This seems initially implausible given the similarities between his arguments and those of Aristotle and Cicero. This is an issue that deserves more thinking, and careful consideration.

(2) Theistic arguments are primarily rhetorical/persuasive/polemical for Saint John.
Various sections throughout the passage have the overtones of dialog. Each section of the argument ends with a question, presumably meant to prompt the reader to consider assenting to the conclusions (if they indeed disagree). Saint John also uses concession (“And let us grant this, if you please”) which is commonly an argumentative strategy used to persuade someone that they are aware of potential objections and still find their own position more intellectually satisfactory than alternatives. The first person plural is also present throughout, which is very much in line with the co-operative intellectual pursuit that seems implicit elsewhere in chapter 3.

Saint John’s use of the uncreated/created distinction is peculiar, as stated above. Its usefulness for persuasion of non-Christians would have to be highly conditional (see above) though it is obviously not impotent. Depending on how this distinction is fleshed out, it might be acceptable to many. For if all that is meant by “created” is “thing that has a source in time” and all that is meant by uncreated is “thing that has no origin in time”, then it seems very obvious that the things around us fall into the category of “created”. And perhaps it would be possible (or so Saint John might think, though he might be wrong) to argue from this acceptable definition to the conclusion that there must be something that has no origin in time. This issue raises the interesting question of whether or not (or to what extent) Saint John accepts in detail the premises that he uses in his argument. Some of the dialectical language seems strange (“opposite properties” etc.) and may call into question whether or not he accepts the very distinctions he is making (if readers have any information on this subject, feel free to chime in).

(3) The conclusions St. John draws are modest. Nowhere does St. John speak of the divine essence being revealed through his arguments; nor does he discuss a “god-in-general”. Rather, he identifies names (energies) of the God who is the Holy Trinity that are revealed to us when we consider the world: “Creator”, “Omnipotent Power”, “Artificer”, and “Deity”. He calls upon the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to direct him in his thoughts. This reveals a modesty about his abilities, and a dependence on God’s activity to help him as he works with his dialog partner(s) through the argument.

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One Response to “The Fathers and Theistic Arguments (3): St. John of Damascus”

  1. Photios Jones Says:

    Great post. Amen brother.

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