Saint John of Damascus on the Names of God

Saint John of Damascus Icon Close UpSaint John of Damascus on the Names of God

“Since the Divinity is incomprehensible, He must remain absolutely nameless. Accordingly, since we do not know His essence, let us not look for a name for His essence, for names are indicative of what things are. However, although God is good and has brought us from nothing into being to share His goodness and has given us knowledge, yet, since He did not communicate His essence to us, so neither did He communicate the knowledge of His essence. It is impossible for a nature to know a nature of a higher order perfectly; but, if knowledge is of things that are, then how will that which is superessential be known? So, in His ineffable goodness He sees fit to be named from things which are on the level of our nature, that we may not be entirely bereft of knowledge of Him but may have at least some dim understanding. Therefore, in so far as He is incomprehensible, He is also unnameable. But, since He is the cause of all things and possesses beforehand in Himself the reasons and causes of all, so He can be named after all things – even after things which are opposites, such as light and darkness, water and fire – so that we may know that He is not these things in essence, but is superessential and unnameable. Thus, since He is the cause of all beings, He is named after all things that are caused.

Wherefore, some of the divine names are said by negation and show His superessentiality, as when He is called ‘Insubstantial,’ ‘Timeless,’ ‘Without beginning,’ ‘Invisible’ – not because He is inferior to anything or lacking in anything, for all things are His and from Him and by Him were made and in Him consist, but because He is pre-eminently set apart from all beings. The names that are given by negation are predicated of Him as being the cause of all things. For, in so far as He is the cause of all beings an of every essence, He is called ‘Being’ and ‘Essence.’ As the cause of all reason and wisdom, and as that of the reasoning and the wise, He is called ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Wise.’ In the same way, He is called ‘Mind’ and ‘Understanding,’ ‘Life’ and ‘Living,’ ‘Might’ and ‘Mighty,’ and so on with all the rest. But especially may He be named after those more noble things which approach Him more closely. Immaterial things are more noble than material, the pure more so than the sordid, the sacred more so than the profane, and they approach Him more closely because they participate in Him more. Consequently, He may be called sun and light much more suitably than darkness, day more suitably than night, life more suitably than death, and fire, air, and water (since these are life-giving) more suitably than earth. And, above all, He may be called goodness rather than evil, which is the same thing as to say being rather than non-being, because good is existence and the cause of existence. There are all negations and affirmations, but the most satisfactory is the combination of both, as, for example, the ‘superessential Essence,’ the ‘superdivine Godhead,’ the ‘Principle beyond all principles,’ and so on. There are also some things which are affirmed of God positively, but which have the force of extreme negation, as, for example, darkness – not because God is darkness, but because He is light and more than light.

And so, God is called ‘Mind,’ and ‘Reason,’ and Spirit, and ‘Wisdom,’ because He is the cause of these, and because He is immaterial, and because He is all-working and all-powerful. And these names, both those given by negation and those given by affirmation, are applied jointly to the whole Godhead. They also apply in the same way, identically, and without exception, to each one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. Thus, when I think of the Persons, I know that He is perfect God, a perfect substance, but when I put them together and combine them, I know one perfect God. For the Godhead is not compounded, but is one perfect, indivisible, and uncompounded being in three perfect beings. However, whenever I think of the negation of the Persons to one another, I know that the Father is a supersubstantial sun, a well-spring of goodness, an abyss of essence, reason, wisdom, power, light, and divinity, a betting and emitting well-spring of the good hidden in Himself. Thus, He is ‘Mind,’ ‘Abyss of reason,’ ‘Begetter of the Word,’ and, through the Word, ‘Emitter’ of the revealing Spirit. And, not to speak at too great length, the Father has no reason, wisdom, power, or will other than the Son, who is the only power of the Father and the primordial force of the creation of all things. As a perfect hypostasis begotten of a perfect hypostasis, in a manner which He alone knows, is He who is the Son and is so called. Then there is the Holy Ghost, a power of the Father revealing the hidden things of the Godhead and proceeding from the Father through the Son, not by begetting, but in a manner which He alone knows. Wherefore the Holy Ghost is also perfector of the creation of all things. Consequently, whatsoever pertains to the Father as cause, well-spring, and begetter must be attributed to the Father alone. Whatsoever pertains to the Son as caused, begotten son, word, primordial force, will, and wisdom must be attributed to the Son alone. And whatsoever pertains to the caused, proceeding, revealing, and perfecting power must be attributed to the Holy Ghost. The Father is well-spring and cause of Son and Holy Ghost – He is Father of the only Son and Emitter of the Holy Ghost. The Son is son, word, wisdom, power, image, radiance, and type of the Father, and He is from the Father. And the Holy Ghost is not a son of the Father, but He is the Spirit of the Father as proceeding from the Father. For, without the Spirit, there is no impulsion. And He is the Spirit of the Son, not as being from Him, but as proceeding through Him from the Father – for the Father alone is cause.”

– Orthodox Faith: Book One – 


– Lucas G. Westman

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