John of Damascus and the Perichoresis
Rev. Angus Stewart
(Slightly modified from an article first published in
the British Reformed Journal)
John of Damascus (c.675-c.750), though little known
today, is probably the most famous theologian in the last 1500 years of
the Eastern church. He was born into a prominent family and educated
under Cosmas, a learned Sicilian monk. Like his grandfather and father
before him, John served as an high official in the court of the Muslim
Umayyad caliph of Damascus. Later John retired to Saint Sabas, a
monastery near the shore of the Dead Sea about ten miles south-east of
Jerusalem. Hughes Oliphant Old tries to capture the significance of
For the caliph’s minister of finance to retire to
Saint Sabas might be roughly analogous to the American secretary of
the treasury leaving Washington to become a theology student at
John of Damascus is an interesting and important
figure for several reasons. First, he is the last of the Greek fathers
and their capable summariser. Second, his Exposition of the Orthodox
Faith is one of the earliest "systematic theologies" and was used
for many centuries as a textbook in the Eastern church.2
Third, John not only exerted great sway in the East but he also
influenced the Western church especially through the twelfth and
thirteenth century Latin translations of his works. In his famous
(1150), Peter Lombard (c.1095-1169) appealed some twenty-seven times to
the Damascene. In the middle of the thirteenth century, western
scholarship produced a concordance to John’s Exposition of the
Orthodox Faith. John was the West’s prime source for Eastern
theology and, since John utilised Aristotelian philosophy in his
theological writings, he is certainly one factor in the rise of Western
scholastic theology—a synthesis of Latin theology and Aristotelian
methods and interests. In 1890, Pope Leo XIII even declared John a
"Doctor of the Church." Fourth, John is of interest not only in his
influence on the church, both in the East and in the West, but in his
relations with Islam. Mohammed died in 632, and John is one of the
earliest, learned critics of Islam. However, in his responses to Muslim
criticisms of the Eastern church’s practice and theology, John failed to
see any need for reform but instead he justified many of the church’s
departures in worship and doctrine.
This last point serves to explain in part some of
John of Damascus’ errors. Not only did John develop some of the false
teachings in the church’s tradition, but he also did so in part in
reaction to the Muslims. For example, the Muslims opposed Christ’s
eternal sonship. John, in effect, said that God not only has a Son but
He has a mother as well! John’s statements about the blessed virgin
Mary—for so she is called in Luke 1:28, 42, 45, 48—depart from the
sobriety of Scripture and run into mariolatry (e.g., OF 3.12;
4.14). John taught that Mary’s birth was miraculous, and he made
statements later used in support of Mary’s immaculate conception, her
being born without sin.3 In his sermons on
the burial of Mary, John provides "a particularly early statement of the
assumption of the Virgin. No one had put the story quite so poetically
or elegantly before."4
The Muslims mocked the use of pictures by professing
Christians and John rose in defence of images, especially in his famous
three Orations. Old states that the Damascene, leaning heavily on
the Neoplatonic ideas of Dionysius the Areopagite, was "the first to
develop" a "theology of icons."5
Philip Schaff adds, "[N]o one has put the case better."6
Thus it comes as no surprise to see John advocating the veneration of
the saints, their relics and the cross (OF 4.11, 15-16).
John’s view of the Lord’s Supper approaches
transubstantiation: "the bread itself and the wine are changed
into God’s body and blood." He explicitly and emphatically denied that
the elements are "merely figures of the body and blood of Christ
(God forbid!)" (OF 4.13). John did not seem to understand that
Christ is present spiritually in the Lord’s Supper.
John’s false view of the grace of God is not only a
development of the wrong ideas embedded in the church’s tradition, but
it also flows from his Aristotelianism (OF 2.12, 25). John is a
staunch advocate of the baldest form of free will. According to him, God
is not sovereign over man’s choices nor over death (OF 2.28). The
things "that are in our power," he claims, "are outside of the sphere of
Providence and within that of our Free-will" (OF 2.29). John’s
free-will theology leads him into free-offer theology: "God’s
antecedent will and pleasure" is "that all should be saved and come
to His Kingdom" (OF 2.29; cf. 4.19). God does not determine
the future; He merely knows the future through His "foreknowledge"
(understood in the Arminian sense of a bare foresight of what man will
do). This is where John brings in "God’s consequent will and
permission," which "has its origin in us." If we believe, God will save
us; if we do not believe He will punish us (OF 2.29). John even
accepts the consequences of his free-will and free-offer theology:
Christ is "grateful
to those who receive" His salvation (OF 4.4)! This logically
follows, for if Christ wants to save everybody and man is "united
to God of [his] own free-will" (OF 4.15), then the Lord must be
thankful to those who allow Him to save them.7
John’s position on the procession of the Holy Spirit
is also a development in the wrong direction in that he—more clearly
than any earlier Greek writer—opposed the filioque, the doctrine
that the Holy Spirit is breathed forth by the Father and the Son.
Herman Bavinck notes that John "definitely rejects
the idea that the Spirit is from (out of) the Son and has his existence
from (out of) the Son, and he refers the Son and the Spirit ‘to one
originating cause.’ This has remained the doctrine of the Greek church."8
Clearly John of Damascus’s positions on Mary, icons,
relics, the Lord’s Supper, grace and free-will, and the filioque
all stand in the development of false doctrine. So the question arises,
Why study John of Damascus in a series on the development of true
doctrine and, more particularly, why treat John in our consideration of
the development of the doctrine of the covenant when he did not treat it
as a theological subject?
The answer lies in John’s development of the doctrine
of the perichoresis (Greek) or circumincession
(Latin), the doctrine of the mutual indwelling of the Father and the Son
and the Holy Spirit within the blessed Trinity. John was not the first
to state this truth. For example, the fourth century Eastern fathers,
Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Didymus the Blind, taught the
perichoresis,9 and Reinhold Seeberg writes
that Augustine (354-430) in the West wrote of the "mutual
interpenetration and interdwelling" of the three Persons in the Trinity.10
John, however, is clearer and fuller than all his predecessors.
John’s Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, as
one would expect, is most rich and orthodox in his treatment of the Holy
Trinity (book 1) and the Incarnation of the Son (book 3), for these
subjects received extensive study in the early church and drew forth
creedal statements from the ecumenical councils.
God, John writes, is
Uncreate, without beginning, immortal, infinite,
eternal, immaterial, good, creative, just, enlightening, immutable,
passionless, uncircumscribed, immeasurable, unlimited, undefined,
unseen, unthinkable, wanting in nothing, being His own rule and
authority, all-ruling, life-giving, omnipotent, of infinite power,
containing and maintaining the universe and making provision for all
For John, this true God is always the Triune
God: "And when I say God, it is evident that I mean the Father and His
Only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, and His all-holy Spirit, our
one God" (OF 2.1). John was a Trinitarian thinker rooted in and
seeking to develop the faith set forth in the writings of the church
fathers and the ecumenical creeds.
The creed drafted at Nicea (325) declared that the
Son was homoousios (of the same essence or nature or being) with
the Father. Later, the Holy Spirit was also confessed as of the same
essence or nature or being with the Father and the Son. Since all three
divine Persons possess the one infinite being of God, they must mutually
penetrate and indwell each other wholly. Thus the homoousios
leads to the perichoresis.
To restate the argument: (1) God is one in His Being;
(2) all the three Persons possess all of the divine Being; (3) therefore
all three Persons indwell each other fully. The Father (as Father with
His personal properties as not begotten nor proceeding) abides in the
Son and in the Spirit. The Son (as Son with His personal properties as
begotten and not proceeding) abides in the Father and in the Spirit. The
Spirit (as Spirit with His personal properties as not begotten but
proceeding) abides in the Father and in the Son. Thus the
is a logical implication of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and
necessarily flows from it.
John of Damascus understood this. He speaks often of
the relationship between the first and second Persons. The Son "ever
abide[s] in the Father" (OF 1.8) and is "ever essentially present
with" Him (OF 1.13). The Son is "in the bosom" of the Father (OF
3.1) and He became incarnate "without leaving the Father’s bosom" (OF
3.7). John describes the relationship between the second and third
Persons as one of companionship. Those who have "learnt about the Spirit
of God" "contemplate" Him as "the companion of the Word" (OF
1.7). The third Person is the bond between the first and second Persons:
"The holy Spirit is God, being between the unbegotten and the begotten,
and united to the Father through the Son" (OF 1.13). Later
he describes the relationship between the three Persons from the
perspective of the second Person: the Word is "with the Father
and the Spirit without beginning and through eternity" (OF 3.12).
John uses certain verbs to describe the
of the divine persons: cleaving (OF 1.8, 14), abiding (OF
1.8), dwelling (OF 1.8) and indwelling (OF 4.18). He is
insistent that there is no confusing, compounding, coalescing or mixing
of the Persons in this most intimate union (OF 1.8, 14). The
preposition of the perichoresis
is not merely "with" but "in."11
This "unity and community" in the Holy Trinity means that the three
Persons "being identical in authority and power and goodness" have
perfect "concord of mind" (OF 1.8).
John summarises his position at the end of his
treatment of the Trinity in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:
The subsistences [i.e., the three Persons] dwell
and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable
and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses
within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to
each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the
Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the
Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And
there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one
motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any
created nature (OF 1.14).
One striking feature of John’s theology which is
closely related to his doctrine of the perichoresis is his
thinking about space. In his description of angels, John tells us that
they are "circumscribed" (OF 2.3). In his chapter on the heaven
(taken as including the atmospheric heaven, the astronomic heaven and
the celestial heaven) he avers, that it is "the circumference of things
created, both visible and invisible" (OF 2.6). When he comes to
the air and the winds, he states that the wind’s "place is in the air,"
before explaining that "place is the circumference of a body" and that
it is "air" which "surrounds bodies" (OF 2.8). Christ’s human
nature is "circumscribed" (OF 3.3) and God’s right hand is not an
"actual place" (OF 4.2). "God permeates and fills the universe" (OF
1.4), and "He is His own place" (OF 1.13). Now if God is "His own
place," and the Father, Son and Spirit are each truly God, then the
place of each is in each other. Hence we have the perichoresis.
But John of Damascus does not only arrive at the
by logical deductions from the church’s doctrine of the Holy Trinity and
by reflection upon the idea of place. John sees the perichoresis
as a scriptural doctrine: "For the subsistences [i.e., the three
Persons] dwell in one another ... according to the word of the Lord,
I am in the Father, and the Father in Me [John 14:11]" (OF 1.8).
Later he writes, that the Scriptures "declare the indwelling of the
subsistences in one another, as, I am in the Father, and the Father in
Me [John 14:10]" (OF 4.18).12
John sees an analogy between the perichoresis
of the three divine persons and the relationship between Christ’s human
and divine natures (OF 3.5). He proceeds to describe Christ’s
incarnation in terms of union and indwelling:
... in the Incarnation of ... the Word of the Holy
Trinity, we hold that in one of its subsistences the nature of the
Godhead is wholly and perfectly united with the whole nature of the
humanity, and not part united to part. The divine Apostle in truth
says that in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily
[Col. 2:9] (OF 3.6).
John speaks of the "mutual interchange" (OF
3.19), "intercourse" (OF 3.3), "community" (OF 4.18) and
"communion" (OF 3.19) between Christ’s two natures and the "close
communion" between His two wills and between His two energies (OF
In Paradise, the Almighty made man "after the image
of God" in "communion with Himself" (OF 2.30). Through the Fall, we
became "evil" and "were stripped of our communion with God (for what
communion hath light with darkness [II Cor. 6:14])" (OF 4.4). In
the incarnation, "the new Adam" assumed a true and complete human nature
in order to save us through His death on the cross (OF 3.20) by
recreating us in His image (OF 4.13) and giving us "the knowledge
of God" (OF 4.4). In this regard, John repeats a famous axiom of
the early church: "That which is not assumed is not remedied" (OF
3.18; cf. 3.6, 20).
Believers are the "friends of Christ," "the friends
of God" and the "sons and heirs of God" (OF 4.15).13
Through Jesus Christ "the Godhead as a whole ha[s] fellowship with us in
one of its own subsistences." John declares that this is "so deep a
knowledge of things divine" (OF 3.6). Clearly fellowship with the
Holy Trinity is the apex of salvation for John of Damascus! "What
belongs to us ... who walk by the spirit," writes John, is "spiritual
service and communion with God" (OF 4.23).
In only one chapter in his Exposition of the
Orthodox Faith does John mention the word
"covenant" and that is in his quotation of Christ’s words regarding the
new covenant in His blood at the Lord’s Supper (OF
4.13). However, he speaks of the reality of the covenant in his
description of the church as God’s dwelling place: "The Church ... is
spoken of as the place of God: for we have set this apart for the
glorifying of God as a sort of consecrated place wherein we also hold
converse with him" (OF 1.13).
Yet John here mistakes the church as a place where the people of
God meet, rather than the people of God itself. Later John clearly
identifies people as the "habitations of God." He quotes the
famous covenant formula, "For I will dwell in them, said God, and walk
in them, and I will be their God" (OF 4.15).
John writes that "the souls of the just are in God’s hand"
and he adds, "God dwelt even in their bodies
in spiritual wise." For proof he quotes Paul, "Know ye not that your
bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you?" (II Cor.
3:17) and "If anyone destroy the temple of God, him will God destroy" (I
Cor. 3:17). Believers, John concludes, are "the living temples of
God" and "the living tabernacles
of God" (OF 4.15). But John is not speaking of believers but the
"saints" who are now in heaven where they (allegedly) "make intercession
to God for us" (OF 4.15). Thus John’s development of the
perichoresis in the Trinity and the indwelling of the Son in the
flesh (Col. 2:9) does not issue in a clear and consistent doctrine of
rich fellowship with God—the covenant!—for all believers but only for
some, the "saints."
One wonders if there is not something in Old’s
hypothesis—if indeed John’s background of polemic with the Muslims did
not also turn his mind to the riches of the Trinity, of the
and of living fellowship and communion with God through the incarnate
Son. Old writes, "The monolithic approach to the divine unity that Islam
advocated left little room for ... communion with God," the personal God
who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.14
The doctrine of the Trinity (including the perichoresis) issuing
in covenant friendship between God and man in Christ is the deathblow to
all Unitarianism (Muslim, Jewish and "Christian") both doctrinally and
Clearly John of Damascus’s role in the development of
doctrine of the covenant is mixed. In John’s treatment of the
perichoresis, there is a positive development of the foundational
doctrine of the Trinity laid by the church fathers. However, John also
developed false doctrine contrary to another doctrine foundational to
the covenant—sovereign, particular grace as developed by Augustine.
Moreover, John not only mixes his free-will with the truth of the
perichoresis, he also mingles with it a further development of some
of the dross of the early church—Mariolatry, iconolatry, relics, the
notion of two tiers of Christians, etc.
One more point needs to be made about the
and the development of the doctrine of the covenant. The perichoresis
establishes the nature of the covenant. Reformed and Presbyterian
theologians were not content to speak of the covenant as something
merely in time. They said that God eternally decreed His covenant with
man and they spoke of the Covenant of Redemption within the Trinity
between the first and second Persons. This instinct is undoubtedly
correct. The covenant is rooted in eternity and even in the very Godhead
itself. The perichoresis describes the life of God as one of
perfect indwelling and fellowship. The perichoresis (and not a
bargain or contract) is the model for our covenant fellowship. The
Father and the Son and the Spirit dwell in one another in covenant
fellowship (perichoresis) and thus God’s promise of covenant
fellowship with us is that He will "dwell" in us (II Cor. 6:16; OF
4.15). This is the essence of the covenant.15
Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the
Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 3 (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 21.
John of Damascus,
Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, trans. S. D. F. Salmond, in The
Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, eds. Philip Schaff
and Henry Wace, vol. 9 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, repr. 1989). Hereafter
this work shall be abbreviated OF followed by book and chapter,
e.g., OF 2.11.
Old, Op. cit., p. 26.
Ibid., p. 28.
Ibid., p. 29.
Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4 (USA:
Hendrickson, repr. 1996), p. 627.
John, writing in a more scriptural vein, later unwittingly
contradicts free-will: "we are bound in the fetters of sin" (OF
Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, trans. William
Hendriksen (Great Britain: Banner, repr. 1991), p. 315; italics mine.
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (USA:
HarperSanFrancisco, rev. 1978), p. 264.
Reinhold Seeberg, Text-Book of the History of Doctrines,
trans. Charles E. Hay (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954), vol. 1, p. 239.
Cf. "[A]lways [the Son] was with the Father and in
Him" (OF 1.8; cf. 4:18).
Importantly, Christ here teaches us that the perichoresis
is an object of faith: "Believe me that I am in the Father, and the
Father in me" (John 14:11).
Sadly, John of Damascus is talking in this section (OF
4.15) of the "saints" in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox sense.
He is not referring to all true believers in Christ (the biblical view
of saints), but to the dead whom the church deems particularly pious
Christians. These "saints" are to be prayed to and venerated, and their
relics are to be looked to for healing. Here we see that John held to
the notion that there are two tiers of Christians.
Op. cit., p. 24.
For more on the perichoresis or mutual
indwelling of the three Persons in the Holy Trinity, listen to this
of a class on Belgic Confession 8.