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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IX:
John of Damascus: Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.: Concerning the nature of Deity: that it is incomprehensible.

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Chapter IV.—Concerning the nature of Deity: that it is incomprehensible.

It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what He is in His essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable. For it is evident that He is incorporeal 1436 . For how could that possess body which is infinite, and boundless, and formless, and intangible and invisible, in short, simple and not compound? How could that be immutable 1437 which is circumscribed and subject to passion? And how could that be passionless which is composed of elements and is resolved again into them? For combination 1438 is the beginning of conflict, and conflict of separation, and separation of dissolution, and dissolution is altogether foreign to God 1439 .

Again, how will it also be maintained 1440 that God permeates and fills the universe? as the Scriptures say, Do not I fill heaven and earth, saith the Lord 1441 ? For it is an impossibility 1442 that one body should permeate other bodies without dividing and being divided, and without being enveloped and contrasted, in the same way as all fluids mix and commingle.

But if some say that the body is immaterial, in the same way as the fifth body 1443 of which the Greek philosophers speak (which body is an impossibility), it will be wholly subject to motion like the heaven. For that is what they mean by the fifth body. Who then is it that moves it? For everything that is moved is moved by another thing. And who again is it that moves that? and so on to infinity till we at length arrive at something motionless. For the first mover is motionless, and that is the Deity. And must not that which is moved be circumscribed in space? The Deity, then, alone is motionless, moving the universe by immobility 1444 . So then it must be assumed that the Deity is incorporeal.

But even this gives no true idea of His essence, to say that He is unbegotten, and without beginning, changeless and imperishable, and possessed of such other qualities as we are wont to ascribe to God and His environment 1445 . For these do not indicate what He is, but what He is not 1446 . But when we would explain what p. 4b the essence of anything is, we must not speak only negatively. In the case of God, however, it is impossible to explain what He is in His essence, and it befits us the rather to hold discourse about His absolute separation from all things 1447 . For He does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence 1448 , but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself. For if all forms of knowledge have to do with what exists, assuredly that which is above knowledge must certainly be also above essence 1449 : and, conversely, that which is above essence 1450 will also be above knowledge.

God then is infinite and incomprehensible and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. But all that we can affirm concerning God does not shew forth God’s nature, but only the qualities of His nature 1451 . For when you speak of Him as good, and just, and wise, and so forth, you do not tell God’s nature but only the qualities of His nature 1452 . Further there are some affirmations which we make concerning God which have the force of absolute negation: for example, when we use the term darkness, in reference to God, we do not mean darkness itself, but that He is not light but above light: and when we speak of Him as light, we mean that He is not darkness.



Various reading, It is evident that the divine (τὸ Θεῖον) is incorporeal.


Text ἄτρεπτον. Most mss. read σεπτόν. So, too, Greg. Naz., Orat. 34, from which these words are taken. An old interpretation is ‘venerabile est.’ But in the opinion of Combefis, Gregory’s text is corrupt, and ἄτρεπτονshould be read, which reading is also supported by various authorities, including three Cod. Reg.: cf. also De Trinit. in Cyril.




Greg. Naz., Orat. 32, 34.


Text, σωθήσεται: various reading, συνθήσεται.


Jer. xxiii. 24.


Greg. Naz. ut supr.


The reference is to the Pythagorean and Aristotelian ideas of the heavens as being like the body of Deity, something uncorrupt, different from the four elements, and therefore called a fifth body, or element (στοιχεῖον). In his Meteor. i. 3, De Cœlo i. 3, &c., Aristotle speaks of the Ether as extending from the heaven of the fixed stars down to the moon, as of a nature specially adapted for circular motion, as the first element in rank, but as the fifth, “if we enumerate beginning with the elements directly known by the senses.…the subsequently so-called πέμπτον στοιχεῖον, quinta essentia.” The other elements, he taught, had the upward motion, or the downward: the earth having the attribute of heaviness, and its natural place in the world being the lowest; fire being the light element, and “its place the sphere next adjoining the sphere of the ether.” See Ueberweg’s History of Philosophy, Vol. I. p. 167, Morris’s translation, and the chapter on the De Cœlo in Grote’s Aristotle, Vol. II. pp. 389, &c.


Greg. Naz. ut supr.


Or, such as are said to exist in the case of God, or in relation to God. The Greek is, ὅσα περὶ Θεοῦ, ἢ περὶ Θεὸν εἶναι λέγεται.


Greg. Naz. ut supr.


Greg. Naz., Orat. 32, 34. The Greek is, οἰκειότερον δὲ μᾶλλον ἐκ τῆς ἁπάντων ἀφαιρέσεως ποιεῖσθαι τὸν λόγον. It may be given thus:—It is more in accordance with the nature of the case rather to discourse of Him in the way of abstracting from him all that belongs to us.


Dionys., De Myst. Theolog.


Or, above being; ὑπὲρ οὐσίαν.


Or, above being; ὑπὲρ οὐσίαν.


Or, but only the things which relate to His nature. The Greek is, ὅσα δὲ λέγομεν ἐπὶ Θεοῦ καταφαντικῶς, οὐ τὴν φύσιν, ἀλλὰ τὰ περὶ τὴν φύσιν δηλοῖ.


Or, the things that relate to his nature.

Next: Proof that God is one and not many.