On What Can Be Known About God

by St. John of Damascus

Our venerable and God-bearing Father John of Damascus was also known as John Damascene, Chrysorrhoas, “streaming with gold,” (i.e., the golden speaker). He was born and raised in Damascus, in all probability at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas (Mar Saba), South East of Jerusalem. He is also recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, one who would speak or hear about God should know beyond any doubt that in what concerns theology and the Dispensation [the term commonly used for the Incarnation by the Greek Fathers] not all things are inexpressible and not all are capable of expression, and neither are all things unknowable nor are they all knowable. That which can be known is one thing, whereas that which can be said is another, just as it is one thing to speak and another to know. Furthermore, many of those things about God which are not clearly perceived cannot be fittingly described, so that we are obliged to express in human terms things which transcend the human order. Thus, for example, in speaking about God we attribute to Him sleep, anger, indifference, hands and feet, and the alike.

Now, we both know and confess that God is without beginning and without end, everlasting and eternal, uncreated, unchangeable, inalterable, simple, uncompounded, incorpo- real, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, unlimited, incom- prehensible, uncontained, unfathomable, good, just, the maker of all created things, all-powerful, all-ruling, all-seeing, the provider, the sovereign, and the judge of all. We furthermore know and confess that God is one, that is to say, one substance, and that He is both understood to be and is in three Persons I mean the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in all things save in the being unbegotten, the being begotten, and the procession. We also know and confess that for our salvation the Word of God through the bowels of His mercy, by the good pleasure of the Father and with the co-operation of the All-Holy Spirit, was conceived with- out seed and chastely begotten of the holy Virgin and Mother of God, Mary, by the Holy Spirit and of her became perfect man; and that He is perfect God and at the same time perfect man, being of two natures, the divinity and the humanity, and in two intellectual natures endowed with will and operation and liberty or, to put it simply, perfect in accordance with the definition and principle befitting each, the divinity, I mean, and the humanity, but with one compound hypostasis. And we know and confess that He hungered and thirsted and was weary, and that He was crucified, and that for three days He suffered death and the tomb, and that He returned into heaven whence He had come to us and whence He will come back to us at a later time. To all this holy Scripture and all the company of the saints bear witness.

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But what the substance of God is, or how it is in all things, or how the only-begotten Son, who was God, emptied Himself out and became man from a virgin’s blood, being formed by another law that transcended nature, or how He walked dry-shod upon the waters, we neither understand nor can say. And so it is impossible either to say or fully to understand anything about God beyond what has been divinely proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred declarations of the Old and New Testaments.

HT: Orthocath

St. John Damascene, Chapter 2 of  An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

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