Exposition of the Orthodox Faith – De Fide Orthodoxa (I)

Writings of John of Damascus


From the Latin of the Edition of Michael Lequien, as Given in Migne’s Patrology.

After the rules of Christian dialectic and the review of the errors of ancient heresies comes at last the book “Concerning the Orthodox Faith.” In this book, John of Damascus retains the same order as was adopted by Theodoret in his “Epitome of Divine Dogmas,” but takes a different method. For the former, by the sheer weight of his own genius, framed various kinds of arguments against heretics, adducing the testimony of the sacred page, and thus he composed a concise treatise of Theology. Our author, however, did not confine himself to Scripture, but gathered together also the opinions of the holy Fathers, and produced a work marked with equal perspicuity and brevity, and forming an unexhausted storehouse of tradition in which nothing is to be found that has not been either sanctioned by the oecumenical synods or accepted by the approved leaders of the Church.

He followed, indeed, chiefly Gregory of Nazianzus, who, from the great accuracy of his erudition in divine matters, earned the title “The Theologian,” and who has left scarcely any chapter of Christian learning untouched in his surviving works, and is free from any taint or suspicion of the slightest error. John had read his books with such assiduity that he seemed to hold them all in the embrace of his faithful memory. Wherefore throughout this work you may hear not so much John of Damascus as Gregory the Theologian expounding the mysteries of the orthodox faith. John further made use of Basil the great, of Gregory of Nyssa, and especially of Nemesius, bishop of Emesa in Syria, the most beloved of all; likewise of Cyril of Alexandria, Leo the Great, Leontius of Byzantium, the martyr Maximus: also of Athanasius, Chrysostom, Epiphanius, and, not to mention others, that writer who took the name of Dionysius the Areopagite. Out of all these he culled on every hand the flower of their opinions, and concocted most sweet honey of soundest doctrine. For his aim was, not to strike out views of his own or anything novel, but rather to collect into one single theological work the opinions of the ancients which were scattered through various volumes. And, indeed, in order that the reader may more readily perceive the method of this most careful teacher, we shall carefully note in the margin the names of the authors and of the books from which he copied each separate opinion.

To John of Damascus, therefore, belongs the merit of being the first to compose a volume packed with the sentences of catholic teachers. Accordingly his authority among theologians was always weighty, not only in the East but even in the West and with the Latins: all the more so after the translation into Latin of his book “Concerning the Orthodox Faith,” by Burgundio, a citizen of Pisa, during the Pontificate of Eugenius the Third. Further it was this translation that was used by that master of sentences, St. Thomas, and other later theologians, down till the time when at the beginning of the 16th century Jacobus Faber Stapulensis attempted to produce a more perfect translation than was the old one with its uncouth and barbarous diction. But as this one, too, had many faults, Jacobus Billius, in the course of the same century, completed a version of greater elegance but yet lacking in carefulness and brevity. For, as Combefis remarked, “in translating the Damascene Billius shewed the rawness of a recruit.” Combefis himself, however, considered the translation of Billy of no little worth; for when he was toiling at a new edition of the works of John of Damascus, he did not think it necessary to make a new translation once more, but was quite content to emend the earlier one. For he was rightly aware that all the most learned interpreters of lengthy tomes slip into many errors, and that it is much easier to improve on the errors of others than to detect one’s own. Thus our translation will represent that of Billius purged of its blemishes and restored to a more concise style. but in order that our edition should go forth in a more accurate shape than the rest, besides using the older translations and various copies to the number of twenty or more codices, collated by my own hand, I have moreover revised the Greek phraseology and diction in those places of the Greek Fathers which the Damascene has massed together. Nay, further, omitting both the shorter commentaries of Faber on each chapter and also the longer ones of Judocus Clictoveus of Neoportua, neither of whom contributes much, if anything, to the intelligent understanding of the Greek Fathers, I have attempted by fuller annotations to place before the eyes of all a specimen of eastern theology, drawn alike from those teachers whom the Damascene copied and from Greeks of later date whom I had the privilege of consulting.

The customary division among the Latins of the work “Concerning the Orthodox Faith” into four books is found in no Greek codex, nor in the Greek edition of Verona. And, further, that division is not met with in the old manuscripts of the original Latin translation, except as a chance note written in ink by a second and later hand on the margins of some of them. Hence Marcus Hopperus appears to be mistaken in ascribing in the dedicatory epistle of the Græco-Latin edition of Basil the division into four books to the Latin translator: that is, unless I am mistaken, to Faber, whose edition he published. Traces of this, however, exist in the books of St. Thomas Aquinas. I therefore hold that this mode of division was devised and introduced by the Latins in imitation of the four books of “Sentences” of Peter Lombard. Codex Regius n. 3445, and that is a very late one, alone seems to divide the “De Fide Orthodoxa” into two parts, the first, or peri tes Theologias, dealing indeed with the one triune God, the Creator and Provider, and the second, peri tes oikonomias, with God Incarnate, the Redeemer and Rewarder. But an objection to this division is the clear connection between chapter 43, in which the Incarnation, or “OEconomia Divina,” is discussed, and the words which immediately precede it in the end of chapter 42, which is entitled “On Prædestination,” making either chapter part of one continuous discussion. This fault cannot be taken to the other division into four parts. But in order not to startle the reader accustomed to the former division with too much novelty, I have, following Hopperus, assigned indeed to the Greek chapters the same numbers as were marked in the Greek codices, but I have not hesitated to divide the Latin translation into four books.

I have come across no edition of the old Latin translation; but the version of Jacobius Faber was issued in Paris by Judocus Clictoveus from the press of Henry Stephen in the year 1512, along with commentaries. Next, in the year 1535, Henry Pet, the printer of Basle, published the existing works of St. John of Damascus, and amongst them the four books “Concerning the Orthodox Faith, as translated by Jacobus Faber of Stapula,” but without any commentary. After some years the same Henry in a second edition added the shorter commentaries of Clictoveus, and again in the edition published in the year 1537. In the preface to these editions there occurs among others the following sentence, “Now for the first time are added the annotations explaining all the difficulties and the hard and lofty passages.” For a truth I know no older edition in which those explanations, such as they are, are given. Further, the author of these is asserted by Henricus Gravius, of the order of Preachers, in his own Latin edition of the works of holy John of Damascus, which he brought out at Cologne from the press of Peter Quentel, in the year 1546, to have been Jacobus Faber, and of a surety indeed in certain places, and in especial where the most holy mystery of the Eucharist is under discussion, the annotations are somewhat frigid in character and do not express with sufficient fulness the catholic faith. And this cannot be said without pain, for the sake of a man whom otherwise I should look up to as worthy of veneration, as almost one of my own house, had he not proved himself a traitor to his ancestral religion or at least somewhat too partial to innovators. As to the edition of our Gravius, learned as he was in both Latin and Greek, he revised the translation, Jacobus Faber’s translation, and compared it with the Greek text and illustrated it with very short scholia, “for the sake of heretics,” as he said in the dedicatory letter to Oswald, especially where they themselves try in vain to shake the doctrine of the Church as stated by the Damascene.

The book “Concerning the Orthodox Faith” Donatus Veronensis caused to be printed at Verona first in Greek only, and presented it to Clement the Seventh in the year 1531. Not till the year 1548 did he produce a version containing both the Greek and Latin, and again in the year 1575. Next, in the year 1577, Jacobus Billy published at Paris his own translation without the Greek text: and it was printed again in that same city in the years 1603 and 1617.

Here it will not be superfluous to call to mind that the great part of the first book, as they say, of the work “Concerning the Orthodox Faith” exists as the sixth volume of the works of Cyril of Alexandria, inscribed in that teacher’s name, a result to be doubtless attributed to the carelessness of some copyist who found these writings of the Damascus along with others of Cyril.

Chapter I.–That the Deity is incomprehensible, and that we ought not to pry into and meddle with the things which have not been delivered to us by the holy Prophets, and Apostles, and Evangelists.

No one hath seen God at any time; the Only-begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him [1406] . The Deity, therefore, is ineffable and incomprehensible. For no one knoweth the Father, save the Son, nor the Son, save the Father [1407] . And the Holy Spirit, too, so knows the things of God as the spirit of the man knows the things that are in him [1408] . Moreover, after the first and blessed nature no one, not of men only, but even of supramundane powers, and the Cherubim, I say, and Seraphim themselves, has ever known God, save he to whom He revealed Himself.

God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature. This creation, too, and its maintenance, and its government, proclaim the majesty of the Divine nature [1409] . Moreover, by the Law and the Prophets [1410] in former times and afterwards by His Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, He disclosed to us the knowledge of Himself as that was possible for us. All things, therefore, that have been delivered to us by Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists we receive, and know, and honour [1411] , seeking for nothing beyond these. For God, being good, is the cause of all good, subject neither to envy nor to any passion [1412] . For envy is far removed from the Divine nature, which is both passionless and only good. As knowing all things, therefore, and providing for what is profitable for each, He revealed that which it was to our profit to know; but what we were unable [1413] to bear He kept secret. With these things let us be satisfied, and let us abide by them, not removing everlasting boundaries, nor overpassing the divine tradition [1414] .


[1406] St. John i. 18 (R.V.). [1407] St. Matt. xi. 27. [1408] 1 Cor. ii. 11. [1409] Wisd. xiii. 5. [1410] Greg. Naz., Orat. 34. [1411] Dionys., De div. nom., c. 1. [1412] Greg. Naz., Orat. 34. [1413] Reading hoper de ouk edunametha for hoper de oun edunametha. Cod. Reg. 3379 gives kai ho ou dunametha. [1414] Prov. xxii. 28.

Chapter II.–Concerning things utterable and things unutterable, and things knowable and thing unknowable.

It is necessary, therefore, that one who wishes to speak or to hear of God should understand clearly that alike in the doctrine of Deity and in that of the Incarnation [1415] , neither are all things unutterable nor all utterable; neither all unknowable nor all knowable [1416] . But the knowable belongs to one order, and the utterable to another; just as it is one thing to speak and another thing to know. Many of the things relating to God, therefore, that are dimly understood cannot be put into fitting terms, but on things above us we cannot do else than express ourselves according to our limited capacity; as, for instance, when we speak of God we use the terms sleep, and wrath, and regardlessness, hands, too, and feet, and such like expressions.

We, therefore, both know and confess that God is without beginning, without end, eternal and everlasting, uncreate, unchangeable, invariable, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, invisible, impalpable, uncircumscribed, infinite, incognisable, indefinable, incomprehensible, good, just, maker of all things created, almighty, all-ruling, all-surveying, of all overseer, sovereign, judge; and that God is One, that is to say, one essence [1417] ; and that He is known [1418] , and has His being in three subsistences, in Father, I say, and Son and Holy Spirit; and that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in all respects, except in that of not being begotten, that of being begotten, and that of procession; and that the Only-begotten Son and Word of God and God, in His bowels of mercy, for our salvation, by the good pleasure of God and the co-operation of the Holy Spirit, being conceived without seed, was born uncorruptedly of the Holy Virgin and Mother of God, Mary, by the Holy Spirit, and became of her perfect Man; and that the Same is at once perfect God and perfect Man, of two natures, Godhead and Manhood, and in two natures possessing intelligence, will and energy, and freedom, and, in a word, perfect according to the measure and proportion proper to each, at once to the divinity, I say, and to the humanity, yet to one composite person [1419] ; and that He suffered hunger and thirst and weariness, and was crucified, and for three days submitted to the experience of death and burial, and ascended to heaven, from which also He came to us, and shall come again. And the Holy Scripture is witness to this and the whole choir of the Saints.

But neither do we know, nor can we tell, what the essence [1420] of God is, or how it is in all, or how the Only-begotten Son and God, having emptied Himself, became Man of virgin blood, made by another law contrary to nature, or how He walked with dry feet upon the waters [1421] . It is not within our capacity, therefore, to say anything about God or even to think of Him, beyond the things which have been divinely revealed to us, whether by word or by manifestation, by the divine oracles at once of the Old Testament and of the New [1422] .


1406 St. John i. 18 (R.V.).

1407 St. Matt. xi. 27.

1408 1 Cor. ii. 11.

1409 Wisd. xiii. 5.

1410 Greg. Naz., Orat. 34.

1411 Dionys., De div. nom., c. 1.

1412 Greg. Naz., Orat. 34.

1413 Reading ὃπερ δε οὐκ ἐδυνάμεθα for ὃπερ δὲ οὖν ἐδυνάμεθα. Cod. Reg. 3379 gives καὶ ὃ οὐ δυνάμεθα

1414 Prov. xxii. 28

[1415] ta te tes theologias, ta te tes oikonomias.

[1416] Dionys., De div. nom. c. 1; Greg. Naz., Orat. 34 and 37.

[1417] ousia, substance, being.

[1418] hupostasesi, hypostases, persons.

[1419] mia de suntheto hupostasei.

[1420] ousia, substance, being.

[1421] Dionys., De div. nom., c. 2.

[1422] Ibid. c. 1.


Translated by The Rev. S. D. F. Salmond, D.D., F.E.I.S.,
Principal of the Free Church College, Aberdeen.

Published in 1886 by Philip Schaff, New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co.


In the difficult task of translating the De Fide Orthodoxa–a task made the more difficult at times by the condition of the text,–I am indebted for much to my son, James L. Salmond, M.A., M.B., formerly of Balliol College, Oxford. There still remain passages of doubtful interpretation. It was intended to furnish a larger body of Notes and also an account of John and his writings. It has been found advisable, however, to complete the volume without these.

S. D. F. Salmond.

Aberdeen, 1 Sept. 1898.


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