There is a great benefit to reading the ancient writers of Christianity. As I come from a Protestant background, I feel I have been robbed of quite a bit by not being introduced to the Fathers and that in my recent exploration of the Patristics I have come across an ancient treasure trove. Unfortunately, as I share what I have learned with my Orthodox and Roman Catholic brethren, they too seem ignorant of these writings. While such great writings are mimicked in their liturgies and catechisms, few have actually taken the time to read these great thinkers. I believe that modern philosophy and theology have suffered greatly for their neglect of Patristic study.
In reflecting on how ancient knowledge helps modern philosophical and theological understanding, I think of the modern apologist William Lane Craig, who is famous for bringing back the Islamic Kalaam Cosmological argument. The argument goes:
Everything that begins to exist has a cause
The universe began to exist
Therefore, the universe has a cause
Such an argument is quite brilliant and simple. During the time of the Muslim philosophers, it was quite difficult to prove the second premise. In our own day, however, the second premise is all but given due to the cosmological explanation of the “Big Bang.” The name “Big Bang” might be a bit of a misnomer, but the event is still just as spectacular; we now know that approximately fourteen billion years ago our universe began at a specific point in time. The discoveries of the modern age have confirmed the wisdom of the ancients.
While some have attempted to offer an explanation for how the material world is still eternal despite the Big Bang (most notably the scientist Stephen Hawking), it appears that all theories have come up short both logically and evidentially. Craig has done an excellent job arguing against such explanations and showing them to be wrong.
With the success of the Kalaam Cosmological argument some might question why we need another ontological argument. Does presenting St. John’s cosmological argument lessen the impact of the Kalaam argument? Am I saying that while I like the Kalaam argument I view it as inadequate and therefore in need of another cosmological argument? I answer the above questions with a resounding no. The Kalaam argument is adequate and sufficient by itself, but being adequate and sufficient does not mean it is the only cosmological argument out there. I can see three reasons why we should still study St. John’s cosmological argument in light of the Kalaam argument:
1) The second premise of the Kalaam argument have proven difficult to defend – though Craig and others have done an excellent job showing the universe began to exist, it seems that anyone and everyone can come up with a theory as to how the universe began to exist. St. John’s argument seeks to show that it is illogical to assume that matter is eternal and has always existed. If a belief in eternal matter can be shown to be illogical and therefore impossible, then any theory on how matter has existed eternally would have to first show how eternal matter is logically possible.
2) You can never have too many weapons – if a soldier were to walk into battle with his rifle and one bullet, he would be inadequately equipped for battle. Likewise, if we are to state our case as theists and Christians, if we only rely on one argument then we are ill equipped. The cosmological argument of St. John and the Kalaam argument are not mutually exclusive, but instead compliment each other. I would argue that one could use St. John’s cosmological argument to validate the second premise of the Kalaam argument (i.e. the universe is material and therefore, according to St. John, began to exist, therefore the universe has a cause). In either case, studying multiple cosmological arguments is vitally important if one is to have solid ground to stand on in a debate.
3) The Damascene Cosmological argument is easier to understand from a lay person’s perspective – while the Kalaam argument is an excellent tool in academic debates, it can sometimes confuse the common person. This is because the common person can imagine an eternal universe (in fact, the belief in an eternal universe was common belief prior to the discovery of the Big Bang). In order to prove the second premise, the apologist is stuck trying to teach the Big Bang to the lay person first and then showing how this proves the existence of God. Likewise, I don’t believe that the Kalaam argument presents a solid prima facie case for why God wasn’t created. We can say that God didn’t begin to exist, but this seems to beg the question. St. John’s argument, however, is easier to understand (because it applies to the everyday experience of the common man) and explains in the first premise why God didn’t need to be created (He is immutable). These two facts do not make St. John’s argument better or preferable to the Kalaam argument, but just a better tool to use in different situations (whereas in some situations the Kalaam is the better tool to use).
The Cosmological Argument of St. John of Damascus
St. John’s cosmological argument (or the Damascene Cosmological argument) is found in the third chapter of his book An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. He states:
All things, that exist, are either created or uncreated. If, then, things are created, it follows that they are also wholly mutable. For things, whose existence originated in change, must also be subject to change, whether it be that they perish or that they become other than they are by act of will. But if things are uncreated they must in all consistency be also wholly immutable. For things which are opposed in the nature of their existence must also be opposed in the mode of their existence, that is to say, must have opposite properties: who, then, will refuse to grant that all existing things, not only such as come within the province of the senses, but even the very angels, are subject to change and transformation and movement of various kinds? For the things appertaining to the rational world, I mean angels and spirits and demons, are subject to changes of will, whether it is a progression or a retrogression in goodness, whether a struggle or a surrender; while the others suffer changes of generation and destruction, of increase and decrease, of quality and of movement in space. Things then that are mutable are also wholly created. But things that are created must be the work of some maker, and the maker cannot have been created. For if he had been created, he also must surely have been created by some one, and so on till we arrive at something uncreated. The Creator, then, being uncreated, is also wholly immutable. And what could this be other than Deity?
In syllogistic form, the argument looks like this:
(1) All things are either created or uncreated
- If they are mutable, then they are created
- i. If an infinite regress is impossible, then the unmoved mover would be, by definition, God
- ii. An infinite regress is impossible
- iii. Therefore, the unmoved mover is God
- If they are immutable, then they are uncreated
(2) Everything that falls within our experience is mutable
(3) Therefore, since all things are mutable they are created and require a creator and this creator is, by definition, God
While the first three premises are explicit within St. John’s paragraph, the last three premises are implicit. St. John assumes that an infinite regress of events is impossible, but does not spend time on such an explanation. This is because in his day the belief that an infinite regress is impossible was a given; in our day, it is a hotly contested idea. Therefore, if we are to take St. John’s argument and use it in the modern age, we must explore what was assumed and see if such an assumption is justified.
The purpose of this essay is to prove each of the premises. I believe that an infinite regress is impossible and because it is impossible, material objects cannot perpetually change over time. At some point they would have to begin or be “moved.”
The argument also gives a prima facie case for how we know God does not fall into the infinite regress. God, being immutable and not subject to change, is not subject to a series of events. Since time is measured by series of events, a being that is not a series of events would by definition be outside of time and thus not subject to an infinite regress.
Potential Problems for Christian Theology –
The Damascene Cosmological argument does a great job of showing how God must exist, but it can pose quite the problem for Christians. Unlike Jews, Muslims, and other theists, Christians believe that God took on a human nature in the event of the Incarnation. Such an event can possibly show that God changes. Likewise, in Christian theology God changes His mind (in the Old Testament) or repents of having done something, which indicates a changing God. Finally, God chose to create at a specific point in time, which means God was before something, which could indicate that He exists within time and is subject to a series of events.
It is my belief that the above three arguments come from gross understandings about theology, specifically the teaching on the Trinity. I will use St. John, along with other Church Fathers, to explain the Incarnation and how God did not change in the Incarnation. I will also deal with the other objections.
This series may take a while, as I want it to be thought out and well written. I will be dealing with deep concepts. The diligent layman will be able to work his way through this series, but this will not be light reading. I will use philosophical terms and present arguments and will assume my readers already have a general background in this area of study.
It is my hope to one day write an easier to understand version (I may work on that soon), but for now I will present the deep argument first before presenting something more palatable to the common man.
Through the duration of this series, I will have comments turned off. There are two reasons for this:
1) I’m scheduling the posts to appear on certain days since I’m out of town and I have limited internet access, so I have no way to participate or allow comments
2) I want people to read the entire series before making judgment calls on it
At the very end (once I return back home) I’ll open up a thread for discussion on the topic. Until then, I have to keep comments closed.
Please keep in mind that it is my full intention to turn this into a book. I am presenting the argument here in its rawest form so I can formulate my early thoughts on this issue and receive feedback (once I have created an open thread on the issue, that is). I have purposefully placed my arguments in a certain order that I would not necessarily follow in a book, but that is only for brevity’s sake.
I also encourage you to use this argument if you like it, but if you take quotes from me then please cite your reference.
 See William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd edition, Crossway Books 2008
This was a scheduled post. I am currently out of town and subsequently have turned comments off since I cannot moderate or interact with commenters. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns about this post, please feel free to contact me.