The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, written by St. John of Damascus, is one subsection of the first major systematic treatise written in the history of the Church: The Fountain of Wisdom. To be sure, major predecessors existed, but the Fountain of Wisdom differs in that the near entirety of the Christian faith is touched upon with a clear sense of direction and purpose. No stone is left unturned, as the Fountain begins by exploring the basics of philosophy, grammar, and logic; intended, of course, to prepare the reader to understand the refutation On Heresy and the Exposition that follow.
In the above excerpt, the Damascene begins with the Christian understanding of God as Goodness—a uniquely Christian belief that finds its origins in pagan thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle but made most clearly manifest in the person of Christ. For, as even pagans could come to know that God is “the good, all-good, and exceedingly good,” it was only after Christ came that we could know that “[God] did not rest content that the Good, or His nature, should just be and not be shared by anything.” That God would want to share His Goodness with the world is hinted at in the Old Testament—but the fact that God wanted to share Himself (that is, His Good nature) with the world only becomes evident with the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Christ.
Even though this plan would not be made manifest until Christ, John Damascene suggests that God desired to share His goodness with the world from the very beginning: “For this reason, He first made the spiritual and heavenly powers, and then the visible and sensible world.” Thus, God’s act of creation has the same purpose as Christ’s Incarnation; namely, the sharing of God’s being with the world. “Hence,” he goes on to say, “all things He has made participate in His goodness by the fact that they have being,” just as God Himself has being. This is why, in Scripture, God is able to look at all creation and say “it is good”—thus the Christian understanding is that creation is good simply because it exists.
All things, we can say, are good in this way. Rocks, trees, fish, bees—all things that God has created—are good, and they participate in God’s Goodness insofar as they exist. Nevertheless, the Damascene points out that living (that is, animate) things “participate more abundantly, because they participate in the good both by their being and by their living.” Thus, the plant has a greater degree of participation in God’s Goodness than a rock. Why? Because the rock does not live, while the plant does. Since God lives, the plant is more like God than the rock, and is thus has a “higher” mode of being than the rock. Similarly, animals have a greater participation in God’s Goodness in that animals are sensitive and locomotive—that is, they can sense and act in the world in more ways than plants can.
“But,” John goes on, “rational beings, while they participate in the good in the aforementioned ways, do so still more by their very rationality. For they are in a way more akin to Him, even though He is, of course, immeasurably superior.” So rational beings—that is, beings that have the use of reason—participate in God’s Goodness in a much higher way than do rocks, plants, or animals. Why is this? In short, the answer is because a rational soul offers two unique abilities: namely, the power of knowing and loving things. Though we might say that rocks, plants, and animals are capable of “knowing” and “loving” in a limited sense, we would not say they are capable of knowing and loving in any way that is comparable to the way that God is able to know and love things. Why? Because knowing and loving are not really physical powers, but intellective or spiritual powers.
Thus, we come to the unique position of man in the cosmos. The Damascene writes “For this reason, [God] first made the spiritual and heavenly powers, and then the visible and sensible world, and then, finally, man of [both] the spiritual and sensible.” Here we see the uniqueness of humanity in all its glory. God first made the spiritual world, with all the angels and archangels, thrones, virtues, and dominions. Then He made the physical world, with rocks, fish, plants, birds. Finally, God made humanity as a unique blend of both these worlds. Thus, man has the unique capacities of both the physical and the spiritual worlds—he is capable of living and interacting with the material world in a unique way, and he is able to know and to love things with his spiritual component.
The fact that God chose to make humanity last in order, as the “crown of creation,” does not seem to make sense at first. If a creature’s degree of participation in God’s Goodness is determined by being “most like” God, and God is a spirit, then it seems that the angels would have the greatest participation in God’s Goodness, and it seems that they should be the “highest” creatures, not us material humans. This is where the Incarnation becomes a central factor. By taking on human flesh, God has elevated the material world to a status that it did not have before. Whereas before the Incarnation, it is accurate to say that “God is spirit,” it is not quite accurate to say so now. By taking on a human nature and material body, Christ has given humanity a greater participation in the Divine Life than the angels. How is this? Because Angels are mere spirits, whereas Christ, like humans, is now body and soul.
This reality is at once dizzyingly empowering and harrowingly dire. As greater participants in the Divine Life, we have a remarkable opportunity to cooperate with God’s grace in a unique way that even angels cannot. In reflecting on this tremendous mystery of our faith, may we be spurned on towards greater conversion, and a zeal for holiness as we seek to imitate Christ, as unique sharers of both His humanity and, through the ministry of the Church, His divinity.