A Christian was asked by a Saracen: Whom do you say is the cause of good and evil?
The Christian replied: We say that no one but God is the cause of all good, but not evil.
Saracen. Then whom do you say is the cause of evil?
Christian. The Devil, who is such by his own decision, and also we men.
Saracen. By virtue of what?
Christian. By virtue of our free will.
Saracen. What? You mean to say you have free will and can do anything you wish?
Christian. I was created by God with a will that is free. I may act well or badly, that is, I may do good or evil; if I do evil, I am punished by the Law of God, but if I do good I do not fear the Law, but I am rewarded and obtain mercy from God. Adam, the first man, was likewise created by God with free will, but the Devil deceived him and he sinned, so God cast him down from his proper status. But perhaps you will ask, in an effort to thwart me, ‘What are the goods and evils of which you speak?’ The goods are the glorification of God, prayer, almsgiving, and the like, and the evils are fornication, robbery, murder, and the like. Now if you want to make God the cause of evil as well as good, He appears, in your view, unjust, which He is not. For if God enjoined the fornicator to fornicate, the robber to rob, and the murderer to murder, as you say, then they deserve a reward, for they have done the will of God, and your lawgivers seem to be liars and your books false when they command us to whip the fornicator and robber and kill the murderer.
Then the Saracen asked: Do you say that a Christian who does the will of God is good or evil?
But the Christian, knowing his craftiness, replied: I know what you are getting at.
Saracen. Then you may tell it to me.
Christian. You want to ask me, ‘Did Christ suffer by His will or not?’ And if I answer you, ‘He suffered by His will,’ you will reply, ‘Be off! Then honor the Jews, for they did the will of your God.’
Saracen. Yes, that is most assuredly what I wanted to ask you, and if you have anything to say on this matter I should like to hear it.
Christian. You use the word ‘will’; I would be inclined to say ‘permission,’ ‘subsistence,’ and ‘forbearance.’
Saracen. How could you demonstrate this?
Christian. If you or I are sitting or standing, can either of us rise or be moved without the power and will of God?
Saracen. By no means.
Christian. And when God said, ‘Thou shalt not rob, fornicate, or murder,’ He clearly did not want us to rob, fornicate, or murder?
Saracen. Clearly not, for if He had wanted that, He certainly would not have said, ‘Thou shalt not rob, fornicate, or murder.’
Christain. Glory be to God, for then you agree with me and are saying precisely what I want to say. We are in accord that none of us can rise or be moved without God, and that God does not want us to rob, fornicate, or murder. Therefore if I should rise up and go and rob or fornicate or murder, what do you call that? Is it God’s ‘will,’ or would ‘permission,’ ‘subsistence,’ and ‘forbearance’ be better words? The truth of the matter is that God, although He could have intervened, agreed to the Crucifixion, and used it, by permitting it, against sin. But when He wishes to cause repentance, He punishes; He did this against the Jews also, for after a little while He aroused Titus, Vespasian, and the Greeks against them, and put down their insolence.
Saracen. What do you call Christ?
Christian. He is called the Word of God and many other things in our Scripture. What does your Scripture call Him?
Saracen. The Spirit and Word of God.
Christian. Does your Scripture consider that the Word of God was created or uncreated?
Saracen. It was uncreated.
Christian. But whatever is not created but uncreated is God. And if you were to answer me, ‘Created,’ I should ask you further, ‘Then who created the Word and Spirit of God?’
Saracen. What if I should answer that God Himself created them?
Christian. Then you would be forced to say that before God created His Spirit and Word He had neither the Spirit nor the Word. I say that I believe in only one Word of God which is uncreated, namely Christ, but of course I do not mean the Scripture itself when I say the ‘Word of God’ here.
Saracen. I would like to know how you can say that God came down into the womb of a woman.
Christian. Very well. Let us make use of your Scripture as well as mine. Your Scripture says that God cleansed Mary beforehand above all womankind, and that the Spirit and Word of God came down to her. And my Gospel says, ‘The Holy Spirit will come down upon thee and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee.’ Thus it seems that the two have one and the same meaning. But it should be noted that because of the state of our intellects the Scripture uses the words ‘come down upon’ tropologically.
Saracen. What is the meaning of ‘tropologically’?
Christian. ‘Tropologically’ means ‘figuratively,’ or ‘by analogy.’…
Saracen. If Christ was God, how is it that He ate and drank and slept and was crucified and died, and all the rest?
Christian. Because the Word of God, who created all things, as both my Scripture and yours attest, created Him from the flesh of the Holy Virgin, a perfect man, endowed with life and intellect. He ate, drank, and slept. But the Word of God itself did not eat, drink, or sleep, nor was it crucified, nor did it die, but it was the flesh which Christ took on from the Holy Virgin that was crucified. Christ had a dual nature united in one by the hypostatic union; a fourth person was not added to the Trinity after the ineffable union of the Incarnation.
Saracen. Suppose I were wounded in a part of my flesh, and the wounded flesh contracted, leaving a scar, and in the scar an infection developed; who would have created that?
Christian. All creatures were created during the first week. God created man also during these days, and ordered him to propagate and fill the earth. However, after the Original Sin, the earth was condemned to bring forth thorns and thistles; then also our flesh was condemned, and it brings forth lice and worms to this day.
Saracen. To turn to another matter, who is the greater among you, he who sanctifies or he who is sanctified?
But the Christian, knowing his hostile questioning, replied: I understand what it is you want to know.
Saracen. Well, if you do, answer me.
Christain. If I say to you, ‘He who sanctifies is greater than he who is sanctified,’ you will immediately respond, ‘Be off! Then worship John the Baptist, who certainly baptized and sanctified your Christ.’
Saracen. That is obviously what I would have said to you.
The Christian answered with an allegory. Suppose you go out with your slave to the bath to wash, and he washes and cleans you; whom would you say is the greater, that poor and penniless slave of yours or you yourself, whom he has washed?
Saracen. I would say that I myself, who own, am greater than he whom I own.
Christian. I give thanks to God for your reply. You should know, then, that John the Baptist, ministering to Christ as a slave and servant in the holy baptism in the Jordan in which my Savior was baptized, broke the heads of those dragons and bad demons who were lying in the caves there.
At this the Saracen marveled greatly, and, having nothing to answer the Christian, went away and debated with him no further.
-St. John Damascene, translated by J. Kritzeck in Anne Fremantle, A Treasury of Early Christianity (Mentor Books, 1953).