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§ 144. John of Damascus.


Cf. §§ 89 and 103.


I. Joannes Damascenus: Opera omnia in Migne, Patrol. Gr. Tom. XCIV.-XCVI. (reprint, with additions, of Lequien’s ed. Paris, 1712. 2 vols. fol. 2d ed. Venice, 1748).

II. John of Jerusalem: Vita Damasceni (Migne, XCIV. col. 429–489); the Prolegomena of Leo Allatius (l.c. 118–192). Perrier: Jean Damascène, sa vie et ses écrits. Paris, 1862. F. H. J. Grundlehner: Johannes Damascenus. Utrecht, 1876 (in Dutch). Joseph Langen (Old-Catholic professor at Bonn): Johannes von Damaskus. Gotha, 1879. J. H. Lupton: St. John of Damascus. London, 1882. Cf. Du Pin, V. 103–106; Ceillier, XII., 67–99; Schroeckh, XX., 222–230; Neander, iii. passim; Felix Nève: Jean de D. et son influence en Orient sous les premiers khalifs, in “Revue Belge et etrangère,” July and August, 1861.


I. Life. John of Damascus, Saint and Doctor of the Eastern Church, last of the Greek Fathers,872872    Grundlehner, p. 22; Langen, p. 20. was born in the city of Damascus in the fourth quarter of the seventh century.873873    The usual date is 676. Grundlehner says (p. 19), “probably about the year 680.” His common epithet of Chrysorrhoas (streaming with gold) was given to him because of his eloquence, but also probably in allusion to the river of that name, the Abana of Scripture, the Barada of the present day, which flows through his native city, and makes it a blooming garden in the desert. Our knowledge of his life is mainly derived from the semi-legendary account of John of Jerusalem, who used an earlier Arabic biography of unknown authorship and date.874874    This Life is summarized by Lupton, pp. 22-36.

The facts seem to be these. He sprang from a distinguished Christian family with the Arabic name of Mansur (ransomed). His father, Sergius, was treasurer to the Saracenic caliph, Abdulmeled (685–705), an office frequently held by Christians under the caliphs. His education was derived from Cosmas, a learned Italian monk, whom Sergius had ransomed from slavery. He made rapid progress, and early gave promise of his brilliant career. On the death of his father he was taken by the caliph into his service and given an even higher office than his father had held.875875    The term is πρωτοσύμβουλος, ” chief councillor.” This is commonly interpreted ” vizier,” but that office did not then exist. Langen (p. 19) thinks ” chief tax-gatherer” a more likely translation. Cf. Lupton, p. 27. When the emperor Leo the Isaurian issued his first edict against images (726)876876    See this vol. p. 456., he prepared a circular letter upon the subject which showed great controversial ability and at once raised him to the position of leader of the image worshippers. This letter and the two which followed made a profound impression. They are classical, and no one has put the case better.877877    See analysis, p. 630. John was perfectly safe from the emperor’s rage, and could tranquilly learn that the letters everywhere stirred up the monks and the clergy to fanatical opposition to Leo’s decrees. Yet he may well have found his position at court uncomfortable, owing to the emperor’s feelings towards him and his attempts at punishment. However this may be, shortly after 730 John is found as a monk in the Convent of St. Sabas, near the shore of the Dead Sea, ten miles southeast from Jerusalem. A few years later he was ordained priest.878878    Lequien (i. § 452) conjectures that he was ordained before the iconoclastic controversy broke out, because in a sermon he alludes to the peaceful condition of the empire, which was not applicable to the time after that event. Cf. Lupton, p. 57. His last days were spent in study and literary labor. In the closing decade of his life he is said to have made a journey through Palestine, Syria, and even as far as Constantinople, for the purpose of exciting opposition to the iconoclastic efforts of the Emperor Copronymus. He died at St. Sabas; the exact date is not known, probably 754.879879    Grundlehner (p. 55, n.1) accepts the statement of the Menaea Graecorum that John of Damascus died at the age of 104, and sets the date at “about 780.” The Greek Church commemorates him upon Dec. 4th (or Nov. 29 in some Menologies); the Latin upon May 6.

Many legends are told of him. The most famous is that Leo the Isaurian, enraged at his opposition to the iconoclastic edicts, sent to the caliph a letter addressed to himself which purported to have come from John, and was written in imitation of his hand and style, in which the latter proposed to the emperor to capture Damascus—a feat easily accomplished., the writer said, because of the insufficient guard of the city. Moreover, in the business he could count upon his support. The letter was of course a forgery, but so clever that when the caliph showed John the letter he acknowledged the similarity of the writing, while he denied the authorship. But the caliph in punishment of his (supposed) treachery had his right hand cut off, and, as was the custom, hung up in a public place. In answer to John’s request it was, however, given to him in the evening, ostensibly for burial. He then put the hand to the stump of his arm, prostrated himself before an image of the Virgin Mary in his private chapel, and prayed the Virgin to cause the parts to adhere. He fell asleep: in a vision the Virgin told him that his prayer had been granted, and he awoke to find it true. Only a scar remained to tell the story of his mutilation. The miracle of course convinced the caliph of the innocence of his servant, and he would fain have retained him in office, but John requested his absolute dismission.880880    This famous tale falls of its own weight. Even Roman Catholics, like Alzog (Patrologie, 2d ed., p. 405) admit that it lacks support. It is certainly noteworthy that the second Nicene council apparently knew nothing of this miracle. Cf Grundlehner, p. 42 n.; Langen, p. 22. This story was manifestly invented to make out that the great defender of image-worship deserved a martyr’s crown.881881    Langen, p. 22.

Other legends which have more of a basis of fact relate to his residence in the convent of St. Sabas. Here, it is said., he was enthusiastically received, but no one would at first undertake the instruction of so famous a scholar. At length an old monk undertook it, and subjected him to the most humiliating tests and vexatious restrictions, which he bore in a very saintly way. Thus he sent him once to Damascus to sell a load of convent-made baskets at double their real value, in order that his pride might be broken by the jeers and the violence of the rabble. He was at first insulted; but at last a man who had been formerly his servant, bought out of compassion the baskets at the exorbitant price, and the saint returned victorious over vanity and pride. He was also put to the most menial services. And, what must have been equally trying, he was forbidden to write prose or poetry. But these trials ended on a hint from the Virgin Mary who appeared one night to the old monk and told him that John was destined to play a great part in the church. He was accordingly allowed to follow the bent of his genius and put his immense learning at the service of religion.

II. Writings. The order of his numerous writings882882    Carefully analyzed by Lupton and Langen. is a mere matter of conjecture. It seems natural to begin with those which first brought their author into notice, and upon which his fame popularly rests. These were his three Orations,883883    De Imaginibus Orationes III., in Migne, XCIV. properly circular letters, upon image worship, universally considered as the ablest presentation of the subject from the side of the image-worshippers. The first884884    l.c. col. 1232-1284. appeared probably in 727, shortly after the Emperor Leo the Isaurian had issued his edict forbidding the worship of “images,” by which term was meant not sculptures, but in the Greek Church pictures exclusively; the second885885    l.c.. col. 1284-1317. after Leo’s edict of 730 ordering the destruction of the images; and the third886886    l.c. col. 1317-1420. at some later time.

In the first of these three letters John advanced these arguments: the Mosaic prohibitions of idolatry were directed against representations of God, not of men, and against the service of images, not their honor. Cherubim made by human hands were above the mercy-seat. Since the Incarnation it is allowable to represent God himself. The picture is to the ignorant what the book is to the learned. In the Old Testament there are signs to quicken the memory and promote devotion (the ark, the rod of Aaron, the brazen serpent). Why should the sufferings and miracles of Christ not be portrayed for the same purposes? And if Christ and the Virgin have their images, why should not the saints have theirs? Since the Old Testament Temple contained cherubim and other images, churches may be adorned with images of the saints. If one must not worship an image, then one must not worship Christ, for he is the image of the Father. If the shadows and handkerchiefs of apostles had healing properties, why can one not honor the representations of the saints? It is true there is nothing about such worship in the Holy Scriptures, but Church ordinances depend for authority on tradition no less than on Scripture. The passages against images refer to idols. “The heathens dedicate their images to demons, whom they call gods; we dedicate ours to the incarnate God and his friends, through whom we exorcise demons.” He ends his letter with a number of patristic quotations of greater or less relevancy, to each of which he appends a comment. The second letter, which is substantially a repetition of the first, is characterized by, a violent attack upon the Emperor, because of his deposition and banishment of Germanus, the patriarch of Constantinople. It closes with the same patristic quotations, and a few new ones. The third letter is almost necessarily a repetition of the preceding, since it goes over the same ground. It likewise looks upon the iconoclasts as the servants of the devil. But it bears marks of more care in preparation, and its proofs are more systematically arranged and its quotations more numerous.887887    Langen, p. 141.

For his writings in favor of images he was enthusiastically lauded by the second Nicene Council (787).888888    Page 461.

But the fame of John of Damascus as one of the greatest theologians of history rests chiefly on his work entitled the Fount of Knowledge.889889    Πηγὴ γνώσεως, in Migne, l.c. col. 521-1228. It is made up of three separate and complete books, which yet were designed to go together and constitute in outline a cyclopaedia of Christian theology and of all other kinds of knowledge.890890    This is his own statement, l.c. col. 533. It is dedicated to Cosmas, bishop of Maiuma, his foster-brother and fellow-student under the old monk. Its date is after 743, the year of Cosmas’s consecration. In it the author avows that he has introduced nothing which had not been previously said, and herein is its value: it epitomizes Greek theology.

The first part of the trilogy, “Heads of Philosophy,”891891    Κεφάλαια φιλοσοφικά, l.c. col. 521-676. Lupton, pp. 67, 68; Langen, pp. 46-52. There is a special essay by Renoux, entitled, De Dialectica Sancti Joannis Damasceni (1863). commonly called, by the Latin title, Dialectica, is a series of short chapters upon the Categories of Aristotle and the Universals of Porphyry, applied to Christian doctrines. The Dialectica is found in two forms, one with sixty-eight, and the other with only fifteen chapters. The explanation is probably the well-known fact that the author carefully revised his works before his death.892892    Langen, p. 46. The longer form is therefore probably the later. Its principal value is the light it throws upon the Church terminology of the period, and its proof that Christians preceded the Arabs in their study of Aristotle, by one hundred years. The second part of the trilogy, the “Compendium of Heresies,”893893    Περὶαἰρέσεωνἐνσυντομίᾳ l.c. col. 677-780. is a description of one hundred and three heresies, compiled mostly from Epiphanius, but with two sections, on the Mohammedans and Iconoclasts, which are probably original. A confession of faith closes the book. The third, the longest, and by far the most important member of the trilogy is “An accurate Summary of the Orthodox Faith.”894894    ῎Εκδοσις ἀκριβὴς τῆς ὀρθοδόξου πίστεως. l.c. col. 789-1228. The authors drawn upon are almost exclusively Greek. Gregory Nazianzen is the chief source. This part was apparently divided by John into one hundred chapters, but when it reached Western Europe in the Latin translation of John Burgundio of Pisa, made by order of Pope Eugenius III. (1150),895895    The exact date rests upon the statement of John of Brompton that the translation was made in the same year in which the Thames was frozen over, i.e. in the Great Frost of 1150. Cf. Lupton, p. 70. it was divided into four books to make it correspond in outward form to Peter Lombard’s Sentences. Accepting the division into four books, their contents may be thus stated: bk. I., Theology proper. In this he maintains the Greek Church doctrine of the single procession of the Holy Spirit. bk. II. Doctrines of Creation (severally of angels, demons, external nature, paradise, man and all his attributes and capacities); and of Providence, foreknowledge and predestination. In this part he shows his wide acquaintance with natural science. bk. III. Doctrine of the Incarnation. bk. IV. Miscellaneous subjects. Christ’s passion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, session; the two-fold nature of Christ; faith; baptism; praying towards the East; the Eucharist; images; the Scriptures; Manichaeism; Judaism; virginity; circumcision; Antichrist; resurrection.

The entire work is a noteworthy application of Aristotelian categories to Christian theology. In regard to Christology he repudiates both Nestorianism and Monophysitism, and teaches that each nature in Christ possessed its peculiar attributes and was not mixed with the other. But the divine in Christ strongly predominated over the human. The Logos was bound to the flesh through the Spirit, which stands between the purely divine and the materiality of the flesh. The human nature of Jesus was incorporated in the one divine personality of the Logos (Enhypostasia). John recognizes only two sacraments, properly so called, i.e. mysteries instituted by Christ—Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In the latter the elements are at the moment when the Holy Ghost is called upon, changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, but how is not known. He does not therefore teach transubstantiation exactly, yet his doctrine is very near to it. About the remaining five so-called sacraments he is either silent or vague. He holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and that her conception of Christ took place through the ear. He recognizes the Hebrew canon of twenty-two books, corresponding to the twenty-two Hebrew letters, or rather twenty-seven, since five of these letters have double forms. Of the Apocrypha he mentions only Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom, and these as uncanonical. To the New Testament canon he adds the Apostolical Canons of Clement. The Sabbath was made for the fleshly Jews—Christians dedicate their whole time to God. The true Sabbath is the rest from sin. He extols virginity, for as high as angels are above men so high is virginity above marriage. Yet marriage is a good as preventive of unchastity and for the sake of propagation. At the end of the world comes Antichrist, who is a man in whom the devil lives. He persecutes the Church, kills Enoch and Elijah, who are supposed to appear again upon the earth, but is destroyed by Christ at his second coming.896896    Migne, l.c. col. 1217. The resurrection body is like Christ’s, in that it is immutable, passionless, spiritual, not held in by material limitation, nor dependent upon food. Otherwise it is the same as the former. The fire of hell is not material, but in what it consists God alone knows.

His remaining works are minor theological treatises, including a brief catechism on the Holy Trinity; controversial writings against Mohammedanism (particularly interesting because of the nearness of their author to the beginnings of that religion), and against Jacobites, Manichaeans, Nestorians and Iconoclasts; homilies,897897    Lequien gives thirteen and the fragment of a fourteenth; but some, if not many, of them are not genuine. among them an eulogy upon Chrysostom; a commentary on Paul’s Epistles, taken almost entirely from Chrysostom’s homilies; the sacred Parallels, Bible sentences with patristic illustrations on doctrinal and moral subjects, arranged in alphabetical order, for which a leading word in the sentence serves as guide. He also wrote a number of hymns which have been noticed in a previous section.898898    See p. 405.

Besides these there is a writing attributed to him, The Life of Barlaam and Joasaph899899    Migne, vol. XCVI., col. 860-1240. the story of the conversion of the only son of an Indian King by a monk (Barlaam). It is a monastic romance of much interest and not a little beauty. It has been translated into many languages, frequently reprinted, and widely circulated.900900    Brunet gives the titles of Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Danish, Norwegian and Bohemian translations. It was abridged in English under the title Saint Josaphat. Lond., 1711. It appears in the Golden Legend. The Greek text was first printed in 1832. Whether John of Damascus wrote it is a question. Many things about it seem to demand an affirmative answer.901901    So Langen, pp. 251-254. His materials were very old, indeed pre-Christian, for the story is really a repetition of the Lalita Vistara, the legendary life of Buddha.902902    Lupton, p. 217.

Another writing of dubious authorship is the Panegyric on St. Barbara,903903    l.c. col. 781-813. a marvellous tale of a suffering saint. Competent judges assign it to him.904904    Langen, p. 238. These two are characteristic specimens of monastic legends in which so much pious superstition was handed down from generation to generation.

III. Position. John of Damascus considered either as a Christian office-holder under a Mohammedan Saracenic Caliph, as the great defender of image-worship, as a learned though credulous monk, or as a sweet and holy poet, is in every way an interesting and important character. But it is as the summarizer of the theology of the Greek fathers that he is most worthy of attentive study; for although he seldom ventures upon an original remark, he is no blind, servile copyist. His great work, the “Fount of Knowledge,” was not only the summary of the theological discussions of the ancient Eastern Church, which was then and is to-day accepted as authoritative in that communion, but by means of the Latin translation a powerful stimulus to theological study in the West. Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas and other schoolmen are greatly indebted to it. The epithets, “Father of Scholasticism” and “Lombard of the Greeks” have been given to its author. He was not a scholastic in the proper meaning of that term, but merely applied Aristotelian dialects to the treatment of traditional theology. Yet by so doing he became in truth the forerunner of scholasticism.

An important but incidental service rendered by this great Father was as conserver of Greek learning. “The numerous quotations, not only from Gregory Nazianzen, but from a multitude of Greek authors besides would provide a field of Hellenic literature sufficient for the wants of that generation. In having so provided it, and having thus become the initiator of a warlike but ill-taught race into the mysteries of an earlier civilization, Damascenus is entitled to the praise that the elder Lenormant awarded him of being in the front rank of the master spirits from whom the genius of the Arabs drew its inspiration.”905905    Lupton, p. 212.

One other interesting fact deserves mention. It was to John of Damascus that the Old Catholics and Oriental and Anglo-Catholics turned for a definition of the relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son which should afford a solid basis of union.906906    Schaff, Creeds, vol. ii., pp. 552-54. “He restored unity to the Triad, by following the ancient theory of the Greek church, representing God the Father as the ἀρχή, and in this view, the being of the Holy Spirit no less than the being of the Son as grounded in and derived from the Father. The Holy Spirit is from the Father, and the Spirit of the Father; not from the Son, but still the Spirit of the Son. He proceeds from the Father the one ajrchv of all being, and he is communicated through the Son; through the Son the whole creation shares in the Spirit’s work; by himself he creates, moulds, sanctifies all and binds all together.”907907    Neander, vol. iii., p. 554. Comp. above, p. 307 sqq.



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