Reformed Reflections

Learning from the Church Fathers. John of Damascus (c.675-c. 749) (22) Conclusion

"The greatest challenge for serious Christians today," notes Charles Colson, "is not reinventing Christianity, but discovering its core teachings." He is right on. Individual opinion has become an arbiter of truth rather than the Scriptures. But the linking of the Bible with private judgement de-emphasizes the authority of Scripture and the role of tradition. And the "No creed but the Bible" has become a distinctive feature with disastrous consequences for the Church. The 19th century German Reformed theologian, Philip Schaff, observed, "the deceived multitude, having no power to discern the spirits, is converted not to Christ and his truth, but to arbitrary fancies and baseless opinion of an individual, who is only of yesterday."

Christianity is not new on the scene. The Christian faith is rooted in the soil of history. On the one hand, when we stop taking seriously the historical truths of the church, we undermine our witness. On the other hand, the reading of church history is inspiring for the present. The more we know about it, the better we can think through the issues we face today. I hope that the series Learning from the Church Fathers, which only scratched the surface of this treasure trove of their theological thought, helped the readers in understanding the struggles faced by the early church. These men were not "armchair" theologians. Some even paid for their convictions with their lives. Today, more than ever, Christians need to know their Scriptures and their creeds. For example, how can the Church effectively approach Islam if it has no memory of scholars who confronted this vast growing intolerant fiercely anti-Christian religion? The Qur'an (9:29-31) does not mince words." Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture (Jews and Christians) as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah has forbidden by His Messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute (poll-tax) readily, and are utterly subdued."

The Life of John of Damascus

John, regarded the last of the Greek church Fathers, was born in the fabulous city of Damascus. For many centuries it was a Christian city, second only to Antioch, but in 635 Muslim Arabs conquered it. It became a city of white minarets and golden domes. John's father was a well-to-do Christian of Greek descent, usually called by the Arabic name Mansur. He was the caliph's vizier, holding a position of trust in the Islamic government.

John was given an excellent education. His teacher Cosmas, a Greek monk, was a man of extraordinary intellect. John served in the administration of Caliph 'Abd al-Malik (685-705) at Damascus. When the Caliph 'Abd al-Malik began to discriminate against Christians and removed them from their offices, John set out for Mar Saba, a very old and picturesque monastery near Jerusalem. The patriarch of Jerusalem made John a priest and moved him to Jerusalem. Eventually he went back to Mar Saba and spent the rest of his days studying, writing, and revising all his own work.


The earliest refutation of Islam in Greek is attributed to John of Damascus. It shows some knowledge of the Qur'an, although it is not clear in what form he had access to it. He wrote a polemical account of Muhammad, but in his book he listed Islam in his catalogue of Christian heresies. He depicted Muhammad as a descendant of the arch-heretic Arius. He called Muhammad the "forerunner of the Antichrist. He said that in Islam "the name 'one God' is nothing but a screen...for an idolatrous adoration of the creature and a paganism" that belied its protestations. Yet his writings show that he thought that Islam and Christianity share a common spiritual lineage, ignoring the cultural and political changes Islam wrought. But by the time of John's death, Islam had conquered Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain.


The Iconoclast controversy in the Byzantine (Greek) Church broke out in 726 and raged, with intervals of comparative quiet, for over a century, until 843. The dispute was not over the nature of Christ, but over the use of images in Christian worship. Those who opposed images were called Iconoclasts. (This word means a breaker of icons, or images, and therefore, one who opposes the use of pictures or images in church worship). The iconoclasts based their argument on the prohibition of the second commandment to make "the likeness of anything" and held that to do so "draws down the spirit of man from the lofty worship of God to the low and material worship of the creature." They declared that "the only admissible figure of the humanity of the bread and the Holy Supper."

John's name is inseparably connected with the controversy of iconoclasm in which he supported the veneration of images with theological arguments. Because he lived outside the Byzantine realm he was able to oppose the iconoclastic-minded Christian Emperors with vehemence. He used his voice and pen as weapons to wage his battles. John argued that Icons are only symbols. Orthodox believers do not worship them, but reverence or venerate them. Worship is due to God alone.

John believed the incarnation provided the authorization for Christians to make icons. The Son of God is the original image of the Father; the human person, "created in the image and likeness of God", is the image of God (Gen. 1:16f.). Material images therefore, argued John, can be made of Him who took a material body: "Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among men, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter."

John not only defended the images of Christ, but also the images of his mother, or the other saints, and the angels. His Three Orations in support of icons remains the definitive statement on the veneration of images. As John put it: "The icon is a song of triumph, and a revelation, and an enduring monument to victory of the saints and the disgrace of demons." According to John, icons depict the deeds of Christ – his descent from heaven for the incarnation, his birth from the Virgin, his baptism in the river Jordan, his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, his sufferings, his miracles, his burial, resurrection, and ascension. Icons "describe all of these," he declared, "both in speech and in colours, both in books and in pictures."

John's Theology

John was certainly a most significant, but not an innovative theologian. He saw himself as a steward of the mysteries of the Triune God, an heir and guardian to a great inheritance received from the past. And he believed that it was his duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future. He started with the principle that he desired to say nothing of his own creation and did not wish to pass beyond traditional bounds. "We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set," John wrote, "but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it." In the most famous theological work of the time, The Fountain of Knowledge, he wrote, "Like a bee I shall gather all that conforms to the truth, even deriving help from the writings of our enemies...I am not offering you my own conclusions, but those which were labouriously arrived at by the most eminent theologians, while I have merely collected them and summarized them, as far as was possible into one treatise."

The great textbook of orthodox theology, John's The Orthodox Faith, seems remarkably disorganized. In it he attempted to systematize the Greek patristic tradition, especially on Christology. He classified the basic doctrinal statements of the past concerning the Trinity and incarnation in a vast anthology of authoritative quotations. He had no confidence in humanly constructed systems of thought for the presentation of God's message to humanity. Unlike Western theological tradition, John's approach shows that the academic approach to training in doctrine did not fit well into Eastern Orthodoxy, which has always emphasized a way of knowing God that entails meditation and contemplation much more than the intellect.

The emphasis was on the transcendence of God. "God is infinite and incomprehensible," wrote John, "and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility...God does not belong to the class of existing things; not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself." The God to whom we relate is with us, but he is always beyond us and our understanding. But He has not left us in utter ignorance, but has revealed knowledge of himself to us in accordance with our capacity." Through silence we get to know God. It was "not a repudiation of theologizing, but rather another path to knowledge." This knowledge attained by following this path was genuine knowledge. Silence is the fitting expression of our relationship with the greatness and awesomeness of the Triune God. John's view of silence has a message for today's Christians. Silence has become a rare commodity - even in churches. How can one meditate on God and seek Him before a church service when gospel music is played on the sound system? Salvation in Eastern Christian tradition is not just for individuals, souls or human beings; it is for all creation. John noted, "Creation has been sanctified by the divine blood," and "Through the cross all things have been made right." He also linked salvation to baptism. He declared, "Through him (Christ) we were made children of God, by being adopted through baptism." And as soon as possible after baptism, the infant receives communion. Communion is not something to which he comes at age six or seven (as in the Roman Catholic Church) or in adolescence (as in Anglicanism), but something from which he has never been excluded.

John was overawed by the mystery of Holy Communion (Eucharist). He affirms the Orthodox belief that in the Eucharist we receive the body and blood of Christ. John wrote, "The bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of God. If you ask how it is done, let it suffice for you to hear that it is done through the Holy Spirit, just as it was through the Holy Spirit that the Lord himself took on flesh for himself from the blessed mother of God. More than this we do not know: the word of God is true and effective and omnipotent, but the manner in which this is done cannot be searched out."


John was a devout theologian with many interests. It was poetry John loved best, and one of his finest compositions is the famous Resurrection Paschal Ode sung in the Byzantine Church at Easter. His greatest contribution to the Church was his work of compiling and arranging the writings of the earlier Greek Fathers. His book The Orthodox Faith became the classic exposition of Eastern dogmatics, destined to influence most major theologians of both East and West until the Reformation. But his influence, then, went beyond "the walls" of the Orthodox Church. He was named Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

Johan D. Tangelder
March, 2009