John of Damascus - Scholarly Theologian, Champion of Breaking the Second Commandment

 

John of Damascus was an intelligent, learned orthodox theologian who lived after 700 A.D. He was well-read, and very concisely summarized the theological teaching of his time. This page provides

An introduction to him,

a partial critique of him,

a partial defense of him, and

finally details about what he taught.

You can read his work, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (99 1/2 pages in English) in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series vol.9.

On-line, you can see it at

www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf209.iii.iv.ii.vii.html,

www.sacred-texts.com/chr/ecf/209/2090058.htm, or

http://www.voskrese.info/spl/Exact2_07.html.

Introduction

John was brought up as a Christian in Damascus under Umayyad Muslim rule. His family had good relations with Muslims; his father was a chief financial officer of taxes for Syria for caliph Abd al-Malik. John succeeded his father in this post after his father's death. At 23, John had a tutor, a Sicilian monk of great learning named Cosmas who was captured off the coast of Italy. John became accomplished in astronomy, algebra, geometry, music, and theology. John wrote three Apologetic Treatises Against Those Decrying the Holy Images.

This was during the time of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III, the Iconoclast who starting in 726 A.D. tried to stop Greek Orthodox Christians from worshipping images. For political reasons, the Umayyad caliphs supported Christian leaders who loved images and were against Leo's rule. John of Damascus, from outside of Leo's dominions, was a champion of not only having and venerating, but worshipping images in the church. He taught that the worship was not at the material making up the image, but at that which it symbolized.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Damascus for more info.

A Partial Critique of John of Damascus

As an evangelical Christian today, I can agree with many thing John of Damascus taught, and I can assume that someone with his beliefs is a fellow believer. However, I differ with him on the following 21 points that he affirms.

Primitive view of science: John explained science and theology together. He had some correct insights, but also many incorrect views, as did most people in the ancient world. For example, I disagree that there are seven zones in heaven, based on the seven planets (Sun, Mercury, Venus, Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn). Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.6 p.21; book 2 ch.7 p.22. I disagree there are four elements: air, earth, fire, and water Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.8-10 p.26-28.

John of Damascus thought that comets were signs of the deaths of kings. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.7 p.24

Ecclesiasticus and Sirach were scripture according to John of Damascus. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.17 p.89-90. He references Wisdom 1:13 p.41; 2:23 p.75; 2:24 p.65; 3:1 p.87,100; 12:5 p.16; 13:5 p.1. He alludes to 2 Maccabees "all-seeing" p.12, and Baruch 3:38 (p.15,78,88,90)

Deity is simple and uncompound vs. God in three persons: This was a common teaching in the Middle Ages and later, but the Bible does not actually say this, and we should be reluctant to categorically state things about God that are not in scripture. Actually, with the Trinity, which John frequently affirms, it seems inconsistent for God to be both uncompound and distinct in three persons. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.9 p.12

Peter and Paul one essence: John goes into great detail about the Trinity, and on the whole he is very precise, balanced and correct. However I think his analogy of Peter and Paul being one essence as an analogy of the Trinity is flawed. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.8 p.53

God is passionless: While I technically agree with his meaning, that God as God has no lust, hunger, etc., the choice of words is not good. Even John would agree that God has love, wrath, and emotion. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.1 p.1; book 1 ch.8 p.6; book 1 ch.8 p.7; book 2 ch.3 p.19; book 3 ch.26 p.71

"Deity is motionless, moving the universe by his immobility." This speculation could be correct, but we should not go beyond what is written and assert as fact things about God that scripture does not say. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.4 p.3

Mother of God: While technically I agree with Christians at that time calling Mary the mother of God, I think the term is unfortunate because it subsequently led to error of veneration of Mary. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.2 p.2; book 3 ch.12 p.55-56; book 4 ch.14 p.84; book 4 ch.14 p.86

Never call Mary Mother of Christ, because John of Damascus thought this phrase does away with the title Mother of God. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.12 p.56

Ever-virgin: Mary, mother of Jesus was a virgin her entire life. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.1 p.45; book 4 ch.14 p.86; book 4 ch.6 p.76; book 4 ch.14 p.84

"The ever-virgin One thus remains even after the birth still virgin, never at any time up till death consorted with a man." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.86

Painless birth of Jesus: Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.85-86

Mary is Lady and Queen over all created things, as well as God's mother. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.86

Anti-Nestorian: While I agree that Nestorius was wrong, and I think John of Damascus was closer to the truth than Nestorius, I would not refer to him as "Nestorius, hated of God". Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.3 p.47; book 3 ch.12 p.56

Is Jesus body had come down from heaven and did not partaken from human nature as Nestorius claimed, then what would be his use in becoming a man? Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.12 p.56

Yet a Nestorian type of analogy: John compares the inseparability and distinctness of the Trinity with the inseparability and distinctness of Christ's two natures. This is not correct, because the three in the Godhead can have "I-You" conversations among themselves and one appear without the other. Jesus had just one mind and consciousness. Taken to its conclusion this would make John appear either Nestorian. However, John was strongly against Nestorianism, and he was just being inconsistent here with a poor analogy. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.14 p.57-58

John contradicted Scripture on Jesus' role. Jesus as both God and man was never forsaken by the father, never became a curse for us, and was never subject to the Father. Rather, these things were written because Jesus appropriated our person and ranking Himself with us. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.18 p.91

Jesus called the Father His God only because Jesus' flesh was servile and ignorant, though in union in subsistence with God the Word was neither servile nor ignorant. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.18 p.91

Numerology: John held that the number of books of the Old Testament is related to the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.17 p.89

Cyril of Alexandria is held in high esteem by John of Damascus. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.6 p.51; book 3 ch.7 p.52; book 3 ch.11 p.54; book 4 ch.6 p.76; book 4 ch.18 p.92

Genealogies in Matthew and Luke are both of Joseph, but Joseph is biologically of Jacob but by legal adoption of the line of Nathan through Heli. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.84,85

Not abandoning any divine glory: When Jesus Christ became flesh, he did not overstep the limits of His own divinity nor abandon the divine glories that belong to Him. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.17 p.65-66. This is a subtle point, but Philippians 2:6-8 said Jesus voluntarily humbled himself and made himself nothing. In John 17:5 Jesus asks the Father to [again] glorify Him [Jesus] with the glory He had before the world began. However, Jesus was still God and worshipped while on earth. (John 10;30,33; 9:38)

The departed saints are "fountains of salvation to us", pouring forth manifold blessings. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.15 p.87

"Worshipping the image of the cross" as a symbol of Christ. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.11 p.80

Worship images of Jesus, Mary, and saints: John of Damascus said, "...some find fault with us for worshipping and honouring the image of our Saviour and that of our Lardy, and those, too of the rest of the saints and servants of Christ.". He also refers to Basil who supported images too. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.16 p.88

Transformed Eucharist: John of Damascus was ambiguous regarding consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, but regardless, John taught that the bread and wine became Christ's body and blood. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.13 p.82; book 4 ch.13 p.83

Despite all these many errors, some of them very serious, John of Damascus also taught correct things too.

A Partial Defense of John of Damascus on Mary

"by the good pleasure of God and the co-operation of the Holy Spirit, being conceived without seed, was born uncorruptedly of the Holy Virgin and Mother of God, Mary, by the Holy Spirit, and became of her perfect Man; and that the Same is at once perfect God and perfect Man, of the two natures, Godhead and Manhood..." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.2 p.2

"He [God] formed flesh animated with the spirit of reason and thought, the first-fruits of our compound nature: not by procreation but by creation through the Holy Spirit". Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.2 p.46

"He [Jesus] was man born of woman at full time, and above us because it was not by seed, but by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Virgin Mary, transcending the laws of parturition. ... perfect God and perfect man, wholly God and wholly man..." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.7 p.51

John of Damascus discusses the difference between being created and begotten, and how Mary bore both man and God. "Accordingly the holy Mother of God bore a subsistence revealed in two natures; being begotten on the one hand, by reason of divinity, of the Father timelessly, and, at least, on the other hand, being incarnated of her in time and born in the flesh. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.7 p.77

"if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood?" Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.21 p.82

"[Jesus'] body which is born of the holy Virgin is in truth body united with divinity, not that the body which was received up into the heavens descends, but that the bread itself and the win are changed into God's body and blood." "if God the Word of His own will became man and the pure and undefiled blood of the holy and ever-virginal One made His flesh without the aid of seed, can He not then make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood?" Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.21 p.82

"not of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, that is to say, by connection and seed, but by the good pleasure of the Father and co-operation of the Holy Spirit.... For just as the latter [Eve] was formed from Adam without [sexual] connection, so also did the former [Mary] bring for the new Adam [Jesus], who was brought forth in accordance with the laws of parturition and above the nature of generation." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.85

"For He [Jesus] who was of the Father, yet without mother, was born of woman without a father's co-operation. And so far as He was born of woman, His birth was in accordance with the laws of parturition, while so far as He had no father, His birth was above the nature of generation..." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.85

A Partial Defense of John of Damascus in General

Some Good Analogies of the Trinity: John of Damascus gives analogies of the Trinity as light and radiance from a fire. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.9 and the sun, ray, and radiance Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.11

The Holy Spirit, who proceeded from the Father and rested in the Son is both co-essential and co-eternal with them. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.9

Against Sabellius: John of Damascus spoke against the heretic Sabellius. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.11

Against Peter the Fuller: John of Damascus speaks against the teaching of Peter the Fuller, whom he said introduced fourth person "Trinity" in the Trinity. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.10 p.53

Respects Athanasius, Basil, and Gregory: Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.10 p.54. Also Gregory is in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.6 p.76

Criticizes Origen's View: John of Damascus criticizes Origen's view that Jesus only became Christ when the Virgin united the mind with God the Word. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.6 p.76

Council of Chalcedon mentioned positively: Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.10 p.54

God has always been a Father, but if He were ever without the Son, then He would not have always been a Father. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.7

Fully human: Adam, Eve, and Seth had three modes of coming into existence, yet all were fully human. Jesus being born of the virgin Mary likewise does not disqualify Him from being fully human. John of Damascus Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.8

Resurrection: John of Damascus teaches on the resurrection of the dead. If God can do the wonderful miracle of making a baby in a womb, He can raise the dead. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.27 p.99-101

Basic Truths Affirmed

John of Damascus taught many things, that were simply the faith that Christians all share.

Mention of the Old Testament and New Testament. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.2 p.2; book 1 ch.3 p.2

John of Damascus gives a form of the cosmological argument. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.3 p.2

God is changeless and imperishable. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.4 p.3

God is good. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.21,22 p.94

All things were made by God. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.19 p.92

God has no beginning and ending. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.2 p.1

God is One essence in three subsistences. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.2 p.2

There is only One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.6

"The three subsistences of the Holy Trinity are united without confusion, and are distinguished and enumerated without being separable,..." "... so in the same way natures of Christ also, although they are united, yet are united without confusion; and although the interpenetrate one another, yet they do not permit of change or transmutation of one into the other.... Christ, indeed, is one, perfect both in divinity and in humanity." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.5 p.49

Christians worship the Father and Holy Spirit along with the Son of God, who was without a physical body before He took on humanity. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.3 p.72

The Son is the Only-Begotten of the Father, while the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father. One is generated, the other processional. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.8 p.8

Christ is called the Word and Wisdom and Power of God, and God omnipotent. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.4 p.73

Jesus is perfect God and perfect man. [against the Apollinarians and Monotheletes] Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.18 p.66

Jesus is the Only-Begotten Son of God. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.1 p.1

"There never was a time when God was not Word; but He ever possesses His own Word, begotten of Himself...." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.6 p.4

"Every action, therefore, and performance of miracles by Christ are most great and divine and marvelous: but the most marvelous of all is His precious Cross." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.21 p.80

The cross subdued death, expiated the sin of the first parent, despoiled Hades, bestowed the resurrection etc." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.21 p.80

John of Damascus said we should honor Mary and John as forerunner and Baptist. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.15 p.87

"The antichrist is bound to come." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.26 p.98

The Antichrist, and the impious and sinful will be given over to everlasting fire. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.27 p.101

The lost go to the fire unquenchable and the everlasting punishment, prepared for the devil and his demons. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.4 p.19-20

Details on What John of Damascus Taught

John of Damascus had an influence on Thomas Aquinas, many centuries later. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series vol.9 p.vii

God is just and good and wise. However, these are not God's nature, but rather qualities of God's nature. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 1 ch.4 p.4

"But God alone is eternal, or rather, He is above the Eternal: for He, the Creator of times, is not under the dominion of time, but above time." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.3 p.19

John of Damascus mentions Dionysius the Areopagite. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.3 p.20

John of Damascus was against astrology that said our affairs are controlled by the rising, setting, and collision of stars, because we have free will. He did mention the zodiac in an astronomical sense though. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.7 p.24-25

John of Damascus had a very good scientific explanation of eclipses. "The sun and the moon, moreover, suffer eclipse, and this demonstrates the folly of those who worship the creature in place of the Creator, and teaches us how changeable and alterable all things are. ... Now the cause of the eclipse of the sun is that the body of the moon is interposed like a partition -wall and casts a shadow, and prevents the light from being shed down on us; and the extent of the eclipse is proportional to the size of the moon's body that is found to conceal the sun. But do not marvel that the moon's body is the smaller. For many declare that the sun is many times larger than the earth, and the holy Fathers say that it is equal to the earth: yet often a small cloud, or even a small hill or a wall quite conceals it. The eclipse of the moon, on the other hand, is due to the shadow the earth casts on it when it is fifteen days' moon and the sun and moon happen to be at the opposite poles of the highest circle, the sun being under the earth and the moon above the earth. For the earth cases a shadow and the sun's light is prevented from illuminated the moon, and therefore it is then eclipsed." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.7 p.25

"...some hold that the earth is in the form of a sphere, others that it is in that of a cone. At all events it is much smaller than the heaven, and suspended almost like a point in its midst." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.10 p.28-29

John of Damascus taught four types of pleasure: natural and necessary, natural but not necessary (such as lawful intercourse), neither natural nor necessary (such as drunkenness, lust), and moral pleasures, which bring no cause for repentance and do not make slaves of us. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.13 p.33

John of Damascus taught there were four types of pain: anguish - pain without utterance, grief - pain that is heavy to bear, envy - pain over the good fortune of others, and pity - pain over the evil fortune of others. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.14 p.33

John of Damascus taught there were six varieties of fear: shrinking - fear of something about to take place, shame - fear arising from anticipation of blame, disgrace - fear of some base act already done, consternation - fear caused by some huge product of the imagination, panic - fear caused by some unusual product of the imagination, and anxiety - fear of failure, lack of success, or misfortune. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.15 p.33

John of Damascus taught there were three types of anger: rage - which is aroused, wrath - which endures, and rancour - which watches for a suitable moment for revenge. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.16 p.33

John of Damascus speaks extensively of free will. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.16 p.25 p.39

The devil was made good by the Creator, but through his own free-will because the inventor of evil. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.27 p.41

There are two forms of desertion: desertion in matters of guidance and training, and complete and hopeless desertion. Judas did the latter and was handed over to utter destruction. "May God be gracious to us, and deliver us from such desertion."

The Word became flesh without being changed, of the Holy Spirit, and Mary the holy and ever-virgin one, the mother of God. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.1 p.45

Mary had holy and most pure blood. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.2 p.46

Our will is natural. It is not dominated by necessity but is free. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.3 p.59

The flesh became God without change." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.17 p.65-66

When Jesus died as a man and His Holy Spirit was severed form His immaculate body, yet His divinity remained inseparable from both, I mean, from His soul and His body, and so even thus His one hypostasis was not divided into two hypostases." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.27 p.72.

"The soul [of Jesus] when it was deified descended into Hades, in order that, just as the Sun of Righteousness rose for those upon the earth, so likewise He might bring light to those who site under the earth in darkness and shadow of death; In order that just as He brought the message of peace to those upon the earth, and of release to the prisoners, and of sight to the blind, and became to those who believed the Author of everlasting salvation and to those who did not believe a reproach of their unbelief, so He might became the same to those in Hades." Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 3 ch.29 p.72-73.

Yet, after angels fell there is no possibility of repentance for them, just as there is no repentance for man after death. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 2 ch.4 p.21

Jesus said to "my Father and your Father" because in one sense Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, but in another sense, we are all sons of God by adoption through Christ. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.8 p.77

Since man has both a soul and body, the Holy Spirit renews that part in us that is in God's image, and the water by the grace of the Spirit cleans the body from sin. John of Damascus relates baptismal water to the water in Genesis 1:2, Noah's flood, water of purification in the law. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.9 p.78; book 4 ch.24 p.97

John of Damascus says that though Mt 1:25 says Joseph knew her not until she had brought forth her first-born Son, he says that does not prove Joseph ever knew Mary, because an only-son is still a first-born son. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.14 p.86

Mention that a portrait painter from Edessa could not paint Jesus because of the brightness that shone from his face, so Jesus put a garment over his face, impressed on it His image, and gave it to the painter. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.16 p.88

Says that Paul and the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, based on 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2. He used this to justify tradition in the church. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.16 p.88

John of Damascus said it was impossible that flesh should permeate divinity, but Jesus' divinity permeated His flesh in what we call union. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.18 p.91

Evil is not any essence or property, but an accident, that is, a voluntary deviation. It is the absence of goodness, a lapsing from what is natural into what is unnatural, which is sin. Sin was an invention of the free-will of the devil. (paraphrase) Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.20 p.94

Enoch and Elijah [Elias] will become during the last days prior to Jesus coming again. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.26 p.99

John of Damascus mentions baptism for the remission of sins and for life eternal. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.9 p.77

John of Damascus said marriage was fine, but he was a champion of virginity for both men and women. Elijah, Elisha, and the three young men in Daniel were virgins. Virginity/celibacy is the rule for the holy angels in heaven. Exposition of the Orthodox Faith book 4 ch.24 p.96-97


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