St. John Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

St. John 700?-752?

Byzantine (Syrian) theologian. Also known as St. John Damascene and St. Johannes Damascenus.

John of Damascus was one of the first of a new generation of Christian theologians—the Scholastics—who attempted to transform a multiplicity of tenets and practices into a coherent and consistent system of beliefs. Although his major theological work was the task of compiling the wisdom of earlier leaders of the Church, John of Damascus is well known for his original contributions to the iconoclastic controversy that fractured the Christian church in the eighth and ninth centuries. His defense of the worship of images also led him to respond to the Muslim accusation that Christianity involved the practice of idolatry; his response took the form of a dialogue and was one of the first theological representations of the "heresy" of Islam to Christians.

Biographical Information

Although there is disagreement about the family background of John of Damascus, it is generally acknowledged that he was born around the end of the seventh century into a prominent Christian family. Damascus at that point in its history was a city ruled by a Muslim caliph (a successor to Mohammed), and John thus had a great deal of exposure to the tensions between the emerging beliefs of Islam and the slightly more well-established ones of Christianity. Fluent in Arabic, he seems to have been familiar with at least part of the Koran—the sacred text of Islam—as well as with scholarly interpretations of it. Before becoming a monk at the monastery of Saint Sabbas in Jerusalem, he occupied a hereditary political office in Damascus. He was interested in music and is also famous as a hymnographer. Known for his eloquence, John of Damascus wrote several treatises describing and defending orthodoxy, and is considered by many to be a transitional figure between the Eastern theologians of the early centuries of the Christian church and the European scholastics of the Middle Ages. Even after entering monastic life, he traveled extensively in Syria to defend the worship of images within Christian ritual. This view propelled him into a prominent place in the iconoclastic controversy and brought him sharp disapproval from the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (680?-741), against whose powerful interventions into church policy John of Damascus strenuously argued. John also traveled to Constantinople to meet with Leo's successor, Constantine V (719-775), to discuss the status of images within Christian doctrine. In general, however, John of Damascus did not engage in political activities, concentrating instead on compiling the wisdom of past theologians.

Major Works

John of Damascus took his most important task to be that of collecting and organizing the diversity of Christian thought into a coherent doctrinal system. According to most scholars, his greatest achievement was the Sources of Knowledge (written circa 743), also known as the Fount of Knowledge, which contains the three major works of Capita Philosophica (or Dialectica), an explanation of philosophical terms and ideas; De Haeresibus, a compilation of Christian and non-Christian heresies; and De Fide Orthodoxa, a systematic exposition of the Christian faith. The work is intended to instruct both negatively and positively—the heresies are described in order to reveal the error of those who might stray from the orthodox path. John of Damascus also is credited with writing two dialogues, Disceptatio Christiani et Saraceni and Disputatio Saraceni et Christiani, which represent the theological tensions between the two major religions of Palestine in the eighth century. Accordingly, John of Damascus is best known for his anti-Islamic polemics and his defense of Christian doctrine against the charge of idolatry, which Islamic scholars directed at Christianity. Islam is discussed as part of the catalogue of heresies in the Sources of Knowledge: John of Damascus frequently referred to Muslims as "Ishmaelites," or those who have fallen into the error of "deceptive superstition," an estrangement from orthodox Christianity. In particular, he criticized Islam for the rejection of the divinity of Christ and defended the paradoxical (and paradigmatically Christian) idea that the divine can also be incarnate. In his response to the Muslim accusation that Christians engage in idolatry, John of Damascus referred to the theological distinction between idols and icons: idols are associated with demons or, more generally, are images of beings which have no corporeal existence. Icons, contrastingly, are representations of corporeally existing beings. This difference between true and false images is intended to distinguish the Christian veneration of icons from pagan idolatry. It is Islam, John of Damascus countered, that practices idolatry, manifested in the worship of the "morning star and Aphrodite" (both are designations of the planet Venus, depending on its position in the sky; this worship was a practice preserved from pre-Islamic religion in Arabia), and the veneration of the Ka'ba. Although he recognized that Mohammed returned the Arabic people to monotheism, John of Damascus characterized him as a "false prophet," one who does not accept the tripartite nature of God. In general, John of Damascus sought to introduce Islam, as a nascent system of beliefs, to Christians as a way of deterring them from falling into a heretical understanding of the divine. This task typifies his larger goal of systematizing Christian doctrine.

Textual History

Due to the propensity of John of Damascus to compile the writings of others, as well as to revise extensively his own work, it is difficult to establish precisely what he wrote and what he merely collected. Some critics have contended that the entire list of heresies (De Haeresibus) cannot be attributed to John of Damascus, as this part of the Sources of Knowledge does not appear in all editions of that work, particularly in early manuscripts. As the other two parts form a coherent unit, it has been suggested that the catalogue of heresies was incorporated later. Its first eighty chapters seem to have been copied from a fourth-century work, the Panarion, by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis. Yet most scholars have concluded that De Haeresibus is an "integral part," as Sahas claims, of the Sources of Knowledge, for it functions as a critical contrast to the exposition of Christian doctrine in the concluding part, De Fide Orthodoxa. Another controversy with regard to the authorship of this text is the question of the authenticity of Chapter 101 (as it appears in the nineteenth-century edition), the chapter that deals with the heresy of Islam. It can be distinguished both by its length and its style from the first one hundred chapters: its discussion of Islam is an extended dialogue. As early as the ninth century, however, this chapter was included in editions of the work. Although the issue of the authorship of Chapter 101 remains a subject of debate among scholars, the chapter is still primarily acknowledged to be the work of John of Damascus. Apart from this major theological work, John of Damascus is also generally credited with two dialogues between a "Saracen" (a Muslim) and a Christian, but John Meyendorff has argued that both are actually the work of Theodore Abu-Qurra and were merely compiled by John. All of these texts were preserved under the name of John of Damascus in church documents and were published in the nineteenth-century in J. P. Migne's authoritative Patrologiae Cursus Completus.

Critical Reception

John of Damascus is generally considered to have been an important compiler of orthodox Christian doctrine, a function that places him between the early period of Christianity, which involved significant diversity and strife regarding central tenets and practices, and the Scholastic era. His defense of icons also places him at the center of the iconoclastic controversy, a crisis that contributed to theological differences between the Western and Eastern Church. It is his encounter with Islam, however, that has engendered the most critical attention in recent years. There is considerable disagreement about the extent of his knowledge about Islam—how familiar he might have been with all or part of the Koran, his understanding of the nature of the divine in Islam, and his grasp of Muslim law. In addition, there is much debate about the adequacy of John's responses to the Muslim charge of idolatry and the cogency of his counter-accusations. Most critics do acknowledge that John of Damascus had some sophisticated understanding of Islamic beliefs and practices, although his interpretation was significantly influenced by his designation of Islam as a heresy. His writings provide significant insights into the theological character of eighth-century Christianity, although Christian practices varied widely, as John's determined attempt to establish a single set of doctrines indicates. His fundamentally conservative approach manifests his belief that knowledge is a form of "spiritual contemplation" and that the greatest knowledge had already been divulged by past theologians. Later scholars within the Christian church have conformed to this approach, and therefore John of Damascus has had a crucial influence on such thinkers as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas. Accordingly, as David Anderson has argued, the questions and tensions that animate John of Damascus's writings remain relevant for contemporary religious thinkers. Specifically, the problem of divine incarnation and the difficult issue of encounters between Christianity and "heresies," both within and outside of the Church, still inform contemporary religious scholarship.