St. John of Damascus.
The Life of St. John of Damascus.
We do not know much about St. John’s life. The biographies known to us were composed late — only in the eleventh century -and it is not easy to pick out what is authentic and indisputable. St. John was a native of Damascus and was born into the wealthy Mansur family — the name means “the victorious.” He was born in the late seventh century. The precise year cannot be determined — scholars differ in listing his year of birth from around 645 to 675. St. John’s father and grandfather had held ministerial posts, first under the Byzantines and after 636 under the Arab rulers of Damascus. His father, Sergius (Ibn-Serjun), served in the palace of the Caliph as “great Logothete.” St. John received a good education. According to legend, he studied with Cosmas Melodus who later became bishop of Maiuma and with another Cosmas who was a ransomed prisoner from Sicily. Theological interests were awakened in him very early.
St. John followed his father as Logothete to the Caliph. We do not know exactly when St. John left the palace and entered the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. One can assume that this was before the beginning of the Iconoclastic Controversy. St. John’s remarkable addresses in defense of the holy ikons drew universal attention to him.
St. John’s biographies tell of slander and persecution against him at the Caliph’s palace, of cruel punishment and miraculous healing. In the monastery he led a strict, reclusive life in humility and in obedience — this is vividly and touchingly described in a well-known biographical tale. Here St. John engaged mostly in writing, keenly responding to the theological themes of the day, and at the same time composing his “divine psalms.” As he himself has indicated, he was ordained a priest by Patriarch John V (705-735) of Jerusalem — in any case no later than 734. He did not stay in Jerusalem long. We do not know when precisely St. John died. There is some evidence to assume that he passed away before the Iconoclastic Council of 754. The date of his death is usually calculated about 749/750.
The Writings of st. John of Damascus.
St. John of Damascus’ place in the history of theology is primarily determined by his works of a systematic nature. His Fount of Knowledge — ???ή ??ώ???? which is dedicated to Cosmas of Maiuma, is an extensive dogmatic collection consisting of three unequal parts. The first, the “philosophical chapters” or dialectics [Dialectica], was composed in the style of Aristotle — see the interpretations of Porphyry and Ammonius. Here St. John mostly discusses the definitions of basic concepts. At the same time it is a kind of natural theology, “knowledge of that which exists as such.” The second part of St. John’s Fount of Knowledge is entitled Briefly on Heresies. This is a short list of heresies and delusions, one hundred and three in all, composed mainly from literary sources — beginning with Epiphanius’ Panarion. The texts cited on the delusion of the Messalians and the quotations from Philo on essence and hypostasis are interesting. This short hereseological outline ends with a theological confession of faith. The third part of St. John’s Fount of Knowledge is his Ekthesis or Exposition of the Orthodox Faith. This is an experimental system. The material, however, has been collected very unevenly, and many articles of the faith are not spoken of at all — for example, there is no special section on the Church. There is no strict order in the exposition. St. John has more to say on Christological themes than anything else. And one senses that these were urgent and disturbing topics only very recently.
In his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith St. John of Damascus follows, often literally, preceding fathers, especially St. Gregory of Nazianzus and the “the great Dionysius.” Less frequently but still used are the other Cappadocians, St. Cyril, and “Leontius of Byzantium.” He refers to other fathers very rarely. Among the Latin Fathers he mentions only Pope Leo. He does not refer to the pre-Nicene writers at all.
St. John of Damascus makes no claims to independence. On the contrary, he strives to express precisely the generally accepted opinion on faith. At the same time he freely and creatively investigates theological tradition and distinguishes the basic and the secondary. He does not enter into disputable arguments, but neither does he conceal problems. In philosophy St. John of Damascus bases himself on Aristotle but he is more accurately called an eclectic. In many cases he is more of a Platonist, especially through the influence of his patristic authorities such as St. Gregory of Nazianzus and Pseudo-Dionysius.
The influence of this dogmatic code — this word is more accurate than system — was great in both the Greek East and the Latin West, although St. John had no creative successors in Byzantium. His Exposition of the Orthodox Faith was translated into Syriac, Arabic, Armenian, Old Bulgarian or Slavonic, Georgian, and Latin. The Latin translation was made only in the twelfth century on the instructions of Pope Eugenius III (1150), and this very faulty translation was used by Peter Lombard and by Thomas Aquinas. The Slavonic translation was done as early as the tenth century. The Arabic translation could have been made during St. John’s lifetime.
Among his dogmatic writings of a personal content and primarily polemical nature, we must mention first of all the famous Discourses Against the Iconoclasts. There are three discourses and they were written between 726 and 730. St. John of Damascus supports his theological arguments here with a collection of patristic testimony and other evidence.
St. John’s book Against the Jacobites — known in two accounts — offers some interest. Attached to it are a number of individual dogmatic and polemical sketches against the Monophysites, the Monothelites, and the Manichees.
It is especially necessary to note the famous collection of Sacred Comparisons [Sacra Parallela]. This is a code of texts and patristic dicta on various questions of faith and piety, organized in alphabetical order by subject. All the material, however, was originally set forth systematically in three sections: On God; On Man; and On Virtues and Vices. The manuscript copies of this original edition have also been preserved. This is what one may ascribe to St. John of Damascus himself. After this his collection was subject to reworking on more than one occasion.
The labors of St. John of Damascus as a Psalmist demand particular attention. Even Theophanes called him “Gold Stream” — “Chrysorrhoas” — “for the abundance in him of the grace of the Holy Spirit, which flows in his words and life.” It is very difficult to determine the volume of St. John’s psalmody precisely. It is hardly possible to ascribe the composition of the Octoechos to him as his personal work — this is the labor of a number of generations, in which St. John also put his share. One may also think that it was he who brought the already set order of the service to a definite plan. The Sunday dogmatics probably belong to him, as perhaps do the Sunday canons, which are Christological in content. One must also mention the Easter service in particular — as a whole, not only the canon — and a number of canons for feasts — Christmas, Epiphany, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, the Annunciation, the Assumption, etc. In addition, there are his famous funeral odes.
With St. John of Damascus, as also with Cosmas of Maiuma, the influence of St. Gregory of Nazianzus is very perceptible. For example, see the scholia composed by Cosmas to St. Gregory’s poetry. St. John’s influence in Eastern liturgical poetry was decisive, and it is also felt in the Latin West.
St. John of Damascus engaged in exegetical work comparatively little. He wrote an unoriginal Commentary to the Epistles of St. Paul, a commentary used by later churchmen and theologians, including Theophylact of Bulgaria. Some sermons have been preserved, among which the ones on the feasts of the Assumption and Transfiguration are especially interesting. It is also necessary to note a number of individual articles which are ascetic or ethical in content. The authenticity of the work entitled Barlaam and Joasaph has long been disputed. Though some scholars now are convinced that it is the work of St. John, it is still possible that it is not authentic and that it may have been composed in the mid-seventh century in the monastery of St. Sabas by a certain John.