( John Damascene)

 John Damascene,
 Iviron, Athos, 1786

JOHN of DAMASCUS (c.660–c.750), Greek theologian and ‘Doctor of the Church’. Little can be established about his life, though he belonged to a family that had long been involved in the fiscal administration in Damascus, and he succeeded his father in the court of the Caliph. He resigned his office, perhaps as early as 706, and became a monk near Jerusalem (traditionally at the monastery of St Sabas), and also a priest. He was a strong defender of images in the Iconoclastic Controversy, writing three treatises on the subject, the first in 726.

His most influential prose-work is the Fountain Head of Knowledge (pege gnoseos), consisting of three parts: a textbook of logic (‘Dialectica’), a list of heresies, and ‘De Fidei Orthodoxa’ (or ‘Expositio Fidei’). It rarely appears, however, in this threefold form in the MSS, the commonest (and probably the original) form consisting of the ‘Dialectica’ plus ‘De Fidei Orthodoxa’. The threefold form, as described in the prefatory letter to his former fellow-monk, Cosmas Melodus, then Bp. of Maïuma, is a later revision. The ‘Dialectica’ drew on Aristotle and Porphyry, as well as Christian Fathers. The first 80 of the 100 chapters on heresies reproduce the ‘Anakephalaiosis’ or epitome of St Epiphanius’ Panarion; the rest mainly concern later heresies, ending with Islam, the first account by a Christian theologian. In ‘De Fidei Orthodoxa’ John presents an account of the fundamentals of the Christian faith, drawing directly on the works of earlier Fathers, such as the Cappadocians, Nemesius of Emesa, St John Chrysostom, St Cyril of Alexandria, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, and St. Maximus the Confessor. It is organized in four sections: on God the Trinity; on creation, human nature, and providence; on Christology; with a final section, something of a medley, on prayer, the Sacraments, the Scriptures, and the Last Things. ‘De Fidei Orthodoxa’ epitomizes Greek patristic theology, presenting it mainly in the form of (unacknowledged) florilegia; the selection of authorities probably reflects a tradition of patristic reading developed among the Palestinian monks. Occasionally John adds his own ideas: e.g. his doctrine of the perichoresis (‘circumincession’) of the Persons of the Trinity, his analysis of human willing (esp. in relation to Christ), and his interpretation of the ‘theandric activities’ of Christ, in this last case following Maximus the Confessor in giving an orthodox meaning to Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite’s ambiguous expression.

His other great work is the Hiera or Sacra Parallela. Now lost in its original form, this was a huge collection of Biblical and patristic texts, arranged in three books, on God, on human nature, and on the virtues and vices; these last are treated in parallel, hence its Latin name. Other works include polemical treatises against various Christological heresies, and also against Manichaeism. He was renowned as a preacher, but only a few of his homilies survive, including fine sermons on the Transfiguration and on the Dormition of the BVM (a set of three), in which a fully developed Mariology is manifest.

Perhaps John’s greatest work is his liturgical poetry. He was among the first to write canons for Mattins, the most famous being his Canon for Easter (which has found its way into modern English hymnbooks in J. M. Neale’s rendering as ‘The Day of Resurrection! Earth tell it out abroad’), as well as others for Christmas, the Transfiguration, and the Dormition of the BVM.

John of Damascus exercised considerable influence on later theology. ‘De Fidei Orthodoxa’ was early translated into Arabic, Old Slavonic, Georgian, and Armenian. In an inadequate Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa (later revised by Robert Grosseteste), it was a prime resource for the Greek dogmatic tradition for the Schoolmen, and remained influential to the time of F. D. E. Schleiermacher. In Byzantine Christendom (including the Slavs), his greatest influence has probably been through his liturgical poetry. John of Damascus, whose cult had developed by the 12th cent., was declared a ‘Doctor of the Church’ by Leo XIII in 1890. Feast day, 4 Dec. (formerly in the W., 27 Dec.).






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