John of Damascus (c. 675–c. 750)
JOHN OF DAMASCUS
(c. 675–c. 750)
John, whose secular name was Mansur, was born in Damascus probably in the third quarter of the seventh century. His father and grandfather had been prominent in the fiscal administration of Syria, and it is believed that his father was in charge of the fiscal administration of the Umayyad Empire, with its capital in Damascus, in the latter decades of the seventh century. John received a good Hellenistic education and probably entered the service of the Caliph at Damascus in his father's footsteps. At some point—probably at the beginning of the eighth century, when the administration of the Umayyad Empire was put in the hands of Muslim officials—John resigned his post and became a monk in the Holy Land, according to a late tradition at the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean Desert (though it is more likely that he was associated with the church of the Anastasis in Jerusalem itself). In any event, he was close to John V, patriarch of Jerusalem from 706 to 735, who ordained John of Damascus to the priesthood. It is believed that he died around 750, because at the Iconoclast Synod of Hiereia (754) he was anathematized under his name Mansur as if he was already dead.
John possessed genuine literary gifts, knowledge both theological and philosophical, and considerable intellectual acumen. In his lifetime he achieved fame as a preacher (evident from the references to him in the Chronicle of Theophanes); his liturgical poetry still forms the core of the Byzantine liturgical office; through his works of theology he came to exercise an unparalleled influence, not only throughout the Byzantine world, but on theology in the West from the period of Scholasticism (for which he provided the principal access to the developed theology of the Byzantine East) up to at least the time of Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher. Many of his theological works are polemical; he wrote a treatise against Manichaeism, as well as treatises against the Christological heresies of monophysitism, monothelitism, and Nestorianism and is the first Christian theologian explicitly to attack the new religion of Islam, on which he was impressively informed.
John was the most notable defender of icons against the iconoclasm of the Emperor Leo III. His best-known work is a three-part treatise known as The Fountain Head of Knowledge (in Greek: Pēgē gnōseōs ), consisting of an introduction to logic (Dialectica ), a summary account of heresies (De haeresibus ) and an epitome of the principal themes of the Christian faith (Expositio fidei, or De orthodoxa fide ). The critical edition published by the Benedictine Dom Boniface Kotter in the last decades of the twentieth century reveals that each of these sections was intended to be a century (or half-century)—that is, a collection of one hundred chapters or paragraphs. The century was a genre of monastic literature, popular in Byzantine circles, and John's choice of this genre makes clear that his purpose in this work was essentially monastic: the intellectual training and learning it provides was ultimately to help monks in their life of prayer. His principal purpose was not to provide a systematic theology, as was suggested by the division of the Expositio fidei into four books, corresponding to the four books of Peter Lombard's Sentences, a division introduced into the Latin translations in the thirteenth century (and thence into the older editions and translations), but unknown in the Greek manuscript tradition. In fact, although John intended a final version of the work in three parts as indicated above, the most popular form in the Byzantine world was a combination of the Dialectica and the Expositio, usually known as Philosophical and Theological Chapters, usually consisting of 150 chapters.
The Dialectica is a compilation—belonging to a tradition of Christian introductions to logic, popular in the seventh and eighth centuries—that provided an introduction to basic philosophical terminology as an aid to understanding the issues raised by Christological controversy in the East, which had raged since the fifth century, and concerned concepts such as being, nature, person, and latterly activity and will. The Dialectica in the earlier form (the only one that survives complete; John probably died while revising it) seems to lead up to the notion of hypostasis or person, and "hypostatic union," key terms in the Christological orthodoxy to which John belonged. Those who contributed to this tradition of Christian introductions to logic drew their material from the sixth-century Alexandrian commentaries on Aristotle and Porphyry; unlike the sixth-century commentators, however, the compilers of these textbooks (including John himself) were not concerned to advance an understanding of logic, but simply to provide the basic tools for engaging in the theological arguments of the day.
The Expositio Fidei is also a work of compilation, drawing, often word for word, on earlier theologians in its presentation of the fundamental concepts of the Christian faith. It concerns the doctrine of God and the Trinity; creation and the nature of the created order, especially human nature; the doctrine of Christ (to which most space is devoted); and various questions of religious practice, especially those that marked off Christians from Jews and Muslims (though there is no explicit reference to the latter). John expressly sets aside any claim to originality; even the selection of authorities is probably not original to John, but represents an established tradition, much influenced by Maximos the Confessor (580–662). The only doctrines where some originality could be claimed for John are the doctrines of the will and its freedom, which had become central to the controversy over the heresy that Christ had only one will (monothelitism), and possibly his treatment of the infinity of God. In both cases, however, John's contribution is not much more than a refinement of the tradition that had reached him. Some aspects of the tradition he had received are ignored, possibly felt to be too daring: for example, his dependence on Maximos (and through him on the fourth-century Nemesios of Emesa) for his understanding of creation and human nature is particularly marked, but he ignores completely Maximos's developed doctrine of the principles (or logoi ) of creation. It is doubtless the clarity of John's exposition that is the reason for his immense influence.
works by john damascene
His works my be found in Patrologia Graeca, edited by J.-P Migne, vols. 94–96 (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1860). A critical edition of (most of) his authentic prose works is Die Schriften des Johannes von Damaskos, 5 vols., edited by Bonifatius Kotter (Patristische Texte und Studien 7, 12, 17, 22, 29. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1969–1988). An English translation by Frederic H. Chase Jr. (from Migne) of The Fountain Head of Knowledge is Writings (Fathers of the Church 37. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1958). An English translation by Andrew Louth (from Kotter) of works against the iconoclasts is Three Treatises on the Divine Images (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2003).
works about john damascene
Frede, Michael. "John of Damascus on Human Action, the Will, and Human Freedom." In Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou, 63–95. Oxford, U.K.: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Louth, Andrew. St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Roueché, Mossman. "Byzantine Philosophical Texts of the Seventh Century." Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik 23 (1974): 61–76.
Sweeney, Leo. "John Damascene and Divine Infinity." New Scholasticism 35 (1961): 85–86.
Sweeney, Leo. "John Damascene's 'Infinite Sea of Essence.'" Studia Patristica 6 (1962): 248–263.
Andrew Louth (2005)
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