St. John Damascene

c. 675-749

St. John of Damascus: on various subjects

An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith

Saint John Damascene, or John of Damascus, was a theologian, writer, scholar, Father of the Church, and Doctor of the Church. At the age of twenty-three his father employed a Sicilian monk named Cosmas to tutor his son in mathematics, music, astronomy, and theology. Although a Christian, he later served as a high-ranking financial officer under the Saracen caliph of Damascus. Because of the caliph's hostility to Christians, John resigned his post in about 700. He retired to the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem, where he was ordained a priest before the outbreak of the controversy over iconoclasm in 726, when Byzantine emperor Leo III issued his first edict against the veneration of images. John Damascene immediately entered the lists against him in defense of this ancient usage of the Christians. Not only did he himself oppose the Byzantine monarch, but he also stirred the people to resistance. In 730 Leo issued a second edict, in which he not only forbade the veneration of images, but even inhibited their exhibition in public places. To this royal decree John replied with even greater vigour than before, and by the adoption of a simpler style brought the Christian side of the controversy within the grasp of the common people. A third letter emphasized what he had already said and warned the emperor to beware of the consequences of this unlawful action. John was able to write these letters with impunity because he was not Leo's subject. He spent the rest of his life in religious study, except for a period shortly before his death, when he journeyed throughout Syria preaching against the iconoclasts.

John was considered one of the ablest philosophers of his day and was known as Chrysorrhoas (Greek, "Golden Stream") because of his oratorical ability. The most important and best known of all his works is the Fountain of Knowledge. This textbook is divided into three parts: "Heads of Philosophy", "Compendium of Heresies", and "An Exact Exposition of Orthodox Faith," this last part being considered by some as the first work of Scholasticism, and John being considered the precursor of the Scholastics. The book's merit is not that of originality, for the author asserts that it is not his purpose to set forth his own views, but rather to collate and epitomize in a single work the opinions of the great ecclesiastical writers who have gone before him. The book is considered one of the most notable works of Christian antiquity. A special interest attaches to it for the reason that it is the first attempt at a summa theologica.

The title of the first book is somewhat too comprehensive for its contents and consequently is more commonly called the "Dialectic". With the exception of the fifteen chapters that deal exclusively with logic, it has mostly to do with the ontology of Aristotle. It is largely a summary of the Categories of Aristotle with Porphyry's Isagoge. The second part, "Compendium of Heresies", is little more than a copy of a similar work by Epiphanius, brought up to date by John Damascene. The third and most important section contains a complete theological system based on the teachings of the early Greek church fathers and church synods from the 4th to the 7th century. Divided into four books, the first treats of the essence and existence of God, the Divine nature, and the Trinity. As evidence of the existence of God he cites the concurrence of opinion among those enlightened by Revelation and those who have only the light of reason to guide them. To the same end he employs the argument drawn from the mutability of created things and that from design. Treating in the second book of the physical world, he summarizes all the views of his times, without, however, committing himself to any of them. In the same treatise he discloses a comprehensive knowledge of the astronomy of his day. In the third book the personality and two-fold nature of Christ are discussed with great ability, as well as the Virgin Mary's claim to the tile of "Theotokos," Mother of God. Nestorius is vigorously dealt with for trying to substitute the title of "Mother of Christ" for "Mother of God". The Scriptures are discussed in the fourth book. In assigning twenty-two books to the Old Testament Canon he is treating of the Hebrew, and not the Christian, Canon. The nineteenth chapter contains a powerful plea for the veneration of images.

His other works include the treatise Against the Jacobites, written at the request of Peter, Metropolitan of Damascus. It is a strong polemic against the Jacobites, as the Monophysites in Syria were called. He also wrote against the Manicheans and Monothelites. The Sacred Parallels is a kind of topical concordance, treating principally of God, man, virtues, and vices. Under the general title of "Homilies" he wrote fourteen discourses, and he wrote many hymns, three of which have become widely known and admired in their English version - "Those eternal bowers", "Come ye faithful raise the strain", and "Tis the Day of Resurrection."

Saint John Damascene is considered a saint by both the Roman Catholic church and the Greek church. His feast day in the Roman Catholic church is March 27; in the Greek, December 4.

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The Catholic Encyclopedia: an International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline and History of the Catholic Church, Herbermann and Pace, eds., New York: Appleton, 1907-1912.