John of Damacus

John Of Damacus (JOHANNES DAMASCUS, Ι᾿ωάννης Δαμασηκνός) (1), one of the early ecclesiastical writers, and the author of the standard textbook of dogmatic theology in the Greek Church, was born at Damascus about the year 676. His oratorical talents caused him to be surnamed Chrysorrhoas (golden stream) by his friends (the Arabs called him Mansur). Little is known of his life except that he belonged to a high family, was ordained priest, and entered the convent of St. Sabas at Jerusalem, where he passed his life in the midst of literary labors and theological studies. The other details found concerning him in his biography by John, patriarch of Jerusalem, are considered untrustworthy. According to this writer, John Damascenus's father was a Christian, and governor of the province of Damascus, then in the hands of the Saracens, and John was ably educated by an Italian monk. Under Leo the Isaurian and Constantine Capronymus he zealously defended image worship both by his pen and tongue, and even went to Constantinople on that account. A legendary story relates that Leo, who was then a decided iconoclast, forged a treasonable letter from John to himself, which he contrived to pass into the hands of the caliph, who sentenced John to have his right hand cut off, when the severed hand was restored to the arm by a miracle. About that time, however, John withdrew from the caliph's court to the monastery of St. Saba, near Jerusalem, where he passed the remainder of his life in ascetic practices and study. He died between 754 and 787. In the former year we find his last public act, a protest against the Iconoclastic Synod at Constantinople, and in the latter the (Ecumenical Council of Nice honored his memory with a eulogy. The Greek Church commemorates him on November 29 and December 4, and the Roman Catholic Church on May 6. Church writers agree in considering John Damascenus as superior to all his contemporaries in philosophy and erudition; yet his works, though justifying his reputation, are deficient in criticism.

The most important literary achievement of Damascenus is the Πηγὴ γνώσεως (Source of Knowledge), comprising the following three works:

1. Κεφάλαια Φιλοσοφικά, or Dialectics, which treats almost exclusively of logical and ontological categories, based mainly on Aristotle and Porphyry: —

2. Περὶ αἰρέσεων ἐνσυντονία, De hoeresibus, containing in 103 articles a chronological synopsis of the heresies in the Christian Church, with a few articles on the errors of pagans and Jews (the first eighty are really the work of Epiphanius; the remainder partly treat of the heresies from the time of Epiphanius to that of the image controversies, according to Theodoretus, Sophronius, Leontius of Byzantium, etc., and partly of fictitious sects, which merely represent possible, not actual errors of belief): —

3. The third and most important work, to which the former two were really simply the introduction, is entitled ῎Εκδοσις ἀκριβὴς τῆς πίστεως ὀρθοδόξου, Doctrines of the Orthodox Church, collected from the writings of the Church fathers, especially Gregory of Nazianzum, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Epiphanius, Cyril, Nemesius, and others. The whole work is divided into 100 sections or four books (the latter is probably a later arrangement), and treats of the following subjects:

(a) God's existence, essence, unity, and the possibility of knowing him. Though John teaches that it is neither impossible to know God, nor possible to know him all; that his essence is neither expressible nor entirely inexpressible, he nevertheless inclines to the transcendental character of the idea of God, assigning to human thought incapacity for its conception, and referring man, in the end, as Areopagites does, to the record of divinely revealed truth. It may be considered as a characteristic feature of his theology that it principally dwells on God's metaphysical attributes, hardly touching the ethical question.

(b) The Trinity, to which he gives great prominence. He not only repeats the doctrines of the Greek Church, as well as the arguments of the Greek fathers, but resumes a scientific construction of the dogma within the established creed, though admitting that there are certain bounds to the inquiry, which human reason cannot scale (Α᾿δύνατον γὰρ εὑρεθῆναι ἐν τῆ κτίσει εἰκόυα ἀπαραλλάκτως ἐν ἑαυτῆ τὸν τρόπον τῆς ἁγίας τριάδος παραδεικνύουσαν). The Trinity, therefore, cannot be adequately conceived nor defined. His real object in the discussion seems to be to found the personality of the λόγος and of the πνεῦμα ἃγιον upon the unity of the divine essence, and, further, to describe the nature of coexistence, and of personal difference in the Triune, and the reciprocal relations of the three persons — –περιχώρησις–with all attainable strictness, and he attempts to achieve this result rather by the negative process of excluding fallacies than by positive demonstration. Whenever he ventures upon the latter he fluctuates between Peripateticism, tending to Tritheism and Platonism, leading almost imperceptibly to Sabellianism and Modalism.

(c) Creation, Angels, and Doemons. On these he simply collects the doctrines of his predecessors, closing with a somewhat lengthy exposition of his views on heaven, heavenly bodies, light, fire, winds, water, earth, also chiefly based on the authority of the fathers. Some singular opinions of his own he attempts to support by scriptural passages.

(d) Man, his creation and nature, are so treated by him that they may aptly be termed a psychology in nuce. Here he again depended on Aristotle and other Greek authors, in part directly, and in part through the medium of Nemesius, περὶ φύσεως ἀνθρώπου. Like a genuine son of the Greek Church, he lays particular stress on the doctrine of free will and its efficacy for good, and treats in connection therewith of the doctrines of providence and predestination, following in the footsteps of Chrysostom and Nemesius.

(e) Man's fall is merely adverted to in the vague oratorical manner of Semipelagian writers, without the least regard for the great development which this doctrine had received in the Western Church.

(f) The doctrine of the person of Christ is argued with greatest fullness, and he evinces no little ingenuity and dialectic skill in treating of the personal unity in Christ's twofold nature (which he conceived as enhypostasis, not anhypostasis, of the human nature in the Logos), of the communicatio idiomatum (which, however, amounts to merely a verbal one), and of volition and the operation of volition in Christ. This exposition of Christology is followed by controversial tracts against the Acephali: περὶ συνθετου φύσεως; and against the Monothelites: περὶ τῶν ἐν Χριστῶ δύο θελημάτων καὶ ἐνεργειῶν καὶλοιπῶν φυσικῶν ίδιωμάτων, etc. (comp. Baur, Gesch. d. Dreieinigkeit, 2, 176 sq.; Christologie, 2, 257).

(g) Baptism (which is allegorically represented as sevenfold) he holds to be necessary for the forgiveness of sin and for eternal life. Body and soul, to be purified and saved, need regeneration, which comes from the water and the Spirit.

(h) Faith "is the acceptance of the παράδοσις τῆς ἐκκλησίας καθολικῆς, and of the teachings of Scripture; it is also confidence in the fulfilment of God's promises and in the efficacy of our prayers. The former depends on ourselves, the latter is a gift of the Holy Spirit." On the relation of faith to works, on regeneration and sanctification, he but imperfectly repeats the Semipelagian views of the earlier Greek teachers. His remarks on the cross and on adoration reflect the miraculous spirit of the times.

(i) The Eucharist John teaches to be the means by which God completes his communication of himself to man, and thus restores him to immortality. Transubstantiation, in the full acceptance of the term, he does not teach, though Romanists have tried to interpret his writings in favor of their views. He admits, it is true, that the Eucharist is the actual body of Christ, but he does not consider it identical with that which was glorified in heaven, and does not deem the bread and wine mere accidental phenomena.

(j) On Mary, the Immaculate Conception, Relics, and the Worship of Images, he expresses himself more explicitly in separate treatises. The authority for adoring the cross, images, etc., he finds, not in Scripture, but in tradition.

(k) In his remarks on the Scriptures he alludes simply, and that very briefly, to inspiration, and the value of Holy Writ, repeats the canon of the O.T. according to Epiphanius, and includes in the books of the N.T. the canons of the apostles according to the Trullan canon. Incidentally he also adverts to the four different formulas used in Scripture to designate Christ and the origin of evil, which he holds can neither be assigned to God, nor to an evil principle independent of God. Celibacy John attempts to vindicate by the Scriptures; he alludes to the abrogation of circumcision, to anti-Christ, resurrection, and the last judgment. These are the principal contents of John's main work. He has by no means done equal justice to all its parts; the important questions of atonement, sin, grace, and the means of salvation, receive only a cursory notice. The style of his discourse, owing to the diversity of his sources, is not uniform; while, for the most part, it has strength and fluency, it sometimes lapses into rhetorical prolixity and affectation. John was particularly inclined to the philosophy of Aristotle, and wrote various popular tracts, in which he collected and illustrated that philosopher's principles. He wrote also letters and treatises against heretics, especially against the Manichaeans and Nestorians. His works have been collected by Le Quien under the title Opera omnia Damasceni Joh. quoa extant, etc., Gr. and Lat. (Venet. 1748, 2 vols. 8vo). This edition contains Κεφάλαια φίλοσοφικά; Περὶ αἱρέσεων; ῎Εκδοσις ἀκριβὴς τῆς ὀρθοδόξου πίστεως; Πρὸς τοὺς διαβάλλοντας τὰς ἁγίας εἰκόνας; Λίβελλος περὶ ὀρθοῦ προνοήματος; Τόμος; Κατὰ Μανιχαίων Διάλογος; Διάλογος Σαρακηνοῦ καὶ Χριστιανοῦ; Περὶ δρακόντων; Περὶ ἁγίας Τριάδος; Περὶ τοῦ τρισαγίου ὕμνου; Περὶ τῶν ἁγίων νηστειῶν; Περὶ τῶν ὀκτὼ τῆς πονηρίας πνευμάτων; Εἰσαγωγὴ δογμάτων στοιχειώδης; Περὶ συνθέτου φύσεως; Περὶ τῶν ἐν τῷ Χριστῷ δύο θελημάτων καὶ ἐνεργειῶν καὶ λοιπῶν φυσικῶν ἰδιωμάτων; ῎Επος ἀκριβέστατον κατὰ θεοστυγοῦς αἱρέσεως τῶν Νεστοριανῶν; Πασχάλιον; Λόγος ἀποδεικτικὸς περὶ τῶν ἁγίων καὶ σεπτῶν είκόνων; Περὶ τῶν ἀζύμων; ῾Ιερὰ παράλληλα, etc.

John of Damascus is now generally regarded as one of the ablest men of the Greek Church in the 8th century; but he by no means, on that account, deserves to be honored with the title of "philosopher." He was not an independent inquirer, but simply "an acute and diligent compiler and expounder of what others had thought, and the Church received." "He was," as an American ecclesiastic has well put it, "in design, method, and spirit, the precursor of the scholastic theologians. They, indeed, lived in another quarter of the globe from Syria, spoke a different language, and drew their materials from a different source. With them Augustine was the chief authority, whereas Damascenus followed Gregory of Nazianzum and other Greek fathers as his principal guides. The spirit of the age no doubt acted in a similar way upon both. It was considered unsafe, both in a religious and in a civil point of view, to think differently from the Church and its reverend teachers. In the West, as well as in the East, Aristotle had come to be regarded as an oracle. These circumstances may account, in part, for the similarity which we perceive both in the Greek theologian and in Peter of Lombardy, the first great scholastic theologian of the Latin Church. But no one who has compared the orthodox faith of the one with the sentences of the other can well doubt that some of the early translations of the former were employed in the composition of the latter. It cannot, probably, be far from the truth to say that, while Augustine is the father of the scholastic theology as to the matter of it, the learned Greek of Damascus was the father of it as to its form." John of Damascus is generally considered as the restorer of the practice of chanting in the Greek Church, and he is also named as the author of a number of hymns yet in use in that Church. It is by no means proved, however, that he was the inventor of musical notation, as some have affirmed. Copies of a MS. treatise on Church music, of which he is considered the author, are to be found in several European (public) libraries: it was published by abbé Gerbert in the 2d vol. of his treatise De Cantu et Musica Sacra. It was translated into French by Villoteau in his memoir Sur l' État actuel de l'Art musical en Egypte (in Description de l'Egypte, 14, 380 sq.). See Jean de Jerusalem, Vie de St. Jean de Damas (in Surius, Vitoe Sanctorum, May 6); Lenström, De fidei orthod. auctore J. Damasceno (Upsal. 1839); Fabricius, Bibl. Groeca, 9, 682-744; Cave, Hist. Litt. 1, 482 (Lond. ed. 1688); Ceillier, Histoire gén. des auteurs

sacrés, 18, 110 sq.; Schröckh, Kirchengesch. 20, 420; Christian Rev. 7, 594 sq.; Hagenbach, Doctrines (see Index); Fétis, Biog. des Musiciens.

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