St. John of Damascus

The Syrian theologian St. John of Damascus (ca. 680-ca. 750) opposed the Byzantine emperor in the controversy over religious images. He is considered the greatest medieval theologian of the Eastern Church.

Little is known of the early life of St. John of Damascus. He was born and raised in Damascus a half century after the Moslems began to rule Syria. His father, an important official in the court of the Caliph, was allowed to practice the Christian religion. When John took over his father's position at court, he was familiar with both Islam and Christianity. John eventually left the service of the Caliph to seek the solitude of a monk's life and entered the monastery of St. Sabas near Jerusalem. Soon his reputation for holiness and intelligence made him a popular and respected preacher in the city of Jerusalem. Because of his background at court and his common sense, a number of bishops came to the monastery to seek his advice. John was loved and respected by those who came in contact with him.

The Byzantine emperor Leo III, the Isaurian, issued in 726 a decree forbidding images in churches. John, the learned theologian and articulate preacher, quickly entered the controversy. Leo had ordered that all statues and pictures of religious subjects be removed from the churches because he felt they were close to idolatry. The Church officials of Constantinople protested strongly, and many of the people, aided by the monks, resisted vigorously when the Emperor's soldiers came to remove the statues from the churches.

From his position of relative security in Moslem territory, John wrote and spoke freely against the iconoclasts, the "image breakers," as those who supported the Emperor came to be known. His reasoning was so clear and forceful that his tracts became the principal weapons of those who opposed the Emperor. John argued that if God himself became flesh, then material things cannot be evil and are not to be rejected as aids to religious feeling. Images, he said, are the books of the unlearned, lifting them up from the symbol to that which the symbol points to. In 787, long after John's death, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, meeting in Constantinople, ended the controversy by decreeing that images be restored to the churches.

John's most important work is the Fountain of Knowledge, presenting a closely reasoned system of theology based on the Scriptures and Church Fathers. It had wide influence in the Middle Ages in western Europe.


Further Reading on St. John of Damascus

St. John's Writings (1958), translated by Frederic H. Chase, includes the principal works and a biographical introduction. Herbert Packenham-Walsh, Lights and Shades of Christendom to A.D. 1000 (1936), includes a chapter on John and the iconoclastic controversy. See also Francis Patrick Cassidy, Molders of the Medieval Mind: The Influence of the Fathers of the Church on the Medieval Schoolmen (1944); Henry Daniel-Rops, The Church in the Dark Ages (1950; trans. 1959); and William Ragsdale Cannon, History of Christianity in the Middle Ages: From the Fall of Rome to the Fall of Constantinople (1960).