Question: "Who was John of Damascus?"
Answer: John of Damascus (AD 675–749) was a monk, priest, poet, philosopher, and theologian in the Greek Orthodox Church. He is considered a Father of the Greek Orthodox Church and a Doctor of the Church in the Catholic Church. He is also considered a saint in both churches.
John was born to a Christian family in Damascus, Syria, when Syria was under Muslim control (Syria was conquered by Muslim forces in 630). His father represented Christians in court, and John eventually followed in this father’s footsteps, representing Christians. Sometime between the ages of 30 and 40, John left Damascus to join a monastery near Jerusalem.
John of Damascus may be best known for his opposition to iconoclasm. Today, an iconoclast is anyone who attacks cherished beliefs or practices. The word originally referred to someone who literally destroyed (or advocated the destruction of) cherished icons, which were pictures used inside churches. In the Western Church, images—three-dimensional statues—were often displayed in church buildings. In the Eastern Church, elaborate two-dimensional pictures called icons were displayed instead of three-dimensional images. The reasons for opposition to icons (pictures) or images (statues) was the same on principle—representations of created things or of God are forbidden by the second commandment. There were those in the church who were opposed to iconography, and Muslim practice also forbade them. By John’s time, there was growing opposition to the use of icons from some within the church and from Islam. Between AD 726 and 730, John wrote Apologetic Treatises Against Those Decrying the Holy Images, a defense of icons as an aid to devotion.
John also wrote hymns and poetry, including one hymn that is still often sung, even in Protestant churches: “Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain.” Some of John of Damascus’ poetry has been incorporated into the Greek Orthodox liturgy. He also wrote commentaries on the epistles of Paul and the lives of the saints.
John also wrote an extensive philosophical and theological work titled The Fountain of Knowledge. In this work he applied the philosophy of Aristotle to theology (a big influence on Thomas Aquinas), attacked heresies, set forth key Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, creation, and the Incarnation, and laid out proof for the existence of God. John also expounded upon the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary. In the Catholic Church, he is sometimes referred to as the Doctor of the Assumption.
John was not an original thinker, but he set forth the theology of the Greek Orthodox Church in a systematic way, and he still remains an authority in the Greek Orthodox Church today.
Obviously, evangelical Protestants would have much to disagree with in the writings of John of Damascus. However, we can still sing one of his songs, and we often do around Easter:
Come, you faithful, raise the strain
of triumphant gladness!
God has brought forth Israel
into joy from sadness,
loosed from Pharaoh’s bitter yoke
Jacob’s sons and daughters;
led them with unmoistened foot
through the Red Sea waters.
’Tis the spring of souls today:
Christ has burst his prison,
and from three days’ sleep in death
as a sun has risen.
All the winter of our sins,
long and dark, is flying
from the Light to whom we give
laud and praise undying.
Neither could the gates of death,
nor the tomb’s dark portal,
nor the watchers, nor the seal,
hold you as a mortal:
but today, among your own,
you appear, bestowing
your deep peace, which ever more
passes human knowing.
Alleluia! Now we cry
to our Lord immortal,
who, triumphant, burst the bars
of the tomb’s dark portal;
Alleluia! With the Son,
God the Father praising;
Alleluia! Yet again
to the Spirit raising.
(translated by J. M. Neale)