St John Damascene: The Father Who Came in From the Cold

by Norman Russell

John of Damascus, Exact Exposition, On the Orthodox Faith

The Pappas Patristic Institute is grateful to Dr Norman Russell for this guest essay on the legacy of St John of Damascus. Dr Russell has recently completed a translation of the Damascene's On the Orthodox Faith for St Vladimir's Seminary Press. Considered by many to be the final and crowning work of the patristic age, On the Orthodox Faith addresses all the major areas of Christian belief: Trinitarian theology, Christology, soteriology, the sacraments, the veneration of icons, saints, and relics, and much more. This new translation by Norman Russell includes a helpful introduction discussing the origin and reception of the text. This diglot edition, reproducing the critical Greek text, will appear in the SVS Popular Patristic Series in 2022.


St John Damascene: The Father Who Came in From the Cold

Norman Russell

We are accustomed to thinking of St John Damascene, who died in the vicinity of Jerusalem in around 750, as ‘the seal of the Fathers’ who summarized the thinking of his great predecessors from Athanasius of Alexandria to Maximus the Confessor and thereafter served as an unimpeachable standard of Orthodoxy for the Byzantine Church. His transition from Palestinian polemicist to Church Father, however, was not at all smooth. The iconoclast Council of Hiereia (754) called him ‘Mansur the traitor’ and set him under anathema. This was not only because of the treatises In Defence of the Holy Icons that he wrote at a time when iconoclasm was the official policy of the Byzantine empire, but also because of the tradition of his family (the Mansur) as faithful servants of the Umayyad caliphs in his home city of Damascus. Indeed, it was John’s grandfather (called, like John, Mansur ibn Sarjun) who had opened the gates of Damascus to the Muslim forces in 635, ending forever Byzantine rule in southern Syria. John himself had served as secretary to the fifth caliph, ‘Abd al-Malik, before resigning in about 705 to become a monk. Even though the decrees of the Council of Hiereia were overturned by the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787), the opprobrium attached to the name of Mansur endured.

The Great Mosque of Damascus, John of Damascus, Pappas Patristic Institute
The Great Mosque of Damascus
Mar Saba Monastery, John of Damascus, Patristic
Mar Saba Monastery, overlooking the Kidron Valley

So what was it that changed the Byzantine attitude to the Syrian civil servant Mansur ibn Sarjun turned Palestinian monk John of Damascus? The late eleventh century was a period of deep crisis for the Byzantine empire. At Mantzikert in 1071 the army had suffered a disastrous defeat at the hands of the Seljuk Turks and the emperor himself was taken prisoner. After a decade of confusion, recovery began under the first of the Comnene emperors, Alexios I (1081–1118), who regarded ecclesiastical discipline and doctrinal unity as vital to the empire’s renewal. Alexios commissioned the theologian Euthymios Zigabenos to compose a doctrinal compendium, the Dogmatic Panoply (‘panoply’ meaning a suit of armor), and himself drew up the list of authorities to be used by Zigabenos, including, for the first time, John of Damascus.[1] John had written his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith in order to give his (chiefly monastic) Palestinian readers the means by which they could defend Chalcedonian orthodoxy against Monophysites, Manichaeans, Jews, and Muslims in an environment in which Orthodoxy no longer enjoyed the privileges that had been afforded to it under the Christian Empire but had to commend itself simply by the strength of its own arguments.[2] These arguments now became highly relevant to the new situation in which Byzantium found itself.

Alexios’ project met with immediate success. John Damascene’s Exposition quickly became a standard work of reference, and also attracted the attention of the Latins. In the mid-twelfth century Burgundio of Pisa was commissioned by Pope Eugenius III to prepare a Latin translation, which soon became one of the main doctrinal textbooks used at the University of Paris. In the next century the Exposition was drawn upon by Thomas Aquinas for his Summa Theologiae. In the East, by the time of the fourteenth-century Hesychast Controversy, John was universally considered one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, with both Palamites and anti-Palamites appealing to the Exposition as an authoritative patristic source. Yet in more recent times John has suffered a decline. Since the early twentieth century he has been denigrated as a Christian thinker, largely for his apparent plagiarism. To the disapproval of many modern commentators, he quotes Nemesius of Emesa and Maximus the Confessor at some length without any acknowledgement whatsoever, and Leontius of Byzantium with just a single mention of his name. Most of all he has been castigated for silently reproducing page after page of a source known until recently as “Pseudo-Cyril.” Vassa Kontouma, however, has demonstrated that the borrowing is actually the other way round.[3] “Pseudo-Cyril” was in fact excerpted not by John Damascene but from him by Joseph the Philosopher in the early fourteenth century. John is a more honest writer and a more creative theologian than many modern scholars have thought.

John of Damascus, Exact Exposition, On the Orthodox Faith, Patristic
Critical edition of Bonifaz Kotter, Patristische Texte und Studien 12 (De Gruyter, 1973)

John’s method of citation nevertheless calls for some comment. The authors he names – Dionysius the Areopagite, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and Gregory of Nyssa – all carried great authority. Their testimony was to be trusted. Relatively modern authors such as Nemesius of Emesa, Maximus the Confessor, and Anastasius of Sinai, could be used to explicate a theological point, but their names were not relevant. At best they might have been distracting and at worst they could have undermined the authority with which John wanted to endow his text. It was only after John’s time that Maximus, in particular, came to be acknowledged as a great Church Father. Indeed, John was prescient in recognizing his importance. Nor must one forget John’s purpose in writing the Exposition. Chalcedonian orthodoxy was under pressure in Palestine from all sides, from Muslims and Jews for compromising the divine simplicity, from Manichaeans for not giving a credible rationale for the power of evil, and from Monophysites for supposedly splitting Christ into two inadequately conjoined entities. In order to fight his corner, John needed to marshal his arguments as clearly as possible and only name as authorities writers that at least his Christian opponents could accept.

Given the imperative to produce an authoritative, not merely a personal, statement of the Orthodox theological tradition, John is surprisingly creative. His Trinitarian discussion in particular, with its application of the concept of perichoresis to the relations of the persons of the Trinity, marks an important advance. Perichoresis, or mutual interpenetration, had been used by Maximus the Confessor to explain the relationship between the divine and the human natures in Christ. John Damascene (by applying Maximus’ term to the idea of mutual indwelling he found in Dionysius’ Divine Names 2.4) is the first to speak of the perichoresis in each other (τὴν ἐν ἀλλήλαις περιχώρησιν) of the persons of the Trinity.[4] In his Christological discussions, too, John marks an advance on previous writers. He develops an “asymmetrical” Christology that attempts to accommodate Monophysite arguments without sacrificing the Chalcedonian emphasis on the unconfused union of the two natures. Thus the Cyrillian expression (“one enfleshed nature of God the Word”), which had become a Monophysite slogan, is explained as the Word assuming what was representative of us conceptually but which only attained concrete existence in his own hypostasis. “Therefore the expressions ‘the nature of the Word’ and ‘the nature in the individual’ are identical in meaning,’[5] a solution inspired by the fact that Basil and Gregory of Nyssa had affirmed “the reality of universals only in their instantiations.”[6]

In the East it was in the fourteenth century that St John Damascene really came into his own. (The majority of extant manuscripts belong to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.) John’s arguments for a multiplicity in the Godhead that did not compromise the unity – as in the distinction between begetting, which belongs to the divine nature, and creating, which belongs to the divine will – were very useful to Gregory Palamas in supporting his case for the reality of the divine energies. But John was important not only in the context of intra-Orthodox debates. In 1354 Palamas was taken prisoner by the Ottoman Turks and held in the Bithynian emirate for a year until a ransom was paid. On three occasions during the twelve months he spent in captivity he engaged in theological debates with Muslims in the course of which he was required to defend Christian doctrine on a number of points.[7] His defence of the Holy Trinity owes much to Chapter 8 of John’s Exposition, and Chapter 101 of his On Heresies, where the engendering of the Word/word of God and the projection of the Spirit/breath of God lend themselves well to correlation with the Qur’an’s mention of Jesus the son of Mary as the Word and the spirit of God, and indeed enable Palamas to give a Christian interpretation of the Qur’anic text.[8] John Damascene turns out to be a very versatile Church Father.

San Giorgio dei Greci, Venice, St John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, Patristic
San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice

John’s reputation remains high in both the Western and the Eastern Churches. In the West Pope Leo XIII declared him in 1890 a Doctor of the Church. In the East he is celebrated each year on December 4 as “the guide of Orthodoxy,” “the harp of the Spirit,” and “a luminary of the world.” His relics were removed from Palestine at the time of the Crusades, the most important of them going to Venice. An inventory of 1647 records the head of St John Damascene in a crystal reliquary in the possession of the Greek confraternity of the Venetian church of San Giorgio dei Greci.[9] Its exact whereabouts are not known today. It would be wonderful if the relic could be located and, like St John’s writings a thousand years earlier, be brought in from the cold.


[1] This has been established by Vassa Kontouma, “At the Origins of Byzantine Systematic Dogmatics: The Exposition of the Orthodox Faith of St John of Damascus,” Study VI in Vassa Kontouma, John of Damascus: New Studies on his Life and Works (Variorum Collected Studies Series) (London and New York: Routledge, 2015). Kontouma has revolutionized our understanding of the historical context of John’s work and subsequent reputation.

[2] A new English translation by Norman Russell (the first to be based on Bonifaz Kotter’s critical edition of the Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith), with the Greek text on the facing page and an introduction and notes, is to be published early in 2022 by St Vladimir’s Seminary Press as no. 62 in the Popular Patristics Series.

[3] Vassa Kontouma, “Pseudo-Cyril’s De SS. Trinitate: A Compilation of Joseph the Philosopher,” Study IV in Kontouma, John of Damascus: New Studies on his Life and Works.

[4] Kotter, vol. 2, § 14.12–13.

[5] Kotter, vol. 2, § 55.18.

[6] Dirk Krausmüller, “A Conceptualist Turn: The Ontological Status of Created Species in Late Greek Patristic Theology,” Scrinium 16 (2020), 233–52, at 248.

[7] For a translation of these debates, see Norman Russell, Gregory Palamas: The Hesychast Controversy and the Debate with Islam (Translated Texts for Byzantinists 8) (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), 391–92, 394–99, 401–08.

[8] Cf. Qur’an 4.171, to which John refers in Chapter 100 (101) of On Heresies (Kotter, vol. 4, § 100.20–21).

[9] Chryssa Maltezou, “Nazione greca καὶ cose sacre: Λείψανα ἁγίων στὸ ναὸ τοῦ Ἁγίου Γεωργίου τῆς Βενετίας,” Thesaurismata: Bolletino dell’Istituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini 29 (1999), 9–31, at 23.