John of Damascus Points to Practices (not Doctrines) Handed Down Orally by the Apostles

I had asked: “I would be very interested if someone wanted to try to find any comparable statement by John Damascene on oral tradition” (link)

One kind reader of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion, using the handle “Orthodox,” responded with a list of three quotations, which I’ve taken the liberty of beefing up by providing greater context. All of these come from the same work of John of Damascus, and we’ll see a theme to them when we carefully examine them. I have maintained the order of the three quotations.

First:

It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

Since, therefore, God is spiritual light [1 St. John i. 5.], and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness [Mal. iv. 2.] and Dayspring [Zach. iii. 8, vi. 12; St. Luke i. 78.], the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East [Ps. lxviii. 32, 33.]. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed [Gen. ii. 8.]: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses [Levit. xvi. 14.] had its veil and mercy seat [Ibid. 2.] towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East [Num. ii. 3.]. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven [Acts i. 11.]; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth. The old translation gives occupat.even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be [St. Matt. xxiv. 27.].

So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

As you may have guessed, the particular part quoted was: “So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten”

Note, first of all, that this is appeal to tradition for a practice, not a doctrine. The claim that John of Damascus makes is that the apostles worshiped to the East and handed down this tradition of worshiping to the East.

Note, second of all, that John of Damascus explains the practice quite extensively from Scripture. Every doctrinal and symbolic basis for the practice has (at least in John of Damascus’ view) Scriptural support.

Let’s continue to the next quotation:

But besides this who can make an imitation of the invisible, incorporeal, uncircumscribed, formless God? Therefore to give form to the Deity is the height of folly and impiety. And hence it is that in the Old Testament the use of images was not common. But after God [St. John i. 14; Tit. iii. 4.] in His bowels of pity became in truth man for our salvation, not as He was seen by Abraham in the semblance of a man, nor as He was seen by the prophets, but in being truly man, and after He lived upon the earth and dwelt among men [Bar. iii. 38.], worked miracles, suffered, was crucified, rose again and was taken back to Heaven, since all these things actually took place and were seen by men, they were written for the remembrance and instruction of us who were not alive at that time in order that though we saw not, we may still, hearing and believing, obtain the blessing of the Lord. But seeing that not every one has a knowledge of letters nor time for reading, the Fathers gave their sanction to depicting these events on images as being acts of great heroism, in order that they should form a concise memorial of them. Often, doubtless, when we have not the Lord’s passion in mind and see the image of Christ’s crucifixion, His saving passion is brought back to remembrance, and we fall down and worship not the material but that which is imaged: just as we do not worship the material of which the Gospels are made, nor the material of the Cross, but that which these typify. For wherein does the cross, that typifies the Lord, differ from a cross that does not do so? It is just the same also in the case of the Mother of the Lord. For the honour which we give to her is referred to Him Who was made of her incarnate. And similarly also the brave acts of holy men stir us up to be brave and to emulate and imitate their valour and to glorify God. For as we said, the honour that is given to the best of fellow-servants is a proof of good-will towards our common Lady, and the honour rendered to the image passes over to the prototype. But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

As you may have guessed, the quoted part was “But this is an unwritten tradition, just as is also the worshipping towards the East and the worship of the Cross, and very many other similar things.”

Again, John of Damascus is alleging that the practice of giving honor to images is acceptable on the basis of it being an ancient practice of the church. Notice that John of Damascus is again appealing to tradition for the practice, not a doctrine.

The same can be seen from the next quotation which comes (in John of Damascus’ book) directly after the quotation I provided above:

A certain tale [Evagr., Hist. iv., ch. 27.], too, is told [Procop., De Bellis, ii. ch. 12.], how that when Augarus [i.e. Abgarus.] was king over the city of the Edessenes, he sent a portrait painter to paint a likeness of the Lord, and when the painter could not paint because of the brightness that shone from His countenance, the Lord Himself put a garment over His own divine and life-giving face and impressed on it an image of Himself and sent this to Augarus, to satisfy thus his desire.

Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or by epistle [2 Thess. ii. 15.]. And to the Corinthians he writes, Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you [1 Cor. xi. 2.].”

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 12

You will not be surprised that the quoted part this time is: “Moreover that the Apostles handed down much that was unwritten, Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, tells us in these words: Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught of us, whether by word or by epistle. And to the Corinthians he writes, Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the traditions as I have delivered them to you”

And again, the issue is one of orally transmitted practices, not doctrines. The legend of Jesus’ supposed self-imaging is patently absurd, of course. Jesus’ human appearance was ordinary. He took on a true human nature as well as a true divine naure. Can anyone seriously imagine that Jesus shone so brightly that a painter couldn’t paint him, and yet Pilate would not be afraid to crucify him? Does anyone seriously think that Jesus shone so brightly that a painter couldn’t paint him, but the Roman soldiers were not afraid to nail him to the cross? This foolish legend is a most desperate straw used by John of Damascus to try to bolster the fairly novel (though clearly not first-generation) use of images for worship (against the objections of Christians at that time).

Finally, John of Damascus’ flawed reasoning has been picked up and expanded to matters not only of practice but also of doctrine by those who seek to deny the material and/or formal sufficiency of Scripture. Nevertheless, we do not – in any of the quotations provided above – see John of Damascus alleging that there are doctrines of the Christian faith that are not taught in Scripture and that are only transmitted orally from the apostles.

– TurretinFan

19 Responses to “John of Damascus Points to Practices (not Doctrines) Handed Down Orally by the Apostles”

  1. Acolyte4236 Says:

    So its absurd for JEsus' face to shine, but is this also the case for Moses?Second, you assume that practices have no theological content. Only on this assumption can you have the hard and fast division between practice and doctrine.Third, this is hardly the only place John talks about the matter.And impugning John's judgment isn't particularly a good idea especially in light of the fact that Calvin cites him on Christological matters.

  2. Lucian Says:

    I'm sorry, did You miss the scriptural reasons put forth by him for the honoring of images? The tradition about Abgar reminds me of the Transfiguration.

  3. Viisaus Says:

    "This foolish legend is a most desperate straw used by John of Damascus to try to bolster the fairly novel (though clearly not first-generation) use of images for worship (against the objections of Christians at that time)."A leading (secular) expert on Byzantine history, John F. Haldon, thinks that the cult of icons got started about the time of emperor Justinian's reign:"On one level, Iconoclasm was about positioning images within the cult of saints: of allowing images of the holy to perform like relics of the holy. To say that a saint’s bone, or a bit of cloth or oil that once touched a saint or the saint’s bones, conveyed saintly presence was a major step in itself; to extend that power to an object physically unconnected to the saint in anyway – the portrait painted by human hands – did indeed smack to many of idolatry, and was condemned as such by early churchmen. Images of pre-Christian gods and goddesses had to be long forgotten as real actors before the sacred portrait could first be admitted into the company of the holy through the medium of miraculous images not made by human hands, A SHIFT WHICH ONLY OCCURRED IN THE MID-SIXTH CENTURY.These relic-images were agents of conversion, providers of revenue for their owners, and protectors of cities and the state. Sacred portraits made by human hands, however, are only rarely – and usually problematically – ascribed any such miraculous powers BEFORE THE LAST QUARTER OF THE SEVENTH CENTURY, after which the church responded with the first canonical legislation concerning religious imagery at a council held in Constantinople in 692;"(Iconoclasm in Byzantium: myths and realities)http://www.lsa.umich.edu/UMICH/modgreek/Home/Endowments%20and%20Gifts/Platsis%20Endowment/Haldon_Iconoclasm_talk.pdf

  4. John Bugay Says:

    Congar, in "The Meaning of Tradition" (pgs 36-37), cites a list of eight or 10 different practices that can trace back to "no further than Augustine" — the "unwritten traditions" as you say. These are:The lenten fast (Irenaeus, Jerome, Leo)Baptismal rites (Tertullian, oigen, Basil, Jerome, Augustine)Eucharistic rites (Origen, Cyprian, Basil)Infant baptism (Origen, Augustine)Prayer facing east (Origen, Basil)Validity of baptism by heretics (Stephen, Augustine)Rules for the election and consecration of bishops (Cyprian)The sign of the cross (Basil)Prayer for the dead (Chrysostom)Other liturgical feasts and rites (Basil, Augustine)As you say, none of these are doctrines.

  5. Turretinfan Says:

    Mr. Bugay:Thanks for the tip!

  6. John Bugay Says:

    Thanks for all that you do TF :-)

  7. John Says:

    That's kind of like saying that the protestant objection to the Roman practice of giving only wine for the laity was mere practice and not doctrine, and can therefore be dismissed as an issue beyond the reach of sola scriptura. Is the claim here that sola scripture is only applicable to faith and cannot be used as the sole rule of practice?And if John of Damascus refers to scripture in his explanation, is it in a way consistent with what sola scripture would require to justify the necessity of worship facing east? Is TurretinFan even slightly persuaded by the biblical doctrine of worship facing east as outlined by John of D? Or is Turretinfan trying to make John something he is not, that being a budding sola scripturaist?Concerning Thessalonians as quoted by J of D, is Turretinfan now claiming that this verse only refers to practices, not to doctrines? Aren't we again begging the question?

  8. Turretinfan Says:

    Lucian,I did not miss his attempts to justify his views from Scripture. Any good advocate of Sola Scriptura, like John of Damascus, would make such an attempt.The legend may remind one of Moses (whose face shone) or the Transfiguration … but the whole point of the transfiguration was … transfiguration. And no artist showed up on the mount at that time.-TurretinFan

  9. Turretinfan Says:

    Acolyte:See my response to Lucian.No, I don't assume that practices have no theological content. Nevertheless, I (like the fathers) distinguish between the two.The statement: "Third, this is hardly the only place John talks about the matter," is rather odd. If you have additional instances of John of Damascus discussing oral tradition, feel free to identify them.Finally, calling John of D. naive with respect to this legend is not a general character attack. Even if it were, neither Calvin nor our Christology hangs on the fathers. Instead, as you ought to be aware, we (like the fathers) appeal to the authority of Scripture.-TurretinFan

  10. Turretinfan Says:

    John:It is sometimes difficult to separate practice from doctrine.Nevertheless, it is a real distinction that was made then, and is still made (in many churches) now. The practice of how the Lord's Supper is to be administered is a practice laid out in Scripture. Thus, the practice of single-element communion is contrary to Scripture whether it is properly a matter of doctrine or merely of practice.John of Damascus is not simply a budding sola scripturaist, he is (at least nearly) full fledged. His acceptance of oral tradition is only with respect to things that he views as practices of the early church. Even then, as noted above, he still tends to provide a Scriptural basis for the doctrinal content of the practice.The fact that Scripture also mentions practices (and not only doctrines) does not seem to close the field for John of Damascus, even if it would for a Reformer. That may be more a matter of the regulative principle, however, than of Sola Scriptura.-TurretinFan

  11. John Says:

    "John of Damascus is not simply a budding sola scripturaist, he is (at least nearly) full fledged."Wow, so J of D is a sola scripturaist. Amazing.So look at the things J of D justifies from scripture:- Veneration of Icons- The real body of Christ in the Eucharist- Worship facing East- Baptismal regeneration- Veneration of Relics- The intercession of the glorified saints.- The monastic calling- human free will- That Mary is the Mother of GodI guess then the entire Holy Orthodox Faith can be found in scripture. Very well, I can live with that. Having conceded that, see you in church next Sunday.

  12. Turretinfan Says:

    John:Try to think more clearly. Do all those who agree on Sola Scriptura agree with one another on every doctrine? You know that the answer is a resounding, "no."-TurretinFan

  13. John Says:

    But Turretinfan: the whole premise of the reformation was that Rome was disproved by sola scriptura. If sola scriptura can be used to support nearly everything that Rome teaches, then the foundation of the reformation was just swept away.

  14. Turretinfan Says:

    a) There are folks out there who try to use Scriptures to support ever Roman claim.b) The fail abysmally, because many of Rome's claims are either extraneous to or directly contradictory of Scripture.c) So, we're not overly worried by the church fathers making a few mistakes in their exegesis of Scripture. It happens. It's not the end of the world. We probably make a few mistakes ourselves.-TurretinFan

  15. John Says:

    So Rome and J of D are simply untalented sola scripturaists? Is that what you're arguing?

  16. Turretinfan Says:

    John:No.John of Damascus and Rome (today) have two different ways of determining what doctrines to believe. John of Damascus may have made few mistakes – that happens.-TurretinFan

  17. John Says:

    Oh, so J of D is a reasonably talented Sola Scripturaist who simply "made a few mistakes".It's amazing where sola scriptura can take you, huh?

  18. Turretinfan Says:

    The way we usually talk about "talent" in this context is in the area of exegesis. Setting aside one's preconceptions to get a better understanding of the text by letting the text speak for itself is a difficult task. From what I've read about his exegetical work, it was largely a rehash of Chrysostom, suggesting that he may not have been an especially skilled exegete.Nevertheless, in principle, he held explicitly to sola scriptura: "God, however, did not leave us in absolute ignorance. For the knowledge of God’s existence has been implanted by Him in all by nature. This creation, too, and its maintenance, and its government, proclaim the majesty of the Divine nature. Moreover, by the Law and the Prophets in former times and afterwards by His Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, He disclosed to us the knowledge of Himself as that was possible for us. All things, therefore, that have been delivered to us by Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists we receive, and know, and honour, seeking for nothing beyond these." (John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 1, Chapter 1)"Seeking for nothing beyond these" – could one be more explicitly sola scriptura than that?-TurretinFan

  19. Turretinfan Says:

    John provided a rude comment here, but made one objection worth mentioning. He said it could have been more explicit if John of Damascus used the word "Scripture."1) As to ruling out the magisterium, that's totally unneccessary; and2) If you cannot see that he is referring to Scripture by saying "Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists" then you need to read more patristics.In other words, the expression "Law and Prophets and Apostles and Evangelists" means Scripture. And, even if it meant Scripture plus oral tradition from the apostles, that would still eliminate the "interpretative authority" that is absolutely vital to the rejection of Sola Scriptura.-TurretinFan

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