Archive for the ‘John Damascene’ Category

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

August 28, 2009

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.


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


Did Hippo, Carthage, or Rome’s Bishop Settle the Canon?

August 25, 2009

Some Roman Catholics are under the false impression that the councils of Hippo (A.D. 393) and/or Carthage (A.D. 397) authoritatively settled the canon of Scripture for the church – either directly or by endorsement by one or more Roman bishops. To be deep in history, however, is to cease to be so naive.

John of Damascus (lived from about A.D. 676 – 749) wrote on the canon of the New Testament:

The New Testament contains four gospels, that according to Matthew, that according to Mark, that according to Luke, that according to John; the Acts of the Holy Apostles by Luke the Evangelist; seven catholic epistles, viz. one of James, two of Peter, three of John, one of Jude; fourteen letters of the Apostle Paul; the Revelation of John the Evangelist; the Canons of the holy apostles, by Clement.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

You will note that differs from our canon by the inclusion of the canons of Clement. He was wrong to include that work, but the fact remains that there was not a “catholic” (universal) canon of the New Testament even as late as the 8th century. There was widespread agreement by that time on the 27 books that we recognize were inspired, but there was no authoritative presence telling all Christians they must accept one set of books or another. Ask any Eastern Orthodox scholar when their church defined the canon – the answer will not be a date, and it may be a lecture on the difference between the eastern churches and those of the West.

On the Old Testament, John of Damascus similarly provides a list:

Observe, further, that there are two and twenty books of the Old Testament, one for each letter of the Hebrew tongue. For there are twenty-two letters of which five are double, and so they come to be twenty-seven. For the letters Caph, Mem, Nun, Pe, Sade are double. And thus the number of the books in this way is twenty-two, but is found to be twenty-seven because of the double character of five. For Ruth is joined on to Judges, and the Hebrews count them one book: the first and second books of Kings are counted one: and so are the third and fourth books of Kings: and also the first and second of Paraleipomena: and the first and second of Esdra. In this way, then, the books are collected together in four Pentateuchs and two others remain over, to form thus the canonical books. Five of them are of the Law, viz. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. This which is the code of the Law, constitutes the first Pentateuch. Then comes another Pentateuch, the so-called Grapheia, or as they are called by some, the Hagiographa, which are the following: Jesus the Son of Nave, Judges along with Ruth, first and second Kings, which are one book, third and fourth Kings, which are one book, and the two books of the Paraleipomena which are one book. This is the second Pentateuch. The third Pentateuch is the books in verse, viz. Job, Psalms, Proverbs of Solomon, Ecclesiastes of Solomon and the Song of Songs of Solomon. The fourth Pentateuch is the Prophetical books, viz the twelve prophets constituting one book, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel. Then come the two books of Esdra made into one, and Esther. There bare also the Panaretus, that is the Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Jesus, which was published in Hebrew by the father of Sirach, and afterwards translated into Greek by his grandson, Jesus, the Son of Sirach. These are virtuous and noble, but are not counted nor were they placed in the ark.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

You will notice that this is just the same (if we understand his “two books of Esdra” to refer to Ezra and Nehemiah, which seems probable and if we further assume that Lamentations is viewed as a part of Jeremiah, which is also probable) as our canon of the Old Testament, including the relegation of Wisdom and Sirach to a lesser status (useful, but not inspired).

What’s more, we see that John of Damascus (iconophile though he may have been) shares a very high view of Scripture:

It is one and the same God Whom both the Old and the New Testament proclaim, Who is praised and glorified in the Trinity: I am come, saith the Lord, not to destroy the law but to fulfil it [St. Matt. v. 17.]. For He Himself worked out our salvation for which all Scripture and all mystery exists. And again, Search the Scriptures for they are they that testify of Me [St. John v. 39.]. And the Apostle says, God, Who at sundry times and in diverse manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by His Son [Heb. i. 1, 2.]. Through the Holy Spirit, therefore, both the law and the prophets, the evangelists and apostles and pastors and teachers, spake.

All Scripture, then, is given by inspiration of God and is also assuredly profitable [2 Tim. iii. 16.]. Wherefore to search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season [Ps. i. 3.], viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation. For in these we find both exhortation to every virtue and dissuasion from every vice. If, therefore, we are lovers of learning, we shall also be learned in many things. For by care and toil and the grace of God the Giver, all things are accomplished. For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened [St. Luke xi. 10.]. Wherefore let us knock at that very fair garden of the Scriptures, so fragrant and sweet and blooming, with its varied sounds of spiritual and divinely-inspired birds ringing all round our ears, laying hold of our hearts, comforting the mourner, pacifying the angry and filling him with joy everlasting: which sets our mind on the gold-gleaming, brilliant back of the divine dove [Ps. lxviii. 13.], whose bright pinions bear up to the only-begotten Son and Heir of the Husbandman [St. Matt. xxi. 37.] of that spiritual Vineyard and bring us through Him to the Father of Lights [Jas. i. 17.]. But let us not knock carelessly but rather zealously and constantly: lest knocking we grow weary. For thus it will be opened to us. If we read once or twice and do not understand what we read, let us not grow weary, but let us persist, let us talk much, let us enquire. For ask thy Father, he saith, and He will shew thee: thy elders and they will tell thee [Deut. xxxii. 7.]. For there is not in every man that knowledge [1 Cor. viii. 7.]. Let us draw of the fountain of the garden perennial and purest waters springing into life eternal [St. John iv. 14.]. Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves.

– John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 4, Chapter 17

Scriptures tell us what to believe and how to live. I would be very interested if someone wanted to try to find any comparable statement by John Damascene on oral tradition or (with still lower probability) the interpretative tradition of “the church.”


Thanks to former Federal Visionist Gabe Martini, whose quotations from Eastern sources I’ve been enjoying, for bringing this to my attention (link to his Eastern Orthodox blog).

John of Damascus vs. An Allegedly Ecumenical Council

April 4, 2009

This is a video response (as usual, audio only) to a post by Matthew Bellisario (link). Although Bellisario starts off his post by saying “Once again we see that Turretin Fan is clueless when it come to Biblical exegesis,” he fails to back it up, not identifying any exegetical errors or even providing any of his own exegesis, but simply quoting from a work attributed to John of Damascus.

In addition to what is in the video, let me add this:

According to Bellisario, John of Damascus wrote this:

I worship the image of Christ as the Incarnate God; that of Our Lady (thV qeotokou), the Mother of us all, as the Mother of God’s Son; that of the saints as the friends of God. They have withstood sin unto blood, and followed Christ in shedding their blood for Him, who shed His blood for them.

(the Greek transliteration there is for the term “the Theotokos”)

One question for Bellisario, since he quoted these words, does he accept them? Does Bellisario worship “the image of Christ” and the image of “Our Lady” and the images of “the saints”?

Notice that I said “worship” just as Bellisario has quoted John of Damascus. I’ll even give Mr. Bellisario a bit of a break, since John of Damascus seems to suggest that he does not worship the image itself but the the thing the image represents. So, does Mr. Bellisario worship (in addition to Jesus) Mary and the martyrs? Because most Romanists won’t actually admit this – they’ll claim that they only worship God.


When was Purgatory Invented?

May 20, 2008

PhatCatholic recently addressed a question related to the question above, by posing the following question (link to source):

When was Purgatory first talked about?

PC answered:

The earliest reference to Purgatory that scholars have found so far comes from The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which was written around 160 AD. In that work, we read the following:

“And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: ‘Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the righteous'”

Notice how Thecla will be praying for Falconilla, even though Falconilla has already died. Prayers for the dead implies the doctrine of Purgatory b/c Purgatory is the only place or state where a soul could reside in which prayers would be necessary or beneficial. Souls in heaven have no need of our prayers and there’s no point in praying for the damned, who can never be freed from Hell.

Note also that the doctrine of Purgatory wasn’t invented in 160 AD, it’s just that the earliest reference to Purgatory that we have comes from that period.

I answer:

She does pray for a dead girl. The problem is this – there is no indication that the place that the girl is in is anywhere other than hell. PhatCatholic discards the idea that it could be hell that is referenced, because that wouldn’t be orthodox.

I agree that it wouldn’t be orthodox – but Purgatory isn’t orthodox either (and likewise prayers for the dead in general are not orthodox). The fact that it has come to be accepted by the papists doesn’t make Purgatory any more orthodox than the idea of successful intercession on behalf of souls in hell.

And the idea of an error with respect to intercession for souls in hell is not so farfetched. After all, it is alleged that Pope Gregory I interceded on behalf of Trajan, who was in hell, and that Trajan was released by Gregory’s intercessions.

Furthermore, Suarez, De Pecatis, Disp. vii. 3, claims that the possibility of such deliverance is an open question, and Estius, in Setent. iv (Disp. xlvi. 241), claims that many people have been so delivered. Even Thomas Aquinas himself seems to credit the legend of Trajan’s release from hell, excusing this oddity by stating: “Trajan had not been finally doomed to hell, but only provisionally, and that his deliverance was granted to him as an exceptional privilege.” (I should note that Aquinas appears to recognize the truth that “there is no redemption in hell” – for he places that phrase in the mouth of an objector on the question of whether the priesthood of Christ endures forever.)

There’s an important road-block left out of PhatCatholic’s analysis: there is no indication that the girl was previously a Christian or that she was baptized. In short, there is no reason to suppose from the story that she was in any place but Hell. Such, it appears from several reports I have read, was the opinion of John of Damascus, though I have not been able to find a precise citation.

Thus, upon weighing this supposed early testimony for the existence of Purgatory, we find it to be nothing but optimistic anachronism. There is no mention of Purgatory in the text, and no reason (except wishful thinking) to make us believe that Purgatory is referenced. That a fictional tale of Paul’s life might include some theological errors is to be expected. After all, the same tale has the heroine, Thecla, baptizing herself in a ditch of water. In the end, it would be a mistake to view this tale from the fictional “Acts of Paul and Thecla” (apparently a work of the late second century) as teaching the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. It would be the sort of mistake one might make if one was disparately grasping for straws of the innovated doctrine of Purgatory in the ECF’s. Nevertheless, it is a mistake: an anachronistic eisegesis of the document. Purgatory is not to be found in the text, and can only be added in through eisegesis. In short, the claim for the earliest evidence of Purgatory must wait its actual innovation later in history.


P.S. If one is going to imagine Purgatory into the text of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” why not add in the Limbus Infantum (Limbo)? If we let eisegesis be the methodology, there is no barrier. We can insert whatever theory we want, willy-nilly. By requiring the reader to let the text speak for itself, these problems can be avoided.

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