St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology

St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology

St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology

St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology

Synopsis

John Damascene, one-time senior civil servant in the Umayyad Arab Empire, became a monk near Jerusalem in the early years of the eighth century. He never set foot in the Byzantine Empire, yet his influence on Byzantine theology was ultimately determinative, and beyond that his theologicalwork became a key resource for Western theology from Scholasticism to Romanticism. His searching criticism of Imperial Byzantine iconoclasm earned him harsh condemnation from the Byzantine iconoclasts. This is the first book to present an overall account of John's life and work; it makes use ofrecent scholarship about the transformation of the former Byzantine territories of the Middle East after the seventh-century Arab Conquest, and the new critical edition of the Damascene's prose works. It sets John's theological work in the context of the process of preserving, defining, defending,and also celebrating the Christian faith of the early synods of the Church that took place in the Palestinian monasteries during the first century of Arab rule. John's own contribution is explored in detail: his amazing three-part Fountain Head of Knowledge, which provided the logical tools forarguing theologically, outlined the multifarious forms of heresy, and set out with clarity and learning the fundamental doctrines of Orthodox Christianity; as well as his treatises against iconoclasm, his preaching, for which he was famous in his lifetime, and, the work for which he is most renownedin the Orthodox world, his sacred poetry that still graces the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. The life and thought of this subject of the Arab Caliphs, a Christian monk who thought of himself as a Byzantine, poses intriguing questions about identity in a rapidly changing world, and the deeplytraditional nature of his presentation of Christian theology calls for reflection about the relationship between tradition and originality in theology.

Excerpt

St John Damascene has been oddly served by scholarship. On the one hand, we now have a fine critical edition, nearly complete for his prose works, the life-work of Dom Bonifatius Kotter, OSB. This is a signal mark of recognition, as yet extended to relatively few of the post-Nicene Greek Fathers (Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysios the Areopagite have been similarly honoured; a critical edition of Maximos the Confessor is well under way; and less complete editions, save in the case of Gregory Nazianzen and, more recently, Evagrios, are appearing in the series Sources Chrétiennes). But despite this, there has been little attempt to reflect on the theology of the Damascene. In the early years of the project fostered by the Byzantine Institute of the Abbey of Scheyern, under whose auspices Kotter's work proceeded, a number of works on aspects of John's theology appeared: notably, valuable studies of his theological method by Basil Studer, of his Christology by Keetje Rozemond, and of his logic by Gerhard Richter; but since then there has been little. Earlier still, attention to John's theology had been slight: there were monographs by Langen (1879), on his trinitarian theology by Bilz (1909), and on his theology of icons by Menges (1938), but in his History of Dogma Harnack (1884-9) devoted only a handful of pages to the Damascene. Still further back, the seventeenth-century scholar and advocate of union between the Orthodox Churches and Rome, Leo Allatius, wrote a good deal on John's works (or what he believed to be his works), but this scarcely amounted to a consideration of the Damascene's theology as a whole.

Kotter's edition has transformed our understanding of John, and demands renewed reflection on the theological œuvre of the Damascene, which this book attempts to provide. It improves on Le Quien's edition of 1712 (reprinted, with some additions, in Migne, PG 94-6) in several ways. First, as one might expect, it provides a more secure text, as well as revising the list of works by John thought to be authentic. But further, it makes clear both the nature of the tradition of John's works, several of which exist in different recensions which Le Quien's edition had tended to conflate, and also the nature of his sources; for John, like any theologian (or indeed any other kind of thinker) of Late Antiquity or the Byzantine period, was concerned simply to record the truth that had

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