This post is not meant to be a complete summary of all that St. John of Damascus wrote and did. It is simply looking at his contribution to the 8th century controversy surrounding iconoclasm, or the destruction of images of God in any persons of the Trinity. Last Church History Snippet looked at Leo III who initiated the formal controversy around these kinds of images in Byzantium, though previous informal disagreements and discussions on this subject certainly existed.
John of Damascus was born in 675 and did not reside in the Byzantine empire. Instead he was a subject of a Muslim Caliph in Damascus. He became a monk in 706 and moved to Jerusalem. In response to Leo’s policy of iconoclasm, John writes three treatises on divine images. The first one is published in 726, almost immediately after the developments in Constantinople become known. The second, written around 730, and the third written before 750, copy extensively from his first treatise. In his three works, John argues for the proper use of images from eight basic groupings. Their critique is included:
Because Christ took on human flesh, He may be depicted. Objection: Borrowing from the argument David VanDrunen makes in his article “Pictures of Jesus and the Sovereignty of Divine Revelation“, it is certainly within God’s right to depict himself according to His own perfect wisdom. However, God revealing Himself, and man making a representation of His from his own imagination are two very different things.
- The word “veneration” has multiple applications, and can be given to a variety of objects. Objection: Is it possible John of Damascus is the first person to promote nuance? That is not a serious question, but beware of those who adjust definitions and make clear meanings of words confusing to justify their practice.
- Veneration given to an image is actually offered to the person or object it represents. Objection: Even if this statement is true, the Bible commands God’s people not to worship Him in the ways of the pagans who worship their gods through images (Cf. Deuteronomy 12:4).
- Objecting to icons and images is to adopt the error of the Manichees. Objection: Although it is a clever strategy to associate your theological opponents with heretical views, John of Damascus does not accurately represent the view of the iconoclasts who did not hold that the material is bad but the spiritual is good.
- The church has used images in the past, and this tradition justifies their continued use. Objection: Leo III appealed to the second commandment for his iconoclastic policy. The Word of God is the standard of right theology and practice and cannot be overridden by appeals to previous practice. This statement does not even acknowledge that church tradition could be incorrect. Using this logic, there could never have been a Protestant Reformation.
It is inevitable to form a picture of Christ in your mind so you can make images. Objection: Just because it is difficult to resist sin, or even if sin is inevitable, that does not justify continuing to walk in it.
- Old Testament Israel was prone to idolatry through graven images, but that is not the cases in the New Testament Church. Objection: I hardly think this needs comment. Man is just as prone to make idols today as he was 3,000 years ago. It is simply wishfully naive to suggest otherwise.
Since God commanded representations of the world to be made in the construction of the Tabernacle, therefore representations of the Son while He is in that same world are acceptable too. Objection: That is true in so far as the question is about making representations of objects that are not the human nature of the 2nd person of the Trinity. However, as soon as you introduce the divine person, the question is different, because God was not represented in the artwork of the tabernacle.
The objections which are included notwithstanding, John of Damascus continues to be a force in the discussion of the proriety of images of Jesus. His arguments, or parts of them, have more or less been adopted by proponents of images of Jesus from the time he made them even until today.