Word Magazine April 1977 Page 13
ST. JOHN OF DAMASCUS AND HIS THEOLOGY OF HOLY IMAGES
Father Joseph Antypas
On the theology of the Holy Images, the place of St. John of Damascus is quite important and far-reaching. Very little is known about the life of St. John of Damascus. He was born in the second half of the 7th century (about 675), of a distinguished family in Damascus, while the city was under the Moslem Calipha, and he succeeded his father as the civil head of the Christian population.
About 716, for the Faith, John of Damascus gave up his position and retired to a monastery of St. Sabas, near Jerusalem, where he was ordained a priest. He died at St. Sabas, very probably in 749 and certainly before 754.
St. John of Damascus treated not only of dogmatic, historical and asceticomoral questions, but wrote excellent, exegetical and homiletic commentaries, composed liturgical chants of permanent worth, and became the Orthodox leader in the Iconoclastic Controversy. One of his most important writings is On the Orthodox Faith (De Fide Orthodoxa). It consists of four principal and most valuable books: Book I dealing with God and the Trinity, Book II with creation of the world, angels, and man, Book III with the Incarnation, Book IV with Resurrection, Ascension, images, saints, mariology, and eschatology.
In replying to the attacks of the Iconoclasts against the practice of venerating the material images, John of Damascus writes “Since some find fault with us for adoring and venerating the images of our Saviour and Lord, and of the Saints, and the Servants of Christ, let them realize that in the beginning God made man to His own Image.” (De Fide Orthodoxa IV).
John of Damascus maintains, furthermore, that through the material signs man penetrates to the spiritual reality. The image, he writes, is simply a material symbol of an intelligible reality destined to elevate the mind toward the divine. On the other hand, matter itself is glorified in the person of Jesus Christ. Hence, the artist, in representing Christ, makes an ‘image of God’ by painting the deified humanity of Jesus, hypostatized in the Word Himself. In so doing, according to John, he witnesses to the fact that “matter is God’s creation and he confesses that it is good.” (De Fide II.)
Furthermore, John of Damascus rejects any attempts to make an image of the Almighty God, since God is invisible, infinite, incomprehensible, and limitless. He insists that one cannot reproduce an image, a portrait, a sketch or a form of the invisible divinity. And “If someone dares make an image,” he writes, “of the immaterial and incorporal divinity, we repudiate him. The Logos himself, before the incarnation, could not be reproduced; he is the image of the Father, but the image cannot be materially reproduced.” John of Damascus, in this respect, emerges as one of the great Byzantine theologians who dealt with the doctrine of the invisibility of God. St. John asserts the fact that we can represent God, the Invisible One, not as invisible, but insofar as he has become visible for us by participation in flesh and blood. Hence, the relative divinity of images is linked necessarily with the Incarnation of the divine Logos.
St. John of Damascus considers the Incarnation of the Son as a manifestation of love, not a work of nature. Therefore, since God has appeared on earth in the flesh, and who, in his ineffable goodness, lived with human beings and assumed the nature, the thickness, the shape, and the color of the flesh, then we can represent what is visible in God, and respectively, we can venerate, not matter, but the creator of everything, who became matter for our sake, who assumed life in the flesh and who, through matter, accomplished our salvation. (De Fide Orthodoxa II.)
The writings of St. John of Damascus on the theology of the holy images have revealed his humble acknowledgment of his indebtedness to his predecessors. his eloquent and oft-repeated professions of faith, his glowing praises of our Lady. his loving descriptions of our Lord and Saviour — these and many other features of his writings indicate the countless ways in which he deepened our understanding of the place of the theology of the Holy Images in relation to man’s deification, salvation, and worship. Therefore three concluding points follow.
First, the image of the incarnate Word is considered as a witness to the deified human nature of Jesus, a central soteriological notion in earlier patristic theology. Hence, if this human nature is “indescribable” it is also inaccessible, and, therefore, the salvation of our human nature is not achieved.
Second, John of Damascus, has successfully shown us that man was created for deification, moving towards union with God. The perfection of our first nature lay above all in this capacity to communicate with God, to be united more and more with the fullness of the Godhead, which was to penetrate and transfigure created nature.
Third, the Image of Christ, venerated by the Christians, bears witness to the reality of the Eucharist. The angels, writes John of Damascus, do not partake of the divine nature, but only of the energy and the grace, but men participate in it, they are in communion with the divine nature, at least those who are in communion with the Holy Body of Christ and receive His Blood; for the Body and Blood of Christ are hypostatically united to the divinity and in the Body of Christ, with which we are in communion, there are two natures inseparably united in the hypostasis. We are thus in communion with both natures — with the body, corporally, and with the divinity spiritually, or rather with both in both ways.
Fr. Antypas is a recent graduate of St. Vladimir Seminary and is now pastor of St. George Church in Bridgeville. Pa.