Images and the Christian Life: John of Damascus’ “Three Treatises on the Divine Images” (Seminary Papers)

(The following is my term paper for History of Christianity I at Reformed Theological Seminary, submitted Fall 2019. Formatting not retained.)

This paper will provide a brief overview of the life of St. John of Damascus and a surface level examination of one of his most important works, a set of treatises we know today as Three Treatises on Divine Images. John of Damascus is an 7th-8th century Syrian theologian and monk who contributed to the development of Byzantine theology, which would later become the foundation for Eastern Orthodoxy. He is widely considered to be one of the last of the early church fathers, and is recognized as a saint in both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This paper uses Andrew Louth’s translation, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Background and Context

In order to understand the significance of John of Damascus and the impact of his works, it is important to understand the background and context that John of Damascus was writing in. There are two cultural realities that shape John’s work: the presence of Islam, and the beginning of the Iconoclast controversy.

John of Damascus was born around 676. Forty years prior, the city of Damascus surrendered to the besieging Muslim armies after a guarantee for favorable treatment for the city. Islam, a religious movement founded by Muhammad of Mecca in 610, was a fairly new and recent movement, but one that was gaining rapidly in territory and adherents – largely through the threat of the sword. By the time John was born, Islam had become a major threat to both the East and the West, having claimed significant territorial advances with no sign of slowing down.

Because Islam showed special deference to Christians and Jews, John was raised in a Christian family and was allowed to practice the Christian faith despite being in Islam occupied Damascus. Little is concretely known about John’s upbringing, education, and career, but it is believed that John left Damascus to become a monk around the year 706. John would travel to Jerusalem at begin working in a monastery at Mar Saba, which is where he would remain until his death. 

As Islam continued to expand, it would eventually come into contact with the city of Constantinople. The first siege would take place from 674 and last until 678, with a Byzantine victory repelling the Islamic armies for several decades. In 717, the second siege would begin, with a quicker and more decisive victory being secured the following year. John would’ve only been a child by the time the first siege ended, but would’ve been an adult during the second siege, and this second siege plays an important part in the backdrop of the iconoclast controversy.

Emperor Leo III came to power in 717, and, several years after defeating the Muslim armies in the second siege, began speaking out against the use of icons, and ultimately issuing an edict against their use in 730. The reasons for why Leo did this are unclear, but one possible explanation is that Leo believed the sieges, other attacks, and natural disasters were chastisements by God upon the city for their idolatry and disobedience. Regardless of the reason, the response was swift and violent. Rioting began to break out in cities as Leo began destroying all religious icons, whether in the public square or in the church. Leo’s actions would have severe political ramifications, contributing to the ever-widening division between Constantinople and Rome as Leo rebuffed the Pope’s condemnation with some significant gerrymandering of the Roman patriarchate into Constantinople’s.

It is against the backdrop of the reality of Islam, and against the backdrop of Leo III and his iconoclasm movement, that John of Damascus would reluctantly begin writing against the iconoclasts in defense of the use of images. Both realities shape the content of his writing and must be considered when assessing his treatises.

The Three Treatises

What we know today as Three Treatises on Divine Images is a collection of three different treatises John would write against the iconoclasts over a period of several years. This paper will not attempt to offer a critique of John’s argument, which is quite comprehensive, but will describe the general features and themes of John’s writing.

The Treatise Timeline

As mentioned above, the three treatises were written over a period of several years. The first treatise, despite being the second longest of the three, is actually the most straightforward, giving the impression that John wrote it quickly. This first treatise was likely written between 726-730. If it was written in 730, it was written before Leo deposes Germanus, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and increases the strength of the iconoclast edit. 

Whether or not Leo’s response was based off John’s first treatise is unknown, but Leo’s actions are undoubtedly the basis for John’s second treatise, which was written in either 730 or 731. In direct response to Leo’s deposition of Germanus, John writes, “And now the blessed Germanus, radiant in his life and his words, is flogged and sent into exile, and many other bishops and fathers, whose names we do not know. Is not this piracy?”[1] Earlier in that same chapter, John plainly states, “it is not for emperors to legislate for the Church”, and later in the same chapter, John directly entreats the emperor and asks him to refrain from intervening in Christ’s church lest the church crumble as a result. 

The third treatise was written much later than the second one, sometime between 740-744. Where the first and second treatises are shorter and more unpolished, this treatise is the longest and most refined of the three treatises, reflecting John’s time to revise and perfect his arguments. In this treatise John includes several sections that one would normally expect to be in the beginning of the book, namely definitions of the terms and concepts that he uses. These sections in the third treatise bring significant clarity and understanding to the first two treatises.

Three Treatises, One Argument

Despite the differences between the three treatises, they all share one unified argument in establishing the use of images. John’s argument largely rests on how Christians understand two concepts: “icons”, or images, and veneration. Both concepts are integral to his argument, but it is not until the third treatise that he sets forth definitions and boundaries for how he uses these concepts in the first two treatises.

Beginning with images, John believes that an image is “a likeness and pattern and impression of something”[2], the purpose of which is to “manifest and demonstrate something hidden.”[3] John points to the tabernacle and temple as being images demonstrating heavenly realities, although they are not heavenly realities themselves. John also points to the images of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the cross as also being images that manifest truths to us as well. Much like we refer to God’s analogous revelation to us through his description of himself as being the “Father” or the “Rock”, John argues that images function in a similar analogous sense, revealing to us by way of analogy truths about God and the heavenly realms. 

It is impossible to discuss the question of images or icons without speaking on the 2nd Commandment, and John does not gloss over or ignore the importance of the 2nd commandment in his argument. John believes that the 2ndCommandment was given largely in response to the Israelite idolatry of the Golden Calf, and that much like a doctor prescribes different remedies or cures for specific sins, God prescribed the 2nd commandment to cure Israel’s idolatry via images. He does not believe the second commandment prohibits the use of images wholesale, but only those who offer veneration of worship to images, which he considers idolatry.  Christians, now having communion with God through Christ, know what can and cannot be depicted of God. Speaking of icons of Christ, he writes:

I do not venerate the creation instead of the creator, but I venerate the Creator, created for my sake, who came down to his creation without being lowered or weakened, that he might glorify my nature and bring about communion with the divine nature . . . I am emboldened to depict the invisible God, not as invisible, but as he became visible for our sake, by participation in flesh and blood. I do not depict the invisible divinity, but I depict God made visible in the flesh.[4]

Much of John’s understanding of images rests on mankind being made in the “image of God”, and Christ, in his incarnation, being the “image of the invisible God.” Because God has made us in his image, and because God took on an image in the incarnation, God is a God of images – but only when used properly.

Veneration is the second major concept John uses in his argument, which he defines as “a sign of submission, of subordination and humility.”[5] Veneration consists of two elements: an object of veneration, and a type of veneration offered to it. The object of veneration determines the types of veneration that ought to be offered. For example, offering veneration of worship to God is appropriate, and it is inappropriate (indeed, sinful) to offer veneration of worship to the Golden Calf. John’s categorization of types of veneration and objects of veneration is extensive, but he summarizes the subject as, “In a word, veneration offered out of fear or desire or honor is a symbol of submission and humility, but no one is to be worshipped as God, expect the one who is alone God by nature, to all others what is due is reckoned for the Lord’s sake.”[6]

If one understands these two concepts correctly, John argues, then the conscious is free to use icons in their Christian life. In the first treatise, he expresses concern that the iconoclasts are forcing Christians to basic, immature understandings of the faith and deny the good gifts that God has given the church; in other places, he outright calls the iconoclasts Judaizers who attempt to bind the Christian conscience to the obedience of the Law as being necessary for salvation. John believes that a proper understanding of images and veneration allows the Christian to use images without falling into idolatry, and that to deny the use of images is to deny a freedom given to us by God. 

Fathers and Florilegia

Each of the three treatises includes a section known as a florilegium. A florilegium is a collection of literary references or citations, usually offered to demonstrate consensus with the argument of the author. These three florilegium differ in length and complexity, with the second florilegium being a derivative of the first, and the first not even being a traditional florilegium but more of a commentary from John on statements made by the fathers in support of his position. Only the third florilegium can be said to a proper one, which makes sense given the other refined and polished characteristics of the third treatise in comparison to the first two.

These sections are important because a major feature of John’s argument is that the use of icons has significant precedent in church tradition up to that point, and to change this practice now is to open the door to the possibility of changing other matters established by church tradition. John is fond of quoting Proverbs 22:28, which modern translations render as “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set up”[7], and John interprets “the ancient landmark that your fathers have set up” to be an applicable reference to church tradition. So concerned is John by deviating from tradition on this point that he believes that to do so threatens to cause the church to collapse like a building collapses when a stone is removed from a building! 

Passionate Polemics

One of the more upsetting features of the book is some of the polemic language John employs against those who are opposed to icons. A lengthy and thorough example of this reads:

Let everyone know, therefore, that anyone who attempts to destroy an image brought into being out of longing and zeal for the glory and memorial of Christ, or of his Mother the holy Theotokos, or of one of the signets, or yet for the disgrace of the devil and the defeat of him and his demons, and will not, out of longing for the one depicted, venerate or honor or greet it as a precious image and not as god, is an enemy of Christ and the holy Mother of God and the saints and a vindicator of the devil and his demons, and shows by his deeds his sorrow that God and his saints are honored and glorified, and the devil is put to shame.[8]

Although John directly addresses the Emperor at other points in the treatises, John does not specify whether or not he is speaking to Islamic authorities, the Iconoclasts, or both, in these polemic proclamations. It is reasonable to assume Emperor Leo was his primary target, as his dwelling was far removed from the risk of repercussion from speaking ill against the Emperor. However, John’s background of living under Islamic rule control certainly colors his language against those who oppose images, as Islamic theology forbade images of any and all types. For John, the decision of Leo to forbid the use of icons was more than a theological dispute; icons, in John’s view, were essential to his worship as a Christian living in Muslim occupied land. External opposition to the use of icons is expected; internal opposition is an entirely different matter, and the pressure of external opposition undoubtedly channeled into his response to internal opposition.

As for the language itself, we must strive to show John charity where possible. Because this was a polarizing issue for his time, polarizing language is reasonable and expected. What strikes us as dogmatic, cold, or unChristlike is language he considered to passionate attempts to win people over to his side of an issue he cared deeply about. Such language ought not be absolved or excused of any sinfulness, but it must be approached with as much charity as context allows. We have our own parallels today.

Aftermath and Impact

John’s treatises would not settle the iconoclast controversy, but it would certainly turn the tide of the debate in his favor. After John’s death in 750, a Byzantine synod would condemn him and his works in 754, and the pro-icon party would begin to experience brutal and severe persecution, with many supporters being killed or forced into exile. This condemnation and persecution would not last long, however. Following the death of Constantine V and the successor of his son, Leo IV, the iconoclasm stance would begin to weaken, until Leo IV’s son, Constantine VI, would overturn the policy entirely in 786. The following year, at the 7th Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, the iconoclast position would be formally condemned, and the council would endorse the positions articulated by John in his treatises. Unfortunately, much like the first council of Nicaea, it would take time before the decision of the council would be truly and properly enforced.

The following decades would see further back-and-forth between the iconoclasts and pro-icon parties, with pro-icon persecution rising heavily under Emperor Theophilus and the current Patriarch, John Grammaticus, in 837. This wave of persecution, however, would cease once and for all in 843, when the decrees of the 7th Nicaea Council would be established and the iconoclasts would be condemned. John Grammaticus was deposed, and from that point onward the Emperor and Patriarch would have stronger ties. The “Feast of Orthodoxy” is now celebrated on the first Sunday in Lent each year to celebrate the end of the iconoclast controversy

It must be said that John, in his writings, repeatedly and explicitly condemns the veneration of worship to images; veneration of worship is only meant to be given to God, and veneration of worship offered to anything or anyone else is idolatry. Regrettably, John’s distinctions and instructions for the proper use of images would be ignored, as the misuse of images leading up to the Iconoclasm controversy would continue long after John’s death. As Tim Dowley writes,

“From the sixth century, both the church and the imperial government encouraged the recognition given both to monastic holy men and Christian icons, failing to realize that the uncontrolled multiplying of icons and holy men would encourage people to confine their Christian devotion to unique local shrines and figures. Most ordinary Christians failed to distinguish between the holy and object or holy person and the spiritual reality it stood for and thus fell into idolatry.[9]

John’s work secured the use of icons in the church (both the East and West) to the present day, but it sadly did not secure correct the use of icons, as the use of icons would eventually become a point of contention for the Protestant Reformation, with John Calvin writing penning a treatise of his own against the use of relics and icons due to the idolatry of Christians in his day. However, giving credit where credit is due, John’s work is one of the earliest contributions towards a Christian theology of art, and many of his insights and arguments will be recapitulated by other authors throughout the history of church (Francis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible being one example with striking parallels), and his understanding of the visual richness of the Bible is a healthy pushback against those who downplay the visual and creative works of God. Whether one uses the divine images in their life or not, both can agree that our God is a beautiful and majestic Creator, and has created us to be creative ourselves.

Bibliography

Damascus, John of. Three Treatises On Divine Images. Translated by Andrew Louth. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003.

Dowley, Tim. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2018.


[1] John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth, 1st ed. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003), 2.12

[2] John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth, 1st ed. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003), 3.16

[3] ibid, 3.17

[4] John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth, 1st ed. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003), 3.6

[5] ibid, 3.27

[6] John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth, 1st ed. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003), 3.40

[7] Crossway Bibles. English Standard Version. Wheaton, Ill: Crossways Bibles, 2007.

[8] John of Damascus, Three Treatises on the Divine Images, trans. Andrew Louth, 1st ed. (Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2003), 3.10

[9] Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 3st ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018), 216

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