Friday, January 13, 2012

St. John of Damascus "An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith"

I just finished reading An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus. The book is available as a free download in several different formats. Unfortunately, the Kindle format has typographical errors due to the OCR processing. I used Text To Speech on my Kindle for part of the book and the most humorous error I heard was "And we proclaim the holy Virgin to be properly and truly Mother of God copyright." The hard copy had "Mary Mother of God (Θεοτόκος)." Θεοτόκος is often translated as "Mother of God." OCR had mistaken the first letter of the Greek word "Θ" for a ©.

This is work is important because John of Damascus provides us with a summary of the teachings of the church fathers. Lutheran Christology finds its roots in the writings of John of Damascus. St. John of Damascus spends a surprising amount of time talking about the solar system and the seasons but he provides us with a really interesting Christian worldview.

When it comes to St. John of Damascus's understanding of how we know what we know about God he can sound very Lutheran:

But what the substance of God is, or how it is in all things, or how the only-begotten Son, who was God, emptied Himself out and became man from a virgin's blood, being formed by another law that transcended nature, or how He walked dry-shod upon the waters, we neither understand nor can say. And so it is impossible either to say or fully to understand anything about God beyond what has been divinely proclaimed to us, whether told or revealed, by the sacred declarations of the Old and New Testaments.
He doesn't put any trust in the use of reason to get beyond divine revelation and says that we can really only learn who God is from the Scriptures. He also says things like:

And so, while we are awaiting Him, we worship toward the east. This is, moreover, the unwritten tradition of the Apostles, for they have handed many things down to us unwritten.
Later on he says:
And similarly, also, we are stirred up by the exploits of the holy men to manliness, zeal, imitation of their virtues, and the glory of God. For, as we have said, the honor shown the more sensible of one's fellow servants gives proof of one's love for the common Master, and the honor paid to the image redounds to the original. This is the written tradition, just as is worshiping toward the east, adoring the cross, and so many other similar things. Furthermore, there is a story told about how, when Abgar was lord of the city of Edessenes, he sent an artist to make a portrait of the Lord, and how, when the artist was unable to do this because of the radiance of His face, the Lord Himself pressed a bit of cloth to His own sacred and life-giving face and left His own image on the cloth and so sent this to Abgar who had so earnestly desired it. And Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, writes that the Apostles handed down a great many things unwritten: 'Therefore, brethren, stand fast: and hold the traditions which you have learned, whether by word or by our epistle; and to the Corinthians: 'Now I praise you, brethren, that in all things you are mindful of me and keep my ordinances as I have delivered them to you.' 
John of Damascus regards the liturgical traditions and stories of the saints as being part of the authoritative Apostolic tradition. John of Damascus doesn't exactly fit into the Lutheran understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition but he doesn't really fit into Rome's understanding either. Based on what John of Damascus wrote, it would be hard to imagine him defending the infallibility of the Roman Pope or other later developments in Roman dogma. The traditions in John of Damascus are binding but seem to be fixed.

When John of Damascus speaks of the two natures of Christ he uses the analogy of iron and fire which would later be adopted by Lutheran theologians:

And just as if one should pour water upon a red-hot iron, that which is naturally disposed to be affected by the water the fire, I mean will be quenched, while the iron remains unharmed, because it is not of its nature to be destroyed by the water; how much less did the divinity, which is alone impassible, endure the suffering of the flesh and still remain inseparable from it.

Lutherans also speak of the Lord's Supper in similar ways to John of Damascus. Notice that John of Damascus refuses to provide any philosophical explanation such as transubstantiation.

If, then, the word of the Lord is living and effectual,' and if 'whatsoever the Lord pleased he hath done'; if He said : 'Be light made, and it was made. Be a firmament made, and it was made'; if by the word of the Lord the heavens were established, and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth'; if heaven and earth, water and fire, and air and the whole universe of these were made perfect by the word of the Lord, and this much famed living being, too, which is man; if by His will God the Word Himself became man and without seed caused the pure and undefiled blood of the blessed Ever-Virgin to form a body for Himself; if all this, then can He not make the bread His body and the wine and water His blood? In the beginning He said: 'Let the earth bring forth the green herb,' and even until now, when the rain falls, the earth brings forth its own shoots under the influence and power of the divine command. God said : 'This is my body,' and, 'This is my blood/ and, 'This do in commemoration of me,' and by His almighty command it is done, until He shall come, for what He said was 'until he come.' And through the invocation the overshadowing power of the Holy Ghost becomes a rainfall for this new cultivation. For, just as all things whatsoever God made He made by the operation of the Holy Ghost, so also it is by the operation of the Spirit that these things are done which surpass nature and cannot be discerned except by faith alone. 'How shall this be done to me,' asked the blessed Virgin, because I know not man?' The archangel Gabriel answered, 'The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee.And now you ask how the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine and water the blood of Christ, And I tell you that the Holy Ghost comes down and works these things which are beyond description and understanding. Now, bread and wine are used because God knows human weakness and how most things that are not constantly and habitually used cannot be put up with and are shunned. With His usual condescension, therefore, He does through the ordinary things of nature those which surpass the natural order. And just as in the case of baptism, because it is the custom of men to wash themselves with water and anoint themselves with oil He joined the grace of the Spirit to oil and water and made it a laver of regeneration, so, because it is men's custom to eat bread and drink water and wine He joined His divinity to these and made them His body and blood, so that by the ordinary natural things we might be raised to those which surpass the order of nature. This is the body which is truly united to the Godhead, the same which is from the blessed Virgin. This is not because that body which was taken up to heaven comes down from heaven, but because the very bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of God. However, should you inquire as to the manner in which this is done, let it suffice for you to hear that it is done through the Holy Ghost, just as it was through the Holy Ghost that the Lord made flesh subsist for Himself and in Himself from the blessed Mother of God. And more than this we do not know, except that the word of God is true and effective and omnipotent, but the manner in which it is so is impossible to find out. What is more, it is not amiss to say this, that just as bread by being eaten and wine and water by being drunk are naturally changed into the body of the person eating and drinking and yet do not become another body than that which the person had before, so in the same way are the bread of the offertory and the wine and water supernaturally changed into the body and blood of Christ by the invocation and coming down of the Holy Ghost, yet they are not two bodies, but one and the same. Hence, it is unto remission of sins and eternal life and unto a safeguard for body and soul and for such as partake worthily thereof and with faith. But for such as receive unworthily and without faith it is unto chastisement and punishment. It is just as the Lord's death has become life and immortality for those who believe, whereas for those who do not and for those who killed the Lord it is unto chastisement and eternal punishment. The bread and wine are not a figure of the body and blood of Christ God forbid! but the actual deified body of the Lord, because the Lord Himself said: 'This is my body'; not a figure of my body' but 'my body and not a figure of my blood' but *my blood.' Even before this He had said to the Jews: 'except you eat of the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed.' And again: 'He that eateth me, shall live.

Soteriologically there are some differences between Lutherans and John of Damascus. John of Damascus seems to teach that man's will is free to choose to follow God. But this issue is not at the forefront of his work. John of Damascus recognizes Christ-crucified as the central teaching of the Scriptures.

Every action of Christ and all His working of miracles were truly very great and divine and wonderful, but of all things the most wonderful is His honorable cross. For by nothing else except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ has death been brought low, the sin of our first parent destroyed, hell plundered, resurrection bestowed, the power given us to despise the things of this world and even death itself, the road back to the former blessedness made smooth, the gates of paradise opened, our nature seated at the right hand of God, and we made children and heirs of God. By the cross all things have been set aright. To all we who are baptized in Christ,' says the Apostle, 'are baptized in his death' and as many of us as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ'; moreover, 'Christ is the power and wisdom of God.' See how the death of Christ, the cross, that is to say, has clothed us with the subsistent wisdom and power of God! And the word of the Cross is the power of God, whether because by it God's might, His victory over death, that is, was manifested to us, or because, just as the four arms of the cross are made solid and bound together by their central part, so are the height and the depth, the length and the breadth, that is to say, all creation both visible and invisible, held together by the power of God. This we have been given as a sign on our forehead, just as Israel was given the circumcision, for by it we faithful are set apart from the infidels and recognized. It is a shield and armor and a trophy against the Devil. It is a seal that the Destroyer may not strike us, as Scripture says. It is a raising up for those who lie fallen, a support for those who stand, a staff for the infirm, a crook for the shepherded, a guide for the wandering, a perfecting of the advanced, salvation for soul and body, an averter of all evils, a cause of all good things, a destruction of sin, a plant of resurrection, and a tree of eternal life...

The tree of life which was planted by God in paradise prefigured this honorable Cross, for, since death came by a tree, it was necessary for life and the resurrection to be bestowed by a tree. It was Jacob who first prefigured the cross, when he adored the top of the rod of Joseph. And when he blessed Joseph's sons with his hands crossed, he most clearly described the sign of the cross. [Then there were] the rod of Moses which smote the sea with the form of a cross and saved Israel while causing Pharoah to be swallowed up; his hands stretched out in the form of a cross and putting Amalec to flight; the bitter water being made sweet by a tree, and the rock being struck and gushing forth streams of water; the rod of Aaron miraculously confirming the dignity of the priesthood; a serpent raised in triumph upon a tree, as if dead, with the tree preserving those who with faith beheld the dead enemy, even as Christ was nailed up in flesh of sin but which had not known sin; great Moses calling out: You will see your life hanging before your eyes on a tree'; and Isaias: I have spread forth my hands all day to an unbelieving and contradictory people.' May we who adore this attain to the portion of Christ the crucified. Amen.


Sam said...

Thanks for this post, especially for the part about the Cross, which is quite beautiful as we move through lent.

You can get a nice hardcopy without the OCR errors here: Amazon.

Sam said...

Reposting with the correct link:

Thanks for this post, especially for the part about the Cross, which is quite beautiful as we move through lent.

You can get a nice hardcopy without the OCR errors here: Amazon.