*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 4th of December 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
So today on the show, I am introducing a new kind of episode- as you know, we like to play around with format from time to time. As we come across several significant people in the next week or so, I thought I’d take a page from Alanis Morissette (excellent new documentary btw) and name these shows “you oughta know.” I tell you about a critical figure with a list of a few things you oughta know.
SO today is the feast day of John of Damascus- venerated, remembered, etc.… across denominations- from Eastern Orthodox to Roman Catholic to Protestant. So - let’s look at the most important things about John’s life.
- Yes, he is from Damascus, and that is a city name you remember from your Bible (Paul’s conversion was on the Road to Damascus). Now, John was born around 675 and died in 749. So it’s essential to know where Damascus is and the context for his time. Damascus, that city in Southern Syria bordering Lebanon, was ruled by the Muslim Umayyad Dynasty. John was then “behind enemy lines,” but his work on Islam has been important for Christians and Muslims for centuries.
- He is considered either the last of the church fathers or the first of the Scholastics, and I ask, “why not both?”. He belongs to that generation of theologians who were expounding on the fundamentals of Christianity in light of the earliest church councils. On the other hand, he was in a new context for many Christians and thus had to take the faith once delivered and formulate it for a new era.
- A good bit of his theological work was defending the Christian faith. In light of where he lived, it would be correct to assume he wrote about the Muslims- which, interestingly, he referred to as the heresy of the Ishmaelites. This interpretation saw Islam as a twisted version of Christianity rather than a new religious movement. He also wrote against Nestorians, Monophysites, and others condemned at the early councils.
- He is one of the first theologians to deal with an argument for God that countenanced the view that there could be atheists. And atheists in the modern sense of “we come from chaos and will return to chaos.” John of Damascus argued from contingency that if we exist, it is because something has caused us to exist. That “thing” is God. It’s a compelling argument deployed later but interesting in his context for even supposing an atheist could be.
- He was mixed up in the iconoclastic controversy- that is, the question of can Christians have images of saints and can they venerate them. John distinguished between veneration and worship and argued that images could be used rightly in Christian devotion. The iconoclastic emperor slandered him, but John’s view was vindicated in the 2nd Council of Nicea.
- He stood firmly on the side of the councils in his understanding of Jesus and his two natures. This would lead him to speak of Mary, the Mother of God, as the “Theotokos” about which we are dealing in this week’s mailbag. His devotion to Mary went further in that he was one of the first to teach the bodily ascension of Mary, or her “assumption.”
John of Damascus was an 8th-century theologian who wrote on Islam, Christology, Mariology, and Apologetics in the Middle East. And for this reason, he’s a dude worth paying attention to, so you ought to know.
The last word for today comes from Psalm 27 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter:
1 The Lord's my light and saving health,
who shall make me dismayed?
My life's strength is the Lord, of whom
then shall I be afraid?
2 When as mine enemies and foes,
most wicked persons all,
To eat my flesh against me rose,
they stumbled and did fall.
3 Against me though an host encamp,
my heart yet fearless is:
Though war against me rise, I will
be confident in this.
4 One thing I of the Lord desired,
and will seek to obtain,
That all days of my life I may
within God's house remain;
That I the beauty of the Lord
behold may and admire,
And that I in his holy place
may rev'rently enquire.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 4th of December 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man with one hand in his pocket, and the other is hailing a taxi cab; he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man with ten thousand spoons when all he needs is a knife; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.