Thursday, September 3, 2015

John of Damascus - Defender of the Traditional

We like to fit people and things into nice neat little boxes. We want them to be either totally for us or totally against us. Church history has a way of knocking down our nice clear boundaries and leaving us scratching our heads. There are many things that are admirable about John of Damascus. He was a Christian and willing to be known as a Christian in a Muslim country. He seems to have left a lucrative position as a servant of the caliph to become a monk and study theology. (I am not in favor of monasticism as an institution, but many who entered it had a genuine desire to follow God.) He was a key writer on theology and opposed the errors of his time, particularly the idea that Jesus was not fully human as well as fully God but was some sort of a mixture. He also had a strong view of grace, that salvation is from God and not something we deserve.

But John was also a strong supporter of the idea of serving (I would say worshiping) images. Nor was this a mere incidental part of his belief. This is the theological position he first wrote to defend. He claimed that the iconoclasts' view that images should be neither made nor served was based on a denial of the humanity of Christ. I suspect that underlying this was a strong respect for the traditional, whether good or bad. John of Damascus has not encouraged me to change my views on the service of images. I still cannot agree with the position. But it has made me more reluctant to dismiss someone simply because there is something I do not agree with him on. And I believe this is a good thing.

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