Arabic icon of St. John of Damascus

Today (Dec. 4) is commemorated an important, though sometimes little-known, saint: St. John of Damascus. Not only is he important to Church history as a theologian, hymnographer, liturgist, and defender of Orthodoxy, but he is also important, I believe, to the history of liberty.

In a series of decrees from 726-729, the Roman (Byzantine) emperor Leo III the Isaurian declared that the making and veneration of religious icons, such as the one to the right, be banned as idolatrous and that all icons be removed from churches and destroyed. The Christian practice of making icons dates back to decorations of the catacombs in the early Church as well as illuminations in manuscripts of the Scriptures; indeed, many icons can be found in manuscripts of the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures and several icons have even been uncovered in the ruins of synagogues.

Naturally, most Christians of the time protested. Patriarch Germanos I of Constantinople was forced to resign and was replaced by Anastasios, who supported the emperor’s program. This began what is known as the iconoclastic controversy. It spanned over 100 years, and the iconoclasts in the Roman (Byzantine) empire martyred literally thousands of the Orthodox who peacefully resisted and destroyed countless works of sacred art that would be priceless today. Whatever one’s understanding of the place of icons in the Church today, this controversy was a clear abuse of government power that resulted in great tragedy.

Looking on from outside the empire, by tradition at the monastery of Mar Saba in the Judaean desert, St. John of Damascus wrote three treatises in defense of the longstanding tradition of the making and veneration of icons of Christ and the saints, arguing that the iconoclasts implicitly denied the incarnation since to say that Christ cannot be depicted is to deny his true humanity. If the Word of God became man, he wrote, then he can be depicted like any other man and his image deserves appropriate honor. However, given that the policy of iconoclasm originated not from a theologian or bishop but from the overreach of imperial power from the political to the ecclesial sphere, these writings also reveal a defense of the freedom of religion, even while likely affirming the Byzantine principle of symphonia, the close cooperation of Church and state.

He begins his first treatise by writing,

Compelled to speak by a fear that cannot be borne, I have come forward, not putting the majesty of kings before the truth, but hearing David, the divine ancestor say, “I spoke before kings and was not ashamed” [Psalm 119:46], goaded more and more to speak. For the word of a king exercises terror over his subjects. For there are few who would utterly neglect the royal constitutions established from above, who know that the king reigns on earth from above, and as such the laws of kings hold sway.

And he continues,

…[M]y purpose is not to conquer, but to stretch out a hand to fight for the truth, a hand stretched out in the power of freewill. Calling on the help of the one who is truth in person, I will make a start on my discourse.

For St. John of Damascus and all of the Orthodox with him, there was a clear limit to government power: it could not intrude uninvited into the realm of the Church and could not command its subjects to defy what their consciences knew to be the truth. Any power it had was given from above, and thus could not be absolute. In such circumstances, he found himself “[c]ompelled to speak by a fear that cannot be borne.” And his effort for the sake of truth and freedom proved invaluable. The theology of the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 (Nicaea II) is largely dependent upon his three treatises.

Even after the brief period of peace in which the council was called, the iconoclasts again regained power and the persecution continued, only ending in 843 on what is known in the Orthodox Church as the Triumph of Orthodoxy. St. John of Damascus reposed sometime before 750, having never seen the fruits of his labors in the flesh. Yet, his example is one of hope to many who have contended for freedom and faith from his own time to the present day. And for that I, at least, commemorate him today and commend the same to any others who treasure faith and freedom in our own time.