Who Was John of Damascus? Everything You Need to Know | Church History

John of Damascus, also known as John Damascene, is commonly considered the last of the Greek Church Fathers. He is widely read and quoted by Eastern and Western Christian scholars. He himself quotes from previous Greek Fathers in his own theological work, Exposition On the Orthodox Faith. John’s work represents a fair summary of the major Greek Fathers before him on the most pressing theological issues of the early eighth century.

John was born in the city of Damascus sometime in the last quarter of the seventh century.[1] He grew up in a Christian family known by the name Mansur, which means “ransomed.” His father, Sergius, was appointed as the treasurer for Abd al-Malik, the Caliph in Damascus.[2] When Sergius died, John was given his father’s position plus a promotion handling the calif’s funds.[3]

Shortly after the year 730, one finds John becoming a monk and entering a monastery named St. Sabas in the Kidron Valley, about halfway between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. A few years later he was ordained as a priest in Jerusalem.[4] It is believed that he traveled throughout Palestine and Syria and even made a trip to Constantinople toward the end of his life. He died at St. Sabas sometime around 750.[5] His life is celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox Church on December 4 and in the Roman Catholic Church on May 6.

One of John’s chief theological contributions was his support of the use of images or “icons” in worship. In this discussion an image is a two-dimensional portrayal of Jesus Himself or a saintly Christian. A controversy arose in the Eastern Church between those who favored using images in worship, who were known as the iconodules, and those who prohibited the use of images in worship, who were known as iconoclasts. In the year 726, Byzantine Emperor Leo III issued an edict stating that images were not allowed to be used in church services.[6] Muslims also disliked the use of images in worship. Iconoclasts argued, among other things, that the use of images in worship was a form of idolatry.[7]They based this, in part, on the Old Testament prohibitions against “graven images” (Exodus 20:4; Leviticus 26:1; Deuteronomy 4:16). John wrote three letters on the topic to be circulated among the Eastern Churches. His main contribution to the conversation was his focus on Christ. John argued in his letters that when Jesus took on flesh and became a physical human being, the rules on images changed. The incarnation was God’s way of saying that Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The prohibitions on physical images in the Old Testament referred to an era that predated the coming of Jesus Christ, and as such, the visible image of the invisible God. John also distinguished between worship, which is only due to God, and veneration, which is a lesser honor, reserved for physical objects of spiritual significance.[8]

John’s other main contribution to theology was his larger work, On the Orthodox Faith.[9] It was an exposition of important doctrines of the Christian faith especially from the Eastern Orthodox perspective. In his discourse, John carefully collated writings from prominent Eastern Church Fathers on a variety of topics. The work especially addresses the theological issues of: 

  •     The necessity and knowability of God,
  •     The Trinity,
  •     Creation,
  •     Providence and free will,
  •     The Incarnation, 
  •     The sacraments,
  •     Mary, 
  •     Images, 
  •     Scripture,
  •     Virginity, and 
  •     End times.


John was not only looking to the past to provide an exposition of what the Fathers taught but to the future to provide Christians with answers to Muslim questions and objections to the Christian faith. 


John of Damascus served as a monk, a priest, and a theologian during a crucial time in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He addressed issues important to Christian thought as well as objections and concerns of his Muslim neighbors. He was systematic as a collector and organizer of the theological thought. His poetry, letters, and other writings addressed important theological issues from the tradition he received. He is thus known as the last of the Church Fathers in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.


[1] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4, Medieval Christianity, A.D. 590-1073 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 626.

[2] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, volume 4, The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 219.

[3] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4, Medieval Christianity, A.D. 590-1073 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 627.

[4] Justo González, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 2, From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation, revised edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), 201.

[5] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 4, Medieval Christianity, A.D. 590-1073 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 405, 626.

[6] Robert John Shedlock, “The Iconoclastic Edict of the Emperor Leo III, 726 A.D” (master’s thesis, University of Massachusetts Amherst, 1968). 

[7] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1979), 44.

[8] John used the Greek terms latreia for the higher form of worship and proskynesis for the lower form of veneration. This translated into the Latin terms latria and dulia, which Roman Catholic theologians used during the scholastic era. See Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, s.v. “Latria” (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985).

[9] This was one part of a three-part series John entitled Fountain of Knowledge.