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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 286-288
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St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology. By Andrew Louth. [Oxford Early Christian Studies.] (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002. Pp. xvii, 327. £45.)
This book reminds me of the merchant finding a pearl of great price, and selling everything to possess it. For many years, Professor Louth has dedicated all his spare time and energy to discovering the spirit—the mind and heart, as well as the teaching—of John Damascene. However, unlike the merchant, he has generously placed at the disposal of others this extraordinary "pearl" of Byzantine theology. John is an unusual theologian: clearly very intelligent and well read in his great predecessors, especially the Cappadocians, Ps.-Denys, and Maximus the Confessor. However, he saw his theological work to be mainly that of a transmitter. The role of the speculative theologian, or at least that of the discoverer of new relationships, was not for him. Instead, he tried to be scrupulously careful in exposing the explanation of dogmatic truth that he found in the Fathers. This required sensitivity and firm good sense as he picked his way through the quicksands of both Trinitarian and Christological contoversy.
Professor Louth, in one of his best chapters, identifies him as a Chalcedonian, insisting on the two natures, but leaning over backwards to satisfy those devoted to Cyril's formula: "one incarnate nature of God the Word." So John was clearly a Neo-Chalcedonian (or Cyrilline Chalcedonian). This leads, Professor Louth points out (e.g. pp. 162, 175), to a notable "asymmetry" in the role of the two natures: the divine nature "does not partake of the passions of the flesh," and while the "nature of the flesh" is "deified," the "nature of the Word" is not "incarnate" (quoting John himself). It is difficult to reconcile this with the Chalcedonian definition with its emphasis on the symmetry between divinity and humanity. But Professor Louth is ready to acknowledge other weaknesses in John's approach, such as his "shrilly supersessionist account of the superiority of Christians over idolatrous Jews" (p. 203, and for other points see pp. 166, 170-171, 177). In this way he can give a very balanced account of John the theologian. [End Page 286]
The key to interpreting John is to be found (suggests Professor Louth) in his monastic vocation. Where his personal character emerges is in his sermons, with their almost baroque accumulation of rhetorical imagery (very well presented in a chapter on John the Preacher), and above all in his liturgical hymns, the "canons" as the Greeks call them, which are interspersed in the singing of the divine Office, coming between the biblical canticles. Here also John is drawing on tradition, linking phrases taken from earlier authors (many of which have been identified by the learned Nikodimos, active on Mount Athos in the early nineteenth century). This same devotion to the living reality of God, the Word Incarnate, and the Virgin Mary, probably provided the motive force for the compilation of the dogmatic and polemical works (p. 144). For Professor Louth the structure of John's main work based on the "century"—one hundred chapters—indicates a monastic mould (and indeed many Byzantine spiritual writings take the form of a hundred chapters or aphorisms). He claims that John has to be seen in this context:
This, I think, is worth noting: John's The Fountain Head of Knowledge is not really a proto-scholastic summary, as it is often taken to be; rather, it is concerned with shaping and moulding the monastic vocation of its readers, or, more widely, with defining what it is to be a Christian, understood less as a set of beliefs (despite the high doctrinal content) than as a way of life. (p. 37)
This is an attractive thesis, argued with extraordinary lucidity and an impressive grasp of the relevant primary and secondary literature. If one hesitates to accept it, the reason lies in the tantalizing lack of hard-and-fast information about John himself. Professor Louth rightly points...