St John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford Early Christian Studies), Oxford University Press, 2004.
In this new book by Dr. Louth there is finally a definitive scholarly work in English on both the life and the works of St. John of Damascus. Dr. Louth’s breadth and depth of learning is evident on every page of this book, and it makes this book an invaluable resource for anyone researching anything relating to St. John of Damascus.
Using an analogy from science, there are books about a scientific theory and there are the theoretical science books. Dr. Louth’s book is the equivalent to the theoretical science book. The prose is very intensive and dense with information, which occasionally gets in the way of proper syntax, which makes the reading comprehension even more difficult.
The book begins with an overview of St. John of Damascus’ life. Dr. Louth carefully shifts through the information available and says exactly what and what he does and does not finds trustworthy, and why. This is a vast improvement over traditional methods of selecting from the available material and then forming a narrative of it without indicating what was taken and what was left out. Dr. Louth’s method also shows exactly where the previous method leaves holes in our understanding of the life of St. John of Damascus and works to provide the clues which give a plausible hypothesis. In the end, what the reader has is the complete narrative of the detective work undertaken by Dr. Louth in reconstructing the life and times of St. John of Damascus, with all its frustrations, intricacies, and confusion clearly laid out. This makes this book an invaluable tool to the young researcher seeking a methodology to form a complete biographical account of any person in late antiquity.
The overview of St. John of Damascus and his life only takes less than one third of the book. Then follows the most extensive section, which is on the theological writings of St. John of Damascus. Each of the major theological works of St. John of Damascus are addressed in turn. The most helpful aspect of Dr. Louth’s treatment of the texts in this section is his focus on the manuscript history and the formation of standardized editions of these texts. Many times students are given the idea that these texts are a standard entity which always existed in the way they are now presented to us in a neat edited format with set chapters and verses. Dr. Louth extensively reviews the various edited texts and analyzes their methodology and gives a judgment on how well they represent the manuscript evidence. In doing this Dr. Louth also examines the relevant literary forms contemporary to St. John of Damascus and uses that to assess the manuscript tradition and determine the likely form of St. John of Damascus’ original text.
In addition, Dr. Louth first discusses each text by showing how St. John of Damascus followed the proper authorship protocol of his day and simply quoted long sections of previous authors. While it is well known that what we today would call plagiarism today was the standard way of writing in late antiquity, many studies of texts ignore this and give interpretations without taking this into account. Dr. Louth extensively notes the places where St. John of Damascus quotes other authors and gives an interpretation based on how St. John of Damascus selects and uses the quoted text.
An extremely helpful part of Dr. Louth’s methodology overall, but most evident in this section, is that when he gives a citation for an original source he also includes the complete bibliographical information on the edition he used and the page number on which it is found. Having had the joy of trying to track down an original quote and run into the problems of different printings with different chapter and section numberings and different translations, only to finally happen upon the exact edition being quoted by chance, Dr. Louth’s preciseness is greatly appreciated. Not only does this greatly assist the reader who wishes to look up the full context of a quote, it also immediately evidences the status of the quote, whether it is being quoted from a Latin, Greek, or German edition, and whether that edition is old or new. This means that those already familiar with the field would immediately be able to recognize the measure of reliability for each quote.
Dr. Louth begins this section by first defining the various terminology used by St. John of Damascus, giving both a historical overview of the particular terminology and then an overview of how the terminology was used contemporary to St. John of Damascus. Especially on the issue of Trinitarian and Christological terminology, and their overlaps, this chapter is very helpful in gaining a clear perspective of St John of Damascus’ theology without forcing him into an anachronistic context. For such a relatively late theologian as St. John of Damascus, this overview is absolutely fundamental.
Then follows the longest chapter in the book “Defining the Faith” in which Dr. Louth treats each and every topic of St. John of Damascus’ writings in turn. Since the chapter is broken up along subject lines instead of by works, it can be a very tiresome and confusing read if one tries to read it straight through. Dr. Louth’s purpose with this method appears to be geared towards the scholar seeking an overview on one area in particular in St. John of Damascus’ writings, say Monophysitism, and be able to find the information all together in a systematic fashion. For this it is indeed very well suited, however, in the table of contents the particular subject headings are not listed down to this level, making the scholar who wishes to find the section on Monophysitism search through the index listing.
In the third and final section of the book Dr. Louth treats one subject which was not included in the previous chapter, iconoclasm, and then St John of Damascus’ homiletical and poetic works. The most intriguing part of Dr. Louth’s overview of St. John of Damascus’ treatises against iconoclasm is the evidence that these works were considered to be rather insignificant until the modern times. Being outside of the Byzantine Empire, St John of Damascus was largely ignored during the iconoclast controversy, and the interest in these works has only grown in the last few centuries as Orthodox have felt the need to defend icons against Protestant accusations.
Also intriguing in this section is the way Dr. Louth draws out the fact that St John of Damascus’ reaction against iconoclasm was simply an extension of anti-heretical writings. Iconoclasm, to St. John of Damascus, was little more than the heresies of Judaizing and Manichaeism gone amok. Seen this way, his anti-iconoclast and his anti-heretical writings suddenly have a lot in common, both in style of composition and form of argument. St. John of Damascus draws on a biblical and dogmatic basis in these works, building his post-Chalcedonian Trinitarian and Christological theology into the anti-iconoclast works quite effectively.
The final chapters on St. John of Damascus’ homilies and poetry are largely fascinating because studies on them are so obscure. Dr. Louth is forced to do some major detective work in the section on the homilies, taking the reader through the scanty evidence clue by clue. Eventually, the reader is given a point by point analysis of two of the major homilies, on the Transfiguration and the Dormition, which includes an overview of the homiletical and exegetical trends of those subjects and how St. John of Damascus interacts with that milieu. On St. John of Damascus’ liturgical poetry Dr. Louth shows how St. John of Damascus fits into the larger development of the Byzantine canon and kontakion structures. Dr. Louth seems to revel in the way St. John of Damascus is able to turn his vast grasp of Orthodox doctrine into clear and beautiful poems that can be sung liturgically.
Dr. Louth ends the book with an epilogue in which he makes a comparison between St. John of Damascus and St. Bede. St. Bede lived and died not far from where Dr. Louth resides and was a contemporary with St. John of Damascus, yet they lived at the extreme opposite sides of the world from each other. This comparison, strange and quaint at first, becomes illuminating when the great similarities are shown, and then the differences in the way these similarities were used by both saints. The comparison shows the relative faults and triumphs of each clearly, though to hold each responsible for this would be anachronistic.
The vast overall learning and knowledge of Dr. Louth is evident on every page of this book, not only in the field of Patristic theology, but also in the fields of manuscript history, liturgics, classical philosophy, early British church history, Byzantine and Russian Church history, and the works of John Donne. In reading it I felt my cognitive abilities being stretched, almost immeasurably at times, but it was well worth it. Reading the book straight through is rather intense, but its various subject areas can very well stand alone in offering a complete study of that area. This book is absolutely invaluable to anyone who wants to know more about St. John of Damascus, his life or any of his works, or about late Byzantine theology or monastic life.