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The Services of St. John of Damascus: Textbooks in Theology
by Rdr. (now priest) Michael A. van Opstall

This paper was submitted during the Spring '06 semester as a class assignment for course “106 — Survey of the Fathers”. Reader (now priest) Michael A. van Opstall is a professor of Mathmematics at the University of Utah.

In the Orthodox Church, three of the Holy Fathers bear the title “theologian”. The lofty character of the Gospel of St. John suffices to confer this title upon the beloved apostle. St. Gregory of Nazianz gave five orations in defense of the Trinity to earn his title (Payne, 186); it is also worth noting that he fought against the last assaults of the Arians, defended the Holy Spirit at the Second Council, and that his writings anticipate the Christological controversies of the fifth century. Finally, St. Symeon the New is a theologian as defined in the immortal words of St. Evagrius the Solitary: “He who is a theologian prays truly, and he who prays truly is a theologian.”

However, it is none of these three who produced the first “systematic theology [1]” of the East (indeed, of the whole Christian world [2]). Payne compares St. John of Damascus’ De Fide Orthodoxa to Thomas Aquinas’ later Summa Theologica (p. 258). However, St. John is not responsible for a single “summa”, but several: the divine services written by this saint constitute a hefty textbook in theology aimed at Orthodox believers, and not necessarily for scholarly consumption. The Octoechos encompasses the whole of Orthodox theology, without the weighty “proofs” of De Fide. No matter how focused we make our microscope, the smallest parts of St. John’s services contain wholes: almost any Resurrection canon, for its brevity, could easily form the basis of catechetical lectures. St. John, however, was more than a compiler: he also actively took part in the defense of Orthodoxy against the iconoclasts - no small effort. We find in the acts of the first session of the Seventh Ecumenical Council these words: “Woe to the iconoclasts! It is the worst of heresies, as it subverts the economy [3] of our Savior.”

The theological contributions of St. John indeed inspired the author of the service to this saint to write: “What shall we call thee, O saint? John the Theologian?” [4]

Philosophical and Scientific Content of De Fide

The Orthodox Church does not reserve theology for scholarly theologians, but rather lays bare all of its “secrets” to believers at every divine service. However, the intended audience of De Fide was possibly wider, and there are some points covered therein which are not repeated in services.

First of all, there are philosophical proofs. St. John himself notes that such proofs are not required for believers (Book I [5], Chapter III), which shows that the intended audience of De Fide was indeed larger than that of, say, the Octoechos. However, these proofs are limited to the opening chapters of Book I. By Book III, St. John assumes either that the reader is convinced that truth is to be found in his work, or cannot be convinced by reasoned proofs. The first proofs are those of the existence and uniqueness of God. St. John gives three proofs of the existence of God, none too convincing by modern philosophical standards. The first is that those things that are uncreated are immutable (and such things must exist: created things cannot exist without a creator), and then that the only thing that could be immutable is God. The second proof and third are similar, boiling down to the question: how can nature exist without the ordering of a God? This is a good visceral argument, but would certainly not be convincing to students of modern day science. Today we are taught in schools how order arose from disorder, and how order prevails in nature. However, explaining a mechanism never sufficiently explains what set it into force [6], which is perhaps as academically unsatisfying as proofs of God’s existence. The proof of the uniqueness of God, however, is standard, and convincing. If two omnipotent beings existed, they could interfere with each other, contradicting their omnipotence [7]. The other proofs concern the existence of the Logos of God and the Holy Spirit. It is sufficient to note that these proofs are reasoned (using the full meaning of logos to this end), and not based on Scripture. Therefore, they are not particularly intended for the Christian readership.

The second book contains more material that is not appropriate for divine service. St. John, in discussing creation, offers a short textbook on the science of the day. It is filled with scientific errors (Earth’s moon is numbered among the planets, for example), but is no worse than any other astronomical text of the time. Modern attempts to harmonize the “big bang” theory or various theories of evolution with Christianity, whatever their current worth, will certainly not bear the test of time any better than St. John’s writings, or indeed, than the theories they discuss – even if the premises remain, the present treatments will seem anachronistic.

St. John seems obsessed with enumeration. This same “obsession” is seen frequently in the spiritual writers of the time, for example, in the Philokalia. He lists the elements, planets, winds, races, seas, senses, pains, fears, etc (Book I, Chapter VIII, IX, XIV, XV). We must not see in this a tendency towards excessive scholasticism, or an attempt to compartmentalize everything; rather, this is probably another attempt to give credibility to the faith for non-believers. By carefully enumerating the objects of science and philosophy, St. John shows first that he is no simpleton, and conversant with the knowledge of the day. Secondly, St. John shows that Christians do not reject the science of the time, but rather understand that it is compatible with their beliefs.

The third and fourth books begin to sound a lot more familiar to the churchgoer. This is truly territory for the believer: here the heresies that have threatened the Church are attacked one by one. That makes this an appropriate point to discuss these teachings in the light of St. John’s written services. Before moving on to this, there are some parts of De Fide which lie in a sort of middle ground, apologetically. They also find no real expression in services. These are the answers of St. John to what C.S. Lewis calls “the problem of pain”: how can we resolve the love of God with the suffering that men endure. Further, is it possible that some of God’s creation will perish eternally with God’s foreknowledge? The second question is answered in the affirmative by the Fifth Ecumenical Council in condemning the views of Origen on universal salvation (also present in the writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa), and in Book IV, Chapter XXI of De Fide. St. John’s answer to all of these problems is the teaching of the Church on free will, which is a necessary part of man, if man is to be made in the image of God. This teaching is amplified in his texts on predestination (Book II, Chapters XXIV-XXX). A final set of teachings not repeated in services anticipate Protestant objections to Orthodox theology: he defends the Church’s sacraments (Book IV, Chapter XII), the ever-virginity of the Theotokos (Book IV, Chapter XIV), veneration of the saints and their relics (Book IV, Chapter XV), iconoclasm (Book IV, Chapter XVI), and the permissibility of sources other than Scripture for the Christian Faith (Book IV, Chapter XVII). These are followed by more chapters on free will. It is somewhat remarkable that Protestant objections are addressed in one section of this work, all in order, hundreds of years before Protestantism arose.

Content and structure of St. John’s services

The number of St. John’s theological works is far surpassed by his output in divine services. Since I have restricted my attention to St. John’sDe Fide among the former works, I will mostly restrict attention to his Octoechos for texts from services.

First, note that the Octoechos is not completely the work of St. John. The weekday services are largely the work of others, and many of the sticheria for Sunday services belong to others (for example, the “Anatolian” sticheria of Patriarch Anatolios, the canons to the Trinity at the Midnight Office, and the Exapostilaria (Gumilevsky, 215)). I will restrict attention even further, to the dogmatic theotokia, the canons at matins, and the Hymns of Ascent. It is worth noting that St. John composed canons for all of the Great Feasts of the Lord except Palm Sunday and the Meeting in the Temple [8] (including canons for Pascha and Thomas Sunday), as well as canons for all Feasts of the Theotokos except for the Presentation in the Temple (and for the above-mention Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, a mixed feast). A further list of canons written by St. John can be found in Gumilevsky (pp. 204-206).

Sergei Borzetsovsky has written a book of over a hundred pages explaining the eight dogmatic theotokia; the texts of the theotokia themselves fit on two pages. Obviously the dogmatic theotokia all cover the theology of the incarnation. The third, fifth and sixth also stress the coeternity of Christ with the Father; the first and seventh mention the omnipotence of God. As these verses are written to the Theotokos, they do not touch much on the Trinity, especially the Holy Spirit. The sixth and eighth, however, do strictly mention that Christ is divided in natures, but not persons, which points towards the division of the Trinity into three persons with a common essence. The distinction between person and essence, mostly considered by scholastics as part of philosophy, is here part of a hymn for everyone, not just students of Aristotle.

The Resurrection canons are all gems of theology. One may argue that De Fide is much shorter than the entire body of services composed by St. John. But let us make a comparison: I have on my right three standard twentieth-century textbooks in theology are each around three hundred pages long (Fr. Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, Archmandrite Alepy’s (Kastal’sky-Borozdin) and Archmandrite Isaiah’s (Belov) Dogmaticheskoe Bogoslovie, and Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church). On my left is Gumilevsky’s book opened to page 234, where the Resurrection Canon in the seventh tone is presented in four pages, without explanation, as a treasury of Orthodox dogma. Let me examine this canon. This exercise can be carried out on the canon of any tone.

It goes without saying that the canon amply covers the Resurrection and its restoration of human nature (nowadays recapitulated outside the Church among Protestants as the Christus Victor theory – which is more or less standard Orthodox theology of the Resurrection). Which other teachings of the Church are found here? Where are these teachings found in De Fide? God is one in Trinity (Ode 9, triadicon; Bk, I, Ch. V, VIII). God is the creator (Ode 4, second troparion; Bk. II, Ch. II). The persons of the Trinity cooperate in creation (Ode 3, irmos; Bk. II, Ch. II). Christ is one person in two natures (Ode 9, first troparion; Bk. III, Ch. III). Christ is truly God (Ode 5, irmos; Ode 8, first troparion; Bk. III, Ch. III-VII). Christ is truly man (Ode 6, theotokion; Bk. III, Ch. III-VII). Christ’s divine nature did not suffer (Ode 9, first troparion; Bk. III, Ch. VI). The Virgin Mary is truly the Mother of God (Odes 4, 5, 7, theotokia; Bk. III, Ch. XII). Mankind is endowed with free will (Ode 5, first troparion; Ode 7, first troparion; Bk. II, Ch. XV). Man bears the marks of ancestral sin (Ode 3, second troparion; Bk. II, Ch. XXVIII). Christ’s renewal of our nature is expressed quite “theologically” in Ode 8: “Our flesh, which the Savior took on, was not incorruptible before sufferings, but after sufferings and the Resurrection it has become untouchable by corruption”. Combining the words of the first troparion of Ode 3, “Thou didst go up of Thine own will on the Cross”, with the assertion of the first troparion of Ode 9 that Christ’s divinity did not suffer, one can conclude the teaching on the two wills of Christ directed against monothelitism (Bk. III, Ch. XIV of De Fide).

If the dogmatic theotokia and the Resurrection canons leave something to be desired in the theology of the Holy Spirit, the Hymns of Ascent make up this gap. The phrases following “Glory…” all mention the Holy Spirit and express all theology regarding this person of the Trinity: the Spirit is coeternal and consubstantial with the Father and the Son; He is therefore equal in honor. Furthermore, it is the action of the Spirit that is the source of all good works in the saints. Indeed, even De Fide gives very little treatment to the Spirit – focusing on the Christological controversies probably more relevant against the backdrop of the iconoclasm of the time.

Various Other Parallels

A few notes will be made here in closing. The aspects of God’s nature (mostly a list of what God is not) given in Book I, Chapter XIV of De Fide are familiar to anyone who attends services where St. John’s canons are read. But here, as already mentioned, the canons distill the substance which is most useful to the Christian soul. Such parallels are incredibly numerous, and topics are covered in multiple services, as well as in various chapters of De Fide.

Book II Chapter III discusses angels. Gumilevsky notes that the troparion to angels is attributed to St. John (p. 209). Again, the treatment of angels in De Fide is authoritative, and satisfying from a metaphysical standpoint: angels are created, immortal, endowed with free will, but incapable of repentance due to their lack of a body. Only the lack of a body enters into the troparion, probably to emphasize that this lack of a body helps angels aid men. Similarly, Book IV, Chapter XXIV is a defense of virginity, which calls forth the examples of the prophets, among them Elias and Elisha, to whom St. John also wrote canons, not forgetting this labor of theirs. From the canon to St. Elisha: “Thou wast seen, O glorious one, adorned with virginity, shining like a beacon to those in the darkness of deception” (Ode 4, third troparion).

As an explicit example explaining the two wills of Christ, St. John writes Book III, Chapter XXIV. This chapter is summed up in a single line in the Resurrection canon of the fifth tone: “ Thou didst pray that the cup of Thy saving Passion might pass as if it were not willed; for Thou bearest two wills, O Christ, corresponding to Thy two natures unto the ages.” (Ode 8, first troparion).

A final reference: Book IV, Chapter IX on Baptism is supplanted in St. John’s hymnography by the succinct and beautiful triadicon of the Paschal Canon: “ Almighty Father, Word and Spirit, one nature united in three Persons, beyond all being and beyond all Godhead, into Thee we have been baptized and we bless Thee to all the ages.”


1. Fr. Georges Florovsky prefers “dogmatic code” (Byz. Fathers VI-VIII, p. 256).

2. St. Theodoret of Cyprus composed a similar document in the fourth century, in the form of a dialogue, but it is not as exhaustive as St. John’s work.

3. The Eerdmans’ edition, following patristic use, translates this as “incarnation”.

4. This verse does not appear to be part of the service in the Slavonic Menaiaon, but Gumilevsky states that it is part of the Greek service (p. 204).

5. The Catholic Encyclopedia argues that the division into books is not due to St. John, but rather a Latin translator.

6. This is beautifully elucidated in F.L. Melnikov’s “Where did faith in God come from?”, included at he end of the English translation of Andreev’s Orthodox Apologetic Theology.

7. Note that this argument is different from the logical fallacy implicit in asking “Can God make a rock so large that he cannot lift it?”. If one treats God as a purely logical concept, allowing a notion of omnipotence which steps outside of the logical framework is absurd.

8. The second canon of Pentecost is attributed to John Arklas, but Gumilevsky states that ancient manuscripts attribute this canon to St. John, noting that Arklas may have been his given name before monasticism (p. 205).


The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume XIV: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

Florovsky, Archpriest Georges. The Byzantine Fathers of the Sixth to Eighth Centuries. Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1987.

Gumilevsky, Archbishop Philaret. Istoricheskij obzor pesnopevtsev i pesnopenija grecheskoj tserkvi (Historical overview of the singers and singing of the Greek

Church). Reprinted edition of the 1902 original. Zagorsk: Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra, 1995.

Payne, Robert. The Holy Fire: the Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957.

Quotations from service books are taken from the standard Slavonic service books and translated by the author.

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