How church history will help you defend the faith
John of Damascus (676-749) is a model for how rich theology fuels Christian evangelism.
The early centuries of the church saw Christianity threatened by a number of theological heresies: Gnosticism, Arianism, and Pelagianism, to name but three. While history never repeats itself exactly, the essence of many of these heresies has reappeared from time to time in the long history of Christianity. For instance, postmodernity’s interest in spirituality, though it rages against Christianity, has numerous similarities to the lengthy battle against Gnosticism that occupied the church during the second and third centuries. Knowledge of the way that Christians in the past defended the faith against Gnosticism would provide helpful ways of responding to postmodern spirituality today.1
Or what about the challenge, one of the greatest of today, posed by Islam’s attack on the Trinity and the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ?2 Broadly speaking, evangelicals are woefully inadequate in their ability to respond to such an attack, for they rarely hear sermons on the Trinity and the incarnation. Here, the Fathers can help us enormously, for in replying to the Arians and then later to the Muslims they hammered out the biblical details of these two key doctrines. Consider the way that the theologian John of Damascus, also known as John Damascene or Yanah ibn Masur, a biblically informed Christian, responded to Islam during the early period of Muslim expansion.3 In a small book defending the faith and worldview of Islam, Rana Kabbani identifies John as “the progenitor of a long tradition of Christian ridicule of Muhammad and the Qur’ãn.”4 John does use some strong language about Islam, but it is clear that he has taken the time to understand Islamic views and thinking, and has even read the Qur’an in Arabic.5
John is often described as the last of the church fathers in the East, whose The Fount of Knowledge is the first great systematic theology to appear in the history of the church. He may very well have been an Arab by ethnicity, his family name being Masur, a name common among Syriac Christians of Arab descent.6 His grandfather, Masur ibn Sargun, played a key role in the surrender of Damascus to the Muslim army of Khalid ibn al-Walid (d.ca. 641). Early rulers of Syria were tolerant of the presence of Christians, and John’s grandfather became a key administrator in the Muslim government of the region. John’s father, Ibn Mansur, was known as an extremely devout Christian but also one of the most trusted officials in the Muslim regime. John succeeded his father as a key advisor to the Muslim ruler, Caliph Abd al-Malik (r. 685–705). After a long life of service in the public realm John left his public position in the early part of the eighth century in order to embrace a monastic lifestyle in a monastery near Jerusalem. John was a prolific writer, and among his writings there are two that address Islam: On Heresies 101, a lengthy section of a work that catalogs various heresies afflicting the church;7 and A Dialogue Between a Saracen and a Christian.8 Let us look briefly at the first of these works, On Heresies 101.
The text begins by defining Islam as the “still-prevailing superstition of the Ishmaelites that deceives people” and “the forerunner of the Antichrist.” By describing Islam as “still-prevailing” John indicates the political dominance of Islam in his area of the world. However, he critiques it as a deceptive error and identifies it with the Antichrist, an identification that has long prevailed among Christian authors.
History gives context
John then locates Muhammad historically and identifies some of his key theological teachings. Muhammad asserts, in John’s words, that
there is one God, the Maker of all things, neither having been begotten nor having begotten. He says Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, only a creation and servant, and that he was born without seed from Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron. For he says the Word of God and the Spirit went into Mary and she bore Jesus who was a prophet and servant of God. And that the Jews, acting against the law, wanted to crucify him and having seized (him), they crucified his shadow. For Christ himself, they say, was not crucified nor did he die, for God took him to himself into heaven because he loved him.9
John here accurately relates the teaching of Islam that Christ was not crucified, but that “God raised him up to himself,” which is actually an assertion inherited from Gnosticism!10 Obviously this assertion strikes at the heart of biblical Christianity, in which the death of Christ for sinners is absolutely central. If Christ did not die for our sins, human sin is unatoned for, there is no salvation, and obviously Christ has not been raised from the dead, nor will there be resurrection of all who believe in him. The Islamic teaching summarized by John also flies in the face of historical reality, for no serious historian doubts the reality of the crucifixion, whatever he might think of the Christian faith.11
John then goes on to deal with the Muslim critique of the Trinity.
And they call us Associaters, because, they say, we introduce an associate to God by saying Christ is the Son of God and God. To whom we say that this is what the Prophets and Scripture have handed down. And you, as you insist, accept the Prophets. If, therefore, we are wrong saying Christ is the Son of God, they also are who taught and handed it down to us.12
Here John wrestles with the other key issue that Islam has with Christianity, namely its Trinitarianism. In some areas that had been Christian, Islam had an aesthetic appeal, namely, its utter simplicity as a monotheistic faith—God is one, and there is none other who is God—as opposed to Christianity with its complex theology with regard to the Trinity and the incarnation.13 But as John rightly points out, Christian affirmation of the deity of Christ—and by extension the deity of the Holy Spirit—is found in the Scriptures. Christians are Trinitarian because the New Testament is Trinitarian. They therefore must seek to have some understanding of these truths, even though ultimately they escape human ability to fully comprehend.
John is clearly responding here to the declaration in the Qur’an that says:
People of the Book, do not go to excess in your religion, and do not say anything about God except the truth: the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, was nothing more than a messenger of God, His word, conveyed to Mary, a spirit from Him. So believe in God and His messengers and do not speak of a “Trinity”—stop [this], that is better for you—God is only one God, He is far above having a son.15
We see here something of the fierce monotheism of Islam. John’s response must ultimately be our response: But what does the New Testament claim and what does our Lord Jesus say of himself? Difficult to comprehend though the doctrine of the Trinity is, it is biblical truth and we need to know how to proclaim it.
In another text in which John of Damascus explicates the heart of the Christian faith, The Orthodox Faith, he says the following about the redemption that Christ has brought, and although he does not mention Islam explicitly, a clear contrast is being made between the two faiths:
Since the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, altars and temples of idols have been overthrown. Knowledge of God has been implanted. The consubstantial Trinity, the uncreated Godhead is worshipped, one true God, Creator and Lord of all. Virtue is practiced. Hope of the resurrection has been granted through the resurrection of Christ. The demons tremble at the men who were formerly in their power. Yes, and most wonderful of all is that all these things were successfully brought about through a cross and suffering and death. The Gospel of the knowledge of God has been preached to the whole world and has put the adversaries to flight not by war and arms and camps. Rather, it was a few unarmed, poor, unlettered, persecuted, tormented, done-to-death men, who, by preaching One who had died crucified in the flesh, prevailed over the wise and powerful, because the almighty power of the Crucified was with them. That death which was once so terrible has been defeated and He who was once despised and hated is now preferred before life. These are the successes consequent upon the advent of the Christ; these are the signs of His power.
O Christ, O wisdom and power and Word of God, and God almighty! What should we resourceless people give You in return for all things? For all things are Yours and You ask nothing of us but that we be saved. [And] even this You have given us, and by Your ineffable goodness You are gracious to those who accept it.16
- A good example in this regard is a DMin thesis by Rev. M.Todd Wilson of Munford, Tennessee, that I am currently supervising, “Back to the Future: Irenaeus as a Pastoral-Preaching Model for Answering Encroaching Neo-paganism in the Contemporary Evangelical Church” (DMin thesis, Knox Theological Seminary, forthcoming).
- For this point, I am indebted to a conversation with a close friend and my one-time student, Scott Dyer of Burlington, Ontario, July 2010.
- For the life and thought of John of Damascus, see the definitive study by Andrew Louth, St. John Damascene: Tradition and Originality in Byzantine Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For brief sketches, see also Thomas FitzGerald, “John of Damascus,” in The Encyclopedia of Christianity, ed. Erwin Fahlbusch et al., trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003), 3:70–71; Bonifatius Kotter, “Johannes von Damaskus,” in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, ed. Gerhard Müller (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1988), 17:127–32. An English version of his writings is available in Frederic H. Chase Jr., Saint John of Damascus: Writings, The Fathers of the Church 37 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1989).
- Letter to Christendom (London: Virago, 1989), 4.
- See Daniel J. Sahas, John of Damascus on Islam: The “Heresy of the Ishmaelites” (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972), passim; Louth, St. John Damascene, 76–83.
- Sahas, *John of Damascus on Islam*, 7.
- For translations, see Chase, Saint John of Damascus, 153–60; Sahas, *John of Damascus on Islam*, 133–41; and Kevin P. Edgecomb, “St. John of Damascus on Islam,” *Biblicalia*, accessed September 7, 2007, http:// www.bombaxo.com/blog/?p=210.
- For translations, see John W. Voorhis, “The Discussion of a Christian and a Saracen. By John of Damascus,” *The Moslem World* 25 (1935): 266–73; Sahas, *John of Damascus* on Islam, 143–55.
- Edgecomb, “St. John of Damascus on Islam.”
- Qur’an 4.157–58. Yet, there are two other texts, Qur’an 3.54–55 and 19.29–34, that imply that Christ died.
- F. P. Cotterell, “The Christology of Islam,” in *Christ the Lord*, ed. Harold H. Rowdon (Leicester: InterVarsity, 1982), 290–95, passim; Geoffrey Parrinder, *Jesus in the Qur’ãn* (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965), 116.
- Edgecomb, “St. John of Damascus on Islam.”
- he simplicity of Islam as opposed to Christianity’s complexity is well seen in the architectural differences between churches from this era and mosques. The great church of S. Apollinaire that was built in the 530s near Ravenna in northern Italy, for example, is richly decorated with highly ornate mosaics designed to impress the observer and convince him or her that Christianity is a faith marked by “royal splendour.” By contrast, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built after the conquest of Visigothic Spain in the first two decades of the eighth century, is devoid of any images and extremely simple in design and ornamentation. This simplicity in architectural design matched the simplicity of Islamic theology and proved to be attractive to some. See Yoram Tsafrir, “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land,”* Biblical Archaeology Review* 19, no. 5 (October 1993): 30; Robert Milburn, *Early Christian Art and Architecture* (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1988), 173.
- The simplicity of Islam as opposed to Christianity’s complexity is well seen in the architectural differences between churches from this era and mosques. The great church of S. Apollinaire that was built in the 530s near Ravenna in northern Italy, for example, is richly decorated with highly ornate mosaics designed to impress the observer and convince him or her that Christianity is a faith marked by “royal splendour.” By contrast, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, built after the conquest of Visigothic Spain in the first two decades of the eighth century, is devoid of any images and extremely simple in design and ornamentation. This simplicity in architectural design matched the simplicity of Islamic theology and proved to be attractive to some. See Yoram Tsafrir, “Ancient Churches in the Holy Land,”* Biblical Archaeology Review* 19, no. 5 (October 1993): 30; Robert Milburn, *Early Christian Art and Architecture* (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1988), 173.
- Qur’an 4.171. See also Qur’an 5.72–73 and 5.116–17, which include Mary in the Trinity.
- An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith* 4.4, in Chase, *Saint John of Damascus*, 338–39, altered.