John of Damascus, Treatises on the Divine Images
Discussion Guide

From my lips in their defilement,
From my heart in its beguilement,
From my tongue which speaks not fair,
From my soul stained everywhere,
O my Jesus, take my prayer!
Spurn me not for all it says,
Not for words and not for ways,
Not for shamelessness endued!
Make me brave to speak my mood,
O my Jesus, as I would!
Or teach me, which I rather seek,
What to do and what to speak.
--from John of Damascus, Anacreontic Hymn

Treatise 1

  1. What are John's motivations for writing? How does he describe the state of the Church?

  2. How does he purify his motives through prayer?

  3. How does he answer the charges of the iconoclastic position based on the Old Testament? Do you find his exegesis convincing? Why or why not?

  4. How does he distinguish veneration for worship and veneration for honor?

  5. Why does he take the time to distinguish various kinds of images? (sec. 9-13)

  6. How does John conceive of matter's role in salvation?

  7. Why is the hypostatic union of Christ central to his argument?

  8. How does he defend images of the saints?

  9. What theology undergirds this defense? (cf. sec. 21)

  10. What are some of the more important commentaries he makes on the florilegia following section 23?

  11. According to John, why are the body and the senses important to receiving grace?

  12. How does he refute the emperor's involvement with the controversy? (sec. 66)

John of Damascus' Morphology of Images

  1. The Son as the Cosubstantial Image of the Father

  2. The Eternal Archetypes in the Mind of God

  3. Visible Symbols of Invisible Things (Creation), including Scripture

  4. Typological Images of What Are to Come

  5. Words and Images of Past Things to Be Remembered (e.g. Icons)

  6. Human Beings as the Images of God

Exploratory Questions

  • Do visual images have a role in public worship?

  • Do they have a role in private prayer?

  • Can one make a picture of God? of Christ? of the Trinity?

  • Can one venerate an object, picture, or person without the worship reserved for God? Explain.

  • What should our attitude be toward the saints who have gone before us?

  • How important is the body to Christian spirituality?

  • How important is it to Christian salvation?

  • What is the relationship between Christian tradition and belief?

  • If you were going to develop a theology of the arts, what elements would need to be included?

Treatise 3 (sec. 1-41) Assignment

For next class, you will be assigned a debating team. One group will defend the proposition, "John of Damascus offers a biblically and theologically convincing defense of icons." The other group will call this proposition into question. You should muster your evidence in the following manner:

  • Locate important passages in treatise 1 and treatise 3.1-41. (You may also draw from treatise 2 or from 3.42ff., though it is not required.)

  • Draw from the insights of others as discussed in the "Early Christian Theology and the Iconoclastic Controversy" handout.

  • Your own biblical exegesis and theological tradition or other traditions as you see fit.

  • You should attempt to anticipate the other side's claims and evidence and be prepared to answer them.

Keep in mind that you may have to defend a position for the debate that you don't entirely agree with. Treat it as a learning exercise. At the end, we will drop the positions and share as to what we each find most convincing.


"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding