The Last Church Father: 7 Things to Know and Share

It is customary to regard the age of the Church Fathers as ending in the East with the life of St. John of Damascus, who died around A.D. 749.

(photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Dec. 4 we celebrate St. John of Damascus.

He was a priest, a religious, and he is a doctor of the Church.

He’s also the last Church Father.

Here are 7 things to know and share...


1) Why is he the last of the Church Fathers?

We need to divide history into different periods. The age of the Church Fathers was not the same as the ages that came before it or the ages that followed it.

But to do this, we have to divide history at somewhat arbitrary points.

Thus, it is customary to regard the age of the Church Fathers as ending in the East with the life of St. John of Damascus (also known as St. John Damascene), who died around A.D. 749.

(In the West, the age of the Church Fathers is commonly reckoned as ending with St. Isidore of Seville, who died in A.D. 636.)


2) Who was St. John of Damascus?

As his name implies, he was born in the city of Damascus, in the modern state of Syria, which is just north of Israel.

It’s the same city that St. Paul was travelling to when he experienced his conversion on “the Damascus Road.” (In fact, it’s quite close by modern standards; Damascus is about 135 miles north of Jerusalem.)

John was born in A.D. 675 or 676, and he lived to around 75 years of age, dying around A.D. 749.

He spent most of his life in the Mar Saba monastery, near Jerusalem.

He is also known by the Greek nickname Chrysorrhoas, which means “Streaming with Gold” or “Gold-Pouring,” indicating the quality of his writings.


3) Why is he significant?

Pope Benedict XVI explained:

Above all he was an eyewitness of the passage from the Greek and Syrian Christian cultures shared by the Eastern part of the Byzantine Empire, to the Islamic culture, which spread through its military conquests in the territory commonly known as the Middle or Near East.


4) What happened in his early life?

Pope Benedict XVI explained:

John, born into a wealthy Christian family, at an early age assumed the role, perhaps already held by his father, of Treasurer of the Caliphate.

Very soon, however, dissatisfied with life at court, he decided on a monastic life, and entered the monastery of Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. This was around the year 700.

He never again left the monastery, but dedicated all his energy to ascesis and literary work, not disdaining a certain amount of pastoral activity, as is shown by his numerous homilies.


5) What theological controversy made him important?

It was the eighth-century controversy over whether images should be venereated—the so-called “iconoclast controversy.”

Pope Benedict XVI explained:

In the East, his best remembered works are the three Discourses against those who calumniate the Holy Images, which were condemned after his death by the iconoclastic Council of Hieria (754).

These discourses, however, were also the fundamental grounds for his rehabilitation and canonization on the part of the Orthodox Fathers summoned to the Council of Nicaea (787), the Seventh Ecumenical Council.

In these texts it is possible to trace the first important theological attempts to legitimize the veneration of sacred images, relating them to the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.


6) How did St. John Damascene contribute to the discussion?

Pope Benedict XVI explained:

John Damascene was also among the first to distinguish, in the cult, both public and private, of the Christians, between worship (latreia), and veneration (proskynesis):

The first can only be offered to God, spiritual above all else, the second, on the other hand, can make use of an image to address the one whom the image represents.

Obviously the Saint can in no way be identified with the material of which the icon is composed.

This distinction was immediately seen to be very important in finding an answer in Christian terms to those who considered universal and eternal the strict Old Testament prohibition against the use of cult images.

This was also a matter of great debate in the Islamic world, which accepts the Jewish tradition of the total exclusion of cult images.

Christians, on the other hand, in this context, have discussed the problem and found a justification for the veneration of images.


7) What did St. John Damascene write about this?

As Pope Benedict XVI explained, John Damascene wrote:

In other ages God had not been represented in images, being incorporate and faceless.

But since God has now been seen in the flesh, and lived among men, I represent that part of God which is visible.

I do not venerate matter, but the Creator of matter, who became matter for my sake and deigned to live in matter and bring about my salvation through matter.

I will not cease therefore to venerate that matter through which my salvation was achieved.

But I do not venerate it in absolute terms as God! How could that which, from non-existence, has been given existence, be God?...

But I also venerate and respect all the rest of matter which has brought me salvation, since it is full of energy and Holy graces.

Is not the wood of the Cross, three times blessed, matter?... And the ink, and the most Holy Book of the Gospels, are they not matter? The redeeming altar which dispenses the Bread of life, is it not matter?... And, before all else, are not the flesh and blood of Our Lord matter?

Either we must suppress the sacred nature of all these things, or we must concede to the tradition of the Church the veneration of the images of God and that of the friends of God who are sanctified by the name they bear, and for this reason are possessed by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Do not, therefore, offend matter: it is not contemptible, because nothing that God has made is contemptible [cf. Contra imaginum calumniatores, I, 16, ed. Kotter, pp. 89-90].


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This article originally appeared Dec. 2, 2013, at the Register.