One of the significant challenges that Christianity faced in the later centuries of the Early Church was the rise of Islam. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, his successors built an empire from Medina and Mecca that overshadowed the Middle East and Northern Africa, and the Muslim religion followed on its heels. Many regions that were predominantly Christian were, by the 8th century, ruled by Muslims, and the new religion was spreading.
The theological and cultural clashes were inevitable, and had an enormous impact on the beliefs and cultures of those around them. One example of this can be found in Islamic iconoclasm. Iconoclasm is a word that refers to the rejection (and destruction) of pictures and images. In the religious context, specifically, Muslims rejected all depictions of people – taking a strict interpretation of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) wherein it reads “you shall not make any idol or graven image.” In general, Christians had taken a significantly more lenient interpretation, allowing images of anything that God has visually revealed, including humans, and our Lord Jesus himself. But there were strains of iconoclasm in Christian thought, and the Muslim influence brought that to the fore.
Through much of the 8th century, the Church underwent an “Iconoclast Controversy”. The Byzantine Emperor, the Patriarch of Constantinople, and the Patriarch (Pope) of Rome each played major roles in the course of the debate, and eventually settled in 787 with the Seventh Ecumenical Council, ruling in favor of the use of icons in worship. Not everyone was convinced, naturally, and many of the same arguments replayed in the following century, ultimately coming to the same conclusion. East and West came out with different beliefs and customs and rules regarding icons and images, however, and latent iconoclasm would reappear from time to time throughout history, most noteably among many of the Protestant Reformers. For example, to this day, Calvinism is an iconoclast version of the Christian faith, rejecting the use of all images of Jesus, even for educational purposes. The Anglican tradition was greatly affected by this early in the English Reformation, but iconoclasm did not endure in Anglican thought and practice.
One of the strongest voices on this subject in the 8th century was that of Saint John of Damascus. Living in Syria and near Jerusalem for most of his life, he was well-versed in Muslim thought and culture, even able to read Arabic in addition to Greek and Latin. But as a Christian monk and priest, he was also well-educated in the Christian faith. He wrote treatises against Islam, which are insightful to this day, and he was a major supporter of the use of icons in Christian worship and piety. His voice was among the ascendant party at the seventh ecumenical council.
Far from being a one-trick pony, however, John also wrote about theology, christology, wrote some hymns that still survive in the Byzantine liturgy, and penned what is essentially the first systematic theology text in the Eastern Christian tradition. Thus, when he addressed specific issues like that of icons and iconoclasm, he approached it not only from an exposition of the Decalogue, but also with a mind on the two natures of Christ (divine and human) and the singularity of his person (one Christ). All this has earned him a place of high memory and importance in the Orthodox Church, and the rare title “Doctor of the Church” in Western Catholicism.
Some consider him the “last of the Church Fathers,” as the divergence between the Eastern and Western traditions grew wider over the following centuries. The Seventh Ecumenical Council, indeed, would prove to be the last fully agreed upon by both Constantinople (East) and Rome (West), so Saint John’s work and generation truly were the end of an era. He is commemorated on December 4th.