The Lutheran tradition, like most Christian traditions, not only takes artistic images of God for granted, but celebrates religious artwork, as well as the artists who use their talents to God's glory and for the inspiration and edification of others.
This was not always the case in Christendom. In the early church, a controversy arose between Christians who believed as we do about images of the Divine and those who felt that artistic renderings of God were a violation of the Old Testament injunction against "graven images." At times this disagreement became so intense that violence broke out between the two factions.
Into the fray stepped John of Damascus. John was born in 676 in Damascus, the son of a Christian official from the influential Mansour family who worked for the Muslim caliph Abdul Malek.
This was a time when the worlds of Islam -- then a relatively new religion -- and of the older Greek culture of the area overlapped and intermingled. The young John received a comprehensive education that included the best scholarship of both cultures.
One of John's tutors was a monk named Cosmo, who had been captured by Arabs and sold into slavery, whom John's father bought for a high price because of his educational background.
Thanks to Cosmo's and others' tutelage, John excelled at a variety of studies, especially arithmetic and geometry, and he eventually succeeded his father at the caliph's court. But at some point John felt a call to Christianity and the monastic life.
John decided to address the dispute between the Iconoclasts -- people who objected to sacred images, so-called because they would attack and destroy such artworks -- and the Iconodules, who believed that sacred art was beneficial to the spiritual lives of the faithful.
John's work Apologetic Treatises against Those Decrying the Holy Images persuasively argued that, just as the gospel had changed the nature of the Sabbath, the Incarnation changed the nature of the commandment against the creation of "graven images." He argued that the act of God becoming an intimate part of the material world and the human story by extension hallowed artistic expressions of the Divine, making them suitable vehicles for glorifying God.
John's arguments were persuasive, so much so that they helped church leaders end the controversy by declaring sacred images an acceptable form of artwork, despite Leo III, the holy Roman emperor, being on the side of the Iconoclasts.
After incurring the displeasure of both the emperor and the caliph, John retreated to a monastery near Jerusalem, where he spent the rest of his life.
John was also known for his work The Fount of Knowledge, a summary of Christian doctrine as set forth by the early church fathers. He was also a prolific hymn-writer, many of which are still sung in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Easter hymn "Come Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain" is also sung in the West.
Originally posted Nov. 27, 2010, at Hope in Rhodes. Republished with permission of the author. Find a link to Ellen Polzien’s entry on Hope in Rhodes at Lutheran Blogs.