John Chrysostom (1)

Having posted several articles on ancient church heresies, this post begins a short series on ancient church fathers. Again and again, God raised up men of extraordinary faith and ability to preserve His church.

The days in which John Chrysostom lived were not unlike our own. Within the church, superficiality and worldliness abounded.[1] Outside the church, an ungodly, post-Christian society sought progressively to control the church’s message and members.[2] Politically, the future was uncertain; social unrest and the threat of apocalyptic-type destruction loomed over an empire in decline: In A.D. 407, the year Chrysostom died, Roman military forces were forced to make a humiliating withdrawal from the British Isles in order to protect the homeland. Just three years later, a rising power in the west—the Visigoths—invaded Rome, sacking the city.[3] In this setting, a setting like our own, God was please to raised up Chrysostom. We benefit from examining his life, work, and significance.

Chrysostom was born in Antioch to a pagan man named Secundus and a Christian woman named Anthusa.[4]  Most date his birth at A.D. 347.[5] As a young man, Chrysostom studied law under a pagan sophist named Libanius. This seems to have been a fairly prestigious education; Libanius was a popular instructor, a friend to Emperor Julian “the Apostate,” and also teacher of Basil the Great.[6]  Sometime after completing his studies with Libanius, Chrysostom remembered his mother’s pious instruction, was converted, and was baptized.[7] During this time he studied the faith under a man named Diodorus. Diodorus was the head of a monastery at Antioch and a strong defender of the Nicene faith.[8]

After spending six years as a hermit outside Antioch (an experience that did lasting harm to his health), Chrysostom returned to the city and completed a course of training that would eventually see him appointed chief preacher of Antioch in A.D. 386.[9] In this position, Chrysostom’s “golden tongue” shone. He preached in Antioch for twelve years. His efficacy as a preacher was such that at one point Chrysostom was able to discourage a city uprising with a sermon series entitled “On the Statutes.” This saved the city from retributive destruction by the forces of emperor Theodosius.[10]

In A.D. 397, one decade before his death, Chrysostom was appointed to be the archbishop of Constantinople. At Constantinople, Chrysostom “proved to be a strict disciplinarian, and won the dislike of many of his clergy.”[11] Rigid in his practical admonition, Chrysostom nonetheless preached grace. “On the cross,” he said, Christ gave more than His people owed, “by so much more as the measureless expanse of sea exceeds in size the small drop of water.”[12] Its theological shortcomings aside, this short quotation gives a flavor of Chrysostom’s evocative preaching that warmed the hearts of many of his congregants.

His preaching also warmed blood. Concerning the Empress Eudoxia, an enemy of the church, Chrysostom proclaimed: “Again Herodias rages; again she is confounded; again she dances; again she demands the head of John on a charger.”[13] Such preaching moved the Empress to conspire with a certain Bishop Theophilus to call a synod and condemn and exile Chrysostom. During two of his exiles, Chrysostom still was able to edify God’s people back home by means of over two-hundred letters.[14] In A.D. 407, en route to the location of his third exile, Chrysostom died in a region in Pontus called Comana[15]

Chrysostom’s work consists mostly of letters, homilies, and treatises. Milton Terry relates that Chrysostom wrote more than six-hundred homilies on the Scriptures.[16] As has been noted, many of his letters were written from exile. They contain advice and encouragement. Among the most significant of these letters include Chrysostom’s “Advice to a Young Widow,” “Four Letters to Olympias” (Olympias was a young deaconess who regarded Chrysostom as a father-figure. She was the heiress to a large fortune, and rebuffed a marriage prospect from the Emperor himself. Needless to say, Chrysostom’s correspondence with her makes for interesting reading), and epistles to priests and to the Pope. Chrysostom’s treatises reflect Chrysostom’s personal care for church order, and treat such topics as the priesthood, monasticism, instructions to catechumens, and discipline. The many homilies of Chrysostom are valuable in the content they impart, including beautiful prayers and moving exhortations, but more than this, they are valuable in the hermeneutical method that they evidence. To this end, he utilized a biblical exegesis that Milton Terry calls, “a prudent method of interpretation, on logical and grammatical principles.” This, contents Terry, “kept him in the right track in deriving the spirit from the letter of the sacred volume.”[17] This in a day when the Alexandrian school’s allegorical hermeneutic was popular.

[1] Augustus Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church. vol 3, trans. Joseph Torrey (London: Hamilton; Adams, and Co, 1848), 373.

[2] Frederick Bruce, The Spreading Flame; The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1970), 330.

[3] Gerard Ettlinger, “Christian History Timeline: John Chrysostom” Christian History Institute, n.d.,

[4] Herman Hanko, “John Chrysostom” in Portraits of Faithful Saints. (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association. 1999), 34-39.

[5] This date, as well as many of Chrysostom’s other early dates, are “highly disputed.” More recent scholarship dates Chrysostom’s birth at A.D. 349. Gerard Ettlinger, “Christian History Timeline”.

[6] Elgin Moyer, Who Was Who in Church History (Chicago: Moody Press. 1968), 248.

[7] Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 3, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity from Constantine the Great to Gregory the Great (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 934.

[8] Moyer, Who Was Who, 89.

[9] Schaff, History of the Church, 935. In the fourth book of his Institutes, Calvin outlines the series of church functions that Chrysostom may have fulfilled before being considered for higher office. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972), 4.4.9; 2:333.

[10] Hanko, Portraits, 37.

[11] Bruce, The Spreading Flame, 329.

[12] Quoted in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ. trans. John Vriend, ed. Jon Bolt (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 401.

[13] Bruce, The Spreading Flame, 330.

[14] Hanko, Portraits, 38-39.

[15] Moyer, Who Was Who, 90.

[16] Milton Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics; A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1890), 39

[17] Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 39.

By Aaron Van Dyke

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