John Chrysostom (2)

This continues a series on ancient church fathers.

The spirit of the sacred volume moved Chrysostom to influence the church of his day in especially two respects. First, Chrysostom labored for practical reform within the Church.

Neander relates that Chrysostom “was ever pressing this point, that every house should be a church; every father of a family, a shepherd for his household; that he was equally responsible for the welfare of all its members…”[1] Chrysostom denounced the members of his church who came to church in their bodies, but walked away from the preaching as if they had never heard it, people who were more well-versed in the spectator sports of their day than in the Scriptures. He asked: “If a child daily goes to school and yet learns nothing, would their be any excuse for him? —would it not rather to serve to aggravate his fault? Just so it is with us; for we go to the church, not merely for the sake of spending a few moments there, but that we may go away with some great gain in spiritual things. If we depart empty, our very zeal in attending the sanctuary will redound to our condemnation.[2] He urged: “But that this might not be the result, let us, on leaving this place [church], friends with friends, fathers with their children, masters with their servants, exercise ourselves in reducing to practice the lessons we have here learned. This momentary exhortation cannot extirpate every evil; the husband should hear it again at home from his wife, the wife from her husband.”[3] His advice could hang above our sanctuary exits too.

Secondly, Chrysostom labored to condemn the wicked practices of the Empire. Frederick Bruce relates that “[Chrysostom’s] career illustrates the dominion of the Church by the secular power in the eastern empire.” He speaks of “coercive measures” taken against Chrysostom by means of pacts between government officials and false brothers in the clergy.[4] Chrysostom brought the Word to bear both upon these abuses. He was a golden-tongued preacher, but not a double-tongued preacher; he did not mince his words.

For example, concerning homosexuality, a sin practiced in his day, Chrysostom proclaimed: “What shall we say of this madness, which is so much worse than fornication as cannot even be expressed? For I should not only say that you have become a woman, but that you have lost your manhood, and hast neither changed into that nature nor kept that which you had, but you have been a traitor to both of them at once, and deserving both of men and women to be driven out and stoned, as having wronged either sex.”[5]

Chrysostom had two notable weaknesses. In that first place, Professor Hanko states that Chrysostom was weak on depravity.[6] Schaff gives substance to this notion: “In anthropology, [Chrysostom] is a synergist; and his pupil Cassian, the founder of Semi-Pelagianism, gives him for an authority.” To be fair, we should recognize with Schaff that Chrysostom’s “synergism is that of the whole Greek church, [which] had no direct consult with Augustinianism, for Chrysostom died several years before the opening of the Pelagian controversy.” Rightly, Schaff notes that Chrysostom “opposed the Arians and the Novations, and faithfully and constantly adhered to church doctrine so far as it was developed.” In this connection, Schaff also observes with a rather approving tone that Chrysostom “avoided narrow dogmatism and angry controversy, and laid greater stress on practical piety than on unfruitful orthodoxy.”[7]

Chrysostom’s other major weakness was his advocacy of monasticism. When Theodore, a friend of his, once “regretted his monastic vow and resolved to marry,” Chrysostom “regarded this…as almost equal to an apostasy from Christianity.”[8] His high regard for monasticism can be observed in two epistle that he wrote to Theodore concerning his friend’s lapse. In these letters, Chrysostom bitterly laments Theodore’s “fall” and admonishes him with dire threats and dazzling promises to return to asceticism.[9] Similar threats and promises can be found in another treaties that Chrysostom wrote on the subject entitled, “Against Those Who Oppose the Monastic Life.”

His weakness aside, Chrysostom was used by God to preserve holiness among his people in a profane and pagan period of the Roman empire. He did this by preaching the Word, rightly divided and applied to the hearts and lives of God’s people. Chrysostom was able to do this well because he was also used by God not only to preserve, but also propagate the seed of what today we call the grammatical-historical-spiritual method of interpreting Scripture.

“John Chrysostom,” says Terry, “is unquestionably the greatest commentator among the early fathers of the Church.” Earlier, Terry had indicated to his readers why he thought that was the case: “The tender devotion of a pious Christian mother, the rhetorical polish acquired in the school of Libanius, and the assiduous study of the Scriptures at the monastery… were all together admirably adapted to develop the profound exegete and the eloquent preacher of the word of God.”[10]

[1] Neander, General History of the Christian Religion, 375.

[2] Neander, General History of the Christian Religion, 374.

[3] Neander, General History of the Christian Religion, 375.

[4] Bruce, The Spreading Flame, 330.

[5] John Chrysostom, “Homily Four on Romans” in, The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers: Cross-Linked to the Bible, Kindle Edition,(p. 17814).

[6] Hanko, Portraits, 39.

[7] Schaff, History of the Church, 937.

[8] Schaff, History of the Church, 935.

[9] Chrysostom, “Two Letters to Theodore After His Fall,” in The Complete Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post-Nicene Collection of Early Church Fathers: Cross-Linked to the Bible, Kindle Edition, (p. 20968).

[10] Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, 39.

By Aaron Van Dyke

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