John Chrysostom Remembered
John Chrysostom (347-407) was born in Syrian Antioch, the son of a military commander and of a pious mother, Anthusa. Under his widowed mother's watchful care, John was educated by the famous pagan sophist Libanius and was considered his best and most promising pupil. Sozomen, in his Historia Ecclesiastica, quotes Libanius as stating that Chrysostom was 'destined to be his successor if he had not been stolen by the Christians'.
As a youth John experienced conversion, was baptized at the age of eighteen, and soon after became a reader (anagnostes; lector in Latin) under bishop Meletios in Antioch. Though John had imbibed deeply the monastic ideals of his time, the tears of his mother prevented him from retreating to the mountains and caves for a life of contemplation until after her death.
After a time of living as a monastic, John was ordained to the diaconate in 381 in Antioch. There he took up his duties with zeal, particularly aiding the poor and the sick. Not yet licensed to preach, John became a brilliant pamphleteer and author, writing on topics apologetic and pastoral.
Our main concern, however, is not so much with the personal history of John Chrysostom as with his preaching. Early in 386 he was ordained by bishop Flavian as presbyter, and here begins his preaching career, in the words of John Lord from Beacon Lights of History: 'perhaps the most remarkable preacher, on the whole, that ever swayed an audience; (he) united all things — voice, language, figure, passion, learning, taste, art, piety, occasion, motive, prestige, and material to work upon.' Fine words indeed, and the reader must ask, what lessons might today's preachers learn from John 'The Golden Mouth' (Chrysostom), a title appended to his name centuries afterwards?
Because of the formidable number of Chrysostom's works (sixteen volumes of the Patrologia Graeca and over nineteen hundred manuscripts which retain one or more of his works) it is not possible to consider here with depth an analysis of his preaching. However, we can make a start. Consider first his series of sermons on Genesis, probably preached within weeks of his ordination in Antioch. In one such sermon John defends the biblical doctrine of creation against the pagans, cautioning them that rejection of this truth leads only to idolatry. He then goes on to warn his hearers against the Manichees, dualists who alleged that matter is uncreated and eternal, in opposition to spirit. Chrysostom described them as 'dogs which say nothing but are mad with rabies ... don't look at their show of moderation, but at the monster behind the mask' (Sermons on Genesis 7:4).
From September 386 into the early months of 387, this 'Golden Mouth' preacher delivered a series of sermons against the Anomoeans, a group which taught that the eternal Son of God is utterly unlike (anomoios) God the Father in essence. This radical branch of Arianism was led by the ingenious logician Eunomios (died 395). Its 'logical' appeal attracted many professing Christians, especially from the upper classes and from among the educated. Many such were to be found in Chrysostom's congregation in Antioch. In the sermons, entitled 'On the incomprehensible nature of God', John pleaded with those who implied the Son's unlikeness to the Father in words of 'moderation and gentleness', so that persons 'infected with error' might be recovered. He also exhorted his own congregation to be kind to the Anomoeans, praying heartily that 'they may desist from their madness'.
While Chrysostom well understood the doctrinal controversies of his day, he was no arid academic. Rather he possessed a mastery of illustration and vividness which made the Bible come alive to the meanest and least educated of his auditors. He urged his flock to be generous to beggars, to the miserable and to the dejected of this world; also to the poor who assembled for alms-giving when church services ended. He urged them not to hurry past them as if they were 'pillars, not human bodies ... lifeless statues, not breathing human beings'.
In a society contrasted by the extremes of wealth and poverty, it is not surprising to find charity a common theme in his discourses. He constantly urged the members of his church to give generously: 'The rich man is not the man who owns a lot, but the man who gives a lot.' Chrysostom drew the poor into his sermons with fiery appeals to charity, but also by offering the downtrodden and the sinner a picture of a merciful and loving Father with open arms, exhorting, 'Approach, although you may have repented a thousand times' (Historia Ecclesiastica vi. 21). Whilst he was chastised by friends and enemies alike for offering an apparently shallow forgiveness, patrologist Francis Young observed, 'Chrysostom preached no cheap forgiveness, but a gracious though demanding God who calls on men to respond with true Christian holiness, a message not unlike that of John Wesley' (From Nicaea to Chalcedon, p. 150).
On 26 February 398 John became Archbishop of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Here, as in Antioch, Chrysostom preached with power against the ostentatious display of wealth by insensitive aristocrats, and against the rapacity and arrogance of those who would take advantage of the poor. He was not against 'wealth' per se, but rather against its use for purely personal gratification. J. B. Bury, the historian, writes of the Archbishop:
Chrysostom stands alone among the great ecclesiastics of the later Empire in that his supreme interest lay not in controversial theology but in practical ethics. His aim was the moral reformation of the world ... If he inveighs against the men for their banquets, he is no less severe on the women for their sumptuous mule-cars, their rich dresses, their jewellery, their coquettish toilettes.History of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 1, pp. 139-140
Chrysostom eventually fell foul of the Emperor's wife, Eudoxia, who interpreted his moral reforms as remonstrances against her. He was clearly no respecter of persons! With the connivance of his many enemies, John was soon exiled, then called back, and finally exiled once again after referring in these words of a sermon to the Empress: 'Again Herodias raves; again she dances; again she demands the head of John in a basin.' John Chrysostom died in exile near Comono, in Pontus, 14 September 407.
Chrysostom's preaching may be described as exegetical and expository, and while influenced by conventions of his period and time, he was not bound by them. Exhortation almost always follows exegesis, even though exhortatory sections may not be closely related to the former. Digression is common, as is an indulgence in repetition. Chrysostom's ninety Homilies from the Gospel of Matthew are a case in point. He spoke on poverty no less than thirteen times; riches wrongly used or gained twenty times; greed more than thirty times; and almsgiving forty times (C. Baur, St Chrysostom and His Time; p. 217). He defended himself by saying that the congregation had not learned the lesson, therefore the lesson must be preached over and over.
John Chrysostom rejected the allegorical method of interpretation so common in his days, looking at the text in a straightforward way, examining it, explaining it within context, and defining difficult words or phrases. He desired to explain the text as clearly as possible to his congregation, noting parallel passages and usages as appropriate. He had a healthy view of the Old Testament, interpreting it historically, and he was ever careful not to overemphasize typology. He recognized that the voice of God spoke prophetically in the Old Testament and he saw its fulfilment in the New. He firmly held to the principle that Scripture interprets itself, and that, where a parable is given, Scripture itself furnishes the meaning.
How may those who stand before God's people preaching every Lord's Day be particularly encouraged by this 'trumpet' from the distant past? First, like Chrysostom, the preacher must make preaching his primary labour. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, 'How shall they hear without a preacher?' (Romans 10:14). The preacher must beware of being 'too busy' to give his best efforts to the careful preparation of his sermons. Paul warned Timothy to be a good soldier not entangled 'in the affairs of this life' (2 Timothy 2:4). The preacher is to make preaching his primary labour.
Secondly, like Chrysostom, he should exhort his church members to remember to be compassionate toward the poor, particularly in their giving and in their service.
The prophet Isaiah tells us to, Deal thy bread to the hungry ... bring the poor that are cast out to thy house. When thou seest the naked ... cover him; and ... hide not thyself from thine own flesh.
Christians must be careful not to neglect their duty to the poor because of creeping state provision or social welfare programmes.
Finally, like Chrysostom, the minister is to preach with passion and earnestness, not fearing men but prepared to suffer for Christ's sake.
Paul writes to Timothy: Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my gospel: wherein I suffer hardship unto bonds, as a malefactor; but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. Faithful is the saying: for if we died with him, we shall also live with him: if we endure, we shall also reign with him.2 Timothy 2:8-12
John Chrysostom remains a guide to us sixteen hundred years after his time.