by Paul K. Christianson
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
pampheteer 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.í Fine words indeed,
and the reader must ask, What lessons might todays preachers learn from
John the Golden Mouth (Chrysostom), a title appended to his name centuries
Because of the formidable number of Chrysostomís 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 monsters 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 Chrysostomís congregation in Antioch. In the
sermons, entitled On the incomprehensible nature of God, John pleaded with
those who implied the Sons 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
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.í 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 thousands times (Historia Ecclesiatica 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
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 jewelry, their coquettish
toilettes. (History of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 1, pp. 139-140)
Chrysostom eventually fell foul of the Emperors 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.í John Chrysostom died
an exile near Comono, in Pontus, 14 September 407.
Chrysostomís 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. Chrysostomís 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 alms giving 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 day, 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 over-emphasize typology. He recognized that the voice of God spoke
prophetically in the Old Testament and he saw its fulfillment 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 Gods people preaching every Lords Day be
particularly encouraged by this trumpet from the distant past? First, like
Chrysostom, the preacher must make preaching his primary labor. As the Apostle
Paul writes to the Romans, How shall they hear without a preacher?í
(Rom. 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 Tim. 2:4).
The preacher is to make preaching his primary labor.
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 programs.
Finally, Like Chrysostom, the minister is to preach with passion and earnestness,
not fearing men but prepared to suffer for Christs 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
John Chrysostom remains a guide to us sixteen hundreds years after his time.
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