Lessons from the life of John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom was nicknamed “Golden Mouth” and stands as one of the most famous Greek preachers in church history. I return to his life frequently to be reminded of some golden lessons.
1. Earnest education in the grammatical-historical interpretation of Scripture. Plaguing the exegesis of the early church preachers (the Patristics) is an allegorical interpretation of Scripture. The move away from allegorical to the grammatical-historical was attempted by several but matured primarily under the scholarship of Diodore of Tarsus and it was this man who passed this method of interpretation to Chrysostom in Antioch. Contrary to most schools, the Atiochene school was “built on a method of interpretation rather than a theological tendency” (Old, Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, 2:169).
Training in the grammatical-historical method shows itself clearly in the fruits of Chrysostom’s preaching, reflecting a high view of the authority of Scripture. “The preaching of the Word of God is authoritative and efficacious because it is God’s Word, not the preacher’s. Here is the foundation of the passion and the power of great preaching. It is for this reason that the great preachers have preached and their congregations have heard them” (Old, 2:185). Only a conviction of Scripture’s authority forces the preacher to interpret carefully. Chrysostom held a high view of Scripture.
2. Secular liberal arts education. Amazingly, Chrysostom was both educated by one of the great Christian exegetes of his era and one of the great secular orators. His widowed (but wealthy) mother sent John to study under Libanius, a pagan professor famed for his rhetorician in Constantinople and Nicomedia. It seems to be an odd decision for a Christian mother but the fruit of this secular learning – a strong imagination, skills in clear communication and a powerful literary talent – are all evident throughout John’s later work (see our excerpt on spiritual warfare from last week). Hughes Oliphant Old writes, “Metaphors and similes seem to come to this preacher all quite naturally and without the least sort of effort” (Old, 2:193).
This blending of the secular/pagan and Christian educations was beneficial. Getting good exegetical and theological training is obvious. But those seeking to preach are encouraged to also seek a secular degree in liberal arts, too. “One of the reasons John Chrysostom achieve such distinction as a preacher was because he mastered both classical oratory as it was so brilliantly taught by Libanius and the principles of biblical interpretation as taught with no less luster by Diodore” (Old, 2:172). The diversity of training provides the preacher excellent skills in critical thinking, communicating in general and specifically in speaking the Gospel to fellow classmates who represent the diverse colors of culture (homosexual worldview, humanism, naturalism, atheism, agnosticism, theological liberalism, feminism, etc.).
3. Preaching against the sins of culture. In our day, when church-going Christians are in the minority, we are told the church should resemble the world in order to get non-Christians in the door. Chrysostom knew better. Christianity in his time was also the minority, lived among a majority of pagans in Antioch. Crowds of pagans would gather to hear good oratory and so Chrysostom’s sermons were well-attended by non-Christians. This did not stop him from taking the cultural sins and idols head-on. And he encouraged his people to live differently than the culture around them, to evangelize their neighbors by their actions before evangelizing with words. Chrysostom encourages us to evangelize our culture by being radically different.
4. Fighting worldliness. Chrysostom wrote on the topic of fasting: “Fasting is, as much as lies in us, an imitation of the angles, a contemning of things present, a school of prayer, a nourishment of the soul, a bridle of the mouth, an abatement of concupiscence: it mollifies rage, it appeases anger, it calms the tempests of nature, it excites reason, it clears the mind, it disburthens the flesh, it chases away night-pollutions, it frees from head-ache. By fasting, a man gets composed behaviour, free utterance of his tongue, right apprehensions of his mind.” Chrysostom understood the benefits of fasting and taught his people to prefer godly sorrow over worldly joy. John challenged his congregation to fast as an offensive against the idol-saturated Antioch. His asceticism and preaching against extravagance infuriated emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia. Despite the mocking of the day, great and earnest preachers perceive the sinfulness of worldliness and warn souls.
5. Preaching plainly. I don’t suggest that John was a plain preacher. He was trained under one of the greatest Pagan orators in Libanius and his sermons bear the watermark of oratorical greatness. Whether a true offer or not, it is said Libanius eyed his prized student Chrysostom as his replacement. Obviously, Chrysostom could have preached with the greatest eloquence of his age. However, he chose rather to open Scripture in a simple manner, accessible to all of his hearers. “His plainness of speech gave great offense to the beautiful and imperious Eudoxia, the worldly consort of Arcadius. This hatred of the empress and the envy and anger of many of the clergy were the causes of Chrysostom’s deposition and banishment” (Dargan, A History of Preaching, 1:90).
Chrysostom preached to sinners in the “real world.” He touched understood the lives of his hearers, he was experientially sensitive and these qualities made a great impact. “The Shakespeare of preachers has not appeared,” John Broadus wrote in 1907. “But why should he not some day appear? One who can touch every chord of human feeling, treat every interest of human life, draw illustration from every object and relation of the known universe, and use all to gain acceptance and obedience for the gospel of salvation. No preacher has ever come nearer this than Chrysostom, perhaps none, on the whole, so near” (Broadus, Lectures on the History of Preaching, p. 78).
6. Late start. Chrysostom, who died at 60, took to the pulpit in Antioch at the age of 39. He had been educated in the Liberal Arts, worked in law and served as a deacon for several years. He had many years of Christian service behind him and a great knowledge of the world when he rose to the primary preacher in Antioch. But he was also a considerably old man when he got his start. This teaches preachers a bit about patience. You may know God has called you to preach His Word but now you are in school or working a secular job or otherwise wondering what God has in store. Chrysostom reminds us that God’s timing may come later than we want but He is sovereignly preparing us for ministry no matter where we are. We are called to commune with God and experience life in the “real world” in preparation for our future tasks. John Broadus writes, “In our impatient age and country, when so many think time spent in preparation is time lost, it is well to remember that the two most celebrated preachers of the early Christian centuries began to preach, Chrysostrom at thirty-nine, and Augustine at thirty-six” (Broadus, p. 76). Nearly 40 years of preparation for 18 years of fruitful ministry (12 years in Antioch and 6 in Constantinople). However in these 18 years, Chrysostom preached daily and only Spurgeon has left more sermons in print. Be patient in the preparation.
7. Sensitive to the cultural events. One of the most powerful experiences of Chrysostom’s ministry in Antioch occurred in 386. The people believing emperor Theodosius was overtaxing them rioted and destroyed imperial statues in the Antioch. Such an act brought swift and harsh response from the emperor including many arrests and killings. Even before the reprisal took place, the people knew they had sinned and were in deep trouble.
Amidst the upheaval in Antioch as the city awaited certain reprisal from the emperor, Chrysostom asked his city who they feared more. Do they fear the wrath of the emperor more than the wrath of God?
Chrysostom immediately began preaching sermons we now know as the “Sermons on the Statues” and initiated a 40 day fast for the city. Of his sermon content we are told, “At one time his object here is to console a people struggling with present distress; at another, to strengthen minds that were sinking under the extremity of danger; and above all, by repeated admonition, to persuade the people of Antioch, on occasion of the threatened calamities, to correct the vices and to wipe away the crimes that had thus provoked God’s wrath; which endeavor on the part of Chrysostom certainly ended in results agreeable to his desire, as he sometimes acknowledges” (Preface to the Benedictine edition).
In one sermon Chrysostom said,
“How then is it any thing but absurd, to submit to the greatest hardships, when an Emperor enjoins it; but when God commands nothing grievous nor difficult, but what is very tolerable and easy, to despise or to deride it, and to advance custom as an excuse? Let us not, I entreat, so far despise our own safety, but let us fear God as we fear man. I know that ye shudder at hearing this, but what deserves to be shuddered at is that ye do not pay even so much respect to God; and that whilst ye diligently observe the Emperor’s decrees, ye trample under foot those which are divine, and which have come down from heaven; and consider diligence concerning these a secondary object. For what apology will there be left for us, and what pardon, if after so much admonition we persist in the same practices.”
Chrysostom, like Jesus, used the climate of the day to point souls towards the holiness and wrath of God and to encourage repentance (Luke 13:1-5)? When preachers today use 9/11, tsunamis and hurricanes to point souls towards God they walk in the pattern set by Christ and followed by Chrysostom. So preachers, take advantage of the times. Be acquainted with the conditions of your culture and put them to use spiritually in calling sinners to repentance.
8. Preaching as a prophet calling God’s people to repentance. Chrysostom did not hesitate to call professing Christians to repentance. In this sense he was prophetic. “One can hardly avoid the observation that if he was everything a Greek orator was supposed to be, he was also everything a Hebrew prophet was supposed to be. With all the passion of Elijah he confronted God’s people with their sins; with all the eloquence of Isaiah he called his congregation to repentance” (Old, 2:195). This certainly flows from an understanding of the age he preached and the specific temptations of his people. The great preachers seek to pull their congregation out of their sins to humble them and lead them to the Cross. A failure to lead a church out of a particular sin leads to serious corporate troubles (see Rev. 2:1-3:22).
9. Errors. Chrysostom leaves a great legacy to follow but not without errors. While watching the busy city of Antioch, John “sharpened that penetrating knowledge of human nature,” but would later move to a monastery, a decision that would certainly hamper his (and his followers) sensitivity to the surrounding culture (Broadus, p. 73). While not allegorizing, he is known for twisting passages to suit his own needs. His emphasis on celibacy, transubstantiation, monasticism are all quite unfortunate though compared to his contemporaries Chrysostom held a cautious and discerning Mariology.
But most unfortunate, Chrysostom said far more about ethics and works than about Christ and redemption in the Cross. Too frequently readers of his sermons will find only momentary glimpses of the Cross. Were it not for his concluding benediction, Jesus Christ would be altogether absent from many of his sermons.
It does no good making a list of errors if we don’t humbly recognize we have our own. Church history repeats one general theme: Even the greatest preacher will not escape the errors of his day. We take lessons from Chrysostom’s life tempered with the sober reality that the Patristic era of church history contains many grievous errors. It will prove beneficial to pray and ask God this question: What errors of my age – those errors commonly held by my friends and associates – what of these errors have I unknowingly fallen? The errors which seem so obvious centuries later go unseen at the time.
The beauty of history is that we take the good and leave the bad. From the fruit of Chrysostom’s life we can return to our ministries with a basket filled with rich lessons.
[For more information on the preaching of John Chrysostom see Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church, vol. 2, The Patristic Age (Eerdmans: 1998) pp. 167-222.]