Category Archives: Patristics
In his T4G address, “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?” (audio forthcoming), Dr Ligon Duncan quoted from The Epistle to Diognetus 9:2–5, a document dated as early as A.D. 117. In the excerpt you can clearly hear an emphasis on justification, imputation, and substitution. Here is the excerpt, taken from Michael W. Holmes’s translation of The Apostolic Fathers [(Baker, 2007), pp 709, 711]:
… when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!
On a related note, two years back I sat down with Dr. Duncan to discuss the church fathers. The fruit of that conversation was the audio interview “Patristics for Busy Pastors.”
Bernard of Clairvaux died on August 20, 1153. By all accounts, Bernard was a Church Father who understood the doctrine of imputation, that a righteous standing before God required the perfect merits of Christ, received by faith, as opposed to salvation based (even in part) upon personal merit. Missouri Synod (Lutheran) founder C. F. W. Walther wrote of Bernard:
St. Bernard, the famous abbot of Clairvaux, who died in 1153, is a noteworthy example how the most pious and the best of those in the papacy, when they came into great trials, rejected all of their trust in their own human holiness, in their own works and service, and in the intercession of the saints in heaven, and took sole comfort in the all sufficient service of JESUS Christ for their salvation. Even though in his life Bernard had most strictly pursued holiness and had ascribed such a high value to his position as a monk that he considered it as if it were another baptism (Apolog. Ad Builielm. Abb.), he nevertheless confessed when he suddenly cried out for his salvation because of a severe trial: “I confess that I am not worthy of myself nor can I receive heaven through my own service. But my LORD JESUS Christ has a double right to heaven; first because he is by nature its heir, and then because he has earned it through his meritorious suffering. That first right he has for himself, the second he gives me. Through this gift heaven is mine by rights, so I cannot be lost.
FYI: Calvin’s Institutes include over 40 references to the works of Bernard.
FYI: Dr. Danny Aiken’s PhD dissertation covered the soteriology of Bernard (unpublished).
Newly released edition of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology is devoted to the study of the early church preachers and writers (patrology). Nick Needham, a gifted church historian, publishes a fascinating article on why we need to read Augustine today. In part he writes,
“Augustine wrestles endlessly with the most fundamental questions of existence. What can the human mind truly know? What is God? What is truth? What is beauty? What is time? What is history? What is the soul? What is memory? What is faith? What is reason? What is the relationship between faith and reason? What is justice? What is human destiny? What are the proper limits of political action? Where does evil come from? How can we reconcile evil and suffering with a belief in a good and almighty God? Augustine sets the example par excellence of a Christian thinker determined to view the whole of life in the light of his faith, rather than give a little private corner of it to Christ, leaving the rest to be squeezed into the mold of contemporary non-Christian culture.”
-Nick Needham in the journal article, “Augustine of Hippo: The Relevance of His Life and Thought Today.” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (vol. 12, No. 2, Summer 2008 ) p. 39. [download the article as PDF here].
In regards to patristics (i.e. the study of the early church fathers) I’ve been accumulating some excellent book recommendations. Some books were recommended in my interview with Dr. Ligon Duncan (listen here), some books have been resting dust-covered on my shelves from previous recommendations, and some from helpful recommendations by Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin.
So this week on TSS I’ll be sharing with you various titles on my reading list for all you aspiring patrologists.
First, Haykin (on his blog) recommends dipping our toes into the pool of patrology with Robert Louis Wilken’s, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Wilken serves as William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
I have found The Spirit of Early Christian Thought to be a refreshing and stimulating study of the characters and thought of the period. At times spiritually devotional, Wilken is always lucid and engaging. His goal is to draw a connection between the spirit and intellect, between worship and reason, as modeled by the early fathers. As with all books on patrology, this one should be read with careful discernment, the fruit of which, however, will be in the beholding a panorama of patristic intellectual fervor and heartfelt piety. It’s available in hardcover ($35.00) and paperback ($14.00).
Three short excerpts—
“In an essay on the church fathers, Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, ‘Greatness, depth, boldness, flexibility, certainty and a flaming love—the virtues of youth, are marks of patristic theology. Perhaps the Church will never again see the likes of such an array of larger-than-life figures that mark the period from Irenaeus to Athanasius, Basil, Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose and Augustine—not to mention the army of the lesser fathers. Life and doctrine are immediately one. Of them all it is true what Kierkegaard said of Chrysostom: ‘He gesticulated with his whole existence.’” (p. xviii)
“All the figures portrayed in this book prayed regularly, and their thinking was never far removed from the church’s worship. Whether the task at hand was the defense of Christian belief to an outsider, the refutation of the views of a heretic, or the exposition of a passage from the Bible, their intellectual work was always in service of praise and adoration of the one God. ‘This is the Catholic faith,’ begins an ancient creed, ‘that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.’ Often their treatises ended with a doxology to God, as in Augustine’s On the Spirit and the Letter: ‘to whom be glory forever. Amen.’ They wished not only to understand and express the dazzling truth they had seen in Christ, by thinking and writing they sought to know God more intimately and love him more ardently. The intellectual task was a spiritual undertaking. In the oft-cited words of the desert monk Evagrius, ‘A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.’
The point may seem obvious, yet it is often forgotten. More often than not the church fathers have been interpreted as solitary intellectuals, each working out his own system, beholden chiefly to the world of ideas and arguments, as though they were clandestine members of an ancient philosophical guild. To be sure, many of the best minds in the early church were philosophically astute and moved comfortably within the intellectual traditions of the ancient world. They knew the argot of philosophy, and their books and ideas were taken seriously by Greek and Roman intellectuals. But if one picks up a treatise of Origen or Basil of Caesarea and compares it with the writings of the philosopher Alcinous or the neo-Platonist Plotinus, it is apparent at once that something else is at work.” (pp. 25-26)
“The intellectual tradition that began in the early church was enriched by the philosophical breadth and exactitude of medieval thought. Each period in Christian history makes it own unique contribution to Christian life. The church fathers, however, set in place a foundation that has proven to be irreplaceable. Their writings are more than a stage in the development of Christian thought or an interesting chapter in the history of the interpretation of the Bible. Like an inexhaustible spring, faithful and true, they irrigate the Christian imagination with the life-giving water flowing from the biblical and spiritual sources of the faith. They are still our teachers today.” (p. 321)
“The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints. Clement of Alexandria compared the Church to a great river, receiving affluents from all sides. The great river sometimes flows impetuously through a narrow channel; sometimes it spreads like a flood; sometimes it divides into several streams; sometimes, for a time, it seems to have been driven underground. But the Holy Spirit has never left himself without witness; and if we will put aside a great deal of what passes for Church history, and is really a rather unedifying branch of secular history, and follow the course of the religion of the Spirit and the Church of the Spirit, we shall judge very differently of the relative importance of events from those who merely follow the fortunes of institutionalism.”
-W. R. Inge, Things New and Old (1933), p. 57. As quoted on page 161 of F.F. Bruce, The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English (Paternoster, Wipf & Stock), 1958.
Perhaps next week, I’ll be posting the full interview I was privileged to conduct Thursday night with Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III. Duncan is a patristics scholar and pastor so it was an interesting opportunity to connect the value of patristics (the church fathers) to the life and ministry of a pastor (especially a busy one).
Here is an excerpt to the question: Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
“When we go back to the church fathers we see them defending the important Christian doctrines that are very basic to us, those doctrines that—if we’ve been Christians for a long time—we may well take for granted, doctrines we don’t question, or have any qualms about. Sometimes as important as they are, we don’t think about them much, and we don’t weave them into our teaching, nor do we express the passion for the importance of them to our people as we ought. When we go back to the patristic period and we see the church fathers defending the reality of, for example, the incarnation of Christ and showing the importance of it, we may—who have fully embraced the incarnation of Christ and never questioned it in our Christian experience—suddenly have a new sense of the significance and the absolute essentialness of the doctrine of the incarnation in a way we hadn’t before.”
And the questions I asked Dr. Duncan …
- Define for us “patristics” or “patrology.”
- Why should a busy pastor read patristic literature in the first place?
- What hurdles do pastors face in reading and benefiting from patristic writings?
- For the beginner, recommend a few specific patristic titles covering history, biography, and primary sources.
- What contemporary debates align themselves with controversies addressed by the patristic authors?
- Our culture seems to be growing increasing secular (some would say increasingly secular with a corresponding increase in robust Christian faith in some circles). If this is growing secularism is true, what can we learn from the church fathers on how to engage a “pagan” culture?
- In reading the patristics a pastor will be faced with thoughts or practices of the early church fathers that were incorrect. What concerns do you have for a pastor getting his feet wet in the patristic writings?
- Would you agree that in patristic writings we see a stress on ethics over and above the gospel?
- Dr. Duncan, you are a gifted patristic scholar, have been pastoring at First Presbyterian in Jackson for over 12 years now, and preaching on a regular basis. How do your preaching and pastoral ministry reflect the impact of patristic authors?
I’ll keep you posted when the audio is ready for download.
Among all the books [of Scripture], the Psalter has certainly a very special grace, a choiceness of quality well worthy to be pondered; for, besides the characteristics which it shares with others, it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul.
It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.
Elsewhere in the Bible you read only that the Law commands this or that to be done, you listen to the Prophets to learn about the Saviour’s coming, or you turn to the historical books to learn the doings of the kings and holy men; but in the Psalter, besides all these things, you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries. Moreover, whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you do not merely hear and then pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill. Prohibitions of evil-doing are plentiful in Scripture, but only the Psalter tells you how to obey these orders and abstain from sin.
For Us and for Our Salvation by Stephen Nichols
Conservative Evangelical publishers are placing a greater emphasis on patristics, the study of the early church fathers. It’s no surprise. Prominent figures have been jumping off the Evangelical bus and walking towards Rome and frequently (we are told) because Rome better stresses the church fathers. In particular, the Reformed community is reclaiming its rich patristic heritage. For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church (Crossway: 2007) by Stephen J. Nichols is one great example.
At 37 years old, Nichols has written everything but a cookbook. He is known as a master storyteller and a prolific writer, the author of several biographies and a lively overview of the Reformation – The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World – the most exciting book we’ve seen in 2007! On top of patristic theology and the Reformation history, Nichols recently published an excellent essay on J. Gresham Machen, B.B. Warfield and Fundamentalism and is now working on a book connecting theology and the blues.
Due out on August 13th, Nichols’ latest release is yet another of his excellent historical studies. Now Nichols travels back into the first five centuries to rediscover the debates and characters who fought and defended a true understanding of Christ in His glory.
“Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. … The early church fathers wrestled with the same problems presented by The Da Vinci Code phenomenon and its fanciful speculations about Jesus. They wrestled with the same problems presented by Islam and its adamant denial of the deity of Christ. And they wrestled with the same problems presented by the scholars working in the Jesus Seminar or in Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Judas who quickly dismiss the four canonical Gospels as God’s true revelation to humanity. In the days of the early church, the names of the opponents were different from those faced by us today, but the underlying issues bear a striking resemblance. When the church fathers responded with the orthodox view of Christ, they did the church of all ages a great service” (p. 14).
The book development is split into three historical eras: the first three centuries, the fourth century, and the fifth century. Nichols is a master tour guide through the significant theological works of Church history and sufficient room is provided for the church fathers to speak in their own words. Nichols provides an concise breakdown of the content:
“This book explores these controversies over Christ faced by the early church. This book also looks to tell the story of the people involved – Arius and Eutyches, Ignatius and Irenaeus, Athanasius and Leo. These may or may not be known to contemporary evangelicals, but they should be. The following chapters unfold this struggle in the early church chronologically. Chapter 1 starts with one foot in the pages of the New Testament and stretches to the first decade of the 300s. Chapter 3 tells the story of Athanasius and his arch-nemesis Arius, the two figures behind the Nicene Council in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. Chapter 5 unfolds the events of the 400s, focusing on Leo I and the Chalcedonian Council in 451. In an unprecedented event, no fewer than 520 bishops met and actually agreed on a very nuanced and sophisticated theological statement that we know as the Chalcedonian Creed. The intervening chapters, 2, 4, and 6, all break from the narrative to provide primary source documents, allowing the major figures in this struggle to tell the story in their own words. A brief epilogue explores the variations on these themes that have occurred in the life of the church since Chalcedon in 451” (pp. 15-16).
TSS Certified Cross-Centered
Nichols’ historical illumination of the church fathers is excellent but more excellent is the Cross-centered focus. Nichols is not content sharpening orthodox Christology until the Cross is brought into focus. At each point Nichols reminds us the greatest danger of misunderstanding Christ is a misunderstanding of the Cross. This repeated emphasis warrants the “TSS Certified Cross-Centered” stamp.
In The Glory of Christ, John Owen said a hearty gaze at the glory of Christ is exactly what we need to cure our spiritual declension and spur us to new levels of Christian maturity. Owen was right (see 2 Cor. 3:18). In For Us and for Our Salvation, Nichols leads us to a great view overlooking the valley of patristic Christology. But more importantly he has led us to a place where we can better behold the life-transforming glory of Christ.
Title: For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church
Author: Stephen J. Nichols
Reading level: 2.0/5.0 > very readable
Dust jacket: no
Binding: ? (reviewed electronically)
Topical index: ?
Scriptural index: ?
Text: perfect type
Price USD: $14.99 (w/free PDF edition)
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.]
by John Chrysostom
Let there be an armament composed of infantry, cavalry, and marines, and let a number of triremes cover the sea, and phalanxes of foot and horse cover most of the plains, and the ridges of the mountains, and let the metal of their armor reflect the sunshine, and the glitter of the helmets and shields be reflected by the beams which are emitted from them; let the clashing of spears and the neighing of horses be borne up to the very heavens, and let neither sea nor land appear, but only brass and iron in every direction. Let the enemy be drawn up in battle array opposite to these, fierce and savage men, and let the time of the engagement be now at hand. Then let some one suddenly seize some young lad, one of those brought up in the country, knowing nothing but the use of the shepherd’s pipe and crook; let him be clad in brazen armor, and let him be led round the whole camp and be shown the squadrons and their officers, the archers, slingers, captains, generals, the foot and horse, the spearmen, the triremes and their commanders, the dense mass of soldiers in the ships, and the multitude of engines of war lying ready on board. Let him be shown, moreover, the whole array of the enemy, their repulsive aspect, and the varied stores and unusual quantity of their arms; the ravines also and precipices of the mountains, deep and difficult.
Let him be shown further on the enemies’ side, horses flying by some enchantment and infantry borne through the air, and sorcery of every power and form; and let him consider the calamities of war, the cloud of spears, the hailstorm of arrows, that great mist and obscurity that gloomiest night which the multitude of weapons occasions, eclipsing the sunbeams with their cloud, the dust no less than the darkness baffling the eyesight. The torrents of blood, the groanings of the falling, the shouts of the surviving, the heaps of slain, wheels bathed in blood, horses with their riders thrown headlong down, owing to the number of corpses, the ground a scene of general confusion, blood, and bows, and arrows, hoofs of horses and heads of men lying together, a human arm and a chariot wheel and a helmet, a breast pierced through, brains sticking to swords, the point of a dart broken off with an eye transfixed upon it. Then let him reckon up the sufferings of the naval force, the triremes burning in the midst of the waves, and sinking with their armed crews, the roaring of the sea, the tumult of the sailors, the shout of the soldiers, the foam of the waves mixed with blood, and dashing over into all the ships; the corpses on the decks, some sinking, some floating, some cast upon the beach, overwhelmed by the waves, and obstructing the passage of the ships. And when he has been carefully instructed in all the tragedy of warfare, let the horrors of captivity and of slavery be added to it, worse than any kind of death; and having told him all this, bid him mount his horse straightway, and take command of all that armament.
Dost thou really think that this lad would be equal to more than the mere description, and would not, at the very first glance, lose heart?
Do not think that I have exaggerated the matter by my account, nor suppose that because we are shut up in this body, as in some prison house, and are unable to see anything of the invisible world, that what has been said is overstated. For thou wouldest see a far greater and more formidable conflict than this, couldest thou ever behold, with these eyes of thine, the devil’s most gloomy battle array, and his frantic onset. For there is no brass or iron there. No horses, or chariots or wheels, no fire and darts. These are visible things. But there are other much more fearful engines than these. One does not need against these enemies breastplate or shield, sword and spear, yet the sight only of this accursed array is enough to paralyze the soul, unless it happen to be very noble, and to enjoy in a high degree as a protection to its own courage the providential care of God.
And if it were possible by putting off this body, or still keeping it, to see clearly and fearlessly with the naked eye the whole of his battle array, and his warfare against us, thou wouldest see no torrents of blood, nor dead bodies, but so many fallen souls, and such disastrous wounds that the whole of that description of warfare which I just now detailed to thee thou wouldest think to be mere child’s sport and pastime rather than war: so many are there smitten every day, and the wounds in the two cases do not bring about the same death, but as great as is the difference between the soul from the body, so great is the difference between that death and this. For when the soul receives a wound, and falls, it does not lie as a lifeless body, but it is thenceforth tormented, being gnawed by an evil conscience; and after its removal hence, at the time of judgment, it is delivered over to eternal punishment; and if any one be without grief in regard to the wounds given by the devil, his danger becomes the greater for his insensibility. For whoever is not pained by the first wound, will readily receive a second, and after that a third. For the unclean spirit will not cease assaulting to the last breath, whenever he finds a soul supine and indifferent to his first wounds; and if thou wouldest inquire into the method of attack, thou wouldest find this much more severe and varied. For no one ever knew so many forms of craft and deceit as that unclean spirit.
By this indeed, he has acquired the greater part of his power, nor can any one have so implacable a hatred against his worst enemies as the evil one against the human race. And if any one inquire into the vehemence with which he fights, here again it would be ludicrous to bring men into comparison with him. But if any one choose out the fiercest and most savage of beasts, and is minded to set their fury against his, he will find that they were meek and quiet in comparison, such rage does he breathe forth when he attacks our souls; and the period of the warfare indeed in the former case is brief, and in this brief space there are respites; for the approach of the night and the fatigue of slaughter, meal-times also, and many other things, afford a respite to the soldier, so that he can doff his armor and breathe a little, and refresh himself with food and drink, and in many other ways recover his former strength.
But in the case of the evil one it is not possible ever to lay aside one’s armor, it is not possible even to take sleep, for one who would remain always unscathed. For one of two things must be: either to fall and perish unarmed, or to stand equipped and ever watchful. For he ever stands with his own battle array, watching for our indolence, and laboring more zealously for our destruction, than we for our salvation … How shall I be able to help, how to profit thee under so great a burden of office (pastoring)? But since this is pleasant to thee, take courage, dear soul, for at any time at which it is possible for thee to have leisure amid thine own cares, I will come and will comfort thee, and nothing shall be wanting of what is in my power.
- John Chrysostom, taken from book 6 of his Treatise Concerning the Christian Priesthood (translated with introduction and notes by the Rev. W. R. W. Stephens).