Reading Romans with John Chrysostom


Title Page, Chrystostom’s Homlies on RomansThere is something about the printed page that computer text files have not been able to replace for me. Even though I can take my laptop most places, including to bed, so far I haven’t found anything like the convenience of being able to gently close a book and lay it on a nightstand just as I begin to sink into an unconscious stupor. There’s nothing to turn off, and if I accidentally drop it the consequences are usually slight.

So even though the complete Philip Schaff edition of the Church Fathers is available on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library web site, and even though I also have a copy on CD-ROM (though I can no longer find it offered on the Ages Digital Library web site and Amazon lists it as “Currently Unavailable”), I didn’t actually make a habit of reading it until Christian Book Distributor‘s price for the complete set came down from the stratosphere to within arm’s reach of my budget. At first I found myself using it primarily as a reference, sticking the occasional Post-It® flag on a page bearing a particularly memorable or important quote. Sometimes I would become particularly involved in a passage in, say, Justin Martyr‘s writings. Other times I would hunt down a reference to check for the context when I encountered a citation from, say, Vincent of Lérins. But then I chanced upon the homilies of John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347-407), and my enchantment was immediate. In contrast to other ancient biblical expositors I’d read, Chrysostom came across as lucid and timeless. This is a reflection of the theological company he kept.

Donald K. McKim, ed., Historical Handbook of Major Biblical InterpretersChrysostom’s exegesis of the Bible, in line with the Antiochene school of which his writings are the best representative, has been characterized as logical, literal, sober, restrained, commonsensical, grammatical, detailed and historical. This “matter-of-fact exposition of the text” (Pelican, 191) is the hallmark of the Antiochene school, in distinction from its rival, the Alexandrian school,2 which emphasized the allegorical, the symbolic, the spiritual meaning of the text.

[Margaret M. Mitchell, “Chrysostom,” in Donald K. McKim, ed., Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, (Downers Grove, IL, USA and Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 31.]

So now, instead of a random volume snatched from a shelf because of its somnolence-inducing effects, more often than not I find myself sitting up in bed in thrall to one of the greatest orators of church history as he expounds the Apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans. His commentaries read more like transcriptions of sermons than technical treatises because that is precisely what they are. The name Chrysostom was actually given to him because of his reputation as a great preacher. In Greek it literally means “John the Golden-mouth” (Ἰωάννης ὁ Χρυσόστομος, Iōannēs ho Chysostomos).

church-fathers-without-npnf11.jpgThis will probably not endear me to the hearts of many whose project it is to postmodernize Christianity, but I think one of the reasons I enjoy Chrysostom as much as I do is because his style is so much like that of a 20th century biblical commentator, even in the commonly-available 19th century translation that often consciously mimics the King James Version. The printed sermon has a goodly heritage among evangelical Christians, and in the right hands this genre has done much to edify the church. While Chrysostom’s strong ascetic emphasis3 would have presented difficulties, given the likelihood that he received early training in oratory (Mitchell, ibid., 29) and given his “unabashed devotion to Scripture” (ibid., 33), he would probably have felt right at home in the evangelical church of the past quarter millennium, at least in terms of finding an outlet for his spiritual gifts.

We don’t know whether the homilies were taken down by stenographers and edited (Mitchell, ibid., 29), and one question that occurs to me is whether the homilies’ introduction, titled “The Argument,” was something that Chrysostom delivered orally or only wrote for publication. In any case, it begins as follows:

As I keep hearing the Epistles of the blessed Paul read, and that twice every week, and often three or four times, whenever we are celebrating the memorials of the holy martyrs, gladly do I enjoy the spiritual trumpet, and get roused and warmed with desire at recognizing the voice so dear to me, and seem to fancy him all but present to my sight, and behold him conversing with me

[Chrysostom, “The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” translated by J.B. Morris and W. H. Siomcox, in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 11, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., reprinted 2004), 335.]

While my Roman Catholic upbringing has made the concept of church feast days familiar to me, I’m assuming that “the memorials of the holy martyrs” to which Chrysostom refers remain a feature of the Eastern Orthodox church calendar, and yet I haven’t been able to determine its precise identity, if there is one. The liturgical calendar of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America has many dates set aside for commemorating various martyrs, and it could be that Chrysostom is referring to more than one memorial.

Meanwhile, it is intriguing to read of the frequency with which Paul’s letters were read publicly, especially at certain times of year. For Chrysostom this was obviously a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, the sound of Paul’s words seems to have induced in him a kind of spiritual euphoria. On the other hand, as he looked around he noticed that there seemed to be few who appreciated Paul’s writings on the same level that he did, for he writes:

But I grieve and am pained, that all people do not know this man, as much as they ought to know him; but some are so far ignorant of him, as not even to know for certainty the number of his Epistles.

[Ibid.]

It’s worth pointing out here that Chrysostom believed that Paul wrote Hebrews, so he would have counted fourteen Pauline epistles, in contrast with most scholars today. But his main point here is that the general lack of familiarity with Paul that characterized most of the church goers he knew robbed them of the ability to experience the full impact of what they heard. It occurs to me that the same holds true today. If this is the case, to what should we attribute it? Chrysostom seems to trace the problem to two basic causes, one of them culpable, the other perhaps not so much. He notes:

And this comes not of incapacity, but of their not having the wish to be continually conversing with this blessed man.

[Ibid.]

The first basic cause of this spiritual indolence was the simple lack of desire. They did not wish to spend as much time familiarizing themselves with the text of Paul’s writings as they wished to do other things. Chrysostom was not simply trying to be harsh here; he was trying to head off the reply that he knew Paul so well because he was so intelligent. But such was not the case.

For it is not through any natural readiness and sharpness of wit that even I am acquainted with as much as I do know, if I do know anything, but owing to a continual cleaving to the man, and an earnest affection towards him. For, what belongs to men beloved, they who love them know above all others; because they are interested in them.

[Ibid.]

Intimate knowledge of a person—knowledge of his thoughts, attitudes, and desires—comes from spending a significant amount of time with that person. The only way in which one could spend such time with a deceased person, such as Paul, was through his writings. If those whom we are trying to know are still alive there are other means available by which we may know them. But however it is that we may become acquainted with people, it does not become a close acquaintance unless we think about them, and have a special place for them in our hearts. Paul himself modeled this.

And this also this blessed Apostle shows in what he said to the Philippians; “Even as it is meet for me to think this of you all, because I have you in my heart, both in my bonds, and in the defence and confirmation of the Gospel.” (Phil. i. 7.)

[Ibid.]

There are several references like this in Paul’s epistles—places where he tells those hearers (or readers, if this introduction was not delivered orally) whom he knows personally how much they mean to him—although the theological significance of these references is seldom brought out in expository messages. Chrysostom himself doesn’t actually bring it out, because he’s simply using the verse from Philippians to make his own point, which is not unreasonable.4 He is exhorting his audience to bring their whole selves to the text the way they would carefully attend to the words of a close friend.

And so ye also, if ye be willing to apply to the reading of him with a ready mind, will need no other aid. For the word of Christ is true which saith, “Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matt. vii. 7.)

[Ibid.]

I don’t know what the literacy rate was at the turn of the fifth century in Constantinople, but Chrysostom admonishes his entire audience to “apply to the reading of [Paul] with a ready mind.” Perhaps the phrase “the reading of him” refers to the public reading during church services, which seems to be corroborated by the phrase “attention upon the hearing of what is said” in the next sentence, which also takes us to the second basic cause of the problem that Chrysostom addresses:

But since the greater part of those who here gather themselves to us, have taken upon themselves the bringing up of children, and the care of a wife, and the charge of a family, and for this cause cannot afford to all events aroused to receive those things which have been brought together by others, and bestow as much attention upon the hearing of what is said as ye give to the gathering together of goods. For although it is unseemly to demand only so much of you, yet still one must be content if ye give as much.

[Ibid.]

People who deal with the ordinary demands of life are busy. Chrysostom recognized this. In his day it seems they often came to church so preoccupied with their responsibilities and pursuits that they were less-than-attentive to the reading of Scripture. Today we have fewer excuses. We are a vastly more literate society, and now we even have readings of the entire Bible recorded for us on CDs. (Who listens to tapes anymore?) And the vast array of competent commentaries, study Bibles, and other materials makes familiarity with Paul’s epistles and the rest of Scripture something that is easily within the grasp of everyone. But how many have actually grasped them?

We’re still in the middle of an exceedingly long paragraph in Chrysostom’s introduction. I’ll pick it up from this point in my next post on this topic.

■  Notes  ■

ˆ 1 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Preaching of Chrysostom: Homilies on the Sermon on the Mount, (Philadelphia, PA, USA: Fortress Press, 1967). ˆ
ˆ 2 Cf. M.C. Steenberg, “Two ‘Schools’: Alexandria and Antioch,” (2004). ˆ
ˆ 3 Philip Schaff, “Prolegomena, The Life and Work of St. John Chrysostom,” in Philip Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 9, (Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., reprinted 2004), 6-7. ˆ
ˆ 4 One commentator who seeks to bring it out is D.A. Carson, who writes, “Both from Paul’s example and from that of the Philippians [who sent Paul the gift that prompted the epistle], then, we must learn this first point: the fellowship of the gospel, the partnership of the gospel, must be put at the center of our relationship with other believers. That is the burden of these opening verses. Paul does not commend them for the fine times they had shared watching games in the arena. He doesn’t mention their literature discussion groups or the excellent meals they had, although undoubtedly they had enjoyed some fine times together. What lies at the center of all his ties with them, doubtless including meals and discussion, is the passion for the gospel, this partnership in the gospel.” Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians, (Grand Rapids, MI, USA: Baker Books, 1996), 19.
ˆ

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