Theology Thursday: John Chrysostom

by Max Andrews

The name “John the Golden-mouthed” was given him over a century after his death.  Of the great preachers of the fourth century, which included Ambrose and Gregory Nazianzen, none was greater than John Chrysostom.  Yet great as his oratorical skills were, greater still was his personal integrity and boldness in confronting the rich and powerful of his day. Chrysostom was born in Antioch. His mother, Anthusa, became a widow at age twenty when John was an infant. She refused to remarry, instead devoting herself to her son.  John received training in rhetoric and was being groomed for a profession in law by the most famous orator of the day, Libanius. In fact, when asked who should succeed him, Libanius answered: “John, but the Christians have laid claim on him.” In keeping with his mother’s wish, John entered upon his catechumenate at the age of twenty, and three years later was baptized by Bishop Meletius of Antioch.

John studied theology under Diodore of Taursus, leader of the Antiochene School. Early on he felt called to the monastic life, but put off entry into a monastery so long as his mother was alive so that he could care for her.  Shortly after her death in 373 he joined a monastery in the Syrian mountains, living as a hermit for two years. So great were his austerities that he did lasting damage to his health.

He was ordained deacon in 381, serving in Antioch under bishop Flavian. Flavian also ordained him presbyter in 386 and, in view of his gifts, appointed him to devote special attention to preaching.  While at Antioch, John achieved fame for preaching that sought to instruct and reform those who were only nominally Christian.

From 486-98, while still at Antioch, John delivered homilies that have secured for him the title, “greatest expositor of the Scriptures.”He preached on Genesis, Matthew, John, Romans, Galatians, Corinthians, Ephesians, Timothy, and Titus.  His method was to preach through a book, one passage at a time, first expounding its main points, then going back through and making practical application for his hearers.  He had a keen eye for the meaning of the text as well as its practical application, and managed this while eschewing all allegorical interpretation.

In 397 the patriarchate of Constantinople became vacant. Against Chrysostom’s will, the emperor ordered that he be brought to the capital city.  Because it was feared that his removal from Antioch would provoke a riot, the authorities informed no one, not even Chrysostom. Instead he was instructed to come to a chapel outside the city, whence they kidnapped him.  He was ordained patriarch early in 398. The great emperor Theodosius was had recently died and in his place, his son Arcadius ruled the East.  Yet in fact it was the palace chamberlain, Eutropius who ruled, for Arcadius was a weak leader. The palace was full of intrigue, and Chrysostom’s choice as patriarch had itself been the result of intrigue.

Under the earlier patriarch, the clergy had grown corrupt. Upon his arrival in Constantinople, Chrysostom set about to rectify this.  Many clergy claimed to be celibate, but kept concubines they called “spiritual sisters.” Chrysostom made them get rid of them.  Many lived in opulence rivaling that of the great men of the city. Chrysostom deposed six bishops on grounds of simony and banned episcopal entertainments.  The finances of the church were not in good order. He placed all the churches’ finances under scrutiny and ordered luxury items in his own palace sold, the proceeds being used to feed the hungry.  The clergy did not tend to their flocks. Chrysostom ordered that they maintain hours that served the needs of working people, not the convenience of the wealthy.  He infuriated visiting bishops by refusing to feed and lodge them, for he believed that bishops should be in their own dioceses, not collecting speaker’s fees for preaching in someone else’s.  Yet he did not limit his reforms to the clergy alone. From the pulpit of the largest basilica in the empire he preached against the heartlessness of the rich and powerful. His Homily on 1 Timothy was probably preached shortly after his arrival in Constantinople. In it he holds an imaginary conversation with a rich man, who cites Abraham and Job as men whom God had blessed with wealth. John replies, “Yes, but their wealth was God-given. It came from natural increase and not injustice.”  With sermons like this, John soon created for himself powerful enemies, especially the chamberlain Eutropius, and empress Eudoxia. Because of such enemies, his patriarchate would last but five years.

The last straw for Eutropius came when victims of his tyranny sought sanctuary at St. Sophia. Chrysostom refused to allow his soldiers to enter the basilica, enraging Eutropius. The day came when the tyrant himself sought refuge at St. Sophia, first from angry mobs, then from the army sent to apprehend him, and finally from the emperor himself.  Only Chrysostom stood between the now helpless Eutropius and his enemies. This clash ended with Eutropius’ death, not because Chrysostom handed him over to the emperor, but because Eutropius fled the basilica’s safety. Chrysostom still had a powerful enemy in the empress, who took umbrage at his every word from the pulpit of St. Sophia. She conspired with his fellow bishops to destroy him.  While Chrysostom was away investigating charges of corruption against a bishop, false charges were drawn up against him, and a synod packed with adversaries ordered him to appear.  Three times he refused, and was finally convicted on 29 charges, including stinginess and disparaging comments made about the empress. He was ordered deposed. Within three days he handed himself over and was taken into exile.  Public outrage was so great that neither the emperor nor his soldiers dared show themselves. Moreover, the night of the banishment an earthquake shook the city. The next day Arcadius recalled Chrysostom from exile, who returned to the acclamation of the people.

Within months, John’s plain speaking brought the empress’ displeasure anew. The Gospel text on the beheading of John the Baptist brought his tactless remark: “Once more Herodias demands the head of John on a platter.”  A new synod demanded his banishment on the charge of having reassumed duties of a see from which he had been canonically deposed. John refused to recognize its legitimacy, and when the emperor ordered him to cease performing ecclesiastical duties, he likewise refused.  Soldiers were dispatched while John was with catechumens at the baptismal font, and he was taken away. In the process the waters became blood-stained.  Again a riot ensued and the cathedral was burned down. The inquest saw Chrysostom’s friends tortured and banished, and he was exiled to a village near Antioch.

In feeble health, when it became clear that he would not die soon enough, Chyrsostom was moved to Pontus, and finally deliberately killed by a forced march in winter weather.  When he perceived that his end was near, he asked to be taken to a small church where he took his last communion, and departed this life with the words, “In all things, glory to God. Amen.”

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