Baptismal Instruction by Saint John Chrysostom

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Baptismal Instruction Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Two sermons by Saint John Chrysostom survive from among the hundreds he preached in Antioch in the late fourth century. Though brief, each sermon covers a plethora of theological points. John was born into a wealthy Christian family in Antioch and prepared for a career in law, but ran away from home to begin a career in the Church. His pronounced ascetic practices and his remarkable eloquence caused him to be appointed chief preacher in Antioch, where he acquired the nickname “Chrysostomus,” or “Golden Mouth.” He was consecrated patriarch of Constantinople, the imperial capital, in 398. He immediately began to make powerful enemies for publicly rebuking both clergy and imperial officials for their corrupt and unchristian behavior. After he called Empress Eudoxia a thief to her face during a Sunday service, she had him banished from the city, and Chrysostom died en route to his place of exile.

Most of Chrysostom’s vast literary output exists in the form of sermons on the books of both the Old and New Testaments. Writing and preaching in flawless Greek, he left behind hundreds of sermons from his period as chief preacher in Antioch. Unfortunately, only two of the sermons on baptismal instructions for catechumens survive. They were preached during Lent of 388. Though brief, these two sermons give indications of many topics of which Chrysostom preached in more detail on other occasions. One of these sermons is addressed to male catechumens; the other is addressed to female catechumens. Both groups would have been making final preparations to be baptized into the Church during Easter.

The first sermon is addressed to the male catechumens, who Chrysostom refers to as “those about to be illuminated.” He dwells on the image of baptism as illumination, as a new way of seeing, at length. He wishes the catechumens to be very clear that baptism is not some sort of magic ritual for the forgiveness of sins. Accepting baptism involves a fundamental reorientation of one’s entire existence. One is baptized into the death of Christ. Chrysostom takes this quite literally. On becoming a Christian, one’s former self, one’s previous lifestyle, dies. One now lives not for the possibility of material advantage, but in hope of eternal life. Baptism also entails participation in the resurrection of Christ. Christians reorient their lives to live for the sake of heaven. While the promise of forgiveness of sins is a component of the baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, it is not an end in itself. Chrysostom wants to be certain the catechumens recognize that baptism is a permanent, life-changing decision.

All of Chrysostom’s theological opinions are grounded in a very close, literal reading of the biblical text, a method of biblical interpretation particularly practiced in Antioch, his hometown. Chrysostom rarely waxed poetic or philosophical in his sermons. He was not a speculative thinker. He was a very careful and thorough reader of the Bible. All the material in his sermons and all of his examples are taken directly from Scripture, rather than from philosophical or literary texts, though Chrysostom and his audience certainly knew these secular texts. He was always trying to impart an immediately practical benefit or point of guidance to his audience. The sermons on baptismal instruction are no exception to his policy. Every statement he makes to the catechumens and every image he invokes has its antecedents in Scripture. In the midst of their instruction on the meaning of baptism, the catechumens are exposed to a tour through the entirety of Scripture.

The catechumens are praised for their decision not to wait until their deathbed to request baptism, still a common practice in the late fourth century. By preparing for baptism while in good health, the catechumens will immediately begin to enjoy the benefits of eternal life while still on earth. Such current benefits, however, do not come without responsibilities. One such...

(The entire section is 1,022 words.)