Saint John Chrysostom

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(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Areas of Achievement: Religion and oratory Archbishop of Constantinople{$I[g]Asia Minor;Saint John Chrysostom[Chrysostom]}{$I[g]Roman Empire;Saint John Chrysostom[Chrysostom]} John Chrysostom, the greatest homiletic preacher of the Greek church, became the patron saint of preachers.

Early Life

John Chrysostom (KRIHS-uhs-tuhm), which means “golden mouth,” was raised by a devout mother, Anthousa, who had been widowed at the age of twenty. He received a first-rate education, especially in rhetoric, and his teachers are supposed to have included the renowned orator Libanius and the philosopher Andragathius. Libanius, when asked on his deathbed who should succeed him as head of his school of rhetoric, is said to have replied: “John, if the Christians had not stolen him from us.” John’s theological studies were undertaken at the renowned exegetical school of Antioch under one of the most illustrious scholars of the period, Diodore of Tarsus. The school favored literal rather than allegorical interpretation of the Bible.

Life’s Work

According to Palladius’s Dialogus de vita S. Joannis Chrysostomi (c. 408; Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom, 1921), “when [John] was eighteen, a mere boy in years, he revolted against the sophists of word-mongering, for he had arrived at man’s estate and thirsted for living knowledge.” Like many early Christians, Chrysostom did not receive baptism until he was about twenty years old. He became a deacon in 381 under Bishop Meletius, a native of Armenia, whose protégé Chrysostom quickly became. To this period of deaconship (381-386) probably belongs his six-book De sacerdotio (On the Priesthood, 1728), a classic on the subject and one of the jewels of patristic literature. Book 5 is of particular interest because, like book 4 of Saint Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana (426; On Christian Doctrine, 1875), it constitutes a veritable monograph on the art and science of preaching. Book 6 is also of interest in that it contrasts the active with the contemplative life. Chrysostom had already been attracted to the rigors of the latter; he had spent four years in the mountains sharing ascetic life with an old hermit. This ascetic interlude is reflected in several treatises he wrote on monastic life, including two exhortations to his friend Theodore, later bishop of Mopsuestia, who was growing tired of the monastic way of life, and the three-book Adversus subintroductas, which defended monasticism. In the sixth book of On the Priesthood, however, Chrysostom spoke out in favor of the active life, arguing that saving the souls of others demands more effort and generosity than merely saving one’s own. He was ordained to the priesthood in 386 and remained in Antioch until 398; most of his great homilies belong to this period. They include more than seventy homilies on Genesis, six on Isaiah, and a particularly fine commentary on fifty-eight selected psalms. Also surviving are ninety homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, eighty-eight on the Gospel of John, fifty-five on the Acts of the Apostles, and thirty-two on Romans, this latter the finest of all his works. Almost half his surviving homilies are expositions of the Epistles of Saint Paul, his lifelong model. A series of seven homilies in praise of Paul survive among his many panegyrics on the saints of the Old and New Testaments.

Chrysostom’s reputation as a pulpit orator became so widespread during his Antioch years that he was chosen to succeed Nectarius, archbishop of Constantinople, on the latter’s death; he was consecrated on February 26, 398, by Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria. According to Palladius, Theophilus disliked John, “for his custom all along was not to ordain good and shrewd men lest he make a mistake. He wished to have them all weak-willed men whom he could influence.”

Despite this ominous installation, Chrysostom entered on a comprehensive program of reform of church officials and church revenues; he even...

(The entire section is 1,356 words.)