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John Chrysostom: Introduction

by David Bercot


It is with great irony that I find myself writing an introduction to a commentary. I say that because it is no secret that Iím highly critical of most Bible commentaries. So have I changed my viewpoint? Not at all.

The fact is that the subject work is not really a commentary in the true sense of the word. John Chrysostom wrote few, if any, commentaries. What you actually have before you is a collection of New Testament exegetical sermons preached by Chrysostom that I have bookmarked by chapter and verses. These bookmarks enable you to use this collection of expository sermons in place of a commentary.

The problem I have with New Testament commentators is that they purport to know exactly what the Bible writers meant to say. They pretend to have some sort of inside information on New Testament church life and on daily life in New Testament times. They represent themselves as thoroughly understanding ancient customs, early Christian attitudes, and first-century koinť Greek. Of course, it would be wonderful if they had such knowledge. However, they donít. As a result, their commentaries are filled with historical and biblical errors, and their grasp of New Testament Greek falls far short of their representations.

In reality, what commentators invariably give their readers is a New Testament narrative that has been remolded to fit Reformation theology and modern social attitudes. Instead of shedding light on Scripture, most commentaries divert attention away from what the Scriptures are actually saying. I have given many specific examples of what Iím talking about in my book, Will the Theologians Please Sit Down.

The Use of Bible Study Aids

Am I saying that there is no place for Bible study aids? Certainly not. When we read the New Testament, our aim should be to receive from these Scriptures the same understanding the New Testament Christians received. What the Holy Spirit was saying in the first century is still the same thing He is saying today. Like Jesus, He doesnít change. ďJesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and foreverĒ (Heb. 13:8).

The problem is that none of us are in a position to understand the New Testament writings exactly the same way the New Testament Christians did. We donít speak first century koinť Greek. We live in a world with very different customs, attitudes, and way of life. Church life in the first century was considerably different than what most of us experience today. So obviously we need assistance if weíre going to be able to read the New Testament with the same understanding the first century Christians had.

But where do we turn for such assistance?

The Early Christian Witness

Obviously, it would be nice if we had copious writings from the first century Christians that would shed light on how those Christians understood the New Testament. However, outside of the New Testament we donít have any writings from first century Christiansóexcept perhaps the Didache and First Clement.

Nevertheless, we do have several volumes of writings from articulate Christians who lived in the second century. Their works shed enormous light on early Christianity and on New Testament koinť Greek. However, their writings are arranged neither topically nor by Scripture verse. So itís not easy to use the early Christian writings directly as a Bible study aid. To remedy this situation, in 1998 I prepared a topical index to the early Christian writings, entitled A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. However, even this topical Dictionary doesnít provide a verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture. But there is something that does!

Early Christian Sermons

The normal method of preaching in the early church was for the minister to go through the Bible exegetically, verse by verse, from Sunday to Sunday. Itís too bad that we donít have transcripts of the expository sermons preached by some of the personal disciples of the apostlesósuch as Polycarp or Clement of Rome. Such a collection of sermons would be invaluable. But in that age of persecution, nobody thought about making or preserving transcriptions of sermons.

As a result, the only exegetical pre-Nicene works we have are a handful of Origenís commentaries and sermons. Origen was such a celebrated teacher that a few prosperous Christians paid scribes to record and transcribe his insights on Scripture, book by book. Although Origenís commentaries and sermons are extremely valuable, they are filled with so many lengthy speculations and detailed analysis that they are often impractical to use as a Bible aid. Furthermore, only a few of Origenís commentaries and sermons have survived intact.

This brings us to John Chrysostom. The subject collection of his sermons are the earliest New Testament commentary we have (other than the aforementioned handful of extant commentaries of Origen). Happily, we have Chrysostomís exegetical sermons for most of the New Testament: Matthew and John, Acts, and all of Paulís letters (including Hebrews).

Who Was John Chrysostom?

John Chrysostom was born in Antioch in A. D. 349. Although the facts about his early life are unclear, it appears that both of his parents were pagans. Chrysostom received a thorough secular education as a young man. He converted to Christianity sometime in his twenties, at a time when Christianity was the state religion of the Roman empire. Chrysostom was an extremely committed Christian from the outset, and he lived a very disciplinedóand at timesóascetic life.

A few years after his conversion, John Chrysostom was ordained as a deacon in the church of Antioch. Between the years 386 to 397, Chrysostom served as an elder or presbyter in the same church. During this period, he quickly established a reputation as one of the best exegetical teachers of his day. As a result, various listeners took down his sermons or homilies in shorthand and transcribed them. These transcriptions are what comprise the subject work.

After his period of ministry in Antioch, Chrysostom was ordained as bishop of Constantinople, the capital of the eastern Roman empire. However, Chrysostomís uncompromising preaching against the vanities of the rich brought him into conflict with Eudoxia, the wife of the eastern Roman Emperor. Eudoxia used her political power to eventually force Chrysostom out of office and have him sent into exile.

After his death, Chrysostom was given the appellation of chrysostomos, which means ďgolden-mouthed.Ē The title didnít mean that he was a spellbinding orator or that he used flowery, eloquent language. To be sure, Chrysostom was an articulate, forceful speaker. But the designation of chrysostomos refers more to his ability to expound the Scriptures in language that was clear and meaningful to the average Christian.

What to Expect From Chrysostomís Sermons

As you read Chrysostomís exposition of the New Testament, youíll no doubt be met by a number of surprises. First, youíll notice that his understanding of Scripture often differs from the explanations of Scripture youíve heard all of your life. Thereís a reason for this. When you read his sermons, youíre hearing an exposition of Scripture that is largely untouched by the various theological systems that have developed over the centuries. Youíre breathing in the fresh air of early Christianity.

Notably, Chrysostomís expositions of Scripture are free from Augustineís influence. Augustine has so dominated western theologyóboth Roman Catholic and Protestantóthat most western Christians have never heard an exposition of Scripture that was not influenced by Augustineís doctrines. Even commonly accepted evangelical doctrines such as ďsalvation by faith aloneĒ and unconditional eternal security are built on the foundations of Augustineís assumptions. So donít be surprised to find that Chrysostom knows nothing about such doctrines.

Second, youíll notice that Chrysostomís understanding of New Testament Greek often differs from what we find in our English Bible translations. This is significant because Chrysostom lived in a time when New Testament koinť Greek was still the language of the day. It was the language that Chrysostom grew up speaking. Undoubtedly, there were changes in the everyday Greek language between the first century and the fourth century. Yet, a native speaker like Chrysostom unquestionably understood New Testament koinť Greek more accurately than men like Luther and Erasmus who learned Greek as a second language, fifteen hundred years after the New Testament was written.

Third, Chrysostomís grasp of New Testament customs often contrasts with the pseudo-knowledge presented in medieval, Reformation, and modern commentaries. Chrysostom was born in the middle-eastern city of Antioch, the very place where the disciples of Jesus first became known as Christians. He didnít have to speculate about life in the ancient mid-Eastern world. He lived in it!

How to Use This Commentary

As with any Bible aid, itís important to keep in mind that Chrysostomís expositions are a fallible Bible study tool. His expositions should always be subordinated to the text of Scripture itself. So before reading his exposition of a passage, you should always first carefully read the Bible passage itself. Listen to what the Bible text actually says and ask yourself the question: ďIf I didnít know any better, what would I think this passage was saying?Ē In other words, if you had never been exposed to any doctrinal teaching or modern commentary, what would you think the text was saying? What is the most natural and literal reading of this passage?

Once you have read and re-read the Scripture passage, drawing out what you think is the literal and natural meaning, then you are ready to read Chrysostomís exposition of that passage. After reading his exposition, see if it matches what you concluded the passage is literally saying. It should. If it doesnít, donít simply dismiss Chrysostomís explanation as being off base. No, go back and analyze why his explanation is different from your own. Ask yourself the question: ďWhose explanation is more literal, Chrysostomís or mine?Ē If you have scrutinized things honestly, you may realize that even when you tried to read the New Testament passage with a blank slate, your preconceptions have still colored your understanding of the text.

If Chrysostomís exposition still doesnít seem to fit the literal language of the text, it may reveal another issue. Go back and re-read carefully what Chrysostom has to say. You may discover that the reason Chrysostomís explanation of the passage doesnít seem to follow the literal language of Scripture is that he is understanding the Greek differently from the way it is translated in our English Biblesóas I previously mentioned.

In that regard, I should explain that this John Chrysostom New Testament Commentary has been prepared from the English translations of Chrysostomís works contained in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers set. To make Chrysostomís sermons easier to use for their readers, the editors of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers inserted into Chrysostomís sermons reference texts as worded in the King James Version. However, again, when you carefully read Chrysostomís exposition of a particular passage, you will often realize that he is understanding the Greek differently than the way the King James translators have rendered it.

Please understand that Iím not asking you to uncritically accept whatever Chrysostom says. I donít do that, and I certainly donít want you to. But if you are willing to momentarily set aside your own preconceptions, this work can open your eyes to things in the New Testament that you never saw before.

Of course, this approach to Bible study only works if your sole, heartfelt desire is to learn what the Bible really teaches. It will not work for a person whose main objective is to find support for the presuppositions of their particular church. No matter how many times they read Scripture, such people will only find support for their own presuppositions. A Bible study aid like the present one will be of little use to them.

Chapters and Verses

The system of New Testament chapters and verses with which we are all familiar was not part of the original New Testament. The chapter divisions we know were largely created by the Roman Catholic cardinal, Stephen Langton, in 1205. The modern New Testament verse system was created by Robert Stephanus in 1551. Since these chapter and verse divisions were not around when Chrysostom preached, donít be surprised to discover that Chrysostomís preaching doesnít necessarily follow the chapter and verse divisions we know.

To be sure, in each of his sermons, Chrysostom tried to discuss a complete Scriptural thought. So he did look for natural divisions in the text. And his sections often correspond to our modern chapter and verse divisions. But not always. At first, you may find this incongruity annoying. However, hopefully over time, you will appreciate this difference. I say that because we often donít realize that our man-made chapter and verse divisions do influence how we interpret Scripture. Using Chrysostomís sermons as a Bible study aid has helped me to become more aware of that fact.

Modern Criticisms of John Chrysostom

In recent times, Chrysostom has come under fire for a series of sermons he gave against Judaism and Judaizing Christians. Those sermons are not contained in this work, as they are not part of his exegetical teaching. This modern criticism of Chrysostom largely reflects the ecumenical spirit of our modern age, which makes it politically and religiously incorrect to say anything negative about Jews or Judaism. Although I wonít defend the harsh tone of the sermons in question, what Chrysostom said is an uncomfortable truth for today: that Christ is the only way to salvation. Judaism is not an alternate route to heaven, but a rejection of Godís revelation to mankind. Chrysostom was not anti-Semitic, but he was uncompromising in saying that God had rejected the Jewish nation.

Actually, the Jews were not the main ones to suffer under the new ďChristianizedĒ Roman empire. The treatment of dissenting Christian groups (like the Donatists) and non-orthodox groups (like the Arians) was far more severe than the treatment of Jews. Ever since the time of the Nicene council, heretical and dissident Christian groups were forbidden to meet, and their church property had been confiscated by the state. The penalty for being caught with any of Ariusí writings was death. No similar restrictions and penalties had been put on the Jews.

Remember: Chrysostom Was Post-Nicene

As valuable as Chrysostomís sermons are, itís important to always remember that John Chrysostom was a post-Nicene Christian. When Chrysostom converted to Christianity, he became part of the institutional church that had already departed from original, historic Christianity in some key areas. In the half century between the Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) and Chrysostomís conversion (c. 375), major changes had come into this visible church. The most significant among these changes had been the joinder of church and state. This had led to the rise of religious persecution, the acceptance of war, and a complete loss of understanding about the key Christian doctrine of the two kingdoms.

Furthermore, the Council of Nicaea marked the beginning of a type of Christianity that focused more on theology than on an obedient love-faith relationship with Jesus Christ. That focus continued to grow more and more in the decades and centuries that followed Nicaea. The institutional church became less concerned about true godliness than it was about ďorthodoxĒ theology. Unfortunately, what the church called ďorthodoxĒ became further and further removed from the original, historic faith. Fortunately, most of those changes in doctrine occurred after the time of Chrysostom.

I have chosen John Chrysostomís sermons because they are the earliest set of New Testament expository sermons we have. Obviously, if we had the expository sermons of Ignatius or Irenaeus or Hippolytus, I would have used their sermons for this work, instead of Chrysostomís. But we donít have their sermons. Happily, in most areas, Chrysostomís teaching is very similar to that of the pre-Nicene Christians. The vast majority of what Chrysostom says could just have easily come from the mouth of one of the pre-Nicene church leaders, such as Irenaeus or Hippolytus.

The main difference you will see between Chrysostom and the pre-Nicene writers is when it comes to the subject of the Trinity. Even here, the difference is not so much in what he believed but in his spirit. The Nicene Creed accurately reflects what both Chrysostom and the pre-Nicene Christians affirmed. However, the pre-Nicene Christians recognized that in this life we will never fully understand the nature of the Trinity. We see only dimly, and many of the Scripture passages dealing with the Trinity are ambiguous. The pre-Nicene Christians present the truths that were later encapsulated into the Nicene Creed in a gentle, non-condemnatory mannerórealizing that these are truths that are very hard to grasp.

In contrast, the post-Nicene Christians were very dogmatic and judgmental about the same doctrinesóas were their opponents, the Arians. The post-Nicene Christians not only condemned the Arians themselves, but even unsophisticated Christians who innocently expressed a misunderstanding of the Trinity. As a result, the post-Nicene Christian leaders created an atmosphere where soon the Bible was viewed as a book too dangerous for ďordinaryĒ Christians to read and interpret for themselves.

Still, as I have said, most of Chrysostomís sermons reflect the spirit and simple theology of the pre-Nicene church. Except when it comes to the Trinity, Chrysostomís sermons are usually free of post-Nicene developed theology. In this regard, Chrysostom stands in marked contrast to his contemporary, Augustine. Chrysostomís sermons are also free of the speculations that characterize Origenís exegetical works.

Furthermore, like most of the pre-Nicene teachers, Chrysostom usually focuses more on lifestyle than on theological doctrine. When he expounds on the Sermon on the Mount, he doesnít water down Jesusí radical commandments, as does Augustine. And as you will see, he has no qualms against taking on the rich and powerful in his sermons. Furthermore, Chrysostom lived everything he taught. In the end, he suffered death in exile rather than to compromise the gospel. He is certainly a worthy teacher from whom we can learn much!

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As most of our readers know, we do not recommend the use of modern commentaries. Thatís because the information in them is so often inaccurate and untruthful. At the same time, we recognize that many New Testament passages are difficult for the modern reader to understand. We donít speak the same language, we live in a very different culture, and so many changes have come into the church during the past 2000 years. It certainly would be handy to know how the early Christians understood various New Testament passages. more.
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