Why are our churches languishing?

We have forsaken the Lord, and are become slaves of honor. We are no longer able to rebuke those who are under our rule, because we ourselves also are possessed with the same fever as they. We, who are appointed by God to heal others, need the physician ourselves. What further hope of recovery is there left, when the very physicians need the healing hand of others?
John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 4:4

They are just following their shepherds.

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John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 12 The equality of the Son and Father; the church as fountain of youth

In sermon his twelfth and final sermon On the Incomprehensible Nature of God John Chrysostom ends by once again focusing on one text of Scripture. In his final confrontation with the Anomoeans the preacher expounds the text of John 5 and the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda.

After noting how the power of Jesus is greater than that of angels (8-10),[1] marveling at the resolve of the paralytic (12-14), and explaining the rationale for Christ’s questionings of the man (15-23), Chrysostom gives three reasons for Christ’s command to take up the bed (24-31). Chrysostom uses this command as the catalyst of the narrative. By healing on the Sabbath and by commanding another man to break the Sabbath, Christ was demonstrating his glory. Jesus knew that doing such things would raise the ire of the religious leaders. But in doing so we only see Psalm 76:20 confirmed: Surely the wrath of man shall praise you.

This miracle demonstrates at least two core truths about Jesus. First, he is sinless.

If he transgressed the law, he sinned. But if he sinned, he would not have so much power. Where there is sin, there can be no manifestation of power. But he did show his power. Therefore, he did not transgress the law and did not sin. (32)

Secondly, he is God. Chrysostom zeroes in on Christ’s statement, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (43-52). Such a statement demands one of two options: Christ is God, or Christ is increasing his guilt. Jesus gave this response when the Jews questioned his healing on the Sabbath. The import of the saying is: I am doing this because this is what God does. To bring Chrysostom’s illustrations into our day: what if someone snatched out of the Oval Office said, “But this is where the President works.” Or what if a man went around letting people out jail saying, “This is the authority the President has.” If such a man were not, in fact, the President, he would be in for quite a rude awakening.

This is precisely what the statement of Jesus means. And the Jews realized it: “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”[2] One wonders how many Christians would realize the true meaning of this statement if John had not given us the Jew’s reaction to it. Throughout this series of sermons Chrysostom has shown this strength: bringing out the true force of Scriptural sayings.

The preacher closes out the sermon in the typical fashion with a pastoral exhortation to the congregation (53-59). Once again he exhorts them to faithful attendance at the services of the church:

Spiritual beauty cannot be developed perfectly anywhere else except in this marvelous and divine stronghold of the church. Here the apostles and prophets wipe clean and beautify the face, they strip away the marks of senility left by sin, they apply the bloom of youth, they get rid of every wrinkle, stain, and blemish from our souls. Therefore, let us all, men and women, be eager to implant this beauty in ourselves.(57)


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984). It is noted that Chrysostom’s text of Scripture included John 5:4: a verse excluded to the margin by some modern translations.

[2] John 5:18

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 11 The Father and Son share one Glory One Power

Though considered the 11th sermon in the series, this sermon is in some ways a first even though it was second. Confused yet? It appears that this sermon was the second sermon that John Chrysostom preached in Constantinople after his appointment as bishop. After an introduction in which he encourages his hearers and alludes to some elements of his first sermon in Constantinople, the preacher delves into the subject matter rather conversationally (1-7).[1]

Would it be better to base argument on the Old Testament or the New? Chrysostom astutely observed that it would be better to start with the Old Testament. He reasons that using the Old Testament allows him to confront a greater number of heretics (8). In many ways his reasoning still applies today. Non-Christians are not going to be surprised if the New Testament speaks of the glory of Jesus. No one is surprised to find Ipads in an Apple store. But if the glory of Christ can be demonstrated from the Old Testament, it is an even more impressive argument apologetically speaking.

Chrysostom begins at the beginning with the statement “Let us make man in our own image” (12-13). By saying “Let us” the Father demonstrates that the Son is an equal part in the work of creation. The Father has no counselor: Scripture makes this clear. But to show the glory of the Son, Scripture calls him Wonderful Counselor. No man knows the mind of the Lord. No one knows the Father except the Son. The Father creates man in counsel with the Son.

Together they make man in the image of God.

…when God said: “Let us make man,” he did not add: “According to your image which is less than mine.” Nor did he say: “According to my image which is greater than yours. What did God say? “According to our image and likeness.” And by speaking in this way, he showed that there is a single image of the Father and the Son. (23-24)

Chrysostom supports this assertion of equal power and glory with some careful exegesis. He notes to sit on a throne demonstrates power and glory, while to stand at a throne demonstrates the mark of a subordinate waiting for orders (25). So the Old Testament several times makes mention of the myriad of hosts attending the throne.[2] The Son is not one of these countless ministers to the Lord. The Son is seated with the Father, sharing in one glory.

Chrysostom concludes in his customary fashion: a pastoral exhortation. The preacher encourages his hearers not to forsake the assembly. Church[3] is where believers are fed by the word of the Lord (30). The gathering of the church is to be valued above all earthly treasure, there is nothing more valuable (31-33). The mere attendance is an encouragement to believers and a shame to the enemies of the cross (33-37). The habit of gathering serves to encourage other believers to faithfulness. When Christians see other members of the church lax in their attendance it is discouraging to them and might lead them to stop attending as well. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is what the church is: the body of Christ. As its head, Christ is always present when his church gathers. But where is his body?

Therefore, do not let the head to be allowed to set foot in this sacred place without its body, let not the body be seen without its head, but let whole human beings come in, head and body… (39)


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Dan. 7:9-10; Is. 6:1-2; 1 Kings 22:19

[3] By “church” I mean the gathered assembly of believers to worship the Lord and edify one another.

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 10: Phil. 2:5-8 What does the humiliation of Christ mean if he did not humble himself?

Sermon 10 is the last sermon on this subject that Chrysostom preached in Antioch before his “promotion” to Constantinople. As such, much of it is review and I will not take the time to go over it here again.

Towards the end of the sermon, however, Chrysostom brings out a crucial implication of Philippians 2:5-8 that I am not sure I have ever presented (50-56).[1] The crux of the passage is that Jesus humbled himself. The Son did not consider equality with the Father something he had to cling to jealously or seize with treachery. While Paul does not say in so many words that the Son was in fact equal with the Father, his whole argument demands it. If the Son were not equal to the Father it would not have been act of humility to take on flesh and submit to the Father’s will: it would have been duty. When my 3 year old son obeys me, he is not humbling himself. He “owes” me obedience. When I am “on the job” I am not humbling myself when I do what my boss tells me to do. I “owe” my boss that service.

But Jesus humbled himself. If Jesus humbled himself under the Father that means he had no obligation to do so. An inferior does not humble himself to his superior. A superior can humble himself to his inferior, or an equal can humble himself to his equal. And in fact, Jesus did both of these. As man’s superior Jesus humbled himself to be man’s servant. As the Father’s equal, Jesus humbled himself to be the Father’s Servant.


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Sermon 9, If Jesus is all-powerful does he need to pray to raise Lazarus?

Sermon 9 in Chrysostom’s series On the Incomprehensible Nature of God is short in length but mighty in exposition. While Chrysostom’s exegesis in sermon 8 left something to be desired, in sermon 9 he returns to a surgical precise treatment to completely undue the argument of his opponents.

The text under discussion is John 11:1-46. Chrysostom summarizes the view of the Anomoeans: “For many of the heretics are saying that the Son is not like the Father. Why? Because, they say, Christ had need of prayer to raise Lazarus back to life; if he had not prayed, he would not have brought him back from the dead” (1).[1] It is somewhat amusing that such an objection would be raised against the divinity of Christ. After all, if all it takes is prayer to raise the dead why don’t the Anomoeans simply pray to raise the dead? That would certainly lend some credence to their argument! In any event, Chrysostom simply excoriates such argument against Christ’s deity.

The Anomoeans, joined by Jews or Judaizing Christians,[2] began their assault in this text at the place where Jesus asked where Lazarus was laid (4). How can Jesus be omniscient when he does not know where Lazarus was laid? Rather than simply reverting to the standard “incarnational” or kenotic explanation, the preacher responds with some brilliant rhetorical questions of his own.

If Jesus is ignorant, then the Father must be too (5-6). Why did God ask Adam where he was? Did God not know? Why did God ask Cain where Abel was? Did God not know? Why did God tell Abraham he had to see if what he heard about the wickedness of Sodom was true? Did God not know? There must be a higher purpose to such questions from the Lord. Furthermore, returning to the text itself, if Jesus is not omnipotent how did he know four days beforehand that Lazarus was going to die? And in fact had already died? (10)

But Chrysostom does not dispense entirely with an argument based on the condescension of Jesus. The prayer of Jesus was an act of condescension to Martha who said “I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”[3] Jesus prayed because that was the extent of Martha’s faith. But Jesus had already demonstrated that he did not need to pray to raise the dead. Jesus simply told the widow’s son[4] and the young daughter of the synagogue ruler[5] to arise and they did (11). While Christ had the power to simply command the dead to rise, he condescended to pray because that is what Martha asked for.

Chrysostom explains this marvelously:

So Martha asked for prayers, and the Savior gave her prayers. Someone else said: “I am not worthy for you to come under my roof. But only speak the word, ‘Be it done to you,’ and my boy will be cured.” And the Savior said to him: “Be it done to you according to your faith.” Another man said: “Come and cure my daughter.” And Christ said to him: “I shall follow you.” Therefore, the physician applies the cure as men wish and desire it, just as at another time a woman secretly touched the hem of his robe and secretly she was cured. And Martha said: “I am sure that God will give you whatever you ask him.” Because she asked for prayer, the Savior gives her a prayer. But it was not because he had need to pray; it was because he was accommodating himself to her weakness. He was showing her that he was not opposed to God but that whatever he does, the Father also does. (14)

Such examples could of course be multiplied many times over. We can even see the same principle working in the opposite direction. When Jesus returned to his hometown to minister, “he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”[6] Chrysostom’s reasoning is Scriptural and undeniable. And he is only getting warmed up.

The enemies of truth say the prayer of Jesus proves that he does not have the same power of the Father. Chrysostom turns his attention to the prayer and simply obliterates the argument of the heretics. The questions he asks are simple, yet forcefully persuasive. What did Jesus ask for? Nothing (17). What did Jesus pray for concerning Lazarus himself? Nothing (18). Who did Jesus pray for? The living (18-19). When did Lazarus rise? When Jesus prayed? No. Afterwards, when Jesus commanded (20). The very prayer itself serves to support the preachers argument that the prayer was a condescension to Martha and those present. Jesus did not ask the Father to raise Lazarus. Jesus did not ask for the power to raise Lazarus. Lazarus had no place in the prayer of Jesus. Jesus did not need to pray, he only needed to command. And command he did.

“Lazarus, come out here!” The dead man heard the command of his master and immediately he broke the laws of death. Let the heretics be ashamed and perish from the face to the earth! Surely, Christ’s word has proved that the prayer was not uttered to raise the dead man but because of the weakness of the unbelievers who were, at the moment, nearby. “Lazarus, come forth!” Why did he call the dead man by name? Why? If he were to have given a general command to all the dead, he would have raised all those in the tomb back to life. But he did not wish to raise them all. That is why he said: “Lazarus, come forth! I am calling you alone to come back for a time. And I am calling you before the throng here present, so that, by raising one dead man to life, I may prove my power over those who are going to die. For I, who have raised one man, will raise up the whole world. For I am the resurrection and the life.”

“Lazarus, come forth!” And the dead man came forth bound with bandages. What marvelous and unexpected things Christ did! He loosed the soul from the bonds of death. He burst open the portals of hell. He shattered to bits the gates of bronze and the bolts of iron. (21-22)

This sermon in a prime of example of how John earned the name Chrysostom—golden mouth. It is a model of biblical exegesis and exposition.

 


[1] All parenthetical paragraph references refer to Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, The Fathers of the Church A New Translation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Chrysostom refers to “the Jews” throughout the sermon. Obviously Jews would be united with Anomoeans against the deity of Christ, but Harkins believe they may have been Judaizers since it seems they were conversant in the New Testament.

[3] John 11:22

[4] Luke 7:11-15

[5] Mark 5:40-42

[6] Matt. 13:58

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Sermon 8, Is Jesus Judge?

Sermon 8 in John Chrysostom’s series against the Anomoeans begins with a jaw-droppingly graphic description of the preaching event not likely to be endorsed in any contemporary homiletic text book:

Yesterday we returned from war, from a war and battle with the heretics. Our weapons were stained with blood, the sword of my discourse was red with gore. We did not strike down their bodies but we did destroy their arguments and “Every proud pretension which raises itself against the knowledge of God.” For such is the kind of battle this is and, therefore, such is the nature of the weapons. (1)[1]

Chrysostom is known for railing against Christian attendance at the theatre, games, and circus of the empire. We know from the beginning of the previous sermon the chariot races had begun. One might wonder if the preacher was not trying to out-spectacle the spectacles. But he does cite 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 convincingly. And I suppose if Paul can wish for the castration of his opponents,[2] we cannot fault Chrysostom for such thoughts.

The preacher moves on quickly to inform the congregation of the subject matter of the sermon to follow. The text of Matthew 20:23 will be under investigation: “He said to them, ‘You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’”(4). The Anomoeans present this text to assert that the Son must be lesser than the Father in some way. Chrysostom does not just flee to the standard method of using the temporary humility of the incarnation of the eternal Son. For this, I am thankful. Not because the standard argument is wrong, but because constant reliance upon such answers can serve to blunt spiritual maturity. Can one truly fight for the faith when he has never explored its depths? It can be more helpful to know how to discover the right answer than simply knowing the right answer.

Chrysostom’s first line of defense is to survey some of the verses that teach the Son indeed has the authority to judge. In Matthew there is the sheep and goat judgment and the parable of the 10 Virgins in Matthew 25; and the parable of the talents in Matthew 23:14-30 (7-15). In the gospel of John we read, “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son”[3] (17). From the gospels he turns to passages in Paul that speak of the Lord’s rewarding of his servans: 1 Cor. 3:8 and 2 Tim. 4:7-8. (20-22).

But even with passages such as these, the job is still only half-done. While Chrysostom has effectively demonstrated that the Son does indeed have the prerogative of judgment, there remains the substance of Matthew 20:23. If Jesus says he will grant and forbid entrance into the kingdom, why does he here state that he does not have the right to offer rewards? If Jesus has all authority, why can he not assign John and James their place in the kingdom? If Jesus does not have the right to grant rewards, why does Paul expect Jesus to reward him? The rest of the sermon (23-48) is devoted to answering such questions.

Chrysostom’s argument is amusing, but I do not find it ultimately persuasive. The preacher basically maintains that Jesus does not want to “poison the well,” as it were. If Jesus told John and James they would have positions of power, they might get proud, over-confident and lazy. If Jesus told John and James they would not have positions of authority, they might get discouraged and disinterested. In both situations the result would be the same: James and John would do less for the kingdom if they knew their position in it. Jesus is playing coy and holding out the kingdom as a sort of carrot. The summary of the argument in is paragraph 40:

Because Christ wished to prevent men from growing more careless and lax since they were expecting further honors, he led them away from this erroneous surmise when he said: “It is not mine to give,” but yours to take, if you should show the willingness to do so. He said this so that you might show greater earnestness, more pains, and abundant zeal. He was saying: “I grant crowns to deeds, I give honors to pains, I award the prize to him who sweats. In my eyes, the strongest proof is the proof which comes from deeds.”

As far as it goes, Chrysostom’s logic is sound. The problem is that he still does not address the crux of Matthew 20:23. The problem is not just that Jesus says it is not his reward to give; the problem is that he says this and that the Father has prepared it. It is telling, however, that every time Chrysostom quotes this text in the last half of the sermon he leaves off the words “by my Father.” These are the very words that undercut his argument; the very words that the heretics would cling to.

In keeping with the militaristic beginning of the sermon, Chrysostom did not fare so well on the battlefield this day. To defend the truth is a noble and high calling. To be zealous for truth is vital: but sometimes zeal blinds. If, in our zealousness to support the truth, we distort the truth; we are no longer fighting for the truth. God keep me from being a blood-thirsty pastor.

 

 


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] Gal. 5:12

[3] John 5:22

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 7: The Equality and Inequality of the Father and Son & Prayer

Sermon 7 marks a transition to a new area of debate: “whether the Son and the Father have the same power and might, whether they are of the same essence” (7).[1] As mentioned previously, the Anomoeans were Arians so they denied that the Father and Son were consubstantial.[2] Chrysostom has already been laying groundwork for his arguments in previous sermons, but now this subject gets his full attention.

The arguments of Chrysostom are pretty straight-forward; it is the same line of reasoning used by many today. Jesus has the same nature as the Father because he is begotten of the Father (8-10). Things begotten have the same nature as their begetter. Trees beget trees. Dogs beget dogs. Man begets man. God begets God. While Chrysostom will address objections of the Anomoeans, he does not address the problems inherent in our conception of begetting: namely, that something begotten must have a beginning.

The preacher does recognize a somewhat related argument however: Jesus is a son and so are we so there must not be any difference between us. Chrysostom responds that even though we are called sons of God, he is the only begotten Son. We are adopted, but he is begotten (11-12). Because Jesus is the only begotten, he shares in the glory and substance of the Father so Jesus says things like:

  • Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. John 14:9
  • I and the Father are one. John 10:30
  • For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. John 5:21
  • that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. John 5:23
  • My Father is working until now, and I am working. John 5:17

Chrysostom anticipates the Scriptural objection his foes will raise: there are multiple passages that demonstrate the Son is lower than the Father. For example, the fact that the Son prays to the Father shows he does not have the same power (14-15). Chrysostom gives four main reasons for this phenomenon of Scripture.

First, the incarnation (16-17). Jesus had to demonstrate that he was true man. As a man Jesus was completely dependent upon the Father. If Christ did not demonstrate that he was true man, what hope could man have for his salvation?

Second, the inability of his hearers to comprehend the truth (18-26). This idea of Jesus’ condescension to his hearers is a destructive weapon in the hands of liberal critics of the Scripture, but Chrysostom handles it well. Over and over again, the foes and disciples of Jesus responded with wonder, anger, disgust, and revulsion to Jesus’ “more sublime words” (18). Had Christ simply appeared on the scene teaching and only taught the deeper spiritual truths about his identity, he would have quickly lost all hearers.

Third, to teach humility (27). As the preacher states,

If someone is teaching humility of heart, he does this not only by what he says but by what he does. He is moderate in both word and deed. Christ said: “Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart.”

Fourth, to make clear that God is not a monad (28). The truth of the Trinity is multifaceted and incomprehensible. As has been said, try to understand it and you will lose your mind; deny it and you will lose your soul. Had Jesus only taught his unity with the Father, it would have been even easier to fall into the belief that there is only one person in God. Even with the mixed testimony of Scripture, Sabellius found enough to teach that the Father and Son are not two distinct persons. Without the teaching about Christ’s humility, it would be even easier to fall into this heresy.

The remainder of the sermon is devoted to a fuller explanation of how the incarnation “lowered” the Son to a place of prayer (34-54). For this, Chrysostom devotes his attention to the apostle John’s account of the last supper and Jesus’ prayer in the garden.

The sermon is concluded with another exhortation on prayer (55-64).

Surely, prayer is a harbor for those caught in a storm; it is an anchor for those tossed by the waves; it is a staff for those who stumble. Prayer is a treasure for the poor, security for the rich, a cure for the sick, a safeguard for those in good health. It keeps our blessing inviolable and quickly changes our ills to good. If temptation comes, it is easily repelled. If loss of possessions or any of the other things which cause grief to our souls befall us, prayer is quick to drive them all away. Prayer is a refuge from every sorrow, a basis for cheerfulness, a means for continual pleasure, a mother for our philosophy and way of life. (61)


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[2] See post on sermon 4

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 6: On the office of elder and the commercialization of Christmas

The sixth sermon in this series has no explicit treatment on God’s incomprehensibility, yet it is instructive in other ways. The sermon is a panegyric[1] delivered on the feast day of Philogonius.

In the sermon we see something of Chrysostom’s concept of the communion of the saints. The preacher is careful to emphasize that the remembrance of the departed saint does nothing to add to his glory in heaven. Instead, it is the living who draw encouragement and are even bettered by contemplating the lives of those departed saints (2,3).[2] Those saints who have gone onto heaven in no way need our prayers for they have entered perfect rest.

For today marks the anniversary of his entrance into a life of peace and calm in heaven. There, in heaven, he has moored his ship in a harbor in which there can be no suspicion of future shipwreck, fear, or pain. (3)

Chrysostom offers a meditation on Hebrews 12:22-23[3] and the themes of the church on earth and in heaven and on the celebration of feasts on earth and in heaven (5-10). The pinnacle of the differences is described by Chrysostom in paragraph 9:

Truly this is a marvelous festal gathering, What makes it greater than all others is the fact that, in the midst of the assembly, moves the king of all who are gathered there. After Paul[4] had said: “To countless angels in festal gatherings,” he went on to say: “And to God the judge of all.” And who ever saw a king coming to a festival? Here on earth no one has ever seen it. But those who are in heaven constantly behold their king, They can see him in their midst and they can also see how he sheds on all who are gathered there the brightness of his own glory.

The preacher does not mention it, but this actually relates to his earlier sermons in this series. The very first sermon was on the subject of man’s imperfect knowledge of God. Though barely mentioned, Chrysostom’s assumption throughout that sermon was that man’s knowledge would one day be “perfect.” In sermons three and four Chrysostom repeatedly asserted that the angles failure to “see” God meant they could not know God. So we begin to see that the beatific vision is reserved for those who have entered eternal rest. What is the true extent of that knowledge of God? Is it comprehensive? Chrysostom does not address these questions.

In remembering Philogonius Chrysostom has some very pastoral counsel for those who would seek greatness in the service of Christ:

Listen to the words Christ spoke to Peter after the resurrection. Christ asked him: “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter replied: “Lord, you know that I love you.” What did Christ then say? He did not say: Throw away your money. Fast from food. Live the hard life. Raise the dead, Drive out demons.” Christ did not bring forward or command any of these things or any other miracle or act of virtue. He passed all these by and said: “If you love me, feed my sheep.” Why did Christ say this? Because he wished to show us not only what is the strongest sign of love for him but also to point out the love which he himself shows for his sheep. So now he makes this the strongest proof which Peter can give of his love for him. For Christ’s words practically mean: “He who loves my sheep loves me.” (16)

Chrysostom continues blessing the office of the elder and Philogonius’ service in it (14-22), but of more interest to the modern hearer is what the preacher turns his attention to in the second half of his address (23-41). The feast day of Philogonius falls on December 20 which is, of course, just days before the celebration of Christmas. It is this celebration that Chrysostom devotes the rest of his sermon to.

I sometimes sympathize with those who question the celebration of Christmas. After all, no such observance is enjoined by Scripture and December 25 was almost certainly not the day Jesus was born. Yet in a very practical sense, Chrysostom is right to call it “the mother of all holy days” (23). Obviously,

Had Christ not been born in the flesh, he would not have been baptized, which is the Theophany or Manifestation; nor would he have been crucified, which is the Pasch; nor would he have sent down the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So it is that, just as different rivers arise from a source, these other feasts have their beginning from the birth of Christ. (24)

Chrysostom seems to look down into our own say when he seems to speak of the commercialization of Christmas. (Or perhaps, we should see that our day was not so different from his.) The preacher pinpoints why some care so little for the day:

Away with the business of the law courts! Away with the business of the City Council! Away with daily affairs together with their contracts and business deals! I wish to save my soul. “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his soul?” The magi went forth from Persia. You go forth from the affairs of daily life. Make your journey to Jesus; it is not far to travel if we are willing to make the trip. (34)

Indeed, the soul that contemplates the mystery of the Incarnation of the Messiah cannot help but to celebrate the day:

He became a man, he took upon himself the form of a servant, he was spat upon, he was slapped in the face, and, finally, he did not refuse to die the most shameful death. For he poured forth his blood on the cross. (17)
For the fact that Christ, who became man, also died was a consequence of his birth. Even though he was free from any sin, he did take upon himself a mortal body, and that should make us marvel. That he who is God was willing to become man, that he endured to accommodate himself to our weakness and come down to our level is too great for our minds to grasp. It makes us shudder with the deepest holy fear; it fills us with terror and trembling. (25)

So in a fitting pastoral application, especially for a year like this in which Christmas falls on Sunday, Chrysostom exhorts:

And this is why I ask and beg all of you to be here in church for that feast with all zeal and alacrity. Let each of us leave his house empty so that we may see our master wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. This is a sight which is filled with holy fear and trembling. It is incredible beyond our every expectation.
What defense or excuse will we have when, for our sake, he comes down from heaven, but we do not even leave our homes to come to him? The magi were strangers and foreigners from Persia. Yet they came to see him lying in the manger. Can you, a Christian, not bear to give a brief measure of time to enjoy this blessed sight? (26-27)

 


[1] A panegyric is a festival speech. It is classified as epideictic rhetoric. “Epideictic is perhaps best regarded as including any discourse, oral or written, that does not aim at a specific action or decision but seek to enhance knowledge, understanding, or belief, often through praise or blame, whether of persons, things, or values.” G.A. Kennedy, “The Genres of Rhetoric,” in S.E. Porter, Handbook of Classical Rhetoric in the Hellenistic Period, 330 B.C-A.D. 400 (Leiden: Brill, 1997) 43-50 cited in David E. Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 162.

[2] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

[3] But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (ESV)

[4] Chrysostom, as with most patristic writers, attributed authorship of Hebrews to Paul.

John Chrysostom On The Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 5: Only the Trinity knows the Trinity

Sermon 5 is the longest sermon in the series of 12 sermons On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, but like the previous two sermons Chrysostom has lengthy conclusion that has little to do with the stated thesis of the series as the final third of the sermon deals with the subject of prayer (43-62). [1]

Chrysostom deals intricately with the texts of John 1:18 and 6:46, “No one has ever seen God. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, himself declared him. Not that anyone has seen the Father except him who is from God, he has seen the Father.” The fact that “no one” has seen the Father except the Son is not meant to exclude the Holy Spirit, but all created beings (5-6). For support, Chrysostom turns to Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 2:11, “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (7). This is certainly delicate reasoning, but it is sound. “No one” cannot exclude the Spirit in John or the Son in 1 Corinthians. Because we know God’s word is true and his testimony concerning himself is trustworthy, John 1:18; 6:46; and 1 Cor. 2:11 must all be true. So “no one” must indeed refer to all creatures outside of the Trinitarian communion.

Chrysostom then enters into a discussion that is, frankly, an amazing display of exegesis. The preacher turns his attention to 1 Corinthians 8:6, “yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” As “no one” separates the Trinity from all creation, so “one” separates the Trinity to itself. To prove the equality of the Son and Father Chrysostom demonstrates that “God” and “Lord” are used interchangeably of the Father and Son. Paragraph 12 offers a concise summary,

 Some names are common to several; others are proper to one. There are common names to show that the essence is exactly the same; there are proper names to characterize what is proper to the personal realities. The names “Father” and “Son” characterize what is proper to the personal realities; the names “God” and “Lord” show what is common. Therefore, after Paul set down the common name of “one God,” he had to use the proper name so that you might know of whom he was speaking. He did this to prevent us from falling into the madness of Sabellius.

The preacher then goes through Old and New Testament Scriptures demonstrating that the Father and Son are each called Lord and God (13-24). Returning to his main text, Chrysostom again asserts that knowledge necessitates identity. As men do not know the essence of angels, so neither angels nor men know the essence of God. The preacher goes even further in an amusing fashion. Not only are men incapable of knowing the essence of angels or God, they are incapable of knowing their own essence:

 And why should I speak of what kind of essence the soul has? It is not even possible to say how it exists in the body. What answer could anyone give to this question? That it is extended throughout the bulk of the body? But that is absurd. To exist that way is proper only to bodies. That this is not the way that the soul exists in the body is clear from this example. If a man’s hands and feet are amputated, the soul remains whole and entire and is in no way mutilated by the maiming of the body.
Then it does not exist in the whole body but has it been gathered together in some part of the body? If that is true, the rest of the parts must be dead, because whatever lacks a soul is altogether dead. But we cannot say that. What we must say is that we know not that the soul is in our bodies but that we do not know how it is there. God has shut us off from this knowledge of the soul for a reason. So that, out of his great superiority, he might curb our tongues, hold us in check, and persuade us to remain on earth and not to meddle out of curiosity with matters which are beyond us. (28-29)

This also points to an important conclusion to be made plain before Chrysostom turns his attention to prayer. There is something inherently off-putting to the statement that a person cannot comprehend God. Even when time is taken to explain weight of “comprehend”; even when it is acknowledged that things can be truly known of God; for some it is hard to hear that God cannot be known in his essence. Chrysostom has a helpful analogy:

 Tell me this. Suppose that two men are obstinately arguing with each other about whether they can know how large the sky is. Suppose that one of them says that it is impossible for the human eye to encompass it, and the other would contend that it was possible for a man to measure the entire sky by using the span of his hand. Which of these two would we say would know the size of the sky? Would it be the one who argues how many spans wide the sky is? Or would it be the one who admits that he does not know? Surely the man who admits he does not know the size of the sky when he sees its magnitude will have a better understanding of how large the sky is. When it is a question of God, will we not use the same discretion? Would it not be the ultimate madness if we failed to do so? (39)

Underlying the sermons of Chrysostom is a trust in the word of Scripture. This trust underlies his philosophy and epistemology too. It is not adventurous, brave, or noble, to go beyond the bounds of Scripture. It is folly and madness. Neither is it weak or ignoble to rest content in the knowledge that Scripture does provide. To stay within the bounds of Scripture is true security, it is full sanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God Sermon 4: with thoughts on the Trinitarian significance of the phrase “only begotten Son.”

As with the third sermon, Chrysostom offers little new in the form of argument in the fourth sermon in his series On the Incomprehensible Nature of God.  In the first 10 paragraphs Chrysostom recapitulates the argument of the previous sermon.[1] The final 19 paragraphs are a pastoral exhortation to attend carefully and reverently the service of the church. In the intervening paragraphs Chrysostom again attempts to advance the argument that the angels cannot comprehend God.

In sermon 4, Chrysostom returns from the speculative arguments in his previous sermon to more exegetically sound footing. He begins with thoughts on Ephesians 3:8-10:

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.

Again we see that an aspect of God is described as unknowable: his riches in Christ. And again the argument is pressed, “If the riches are unfathomable, how could he who gave the gift of the riches fail himself to be unfathomable?” (15). Beyond this, we see that God is using the church to teach the angels about his own wisdom. Therefore the same type of argument pursued so effectively in sermon 1 applies to angels as well: if they do not know the wisdom of God they “do not have a perfect comprehension of God’s essence” (13).

Unfortunately, this treatment is all too brief (11-16) for in the remaining chapters the preacher falls into the same errors as he did in the previous sermon. Paragraphs 17-31 are an exposition of John 1:18, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” Chrysostom offers the standard explanation to harmonize this verse with those passages that speak of individuals “seeing” God: namely, that God manifested himself in an act of condescension without revealing his eternal essence. As in the previous sermon, when Chrysostom sticks to the intended referent of the text (i.e. man) he does well, but when he attempts to apply it to angels he goes off-track. In trying to argue so strongly for his position, he actually weakens it. The preacher would have been better served devoting more time to passages the clearly speak of the ignorance of angels (Eph. 3:10; 1 Peter 1:12); or on passages that speak of the exclusivity of God’s knowledge of himself.

Nevertheless, Chrysostom does offer some thought worthy commentary on the title, “only begotten Son.”

The name son belongs to men and it belongs to the Christ. But it belongs to us by analogy; it belongs to Christ in its proper sense. The title only begotten is his alone and belongs to no one else, even by analogy. Therefore, from the title which belongs to no one but to him alone you must understand that the title Son, which belongs to many, is his in its proper sense and meaning. This is why John first said, “only begotten,” and then, “Son.” (26)

While this series of sermons is identified as On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, the Anomoeans had more problems than the belief they could know God as God knows himself. They were Arians and so regarded Christ as less than God. Chrysostom will address this aspect of their heresy in later sermons, but he is already laying the groundwork for that.

Speaking of the Trinity is inherently dangerous, yet it is even more dangerous not to speak of it. Almost everything that can be said rightly about the Trinity can be taken the wrong way, or understood incorrectly. The most biblically accurate way we can speak of the Trinity is in the terms, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Yet there are potential pitfalls even here. If there is “Father” and “Son” there must be a time when the Son was not. If there is “Father” and “Son”,  and “Holy Spirit” can we really consider the Spirit a person? Chrysostom begins to address this difficulty by reminding us of the true nature of the analogical language used of the Trinity.

When we speak of a son of a father we naturally understand that there was a time during which the father existed and the son did not. Until 1974, my father existed and I did not. The Arians took this analogically and applied it to the Trinitarian relationship of the Father and the Son: there was a time when the Son was not. But Chrysostom reminds us that they are reversing the analogy. Jesus is not the Son to the Father in all the ways that I am son to my father. Rather, I am son to my father in ways that Jesus is Son to his Father. I love my father, I trust my father, I seek to please my father, I have my father’s nature. These, and not procreation, are essential to the nature of “sonship.” If procreation were essential to sonship, we would not have adoption.

The use of “only begotten” simply reinforces this. “From this title you may believe that the common title of son is not common but is peculiar to him and belongs to no other as it does to him. Mysteriously, “only begotten” and “son” combine to teach us to put aside as untrue one of our certainties when consider the relation of the Father and the Son. If Jesus is the only Son of the Father, the Father and Son must both be eternal. If God is Father of only one Son, and if he is eternal, he must be eternally a Father of that Son. If the Son did not exist, neither would the Father. How is he Son? Because he is begotten. How is he without beginning? Because he is only begotten.

 


[1] All paragraph references refer to those in Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984).