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Heart of Gold, Mouth of Gold

John Chrysostom’s Commitment, Communication, & Conception of the Pastoral Office

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

(Completed in December 5, 1996, in fulfillment of the requirements for the J. R. Wilson Preaching lectures delivered by Dr. Robert S. Rayburn)

In Antioch and then in Constantinople, John Chrysostom grew in wisdom and stature with men and God as a preacher and pastor. What was the source of his reputation as the “golden mouth”? According to J.N.D. Kelley, Chrysostom was a skillful orator who could compose Greek of “near-Attic quality.” But:

It would be a mistake, however, to find in it alone the clue to his success as a popular preacher, since relatively few in his avid audience can have been literary connoisseurs. What must have counted much more with them were the extraordinary clarity of his diction (a clarity which Isidor of Pelusion, himself a stylist of grace, described as unequalled by any other writer he knew), the simplicity and picturesqueness of his imagery, and, above all, the sureness with which he, as a speaker of rare charisma, was able instinctively to touch their hearts and consciences. To modern students his sermons . . . often seem unbearably long . . . lacking in logical arrangement, disjointed in the way they pass from one idea to another. But they cannot listen to the preacher himself. The crowds which hung on his lips seem not to have been put off by such technical defects, for they were magnetized by the conviction and passion which pulsated through every paragraph [1].

No doubt, Chrysostom’s natural endowments were substantial, not to mention the supernatural gifts of the Spirit which he received. But it seems from the above quotation that it was primarily the courage of his convictions which caused him to communicate so effectively.

Thus, a major factor in Chrysostom’s reputation as a preacher was identical to his whole-souled commitment as a Christian. From his youth, his writings “are remarkable for the uncompromising, almost fanatical note which runs through them. He was already, and for the rest of his career was to remain, scornfully impatient of anything less than total commitment to the gospel” [2]. This entailed a total commitment to any ministry to which God called him. Since God called him to the Priesthood, his character was devoted to fulfilling the demands of that office.

On the Priesthood

Chrysostom’s personal views of the role of the pastor and preacher can be best understood by examining his own articulation of them in his treatise, On the Priesthood. He wrote this work between 390 and 391 to defend himself from accusations that in his youth he had belittled the office of the priest (presbyter) by hiding from those who would ordain him. Chrysostom replies that he escaped ordination precisely because he had such high regard for the office and did not believe he was worthy of it [3]. Several of his many comments are worthy of citation because they bear directly on the importance and centrality of the ordained ministry as well as the mystical nature of preaching.

As will surprise no one with any knowledge at all of Church history, Chrysostom held to a “three-office view” of the Church-to translate his position into modern Presbyterian terminology. As the Temple where the Aaronic priests served was a copy of God’s heavenly throneroom, so the New Covenant ministry is not earthly but heavenly.

For the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks amongst heavenly ordinances; and very naturally so: for neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete Himself, instituted this vocation, and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. Wherefore the consecrated priest ought to be as pure as if he were standing in the heavens themselves in the midst of those powers. Fearful, indeed, and of most awful import, were the things which were used before the dispensation of grace, as the bells, the pomegranates, the stones on the breastplate and on the ephod, the girdle, the mitre, the long robe, the plate of gold, the holy of holies, the deep silence within. But if any one should examine the things which belong to the dispensation of grace, he will find that, small as they are, yet are they fearful and full of awe, and that what was spoken concerning the law is true in this case also that “what has been made glorious hath no glory in this respect by reason of the glory which excelleth” [4]. For when thou seest the Lord sacrificed and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, canst thou then think that thou art still amongst men, and standing upon the earth? Art thou not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, dost thou not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! what a marvel! what love of God to man [5]!

Several things follow from the above quotation which are borne out in the rest of Chrysostom’s life and doctrine: (1) The ordained minister possesses a mystical office-the one who holds it is authorized and empowered by the Holy Spirit to act as Christ’s representative; (2) More than that, the Holy Spirit makes Christ mystically present through the minister; (3) This present office is the same in substance as that of the Aaronic priest of the past–if it possesses less of outward glory it is, nevertheless, even more glorious in actuality.

This heavenly office is all-important. Chrysostom quotes John 5.22 that the Father has given all judgment to the Son and comments: “But I see it all put into the hands of these men [the ordained priests] by the Son” [6]. Chrysostom’s observation is based Matt 18.18 and John 20.23 which declare that “what priests do here below God ratifies above, and the Master confirms the sentence of his servants” [7]. Priests “might not only be more feared by us than rulers and kings,” because of their role in excommunication, “but also be more honored than parents.” because of their role in conversion [8]. The officers of the Church are more important than those of either state or family.

This being the case, a pastor will be judged more severely. He “has not only to render an account of the offenses which he himself has committed, but incurs extreme danger on account of the sins committed by others” which he caused by either over-zealousness or negligence [9].

The mystical nature of the priestly office, in Chrysostom’s mind, also involved a mystical bond between the pastor and his congregation, reflecting the “mystery” of Christ’s union with the Church as the Husband with His bride (Eph 5.32). For example, after returning from many months away on ecclesiastical business, Kelley summarizes part of his first sermon after returning to his congregation in Constantinople:

All the time he had been away, correcting abuses in the Asian churches, he had been linked to them by the bond of love, praying for the church God had entrusted to him. Their prayers, too, had sustained him whenever he boarded a ship, or entered a town or an inn. Most love withers with time, but separation had made theirs more intense. He begged them to continue loving him; their prayers were his bulwark and protection, their love his treasure beyond price [10].

Not only is the mystical bond between the bishop and his flock based on the love of the Spirit which unites them and the prayers of intercession which make his supernatural work possible, but that same bond also mandates that their relationship not be ended just as it is wrong to divorce a married couple. Anyone causing such a separation is an adulterous seducer[11]. Plainly, Chrysostom held the life-long pastorate as an ideal.

On Preaching

The mystical nature of the pastoral office, and Chrysostom’s commitment to fulfilling it’s duties, affected his view of preaching. Strangely, it meant that preaching for Chrysostom was not his only duty. Chrysostom seems just as likely to discuss the importance of his performance of the sacraments or his leading in worship as he was to exalt the importance of preaching [12]. Indeed, however much rhetoric was valued in Antioch and Constantinople, it had not reached the point where the preacher was expected to stand and perform-though he would certainly do so for the reading of the Word, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Like Jesus, Chrysostom preached while sitting [13].

Since this paper is primarily interested in Chrysostom’s homiletics, however, it must focus on how Chrysostom’s personal devotion to Christ and his view of the mystical office of the pastor fed into his preaching.

Because God will hold him accountable, a pastor must be wise and prudent in how he deals with sin. His obligation to his people involves him in great risks as he decides how to confront them in his preaching.

For if you deal too gently with him who needs a severe application of the knife, and do not strike deep into one who requires such treatment you remove one part of the sore but leave the other: and if on the other hand you make the requisite incision unsparingly, the patient, driven to desperation by his sufferings will often fling everything away at once, both the remedy and the bandage and throw himself down headlong…[14]. Chrysostom goes on for a page showing how carefully a minister must consider how he deals with his flock if he is to lead them to repentance instead of hardening their hearts. He is quite sure that Christ will call a minister to account if he inflicts to severe a penalty causing someone to “experience that which was spoken of by the blessed Paul and “be swallowed up by overmuch sorrow” [15].

As a preacher, Chrysostom made a point of preaching not only for exposition and application, but also for impression-to take the well-known and obvious truths in Scripture and cause his congregation to not overlook them or take them for granted, but to gain a renewed appreciation of them. Kelley writes of Chrysostom’s contemporary:

Theodore, who a few years later was to also produce a commentary on John’s gospel, remarks in his introduction that, while the exegete’s task is to clear up obscure passages as succinctly as possible (only resorting to long-winded explanations when demolishing heretical interpretations), the preacher’s is to spread himself to his heart’s content (presumably in the interest of edification) on passages which are already perfectly clear [16].

A telling example of Chrysostom’s passion for impressing the glory and necessity of Scripture upon the hearts and minds of his hearers is this statement he made in his first homily “on the statues” in which he is about to expound on First Timothy 5.23 [17]:

“Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake, and thine often infirmities.” Well then, let us employ the whole of our discourse upon this subject; and this we would do, not for the love of praise, nor because we study to exhibit powers of oratory (for the things about to be spoken are not our own but such as the grace of the Holy Spirit may inspire); but in order that we may stir up those hearers that are too listless, and may convince them of the greatness of the treasure of the holy Scriptures; and that it is neither safe, nor free from peril to run through them hastily. For if indeed a text so simple as this one, which seems to the multitude to contain nothing that need be insisted on, should appear to afford us the means of abundant riches, and openings toward the highest wisdom, much rather will those others, which at once manifest their native wealth, satisfy those who attend to them with their infinite treasures [18].

The high office of the preacher, however, was not reserved for lofty proclamation, but also required an ability to argue and refute all pagans, Jews, and the heterodox [19]. Chrysostom as much as says that a preacher must be a good propagandist and he is undoubtedly right. In Antioch, he practice what he “preached” in On the Priesthood by publicly preaching against the Manichaeans [20], Anomoeans [21], and Jews [22].

These sermonic attacks were not simply motivated by a general desire to teach doctrine or confute heterodoxy in general, but by Chrysostom’s perception of the specific needs of his congregation. Since Manichaeanism was not an issue in Constantinople he ceased to preach about it. Because Arianism was still a presence, he continued to attack the heresy when occasion demanded [23]. His Antiochian sermons against the Jews were in response to public festivals they were about to hold-so that Chrysostom interrupted his anti-anomoean series to guard his congregation from being tempted to participate in their false worship [24].

Thus, Chrysostom’s commitment caused his preaching to be combative when he thought his congregation was in danger. Indeed, perhaps here he could have occasionally used more temperance (though I hesitate to judge him, being so far away from his situation). For instance, when he exhorted Christians to not only rebuke anyone they found blaspheming God, but to hit him in the face if necessary (“Make your fist holy by that blow” [25]), I suspect Chrysostom went too far.

One wonders if Chrysostom’s commitment did not sometimes cause him, to invoke his own imagery, to cut too deeply in his preaching [26]. In his first sermon on Acts, for example, Chrysostom spent a great deal of time exhorting members of the congregation not to delay baptism. But he did this because he himself had just emphasized in stark terms the high importance of preparing oneself for grace by fasting and contrition (all of which was an application of a rather dubious explanation for why God made the Apostles wait the few days between the Ascension of Christ and the giving of the Holy Spirit [27]).

While not directly bearing on his preaching it is worth pointing out that this same commitment may also have contributed to the way he alienated most of his clergy. Being “scornfully impatient of anything less than total commitment to the gospel” seems to have translated into being scornful and impatient with those under him [28].

Chrysostom’s commitment and confidence in preaching also translated into a willingness to harshly criticize the civil magistrate–a trait which ultimately led to his downfall [29]. While modern Americans may appreciate this quality in Chrysostom more than his incredible flattery which he was capable of bestowing [30], the fact is that caution would have served him better than his fearlessness. Chrysostom was an staunch opponent of caesaro-papism, yet getting himself exiled only allowed for sycophants to be installed in Constantinople by the Emperor. He should have held his golden tongue.

Of course, one’s vices and virtues are usually dependant on the same trait, so Chrysostom’s faults and abilities as a great preacher were probably inseparable. His abilities and virtues were immense. His commitment to the gospel, and his commitment to the importance of upholding the office of the priesthood–especially by worthy preaching as well as personal holiness–are well worth emulating.


1. Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom, Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1995), pp 81-82. Emphasis added.

2. Golden Mouth, p. 43.

3. Ibid, pp. 25ff, 83ff.

4. 2 Cor 3.10.

5. Book III, 4 (italics added). From Philip Schaff’s The Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1889, 1994) vol. 9, p. 46. Henceforth, I will give simply the book reference and then the page number from the Schaff edition.

6. III, 5, p. 47.

7. III, 5, p. 47..

8. III, 6, p. 47.

9. III, 16, p. 59.

10. Golden Mouth, pp. 181-182.

11. Golden Mouth, pp. 230, 231, 236

12. The quote above from On the Priesthood (III, 4, p. 46) demonstrates Chrysostom held this standard view of the time. Kelley seems to rather cynically assume that such aspects of the pastoral ministry were, for Chrysostom, in Constantinople at least, simply a propagandistic extension of his preaching (Golden Mouth, p. 137). I don’t doubt Chrysostom was aware of the propagandistic and didactic usefulness of “the dramatic impact of the liturgy, religious ceremonial, solemn processions, and the like,” but I see no reason to believe that Chrysostom thought such usefulness was the most important or even a major reason to engage in such activity.

13. Golden Mouth, p. 130. Compare Matt 5.1; Luke 4.20.

14. On the Priesthood, II, 4, p. 41.

15. II, 16, p. 59. Chrysostom is quoting 2 Cor 2.7.

16. Golden Mouth, p. 95.

17. This homily was preached Sunday, February 21, 387. The series of sermons is not united by a common passage of Scripture, but by a crisis which gripped Antioch soon after that Sunday, and which Chrysostom constantly addressed from the pulpit. The people rioted in response to a tax hike, and the rioters desecrated the statues of the Emperor. In so doing, the city became liable to the charge of treason, and the denizens had to anxiously wait many days to discover their fate. See Golden Mouth, pp. 72-81.

18. On the Statues, Homily I, 2, p. 332.

19. On the Priesthood, IV, 4, 5, pp. 65-66.

20. Golden Mouth, pp. 58-59, 96.

21. Ibid, pp. 61-62.

22. Ibid, pp. 62-66.

23. Ibid, p. 134.

24. Ibid, pp. 61-62.

25. Ibid, p. 72.

26. On the Priesthood, II, 4, p. 41.

27. Schaff, vol 11, pp. 1-10.

28. Golden Mouth, pp. 126-127. More information is needed to be sure of this judgment. It may be that all Chrysostom’s clergy in Constantinople were living scandalously.

29. Ibid, pp. 238-239.

30. Ibid, pp 82, 132, 140, 236-237.

Copyright © 1997, All rights reserved.

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