Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. X:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom.: Section I
I. The Place of Chrysostom in the History of Exegesis.
The position held by Chrysostom in the history of exegesis is remarkable. Owing to a peculiar combination of circumstances he, more than any of the Fathers, was enabled to avoid the errors alike of the allegorizing and dogmatic tendencies. The former tendency was the prevalent one in the Christian Church in the Ante-Nicene period; the latter, especially in the West, became dominant during the Post-Nicene period, using for its own ends the earlier erroneous theory. Chrysostom represents the Antiochian reaction against the allegorizing method, while he ante-dates by a generation, at least, the time when the ecclesiastical or dogmatic theory became overpowering in its influence. This historical position must be recognized in estimating his character as an exegete, as well as in accounting for his eminence as an interpreter of Scripture. Modern scholarship with comparative unanimity accords to him this eminence. It is true that one is disposed to dissent from this judgment on first reading the Homilies of Chrysostom. Trained in our modern exegetical methods the reader may unconsciously compare the expositions of the Greek Father with those of Luther and Calvin, if not with those of Meyer and Weiss. Such a comparison is of course an anachronism. A study of other patristic exegetes must lead to an endorsement of the prevalent opinion as to the merits of Chrysostom as an expositor. An immense mass of homiletical literature of which he was the author has been preserved, and of course reveals very unequal results. Marks of carelessness, especially in citation, abound; the habits of the “practical preacher” often leads to long digressions, to elaboration of matters that at best hold only the relation of a tangent to the truth of the text. Yet less than most p. xviii pulpit orators does Chrysostom warp the interpretation itself to suit his homiletical purpose. Occasionally vehement invective occurs when an exegetical difficulty is encountered, and it is easy to suppose that unconsciously the former has been used to cover up the latter. But there are few evidences of lack of candor in the treatment of such difficulties. It must be confessed that Chrysostom is not always true to his own principles of interpretation, yet these instances of inconsistency are usually due to a desire to enforce an ethical lesson pertinent to the occasion, even though the application was scarcely pertinent to the text. Owing to his ignorance of Hebrew, Chrysostom was not properly equipped for the work of expounding the Old Testament. He treats the LXX. as though it were of final authority, save in a few instances where the variations of other Greek versions have occasioned discussion. Frequently he makes use of verbal suggestions of the Greek that have no warrant in the Hebrew text. Yet, where he is not thus misled, his comments on the Old Testament present the same characteristics as those on the New.
The most marked peculiarity of Chrysostom as an exegete is his comparative freedom from the allegorizing tendency that prevailed in the early Christian centuries. In contending with the Jews, the Christian apologists, from Justin Martyr onward, had inevitably followed to some extent the methods of their opponents. The Jewish schools of interpreters, both at Alexandria and in Palestine, while somewhat antagonistic to each other, had in common this allegorizing habit. Argument about the meaning of the Old Testament necessarily fostered a similar tendency among Christian writers. Moreover, the Christian authors of the second and third centuries were not men of pre-eminent talent or acquirements. The victory won by the church was ethical rather than intellectual. Then, as now, profound piety, when not combined with accurate knowledge and mental acumen, delighted in mystical fancies. Types could be invented far more easily than texts could be investigated. At length this tendency found in Origen an advocate who had the ability to formulate its principles, and also the learning and industry necessary to illustrate the method by copious comments of his own. Facile princeps as a mystical interpreter, Origens influence is still felt, and in his own age it was dominant in exegesis. It is true the dogmatic principle was already gaining the mastery, yet both the Orthodox and their opponents made use of allegory: the former combined the two tendencies, the latter placed them in antagonism. Curiously enough the doctrinal controversy that arose in consequence of some of Origens views was made the occasion of an attack upon Chrysostom, and the kindness he showed to certain Egyptian monks, who were followers of Origen, became the pretext for those harsh measures which resulted in his banishment and death. 1 Yet Chrysostom, in his writings, shows no sympathy with the philosophic speculations of Origen, and his method as an exegete is far removed from that implied in the principles laid down by the latter. The great preacher never dishonors the literal, or historical, sense of Scripture, and though he occasionally refers to interpretations κατ ναγωγν, using the phrase applied by Origen to the mystical sense of passages, these are never exalted above the plain meaning of the words of the text. No one living in the age of Chrysostom could be a diligent student of the Bible and ignore the labors of Origen. Despite his advocacy of the mystical theory and his excessive speculative tendency he had done more for exegetical theology than any of his predecessors. In these days we owe him too much to forget these services. The wonder is that Chrysostom, familiar with his writings, was so little influenced by the erroneous hermeneutical principles he advocated and exemplified. The earnest practical purpose of Chrysostom did much in preserving him from allegorizing, but his training of Antioch under Diodorus, afterwards bishop of Tarsus, was probably still more influential for good. Diodorus is reckoned the leader of the so-called Antiochian school of exegetes. p. xix He was the first to oppose directly the false methods of Origen. It is true “the Three Cappadocians,” Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend Gregory of Nazianzen, had but a qualified admiration for the exegetical results attained by Origen, though diligent in their use of his writings. The conflicts of the period interfered, however, with any decided hermeneutical advance; the dogmatic interest of the Arian controversy still overshadowing all other theological movements. Diodorus (†394) was president of a monastery in the vicinity of Antioch. Under his guidance Chrysostom and his friend Basil pursued a semi-monastic life of seclusion and study for nearly six years (ending in A.D. 381). Theodore, who was afterwards bishop of Mopsuestia, and the father of the Nestorian theology, was also his friend and fellow-student. While Diodorus was not free from rationalizing tendencies, he undoubtedly represents a healthy re-action toward the historico-exegetical theory of interpretation. His writings and his influence on his two most distinguished pupils, Chrysostom and Theodore, plainly prove this. “The practical element in Diodorus, his method of literal and common-sense interpretation of Holy Scripture, was inherited chiefly by Chrysostom; the intellectual vein, his conceptions of the relation between the Godhead and Manhood in Christ, his opinions respecting the final restoration of mankind, which were almost equivalent to a denial of eternal punishment, were reproduced mainly by Theodore.” 2
While the influence of the Antiochian school seems transient, it has achieved much in stating more clearly the correct principles of interpretation; it has achieved still more in preparing for his work the greatest preacher of the Greek church. Avoiding to a great extent the extremes of both Origen and Diodorus, Chrysostom as an interpreter is probably nearer to us than any Father of the Eastern Church. A careful study of his Homilies must lead to that conviction. “He set forth the verbal meaning with constant attention to the course of thought, and connected therewith, in harmony with the form which he had chosen, the religious and moral observations which were founded directly on the text. Dogmatic and polemic digressions were not necessarily excluded, but were never made the principal thing, and the more or less frequently inserted allegorical additions appear rather as rhetorical ornament and deference to custom than as something necessary to the expositor.” 3
The doctrinal views of Chrysostom were positive and usually well defined. He does not fail to oppose heretical opinions. So great a preacher could not be without a theology. Yet, as already intimated, the dogmatic principle of interpretation does not dominate his exegesis to any great extent.
It thus appears that, whatever may be defects in his expositions, however faulty his comments may seem to us, Chrysostom stands as the representative of more correct principles than any of the early Fathers. That his eminence as a preacher is due to this fact can scarcely be doubted. A new interest in his writings would serve to emphasize the importance of adherence to the historico-exegetical method of interpretation. Great pulpit orators do not need to indulge in mystical fancies, nor does their true power arise from dogmatic warping of the sense of Scripture.
See Stephens, Life of St. Chrysostom, pp. 286–326; Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. III., pp. 702 et seq.xix:2
Stephens St. Chrysostom, p. 31; comp. pp. 27–32, on Diodorus. On the Antiochian School, see Schaff, Church History, III. pp. 935–7; Reuss History of the New Testament, II., pp. 542–6, American edition.xix:3
Reuss, History New Testament, p. 544, American edition.
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