Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. IX:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Prolegomena.: His Character.
Chapter XI.—His Character.
Chrysostom was one of those rare men who combine greatness and goodness, genius and piety, and continue to exercise by their writings and example a happy influence upon the Christian church. He was a man for his time and for all times. But we must look at the spirit rather than the form of his piety, which bore the stamp of his age.
He took Paul for his model, but had a good deal of the practical spirit of James, and of the fervor and loveliness of John. The Scriptures were his daily food, and he again and again recommended their study to laymen as well as ministers. He was not an ecclesiastical statesman, like St. Ambrose, not a profound divine like St. Augustin, but a pure man, a practical Christian, and a king of preachers. “He carried out in his own life,” says Hase, “as far as mortal man can do it, the ideal of the priesthood which he once described in youthful enthusiasm.” He considered it the duty of every Christian to promote the spiritual welfare of his fellowmen. “Nothing can be more chilling,” he says in the 20th Homily on Acts, “than the sight of a Christian who makes no effort to save others. Neither poverty, nor humble station, nor bodily infirmity can exempt men and women from the obligation of this great duty. To hide our light under pretense of weakness is as great an insult to God as if we were to say that He could not make His sun to shine.”
It is very much to his praise that in an age of narrow orthodoxy and doctrinal intolerance he cherished a catholic and irenical spirit. He by no means disregarded the value of theological soundness, and was in hearty agreement with the Nicene creed, which triumphed over the Arians during his ministry in Antioch; he even refused a church in Constantinople which the Arian Goths claimed. But he took no share in the persecution of heretics, and even sheltered the Origenistic monks against the violence of Theophilus of Alexandria. He hated sin more than error, and placed charity above orthodoxy.
Like all the Nicene Fathers, he was an enthusiast for ascetic and monastic virtue, which shows itself in seclusion rather than in transformation of the world and the natural ordinances of God. He retained as priest and bishop his cloister habits of simplicity, abstemiousness and unworldliness. He presents the most favorable aspect of that mode of life, which must be regarded as a wholesome reaction against the hopeless corruption of pagan society. He p. 17 thought with St. Paul that he could best serve the Lord in single life, and no one can deny that he was unreservedly devoted to the cause of religion. 23
He was not a man of affairs, and knew little of the world. He had the harmlessness of the dove without the wisdom of the serpent. He knew human nature better than individual men. In this respect he resembles Neander, his best biographer. Besides, he was irritable of temper, suspicious of his enemies, and easily deceived and misled by such men as Serapion. He showed these defects in his quarrel with the court and the aristocracy of Constantinople. With a little more worldly wisdom and less ascetic severity he might perhaps have conciliated and converted those whom he repelled by his pulpit fulminations. Fearless denunciation of immorality and vice in high places always commands admiration and respect, especially in a bishop and court preacher who is exposed to the temptations of flattery. But it is unwise to introduce personalities into the pulpit and does more harm than good. His relation to Eudoxia reminds one of the attitude of John Knox to Mary Stuart. The contrast between the pure and holy zeal of the preacher and the reformer and the ambition and vanity of a woman on the throne is very striking and must be judged by higher rules than those of gallantry and courtesy. But after all, the conduct of Christ, the purest of the pure, towards Mary Magdalene and the woman taken in adultery is far more sublime.
The conflict of Chrysostom with Eudoxia imparts to his latter life the interest of a romance, and was over-ruled for his benefit. In his exile his character shines brighter than even in the pulpit of Antioch and Constantinople. His character was perfected by suffering. The gentleness, meekness, patience, endurance and devotion to his friends and his work which he showed during the last three years of his life are the crowning glory of his career. Though he did not die a violent death, he deserves to be numbered among the true martyrs, who are ready for any sacrifice to the cause of virtue and piety.
Luthers intense aversion to monkery, although he himself passed through its discipline, must be taken into account in his unfavorable judgments of Chrysostom, Jerome and other Fathers except St. Augustin, whom he esteemed very highly. Of Chrysostom he must have read very little, or he could not have called him a “rhetorician full of words and empty of matter.” He spoke well, however, of Theodorets commentaries on the Pauline Epistles, which is an indirect testimony in favor of Chrysostoms exegesis. See Schaff, Church Hist. vol. VI. 536.
Next: The Writings of Chrysostom.
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