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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

WE have thus far noticed the labors of our bishop among those who belonged to his own church; but his vision and his activity reached much further, and even beyond the whole body of Christians. He took an interest in the heathen far and near, and exerted himself efficiently in their behalf. Let us trace this part of his work.

Occupying in Constantinople a high position as bishop and having the control of important resources, he was able to engage in large enterprises for the good of pagans. Yet in Antioch at an earlier day he had been active in this direction. It is proper in this place, where the general subject is presented, to go back and speak somewhat of those former efforts.

We have learned that there was a very large number of Christians in Antioch; but along with these and in the adjacent country, there was also a great mass of heathen. These were of every class and of every sort. Not confined to the lower orders and the rabble, many there were among the cultivated who could not receive Christianity and were fully conscious of the grounds of this inability. When the Christians gloried in a Divine, saving power and a holy cause, they found this by no means confirmed by the character and life of Christians at that time, and plainly saw that many of them were no better than the heathen. Hence they inferred the faith of Christians to be an empty boast resting upon no important reality. Moreover they recoiled from the thing itself, or at least, from the form in which it had appeared. Accustomed to beauty of language and delineation in their old writers, orators, poets, and rendered fastidious thereby, they were repelled by the simple, plain, unadorned garb in which the Bible, written by fishermen and publicans, came to their door, and they failed to penetrate within and behold the Divine glory. Just as the Jews once thought no good thing could come out of Nazareth, and were unable to perceive the expected King of Israel in a carpenter’s son, who once stood at the joiner’s bench and afterwards ate and drank with publicans and sinners, so also now those who have formed their taste from the study of Göethe and Schiller, or Heine and Börne, are often disgusted with the New Testament.

Chrysostom did all he could to win such men, and also advised the members of his flock not to lose their care for them. But what measures did he recommend? We will give his own words, for thus we shall be enabled to look far into the soul of this man which was enlightened and pervaded by the spirit of Christ.

“If we are in the society of eminent and cultivated heathen, let us not be ashamed of our faith, but frankly confess it. If they laud their religion and slander ours, let us not keep silence and timidly allow it to pass, but depict heathenism in its actual shame, and praise the glory of Christianity. As the Emperor always bears the diadem upon his head, so let us everywhere carry about the confession of our faith. The crown cannot so adorn the Emperor, as do confession and faith the Christian.

“The pagans are to be conquered more by our conduct than by our words, the proper and effectual weapon to be used against them is a holy life. Although we utter the most beautiful words and celebrate Christianity in the most brilliant speeches, unless we are better than the heathen in our lives, nothing will be gained; they may hear our words, but they will see our works. If you speak of the value of future and heavenly things and live for those of earth, as if hoping for nought beyond, your conduct, and not your language, will find its way into the soul of the pagan. If you say, our religion is a religion of love and at the same time render evil for evil, how can they have confidence in your faith? If they behold you mourning inconsolably for a deceased friend, how can they believe your account of a resurrection? Are we not at fault in this? Here lies the reason why so many pagans now reject Christianity.

“It was otherwise in the first church. Every thing was vital in the apostles, and hence they accomplished such great results. We might now work even as they, and without journeying over land and sea. We can remain at home and yet perform great deeds. Hast thou not relatives, friends, family, domestics? Live with them as a Christian, and the power of Christ will pass over from you upon them and enter their hearts.”

Couldst thou raise the dead, thou wouldst not have such influence upon the heathen as a man who is full of the Christian spirit and life. They stare at the miracle with their eyes, while the life penetrates heart and soul; that occurs for once, but this works perpetually. ‘The heavens’—have no words which our ears can hear, and yet they—‘declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork.’ We have more than the firmament and the stars of heaven above us. Point not the pagan to those, but let him see the new creation which Christ has wrought, how He has transformed men living after the flesh into angels of God. A truly devout man, though destitute of wit or skill for high discourse, enlightens and warms the heart, so that those who associate with him must praise the Father in heaven.”

“Enter not into dispute,” he proceeds, with “persons whose heart is not yet susceptible, who feel no need of the great and holy works of God; nor attempt by manifold proofs to convince their understanding and persuade them, that God has become man in Christ. This is a matter of faith, and while their mind is alien to the truth, they will only mock and deride you.”

Chrysostom once heard, that a Christian, in reply to a pagan who appealed to his philosophers, writers, and poets, endeavored to prove, that Paul was as learned and could express his thoughts as elegantly and beautifully as Plato himself. Chrysostom censured this because it was untrue, and showed that in this very thing is Christianity great and convincing, namely, that men unlearned in the schools could work with such power and might. “For God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.”

“When I came to you,” says Paul, “I came not with excellency of speech, or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God; my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.” (1 Cor. 2:1, 4, 5.)

“The confidence and good-will of pagans,” says Chrysostom at another time, “we must seek to win; and this we shall accomplish, by doing them no wrong, and also by being ready to suffer wrong from them. Let us live with them as fathers do with their children.” “A dislike of the heathen was infused into the minds of the Jews under the old covenant, in order that the latter, while yet weak, might not enter into connection with the former. But we stand on a higher platform, we ought not to cherish hatred but rather sympathy, being ever ready to receive them. If a physician harshly repulses the sick, can the latter possess confidence and courage to be healed by the former? But thou desirest to heal and help,—nothing wins with such power as love. Let this be shown, and then first his love will be secured. When thou goest to him, do not immediately overwhelm him with thy faith; make him first thy true friend, and then gradually let him know the treasures which thou hast for him, and which are so much more precious than thou art thyself. Love is the great master, and has all power,—even to make children of God from stones. Wouldst thou know its power, give a rude, mean, hard man, into the arms of love, lead him into her school, and thou shalt learn what she is able to effect.”

These were the principles which Chrysostom would have observed in the treatment of pagans. They could be directly applied in the city, where pagans and Christians lived in daily intercourse with each other. But in other cases special arrangements must be made for the work, and Chrysostom was prompt to begin and to call upon others for coöperation. Let us first listen to his admonition on this point. On a Sunday in Constantinople, he observed among his hearers some who, possessed large estates in the vicinity, or at a distance from the city. Christianity had spread little in the country, more regard was paid to the cities, and many Christian landlords even favored paganism, because they derived advantage from it in consequence of the remaining temples, idol-worship, and sacrifices.

“Many,” he says, “own estates in the country and do not trouble themselves how Christianity is treated upon them. They are solicitous for the building of baths and barns and for the increase of rents, but not for the souls of their dependents. If you find thorns and weeds in your field, you burn or root them up, in order to improve the land; but weeds in the heart and life of men you suffer to grow undisturbed! Do you not fear the householder, to whom you must render account? Ought not every landlord to build a church, install a teacher, and coöperate with him? How can the peasant be expected to become a Christian, if he sees you, his Christian lord, so little anxious for the salvation of his soul? I entreat you, I admonish you, nay I prescribe it as a law, that no landlord be without a church. Tell me not: there is a church in the neighborhood, or it will cost too much, I have not sufficient property. Is the expense so great? Build at first but a house or a hall; your successor will enlarge it, adding ornament and beauty, pillars and porticos. Look not at the fact of its bringing no gain to you; is it no gain to gather souls into the heavenly garner? Will you think only of the fruits and barns upon earth? Ah! such an one considers not how precious it is to win souls; but we know it. Let us begin this spiritual work, but with earnestness and zeal, not as a subordinate matter. And can I render any assistance? Only call upon me, each one of you, and I will do as much for the work, as lies in my power. Had I led forward my people here so far that they were in no more need of me, I would gladly go out into the country and there preach the Gospel.

The calling of a country preacher had great attractions for him. “How excellent is it,” said he in the same discourse, “thus to be a pastor in the country. After the example of Abraham he plants his garden, his fields, he digs and sows with his people, and on the morrow he stands as God’s representative in their midst and scatters seed from above into their hearts.”

He then describes the blessing which would in manifold respects accrue to the landlords from the church and the labor of a preacher. Their farmers would become new men, there would be fewer trespasses, affrays, thefts, and the poor, hitherto neglected people would enjoy Christian consolation in affliction and be thankful to their landlord for the new treasure which he had procured for them.

He must also have been perfectly aware, how this seemed to the hearts of many great lords, for to accomplish his object he appealed to yet other impulses. He intimated to them, e. g., that the names of such benefactors would be now and hereafter specially mentioned in the prayers of the church.

We know not the effect of these admonitions upon the men addressed; yet we do know that the bishop not merely exhorted others, but when it was possible took the business in hand himself. For example, the conversion of the heathen in Phœnicia proceeded from him. The people of that region were living in a vile idolatry, which was connected with revolting excesses. A description of them would lay open to our gaze the hideous depths of paganism. The people clung to these things and the priests defended their gods with great zeal. But difficulties did not deter Chrysostom. He chose a number of pious and able monks, drew them to himself, and after preparing them further for the work, sent them thither. They had a difficult post, and seemed for a long time to labor in vain. Chrysostom left them not in the hour of need, but stood by them with advice and aid, sending them letters and fresh assistants whom he had carefully selected. And when they were attacked, persecuted, and ill treated, he invoked and secured the help of the state authorities. Eutropius himself, when at the helm, readily performed his wishes. This vain and sanctimonious man was pleased to encircle himself with the glory of a defender of the church and a promoter of her enterprises, so long as he was not thereby prevented from carrying out his other designs and from gratifying his passions. The bishop also received permission to cut down the forests of the land, in whose dark recesses the idol temples were built and deeds of shame were perpetrated. This was a great work, but Chrysostom carried it through, and to meet the expense he was obliged neither to claim the assistance of the state nor to draw from the church fund. He received whatever was necessary from Olympias and other wealthy females. While he lived, even after he had lost his office as bishop and was himself in great affliction, by self-denial and self-sacrifice he labored on with even more fidelity for the mission in Phœnicia. We shall return to this point in the course of our narrative. Let us now consider his labors for the people of the German race—a matter of special interest to us. He bore them on his heart;—but did he accomplish any thing for them? So much at least, that in his church, and pulpit, and place, and presence, a German preached in the German language. I will relate the occurrence.

It has been already stated that the Germans, who dwelt in the region north of the empire, had for a considerable time been in contact with the Greeks and Romans;—with the Greeks, that tribe of the German people, in particular, calling themselves Goths. They had formerly waged severe conflicts with each other, but more recently whole troops of the rough, sound, able, and brave Goths had been taken as mercenaries into the Roman army. Christians captured in war, and several of these mercenaries who had become acquainted with Christianity and embraced it and afterwards returned to their countrymen, had scattered many a good seed, so that the cause of God was there no longer wholly unknown. Chrysostom, however, was not satisfied with this, but sent out missionaries among the Goths, as well as the Phoenicians, and chose them in this case also from the cloisters. And more; the practical wisdom of the bishop is shown by the fact, that even then he fell upon the thought of preparing some of the young Goths then resident in Constantinople to be teachers of their countrymen. The attempt was made, and after a suitable time he assigned to his young Gothic preachers a small church in the city. Here he caused them to exercise in preaching on the Sabbath and to conduct Divine service for the Goths who resided in the capital. Nay, he often went there himself and preached,—certainly in Greek, while his sermon was translated by one familiar with both languages.

On a certain Sabbath he took one of his young Gothic friends into his own church and pulpit, to read and explain a portion of the Bible in his native language. We can easily imagine the surprise of the assembly, and that many of the Greeks, cultivated by polite learning and proud of their own beautiful language, may have been offended at the harsh tones of his voice. But there was no escape, they must hear the Gothic sermon to its close. Chrysostom then rose and said, that he had desired by this example to set before them the power of Christ and Him crucified. “Where are the doctrines of Plato, Pythagoras, and the great men of Athens? They have perished. And the doctrines of fishermen, publicans, and tent-makers? Not only among the Jews and Greeks, but also in the language of barbarians, as you have this day heard, they shine clear as the sun. Scythians and Thracians, Sauromatians and Moors, and those who inhabit the remotest parts of the earth, have received this doctrine into their language, and from it have learned true wisdom. Wherever thou goest, thou wilt find the names of these fishermen in every mouth. The power of the Crucified has opened the way for them everywhere, has made the ignorant wise, and has given to the unlearned a greater power of speech than is possessed by the masters of language.

“Let no one therefore esteem it a dishonor to the church, that we have invited barbarians to speak in this place; for it is an honor to the church and a proof of her power. ‘There is no speech or language,’ said the prophet, ‘where their voice is not heard.’ And another: ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.’ Is not this here fulfilled? Ye see one from the wildest of men standing with the lambs of the church; there is one pasture, one fold for all; one table, one altar is set before all.

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