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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

THERE were at that time sects or denominations, whose belief differed from that of the general church, and who consequently withdrew from the same and maintained separately the worship of God. Sharp conflicts had already been waged between them and the church. They had persecuted and anathematized each other by turns. Chrysostom came in contact with such sects both in Antioch and in Constantinople, and it will be at once interesting and instructive to hear his thoughts upon this matter, to learn how he spoke and acted with reference to them.

He was milder and more tolerant than most of his contemporaries, and he often expressed this feeling. He opposed, to be sure, those who would infer from the words of Paul in Romans 14:5: “let every one be fully persuaded in his own mind,” that one’s faith is a matter of indifference, provided his actions are right. He showed that the passage had no reference to this point, and that the idea is false; but he knew the difference between a living faith, a hearty surrender of the soul to Christ, and through Him to God, and the conceptions, the intellectual views which we have of God and Christ. He by no means undervalued these, and often warned the weak to be on their guard against teachers of error, and to withdraw from their society; but knowing that distinction, he could pronounce judgment upon devious opinions with mildness, and was free from the narrow-minded severity which is often shown at this point. He was conscious of the inadequacy of all human conceptions of Divine things, of the limits to all human thought, and therefore he could suffer men to make representations unlike his own, of that which cannot be perfectly represented.

On one occasion he delivered a sermon in Antioch expressly against “Anathematizing teachers of error,” and said among other things:—

“Tell me, what is the design of the Gospel of grace? Wherefore did the Son of God appear on earth? That we should fiercely persecute and devour one another? I suppose the Gospel claims of us still more than the law of Moses; yet in the law it is written, ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,’ while in the Gospel we are required to bless our enemies.”

He then relates the parable of the good Samaritan, and adds:—

“Our Saviour called neither the priest nor the Levite ‘neighbor,’ but the Samaritan, who was thrust out by the Jews on account of his religious belief, a stranger who cherished many erroneous opinions. He was called ‘neighbor,’ because he had compassion in his soul. Thus the Son of God denominated him, and the same spirit did He inculcate by pouring out His own blood for His enemies. If He did this, and the church after the model given by Him, daily prays for all men, how canst thou say ‘Anathema?’ Knowest thou what it signifies? ‘Let him be accursed!’ that is, rejected of Christ and given over unto Satan, without hope of heaven.

“Instruct thine opponent with gentleness, if God peradventure will give him repentance to the acknowledgment of the truth. Spread out the net of love, that whoever has fallen into error may not be lost, but restored and healed. If he enters, he shall live, and thou hast saved a soul; if not, if he abides obstinately by his opinion, testify to him that thou art free from all responsibility; but do this in love and patience, lest the Judge hereafter demand his soul of thee. And if he is not profited, it is of great advantage to thee—to love and to act as a disciple of Christ.

“When Paul came to the Athenians and saw them all given up to the madness of idolatry, he did not begin with reproaches, he did not say: you are godless men,—you esteem every thing God and you deny the only true God; but he said: ‘As I passed by and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To the Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you.’ O paternal love! He declares of idolaters, that they worship the true God. Wherefore? Because with a pious disposition they performed their religious service. I call upon you and upon myself to follow this example. We shall wish in vain to look through that which is hidden, and to anticipate the Eternal Judge, who alone discerns the amount of knowledge and the extent of faith belonging to each one.”

To be more specific: there were two sects in particular with which he came in conflict, the Eunomians and the Novatians. We will speak of both.

1. THE EUNOMIANS—(Sufficiency of faith)

These he had met in Antioch, and he found them again in Constantinople. Together with the Arians who had led the way, though with less decision, they had quite recently been a powerful and wide spread party, threatening great injury to the Christian church and her faith; and hence the opposition to it had been of right very earnest. This party was now, however, in the territories of the Emperor, on the decrease; yet there was still need of labor against it, and Chrysostom took part in that labor.

But what kind of people were these? They did not believe, it is commonly said, that the Son of God became man in the person of Christ, but affirmed that a created spirit, though the first and the highest, dwelt in Him. And this was indeed their opinion. But still more was concealed beneath it; for it was grounded in the whole tendency and state of mind which characterized them.

They said, we must have clear ideas upon every point,—and certainly with right,—they laid great stress upon logical thought. This we must commend, for clear conceptions, discriminating thought, are exceedingly precious; we should receive no opinion without careful reflection. Whoever has a talent for thinking, let him not rest, but press as deeply and keenly as possible into every subject. But if we do this, without suffering ourselves to be deceived by any interest dear to us, we always come back to the point from which we started, to a point where we can no further explain or trace the object of study, but only perceive and recognize it,—it is what it is. In this way every individual being stands before us, and especially the omnipresent Life, the living, creating Power. This cannot be explained. It is as it is, and we must accept the mystery unsolved.

But these men would not do this, they thought it necessary and believed it possible to trace and explain and comprehend all things divine as well as earthly, and they asserted, that only when one has thus apprehended objects are they any thing to him, he has nothing to do with that which he is unable to understand. With clear insight on the part of man, each object comes to the exercise of its legitimate influence upon him.

So they thought at that time, and so do many think at the present day, unable to imagine even that they are mistaken.

But let us reflect:—

I stand before a rose-bush. Beautiful colors and fragrant odors delight my senses. Have I no concern with the flowers before me? Does not their nature, by means of form, color, and fragrance, affect me? Of this there cannot be a doubt. But how? Do I understand or know what the odor is, or how it originates, or whence the color, or by what process the rose is developed and formed? I may be ignorant on all these points, and yet there exists a connection, living and active, between me and the peculiar nature of the rose,—I experience, and know by experience, what it is.

Now would it not be perfect folly for me to say: before I can yield myself to the beauty and fragrance of these flowers, I must comprehend and know, how they have come into being with their peculiar nature and influence?

The naturalist, the chemist, the philosopher may reflect upon this, and by research and analysis may learn much; but after all they cannot say why and how the rose is a rose and not a lily,—there it is with its own appropriate nature, and their knowledge can reach no further. What this is, the peculiar life in the rose, cannot be expressed or conceived; it can only be seen or known by the senses.

Besides, however much the learned may know, they do not therefore see the beauty of the rose or inhale its sweetness any more than I, although ignorant; nay, it is possible that I may have a much keener sense and clearer eye than they.

The sight and seizure of objects on the one hand, and the comprehension of them on the other, are two wholly different processes, independent of each other, and affected by different organs. I may enjoy much of an object without understanding it, and may understand it without having any part of it.

So of matters of faith in our own day. On the one side it is said,—the Christ of the Bible, in whom dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead, is incomprehensible, and therefore of no consequence to us; and on the other hand, some believe that logical definitions and established formularies are almost necessary to our interest in Him. The same error on both sides! Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go, Thou hast the words of eternal life; and we have believed and have known, that thou art Christ, the Son of the living God,” and John: “He dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth.” We may study, indeed, but we need not wait for the result, in order to believe and through faith to obtain spiritual life.

Let us now return to the Eunomians in Antioch and Constantinople. They believed it necessary to understand the nature of Jesus Christ in order to have an interest in Him. But upon reflection they found the doctrine of the church, that “God was present in Him,” incomprehensible, and therefore rejected it. And what then? They taught, that the highest of angels and the first of all creatures assumed flesh and blood in the person of Christ. This opinion they believed themselves able to understand.

But to us it seems far from rational. To comprehend the presence of God, the Eternal Spirit, in Christ, to form an adequate conception of it as of other and earthly things, is evidently impossible; yet if Christ by conduct and word testifies: “God liveth in me and I in God,” then my spirit can freely bow in worship before Him. On the other hand we find it extremely difficult to entertain the thought, that a mighty angel, a creature who once lived in heaven, entered the womb of Mary and was born.

To them it was easy, and they imagined that every thing was thus made plain. Their speculations, however, were by no means discriminating. Nevertheless they gloried in their reason, and bitterly reproached those who affirmed divine things to be above the comprehension of our limited faculties.

They went so far as to declare the assertion of God’s incomprehensibility unchristian. What is our holy religion, they said, but a revelation of God? Yet if God is incomprehensible He has not been revealed, and Christianity has brought us no good. According to their view, the Christian revelation is addressed to the understanding of man, and consists of disclosures respecting the infinite nature of God, in the communication of dogmas or doctrines; while in fact that which has been given us is the living person of Jesus Christ, the redemption purchased by Him, and the divine life issuing from Him.

Such were the Eunomians, with whom Chrysostom came in contact. Let us observe the way in which he treated and opposed them.

“Long ago,” said he, when opening a series of discourses in Antioch concerning them, “long ago I felt myself impelled to address you on this subject; but I deferred the matter, because I saw that many, afflicted by this disease, were ready to hear the Word of God in our assemblies. Hoping to win them, I refrained from these controversies, lest they might be frightened away from the truth. But since I have been called out by themselves, I will now boldly lay hold of those weapons which are able to cast down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God. I lay hold of them, however, not to cast down opposers but to lift up the fallen. And this is the nature of Christian weapons, that they smite the contentious, while in love they heal such as seek for the truth.”

He discoursed in a similar strain on the first Sabbath of his ministry in Constantinople. He warned the Church against the influence of this party, and promised never to lose sight of it; but at the same time he declared his purpose to conduct this warfare in Christian love and with spiritual weapons. Chrysostom had a special object in saying this. For here in the capital had been much strife, characterized by mental vigor and acuteness rather than by moral earnestness and holy motives. The Greeks were always fond of debate, and they now disputed about the depths of the Godhead, as if by intellectual acumen they could elucidate such mysteries. It had become a matter of discussion at table, in taverns, and upon the market-place, whether Christ was the Son of God or was a created angel.

With reference to these things, Chrysostom remarked:—

“I will contend, yet not like Goliath, the Philistine, but like David, the man of God. The former was girded with armor made by the hand of man, the latter was strong in faith; the one glittered in shield and coat of mail, the other shone by the light of the Spirit and Divine grace. Hence the lad conquered the man, the smooth stone of the brook shattered the brazen helmet of the warrior. Still it was not the mere stone which smote the giant, it was the invisible power of God present with David and directing the stone in its course. Let us also contend with spiritual weapons, not with carnal, nor with human vanity.”

That God is omnipresent we all assume, but how He is, or can be such, I know not. That His existence is without beginning or end, we all agree, but how there can be One, who has not been brought into existence by himself or by another, I am not able to conceive. You concede that God is a spirit,—what then is “spirit?” Can you form any idea of a pure, infinite Spirit? Be not deceived, you no sooner begin to do this, than you confine it within finite limits, and your spirit is no more purely spiritual.

You assert, that the world was created by the word of God, but can you conceive of this, conceive that something be thus produced from nothing? Ex nihilo nihil fit, say the philosophers, and you affirm that the world came from non-existence into being. Here then is a work of faith independent of reason.

And whoever will admit nothing which is beyond and above his understanding, will, unless deceived by obscure and false conceptions, lose every thing, even God himself, the eternal ground and reason of things.

Thus thought Chrysostom respecting this much debated point; but his thoughts were rejected by many of his opponents. The Eunomians continued as a sect for a considerable period, and earnestly endeavored to win adherents. They made public processions through the streets of the city, praying meanwhile and chanting songs in which their views were clearly expressed. Then the friends of the bishop, by his advice, likewise formed processions and caused their songs to resound through the city, while the Empress paid all necessary expenses, and gave them splendid silver crosses provided with wax tapers. Her chamberlain, Brison, led the processions. This was evidently a wrong measure, many collisions took place in the streets, and both parties were required to desist. The Eunomians, who held public worship only in the suburbs, afterwards desired one of the principal churches for that purpose. The bishop then believed it his duty to oppose them, and they were therefore compelled to retain their previous locality, until as a separate body of Christians they gradually disappeared.

2. THE NOVATIANS—(Church-discipline)

This sect derived its name from its founder Novatian, who lived about 150 years before Chrysostom. They were hence not of yesterday, and had already brought much discord and controversy into the church. These persons were exceedingly strict, and not only stood aloof from the world but separated from the main body of the church and formed a distinct communion which they called the “pure church,” and themselves, the “pure.”

They held that a Christian who, after his baptism, had committed any gross sin and on account of this had been excluded from church fellowship, ought not, though he should repent and reform, to be again admitted to the church and the altar. Whether God will forgive and accept such an one, they indeed would not decide, but the church and its ministers ought not to pronounce over him the words, “thy sins are forgiven thee,” nor extend to him again the sacrament. Should a church do this and suffer such sinners in its midst, it is not the true church. Hence they had separated and now strictly maintained this discipline in their communion, and called themselves the “pure church.”

These persons in their views had thus an affinity with those who regard the institution of the church as of more consequence than its members, and to whom the glory of the church in its totality upon earth is dearer than the salvation of individual souls. If they were asked whether it was Christ’s special design in establishing a church on earth, to exhibit thereby the Divine glory to the world or to bring men to God and heaven? they would answer: both,—the latter by means of the former. Were they, however, strictly honest, they would nevertheless assign to the former the first place, and should the two come into collision, they would, as they actually did, sacrifice the individual members of the church in order to preserve the church itself uncontaminated. Advocates of these views have often appeared, but Chrysostom was not one of them. To restore an erring soul again to God, he cheerfully granted it a place in the church, although he saw that by such a course the church must lose a measure of its glory.

And how, since he was guided by the Bible, could he do otherwise? He knew how the apostles, how Paul, for example, proceeded in the church at Corinth. When that man (2 Cor. 2:1–10) who had been guilty of a grave offence was brought to sincere repentance, the apostle, moved with love to him now subdued in “godly sorrow,” requested that he should be received again into the church, and announced to him in the name of Christ, the forgiveness of his sin. Chrysostom knew how the Apostle John went after that young man who, falling into the most criminal ways, became the leader of a band of robbers, and brought him back to the church.

Accordingly he felt obliged to oppose the principle on which the sect of the Novatians was founded, and the manner in which he spoke out against the pride especially, which would seem to be manifested in their calling themselves the pure, shows us that there was in them not merely the appearance but the reality of pride.

“The Apostle Paul,” he said in a sermon, “who sped as with wings over land and sea, who converted so many nations to Christ; to whom was revealed the depths of divine truth, who was caught up to the third heaven,—did he venture to say of himself, I belong to the pure? On the contrary, he affirmed that he was not worthy to be called an apostle, and speaks of himself as an untimely birth. What pride, what madness is this! Thou a man and callest thyself pure? Should one call himself pure and free from sin, it were the same as saying that the sea is free from waves; for as the sea is never without waves, so are we mortals never without sin. A thousand passions have polluted thee, a thousand-fold defilement cleaves to thee, and thou darest affirm that in a sea of impure waves thou art pure! Who is there that can say even at the close of a single day, he has been pure? Though he may not have committed what we term gross sins, yet has not vanity overtaken him and pride ensnared him? has he not hated his enemy or envied his friend?

“And they call themselves pure?—I admonish you to keep aloof from such pride and to strive with all earnestness to purify yourselves from the evil which still cleaves to you.”

This certainly was sharply spoken; nay, it may be, that the bishop in opposing the pride and severity of this people, occasionally became passionate and violent. He, too, was not pure, and, when excited, often uttered some word which he afterwards regretted, and in this way he sometimes offended and provoked others.

Thus it was reported among the Novatians that he had said:—

“If you sin, there is help; if you sin again, only repent, and though you fall a thousand times, if you a thousand times repent, the church of Christ again receives you.”

Whether these are the bishop’s words is uncertain; for in times of controversy especially, when the people are divided into parties, much is reported which the preacher does not say. Yet if he expressed himself thus incautiously, very much still depends upon the connection and manner in which it was spoken, and every thing depends upon the meaning he designed to convey. And certainly a man of his moral earnestness can only have wished to say: We give no man up; there is forgiveness with God and His church even for him who has fallen the lowest, if he repent.

But no regard was paid to the character of the man or the meaning of his expression. There were his words, and these were circulated throughout the city, and were seized upon by Sisinnius, the leader of the Novatians.

This man, if we may trust appearances, did not belong to the honest and serious minded portion of the church. Wholly contrary to the former manner of this sect, he was a good friend with many nobles and with the worldly-minded clergy of the city, and he knew how to live with and please the world by his talent for jest and wit; but his preaching was, in the spirit of his sect, strict and severe. He had been unfriendly to the bishop for some time past, now he embraced the opportunity, furnished by the bishop’s reputed views of sin, and wrote a book against him, in which he severely censured that expression and his sermons generally, and gave utterance to his long pent-up feelings of animosity.

Chrysostom was not disturbed at this; he knew why he had assailed the distinctive principle of the Novatians, and defended that of the church.

Let us, however, not misunderstand the bishop. Because he rejected the church-discipline of the Novatians, as partaking of pride and a merciless spirit, it does not follow that he rejected discipline generally, and with a sickly forbearance, in disregard of the claims of Christ and the church, would have quietly endured in her communion that which was unchristian in life and doctrine.

We shall learn in the following section, how earnestly and sternly he proceeded against a circle of unworthy bishops, deposing them as unfit to exercise their office in the Christian church. We will now hear how, on one occasion, he proceeded against some disorderly members of the church. The circumstance has already been alluded to in the seventh section.

After holding in solemn stillness a special divine service on Friday and Saturday of the week before Easter, some members of the church engaged in several noisy amusements, and particularly in the disorderly Circensian games, and so conducted themselves that any one with the least remains of moral feeling must have been shocked. On the following Sunday, the bishop ascended his pulpit, and after depicting in strong colors what had happened, he inquired: “Is this to be endured? Can this in a Christian church be passed over with impunity?” and called on the church themselves to decide.

He then said:—

“Think not that they are only as a few worthless sheep who have gone astray. Were their number only ten or five or even two—did not the Good Shepherd leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness and go after that one which was lost? Yes, were there but one soul, it is yet the soul of a man whom God so loved that He gave his only begotten Son that he might not perish. Will you not do all in your power that he may win eternal life? When thou goest hence, seek for him and try to lead him back.

“If he attends not to your entreaties or my admonitions, then will I use the power which God has granted me—not to destroy men’s souls but to save them.

“I declare unto you, and I speak it plainly, if any one notwithstanding all these entreaties and exhortations, again participates in those shameful and soul-destroying games, I will close against him the bars of the church, and withhold from him the holy supper.

“A good shepherd separates the diseased sheep from the sound ones,—such also is my duty. If in former times the leper, though a king, was forced, in spite of crown and purple, to retire without the city walls, how can such men now be permitted to remain in the church of Christ? I have entreated, I have exhorted, I have warned,—if all this is ineffectual, then must I sever from the body its corrupt members.

“It is now a year since my call to this city, and from that time, as you know, I have with words incessantly fought against the vice of unchastity; now I must employ other weapons. I have neither sword nor fire,—yet despise not my weapons. I have the office, and this office has its power.

“Let such offenders be excluded from the fellowship of Christians!

“You tremble at this judgment; I see some there smiting their breasts, I hear them sigh!—If they repent who have sinned, then shall the sentence be removed; for as I have received power to bind, so have I power to release. Our intention is not to separate the members from the body of Christ, but to rid the church of its disgrace.

“The very heathen now mock at us, and the Jews deride us when we, calling ourselves the holy Christian church, allow such disgrace. If, however, we exercise discipline, they shall humble themselves in reverence before the church and her institutions.

“Come to my assistance,—withdraw from such men, suffer them not in your society, avoid them in the market,—thus will their consciences be touched.

“As the hunters, when they would take wild animals, surround them at every quarter, so let us, from all sides, you from yours, and I from mine, surround these wild men, that we may catch them in the net of salvation. Will you leave me alone and not work with me? Consider well what you do;—if in my house gold and silver are stolen, and you see it, should you keep silence? If you allow the thief to escape, you become partakers of his sin. So is it here,—God says: thou lettest my church be robbed of its chastity, and permittest the robber to hasten to the abode of Satan, and dost thou keep silence and fold thy hands in indifference?

“Yet whatever you may choose, I know what I have to do. I am responsible for every soul,—and, whether you keep silence and close your eyes, or whether you speak against me and become enraged, I shall so act that I may be pure from the blood of all men, and be able to stand without fear before the judgment-seat of God.”

Such language and action sounds indeed to many ears in our day, harsh and injurious; even the bare mention of church-discipline now occasions a shudder. Perhaps the reason of this is found in the abuse of discipline as formerly practised, especially by individuals. The right of discipline should never be lodged in the hands of any one person. But when the church of Christ by her authority ceases to discipline, i. e. to educate her members; when she leaves every one to himself, to live, act, and teach as he pleases, then the church of Christ must be dissolved, just as any society falls asunder when its members act out their own pleasure, and all authority and order come to an end. The body falls to decay when the spirit has departed.

But Chrysostom, as we have said, knew the Bible, and therefore rejected the principle of the Novatians; he knew the Bible and therefore adhered to discipline. For the same apostle who requested that the deeply fallen, but now penitent man should be restored, had on a previous occasion required the church in the name of Christ to exclude him from their fellowship, when they, without discipline, would have retained him (1 Cor. 5:1–5). And the same apostle, even the beloved disciple, who went after that young man, yet writes (2 John, 8–10): Look to yourselves that we lose not those things which we have wrought. Whosoever transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house neither bid him God speed.

Nay, the Saviour himself says,—if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. (Matt. 18:17.)

Chrysostom knew all this, and therefore held to discipline in the church. Let us now hear how he exercised it towards the unworthy bishops.

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