Keep Site Running

Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

EVEN the Empress became at length one of Chrysostom’s most determined and dangerous enemies. A fair and gifted, but vain and haughty girl, she, as we have learned already, was made the consort of the young Emperor through the intrigues of the vile Eutropius, and jointly with him and under his teachings, she bore rule in a wholly selfish and unscrupulous manner. After the fall of Eutropius, which was occasioned through her means, and since her husband was wholly dependent upon herself, she thence attained to the summit of power and continued to rule in the manner which she had learned from Eutropius, and which was well suited to her nature. Her will could endure no restraint; her passion was to rule. Honor must be yielded her, and to obtain money she spared no means; “when a rich man died,” says a writer of that time, “his property, under the pretence that he had left no children or relatives, was confiscated by imperial order, and thus the surviving orphans were left to suffer in poverty.”

It is usually the case that princes and subjects, thus wicked at heart, do not much concern themselves with the precepts of religion and the rites of the church. But it is not always thus. Eudoxia, to human appearance, was a “very devout woman.” She was a zealous upholder of the true faith, and did much for the interests of the church. And not only was she a constant visiter at the house of God, but was often seen in company with the people walking, even by night, in the festive processions to the chapels of the martyrs, and to the places where sacred relics were found. The clergy were welcome at the court, and many such could speak of her kindness and liberality.

Was she then a hypocrite? This very general expression men are indeed quite ready to adopt, and, because there is truth in it, suppose that they rightly understand the subject, without yet having gained a proper, much less a thorough view of it. Certainly this woman could not have possessed a genuine piety, nay, we may concede that she was destitute of all piety, and yet the question still remains, whether she practised intentional deception in the performance of these pious acts, or whether the power of conscience, and of the religious nature in man may not have disposed her to their performance. When one gives himself up to the power of an evil nature, he feels in his soul the wretchedness of his condition, and would gladly be a different man. Instead, however, of embracing the truth with his whole heart, and thereby rescuing himself from the evil, he lays hold of the rites and formulas in which truth appears upon the earth, and these he diligently practises in order to silence the claims which his better nature makes upon him. We err, therefore, when we regard such persons—and how many such there are! as conscious hypocrites, and yet are they in the deeper sense of the word, liars, and, continuing their practice, must become wholly corrupt. Deceiving themselves, they also deceive others, and sometimes even honorable and soberminded men. Thus for some time it passed with Chrysostom in reference to Eudoxia. He appears at the first to have had confidence in her, or at least to have hoped that what of truth was cherished in her heart, might yet gain the ascendency.

He openly spoke of her as the pious Empress, and, indeed, extols her in such terms as were then commonly addressed to distinguished personages. “Among the multitude of the faithful,” said he on one occasion, “shines the Empress as the moon in heaven.” “Men will call thee blessed,” he exclaims at another time, “in that thou receivest the martyrs and buildest up and guardest the church and honorest the priests and expellest the errors of the heretics.”

To us who do not occupy the bishop’s place at Constantinople, nor his relation to the imperial court, and whose vision, moreover, has been made more clear by the light of history, such expressions may be offensive, and we could wish that they had not been uttered by Chrysostom in the holy place.… It is at least a very perilous thing when such rulers are praised and lauded by Christian persons. We of course should accept of good ordinances even from those who grant them solely for their own personal benefit. But to bestow adulation upon princes whose intentions we must fear are not honorable and true, we should well be reluctant. Nor must we forget however necessary good laws may be for society, that yet the life does not proceed from external observances, but from the spirit within. And wherever a base mind and evil deeds are apparent, though accompanied with good acts, we are not on account of these to cease testifying with severity against those, and the hidden source from which they spring.

But though Chrysostom may have exceeded the bounds of propriety in addressing these words to the Empress, yet on the other hand he was not silent when any evil came to light, no matter by whom practised. As he once bore witness against the chief minister of the Empress, so also against the Empress herself. And though anticipating what the consequences to himself might be, he yet did not shun them, but spoke boldly in public as in private. Of the truth of this we have evidence in the following.

It had come to his knowledge that the Empress, at the instigation of some ill minded and avaricious men who lived near her, had given up Theognostus, a man of distinction in Constantinople, to the hatred of his enemies, thereby involving him in ruin, and that afterwards she had forcibly deprived his unfortunate widow of a vineyard in the suburbs of the city, her last possession. On hearing this, he sat down and wrote to her a letter of sharp reproof, in which among other things, he says:—

“God the author of all existence is himself exalted above all power and authority. All men, however, have a common nature, although in this world some have a superiority to others. Thus God has granted to you the sceptre of an empire, not that you should esteem yourself greater than others, but that you should secure unto all their rights. Neither honor, wealth, nor dominion, nothing, save the observance of the divine commands, conjoined with a pure faith, will avail you in the terrible day of judgment. Do not forget this. Banish not the fear of God from your breast, for well do you know that our breath is in the hands of God. He gives or takes away our mortal years as he pleases. For thus saith the Lord, ‘I kill and I make alive, neither is there any that can deliver out of my hand. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’ We all are dust and ashes. Both princes and subjects we fall as the flower, and as the grass we wither away.… Restore, therefore, the vineyard to the unfortunate widow and children of Theognostus. Already has she experienced enough of sorrow. Let this be brought to an end and her distress be quickly relieved.”

This letter was very displeasing to the Empress, and she knew how to set her husband’s mind also against the bishop. Her feelings toward him for some time past were not as at first, but now the alienation was greatly increased. And though the fires of her anger were still pent up in her bosom, yet Chrysostom was no longer able to effect any thing at the court. On the contrary, he was watched in his words, and whoever could report any thing uttered by him which was thought to reflect upon the Empress or her conduct, was well received at the court. And when there appeared, soon after this, a man who summoned all the enemies of Chrysostom to deadly strife, then was the Empress ready to grant him her assistance and authority. This man was Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria. He is known to us already as the one who was sent for to ordain Chrysostom in his office at Constantinople, but who declined doing so under various false and vain pretences, and was only made to yield when threatened by Eutropius with certain papers containing charges against him. In the fifth section of this work, we have described him as a man of discernment, but of a base mind, and such as he was, will but too plainly appear in his conduct towards Chrysostom. There is hence no necessity for our characterizing his disposition in advance.

We must, however, cast a glance at another individual who had indeed already been resting in the grave for a century and a half, but whose spirit and writings continued to exert a powerful influence in the church. A contest, relating to him and his endeavors, which began in his lifetime and then for a season continued to glow beneath the ashes, but which now broke out anew, was the occasion which brought Theophilus and Chrysostom into conflict. This particular point, however, was dropped by Theophilus in the course of the controversy, since the downfall of Chrysostom had now become his aim. To understand this portion of history correctly, we need to know something of that controversy, and it is to be hoped that no one will regret having become acquainted with it and with the man who was the occasion of the same. This man was Origen.

Copyright ©1999-2023 Wildfire Fellowship, Inc all rights reserved