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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes


ORIGEN was born in Alexandria, in the year of our Lord 185, and died in the year 254. He had, therefore, lain in the grave 93 years when Chrysostom was born. His father, Leonides, an earnest Christian and a man of learning, himself instructed the child in Christian truth, and had the pleasure of seeing that it was received into a warm and susceptible heart. Thus there was early developed in the child a lively and ardent faith. When during the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Septimius Severus his father was cast into prison, this lad of sixteen years was eager to testify before the pagan authorities that his belief was the same as his father’s. Indeed his mother could only restrain him from doing so by concealing his garments, and thus confining him to his house and chamber. On hearing that the sentence of death would be passed upon his father, he sent a few lines to him in prison, entreating him not to yield to the command of the Emperor through any regard for his wife and children. And when the head of his father had fallen and the property of the family was confiscated, he sought, by diligent study, to fit himself for teaching, that thereby he might maintain himself and support his mother and his six younger brothers and sisters.

This Christian disposition he retained through life. In his later years, and during repeated persecutions, when, by means of painful and exquisite tortures, men sought to extort from him in prison a denial of his faith, he endured with steadfastness, and by means of letters, full of the joy of faith, which he wrote from his prison, he inspired others also with consolation and courage.

All this, however, and much else of the like kind which could be told of him, we find also in other men and women of his time. We here would dwell rather on that which was peculiar to this man. This, as is universally the case, came to him not from without, but was original in his nature. His father perceived it even in the child. Taught by him to read the Bible daily, the child indeed received its statements with confiding trust, yet would make inquiries concerning the same, and oftentimes question would crowd upon question. And when the father stated to him the Christian doctrines, he was not satisfied to receive just what his father gave him. He took notice of discrepancies, he sought after the connection of facts and doctrines, and at times gave utterance to thoughts and doubts which astonished his father. The judicious parent often called his attention to the fact that human knowledge is limited, and that the essence of Christianity consists not in knowledge but in love, and when the child became too inquisitive he would indeed earnestly reprove him. Yet was the father pleased even with this trait of his gifted son, and, it is said, when the boy was asleep he would kiss the child’s breast, remarking,—“Something great is hidden within this breast.”

He was not mistaken. There dwelt in the soul of this man a mighty impulse to penetrate into the nature of things, and to gain for himself a connected view of all divine and human truth—an impulse which, in equal strength, has existed in but few men. To this impulse he surrendered himself and was matured under its guidance.

The place also where he lived and the circumstances of his life were very favorable to him. Alexandria for a long period had been the residence of a greater number of learned men, both Jews and heathen, than could elsewhere scarcely be found. These passed their lives together in the enjoyment of learned intercourse, with the advantage of a large library. Christianity, soon after its introduction, was embraced by men of large culture, and hence the Christian ministers and teachers, in order to stand on equal footing with this class of the community, needed and early secured for themselves the advantages of learning. Thus there arose in the city a theological school in which Christians received instruction preparatory to baptism. While Origen was yet a lad, Clement, a man of distinction and of like spiritual tendencies with Origen, taught in this school, and, if he did not instruct the boy himself, yet by his writings and by the spirit which he imparted to the school, he exerted an important influence over him. At a later period Origen himself was placed at the head of this school, and in this situation he found leisure to follow out the impulse of his nature.

Yet this very impulse and the results to which it led, were the means by which Origen gave offence to many, and excited a long continued controversy, into which Chrysostom himself was drawn, and which became the occasion of his fall.

But before passing to the narrative of these sad events, we would gain a more thorough knowledge of this remarkable man and of his endeavors.

From what we have heard of Origen’s desire for knowledge, we may perhaps have been reminded of the Eunomians, of whom an account is given in the eleventh section. There is in Origen a resemblance to these, and yet, in some respects, a difference. If a child perceived a benevolent Deity in the beauties of spring, he would have rejoiced over him and said: “Good child, thou seest more than many of the wise.” Or if a plain unlettered man, under a sense of the glory of Christ, should confess, “Lord, thou hast the words of eternal life; I know that thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and if united to Christ he should, in Christ’s strength, seek the transformation of his old nature,—of such an one would Origen say: This man is a Christian, and the change which has taken place in him must be wrought in us before we can call ourselves Christians, and without this, however learned in divinity we may be, we are wholly destitute of that which is indispensable to the Christian.

Unlike the Eunomians, also, Origen did not regard Christianity as a system of doctrines given of God merely to enlighten the human understanding. He did not require that a man, in order to a personal interest in Christianity, should first comprehend the Christian system. He had himself learned that Christianity is an act which God performed when He made the Word to become flesh, and that the appropriation of the same to ourselves is also an act of life of the moral nature within us,—an apprehension of the glory of Christ, and the consequent renewal of our human nature.

While now most of his contemporaries, and still later Chrysostom himself, would contentedly abide by these simple facts, and were not specially anxious to learn how “the blossom’s beauty is born by night,” how Christ came forth from God, how He became man, and how He has again left the world, and is now with the Father,—Origen, on the other hand, had an irrepressible desire to examine into the nature and connection of all things.

It was his firm conviction, that to understand Christianity and the world generally, our nature must first be renewed by Christ. The natural man, possessed of never so much acuteness, is incompetent for this. For the world is upheld not by natural or physical laws merely; its soul is “the word which was in the beginning,” and this is holy. But that which is holy can only be understood by the holy. If now, said Origen, “the Word” has taken up His abode within me as a quickening power, then I can understand the same and the world which He has made, and shall learn the things of God not simply as outward facts, but endeavor to gain a spiritual apprehension of them.

Therefore he gave himself up to examination and reflection as the work of his life, and with a vast amount of diligence, acuteness, and learning, he wrought out a comprehensive and connected system of doctrine in a series of writings such as until that time had never existed in the Christian church.

It cannot be denied and need not be concealed, that Origen, to say nothing of the manifest errors into which he fell in his investigations, attached too great an importance, to knowledge, and, in the consciousness of his superior discernment, often looked down upon and thereby provoked such as rested in a simple faith. Still greater was his error in making that perfection to which God would have his children aspire, to consist not in the fear, of God but the knowledge of God, not in religion but in theology, not in faith but in science.

This we cannot commend. Whatever the theologian may be or possess more than others, he is not, therefore, as a Christian more perfect, nor does he occupy a higher position in the sight of God.

Having described this man thus at length, let us now consider for a moment and inquire,—how we stand or how we wish to stand in relation to him and to his peculiar endeavors? Was he right in wishing that a Christian, or, better still, that the whole body of believers whose minds have been impressed and renewed by the power of Christian truth, should endeavor to gain a philosophic apprehension of Christianity and of the world in which it lives as its soul? Will we recognize not only a Christian piety but a Christian science in the Church of Christ? This is the question which was then under debate.

There were some in his time, and in the following centuries, Chrysostom among others, who said:—Origen has indeed assigned too great a value to knowledge, he has incorrectly regarded it as the perfection of the Christian, with daring wing he has often overpassed the limits of human knowledge, and has advanced many strange and erroneous opinions,—all this we do not justify. But we must approve of the endeavor itself. This indeed is not for all. Many lack both the inclination and the capacity for this. But whoever possesses these let him follow them, let him build up a Christian science, and may God ever grant us those who have the faculty and the desire for this work. Without such men, the church and its individual members would after all languish and die, and the Christian religion become extinct.

But all were not of this opinion. There were many who said: Learning and science should not intrude into the church or be made of any account among Christians. These should rather adhere to a simple, as it was said, or a biblical Christianity.

Such persons opposed Origen, and hence arose the controversy.

“Simple Christianity,” “a biblical Christianity.”—These words have a good sound, and certainly we cannot highly enough value what they signify when properly understood. Christianity, so far as it concerns the salvation of the individual, is in truth a very simple thing,—Christ by his life and death has made an atonement with God for me. Trusting in this I approach unto God and am graciously received. He lives with me and I with Him, and in virtue of His fellowship I become a new man, and if I persevere, I shall be made pure and holy, and then shall dwell with Him in heaven.

This is simple Christianity, and this each one who has a home in the Christian church can secure. How many persons have shared in this fellowship of the redeemed with God who were yet unable to read, and had never read a word even in the Bible!

When, however, these things become living realities to a man, no matter whether he be a day-laborer who has little time for meditation, or a child in whom the power of reflection is scarcely developed, he will yet form some ideas concerning these things. He will unavoidably form some conception of Christ, of God, of man, of sin, of the atonement, of fellowship with God, of holiness, and heaven. He will also have certain opinions respecting the connection of these subjects. And his conceptions of these divine realities will be brought into comparison with what he sees and hears in the world. He will reveal his views to others, and others will express theirs, and thus the sentiments of both coming into contact will repel or attract one another.

What now follows from this, or rather what has taken place? In each Christian, spontaneously as it were, there has been formed, however meagre it may be, a doctrinal system of Divine and human things, and each man becomes an Origen in miniature. Now the Christian liveth not for himself alone. And thus in his family, in the church of which he is a member, in the minds of his teachers, there exists a system of doctrine, and the child at first accepts those views as they are imparted unto him.

Those persons also who were opposed to Origen had already a doctrinal system, and not simply to those facts concerning Christ and redemption, but to their conceptions of them they gave the name of “simple Christianity.” This they received from their parents and teachers as a thing ready-made. Thus they supposed it had been from the first, thus it must be handed down to their children and posterity,—and by this the church must abide.

When now Origen appeared with other ideas than they possessed, even with an elaborate doctrinal system, and this began to make its way, they became alarmed and arrayed themselves against him. Many of them, for example, had lived in communities where God was represented to the mind in a human form, with eyes and ears, hands and feet, and having themselves adopted these views, supposed that others of necessity had done the same. As now they conceived of divine things generally in this crude way, it seemed to them that Origen, in thinking and teaching differently, was taking from them Christianity itself.

Others indeed had sufficient discernment to say: We have no more right to cherish views in opposition to Origen than he has in opposition to us. Let not this question be decided by our creeds nor by tradition. Let a biblical Christianity, let the Bible decide it. Against this, certainly, Origen would not object, and yet was he unable to agree with them. In this, however, he was not without fault, for in the Bible he found much which neither they nor we could find in it. His understanding of the Bible was less clear and sober than that of Chrysostom and the friends with whom at Antioch he studied the sacred Scriptures and their interpretation. Origen, instead of interpreting out of the Bible, interpreted many things into it. He even adopted the strange fancy that the Bible has throughout a double sense, the obvious or literal, which all can understand, and another for the learned which contains a deeper meaning.

Setting aside these errors, Origen maintained that the whole of Christian truth is not found in the Bible as a connected scheme of doctrine, so wrought out that we can take it from the Bible as one takes a garment from his wardrobe. God, he said, has given us the truth not as a finished texture but in single threads, which we must first combine,—not as a full-grown tree with branches, leaves, and fruit, but as a mustard grain which is to become a tree under the fostering care of man. In this work I have labored with great diligence and pains. You on the contrary are satisfied, as I cannot be, with the isolated sentences, thoughts, facts, and truths of the Bible. This gives me no understanding of the counsels and ways of God which I seek to know. I will cheerfully let you enjoy your own methods, leave me to pursue mine.

And was not Origen right in this?—We have not all perhaps read what the learned call a systematic theology, but we know at least the catechism, in which is found the substance of the Bible, though not in the biblical form. In this rank, designed as an instructive guide both for teachers and scholars, we find, first, a statement of the doctrine of religion, then of God, and then of creation, of man, of sin, of Christ and redemption, etc., and in this way we have a connected whole. The Bible is not such a manual as this. It is a book for the life. Drawn from life and possessing life, it is designed to beget and nourish a life in the souls of men. Every part of the Bible was called forth, primarily, by some necessity of the time, and in its character was suited to the then necessity, so almost all the truth in the Scriptures has reference to special cases and circumstances. God in His word instructs us not as a professor from his chair, but by daily intercourse even as parents instruct their children. Hence we do not find a logical system in the Bible as in the catechism, but if procured at all, it must be wrought out of the contents of the Bible by means of analysis, comparison, and reflection on our part. The Bible, for instance, confessedly speaks of the eye and ear, the hands and feet of God. It also declares that God is a spirit—that He is on high and in the world beneath, and not far from every one of us, in whom we live and move and have our being, and that He is above all, and through all, and in us all. How now are we to receive all these opposing representations? Until their differences are adjusted we cannot.

Again, the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:28, says: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law, James (2:24), says: Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Yet in this there is no contradiction of one apostle against another, for what James here asserts corresponds in sense to what Paul says in the second chapter of his Epistle to the Romans. The appearance of contradiction is explained, when we learn what kind of faith each one has in mind, and to what persons each is writing. But in a catechism there should not be this opposition. The contents of the Bible must then first be digested, and this cannot be done without much learning and study. It will thus be seen, that no such “biblical Christianity” as those persons had in view, could settle the controversy between Origen and his opponents.

With all reverence for the Bible, we must still advance one step further. The opposers of the Bible often base their objections to its authenticity, on the ground that its representations do not always coincide with the teachings of science, as, for example, that the sun moves while the earth stands still, and the like; and many friends of the Bible have been made anxious for the same reason. But for this there is no ground whatever, since the Bible was not designed to instruct us in natural science. It is the Divine will that man should arrive at a knowledge of these things only by study and reflection. And, therefore, we who live in the nineteenth century, may be expected to have other and more correct views on these subjects, than did the men of that time. Thus it is evident that we cannot take every thing directly out of the Bible, ready made to our hands, but that we must discriminate in regard to the object of the Bible, and what we may reasonably expect to find it. It was the desire of Origen to combine the teachings of Divine revelation and the results of human science into one system. Whether he attempted this rightly, is another question, yet the endeavor, at least, is praiseworthy. Others, however, chose to abide, as they said, by a “simple” or a “Biblical Christianity,”—in other words, and as it really lay in their minds,—by the views received from tradition, and commonly entertained, or by the immediately obvious declarations and thoughts of the Bible. But this method we cannot deem correct.

The difference of natures and of spiritual tendency between these men and Origen with his party, was called forth by still another circumstance.

The Old Testament, as is well known, is written in Hebrew. In Egypt, however, those Jews who no longer understood that language, made use of a Greek translation, (the Septuagint,) and this they regarded with as sacred feelings as the other Jews did the Hebrew original. They even held the belief that this translation was made under the influence of the Divine Spirit, and narrate, that seventy Jews each by himself engaged in this work, and that, through Divine direction, their translations agreed to a word. The Christians in Egypt, also, when they read the Old Testament in the church or at home, made use of this version, and, indeed, cherished the same reverential feelings toward it as did the Jews.

Origen, however, who was acquainted with the Hebrew, soon perceived that the Greek version differed in many points from the original text, and that in many passages it had wholly mistaken the true meaning. He also observed that the different copies (printed Bibles there were none as yet), did not perfectly agree, and many times he had felt embarrassed when disputing with the Jews, who threw out against the Christians the reproach, that they neither possessed nor understood the Old Testament correctly.

All this induced him to take in hand the work of improvement, nor did he withdraw again his hand from the plough. With an iron diligence, which won for him the surname of Adamantius, for twenty-seven long years he toiled on in his work, with the intent that posterity at least might be able to read and understand the Old Testament correctly. Aided by wealthy friends, he spared neither money nor pains in the procuring of manuscripts and versions of the Old Testament wherever they might be found. Thus by degrees he gathered together a whole series of translations. One was found by him to his great joy in an old cask, which stood somewhere in the corner of a house, and another of great importance, was also accidentally found among some old books in the house of a Christian lady, where, during a time of persecution, he lived in concealment. He now, with the assistance of seven secretaries, transcribed the Hebrew text and several of the best Greek translations, side by side, in a book of fifty volumes or rolls, so that one might compare them together, and thus ascertain, as nearly as possible, the true meaning of the Old Testament. We are sad to record that this work (the Hexapla), which was placed in the library of Cæsarea, was burnt, together with many other books, by the Mohammedans in their devastating campaigns.

The opponents of Origen were naturally unable to appreciate such a work. They were satisfied with their version as it was. And when still later, another learned man, Jerome, incited by the labors of Origen, and with help of the same, furnished a new and improved version, and would distribute it among the churches and people, they were greatly dissatisfied, for they saw in this a falsifying of the Bible, and an assault upon the purity of Christianity.

The intentions of these pious people were certainly honorable and good, but—a dreadful change had been introduced. Was it Christianity, however, which was changed? or merely the views which men commonly entertained regarding it, or rather, regarding a few declarations and passages of the Christian Scriptures. And now upon which side in fact did the truly Biblical Christianity stand? Was it with those who adhered to a once received and authorized, yet in many respects incorrect version of the Bible, or with those who had an amended translation?

.… Perhaps, however, there secretly exists in the minds of some, a difficulty of this kind; they think, it may be, “if we in the Bible, as it lies before us, do not possess the immediate gift of God, and if the learned have other and more correct views of it than we, then we are dependent for our Christianity upon learning and science, and upon the men who possess these attainments.” This they dislike; they wish to have all things as directly from God as others. Then we reply to them,—this cannot be. The Christianity which thou hast, after it has once been given to the world, and has come even unto, us, is, indeed, the direct gift of God. It is a matter between thy conscience and thy God. But in very many things connected with Christianity, thou art dependent upon others, even upon the learned, for such is the will and appointment of God. Just consider,—the apostles wrote in Greek; but thou dost not understand Greek. Therefore thou couldst not read a word in the Bible had it not been translated. And our translators could not have done this, had they not been men of learning and science. Is this indeed so? and is it thus appointed of God? Then if thou wilt not be dependent on science and learning, but opposest them, thou opposest an ordinance of God. Take good heed where thou wilt find thyself at last. History shows us that this course, whether attended with seeming or real piety, leads mostly to evil, and inevitably to such contests as the following section will bring before us.

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