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Life Of John Chrysostom by Frederic M. Perthes

WE have dwelt the longer upon the subject last occupying our attention because of its importance even for our times. The narrative of the contests arising therefrom will be given with greater brevity, in order that we may speedily arrive at the period when Chrysostom himself becomes involved in them.

1. The attacks which Origen personally received had not their ground simply in the character of his efforts. The reputation he had gradually won was a source of irritation to Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, and made him so jealous that he gladly availed himself of the first opportunity to remove him.

Origen had presided over the theological school in Alexandria for a long period without having received clerical ordination. In a journey, however, which he made to some friendly bishops in Palestine, he was ordained in Cæsarea as presbyter.

This perhaps was not entirely in accordance with ecclesiastical rule. Demetrius eagerly seized upon it, and on his return removed him from his office as teacher. Nor did he rest here, but after working against him secretly for a time, he called together a council, and with this he excluded him as a heretic from the communion of the church. This created a great sensation, and the whole church took part in the controversy which ensued.

The West, especially the bishop of Rome, took the side of Demetrius. In the East, however, Palestine, Arabia, Phœnicia, and Greece, took part with Origen. And thus taking refuge among his friends, he was enabled to continue his labors and influence in quiet for several years.

2. A century and a half had now elapsed. The loud voice of controversy by degrees had died away. Secretly, however, the writings and the disciples of Origen were at work on the one side, and his opponents on the other. The dissension was not healed.

Just now, in the lifetime of Chrysostom, at the end of the fourth-century, it broke out anew. Three men in Jerusalem—John, the bishop of that city, the learned Jerome above mentioned, and the Presbyter Rufinus—began again, after the principles of Origen, to work more powerfully by their teachings and writings.

Jerome prepared a new Latin translation of the Old Testament, and in the preface to the same, expressed in enthusiastic terms his affection for the honored man. Rufinus translated an important work of Origen, and endeavored to circulate it in the West. Around these there gathered a circle of men in Jerusalem who labored with a kindred intent.

The opposite party naturally were now aroused, and first of all Epiphanius, the bishop of Salamis, in Cyprus, a man of high repute. We shall soon find him in company with Chrysostom. He went to Jerusalem, and, in accordance with his nature, passionately demanded that the friends of Origen should cease from their efforts and unite in condemning their friend as a heretic, who now for a long time had been resting in his grave. This they were unwilling to do, and violent steps were taken.

The bishop of the city, being of a mild and benevolent disposition, gave up his pulpit on the Sabbath to Epiphanius. The zealous man, making use of this opportunity, expressed himself so strongly and offensively against the friends of Origen, that the bishop sent a servant to the pulpit with the request that he would moderate his tone; but Epiphanius would not be interrupted. When he had finished, the bishop came before the church and, with conciliatory manner, spoke words of peace. But all in vain. Epiphanius once more stormed from the pulpit, and demanded of the bishop a public condemnation of the heretic Origen.

Such was the state of disorder to which things had arrived at Jerusalem. The controversy however was not confined within the walls of the city. The church everywhere was drawn into it. The parties turned to every quarter in order to strengthen themselves by the authority of the most distinguished officers in the church. The bishop of Rome sided with Epiphanius. John turned to Alexandria. The episcopal chair of that place was now occupied by Theophilus, who had long been known as the friend of Origen. He took the part of John, and sent a messenger for the purpose of establishing peace. Soon after, however, this treacherous man turned about and gave to the controversy a direction which would further his own selfish ends.

3. In the north of Egypt, on the left bank of the Nile, there lived not far from each other, in a lone desert region, two parties of monks. They led in their way an earnest life. Many of them were truly pious men, who gave themselves up to a life of prayer, as also of active labor and industry.

Even here we find again those opposite spiritual tendencies by which the men of that age were divided. One party of these monks, residing in the “Nitrian” desert, consisted of the friends of Origen and his writings. They had more cultivation, and as might be expected, had purer conceptions of Divine things. The monks of the other colony, in the “Scetic” desert, were less cultivated. Like children, they conceived of God as actually possessing a human shape. They explained the words “in the image of God created He man,” as having reference even to His corporeal form. Hence these monks often fell into dissensions and controversies with one another.

When now, in the beginning of the year 399, Theophilus, the bishop of Alexandria, would make known, as was then the custom, the precise time of the Easter festival in a letter which, in addition, always contained some spiritual reflections, he chose for his subject the doctrine of the Divine image in man, and combated, entirely in the spirit of Origen, those rude conceptions of the being and nature of God.

As soon as this letter found its way to the Scetic desert, it created great disquietude among the monks. Yet this received an apparent check one day, when Serapion, the most distinguished of them, declared himself convinced that God could not have a human form. At evening, however, when the monks all assembled had knelt for prayer, there was immediately heard a wailing voice—“Miserable man that I am! They have taken away my God; I cannot pray. On whom shall I depend?” It was the voice of Serapion, who, with the image under which the pious man had commonly conceived of God, seemed to have parted with God himself. The condition of things again changed. A part of the monks, in the greatest excitement, went to Alexandria, and, in presence of the bishop, menaced him as a man who, himself without God, would also deprive others of theirs.

Theophilus became alarmed, and, in order to appease them, cried out at once: “In you I behold the image of God.” And on their requiring him to curse the godless Origen, he acceded also to their request.

It is hardly possible—for a lie did not cost him much—that he formed at this moment the resolution to abandon the party of Origen. Circumstances, however, soon occurred which led this unprincipled man to stand forth as the opponent of Origen.

At the head of the monks who resided in the Nitrian desert and who were friendly to Origen, stood four brothers, Dioscurus, Ammonius, Eusebius, and Euthymius, well known under the name of the “tall brothers.” Theophilus knowing their aptitude for practical business, had been able, after many entreaties, to induce them to enter into the service of the church at Alexandria. Two of them undertook the management of the church property. They soon perceived how unjustifiably the bishop used the property of the church in order to gratify his fondness for building, and lest their consciences might be defiled, they withdrew to their cloisters under the plea, that the confused life of a city did not agree with them. The bishop afterwards learning the true reason, became greatly incensed against them. This was followed by another event. Isidorus, a presbyter of the church in Alexandria, and a friend to Origen, being himself a superintendent of an almshouse, had received of a rich widow a thousand gold pieces, in order to furnish poor females with clothing, and was at the same time requested not to mention it to the bishop, lest the money should perchance get into his hands. The bishop however heard of this, and, to avenge himself, removed Isidorus from his office, through false accusations, and excluded him from the fellowship of the church. The persecuted man fled to his friends in the Nitrian desert, who welcomed him joyfully to their number.

The storm now broke forth. Theophilus assembled a synod of bishops, devoted to himself, but hostile to Origen, pronounced sentence of condemnation against Origen, and put forth an edict forbidding any one henceforth to read his works. This decision was sent to the monks of the Nitrian desert, and their sanction and obedience were required. When now they could not and would not do this, the bishop accused them of contumacy before the Prefect of Egypt. A troop of armed men, together with some reckless vagrants which Theophilus had stirred up, suddenly attacked the cloisters, took all the plunder they could, and then laid the buildings in ashes. The poor monks, three hundred in number, barely escaped their swords. Eighty of them fled first to Palestine, and to the vicinity of Jerusalem. When, however, Theophilus succeeded in driving them from thence, they embarked on shipboard to seek for shelter with a man from whom they expected with the utmost confidence to receive right and justice. This man was John Chrysostom, the renowned bishop of Constantinople.

4. Soon after their arrival at the capital, they went to him, narrated their sad fate, and implored him to intercede for them. Tears coursed down the cheeks of Chrysostom, while he listened to the story of these hoary-headed, venerable men, and he immediately promised them that he would write concerning the matter to their bishop. As they were extremely destitute, he furnished them a dwelling-place in one of the church buildings, and commended them to the care of one of the wealthy females, who, in such cases, were always ready to aid him. They expressed a desire to participate in the public worship and at the communion, but this was not granted, since the laws of the church did not allow of the reception of one who had been excluded from church fellowship. Besides this, Chrysostom had reason to be very prudent in his dealings with Theophilus. After inquiring concerning the character of these monks of the Alexandrian ecclesiastics, whom Theophilus for his own purposes always kept at the residence of the Emperor and the court, and receiving from them the very best testimony, he wrote to Theophilus and entreated him, if it were possible, to receive again these unhappy persons.

Instead, however, of a reply, there appeared a deputation of five persons who lodged an accusation against these monks in the imperial court. These now presented to Chrysostom some countercharges against their bishop which filled him with astonishment. He entreated them to withdraw their accusations, but on their persisting and expressing the design of presenting them to the court, the bishop again wrote to Alexandria and made known the posture of affairs. Theophilus, enraged to the highest degree, replied, that “the bishop of Constantinople had nothing to do with matters which concerned him and his subjects.” “If I am to be judged,” he wrote, “it will be by Egyptian bishops, and not by you who are distant from me seventy-five days’ journey.”

Chrysostom would now gladly have extricated himself from the whole affair, but was only drawn the more directly into it. The monks applied to the Empress. When one day she visited the church, these eighty men cast themselves down at her feet, presented their complaint, besought an examination, and added the wish that Chrysostom might be appointed judge. Eudoxia was overcome by the scene. She looked upon these monks as saints. She spoke kindly with them, requested their blessing and prayers, and promised that justice should be done them. Persuaded by her, the Emperor determined to appoint an ecclesiastical court, under the presidency of Chrysostom, and Theophilus was summoned to appear before the same.

5. The effect which this message produced upon Theophilus was necessarily fearful. In Egypt, an almost unlimited monarch, he is now an accused man, and that, too, before Chrysostom as his judge. Such a man must have been thoroughly repugnant to Theophilus. Whoever has not learned to regard and honor a man whose life is one of humblest piety and self-sacrificing love,—and this Theophilus could not do, without despising his own thoroughly worldly and selfish life,—he must feel an aversion towards the man, and a hatred if he comes into conflict with him. Hence Theophilus had regarded with great displeasure the call of Chrysostom to the imperial city, and was, as we have seen, compelled to participate in his ordination only by the severest threatenings. Since that time, both the man and his great reputation, had been to him as a thorn in the eye. He now naturally supposed that the course of events in Constantinople, even to his citation before his council, was the work of Chrysostom, and he well knew that a just and thorough investigation of the matter could only prove disastrous to himself. He therefore resolved to forestall the proceedings, to appear not as a defendant, but as a judge, and to overthrow the bishop of Constantinople.

The plan of action was soon projected, but the carrying of it out required time. The court, Eudoxia, and through her, the Emperor, must be secured first of all, and the old enemies of the bishop in the capital must be reunited and their hatred kindled anew. He also hoped for accessions from the party which was hostile to Origen.

He first made application to Epiphanius. We have already seen this man in Jerusalem, though not in a very favorable light. Nor is his reputation generally at all enviable, yet, while he merits much of the censure which followed him, we must believe his character to have been better than his reputation. It was his misfortune to have, been pushed forward to an elevated position, for which he was unqualified, while in an humbler and more limited sphere, his influence might have been altogether salutary. Though possessed of much learning, he was deficient in judgment. He was not without earnest piety, yet his views regarding, divine things were narrow and limited. For several years he had lived among the monks of the Scetic desert, and the conceptions which he had once formed he tenaciously held. In opinions differing from his own, he saw at once a departure from Christianity, and zealously fought against them, and by this zeal he was led to do many foolish things. Yet he was sincere and honest in his intentions. He never warped justice knowingly, and when convinced of his wrong-doing, he desisted without hesitation. Such will he appear to us in his opposition to Chrysostom at Constantinople.

He was induced to go thither by a letter from. Theophilus, who would first push him forward, in order that he himself might follow at the right opportunity. In the letter he says:—

“It is befitting your character who, earlier than ourselves, were engaged in such contests, to help us now that we are in the midst of conflict, and, to this end, to convene all the bishops of the island of Cyprus, and to send Synodical letters to us and to the bishop of Constantinople, as also to others to whom perhaps you will write, that thus, by the unanimous voice of all, Origen himself and his impious heresy may be condemned. For I have heard that these slanderers of the faith, (the banished monks,) fired with new rage for their heresy, have embarked for Constantinople in order to gain, if they can, new proselytes to this sect.… Take care, therefore, to inform all the bishops of Isauria, Pamphylia, and the neighboring provinces concerning this matter, in order that we all with one mind, may through the power of Jesus Christ deliver them unto Satan for the destruction of their ungodliness. That our letter may the sooner reach Constantinople, send an experienced ecclesiastic thither as we have done. Above all, we entreat you, let your fervent prayers ascend to God, that in this contest we may win the victory.”

All this was so sanctimonious, and so shrewdly managed, that the aged Epiphanius was deceived. In his zeal for the true faith, he forthwith assembled a numerous council, condemned Origen, and in a letter entreated Chrysostom to follow his example, that thus heresy might be banished from the world.

Chrysostom stood as far aloof from the rude conceptions of the one party, as from the many rash and erroneous assertions of the other. He maintained that it was the part of madness, because God in condescension to our weakness, speaks in the Bible of His eye and His arm, to conceive of Him as existing in human form. He also opposed the efforts of those who, forgetting that they are men, and can only think as men, would comprehend God and divine things, and express their conceptions in words. But to condemn those who in this way had gone too far, even into error, he could not, and least of all such a man as Origen, whom, with all his errors, he still regarded as a light in the Christian church.

When in this spirit he replied to Epiphanius, the latter, whose suspicions had been aroused by Egyptian influence, saw in him a heretic at once and departed, as formerly to Jerusalem, so now to Constantinople. As if it were already settled that the bishop of the city was heterodox, and therefore had no right to that office, his first steps were marked with violence. Immediately after his arrival, and before entering the city, he went to one of the churches, held public worship there, and illegally ordained one to the office of deacon. The noble Chrysostom, overlooking this, met him respectfully with the whole body of the clergy, and offered him the rooms which had been prepared for him in the church buildings. These Epiphanius obstinately refused, nor would he have any fellowship with the bishop until he had condemned Origen and the monks. Shortly after this, he convened a number of bishops, partly residents, and partly strangers, that they might subscribe the canons which were enacted in the councils of Alexandria and Cyprus. Although but a part consented to them, yet Epiphanius concluded openly to proclaim in the “Church of the Apostles,” where a solemn service was to be held, the sentence of condemnation against Origen, and to produce an accusation against Chrysostom. At this juncture, Chrysostom sent a deacon to him, warning him, “that in a foreign diocese and against all ecclesiastical rule, he had already many times arrogantly exercised rights which did not belong to him, and would do well to beware of this extreme measure, the consequences of which would only revert upon himself.” This took effect. He gave up his design, and soon after came fully to his senses. Some of the banished monks went to him, and in a long interview made known to him their cause, which he had hitherto known only from the representations of Epiphanius. He proceeded no further, and shortly afterwards took his departure. He was accompanied to the ship by one of the city clergy, and the last words he spoke to him as he was stepping on board were,—“To you I leave the capital, the court, and—hypocrisy.”

The monks had opened his eyes. He perceived that he had been misused in an unrighteous cause, and the thought of it broke the old man’s heart. He died during this journey on shipboard, at the age of 100 years.

Now, in the summer of 403, Theophilus appeared on the arena of strife.

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