1902 Encyclopedia > St John Chrysotom

St John Chrysotom
Syrian prelate
(347-407)




ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, (______, golden-mouthed), the most famous of the Greek fathers, was born of a noble family at Antioch, the capital of Syria, most probably about 347. At the school of Libanius the sophist he gave early indications of his mental powers, and would have been the successor of his heathen master, had he not been, to use the expression of his teacher, stolen away to a life of piety (like Augustine, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Theodoret), by the influence of his pious mother Anthusa. Immediately after his baptism by Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, he gave up all his forensic prospects, and buried himself in an adjacent desert, where for six years he spent a life of ascetic self-denial and study. His infirmities, however, compelled him to return to the world ; and the authority of Meletius gained his services to the church. On his arrival he was ordained deacon in his thirty-fifth year (381), and afterwards presbyter at Antioch. On the death of Nectarius he was appointed archbishop of Con-stantinople by Eutropius, the favourite minister of the Emperor Arcadius. He had, ten years before this, only escaped promotion to the episcopate by a very questionable stratagem,—which, however, he defends in his instructive and eloquent treatise Be Saeerdolio. As a presbyter, he won high reputation by his preaching at Antioch, more especially by his homilies on The Statues, a course of sermons delivered when the citizens were justly alarmed at the prospect of severe measures being taken against them by the Emperor Theodosius, whose statues had been demolished in a riot.





On the archiepiscopal throne Chrysostom still persevered in the practice of monastic simplicity. The ample revenues which his predecessors had consumed in pomp and luxury he diligently applied to the establishment of hospitals; and the multitudes who were supported by his charity preferred the eloquent discourses of their benefactor to the amusements of the theatre or of the circus. His homilies, which are still preserved, furnish ample apology for the partiality of the people, exhibiting the free command of an elegant and copious language, an inexhaustible fund of metaphors and similitudes, giving variety and grace to the most familiar topics, with an almost dramatic exposure of the folly and turpitude of vice. His zeal as a bishop and eloquence as a preacher, however, gained him enemies both in the church and at the court. The ecclesiastics who were parted at his command from the lay-sisters (whom they kept ostensibly as servants), the thirteen bishops whom he deposed for simony and licentiousness at a single visitation, the idle monks who thronged the avenues to the court and found themselves the public object of his scorn—all conspired against the powerful author of their wrongs. Their resentment was inflamed by a powerful party, embracing the magistrates, the ministers, the favourite eunuchs, the ladies of the court, and Eudoxia the empress herself, against whom the preacher thundered daily from the pulpit of St Sophia. A favourable pretext for gratifying their revenge was discovered in the shelter which Chrysostom had given to four Nitrian monks, known as the tall brothers, who, on being excommunicated by their bishop, had fled to Constantinople ; and a ready tool was found in Theophilus, bishop of the rival city of Alexandria, who had driven them from their diocese, and had long circulated in the East the charge of Origenism against Chrysostom. By his instrumentality a synod was called to try or rather to condemn the archbishop; but fearing the violence of the mob in the metropolis, who idolized him for the fearlessness with which he exposed the vices of their superiors, it held its sessions in the suburb of Chal-cedon, named the Oak, where Rufinus had erected a stately church and monastery. A bishop and a deacon were sent to accuse the archbishop, and presented to him a list of charges, in which pride, inhospitality, and Origenism were brought forward to procure the votes of those who hated him for his austerity, or were prejudiced against him as a suspected heretic. Four successive summonses were signified to Chrysostom, but he indignantly refused to appear until four of his notorious enemies were removed from the council. Without entering into any examination of the charges brought before them, the synod condemned him on the ground of contumacy; and, hinting that his audacity merited the punishment of treason, called on the emperor to ratify and enforce their decision. He was immediately arrested and hurried to Nicaea in Bithynia. As soon as the news of his banishment spread through the city, the astonishment of the people was quickly exchanged for a spirit of irresistible fury. In crowds they besieged the palace, and had already begun to take vengeance on the foreign monks and sailors who had come from Chalcedon to the metropolis, when, at the entreaty of Eudoxia, the emperor consented to his recall. His return was graced with all the pomp of a triumphal entry, but in two months after he was again in exile. His fiery zeal could not blind him to the vices of the court; and heedless of personal danger he thundered against the profane honours that were addressed almost within the precincts of St Sophia to the statue of the empress. The haughty spirit of Eudoxia was inflamed by the report of a discourse commencing with the words,—"Herodias is again furious; Herodias again dances ; she once more demands the head of John ;" and though the report was false, it sealed the doom of the archbishop. A new council was summoned, more numerous and more subservient to the wishes of Theophilus; and troops of barbarians were quartered in the city to overawe the people. Without examining it, the council confirmed the former sentence, and condemned him afresh for having resumed his functions without their permission. He was hurried away to the desolate town of Cucusus, among the ridges of Mount Taurus, with a secret hope, perhaps, that he might be a victim to the Isaurians on the march, or to the more implacable fury of the monks. He arrived at his destination in safety; and the sympathies of the people, which had roused them to fire the cathedral and senate-house on the day of his exile, followed him to his obscure retreat. His influence, however, became more powerfully felt in the metropolis than before. In his solitude he had ample leisure for forming schemes of missionary enterprise ; and by his correspondence with the different churches, he at once baffled his enemies, and gave greater energy to his friends. This roused the emperor to visit him with a severer punishment. An order was despatched for his instant removal to the extreme desert of Pityus; and his guards so faithfully obeyed their cruel instructions that, before he reached the sea coast of the Euxine, he expired at Comana in Pontus, in the sixtieth year of his age. His exile gave rise to a schism in the church, and the Johannists (as they were called) did not return to communion with the archbishop of Constantinople till the relics of the saint were, 30 years after, brought back to the Eastern metropolis with great pomp, and the emperor publicly implored for-giveness from Heaven for the guilt of his ancestors. The festival of St Chrysostom is kept in the Greek Church, November 13, and in the Latin Church, January 27.

In his general teaching Chrysostom elevates the ascetic element in religion, and in his homilies he inculcates the need of personal acquaintance with the Scriptures, and denounces ignorance of them as the source of all heresy. If on one or two points, as for instance the invocation of saints, some germs of subsequent Boman teaching may be discovered, there is a want of anything like the doctrine of indulgences or of compulsory private confession. Moreover, in writing to Innocent, bishop of Rome, he addresses him as a brother metropolitan, and sends the same letter to Venerius, bishop of Milan, and Chromatius, bishop of Aquileia. His correspondence breathes a most Christian spirit, more especially in its tone of charity towards his persecutors; and his line of exegesis, if not acutely metaphysical or mystical, is full of good sense and right feeling.





His works are exceedingly voluminous, and consist chiefly of homilies, commentaries, smaller treatises, epistles, and liturgies. Their excellence is powerfully shown in the history of the times, for the illustration of which they afford highly valuable materials. The school of exegesis formed by him, and especially illustrated by such works as his commentaries on the Gospel of St Matthew, the Book of Acts, the Epistle to the Bomans, and other parts of the New Testament, is sound, practical, and may (as Dr Newman has justly remarked) almost be called " English." It was subsequently adorned by the justly honoured names of Theodoret, Theophylact, Euthymius, and Nicephorus. The best edition is that of Bernard de Montfaucon in 13 vols, fol., 1718-1738, reproduced with some improvements by the Abbe Migne (Paris, 1863); but this edition is greatly indebted to the one issued more than a century earlier (1612) by one of the foremost English scholars of his age, Sir Henry Savile, provost of Eton College, from a press established at Eton by himself. It is in eight volumes, and is said to have cost its editor £8000. Hallam (Lit. of Europe, iii. 10, 11) calls it "the first work of learning, on a great scale, published in England." Numerous MSS. still remain unedited. Some of the homilies and commentaries are translated in the Library of the Fathers, published at Oxford, and the Greek text has been in part re-edited by a scholar who has shown a very special aptitude for the work, the Rev. F. Field of King's College, Cambridge. As authorities for the facts of his life, the most valuable are the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret ; and amongst the moderns, Erasmus, Cave, Lardner, and Tillemont, with the more recent church history of Neander, and his monogram on the Life and Times of Ghrysostom, translated by J. C. Stapleton. There has also appeared a valuable German biography by Dr Forster ; and a narrative, full of interest and told with life-like animation, has been given by the late M. Amedée Thierry in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and since republished (Paris, 1860) in one volume, entitled Récits de l'Histoire Romaine au cinquième Siècle. A grace-ful and interesting sketch of the concluding scenes of St Chrysostom's life may be found in Dr Newman's Historical Sketches (London, 1873), though that eminent writer seems not very favourable to the theology of the Antiochene school, or even of Chrysostom himself. Valuable informa-tion is given in Professor Bright's History of the Church (Oxford, 1864), and in Canon Robertson's History of the Christian Church (vol. ii., London, 1874). But the best special contribution to English literature on the subject is St Chrysostom: His Life and Times, by the Rev. W. R. W. Stephens (London, 1872).




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