Chrysostom on the Written Word

John Chrysostom (347-407) is widely considered to be one of the greatest preachers of the Christian church. His homilies that have been passed down to us are a rich treasure. Although his tongue was sharper than his mind, his theological insights no doubt carry much weight.

His opening homily on the book of Matthew is particularly interesting. He begins the sermon series on Matthew with a grand overlook at revelation in general, and then moves to the reliability specifically of the Gospels themselves before looking at the text of Matthew more narrowly. In this sermon introduction Chrysostom addresses divine revelation in such a way as to shed interesting light on our modern debate regarding Sola Scriptura.

Before I explain, let me make some qualifications. I am not claiming that Chrysostom’s words here prove he believed in Sola Scriptura (to speak anachronistically). I am simply observing that the way in which he does speak is inconsistent with the modern attempts to impute to him a belief in some kind of infallible, God-breathed oral tradition.

Additionally, I am not claiming to agree with all Chrysostom is saying. In fact, I do not find myself in agreement with much of what he says in this introduction. The aim here is only to examine what he believed, not to establish whether what he believed is truthful or false.

It were indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written Word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course. For that the former was better, God has made manifest, both by His words, and by His doings. Since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these. And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for He, says our Lord, shall bring all things to your remembrance. And that you may learn that this was far better, hear what He says by the Prophet: I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them, and, they shall be all taught of God. And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said, that they had received a law not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart. But since in process of time they made shipwreck, some with regard to doctrines, others as to life and manners, there was again need that they should be put in remembrance by the written word.

To summarize, Chrysostom is here hailing direct, personal revelation from God as being superior to the written Word. He clearly sees the written word as a kind of “plan B” given our obstinacy and weaknesses. In an ideal world, God’s truth would come to us like it did to the father of the Old testament: God speaking directly to us. Chrysostom even suggests this effect could be accomplished now through the Spirit Who lives in us. Either way, Chrysostom’s ideal circumstances would be each of us receiving personal divine inspiration, but our sin prevents that, so God took recourse to the written Word.

How then does this seem inconsistent with Sacred Tradition? After all, he is hailing the oral over the written; he is certainly promoting a lower view of the Scriptures than Reformers of the 16th century did. The devil is in the details.

What Chrysostom has actually established is the only place where we can find true divine inspiration. God has spoken orally to people, and that is preferred. But since that is not an option for the church, what has God left us? Where then are we to turn? Where has God spoken to us? Chrysostom’s answer is simple: the written Word. He does not turn to a three fold structure of Scripture, Tradition, and some ecclesiastical magisterium. He sees the place where God has spoken, even if it be God’s inferior design, is nonetheless only the Scriptures.

What is interesting is that in this very introduction Chrysostom does appeal to apostolic tradition. But I do not see that appeal as contradicting my analysis.

Now Luke tells us also the cause wherefore he proceeds to write: that you may hold, says he, the certainty of the words wherein you have been instructed; that is, that being continually reminded you may hold to the certainty, and abide in certainty. But as to John, he has himself kept silence touching the cause; yet, (as a tradition says, which has come down to us from the first, even from the Fathers,) neither did he come to write without purpose; but forasmuch as it had been the care of the three to dwell upon the account of the dispensation, and the doctrines of the Godhead were near being left in silence, he, moved by Christ, then and not till then set himself to compose his Gospel. And this is manifest both from the history itself, and from the opening of his Gospel. For he does not begin like the rest from beneath, but from above, from the same point, at which he was aiming, and it was with a view to this that he composed the whole book. And not in the beginning only, but throughout all the Gospel, he is more lofty than the rest.

That John provides no thesis statement is peculiar. John does in fact do this as Luke does, but he simply does it toward the conclusion of his Gospel, rather than in the opening,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

However, more to the point is that Chrysostom does appeal here to tradition. Notice though that he in no way expresses this as being at all on par with an infallible rule of faith. This tradition is not divinely inspired. Chrysostom has no problem appealing to tradition as a beneficial tool seeking additional knowledge about the Gospel of John, but this is precisely the way in which Protestant apologists wield church history and tradition. It can be effective and beneficial, but it is not on par with God-breathed Scripture.

The beautiful exhortation from Chrysostom seems a fitting one for any today would seek to make any alleged tradition as being ontologically from God, or being able to rule the Christian church:

Reflect then how great an evil it is for us, who ought to live so purely as not even to need written words, but to yield up our hearts, as books, to the Spirit; now that we have lost that honor, and have come to have need of these, to fail again in duly employing even this second remedy. For if it be a blame to stand in need of written words, and not to have brought down on ourselves the grace of the Spirit; consider how heavy the charge of not choosing to profit even after this assistance, but rather treating what is written with neglect, as if it were cast forth without purpose, and at random, and so bringing down upon ourselves our punishment with increase. But that no such effect may ensue, let us give strict heed unto the things that are written.

Do not allow your alleged traditions to cause you to neglect or contradict the written word (Matthew 15, Mark 7). Do not go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6). Give strict heed to the written Word. Give it its proper authority as being the only rule of faith which is God-breathed.

You do not live in age where God is speaking to you directly. You do not live in an age alongside those whom God is speaking to you directly (Prophets and Apostles). According to Chrysostom, where then can God’s Words be found? The Scriptures!

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