Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume XIII/St. Chrysostom as a Homilist
St. Chrysostom as a Homilist.
By the American Editor of the Homilies on Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians.
These Homilies are often less complete in exposition than those on earlier books of the New Testament, and in literary excellence will not compare with the Homilies on the Statues, and many other discourses given at Antioch. But to the student of preaching, they are quite as instructive, if not really more so. Here at Constantinople the great preacher was burdened with administrative details, and harassed by Court intrigues, so that his sermons were often given with far less than his earlier careful preparation, and seem to have been generally left afterwards to the mercy of shorthand reporters, and of editors who sent them forth when he was in banishment or in the grave. Any minister who has winced to see an unwritten sermon or other address of his own in the morning paper, with the accumulated and interlaced mistakes of reporter, compositor, and proof-corrector, can sympathize with the situation. But in fact the preacher thus appears in undress, and his methods may be in some respects the subject of a more profitable inspection. You see the sermon in about as imperfect, and sometimes distorted, a condition as it is seen in the actual delivery by many of the congregation. You see the frequent questions, the abrupt turns of phrase, the multiplied repetitions, by which a skilled and sympathetic preacher, keenly watching his audience, strives to retain attention and to insure a more general comprehension. You are drawn near to him, and almost stand by his side.
John of the Golden Mouth is, upon the whole, our very best example,—most richly instructive and fruitfully inspiring,—in respect of expository preaching, which is of late beginning to be more highly valued and more frequently attempted in our country than ever before. We have many good models in Scotland, some in England, and a few at home. Nor should the student ever forget Luther, or fail to profit by the peculiar methods of some recent Germans; but one who is reasonably endowed with historical sympathy can learn most from Chrysostom. The study of an ancient preacher is in this respect like the study of the Greek and Latin classics, that it demands sympathy with ideas and persons far away from ourselves, thus broadening the intellect, invigorating the imagination, and deepening in us a true feeling for all that is human. One who is at first without interest in Chrysostom, perhaps even repelled by the extravagant expressions, the heaped-up imagery, the frequent bad taste (at least, according to our standards), of this eminently representative Asiatic Greek, is precisely the man that ought to read Chrysostom, if he wishes to educate himself in the broadest and highest sense. Study the great preacher till you can thoroughly appreciate and heartily enjoy him. This will be much aided, of course, by reading a biography, as that by Stephens, or the long article in Smith’s Dictionary of Christian Biography, or the introductory biographical sketch in the ninth volume of this series. You very soon find that he is profoundly in earnest, and all alive. Christianity is with him a living reality. He dwells always in its presence and companionship. We may discern what seem to us grave errors of doctrinal opinion, but we feel the quickening pulses of genuine Christian love and zeal. And how fully he sympathizes with his hearers! He thoroughly knows them, ardently loves them, has a like temperament, shares not a little in the faults of his age and his race, as must always be the case with a truly inspiring orator or poet. Even when severely rebuking, when blazing with indignation, he never seems alien, never stands aloof, but throws himself among them, in a very transport of desire to check, and rescue, and save. Is there, indeed, any preacher, ancient or modern, who in these respects equals John Chrysostom?
His homilies are not directly a model for us, as regards the construction of discourse. The early Christians disliked to hear, or make, a smoothly symmetrical and elegantly finished oration like those of the secular orators. They wished for familiar and free addresses, such as we call a prayer-meeting talk; and this was precisely the meaning of their words “homily” and “sermon.” The preacher took up his passage of Scripture—usually somewhat extended—in a familiar way, sentence by sentence, with explanations and remarks, as he saw occasion; sometimes we find Chrysostom actually returning to go over the passage again, that it may suggest further remarks. At length, he would be apt to seize upon some topic of doctrine or practice which the text had directly or remotely suggested, and discuss that by way of conclusion, not infrequently wandering far off into the thoughts which one after another occurred. Now, modern taste requires much more system and symmetry in building a discourse. The Schoolmen taught their pupils to analyze and arrange, and modern preaching has taken the corresponding form, for good and for ill. An expository sermon of to-day must be much more systematic in its explanations, and much more regular in its entire construction, than those of the ancient preachers. Admirable models in this direction are furnished in Scotland. But while conforming to modern taste as to structure, one may learn much, very much, from the preachers of the early centuries, especially from Chrysostom, in respect of freedom, versatility, and skill in practical application. The modern careful preparation and orderly arrangement, combined (mutatis mutandis) with the ancient freedom and directness, and reduced to harmony and vital symmetry by zealous practice, might constitute the best type of expository preaching.
And it may be repeated that Chrysostom is not least helpful in these expository talks on the shorter epistles of Paul. Though often appearing fragmentary, they lay bare his habitual processes and reveal his most vigorous powers, and are not wanting in passages that burst into passion or shine in splendor.
Their value is increased rather than lessened for thoughtful readers by the restoration of the true text. The Oxford translation of the Homilies on these Epistles was published (1843) before the appearance of the corresponding volume of Field’s critical edition of the Greek text (1855). The translation was based, for Philippians, on the edition of Chrysostom’s Works by the English scholar Savile (1612), with some comparison of the Benedictine edition by Montfaucon (1718), and the Paris or Second Benedictine edition (1834–1839); and for Colossians and Thessalonians, on the Paris edition, with comparison of Savile. There was also occasional use of some collations from one ms. for Philippians, and one or two more for Thessalonians. Field has pointed out that the Benedictine and the Paris, and other editions, including that of Migne (1863), really followed, with slight alteration, the text of Savile. But the earliest edition of Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Epistles of Paul, published at Verona in 1529, presents a very different text; and Field’s careful study of collations from four mss. for Philippians, six for Colossians, and five for Thessalonians, together with the Catena, satisfied him that the Verona edition had in general given the true text, and he has reproduced it, with such alterations as the mss. generally agreeing with it appeared, in his judgment, to require. The American editor was at first inclined to think that Field had been unduly influenced by the Catena, which would naturally abridge its extracts, particularly in drawing from an author so efflorescent and repetitious as Chrysostom, and which had often appeared to do so when he was studying it throughout the Gospel of Matthew. But after going through Philippians with the construction of a composite text, which was felt to be inconsistent and unsatisfactory, like that of the Oxford translator and that of Migne, the editor was not far advanced in Colossians before he saw clearly that the Verona text as rewrought by Field was, beyond question, generally correct and greatly to be preferred. Accordingly the whole of this portion, Philippians as well as the rest, has been conformed to Field’s text, except in occasional passages, where Field’s own mss. were thought to indicate otherwise, and these have been pointed out in the foot-notes if they possessed the least importance. The foot-notes also present some few specimens of the numerous enlargements and explanatory changes or transitional additions by which the altered text printed by Savile and his followers sought to piece out and smooth into literary propriety the rough, fragmentary, and sometimes obscure expressions of the true text. It was only when nearly all this work had been done that the editor observed that some other portions of the Oxford translation were originally based on Field’s text, which for those portions had appeared in time for the purpose. Thus his part of the work has in fact become assimilated to the American edition for Matthew, and for Acts and Romans.
The translation of the Oxford edition shows general excellence, and frequent felicity of English expression. Besides the numerous cases of differences in text, the translation has been altered where the syntax seemed to be misunderstood, where the passion for variety of rendering (as often in the common or authorized English version of the Bible) had obscured the verbal connection of passages, &c. It is possible that the American editor, in his love for Chrysostom’s freedom and downrightness, has sometimes gone to the opposite extreme from that of the translators in England, and become too baldly literal.
The foot-notes in square brackets are from the editor. The others are from the Oxford translators, being retained except where they were superseded by the change of text or of translation, or for some other reason appeared to be no longer useful. Their references to other volumes of the Oxford edition have been conformed in the paging to the American edition for Matthew, Acts, and Romans, and the Statues; elsewhere the pages were simply omitted.—J.A.B.
- How this came about, the editor has sought to explain in his “Lectures on the History of Preaching” (New York, Armstrong), p. 103 f.
- Persons interested in text-criticism may care to know that Field’s volume for the Homilies on these Epistles, with a digest of various readings, would strikingly illustrate for them, in different material, the scientific principles and methods of Westcott and Hort. In the Homilies on Colossians they will find (out of six mss. collated for Field, viz., A B C D E H), a well-marked and singularly uniform group of three, viz., B C H, presenting the peculiarities of the altered text, adopted in many passages by Savile and followers, but in many others not adopted. The “internal evidence of groups,” as described by Westcott and Hort in vol. ii., Schaff’s Companion to the Bible, or Warfield’s Textual Criticism, may be here applied with great ease and assured results. In Thessalonians (out of five mss., B C I K L) B and C are the same documents as before, but C here presents marked differences of text. B K, with or without one or two other mss., will be found very generally wrong, with the peculiarities of the altered text. C sometimes joins them, but oftener stands aloof, frequently uniting with I or L in giving the true text, and sometimes standing alone for the right. In Philippians (out of four mss., C E F G) C G will quite frequently give the altered text, but there is not such uniformity as in the Homilies on the other Epistles. It may be added that (as Field also remarks) the alterations throughout the Homilies on these Epistles show a marked family likeness, and doubtless came from the same early critical editor, who, however, altered much more freely in some Homilies (as on Philippians) than in others (as on 2 Thess.). The altered text sometimes places Chrysostom among the supporters of a “Syrian” reading of the New Testament, where his real text is not so, but the instances observed in these Homilies are not so numerous as to affect his general position. It is to be hoped that other mss. of Chrysostom will be collated, and more complete materials be at hand for future critics to settle details now remaining uncertain, and perhaps to throw light on the origin of the altered or Savilian text; but the superiority of the Verona type, as given by Field, is not at all likely to be ever again otherwise than clear and assured.