Preface to John Chrysostom: Past, Present, Future

by Doru Costache and Mario Baghos

The volume you are now reading, John Chrysostom: Past, Present, Future, collects ten chapters which in an earlier form were presented for the Seventh St Andrew’s Patristic Symposium, held in Sydney in September 2016. The conference was convened by the editors of this book, together with our esteemed colleagues, Adam Cooper and James Harrison.

The chapters included here, written by eight scholars from Australia and two from abroad, offer new interdenominational and crossdisciplinary perspectives on the life, thought, and legacy of one of the most influential bishops of Late Antiquity, Saint John Chrysostom of Constantinople (d. 407). In so doing, they join a global phenomenon which, as highlighted by Wendy Mayer in chapter eight, represents a significant shift of direction in early Christian, patristic, and medieval studies. Throughout the twentieth century, the scholarly landscape was dominated by research on such representatives of the Christian tradition as Origen the Alexandrian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, and Maximus the Confessor, whose manifold contributions have been and still constitute the focus of analyses that have reached industrial proportions. In the shadow of the speculative thinking, mystical insight, ascetic wisdom, and doctrinal acumen of these giants, the input of Chrysostom seemed unable to elicit similar attention on the part of scholars. Indeed, when considering the specialised literature, one notices that his otherwise imposing corpus of writings has not sparked an equal scholarly fascination in the last century.

Against this backdrop, the rise of Chrysostomian studies in the last couple of decades amounts to a landslide. They fill a gap in the overall understanding of the early Christian centuries, casting fresh new light upon forgotten horizons of ecclesial, social, and cultural complexity. Within this new setting emerges out of oblivion another side to Chrysostom, equally gigantic, that of a versatile pastor, exegete, preacher, and theologian of note, whose lasting impact on Christian history, east and west, is undeniable. It is this figure, we read in chapter two, by Pauline Allen, who was perceived long after his own time as “a man for all seasons,” frequently claimed as supporter by opposite sides and so not a marginal player at all. It seems that a similar intuition concerning the relevance of his manifold contributions fuels the development of Chrysostomian studies in our time.

Perhaps not without a providential nudge, the revived scholarly interest in Chrysostom is without a doubt motivated, possibly on a subconscious level, by the exigencies of our time, which, more than the illustrious input of the great speculative theologians, system builders, and polemicists of the past, needs the grassroots oriented discourse of one like him. And although scholars will continue to pursue their academic interest in Chrysostom irrespective of the ecclesial setting, an attentive observer will not miss that today, more than ever, Christianity needs lessons in wisdom to guide it through the internal and external challenges of anachronism, fundamentalism, intolerance, marginalisation, conflict, and violence inherent to its current circumstances. In the light of these circumstances, by his realistic and pastoral cast of mind, Chrysostom is a Church father for our age of tremendous challenges—cultural, psychological, social, religious, ecological, and economic. At least, the shared conviction of the contributors to this volume seems to be that Chrysostom has much to offer today and, why not, tomorrow, as he had yesterday.

But the scholarly rediscovery of Chrysostom is not the only side of his story. Whereas his personality and contributions have long slipped under the scholarly radar, as they did up until very recently, that was not his destiny in the collective memory of the ecclesial world. Christians have never ceased to honour him, through the centuries, as Ecumenical Teacher in the east and Doctor of the Church in the west. They have celebrated him, and still do, as a scriptural interpreter, spiritual guide, preacher, political activist, ascetic, contributor to culture, pastor, theologian, and saint. Particularly his martyr’s end at the hands of hostile imperial and ecclesiastical agents engendered the admiration and reverence of Christians worldwide. He has been a landmark and a source of inspiration for the renewal of the ecclesial life—epitomised in the ascription by the Byzantines of one of their eucharistic liturgies to him. That very liturgy is still the most familiar fixture of the Orthodox Christian experience, being celebrated throughout the year, every year since at least the ninth century. It is fortunate therefore that scholarship has caught up with this towering figure, in turn bringing to the fore fresh new facets of his diverse activity. In studying Chrysostom, everyone gains: Late Antique scholarship and worldwide Christianity alike.

The portrait that emerges is not without contradictions. Chrysostom was a profound thinker, but not one who would gladly immerse in speculative thought. Out of care for the safety of his flock, he stirred the Christian crowds against what he construed as dangerously different, yet he remained foreign to xenophobia and violence. An exponent of classical learning, he was at the same time a consummate shepherd, concerned with the wellbeing of his flock. He was a refined theologian, with crucial contributions in the areas of theodicy, providence, and free will, but never tempted by endless doctrinal polemics, so favoured by many of his episcopal confrères. He was a skilled exegete whose engagement of Scripture transcended the artificial boundaries drawn by scholars between Antiochene and Alexandrine hermeneutics. He was an ascetic, but not one that would turn a lenient eye to the irregularities caused by the monastics of his diocese. A persecuted man, he was nevertheless a fierce protector of the exiled and the oppressed, which actually cost him both his career and life. Not always matching his devout representation by the Church, this complex portrait nevertheless belongs to a hero of whom the Church should be prouder than it is. Likewise, against the minor position to which he was relegated by older scholarship, the complex portrait which emerges is that of a star of first magnitude. Much more is still to be sorted out—from his posthumous role in shaping later christology to his immediate pastoral and missionary concerns, from his adherence to the philosophical trends of his time to the complexity of his approach to Scripture and the spiritual life, and from his reception in east and west to the pastoral and ecumenical lessons which can be inferred from his wisdom. Combined effort across the disciplines is required to perform this enormous task. The book you are now holding aims to do, albeit partially, just that, namely, to circumscribe the universe of Chrysostom from a variety of viewpoints.

The topics addressed in what follows range from hagiography (chapter one, by M. Baghos) and Nachleben (chapters two, three, four, and five, by P. Allen, D. Anlezark, A. Stambolov, and A. Cooper) to particular Chrysostomian contributions, such as christological (chapters five and six, by A. Cooper and S. Macdonald), pastoral (chapters eight and nine, by W. Mayer and P.-W. Lai), rhetorical (chapters six, seven, and nine, by S. Macdonald, C. Baghos, and P.-W. Lai), exegetical (chapters six, seven, and ten, by S. Macdonald, C. Baghos, and D. Costache), and ecological (chapters one and ten, by M. Baghos and D. Costache). Most of these contributions straddle various topics and areas. The authors had to so proceed due to the complexity of the matters of interest, namely, Chrysostom’s diverse ways of handling things, which demanded the adoption of crossdisciplinary angles. The contributions collected here consequently illustrate methods pertaining to anthropology, cosmology, ecology, hagiography, hermeneutics, history, linguistics, pastoral studies, pedagogy, philosophy, sociology, spirituality, and theology.

The crossdisciplinary aspect is well represented within the volume. Chapters two, seven, eight, and nine, by P. Allen, C. Baghos, W. Mayer, and P.-W. Lai, offer useful surveys of past and recent Chrysostomian scholarship. Chapters two, three, and five, by P. Allen, D. Anlezark, and A. Cooper explore the history of reception, theological, and ecumenical impact of Chrysostom’s christology in Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian sources, in medieval England, and in the seventh century Roman and Byzantine controversies. Chapters one and four, by M. Baghos and A. Stambolov, consider Chrysostom’s representation in Late Ancient historiography, hagiography, and the ascetic literature. His pastoral handling of the challenges inherent to a diverse cultural, social, and religious context, together with his views of the spiritual life and priesthood, are examined in chapters eight and nine, by W. Mayer and P.-W. Lai, through the lens of ascetic theology, hermeneutics, rhetoric, sociology, and virtue ethics. The same contributions of Mayer and Lai bring to the fore Chrysostom’s take on philosophy as a way of life. Chapters six, seven, eight, and nine, by S. Macdonald, C. Baghos, W. Mayer, and P.-W. Lai, search for the impact of the various philosophical ideas, concepts, and methods of Late Antiquity upon Chrysostom’s thinking and writing. Particularities pertaining to Chrysostomian exegesis with reference to the Pauline corpus, the pro-Nicene use of scriptural passages, and Genesis 13 are discussed in chapters six, seven, and ten, by S. Macdonald, C. Baghos, and D. Costache. The volume begins and concludes with analyses by the editors, which bear on environmental studies and highlight the impact of holiness, and lack thereof, on the terrestrial ecosystem and the cosmos as a whole. And whereas M. Baghos’ chapter considers these matters from the vantage point of religious studies, Church history, and hagiography, D. Costache’s contribution addresses the same topic within a certain interpretive tradition of Genesis 13 in the early Christian centuries, together with its assumptions concerning theological anthropology, and from the viewpoint of contemporary anthropic cosmology.

The topics examined within this volume highlight the richness of Chrysostom’s universe, of which some aspects, apart from their scholarly significance, still have a ring for the Christian ear. In turn, the methods applied throughout this book reveal the immensity of the task of spelling out his multifaceted contributions, and how new approaches bring to light further aspects of his creativity. Together, these topics and methods point to the reasons behind the subtitle of this book, for which the editors are indebted to Pauline Allen—namely, the conviction that Chrysostom’s voice, which reaches us from the past, will certainly reverberate beyond our own age.

Chrysostom was, of course, a man of his own time and for that matter, for us, a man of the past. This historical dimension is reflected in most chapters herein through explorations of what he said and why he said that within his own timeframe. The same dimension transpires through explorations of how his contributions have been received at the end of Late Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. Chrysostom is also a man for the present time in that, as pointed out above, beyond the gulfs of history his practical wisdom offers solutions for impasses which challenge us today, as Christians and as a civilisation. Consequently, several chapters herein draw parallels between his solutions and contemporary issues. But Chrysostom is also a man for the future. It is not difficult to predict that many of the problems which currently confront our culture, society, and ecclesial life will stay for awhile. Thus, irrespective of how appealing and uplifting the input of the other giants of patristic tradition may be, the contributions of Chrysostom, by their resonance with matters of everyday life, will offer wisdom and guidance for as long as these challenges will confront humankind. On the scholarly front, it is equally predictable that the largely unexplored Chrysostomian corpus will offer opportunities for excavation for many more decades. In particular, the adoption of new methodological approaches seems to mark the way ahead. In chapter eight, Wendy Mayer offers, from the viewpoint of her concerns, an illuminating summary of the current status and future possibilities in Chrysostoamian studies. In her words,

If viewing Chrysostom solely from the perspective of theology has in the past led to a decidedly negative view of his contribution to the development of Christian doctrine, while emphasis on his debt to his secular education and his local environment is opening up significant new vistas, the current challenge, they [i.e. scholars] would argue, is to marry together the two—theology and his moral-philosophical soul-therapy. . . What is emerging from this approach is acknowledgement that Chrysostom did contribute to the development of eastern Christian thought in a number of not insignificant ways, with the potential that more contributions will in the future be acknowledged.

Through extrapolation, Mayer’s assessment is valid for any other topic discussed in this book and very likely many more that have escaped our attention. On this front, the last three chapters, by W. Mayer, P.-W. Lai, and D. Costache, show fruits of such new investigative avenues and, implicitly, suggest further ways of approaching Chrysostom’s universe.

The authors and editors of this volume hope that this tribute will be of service to scholars and students of early Christianity, Late Antiquity, and patristics, and also to the various branches of Christianity in Australia and abroad, which revere Saint John Chrysostom as a preacher, exegete, shepherd, and theologian of note. We, the editors, are thankful to the authors for their trust in our capacity to see this project to its completion. We express our debt of gratitude, likewise, to the tireless and competent scholars who have secured the anonymous peer review of the contributions published here. It would be remiss of us not to express our wholehearted appreciation to Ion Nedelcu, for his invaluable assistance with the graphic design and layout of the book. Furthermore, we voice our satisfaction at the achievement of this first major contribution of The Australian Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies (AIOCS), whose co-founders we are, together with Chris Baghos. Last but not least, we express our heartfelt gratitude to The Australian Research Theology Foundation, Inc., for a grant that made possible the publication of this volume by AIOCS Press.

Sydney, August 2017

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