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Chrysostom: A Study In The History Of Biblical Interpretation

THE enthusiasm of sympathy is Chrysostom’s guide in his interpretation of St Paul’s Epistles. “I do not understand the Apostle,” the preacher says in one passage, “by reason of any intellectual ability or acuteness of my own, but because I keep continually in his company and love him much.” In St Paul’s words he recognises ‘a voice very dear,’ which is yet the call of a ‘spiritual trumpet’ (ix. 425 A). As we investigate details of interpretation we shall see how the Commentator catches something of the free and ardent spirit of his author; how he understands with the intuition of a kindred nature the undercurrents of emotion, the rapid changes of thought and feeling, which characterize St Paul’s letters. But first it will be well to collect a few passages from Chrysostom dealing with more general questions.

And first it must be admitted that Chrysostom takes an altogether exaggerated view of St Paul’s want of literary culture. In this respect he ranks him with the earlier Apostles—“Nothing could be more ignorant than Peter, nothing ruder than Paul” (ix. 428 E, comp. 2 Cor. 11:6). “I once heard,” he says elsewhere, “a Christian disputing with a Greek in a very absurd fashion. Each refuted the position which was proper to himself. The Greek tried to shew that Paul was unlearned and rude, and the Christian in his simplicity spared no pains to prove that Paul was more learned than Plato. Thus the Greek gained the victory. For had Paul been more learned than Plato, many would doubtless object that not by grace, but by eloquence, did he prevail. But if Paul was uncultured and yet vanquished Plato, his victory is plainly decisive. The unlettered took the disciples of the philosopher one and all, and brought them over to his side” (x. 20 B). No less striking and curious is the contrast which in commenting on St Paul’s last Epistle Chrysostom draws between the lonely prisoner and the reigning Caesar. St Paul is there described as a “leather worker, a poor man, unversed in worldly learning, only able to speak Hebrew, a language despised by all men, and most of all by Italians” (xi. 682 E). The Apostle’s training at the feet of Gamaliel is but slightly touched upon (e.g. x. 41 D, xi. 563 E, xii. 1 C). Chrysostom habitually describes St Paul as having been once a petty tradesman. “His mind was once poor and mean, absorbed in matters pertaining to contracts and skins” (xii. 7 D). Such language is partly due to the preacher’s desire to give point to rhetorical contrasts, partly to his remarkable ignorance of Jewish customs. If he notices that St Paul on two occasions quotes from heathen poets (xi. 744 D), and insists on his deep knowledge of the Jewish Law as a guarantee against a mistaken quotation (1 Cor. 2:9), the fact remains that he overlooks the great distance in culture and social position between Saul of Tarsus and the Lord’s personal followers. So far Chrysostom approaches St Paul’s writings with a wrong estimate of their human sid. But this very disparagement of the one side, in Chrysostom’s opinion, brings into strong relief the other, the Divine side. The power of the Spirit, as he is never tired of urging, alone explains the achievements of so poor an instrument. The words of this illiterate tent-maker are invested with the awfulness of a superhuman majesty, and pass beyond the narrow limits of the occasion which first called them forth.

Chrysostom’s view on these points does not preclude him from carefully treating the characteristics of the Epistles. When an Epistle is taken in hand, the opening sermon commonly forms a brief introduction.

Thus the date of the several Letters is discussed. Chrysostom warns his hearers that the common is not the true order; the Epistle to the Romans is not the earliest Epistle (ix. 427 D). In his attempt to determine the chronology he appeals to internal evidence. He decides, for example, that the Corinthian Epistles are earlier than that to the Romans from a comparison of Rom. 15:25, 26 with 1 Cor. 16:4; writing to the Romans St Paul speaks of his journey to Jerusalem as fixed (ix. 426 D). It is a true instinct which makes him conjecture that the Galatian Epistle was written before the Roman. The Epistles of the first captivity are parted off from the single Epistle of the second, and in the interval a place is found for 1 Timothy, Titus, and lastly the Epistle to the Hebrews (xi. 190 B, 658 B, 730 B, xii. 2 E). The intrinsic importance of such investigations is distinctly recognised. “Let no one deem this an unnecessary task, nor such a discussion a piece of superfluous ingenuity. For the date of the Epistles contributes not a little to the solution of questions. For when I see the Apostle writing to the Romans with great condescension (14:1, 2), and to the Colossians on the same matter with great plainness of speech, (2:20 sq.), I can only account for the difference by the lapse of time” (ix. 427 E).

Closely connected with the question of time is that of place. This point is not overlooked in Chrysostom’s expositions. Thus, in the case of Corinth, an appeal is made to classical literature to shew its ancient reputation for wealth. Its trade, the number of its rhetoricians and philosophers, are also noticed. “And I do not mention these points,” continues the preacher, “from affectation, or to make a display of learning: they contribute towards the understanding of the argument of the Epistle” (10:1). In one case at least Chrysostom curiously misinterprets the bearing of facts of this kind. While he recognises a Greek element in the Church of the Capital, he is so carried away by the name of Rome that he fancies the letter addressed to men “elated with worldly pride by reason of their wealth, their Empire, their victories.” Commenting for example on the words, ‘Thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest,’ he says, “these words he directs against the rulers (πρὸς τοὺς ἄρχοντας); for the City at that time had gotten the Empire over the whole world. He gives them therefore early warning; When thou condemnest the adulterer, and art thyself an adulterer, though no man goeth to law with thee, in thy sentence against the guilty thou pronouncest doom upon thyself.” The mistake is only emphasised when Chrysostom interprets ‘whosoever’ as implying that the Apostle is speaking not to rulers alone, but also to private persons and to subjects.

But there are larger considerations which a commentator must bring into clear relief if he would successfully grapple with details of interpretation. Chrysostom truly notes that St Paul always “wrote his letters with some special motive” (ix. 428 B). Round this central question of purpose other problems are grouped, offering a wide field for delicate discrimination. Chrysostom treats this large subject in the case of each Epistle, of course with varying success.

Thus Chrysostom begins his exposition of the Galatian Epistle by noting that the Preface is marked “by a tone of deep anger and of dignity, and not the Preface only, but one might say the whole letter.” The reasons for the Apostle’s strong feeling are then analysed. First there is the interested movement of Jewish teachers: secondly their appeal to ‘those who were with Peter and James and John’ against a solitary upstart of yesterday (χθὲς καὶ σήμερον ἐφάνη): thirdly their charge of inconsistency against the Apostle. Hence the opening words of strong self-assertion, ‘Paul an Apostle, not from men, neither through men.’ Again, Chrysostom holding the Epistle to the Hebrews to have been written by St Paul, works out the circumstances under which he supposes the letter to have been written. As the Apostle of the Gentiles St Paul was held in special abhorrence by two classes of men, by the unbelieving Jews, as a base deserter; by the believing Jews, as the preacher among the nations of an undiluted (καθαρῶς) Christianity. Nevertheless he writes to the Jews of Jerusalem and Palestine, just as he baptized though not sent to baptize (1 Cor. 1:17); but he refrains from prefacing his letter with his name; by this omission he would cunningly catch their ear (ἐσοφίσατο … τὴν ἀκρόασιν ix. 429 D). Two facts are now brought into prominence; first, the Apostle’s early and constant solicitude for the suffering Hebrew Christians (1 Thess. 2:14); secondly their aggravated trial of persecution in those later days. As Jews they had been taught that rewards and punishments would be rendered in this life. Their hopes remained unfulfilled, and they were wasted (τεταριχευμένοι) and despairing (6:10; 10:37; 12:8, 12). For these sorrows the Apostle opens out a threefold consolation: in the sufferings of the Christ (John 15:20): in the future reward: in the light which their fathers’ distresses in old time cast upon their own.

To pass to another point, Chrysostom has much of interest on the general structure, and on a comparative view, of the Epistles.

The Epistles are conformed to a common type. St Paul’s name and the mention of his apostolic office stand in the forefront of all the Epistles but one (ix. 429 D, xi. 549 A). They close with a salutation in the Apostle’s own hand (xi. 510 c), with the single exception of the Galatian Epistle. This Chrysostom supposes to have been throughout in the ill-formed characters of St Paul (Gal. 6:11). The normal division into a doctrinal and into a practical section is noticed. Chrysostom however thinks that this rule is broken in the Galatian Epistle, where St Paul in his view returns in v. 13 to a doctrinal discussion; also in the Roman Epistle, where he passes and repasses from one to the other to make his discourse more palatable to his correspondents. In the First Epistle to Corinth he notices that the Apostle breaks off from doctrinal subjects at the end of Chapter 15, and accounts for his then treating only of the duty of almsgiving by the fact that the first part of the letter had virtually dealt with other questions of morality.

Much is to be learned from a careful comparison of Epistles. Thus as to Epistles which are obviously allied to each other, Chrysostom compares the gentler tone of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians with the sterner spirit of the Second. ‘We beseech you, brethren, that ye increase more and more’ in the First is contrasted with ‘We command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’ in the Second (xi. 538 D). The reverse is the case with the two letters to the Corinthians (x. 455 E). Yet here Chrysostom points out the vehemence of one passage of the Second Epistle (10:12) compared with the suspended judgment of the First (4:21). In the former Epistle the subjects which called forth great severity are dealt with first; in the later the Apostle begins with gentleness but speaks in tones of earnest rebuke before its close (x. 158 E). The results of this comparative view are even more striking when Epistles from different groups are placed side by side. Chrysostom, for example, contrasts St Paul’s treatment of the Resurrection when writing to the Thessalonians and when later writing to the Corinthians. The Thessalonians sorrowed while the Corinthians doubted: the Apostle therefore comforts in the one case and argues in the other (xi. 473 B). Or again, St Paul’s stern rebukes of the Galatians are contrasted with his admonitions addressed to the Colossians. Commonly he first commends anything worthy of praise, so drawing his hearer to himself, and freeing his sternness from any suspicion of ill will. Of this the Colossian Epistle is an example. It is otherwise with the Galatian letter. Here he has no successes on their part to record; his impeachment of them is overwhelming; he starts with a term of reproach, ‘I marvel’ (xi. 334 D, comp. 258 C). Such examples might be multiplied, but these are sufficient to shew that Chrysostom makes a genuine, and in the main a successful, attempt to trace the delicate variations of tone and feeling which give to St Paul’s Epistles an enduring life and meaning.

In the details of exposition Chrysostom is careful to follow two main rules. Neither is of course formally enunciated. The fact that they find incidental expression is all the clearer proof that they have gained a hold on the interpreter’s mind.

The first rule is put thus: “We must not examine the words as bare words, else many absurdities will follow, nor must we investigate the language by itself, but we must mark the mind of the writer” (x. 675 A). This Canon of Interpretation Chrysostom illustrates by the usages of common life. If men refused to regard the intention of their neighbour’s words, numberless misunderstandings would arise. Such neglect in respect to men’s actions would confuse the skill of the physician with the violence of the robber. The special passage which calls out these remarks is that in which St Paul disclaims connexion with those who had been Apostles before him (Gal. 1:15 sq.). Such a claim might well cause offence, did we not remember the attacks made on St Paul by his Jewish opponents. The rule is capable of varied application. It is an arbiter between conflicting interpretations. Chrysostom, for example, is dealing with the difficult passage (Rom. 5:13) ‘Until the law sin was in the world (ἄχρι γὰρ νόμου ἁμαρτία ἦν ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ)’. Some think that the Apostle meant here the period previous to the giving of the law, the days of Abel and onward to the birth of Moses. What then was the sin which reigned? The sin in Paradise, say some. But what of the words which follow, ‘Sin is not reckoned when there is no law’? Some, whom Chrysostom describes as ‘our friends (οἱ τὰ ἡμέτερα εἰρηκότες),’ supposed that the Apostle was arguing against the Jews to the disparagement of the law. Unless sin exists apart from the law, how is it that death destroyed all men before the law? “But in my opinion,” he continues, “that which shall now be stated has better reason, and is in harmony with the Apostle’s thought. After the law had been given, the sin which came of its transgression prevailed as long as there was law: for sin cannot exist when there is not law. Since then all before the law died, it is plain that the sin in question is the sin which pertains, not to the transgression of the law, but to the disobedience of Adam”.

Again, this rule checks unwarrantable conclusions. The words, ‘That which I do I know not’ (Rom. 7:15) must not be misunderstood. Chrysostom will make no truce with Socrates’ teaching. “No one ever sinned in ignorance. Unless we interpret these words with proper caution and continued reference to the Apostle’s aim, innumerable absurdities will follow. ‘I know not’ means ‘I am beclouded; I am carried off my feet, tripped up’; just as we say ‘Somehow so and so quite carried me off my feet (συνήρπασεν),’ not pleading ignorance as an excuse, but indicating some fraud or trick.” Or again, such a rule prevents words used relatively from being interpreted absolutely. Thus of the passage, ‘By their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy’ (Rom. 11:11), Chrysostom says, “We must not give a bare hearing to the words, but must get an insight into the sentiment and aim of the speaker. The Apostle’s purpose in the present case is to pluck down the pride which his preceding argument might have bred in the Gentiles; for so they would the better remain steadfast in the faith, while the Jews set free from their despair would be the readier to embrace the grace (of the Gospel) … Nor must we wonder if St Paul represents the eventual consequence as the primary design.” A similar case is 1 Cor. 8:4 οἴδαμεν ὅτι οὐδὲν εἴδωλον ἐν κόσμῳ. St Paul has in mind two classes of persons. Some of dull intellect know of nothing beyond the material of the idol, the wood or stone. Others, pluming themselves on their superior wisdom, hold that spiritual powers dwell in the outward shapes. To the first the Apostle says that the idol is nothing; to the second, ‘There is no God but one.’ “You see,” he continues, “St Paul does not teach doctrine absolutely, but in relation to a difference which he finds among those without. For we must always observe carefully whether the Apostle states a thing absolutely (ἀπολελυμένως) or from a special position towards certain persons. For this contributes very largely towards our accuracy in doctrine and our apprehension of his words.”

The second rule is little more than a special application of the first. A close attention to the context will illuminate a difficult paragraph or phrase. “Paul himself interprets his meaning in the words which follow” (ix. 531 D). The phrase, ‘that the body of sin might be done away,’ is defined by the words, ‘that we should no longer be in bondage to sin.’ Some thought that St Paul’s language about marriage (1 Cor. 7:1 sq.) was addressed to priests only. “For my own part,” Chrysostom replies, “judging from what follows, I should say that St Paul’s admonition is general.”

These Canons of Interpretation lead us to expect a constant effort on Chrysostom’s part to trace the thread of thought and purpose which especially in the more argumentative Epistles binds the several parts together. This he effects by short summaries of the argument at the turning points of thought. The homiletic character of his expositions, while it offered at the beginning of each sermon a convenient opportunity for such summaries, at the same time often accounts for their absence. Some striking thought suggests itself to the preacher with which to catch or to keep the attention of his hearers; to this the first place is given; the stream of rhetoric carries him away, and the more commonplace task of indicating the sequence of thought is forgotten. As a whole Chrysostom’s Homilies on the Ephesian Epistle may be taken as an instance of this defect.

We now proceed to examine in detail Chrysostom’s interpretation of some important passages.

Philippians 2:6–11. There are few passages in the New Testament more crucial than this. Every phrase, every word, is felt to be instinct with meaning. Chrysostom divides his commentary into two parts. First he refutes heretics: secondly he unfolds his own interpretation. To deal with the first point, here is an epitome of all that can be said in answer to every depravation of the true doctrine of the Lord’s Person. Here St Paul by one decisive blow overthrows the followers of Valentinus, of Marcion, of Manes, of Sabellius, of Paul of Samosata, of Arius, of Marcellus and Photinus, of Sophronius, of Apollinaris. Perhaps it was impossible for an orthodox preacher at the close of the 4th century not to put the controversial view in the forefront. The Arian heresy has the most painful interest for the commentator. The Arian gloss on the passage according to Chrysostom ran thus: θεὸς ὢν ἐλάττων οὐχ ἥρπασε τὸ εἶναι ἴσα τῷ θεῷ τῷ μεγάλῳ καὶ μείζονι. To this paraphrase and the argument implied, viz. that, as no one can be conceived of as seizing a position already his, Christ is not truly God, Chrysostom’s reply is threefold. (1) The analogy of Scripture forbids such an interpretation. The word Great applied to God in Scripture, as often in the Psalms, is used absolutely: there is no correlative term. Further Chrysostom quotes Titus 2:13 as shewing conclusively that the words ὁ μέγας θεός are used of the Son. (2) The expression itself forbids it. The less cannot seize an equality with the greater. (3) The argument forbids it. The Arian gloss would put St Paul’s argument on a level with such an exhortation as this: ‘Be humble, for so and so who is a slave did not rise up against his master: imitate him.’ Further, the Apostolic injunction, ‘Each counting other better than himself,’ shews that he starts from cases where no difference in rank exists (contrast Heb. 13:17).

The refutation of the Arian interpretation prepares the way for Chrysostom’s own view. The following points are emphasised. (1) The word ὑπάρχων, to be carefully distinguished from γενόμενος, is a key-word. It is to be compared with ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (Exod. 3:14). (2) The term μορφή implies unchangeableness (τὸ ἀπαράλλακτον). A being of one nature cannot have the form which belongs to another nature. A man, for example, cannot take the form of an angel, nor a brute that of a man. Further, though in our being there are many elements, and the form signifies but one of these, the body, yet the Nature of God is simple and uncompounded, and the term μορφή can only apply to the Essence of the Deity. (3) The anarthrous θεοῦ need cause no difficulty, for the context supplies an undoubted instance of the anarthrous θεός used of the Father. (4) The term ἁρπαγμός according to Chrysostom is used in malam partem, meaning an unjust acquisition taken by fraud or violence. Such a possession must be ever from its very nature carefully guarded and tenaciously clung to. Absalom, for example, seized despotic power, and then dared not lay it aside. “The tyrant fears in war to put away his purple robe: the lawful Sovereign does so with all confidence, for οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἔχει τὴν ἀρχήν. So it is with the Son. Equality with God is essentially by nature His.” (5) The phrases, ‘He humbled Himself,’ ‘He emptied Himself,’ prove the voluntariness of His condescension. (6) The Marcionites catch at the phrase ἐν ὁμοιώματι as shewing the unreality of the Lord’s Humanity. ‘He clothed Himself,’ say they, ‘with a shadow.’ But Chrysostom points out that they are confusing it with the kindred word εἴδωλον; ἀνθρώπου γὰρ ὁμοίωμα ἄνθρωπος ἕτερος. Further, such passages as John 1:14; Rom. 8:3 are a sufficient refutation. A similarly false conclusion is based on the expressions which follow—σχήματι, ὡς ἄνθρωπος. Here Chrysostom insists on the definiteness of the words μορφὴν δούλου λαβών. If a reference to the Lord’s action in washing the disciples’ feet is thought to satisfy the requirements of the phrase, μορφή is made equivalent to ἔργον, an absurd assumption. The expression ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων is explained when we remember that we consist of soul and body; He was God and soul and body. The Divine Word was not transformed into a man, nor was the Essence changed; hence St Paul says ὡς ἄνθρωπος, though elsewhere (1 Tim. 2:5) he does not hesitate to use the simple ἄνθρωπος in this connexion. Such are the main points of the discussion. The exhortation with which it closes has a painful interest in the light of controversies soon to divide the Church: τοῦτο ἐγένετο, τοῦτο ἔλαβεν• ἐκεῖνο ὑπῆρχε. μὴ δὴ συγχέωμεν, μηδὲ διϊστῶμεν. εἷς θεὸς, εἷς Χριστὸς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ. τὸ δὲ, εἷς, ὅταν εἴπω, ἕνωσιν λέγω, οὐ σύγχυσιν, τῆς φύσεως ταύτης εἰς ἐκείνην [μὴ] μεταπεσούσης ἀλλὰ ἡνωμένης.

Colossians 1:15–18. Chrysostom’s interpretation of this very important theological passage is not free from a certain haziness, and it is difficult in a brief analysis to represent his meaning with complete certainty. The following however appear to be the main points. (1) The essential idea of the word εἰκών, Chrysostom urges, is unchanging unvarying likeness. If the word is applied to men in reference to God, he would have us notice that it is never used to express the relation of angels to God; the meanness of human nature is a sufficient safeguard against misconception. From this view of the word two important results flow. (a) The image of Him Who is invisible must Himself also be invisible. (b) The image of the Creator cannot be a creature. (2) Next the phrase πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως is taken in hand. (a) In answer to the Arian conclusion as to the nature of the Son, ἰδοὺ ἔκτισται, Chrysostom notices that the word is not πρωτόκτιστος but πρωτότοκος. Further, if the word πρωτότοκος is put to this use, we must argue that He is a brother in respect to all things, and so rob Him of His position as Creator and of all dignity and preeminence. For (according to the rejected interpretation) the word πρωτότοκος has no reference to dignity, but only implies priority in time._ (b) The same word is again used in the context, πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν, here too pointing to something more than simple priority; else the phrase would have been τῶν νεκρῶν, not ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν. He is not only πρῶτος but τῆς ἀναστάσεως ἀπαρχή. (3) Chrysostom rightly emphasises the reference to angels in the words which follow. The Lord is before them, because they have been created in (i.e. through) Him. But the Apostle goes further. He adds εἰς αὐτόν, implying that the being of all things hangs on Him. The mere tendency of things unto Him is sufficient to hold and rivet them together. So He is the Firstborn of Creation in the sense of being its foundation, St Paul’s use of the phrase elsewhere (1 Cor. 3:10) limiting its reference to activity as distinguished from Essence. ‘He is before all things’:—‘This befits God.’ (4) St Paul passes now from the dignity of the Son to speak of His love for man. ‘He is the Head of the body, the Church.’ St Paul does not here as in the Ephesian Epistle use the word πλήρωμα, because he wishes to bring out Christ’s near relationship with us. (5) ἵνα γένηται ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτὸς πρωτεύων. So is He first in generation. To insist on this is St Paul’s great object. For thence it follows that He existed before the angels and wrought their works, because they did but follow His commands. Further, it is very remarkable, Chrysostom points out, that the Apostle lays stress on proving Him first in the later generation, though elsewhere he speaks of Adam as first. Here however he takes the Church as the representative of the whole race: for He is first of the Church, and, as of Creation, so according to the flesh first of men. What then is the meaning of πρωτότοκος in v. 18? Does he mean, ‘He who was created first,’ or, ‘He who rose before all,’ just as in the former place he meant ‘He who is before all’? Here the Apostle defines his meaning by adding the word ἀπαρχή. As He is, so are the rest.

Such, I believe, is a fair summary of Chrysostom’s discussion of a passage of unusual importance and difficulty. If it must be allowed that the lines of his exposition are not clearly and sharply drawn, that great questions are left without a distinct answer, it will be remembered that the treatment of the passage forms part of a popular homily.

Romans 9:14–23. We take next a passage which deals with the mysterious subject of God’s purpose in regard to men. The main scope of the paragraph Chrysostom gives thus—“St Paul’s great object is to prove by each word that God only knows those who are worthy (of His favour), that no man knows them, howsoever any may think that he knows, but that man’s award often miserably fails.” The discussion springs from a reference which St Paul made to God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau before their birth. It was the virtue of the one, the evil of the other, alike foreseen by God and unknown to men, which discriminated between them. Predestination is pre-vision. “He who knoweth the secrets of the heart seeth the pearl albeit lying in the mire: all others He passeth by: at the fair beauty of this He marvelleth and chooseth it: He addeth His own grace to the natural nobility of purpose, and so maketh the man approved”. If St Paul adduces the parallel case in Exod. 33:19—all the Israelites were involved in one sin, but all were not punished—Chrysostom would have us note the exact way in which it is introduced, ‘He saith to Moses.’ If Moses could not understand these things, how should we? But further St Paul builds up the lofty argument, and with it the transcendent difficulty in verses 15–19. At length the question can be no longer kept back, ‘Why doth He still find fault? For who withstandeth His will?’ Here, as Chrysostom urges, the argument becomes twofold. The Apostle “plucks up the thorns before he plants his seed.” He defers his solution of the problem till he has stopped the mouth of the caviller.

(1) He restrains persistent curiosity, not asserting that a solution is impossible, but that such questions are unlawful. ‘Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God?’ He frightens and cows his opponent. At this point the illustration of the potter and the clay is brought in. Chrysostom’s comment on it is characteristic. The Apostle “hereby does not reject free will, but he shews the point to which obedience to God must go. For so far from speaking or imagining anything against God, we must be like the lifeless clay yielding itself to the potter’s hands and taking what shape soever he wills. The lesson of extreme obedience and silent submission is indeed the one object of the illustration. And we must always remember that we should not take illustrations as applicable in every point, but should select in them what is to the purpose, for the sake of which they are adduced, and then pass by the rest.” As to the words which follow—‘Or hath not the potter a right over the clay …?’—St Paul is not discussing any question of creation or any coercion of man’s will, but God’s sovereign power over, and the divers forms of, His dealings with men. If the words be applied to man’s will, then God is creator of good and evil alike, and man is rid of all responsibility. Further, the Apostle will thus be made to contradict himself, seeing that everywhere he gives the palm of victory to man’s moral purpose. He simply teaches perfect patience, and deprecates the disposition which calls God to account. “For as the potter from one lump makes what vessels he will, and none contradicts, so if out of one and the self-same family God honours some and punishes others, trouble not thyself: only worship, and like the clay yield thyself to the will of Him that ordereth all things.” Further, as the honour and dishonour are not due to the potter, but to the use to which the vessels are put, so with men all depends on their moral purpose.

(2) At this point, according to Chrysostom’s analysis, St Paul passes to the solution of the problem. ‘What if God, willing to shew His wrath …?’ Chrysostom illustrates the Apostle’s meaning by the special case of Pharaoh. “Pharaoh was a vessel of wrath, that is, a man who kindled God’s anger by his own hardness; for though God bore long with him, yet he remained unreformed. So the Apostle calls him ‘a vessel of wrath fitted for destruction,’ that is, fitted by his own very self (οἴκοθεν καὶ παρʼ ἑαυτοῦ). For God left nothing undone which could reform him, nor he anything which could destroy himself and rob himself of forgiveness. Yet God knowing all this ‘endured with much long-suffering,’ wishing to bring him to repentance: for had He not wished so to bring him, He would not have endured long with him. But when he would not repent for all God’s patience, but fitted himself for wrath, then God used him for the correction of others, through his punishment making them better men and shewing thereby His power.”

Turning to the other clause we notice that Chrysostom is here too equally anxious to insist on man’s freedom of will. “When the Apostle says, ‘which He afore prepared unto glory,’ he does not imply that the whole matter pertains to God, else nothing would hinder all men being saved; He rather again points to the divine foreknowledge.… The vessels of mercy are such by reason of their own goodness. For though the more part of the matter pertains to God, yet did they themselves make some small contribution thereto. For the words, ‘It is not of him that willeth,’ imply simply that man needs the grace of God”. Finally Chrysostom lays some stress on St Paul’s selection of Pharaoh as the typical instance. His argument would have been clearer had he taken those Israelites who sinned as his main illustration. But he sacrificed logical cogency to patriotism, and took as his example of punishment a barbarian king, speaking of the Jews only as types of God’s saving mercy.

Chrysostom’s treatment of this passage may be taken to illustrate two of his characteristics. It exemplifies on the one hand his proneness to map out a section into formal divisions, and to propose an artificial connexion; on the other hand his unvarying caution in drawing dogmatic conclusions from illustrations or parables.

2 Thessalonians 2:3–10. The apocalyptic element in the Bible is no mean test of a commentator’s sobriety. The temptation is strong to air strange theories in regions where no historical critic can follow. Chrysostom speaks of the passage in the Thessalonian Epistle as a revelation of great mysteries. It chiefly deals with the coming of the Antichrist. This Antichrist has many names. Thus Chrysostom curiously gives a personal interpretation of the expression ἡ ἀποστασία (v. 3). The Antichrist is the very embodiment of apostasy. He is the ‘man of sin,’ because he will himself do, and teach others to do, many enormities; ‘the son of perdition,’ because he shall be destroyed. To the question, Who is the Antichrist?, Chrysostom answers decidedly that he is not Satan, He is rather a man who receives into himself the full activity of Satan. He will not lead men into ordinary idolatry. He will be himself an ἀντίθεος, destroying all Gods and bidding men worship himself in place of God. He will seat himself in the sanctuary of God, not alone that sanctuary which is in Jerusalem, but that which is in every Church. In dealing with the restraining power, Chrysostom asks two questions. What is the restraining power? What special reasons can be given for the Apostle’s obscurity? He rejects the opinion of some who held that this restraining power was the grace of the Spirit. Such an explanation does not account for the intentional obscurity of the phrase, and further, miraculous gifts had long ceased, and the man of sin had not been revealed. The true explanation is found when the restraining power is seen to be the Roman Empire. St Paul had to speak of its destruction—its being ‘taken out of the way’; hence lest he should incur useless danger, he uses dark riddles. ‘The mystery of lawlessness’ already working is identified with the Emperor Nero, “as being a type of the Antichrist and as desiring to be accounted a God, yet not openly nor with unblushing effrontery,” hence the phrase ‘mystery of lawlessness.’ Here too the dark speech of St Paul is easily accounted for. Past history, read in the light of Daniel’s prophecies, appears to Chrysostom to cast light on the future. The great world empires had destroyed each other. The Median empire had fallen before the Babylonian, the Babylonian before the Persian, the Persian before the Macedonian, the Macedonian before the Roman. So should the Roman empire give place to the Antichrist, the Antichrist to Christ Himself. Chrysostom’s comment on St Paul’s picture of the end (v. 8) must not be spoiled by a translation. Καθάπερ γὰρ πῦρ ἐπελθὸν ἁπλῶς τὰ μικρὰ ζωΰφια καὶ πρὸ τῆς παρουσίας αὐτῆς πόρρωθεν ὄντα ναρκᾶν ποιεῖ καὶ ἀναλίσκει, οὕτω καὶ ὁ Χριστὸς τῷ ἐπιτάγματι μόνον καὶ τῇ παρουσίᾳ. ἀρκεῖ παρεῖναι αὐτὸν, καὶ πάντα ταῦτα ἀπόλωλε• στήσει τὴν ἀπάτην καὶ φανεὶς μόνον.

In parts of this exposition Chrysostom evidently has Irenaeus in his mind. His reference to Nero is strange. He was perhaps not likely to note that when St Paul wrote Nero had not as yet assumed the purple. But it is hard to see how the Roman Empire could be the restraining power, and the representative of the Empire the power of lawlessness already working.

1 Corinthians 15:24–28. Chrysostom approaches the passage as a recognised battle-ground of theological controversy. He starts with the axiom that it must be interpreted in a divine and not in a merely human sense. Further, he lays down the principle that St Paul’s language in speaking of the Divine Son differs greatly from that which he employs in speaking of the Incarnate Christ. In dealing with the Human Nature, the Apostle fearlessly uses terms expressive of humiliation. From this starting point he proceeds to treat the crucial phrases. And first the ὅταν παραδῷ of v. 24. Chrysostom admits that, in ordinary language, he who delivers up anything to another ceases thereby to hold it himself, and that he who receives it thus has not possessed it before. Such an interpretation here is forbidden by Dan. 2:44; Joh. 5:17. Regarding the words as “a sublime utterance touching the Only-begotten,” and leaving out of sight the τῷ θεῷ καὶ πατρί, he paraphrases them thus: “Himself He accomplisheth these things, Himself gaineth the victory and puts all things under His feet, … Himself establishes (κατορθοῖ) the kingdom” (369 D, 371 E). The kingdom is not that one which is based on the right of creation, but that which depends on special appropriation (κατʼ οἰκείωσιν), the kingdom of the faithful. Again, Chrysostom does not dispute that commonly ‘until’ (v. 25) implies a limit. But this is not so when it is applied to God (comp. Ps. 89:2; Ex. 3:14; Is. 46:4). The motive of the clause is to confirm what has been said of the victorious might of the Son. “Fear not at the words, He shall abolish all rule, as though He were now lacking in power; for until He doth accomplish this, He must reign. It is not implied that afterwards He shall not reign. Here is but the proof that, though His rule has not come yet, it shall surely come hereafter.”

The motive of the verses which follow Chrysostom explains thus: St Paul feared lest some foolish persons might argue from his words that the Son is greater than the Father, (a) He therefore tones down his previous expressions, and ascribes the victory to the Father; for so Chrysostom explains the πάντα ὑπέταξεν of v. 27. (b) He further corrects himself by the ἐκτὸς τοῦ ὑποτάξαντος. (c) Yet again lest any should say that, though the Father is not subject to the Son, yet the Son is stronger than the Father, he ventures an extreme statement, ‘The Son also Himself shall be subjected,’ “pointing out thereby His absolute oneness of will with the Father (τὴν πολλὴν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ὁμόνοιαν δεικνύς), and that He who hath begotten One of such power is the Source and first Cause of all good things.” The Apostle’s determination to pluck up by the roots a pernicious doctrine is made to account for an exaggerated position (πολλῇ κέχρηται τῇ περιουσίᾳ). There remains the one phrase, ἵνα ᾖ ὁ θεὸς πάντα ἐν πᾶσιν. It is explained thus: “Then shall all things be dependent upon Him, that none may then so much as imagine two beginning-less Beginnings nor any other kingdom separated from Him. For when all enemies are under the Son’s feet, and He who has them under His feet rebels not against the Father, but has one will in fulness of agreement with Him, then shall the Father be all in all.” “Some say,” adds Chrysostom, “that the Apostle here speaks of the destruction of evil; for when sin is no more, it is abundantly clear that God shall be all in all”.

Galatians 1. 2. Hitherto we have reviewed Chrysostom’s interpretation of passages from St Paul’s Epistles mainly doctrinal. There are however no portions of the Apostle’s writings more characteristic than those in which he refers to his personal history and feelings. His life cannot be separated from his preaching. There is an especial interest in those parts of the first two chapters of the Galatian Epistle in which St Paul refers to the great change and the great struggle of his life. The narrative is of course subordinated to the purpose which called it forth. He is vindicating his independence. “He everywhere asserts,” to quote Chrysostom’s words, “that he had become a disciple of the Christ apart from the mediation of any human being, the Lord—the Lord alone—deigning to reveal all knowledge to him.”

With what success does Chrysostom bring out the bearing of the details of the story?

He starts, as we have seen, with a right perception of the general drift. But the thought of St Paul’s independence makes him lose the exact point of the Apostle’s reference to his former zeal as a persecutor. “If it was not for man’s sake,” so he reads the underlying force of v. 14, “that I did that which I did against the Church, but because of a zeal for God mistaken indeed but real, can it be, now that I run my course for the Church’s sake and know the truth, that I do all this from motives of vainglory?” Coming to the time of St Paul’s conversion, Chrysostom, like his friend Theodore, misinterprets the purpose of the journey to Arabia. The Apostle, he argues, “goes as a Christian missionary, eager to occupy lands as yet untilled and still waste.” The brevity of the reference is thus a sign of St Paul’s humility. Just before the Commentator has taken needless pains to reconcile the statement of v. 16, ‘immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood,’ with the narrative of Acts 15, on the ground that in this later visit he did not go of his own accord but was sent; that he went not to learn but to persuade.

Again, Chrysostom misrepresents the second visit to Jerusalem three years later. There is nothing in the Apostle’s language to warrant the conclusion which the Commentator draws as to the extreme deference with which he supposes St Paul to have treated the other Apostles. “See how he shews them,” he exclaims, “due honour, and does not deem himself their superior or even their equal.” St Paul mentions the duration of his visit, fifteen days, evidently laying stress on its brevity. With Chrysostom the meaning is reversed. “To take this journey for St Peter’s sake was a high compliment; to remain with him so many days was a mark of friendship and most earnest affection.” The same tone Chrysostom perceives in the name by which St Paul designates St James. Assuming, it would appear, the identity of Alphaeus and Clopas, Chrysostom says, “the Apostle might have called him the son of Clopas, as did the Evangelist; instead thereof he added the title of respect (τὸ σεμνολόγημα)”.

Two points must be noticed in Chrysostom’s exposition of St Paul’s account of his later visit to Jerusalem.

The motive of his communication to ‘them of reputation’ was to allay any suspicion as to the fruitlessness of his work. It was made privately because a public avowal of his practice and the principles of his teaching would only have offended the main body of Jewish Christians. In the private interview Titus and Barnabas were witnesses to the truth of his recital.

The question of the circumcision of Titus is treated by Chrysostom with characteristic want of distinctness. Though he at length says explicitly that Titus was not circumcised, in the earlier part of his comment on the passage he seems to imply an opposite opinion. The Apostles at Jerusalem did not order circumcision (a proof that they did not condemn St Paul’s practice and teaching), but they permitted it. Why then are the false brethren condemned for commanding what the Apostles themselves allowed? The two cases must be distinguished. The motive was different. The Apostles were influenced by a feeling of condescension towards Jewish prejudices. Circumcision in their view was a matter of concession, not of principle. Again, they acted thus only in Judaea, where the Law was in force. The false brethren laid down no such limit. Circumcision was with them of vital import and universal obligation. The Apostles therefore acted κατʼ οἰκονομίαν. It is of the essence of an οἰκονομία (too often a convenient synonym for a fraud) that it be kept secret. By the nature of the case St Paul was bound to keep up the delusion. That he did so with much more than half-hearted acquiescence is clear if we believe Chrysostom’s version of the sequel. According to this elaborate evasion of the plain meaning of words the apparent dispute between the two Apostles at Antioch was got up that St Paul might with more scenic effect and more telling emphasis condemn the Judaisers. Two special phrases, according to Chrysostom, lend themselves to this monstrous perversion. κατεγνωσμένος ἦν (ii. 11) is taken to imply not ὑπʼ ἐμοῦ but ὑπὸ τῶν ἄλλων. Again, κατὰ πρόσωπον suggests the gloss σχῆμα ἦν. It is waste of time to examine in detail the interpretation of a commentator who says of the very explicit language of St Paul: μηδὲ αὕτη ὑμᾶς θορυβείτω ἡ λέξις• οὐ γὰρ Πέτρου καταγινώσκων ταῦτα λέγει, ἀλλʼ οὕτω χαρακτηρίζει τὴν λέξιν, ὡς συμφέρον ἦν ἀκοῦσαι τοὺς διὰ τῆς ἐπιτιμήσεως Πέτρου μέλλοντας βελτίους γίνεσθαι.

It is not without a painful significance that the most honest and frank among ancient expositors could not disentangle himself from the vain conceits of a spurious reverence, or admit that differences and disputes, controversies and partial views of truth, harassed the members of the Apostolic College itself.

The Second Epistle to the Corinthians opens to our view a battle-field of contending emotions. Relief, disappointment; affection, anger; weariness, hope; despair, comfort—all these forces are fiercely struggling for the mastery within St Paul, and almost every sentence of the letter bears the marks of the conflict. Hence, to understand the Epistle, the Interpreter must be in continual sympathy with the swiftly changing moods of the Apostle.

We take for example St Paul’s appeal (6:13), ‘Now for a recompense in like kind (I speak as unto my children), be ye also enlarged.’ “Yet it is no equivalent,” says Chrysostom, “that one should be loved and then love. Still I do not exact a strict account, saith the Apostle; if receiving first from me, ye display the same measure of love towards me, I am well content. Further, to shew that even this love is a debt, and that his words have no flattery about them, ‘I speak,’ he says, ‘as to my children.’ It is no great thing if being your father I would fain be loved by you.… Such love is natural and the due of every father.” Or again on 7:4 (‘Great is my boldness of speech toward you’);—“The Apostle has been harping on such phrases as ‘ye are not straitened in us,’ ‘open your hearts to us,’ ‘we wronged no man,’—words which appeared to condemn them. Mark how he softens this severity.”

But beside this great struggle of affection with indignation, there are three characteristic elements in the Epistle, which Chrysostom brings out.

1. There is St Paul’s self-praise. “One would not be far wrong,” Chrysostom truly remarks, “if one called this letter a panegyric of St Paul.” Again, the Apostle “is under a great necessity to exalt himself. The marvel is that he accomplishes these two things; he both magnifies himself, and yet for all this bragging does not make himself offensive to the more part … He is self-restrained and he boasts.… Consider how often, when he is launching out into the full current of self-praise, he puts back” (x. 582 E, 588 C D, 607 A).

2. There is St Paul’s irony. This is perhaps the most salient feature in this Epistle. For irony is the natural refuge of a strong and tender man torn asunder by emotions. The whole letter is a molten stream flowing forth from the fiery furnace of St Paul’s inner self. Chrysostom not seldom detects the presence of this volcanic force in the Apostle’s words. Thus on 3:1, 2 he says, “To give his words a savour of rebuke St Paul puts the sarcastic question, ‘Need we epistles of commendation?’ Then hinting at the false apostles he adds, ‘letters to you, as some need, or letters to others from you?’ Afterwards, since his words were severe, he softens them, adding, ‘Ye are our epistle.’ ” Or again of the words, ‘I who in your presence am lowly among you, but being absent am of good courage toward you,’ Chrysostom offers two explanations. Either, he thinks, the Apostle defends his boastful expressions, on the ground that they are not the outcome of pride, but of his confidence in the Corinthians: or his words are sarcastic; he quotes to them their own words about himself (comp. 10:10). The latter interpretation is quite in accordance with the whole tone of the context. A few verses lower down (10:12) the commentator does not hesitate to say that the Apostle ridicules (κωμῳδεῖ) certain of the Corinthians for their self-commendation.

But Chrysostom’s success in detecting the irony of St Paul is not uniform. To take as an example chapter 11, the bitterness of the καλῶς (v. 4, comp. ἡδέως v. 19) is overlooked. Nor again has Chrysostom caught the drift of the intensely ironical phrase τῶν ὑπερλίαν ἀποστόλων (11:5, comp. 12:11). Whether, as Chrysostom thinks, the reference is simply to the Three, or, as is more probable, the same persons are referred to who are elsewhere plainly styled ‘false apostles,’ the sarcasm of the uncouth word, a parody or a quotation of some cant Corinthian phrase, is unmistakable. Chrysostom however finds here only a proof of St Paul’s modesty. Having to refer to the Apostles he mentions them with a special commendation (μετʼ ἐγκωμίων). Once more, Chrysostom misreads the φρόνιμοι ὄντες of 11:19. The reference may be again to some trite phrase in use at Corinth, In any case in it sarcasm reaches its furthest point. But Chrysostom sees here a rift in the clouds. “See,” he exclaims, “how he mingles commendation with censure.”

3. Lastly, there is St Paul’s obscurity. A close analysis of the Apostle’s language is harder in the case of this Epistle than in that of any other. Chrysostom’s comment on one special clause (11:21) is of wider application. “The expression is obscure; for as the subject is a painful one, he deals with it in this way that he may conceal its bitterness under obscurity.” Or again on 12:16 sq. Chrysostom notes that St Paul’s “words are obscure but not random or purposeless; he is speaking of money-matters, and defending himself on that score; naturally therefore a haziness rests upon his words.”

There is one Epistle of St Paul, its interest wholly personal, which yet stands in the most striking and instructive contrast to that one with which we have just dealt. The very fact that there is nothing of controversy or argument in the Epistle to Philemon led to its depreciation in the days of Chrysostom. Some, he tells us, urged that it was unworthy of attention, for in it the Apostle only made a trivial request on behalf of one single man. In answer to such Chrysostom dwells on the extreme interest of any details of the Apostle’s life. And further he is at pains to shew how the Epistle is of varied practical importance. It teaches, for example, the lesson of earnestness in all things; it warns slaves, and much more the free, against despair. It was partly the sense that his honour was at stake in proving the Epistle worthy of its place among the Apostle’s writings, it was still more the congenial character of the letter itself, that called forth the powers of the Preacher.

Chrysostom is never so happy in his exegesis as when he is tracing out the personal element of the Epistles. He rejoices to mark how the great missionary pastor varies rebuke with commendation; how when by his severity he has cast down, he raises the penitent again by his gentleness; how with a discriminating tenderness he meets the varying needs of different Churches. The explanation of Chrysostom’s power is not far to seek. He was an Expositor because he was first of all a Pastor. This keen realization of the meaning of his office, this tone and bent of his mind, together enable him to disclose with rare power the subtle delicacy of feeling which moulds so much of St Paul’s writings.

Chrysostom’s treatment of this Epistle may be taken as a signal instance of his success in this respect.

In commenting, for example, on vv. 4–6 he bids us notice that St Paul does not make his request at once; how he leads up to it; how he would have Philemon think that he had other reasons for writing, to express his affection, to ask that a lodging might be prepared. When he speaks of the hearts of the Saints being refreshed by his friend, he does not add ‘much more should my heart be.’ He hints at this, but he gives it gentler expression. We must note too how gradually he approaches the name which may rouse resentment. He prefaces it with his own. His plea is his own personal influence; his age; then the highest claim of all, ‘a prisoner also of Christ Jesus.’ Yet still he keeps the name back. First there comes the word of entreaty, ‘I beseech thee’; then a word of commendation, ‘for my child,’ the very name he gives to Timothy; again there comes the argument of his chain, ‘whom I have begotten in my bonds’; then at last the name itself, Onesimus.

Again, Chrysostom calls attention to St Paul’s delicate choice of words. He does not say ἀπόδεξαι but προσλαβοῦ, for Onesimus is worthy not only of forgiveness but of respect; not ἔφυγε but ἐχωρίσθη; not ἔκλεψε, a slave’s crime, but ἠδίκησε, the fault of a friend against a friend.

There is ‘a true spiritual grace’ in the words, ‘I Paul write it with mine own hand.’ How importunate his manner is, yet how winning (ἐντρεπτικῶς καὶ χαριέντως). If St Paul does not refuse to give his bond for the man, Philemon cannot refuse to receive him. Throughout the Apostle has two things in mind. He must use every safeguard against the refusal of his request. Yet nothing on his part must hint that his confident assurance fails.

Finally, as Chrysostom notes, εὐχῇ τὴν ἐπιστολὴν κατέκλεισεν.

Metaphors play an important part in St Paul’s teaching. Few writers venture in reference to the greatest subjects to depend so largely on images drawn from every quarter; few blend metaphors as does St Paul; few, as he, allow a metaphor to drift on and tide over the barrier which separates one thought from another. A commentator’s treatment of Pauline metaphors is a test of his exegetical tact.

Chrysostom takes an obviously true and sensible view of the scope of teaching by metaphors. “Be not troubled if illustrations do not avail to present the whole case; for by their very nature they leave the greater part to the reader’s intelligence”. Adherence to such a maxim would have saved theology from many conflicts and from many losses.

One of the most striking groups of Pauline metaphors consists of those drawn from darkness and light. Such a metaphor has a place in St Paul’s earliest Epistle:—‘Ye, brethren, are not in darkness’ (1 Thess. 5:4). “The Apostle speaks,” such is the comment, of the life which is dark and impure; for it is in the night that foul and wicked men do all their deeds, shunning the eye of all men, shutting themselves up in darkness.” “Why,” Chrysostom asks later on, “does the Apostle speak of vice as sleep? First, because the vicious man has no energy for virtue; secondly, because he lives in a vain show and sees nothing as it is; he is full of dreams and often of unreasonable fancies. If he beholds anything that is good, it has no abiding with him.” Later on (v. 10) Chrysostom notes how St Paul gives a different turn to the image. Sleep becomes the figure of death. ‘Whether we wake or sleep’;—“do not fear danger; even if we die, we shall live.” The same imagery is used in Romans 13:12 in a somewhat different connexion. Chrysostom draws out at length the thought of the words, ‘The night is far spent, the day is at hand.’ “In our earthly life,” he says, “when we see the night quickly passing into the dawn, when we hear the note of the swallow, though it be still night we rouse each man his fellow; but when the night is gone, we make good speed, telling each other that the day has come. We do that which pertains to the day, shaking off our dreams and our sleep, that the day may find us prepared, and that we may not wait for the sun’s rays to mount high before we begin to arise and stretch ourselves. So in this other life, let us put from us our delusions, and free ourselves from the dreams of our present life, and clothe ourselves in virtue as in a garment.” There is however progress, as Chrysostom notes, as the thought works itself out: “When St Paul has said, ‘the day is at hand,’ he afterwards speaks of it as actually present, ‘Let us walk honestly as in the day.’ ” On Ephesians 5:11 Chrysostom strikingly remarks that the words, ‘but rather even reprove them,’ are a carrying on of the metaphor of light in the context. “The Apostle has just said ‘ye are light’: the light of itself reproves the works done in the dark. When the lamp is set, all men are revealed, and the thief will not enter.”

A large number of Pauline metaphors are drawn from the soldier’s life. In the passage from the Epistle to the Romans just quoted the metaphor of light gives place to that of the armour. The connecting link is the thought of activity. “The day summons to battle-array and to the fight.” And further, as Chrysostom notes, the armour is the armour of the light, for it makes the soldiers reflect the brightness of the eternal day. This war is no war, but a revel and a festival (χορεία καὶ πανήγυρις).” The brief form in which the metaphor of the Christian armour is found in St Paul’s earliest Epistle calls forth two remarks of Chrysostom worthy of note. ‘Faith and love,’ together forming the breastplate, pertain respectively to sound doctrine and a holy life; the comment is characteristic of the time. Again, the Apostle describes hope as the helmet. “As the helmet protects our most vital part, covering it on every side, so hope does not allow the mind to fall away (διαπεσεῖν), but sets it upright as the head, not permitting anything from without to fall upon it.” In the Homilies on the Ephesian Epistle, the most diffuse of all Chrysostom’s commentaries, the greater elaboration of the same image receives a fuller treatment. One or two details of the exposition may be noticed. ‘The evil day’ (6:13) is identified with the present life as a whole. The command is, “ever arm yourselves.” A wrong meaning is given to κατεργασάμενοι. “When you have conquered,” such is the explanation, “all things, passions, strange lusts, all things that trouble you. For many who have gained this victory have again fallen.” The loins are to be girded with truth, truth (for the word is unduly narrowed) as opposed to falsehood. The loins are “the foundation, whereon the whole is built, as physicians (ἰατρῶν παῖδες) say. The Apostle would have the Christian warrior clasp tight together (συσφίγγει) that which spiritually is the beginning of his strength.” Later on the girding of the loins (comp. Lk. 12:35) suggests an allusion to the story of the Exodus. Two explanations are offered of ‘the preparation of the Gospel of peace.’ It may either mean that the feet are to be ready to prepare the way for the Gospel, or, we must be ready for our exodus, the ‘preparedness of the Gospel’ being equivalent to a holy life (comp. Ps. 9:38 LXX.).

In Rom. 6:13 Chrysostom rightly, it would appear, interprets ὅπλα of weapons, weapons of righteousness or unrighteousness. Weapons, he notices, take their character from him who uses them, the patriot or the pirate. On the other hand St Paul’s allusion to defensive and offensive armour in 2 Cor. 6:7 is completely missed. The arms on the left hand are afflictions. which not only do not cast down but fortify and invigorate. The word ἀριστερὰ is chosen either in accordance with the common notion, or because we are bidden to pray that ‘we enter not into temptation.’ In the same Epistle (10:5) St Paul’s description of the strength of the Apostolic weapons is rightly understood. The ὀχυρώματα (in which Dean Stanley finds a picturesque allusion to ‘the hill forts of Cilician pirates’) are described as πυργώματα, and typify the intellectual pride of the Greeks. In the context, the phrase ‘bringing into captivity’ is chosen to bring out the idea of the ease and completeness of St Paul’s spiritual victories.

The metaphor drawn from the soldier’s pay is characteristic of St Paul. Chrysostom well says that in the words ‘the wages of sin’ (Rom. 6:23), the thought of the ‘arms of unrighteousness’ and of sin reigning as a king is kept up. Sin has his soldiers, and gives them their pay. In 1 Cor. 9:7 sq. there are four metaphors enforcing the duty of providing for those who minister in holy things. The argument of the first of these is a fortiori. “Even cruel and unjust rulers do not require men to serve as soldiers and face danger at their own charges.” In 2 Cor. 11:8 the technical meaning of the word is not pressed; it is simply regarded as meaning ‘necessary food.’ The comment on the words ‘sin reigned in death’ (Rom. 5:21) is remarkable—“The Apostle presents to us sin as a king, death as a soldier serving under him and armed by him.”

Once more the issue of the war supplies St Paul with an appropriate and characteristic expression of a noble thought. He compares himself (2 Cor. 2:14) to a captive led in triumph by a great conqueror. As the procession passes on through the world, the Apostle, ‘the bondservant of Jesus Christ,’ graces the triumph of his Lord. In him the victorious might of his Master is made conspicuous to all. Here is his boast. His captivity is his one claim to honour. And then the metaphor changes. As a Roman triumph passed to the Capitol, the temples were filled with the odour of incense. St Paul (who twice speaks of himself as a drink offering poured out—Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6) represents himself as the incense, fragrant and all-pervading, the sweet savour of the knowledge of Christ. The point of contact between the two metaphors, at first sight so widely separated, lies in the thought of publicity. The prisoner of war on the victor’s car is seen of all. The incense penetrates everywhere. In dealing with this pair of metaphors, Chrysostom’s comment on the crucial word (τῷ … ἡμᾶς θριαμβεύοντι) in the former of them is indistinct. He emphasises two notions, that of publicity (τῷ πᾶσι ποιοῦντι περιφανεῖς), and that of glory in seeming shame. He lays stress on the thought of the Apostle being driven from place to place, and he connects it with continual persecutions. Still in Chrysostom’s hands the image becomes dull and commonplace. Again, he sees no connexion between the metaphors; he speaks of them as wholly distinct. And the point of the mention of the sweet savour of knowledge he finds in the indistinctness of the fragrance, typifying the incompleteness of our present knowledge of God (1 Cor. 13:12).

An interesting group of passages gathers round the central thought of husbandry. ‘Ye are God’s tilled land’ (1 Cor. 3:9), St Paul writes to the Corinthians. “He continued,” such is Chrysostom’s remark, “the metaphor he had used above, ‘I planted’ … Now if you are God’s field it is meet that you should take your name not from the husbandmen but from God.… If you are a field, the field must needs be undivided, walled in with one fence, even the fence of concord.” In the companion Epistle Chrysostom explains a difficult passage by an agricultural allusion. The words, ‘the measure of the province &c.’ (2 Cor. 10:13), suggest this thought—“as though God were apportioning a vineyard to husbandmen, so did He separate a part for us.” Two important passages from the Epistle to the Romans come under this head. In Romans 6:5 the Apostle uses the phrase σύμφυτοι γεγόναμεν τῷ ὁμοιώματι τοῦ θανάτου αὐτοῦ. “He uses the word planting (τῆς φυτείας),” Chrysostom notes, “that he may hint thereby at the fruit which shall come therefrom. For as the Body of the Lord buried in the earth bare as its fruit the salvation of the world, so also our body buried in Baptism bare as its fruit righteousness, sanctification, adoption, and it shall bear God’s last gift, the gift of the Resurrection”. Again, it is with a metaphor drawn from the oliveyards that St Paul describes the relation of Jew and Gentile. The image was suggested, it would appear, by the words in which St Paul vindicates the high estate of Israel: ‘If the root is holy, so are the branches’ (Rom. 11:16). Of the key word in the metaphor Chrysostom offers a striking, if not a convincing, interpretation. He contrasts ἐνεκεντρίσθης with a possible ἐνεφυτεύθης. “Here St Paul deals sharply with the Jew. He shews him the Gentile standing upright, himself lying on the ground.” The word implies not only the privilege of the Gentiles but also the temporary overthrow of the Jews.

The metaphor of husbandry is closely associated in St Paul’s writings with that of building. ‘Ye are God’s husbandry, God’s building,’ he writes to the Corinthians. The last phrase is the starting point, and the key to the interpretation, of the passage which follows. The Corinthian Christians themselves are represented as the material which is built into the great fabric; its quality depends on their spiritual condition; and for this again their teachers are largely responsible. To Chrysostom however the passage assumes a wholly different complexion. He mentions, only to condemn it as inconsistent with the argument and with the instinct of justice, the view of some that the words apply “to teachers and disciples and corrupt heresies.” According to this interpretation, he urges, the punishment would light on the innocent, on the victims, not on the authors, of perverse teaching. He concludes without misgiving that the Apostle, already preparing the way for a fuller treatment of the case of the incestuous person at Corinth, speaks here of actions. “If any one holding the true faith lives a bad life,”—the warning is a remarkable one in Chrysostom’s days—“his faith will not protect him from being punished, when his work is burned up.” As to the last phrase, he adds that St Paul is not speaking as concerning material things which can be burned (περὶ ἐνυποστάτων καὶ διακαιομένων), but would intensify men’s fear and shew how he who lives in sin is stripped naked of all protection. The man’s work is burned up. The man himself is “not like his works consumed and annihilated (εἰς τὸ μηδὲν χωρῶν), but he abideth in the fire. Hence the phrase ὡς διὰ πυρός. For we have a common saying about any substance which is not at once burned up and reduced to ashes, ἐν τῷ πυρὶ σώζεται. For think not, at the mention of fire, that those who are being burned pass into non-existence (εἰς ἀνυπαρξίαν χωρεῖν). Nor wonder that he speaks of so dreadful a punishment as salvation (σωτηρίαν), for it is his custom to use pleasant words in speaking of what is grievous (Rom. 5:21, contrast 2 Cor. 10:5).… The words ‘he shall be saved’ simply imply an aggravation of punishment:—he shall abide continually in punishment”.

With the passage just referred to the kindred paragraph in the Ephesian Epistle (2:20 sq.) should be compared and contrasted. In the later passage the Apostle speaks of ‘the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets.’ Chrysostom is doubtless right in understanding the foundation to be identified with the Apostles and Prophets; he is doubtless wrong in supposing the Prophets to be those only of the old dispensation. Christ is the corner-stone, for, as he notes, the corner-stone binds together the walls and the foundations.

The strength and the weakness of Chrysostom in dealing with St Paul’s metaphors will alike be clear. His treatment of other modes of argument and expression characteristic of the Apostle calls for less remark.

St Paul’s irony has been noticed above in connexion with certain passages in the second Corinthian Epistle. Chrysostom traces it elsewhere. Thus, to take an example from the other letter to Corinth, Chrysostom notes the severity of the ‘already’ in 4:8. “Full well does he say ‘already,’ shewing from a consideration of the time how incredible and unreasonable were their fancies. So with ridicule, ‘so quickly,’ says he, ‘you have attained the end, a thing which cannot be considering the time.’ ” Again, rejecting an interpretation which was finding favour with some Latin commentators, he remarks on Col. 2:21 (‘handle not, nor taste, nor touch’), “see how he ridicules them as cowards who abstain from certain great blessings”.

Closely allied to St Paul’s use of irony is his use of paradox. Chrysostom notices it, though not perhaps so often. In commenting on St Paul’s description of Love (1 Cor. 13:3), he exclaims, “To say that the gifts of grace (τὰ χαρίσματα) profit nothing if love be absent is nothing strange; forasmuch as these gifts are second to love. But that the strictest life should have no power without love, this enhances the paradox and increases the contradiction”. The Lord Himself, he goes on to note, spoke in the same fashion (Matt. 10:32; 16:25). Or again, Chrysostom dwells on the paradox of St Paul’s experience of strength perfected in weakness (2 Cor. 4:9 sq.):—“See how the Apostle speaks of contradictions, that thence also he may prove the power of God.”

Again, St Paul uses with effect a reductio ad absurdum in his argument. Chrysostom thus explains the train of thought in Gal. 2:17: “If faith in Christ has not the power to justify, but we must needs cling to the Law again, we who abandoned the Law for Christ’s sake, and yet for all our abandonment of it are not justified, but rather condemned, we shall discover that He, for whose sake we abandoned the Law and took refuge in faith, is the author of our condemnation. You see then to how absurd but how necessary a conclusion the Apostle makes the argument lead.” Chrysostom notes how St Paul habitually employs this logical device—ἡ εἰς ἄτοπον ἀπαγωγή—and pleads the Apostle’s practice as a reason for his own.

Closely allied to this last is the argumentum ad hominem. “Our advocacy of a cause,” Chrysostom remarks, “is in no slight degree supported when we call our adversaries as witnesses on our side, by reason of their actions.” Two cases in point noticed by him are 1 Cor. 15:29 and Titus 1:12. Under the same head a very frequent artifice of St Paul may be pointed out. Chrysostom remarks upon St Paul’s habit of making by a sudden turn his opponent’s words tell against himself. Thus on 1 Cor. 6:12 sq.—“I may live luxuriously,” Chrysostom supposes a Corinthian to say to the Apostle. “Yes,” the Apostle replies, “thou mayest, yet not as thyself having rule, but as being subject to rule. For thou hast not the rule over thy belly, but thy belly over thee”.

St Paul’s habit of ‘going off at a tangent’ has often been noticed. Some of his most weighty paragraphs are offshoots from his main argument. His bypath is as important as his main road, his πάρεργον as his ἔργον. This characteristic of the Epistles does not escape Chrysostom. “It is St Paul’s wont,” he remarks on 1 Cor. 11:28, “not only to work out the main argument, but also, should any other subject suggest itself, to pursue this also with great earnestness, and specially when it involves matters of great weight and urgency. For example, when the Apostle was speaking to married persons, and the subject of slaves fell across his way, he dealt with it with great force and at considerable length. Again, when he was discoursing of the duty of not going to law before the public tribunals, passing into a warning against avarice, he dwelt at length on this subject. This is the case here. Having once had to mention the Mysteries, he considered it his duty to treat the subject fully: for it was of no common moment. Or again, Chrysostom points out the origin of the great parenthetical argument about the Law in 2 Cor. 3. “Having said, ‘Being made manifest that ye are an epistle of Christ,’ the Apostle finds a new subject, and a starting-point for a discussion of the question of the Law. And here he uses the word ‘letter’ with a new reference. Above he called the Corinthians a letter as commending him to others, here a letter of Christ as having the law of God written within them”.

In a writer whose works are quickened by the enthusiasm and emotion which mark St Paul’s Epistles, we should expect to find an effective and frequent use of the climax. One instance out of many which Chrysostom points out will suffice. St Paul is drawing out the greatness of redemption (Col. 1:20). “To reconcile us,” says Chrysostom, “was a great thing; to reconcile us through Himself a greater. But this is greater still:—how did He reconcile us through Himself? Through His blood. And not only so, but what is greater yet—through the Cross. So there are five things worthy our wonder: He reconciled us: unto God: through Himself: through death: through the Cross.”

St Paul’s obscurity in the case of one Epistle has been already noticed. More than once Chrysostom calls attention to the same phenomenon in the Epistle to the Romans (e.g. 4:1 sq., 7:21). Here the apparent confusion is due, not as in the Corinthian Epistle to any desire on St Paul’s part to spare the feelings of those concerned, but to the depth and complexity of the argument. But in one case at least (Rom. 1:4) Chrysostom traces the obscurity to the complication of the language (ἀπὸ τῆς τῶν λέξεων πλοκῆς), a tangle which, he adds, it is his business to unravel.

A single passage from the 2nd Epistle to the Corinthians (6:14 sq.) gives Chrysostom an opportunity of noticing several rhetorical artifices of the Apostle. (1) He conveys censure and warning under colour of commendation. (2) He advances by means of questions quickly succeeding each other,—such questions however only being possible in the case of matters free from doubt or controversy. (3) He expands his appeal by the rapidity and number of his words. (4) He personifies, and so contrasts, abstract qualities.

To formulate an elaborate verdict on the excellences and shortcomings of Chrysostom as an interpreter of Holy Scripture is, I hope, a superfluous task at the end of this Essay. I desire only to set roughly down the main characteristics of the Commentator, which most strike the student of his works.

Chrysostom lived in a controversial age, when the great Theological struggle was no mere memory of the past, when the still more bitter Christological disputes of the next generation were beginning to stir men’s minds. Not seldom have we noticed that the fear of opening the door to heretical tenets blunts the perception of the teacher in regard to the grammatical and logical force of sentences and words.

Again, from time to time we have remarked a tendency to interpret the New Testament in accordance with later formulas and usages of Church life.

Conversely, ignorance or neglect of customs and modes of thought prevalent among the Jews in the time of Christ and His Apostles, is an occasional cause of stumbling. A further occasional blemish is a straining after a too realistic interpretation. The Commentator is impatient of vagueness; to his clear transparent mind the sense of mysterious awe is unwelcome. Hence the historical method is at times misapplied. At times an attempt is made to express or define things which pass man’s understanding.

Sometimes the fault is the reverse. Chrysostom, like Gregory of Nazianzen, was human enough to know the advantage of his position as a preacher. He does not hesitate to cover his retreat before a question of interpretation too hard for him with clouds of rhetoric and personal appeal.

Critically speaking, perhaps the besetting sin of Chrysostom is his love of combining different interpretations. He fuses them in the crucible of his oratory.

Against these obvious failings must be set virtues no less conspicuous.

Foremost stands Chrysostom’s love of Holy Scripture. It is often expressed in his writings; it is always felt. ‘Pectus facit Theologum.’

Next we remark his sound common sense—a true χάρισμα, the lack of which has often made the words of churchmen as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. With Chrysostom it is chiefly manifest in the position which he assigns in interpretation to grammar, logic, and history.

Again, his sympathy with human life and the shifting currents of human emotion enables him with remarkable power and delicacy to discern, and give expression to, the strong and changing feelings which live in the words of the most human Book.

Critically speaking, perhaps the crowning glory of Chrysostom is his vigour and clearness as an expositor. Marked exceptions there are, as it has been pointed out, in his voluminous works. They do not affect his character as a whole. As a rule—it is a rare gift with commentators—he brings light and not darkness, order and not confusion, into the passage with which he deals. His not unsuccessful or unblessed attempt was, in simplicity and sincerity to draw aside whatever veil appeared to rest on words which he knew to be ‘words of eternal life.’ Through his work to the Church of his own and of later days ‘the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ has been more clearly and more freshly shewn forth.’

ἀνὴρ λόγιος … δυνατὸς ὢν ἐν ταῖς γραφαῖς … κατηχημένος τὴν ὁδὸν τοῦ κυρίου, καὶ ζέων τῷ πνεύματι ἐλάλει καὶ ἐδίδασκεν ἀκριβῶς τὰ περὶ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ.








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