#6 John Chrysostom: 50 Figures in Church History that You Need to Know
By Ricky Njoto
After exploring the life of Jerome in the west side of the Roman Empire, in this article we go towards the east to look at the life of John Chrysostom, another prominent church figure who lived during the same era as Jerome.
- John was born in 347 AD. in Antioch to Greek parents. Antioch was a major Greek city located in modern day Turkey. It was also one of the major ancient Christian centres.
- John began his education under a prominent pagan teacher, Libanius. From him, John learnt Greek rhetoric, which he eventually would use in his preaching. John was apparently gifted in the art of public speaking that Libanius said in his deathbed that John would be his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us.”
- After studying under Libanius, John started to become more serious in his Christian faith. He began studying theology under Diodore of Tarsus, an important figure within the School of Antioch. During this time, there were two prominent “schools” of theology. One was the School of Alexandria, which we have encountered in the life of Eusebius of Caeserea. The other one was the School of Antioch. Often, these two schools had different approaches in theology and biblical interpretations that they were forced to argue a lot.
- In 381 AD., John was ordained as a deacon before he became a priest in 386 AD.
- John is known as one of the greatest preachers in church history; thus giving him the title “Chrysostom,” which in Greek (Chrysostomos) means “golden-mouthed.” This gift would both make him popular among the people and create enemies for him.
- During the 380s, there was an event called “An Affair of the Statues.” A few political problems coloured the reign of Emperor Theodosius I during this time. Theodosius made a decision to persecute pagans (which is ironic because not long before this Christians were the ones who had been persecuted). And also, a protest happened because of tax raise. During this protest, the Emperor statues were destroyed and mutilated. As a result, the Emperor wanted to teach the people some lesson by killing some of them. During this time, John continually preached to the people to repent from their rebellion. As a result, they stopped rebelling, and a lot of pagans were even converted to Christianity. The Emperor granted pardon to Antioch, and John’s popularity soared among the people.
- But John did not only preach repentance towards the people for their rebellion. He also preached repentance towards the rich and rulers for their lavish lifestyles. He preached against unjust ruling and selfish hoarding of wealth. He said, “It is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and likeness to stand naked and trembling with the cold so that they can hardly hold themselves upright.” When he was appointed as the Archbishop of Constantinople in 397 AD., he refused to hold luxurious social gatherings, which made him even more popular among the people but hated by the wealthy.
- Quite a few of his enemies eventually succeeded in attacking him. Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Arcadius (the son of Theodosius I), took his preaching against lavish clothing to be a personal attack against herself. During this same time, an Alexandrian theologian named Theophilus banished some Egyptian monks for prescribing to Origen’s teachings (remember the controversial Origen?), but John welcomed these monks in Constantinople. Eudoxia and Theophilus eventually held a court that banished John to exile. However, Emperor Arcadius called him back almost immediately because the people were rioting as soon as John was exiled (because John was popular among the people).
- John Chrysostom’s legacy among the church cannot be denied. In the Roman Catholic church, John is appointed as one of the Universal Doctors (teachers) of the Church. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, he is among the Four Great Doctors of the Church. The amount of his surviving writings that we have is exceeded only by that of Augustine, which we will explore in the next episode.
- Eventually, John was exiled again by his enemies for an unknown reason. He never reached his destination and died on a journey on 14 September 407.
Preaching improves me. When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears.John Chrysostom
Ricky Njoto is a pastor of Church on the Corner, an English congregation of Camberwell Methodist Church, Melbourne.