The Doctrine of Scripture in John Chrysostom’s Second Homily on John’s Gospel

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John Chrysostom (349–407) was the October church father of the month for our 2021 Ad Fontes Patristics Reading Group. Perhaps the greatest preacher in history, John was called “Chrysostom” or “golden-mouthed” for his masterful homilies. In Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom, Gerald Bray provides staggering statistics that illustrate his commitment to the Bible: “John has left us about six hundred sermons on specific biblical texts, but we must note that these include about 18,000 references or clear allusions to other parts of Scripture as well.”

Chrysostom preached expositional series through many books of the Bible, including the Gospel of John. In his second homily on John’s Gospel, Chrysostom prepares his congregation for the upcoming series by setting forth a robust doctrine of Scripture. While modern preachers are often preoccupied with the situational nature of biblical books (e.g., their historical background, authorship), John’s priority is to stress the Bible’s divine nature.

The Inspiration and Divine Nature of Scripture

Chrysostom is reluctant to spend any time on John’s personal background, and does so only to make it plain that “it is not he, but God by him, that speaks to mankind” (1; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16) “These (doctrines) belong not to him, but to the Divine power stirring his soul” (1; cf. 2 Peter 1:21). John “has the Lord of all speaking within him, he is subject to nothing that is human” (3).

We would expect a poor, common, ignorant, uneducated fisherman to speak of nets and rivers, for “how could he help imitating the very dumbness of his fishes?” (1). Yet John comes as “one who speaks from the very treasures of the Spirit” (2), bringing us “sublime doctrines, and the best way of life and wisdom” (2). The unlearned fisherman shows more insight than the disciples of Plato and Pythagoras who inquired into similar matters and “have been more shamefully ridiculous than children” (3).

The strongest proof of the Gospel’s divine nature, in Chrysostom’s view, is that the words of this barbarian and unlearned man have spread throughout the world, convincing even the most wise and educated men, overturning the influence of the most respected Greek philosophers: the fisherman “affords another and a stronger proof that what he says is divinely inspired, namely, the convincing all his hearers through all time; who will not wonder at the power that dwells in him?”

Divine authorship means that Scripture has one, unified theology coming down from the one God of heaven.

“It is plain, that nothing of this man’s is human, but divine and heavenly are the lessons which come to us by this divine soul. “We will therefore … attach ourselves to our own doctrines, which have been brought to us from above by the tongue of this fisherman, and which have nothing human in them” (6). Chrysostom would likely be surprised by all the modern talk about “John’s theology” in contrast to “Paul’s theology” or “Luke’s theology.” While Chrysostom recognizes that God’s word comes to us through the man John, and values John’s distinct idiom, Chrysostom prioritizes divine authorship. Divine authorship means that Scripture has one, unified theology coming down from the one God of heaven.

The Infallibility and Inner Consistency of Scripture

Because of divine inspiration, the Gospel stands in stark contrast to the Greek philosophers. Like drunk men, bumping into each other and into themselves, they were “continually changing their opinion, and that ever on the same matters” (3). To use a modern idiom, they were “all over the place,” marked by an “ever-shifting current of words.” “Not so this fisherman; for all he says is infallible; and standing as it were upon a rock, he never shifts his ground” (3).

The Spirit regulates human authorship so that Scripture is untainted by the finitude or mutability of man.

Since John “has the Lord of all speaking within him, he is subject to nothing that is human” (3). The Spirit regulates human authorship so that Scripture is untainted by the finitude or mutability of man. While a surface reading may unearth supposed contradictions in the Bible, time and careful study always proves its inner consistency.

The Durability and Translatability of Scripture

Because the Gospel is the very word of God, it has stood the test of time. “As for the writings of the Greeks, they are all put out and vanished, but this man’s shine brighter day by day” (5; cf. Mt. 24:35; Isa. 40:8). The Gospel and all Scripture has crossed the boundaries of language and culture, being easily translated to every tongue and nation:

Are not these things with good cause extinct, and vanished utterly? With good cause, and reasonably. But not so the words of him who was ignorant and unlettered; for Syrians, and Egyptians, and Indians, and Persians, and Ethiopians, and ten thousand other nations, translating into their own tongues the doctrines introduced by him, barbarians though they be, have learned to philosophize. I did not therefore idly say that all the world has become his theater. (5)

The gravity of this point should not be overlooked. Christian Scripture is unique among the sacred books of world religions. Its doctrines are infinitely translatable. It is truly good news for all people.

The Special Revelation of Scripture

Through his writings, the ignorant fisherman reveals heavenly mysteries, deep truths about God and salvation that even the greatest philosophers could not attain. Chrysostom whets the appetites of his hearers: “We shall hear of things in heaven, and what no one ever learned before this man” (2). The unlearned fisherman “utters things which no man on earth ever knew” (4). Scripture is special revelation from God: it contains knowledge that cannot be known by any other means.

The Simplicity of Scripture

Chrysostom is especially strong on the simplicity, clarity, or perspicuity of Scripture, a doctrine that was picked up by the Protestant Reformers and motivated them to translate the Bible into the language of the ploughboy. The apostle “did not hide his teaching in mist and darkness … But this man’s doctrines are clearer than the sunbeams, wherefore they have been unfolded to all men throughout the world” (5). The philosophers invented fables, but “casting away all this devilish trash and mischief, he diffused such simplicity through his words, that all he said was plain, not only to wise men, but also to women and youths” (5). Chrysostom, who had an exceptionally high view of women for his day, is not being sexist here. He is simply recognizing that his female contemporaries had little access to higher education or the tools needed for penetrating the obscure works of the Greek philosophers. The Gospel, however, is accessible to everyone, not just the elite or well-educated.

Chrysostom emphasizes the clarity of Scripture, a doctrine that was picked up by the Protestant Reformers and motivated them to translate the Bible into the language of the ploughboy.

Unlike the philosophers, the author of the Gospel is clear and forceful because he is not distracted by fanciful rhetoric: “For we shall observe not sounding sentences, nor magnificent diction, nor excessive and useless order and arrangement of words and sentences, (these things are far from all true wisdom,) but strength invincible and divine, and irresistible force of right doctrines, and a rich supply of unnumbered good things” (6). When Chrysostom begins expounding John 1:1, he asks, “Do you see the great boldness and power of the words, how he speaks nothing doubting nor conjecturing, but declaring all things plainly?”

This does not mean, of course, that all things in Scripture are equally clear or that its depths can be mined without serious study. Chrysostom calls his listeners to “with much earnestness attend to the book as it is being unfolded to us” (11). As the Reformers would go on to affirm, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all” (WCF 1.7). The teaching ministry of the church, ably executed by men like Chrysostom, has been ordained by God to help interpret and apply Scripture.

The Truth and Profitability of Scripture

Chrysostom states the reason for John’s clarity and simplicity: he “was persuaded that the words were true and profitable to all that should hearken to them” (5; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16). Since God’s word is profitable for all, it is written in a way that is accessible to all. we are without excuse:

Allow us then to sow in good ground; allow us, that you may draw us the more to you. If any man has thorns, let him cast the fire of the Spirit among them. If any has a hard and stubborn heart, let him by employing the same fire make it soft and yielding. If any by the wayside is trodden down by all kind of thoughts, let him enter into more sheltered places, and not lie exposed for those that will to invade for plunder: that so we may see your cornfields waving with grain. (11; cf. Mt. 13)

Scripture is God’s inspired, unfailing, non-contradictory, durable, translatable, revelatory, clear, true, and profitable word. Preachers would do well to take Chrysostom’s example of stressing the Bible’s divine nature and avoid the modern preoccupation with the human author and his historical-cultural context.

Image attribution: Saint John Chrysostom at Chora | © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 3.0

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is a husband, father, and aspiring pastor-theologian, as well as the founder and president of holyjoys.org. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.