Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom, Gerald Bray. Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2020, xii + 132 pages, $12.99, paper.

The stated mission of Lexham Press’s Lived Theology series is to trace “the way that biblical concepts and ideas are lived out in the lives of Christians” (xi); the newest addition to the series, Gerald Bray’s Preaching the Word with John Chrysostom, accomplishes this mission quite well, bridging the often treacherous divide between theoria and praxis and showing how the former influenced the latter in Chrysostom’s preaching. Thanks to this approach, the result is not just an intriguing and fascinating look at the way Chrysostom expounded the Word to his congregation. It is also an insightful glimpse into the way Chrysostom read the biblical text. As such, it is an excellent starting place for anybody wishing to familiarize himself not just with Chrysostom but with early Christian thought as well.

Bray bridges the divide between theory and practice by concentrating on a theological principle, then exploring how that principle might have informed the way Chrysostom interpreted the biblical text for his hearers. Bray focuses on four sets of homilies: those on Genesis 1–3, Matthew, John, and Romans. This gives Bray a foothold within the enormous literary output Chrysostom produced that enables him to examine the way Chrysostom handled issues that are of particular interest to us today. The theological idea that Bray sees as most formative in Chrysostom’s exposition of the Bible is accommodation (16). Just as God adapted his revelation of himself to us in a way that would make sense to our finite minds, so in his preaching Chrysostom strove to meet his audience where they were in order to lead them to the higher knowledge contained in the gospel (24).

This tack allows Bray to come to terms with the sometimes unexpected ways Chrysostom expounded the Bible. For instance, when trying to understand why Chrysostom went so far beyond the biblical text in his laudatory epithets of Paul (as when he dubs him a gospel “gladiator”), he applies the principle of accommodation and understands Chrysostom to be adapting his message to terms his congregation thought in (105). Yet approaching Chrysostom through the principle of accommodation also enables Bray to elucidate the way Chrysostom read the Bible. For instance, it serves as the background to Chrysostom’s non-literal reading of the creation account in Genesis (32) and of the creation of woman from the rib of man (52). While we may never know this side of heaven how exactly God did both of these things, he told us in a way that sufficiently conveys the meaning we need.

Within this framework Bray is able to broach larger issues of general interest, as when he examines Chrysostom’s interpretation of the creation of man in God’s image. Image, he points out, is taken by Chrysostom to refer to man’s function, namely, his authority over creation, as opposed to the way it was commonly interpreted in his time, as referring to man’s form (43). Bray explores other interesting topics such as whether sex was meant to be practiced before the fall or resulted from man’s sin. Pointing out that Genesis 1:28 suggests it was meant for man all along, Bray discusses ancient attitudes towards it and the general consensus in antiquity that sex was inherently sinful and a consequence of the fall (54). He also has several opportunities to discuss the way ancient Christians typically (and wrongly, he adds) mapped the Greek matter-spirit dichotomy onto the New Testament flesh-soul dichotomy, and he explores the implications involved there (50). He even manages to discuss textual issues, and in very layman-friendly terms at that.

Discussing Genesis 1:2, Bray points out how Chrysostom was not misled by the Septuagint mistranslation of tohu wabohu (תֹּהוּ וָבֹהוּ “without form and void”) as “invisible” because of the corruption of the Greek aoristos (ἀόριστος) into aoratos (ἀόρατος) (34), but he was able, despite not using the Hebrew text, to arrive at the correct meaning just by following the logic of the passage. Thus, because of these larger discussions Bray’s treatment of Chrysostom serves as a good introduction to ancient Christian thought and the way ancient Christians read their Bible.

Accommodation also goes far for Bray in understanding Chrysostom’s interpretation of many things Jesus said and did. The theme of Jesus as Benign Teacher is ubiquitous in Chrysostom. Jesus spoke to the woman at the well about the spiritual water because the physical water there at the well could serve as a visual aid to help her better understand the higher truth (92). This same basic exegetical orientation explains Chrysostom’s interpretation of the healing of the two blind men at Jericho (78) as well as Jesus’ treatment of his family (82). For Chrysostom, this accommodating behavior of Jesus was what all people, and pastors in particular, were supposed to imitate (85). Indeed, Chrysostom lays so much stress on imitating Jesus that he even runs risk of deemphasizing Christ’s divinity for fear that his congregation might feel that imitating the Savior was too impossible a task (76).

Regarding this theme of Christ as example and model for imitation, Bray puts his finger on one of the most characteristic features of not only Chrysostom’s, but many of the early fathers’ exegesis. Reading texts in order to have models to emulate or avoid had a long history in Greco-Roman literary criticism, going back at least to the Alexandrian interpreters of Homer and finding its most famous exponent in the biographico-moral writings of Plutarch. It is no surprise then if Chrysostom read the biblical text in a similar way. Yet the overall impression this literary methodology often produced in the Greek and Roman writers who applied it was a rather exacting, fastidious, and demanding moralism. And, sad to say, this is also the impression one often gets when reading ancient Christian writers, Chrysostom in particular. His homilies are full of exhortations to his congregation to imitate Christ here or Paul there, to mind the way one behaves with the self-conscious introspection of an ascetic. Meanwhile, discussions of grace are far fewer than many modern readers would like. Bray tries to account for this by arguing that Chrysostom’s ministerial bent was pastoring, not evangelizing. That people were justified by grace Chrysostom took for granted; what he cared most about was that his congregation show the fruits of that justification in their daily lives, and so he preached to that end (99, 106).

While this is an important point to bear in mind, its application is limited, and one worries that Bray might be flattening out some undeniable differences between ancient and modern Christianity, at least in its pre-Augustinian and post-Reformation forms. This is particularly an issue in Bray’s treatment of the Christian’s participation in his own sanctification. Interpreting Homily 16 on Matthew,[1] where Chrysostom says all God wants is a sincere hatred of the devil, and if he gets this, he will do the rest, Bray takes this rather semi-Pelagian-sounding statement and explains it in more Augustinian terms by importing another statement Chrysostom makes in Homily 55 (section 8),[2] where Chrysostom admits the Holy Spirit must be present for one to do anything pleasing to God (89–90). Yet the mere confession of our dependence on the Holy Spirit does not amount to an Augustinian version of sanctification whereby God commands what he will, yet gives what he commands.[3] Any adherent of the medieval via moderna certainly acknowledged the Holy Spirit’s importance yet harped on the value of works more than the Reformers were comfortable with. And to the casual reader Chrysostom’s emphasis on works is just as pronounced as any via moderna writer. One would prefer a more straightforward exposition of Chrysostom’s theology on this point rather than what sometimes feels like an attempt to make him jibe with post-Reformation ideas.

One gets a similar impression when it is suggested that Chrysostom would have subscribed to Martin Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator (at one and the same time justified and a sinner). The reasoning here seems to be that since Chrysostom equated sinlessness with immortality and sinfulness with mortality, inasmuch as we still perform “the good works of justification” in our mortal (and therefore sinful) bodies, we are “justified sinners” (112). Now, apart from the fact that the phrase “the good works of justification” is puzzling and probably requires some fleshing out, behind Luther’s doctrine of simul iustus et peccator lies a forensic formulation of justification. Just because Chrysostom says we perform, or are to perform, good works while still sinners, it does not mean he subscribed to forensic justification. Every Christian tradition admits as much. Again, one feels that differences between ancient and modern Christianity are getting flattened out.

Yet despite this tendency to make the famous ascetic—and famously ascetic—presbyter of Antioch square with modern evangelical sensibilities, the book has many commendable qualities. Besides the one already mentioned, Bray is very balanced in his portrayal of Chrysostom. He does not indulge in hagiography but points out Chrysostom’s shortcomings (e.g., his antipathy toward the Jews in Antioch, his reading much of Scripture through the lens of Greek philosophy, his indifference to the Hebrew text, etc.). He offers his own translations of passages from Chrysostom that are a breath of fresh air to those familiar with the nineteenth-century alternative, and the text is for the most part free of errors. Besides different dates of birth on the timeline and the first page, I counted only three other typos.[4] The reader also on occasion gets helpful synopses on the current state of scholarship regarding important issues, as when Bray mentions the obsoleteness of the Antiochene/Alexandrian divide in ancient biblical exegesis (22). Thus the book is, all in all, a good starting-place for one wishing to learn something about Chrysostom. Much like Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, the book introduces Chrysostom, explores the way he read the biblical text and expounded it to his congregation, and gives insights into ancient Christian thought. Its efforts to find common ground between Chrysostom and post-Reformation Christianity may strike readers as too simplistic and distracting, but that really does not detract from its usefulness as a very short introduction to the ill-starred bishop of Constantinople.


[1] Phillip Schaff, ed., NPNF (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1880–1900), 1/10:115.

[2] NPNF, 1/10:344.

[3] This is the famous statement made by Augustine that created so much trouble for him with the Pelagians. See Confessions 10.29 (NPNF 1/1:153).

[4] On page 2 “charged” should read “charges,” on page 31 “hexi” should read “hex,” and on page 84 a “this” (I believe) should precede “explains.”

Joseph A. Tipton is a member of Coeur d'Alene Reformed Church OPC and a Fellow of Classical Languages at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, ID. Ordained Servant Online, October 2021.

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