John Chrysostom (ca. 349–407) boldly called for distinctive Christian living and piety, and he denounced the abuses of the wealthy and powerful. His direct preaching eventually raised the ire of the imperial family, and he was deposed and died in exile. His moral commitment, liturgical refinement, and biblical commentary still remain influential. But his claim to fame remains his powerful oratory. His eloquence posthumously won him the epithet of “Chrysostom” or “Golden-Mouthed.”
Profile of the Golden-Mouthed Preacher
Chrysostom was “closely attuned to his listeners and their world,” and he was “willing and able to adapt his teaching to them,” writes David Rylaarsdam. Rylaarsdam explains that Chrysostom was “engaged in a complex process of image-making, image-breaking, and image-relocation.” Thus Chrysostom’s preaching was “a factory of images,” incorporating both biblical images and images from daily life. He commonly used language and metaphors adopted from popular culture, even while inverting the culture’s values. He drew verbal pictures of paupers sleeping in the furnace ashes outside the baths, gladiators drowning their sorrows in the taverns, and the wealthy gorging themselves at lavish feasts until their bowels ached. His sermons are so conversant with the everyday life of his parishioners that they have become a goldmine for socio-cultural historians.
Rylaarsdam has argued that Chrysostom varied his preaching in three ways. First, he mixed sublime theology with elementary teaching. Second, he included pragmatic concessions within his strong ethical teachings. And third, he modulated the tone of his rhetoric. His tone varied from severe to gentle, with the consistent goal of edifying listeners. Both praise and condemnation were rhetorical tools in his pedagogical toolbox. He sought to find the right timing in his delivery, as well as the right level of information. He was neither a morally strident sophist nor an anti-intellectual populist.
Chrysostom was concerned that the audience at times praised him for his rhetoric alone, and not for the content of his message. He lamented that many hearers did not change their day-to- day living, and many continued to find chariot racing more exciting than worship services. He stated, “For the public are accustomed to listen not for profit, but for pleasure, sitting like critics of tragedies, and of musical entertainments.”
Undoubtedly, audience members compared the performances of preachers and actors, and their applause in church sounded “disturbingly similar” to that of the theater, in Chrysostom’s view. He responded that his hearers would do better to heed his exhortations than to applaud them. “What is the benefit of this applause to me, or what does the praise and fuss profit me? It will be my praise if you transmute all my words into deeds.” He therefore reminded his hearers that the church is not a theater for the sake of amusement, and he “deplored the practice of applauding the word of God.” At times, however, the more he upbraided his audience for applauding him, the more they applauded. As Jaclyn Maxwell surmises, “Chrysostom emphasized that a preacher should say what was necessary rather than what would make him popular among the laity, and above all should try not to be affected by applause or lack thereof.” He therefore condemned preachers who bowed to popular pressure, “acting a preposterous and pitiable part, that they may please, and be applauded and depart with praise.”
Of course, not all of Chrysostom’s sermons were deemed successful. Repetition was inevitable, and at times, he belabored his points. Chrysostom also recognized that his hearers did not always follow his train of thought.
Chrysostom realistically knew he would not reach every audience member, nor were visible results typically instantaneous. He lamented, “My work is like that of a man who is trying to clean a piece of ground into which a muddy stream is constantly flowing.” Yet he found satisfaction if even one hearer, including a slave, was moved toward faith or proper behavior.
Contributions to Preaching
Quality preaching “does not come by nature but by study,” he insisted, and the preservation of the gift of preaching requires “constant application and exercise.”
Doctrinal precision was key. He declared, “Let a man’s diction be beggarly, and his verbal composition simple and artless, but do not let him be inadequate in the knowledge and careful statement of doctrine.”
Chrysostom warned that audiences may fawn over great orators, but they also tend to be fickle and may soon turn on the preacher (who may subsequently suffer catcalls and jeers). An audience-pleasing preacher who has a passion for human praise “aims to speak more for the pleasure than the profit of his hearers.” Such a preacher may devolve into a mere entertainer. “That is the price he pays for rounds of applause.” Even idolized preachers may soon be forgotten has-beens, as crowds follow the latest and greatest. Therefore, pastors must cultivate “indifference to praise,” because those who “enter upon the trial of preaching, longing for applause” may only be greeted with heartache and pain in the end.
Above all, the preacher must labor in his preaching so as to please God, seeking only his approval. Preaching is a stewardship from God. “For this reason,” explained Chrysostom, “the preacher must proclaim the divine word or sow the seed whether anyone listens to him or not, for God has entrusted to Him his treasures and will demand a reckoning. Thus I have reproached you, reprimanded you, prayed for you, and admonished you.” This attitude created an admirable fearlessness within the great “Golden-Mouthed” preacher. Without compromise, he upheld the “courage of his convictions.” In his final homily, he exclaimed, “What am I to fear? Is it death? Life to me means Christ and death is gain. Is it exile? The earth and everything it holds belongs to the Lord. Is it loss of property? I brought nothing into this world and I will bring nothing out of it. I have only contempt for the world and its ways and I scorn its honours.”
Chrysostom’s last recorded words were “Glory to God for all things! Amen.”
— by Paul A. Hartog, adapted from the new book A Legacy of Preaching, Volume One: Apostles to the Revivalists, The Life, Theology, and Method of History’s Great Preachers. Don’t miss Volume Two spanning the Enlightenment to the present day, and the Legacy of Preaching Two-Volume Set. The series editors are Benjamin K. Forrest, Kevin L. King, Bill Curtis, and Dwayne Milioni. Footnotes have been removed from this article for readability; you can find them in A Legacy of Preaching, Volume One.
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