The Theology of St John Chrysostom
St John Chrysostom (347-407) is generally hailed as the most eloquent preacher in the Greek language among the early church fathers. The doctrine of divine providence saturates his sermons and treatises. This is particularly interesting, in that sometimes a strong doctrine of providence is associated with Augustinian theology.
However, St Chrysostom was no Augustinian. The Greek East certainly anathematized Pelagianism (the idea that humans have an autonomous free-will, to which divine grace is only a response by way of rewarding right choices). But it did not work out an alternative logical system of thought to counterpoint it, such as we find in St Augustine and his successors in the Latin West. St Chrysostom therefore makes more room for human free-will in his understanding of salvation than St Augustine did. Even so, St Chrysostom’s doctrine of providence is no less robust and meticulous.
He sums it up like this: “the providence of God everywhere directs all things according to its own wisdom” (Homilies on the Statues 6:4). Elsewhere he states: “all things are ordered by the providence of God, who, for reasons known to Himself, permits some things and actively works others” (Homily 23 on Acts). The category of “permission” is an accepted aspect of the traditional view; it involves the idea that God could prevent free agents from doing certain things, but instead chooses to allow them. Everything therefore remains under His ultimate control – “all things are ordered by the providence of God.” In fact, St Chrysostom sees this ultimate divine control as entirely permeating human action: “it is clear that not our diligence, but the providence of God, even where we seem to be active, effects all” (Homily 21:5 on Matthew).
God’s providence embraces small as well as large entities and events, the individual as well as the mass: “His providence is not only over all in common, but also over each in particular” (Homily 28:4 on Matthew). It involves the whole world of nature, right down to its tiniest details: “in discoursing of His providence, and signifying how even in little things He is the most excellent of artists, He saith that He clothes the grass of the field” (Homily 22:2 on Matthew).
In thus affirming divine providence, St Chrysostom sees the alternatives as threefold: (i) a belief in chance; (ii) a belief that demons are in control – perhaps through demonic stars and planets (i.e. astrology); (iii) a belief that the creative power at work in the world is not God, but an incompetent bungler known as the Demiurge (“architect”) – the Gnostic view. St Chrysostom rejects all three: “For some say that all things are borne along by chance, while others commit the providence of the universe to devils. Others invent another God besides Him, and some blasphemously assert that His is an opposing power, and think that His laws are the laws of a wicked daemon” (Homily 8:2 on John).
Against these falsehoods, St Chrysostom sets the creative and governing sovereignty of the one true God. “‘According to the purpose,’ Paul says, ‘of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His will.’ That is to say, He had no after-workings; having modelled all things from the very first, thus He leads forward all things ‘according to the counsel of His will’” (Homily 2 on Ephesians).
St Chrysostom does not shy away from embracing “natural evils” into divine providence. Indeed, much of his Homily on the Demons is devoted to affirming with passion that the God of love is in perfect, positive control of all those events we would call disasters. Here is St Chrysostom’s rhetoric in full flow:
“Hold fast this argument then with me, and let it ever be fixed and immovable in your minds, that not only when He confers benefits, but even when He chastises, God is good and loving. For even His chastisements and His punishments are the greatest part of His beneficence, the greatest form of his providence. Whenever therefore thou seest that famines have taken place, and pestilences, and drought and immoderate rains, and irregularities in the atmosphere, or any other of the things which chasten human nature, be not distressed, nor be despondent, but worship Him who caused them, marvel at Him for His tender care. For He who does these things is such that He even chastens the body that the soul may become sound.
“Then does God do these things, saith one? God does these things, and even if the whole city, nay even if the whole universe were here, I will not shrink from saying this. Would that my voice were clearer than a trumpet, and that it were possible to stand in a lofty place, and to cry aloud to all men, and to testify that God does these things. I do not say these things in arrogance, but I have the prophet standing at my side, crying and saying, ‘There is no evil in the city which the Lord hath not done’ (Amos 3:6)” (Homily on the Demons 1:4).
St Chrysostom’s theodicy consists in teaching that when God providentially orders “evil” events, He is acting analogously to a human physician using painful methods (emetics, amputations, etc) to restore health to a sick body. When a human does such things, we call him a physician, not a torturer. “How is it not then preposterous to call him a ‘physician’ who does so many ‘evil’ things, but to blaspheme God, if at any time He doeth one of these things, if He bring on either famine or death, and to reject His providence over all?” (Homily on the Demons 1:5). Human suffering is providentially ordered to a good end, i.e. to turn sinful hearts from the idolatry of perishable goods to God the perfect Good.
Viewing matters in this light, St Chrysostom cannot see natural defects in human life as bearing any true evil. They only become evil when humans take opportunity by them to reject God. Otherwise such natural defects are a summons to learn that (in one of St Chrysostom’s favourite maxims) the only true evil is sin. He says:
“‘One man is deaf, another dumb, another poor, whilst another, impious, yea, utterly impious, and full of ten thousand vices, enjoys wealth, and keeps concubines, and parasites, and is owner of a splendid mansion, and lives an idle life.’ And many instances of the sort they string together, and weave a long account of complaint against the providence of God… ‘But such a one,’ you will say, ‘is poor, and poverty is an evil. And what is it to be sick, and what is it to be crippled?’ Oh, man, they are nothing. One thing alone is evil, that is to sin; this is the only thing we ought to search to the bottom” (Homily 19 on Ephesians).
St Chrysostom’s theodicy here would not explain natural suffering in the non-human creation. However, perhaps he would not have been too troubled by this; he had a typical Eastern sense of the ultimate mystery of God and His ways, where trust, not rational explanation, is the only appropriate posture:
“If any of the events which happen pass our understanding, let us not from this consider that our affairs are not governed by providence, but perceiving His providence in part, in things incomprehensible let us yield to the unsearchableness of His wisdom. For if it is not possible for one not conversant with it to understand a man’s art, much rather is it impossible for the human understanding to comprehend the infinity of the providence of God. ‘For his judgments are unsearchable and His ways past finding out’” (Homily on the Demons 1:8).
(All quotations are from the 38 volume Schaff edition of the Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers. St Chrysostom’s writings are found in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vols.8-14.)