A history of providence, part two

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.)

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About James Penman

James is from an Anglican background; more broadly, he considers himself part of the Reformed tradition. He has a special interest in the history of ideas, including the interactions between faith and science. Augustine, Calvin, and B.B.Warfield figure among his spiritual and intellectual heroes.
This entry was posted in Creation, History, James Penman, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A history of providence, part two

  1. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Great review of Chrystostom – I note that he gets his authority entirely from Scripture.

    It occurs to me that pretty well the only argument I’ve ever heard people make against the classical and biblical acceptance of God’s actions as being above our ways in the matter of “natural evil” is that they don’t like it. All the stuff about suffering, errors, evolutionary blind alleys and so on are just smoke, hiding personal distaste. And that distaste appears to be heavily culture-bound, since it’s happy to overturn 2000 years of theology and the authority of Scripture.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    It is great to read of Evangelical/Protestant outlooks that refer to Orthodox theology. If I understand the controversy regarding Divine providence, it appears to focus on two areas: (1) God did not create such a good universe, and somehow Darwinians may find a way to improve this, or at least to change the notion of providence to include contingencies and perhaps fixing mistakes, and/or (2) Teachings regarding human error, sin and evil, are incorrect, and if we were to believe in a god, we should redefine him so that we can avoid such embarrassing notions (i.e. modern humans can improve on the (failed) teachings of the Christian faith).

    My comment is this. Just as St John considered the erroneous teachings of his day, we too should push aside the modern error(s). I had not heard the notion of trust described as a mystery, although I think I understand what the phrase in this posing means. Trust and faith are closely related. It is not too difficult to brush aside the notions that the Creation does not meet the approval of atheists. I note however, that I have yet to meet a scientist (whatever his/her persuasion) that did not, at some time, exclaim, “how magnificent” when some particular aspect of Nature was understood. This in itself speaks volumes of a good Creation – unfortunately, on too many occasions, others had decided they can improve on it, we at times devastating results for us and the environment.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    No doubt you’ll also be pleased to know that John Calvin cites Chrysostom 27 times in his Institutes!

    As you say, “trust” and “faith” are both covered by the same Greek word, πιστις, and the phrase “mystery of faith” is one possible translation of 1 Tim 3.9, though “mystery of the faith” is more common (possibly referring on to v16). But Penman, I’m sure, is coming from where you are: that when God’s actions don’t meet our abilities to explain them, the answer is faith and trust, not rewriting established biblical truth and theology.

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Something very relevant to your last point in the Independent today. A study suggests Americans believe in God more having watched an awesome nature video than after watching the news. Apart from having grave doubts about their methodology, notoriously difficult in social psychology (does your religious belief really change daily according to how many nature docus you watch?), their conclusions betray that old “I am objective, you are subjective” nonsense.

    They conclude that, whereas stories abound of experiences of God giving a profound sense of awe, they have shown rather that awe leads to a sense of God, as merely the nearest silly explanation to hand:

    Professor Valdesolo said: “The irony in this is that gazing upon things that we know to be formed by natural causes, such as the jaw-dropping expanse of the Grand Canyon, pushes us to explain them as the product of supernatural causes.
    “The experience of awe may simply motivate us to search for explanations, no matter what kinds of explanations they are,” he added.

    Note the complete failure to even conjecture that true perception of God actually might be mediated through creation (as per Romans 1), and that perhaps, just perhaps, their own truncated worldview has given them a false dichotomy between “natural causes” and “God’s work”.

    If it didn’t matter what kind of explanations we employ, you’d expect some watchers to eulogise the powers of blind forces, some to invoke ETs, some the Grand Canyon spirits… what this might actually be proving is that most people lose their innate sense of the divine by not getting into nature enough. And some others by spending too much time in a social psychology lab.

  5. Avatar photo James Penman says:

    GD –

    The Eastern Orthodox tradition does have its Protestant admirers. I’ve been amazed at how “Cappadocian” Calvin himself is regarding the distinction between God’s essence (unknowable) and His energies (knowable by participation). When I asked a scholarly Orthodox friend, his response was that not many people realize how deeply steeped Calvin was in the Greek fathers.

    I hope in future to look, among others, at St John of Damascus.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      Jon and Penman,

      Although I read Calvin’s Institutes many years ago, his writing left a lasting impression, especially his discussion of God the Creator. His treatment of predestination requires a great deal of thought, and I occasionally ‘mull’ on his use of the term ‘regeneration’ when discussion conversion. Indeed I was also impressed by the man when I obtained some more information on his life. When I return to working on my poem, I have made a note to re-read Calvin, especially on his treatment of repentance, and his views on the Christian life.

      I also hope to read some more of Luther’s writings. I agree with you that these great people, from the little that I have read, look back to the Patristic writings on many occasions. Their output and impact has been truly impressive.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      Perhaps you may find my (few) remarks on St John of Damascus at BioLogos interesting.

  6. Lou Jost says:

    There is an interesting article on BioLogos about the School of Antioch including John Chrysostom:
    This school advocated a flat earth, and criticized the “pagan” interpretation of a spherical earth. Some members of this school criticize the round-earth Christians using language much like that used by fundamentalists today against Christians who accept science.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hi Lou

      Penman would be the best to elucidate this, but for myself, the parallel drawn between “pagan science” and “Christian literalism” was the least convincing part of a couple of otherwise useful articles on BioLogos. I felt they were reading back far too much of the modern American culture-war back into a completely different situation.

      For a start, as the articles say, the Antiochene “literalist” school started as a movement to constrain the limits of excessively allegorical interpretation. And that went back a century or more to Origen, who was (it was felt, and I agree from reading him) overly influenced in that by his Neo-Platonist and Neo-Pythagorean Greek thought.

      As for Chrysostom, at least one parent was pagan and his own education throughly Greek. His pagan teacher Libanius supposedly said on his deathbed that John would have been his successor “if the Christians had not taken him from us”.

      Augustine was originally Neo-Platonist in background, and was consciously shaking off that heritage, whist using its positives, through his life. He was a western Latin, which tradition had not had to deal so much with the legacy of Origen. I read one source (in my following up of the BL article) which pointed out that the debate was really based on the existence of different philosophical backgrounds, different languages, different cultures – and significant geographical separation, rather than anything like our present science v fundamentalist story. On both sides (as any reading of the Fathers shows) every intellectual was educated in Greek philosophy before their Christian education.

      Everybody (on both sides) used allegorical reasoning – Chrysostom for example took the human lack of body armour as a symbol to us of our rational gentle nature – our weapons are extraneous to our nature. He just held that, where possible, sober interpretation of the text was preferable to flights of fancy – especially when the facts of the situation was uncertain.

      And unlike today’s debate, the suggestion of a round earth was not crucial science forming the basis of society’s views and activities, but a matter of some practical indifference argued over mainly by ivory-tower gentleman philosophers (like the mulitiverse now, I suggest, or heliocentrism in Copernicus’ lifetime). Science, as a societal institution, did not exist in classical times as it does now.

      So what of the hot tone of the Antiochene writing? I think the article unfairly omits to say that pretty well any disagreement (inside or outside the Church) was debated hotly – I’ve read the Fathers extensively, and there aren’t many issues where an anathema or two isn’t thrown in for support – especially when a couple of thousand miles and a linguistic and cultural divide separates the contenders. That’s the norm through history (Galileo, as a classic example, never disagreed where insults would do – Kepler being a typical target, though better informed scientifically than Galileo), and our current convention of dispassionate and polite discussion is a recent phenomenon.

      The Coyne-Ham kind of daggers-drawn thing thus stands out nowadays . Ham thinks the whole of religion is at stake, Coyne thinks the whole of civilisation is, and both are wrong, but owe their positions to recent history. That wasn’t so in the Patristic literal-allegorical issue, and the polemics were very much more on a par with normal practice where rioting was endemic in both pagan and Christian communities – the latter was even known to riot over choice of bishop in “pagan” Alexandria. And the former, famously, over the Jews in 38.

      So what motive can I suggest for the article drawing what seems to be an invalid parallel between two different situations? Charitably, it’s to show simply that exclusive Biblical literalism (in the modern, not the Augustinian sense) has never been the “official” position of Christianity. But I rather fear it may be in itself a culture-war symptom: “Look, literalists were pugilistic idiots then, and they’re pugilistic idiots now.” The moral high ground, though, isn’t so one-sided as they suggest, and I have good reason to believe it wasn’t even back in the 4th century.

  7. Avatar photo GD says:

    Jon (italics are removed from my post),

    Walter Bauer in (the translated edition), “Orthodoxy and heresy in earliest Christianity”, paints a picture in which Christianity was assailed ‘from all sides’. A couple of quotes give us a flavour of his treatment of that time:

    “….a Christianity which, to be sure, still had to contend strenuously with the heretics throughout the entire second century and even longer. Indeed, in the middle of the second century the controversy rose to the intensity of a life and death struggle, the outcome of which has been of decisive significance not only for Rome but for Christianity in general.”

    Bauer discusses many factors, including the outlook of Judaism, and the difficulties between Christian Jews and Christian gentiles, as well as the numerous ‘other’ teachings. When one considers the extraordinary difficulties, both religious and cultural, faced by early Christians, I sometimes wonder if the greatest miracle is in fact that we have a Christian faith today.

    I find this statement to be interesting, “since Paul deliberately refused to approach the gentiles as a Jew, but in his dealings with them exercised remarkable self-restraint in his use of the Old Testament, his converts were especially susceptible to sliding over to the gnostic side. Marcion was not the first to turn in this direction …. We must look to the circle of the twelve apostles to find the guardians of the most primitive information about the life and preaching of the Lord, that tradition in which Jesus of Nazareth shows himself to be alive so as effectively to stand in the way of those who, preoccupied with their syncretistic conception of the heavenly redeemer and filled with a dualistic contempt for matter, deprive his earthly life of its main content.”

    He also makes the interesting observation that the influence of Rome and Romans countered the mercurial attributes of the Orient, and provided a sound outlook and organisation that helped the Church through these times. “It is indeed a curious quirk of history that western Rome was destined to begin to exert the determinative influence upon a religion which had its cradle in the Orient, so as to give it that form in which it was to achieve worldwide recognition.”

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Very valuable comment. It speaks to the exchange betwen Lou and myself above, showing how in view of the enemies without and within it was perhaps understandable for small points to be taken as too significant.

    And it speaks to my interest in the good creation. Penman has previously stated that the only Christians talking about evil in creation then were the gnostics, which is born out by my own study of the Fathers. In that way it also speaks to Penman’s main theme of Providence, because in the end the issue of evil is that whoever is in charge determines how you interpret the evidence.

    If demons, demiurges or blind nature are ruling the natural creation, then it is at best indifferent but more likely malevolent: the predominant order and beauty (whether that be in equations or in ant-lions), are then lucky coincidences, exceptions to a rule or (most often) simply not noticed (theory determines what is seen, as Einstein said).

    On the other hand, if God is providentially involved at every level, the order and beauty make perfect sense and are front-of-stage, and the apparent disorder is explained by the unseen big picture, humanity’s own deficiencies and, ultimately, the hidden depths of the One whose ways are higher than ours. All three of those accord with Scripture as well as philosophy.

  9. Avatar photo James Penman says:

    As far as I can make out, St Chrysostom had no “in principle” quarrel with “pagan science”, i.e. the science of his day. A cursory reading of his treatises shows that he accepted ancient science even where it was wrong – I mean the theory of the four elements (everything is made up of earth, water, fire, and air), which he accepted. In his “Golden Booklet on Bringing Up Children” he pretty much leaves the intellectual aspect of child-rearing to the traditional pagan school-system, but insists that their moral and spiritual training is the duty, not of the schools, but of the parents.

    There is a slightly confusing passage in his Homily on the Statues (no.9) where he incorporates the four-element theory into a view that the earth (the dry land) is carried on the water (the oceans). It could be read as a flat earth type cosmology. He says nothing however about the shape of the earth, only that the earth (of whatever shape) is borne on the waters. But to be pedantic, what he explicitly says is equally consistent with a liquid globe bearing dry land. James Hannam says:

    “St John Chrysostom thought the heavens were a box rather than a sphere, but he never says the earth is not a sphere in the centre of the box.”

    This whole issue really takes us into a different area of discourse. I’ll have to focus on what pre-modern theologians believed about divine providence, rather than their scientific world-picture. A belief in God’s sovereignty is compatible with any scientific world-picture.

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