To the great preacher, an authentic life was what shaped the words
Fourth century preacher John Chrysostom was one of the greatest orators in Christian history. “Goldenmouth”, as the name translates into English, preached in Antioch as a priest and assistant bishop and later as bishop at Constantinople. The great French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) called him “the most eminent” of the ancient preachers because of his commitment to preach the plain meaning of scripture to plain people.
This article is a study in Chrysostom’s art in motivation and transformation. My central idea follows: although Chrysostom has often been pictured as a moralist preacher — someone who focuses primarily on external behaviour — that is far from the truth. Chrysostom seeks more than this: a profound change in his listeners. He pursues a re-orientation of life, a personal transformation that comes very much from within.
Chrysostom does this through presenting the heart and mindset of biblical characters like Paul, or Christ, or even God the Father to his congregation. Chrysostom believed that it is when one person reveals herself (and particularly her mindset – or perhaps better, chosen life trajectory) to another person, that second person will be changed by the experience. Chrysostom saw that it is truth as it practically orients a person’s life choices that is the most powerful agent of transformation in the lives of others who are watching.
Chrysostom was born in about 347 AD in Antioch, a Roman city of about 300,000 people. One of the great cities of its time, it was cosmopolitan in its ethnic, religious and economic diversity. Born into a relatively wealthy family, he studied rhetoric in one of the Antioch schools. However, Chrysostom broke away from his Greek rhetorical heritage. Instead of embracing a prosperous future in the Imperial service, he spent years as a monk. It was only when his health broke down that he returned to Antioch.
For the next few weeks, Chrysostom preached to a terrified city under the threatening likelihood of savage imperial retribution.
Chrysostom’s rise to prominence as an orator took place during a particularly turbulent period in his native Antioch. About one year after his ordination as priest, the city was engulfed in crisis because of the unlawful destruction of statues of the emperor. For the next few weeks, Chrysostom preached to a terrified city under the threatening likelihood of savage imperial retribution. However, the young preacher stood the test, the vengeance of the emperor was mitigated, and Chrysostom’s reputation was made.
In Chrysostom’s preaching career as priest and bishop he seems to have been widely loved. Unfortunately, his clear biblical exposition was not always tactful, and his blunt talk displeased the emperor (and more particularly the empress). Yet throughout these years Chrysostom enjoyed the support of most of his congregation. When the emperor orchestrated his exile and eventual death in 407, Chrysostom remained a popular hero.
Many discussions of Chrysostom’s preaching have portrayed him as a moralist who is interested only in good and evil deeds. By implication, he is less interested in engaging humanity at a more profound level.
Australian scholar Ray Laird has challenged this idea of Chrysostom as moralistic in his important 2012 study Mindset, Moral Choice and Sin in the Anthropology of John Chrysostom (Early Christian Studies. Strathfield: St Pauls
Publications, 2012.) Laird claims that for Chrysostom the gnōmē, which Laird translates as “mindset”, is the heart and centre of our humanity. Laird defines gnōmē (and his English equivalent) as “the way in which the psyche is habitually inclined”.
Rigor and conformity are wonderful, but they must be embodied in an accessible and authentic life.
There are two ways that mindset is important in Chrysostom’s preaching theory. First, Chrysostom believed that the choices we make in life are determined by our overall mindset. Choices are not random or chaotic; on the whole they are made in pursuit of a big-picture trajectory in life. Mindset in Chrysostom is a chosen life trajectory. For Chrysostom this trajectory is foundational and sets a direction and agenda for everything else. Chrysostom even refers to gnōmē as “the way of the soul”. It is a life vector! It is this mindset which preaching must engage. Once the hearer adopts a new trajectory in life, all other godly choices will come from this.
The second element of Chrysostom’s preaching theory is how the preacher engages and changes that life trajectory. He says you engage and transform a person’s mindset by exposing it to another person’s firmly held and clearly articulated mindset. What really matters to one person, the trajectory of one person, as it is made explicit, has a power of influence and transformation over what matters to another, their trajectory. The things we strive to pursue in life are infectious.
A clearly articulated and firmly held trajectory can be so compelling that it can win over opponents and other observers who come to adopt the same trajectory.
This affects our exegesis. It is not just the preacher’s clearly articulated life trajectory that may operate on listeners, but better, the exposition of the chosen life trajectory of each biblical writer. Laird notes the importance for Chrysostom of wrestling with the mindset of the biblical writers, and to ask of each text: why is the author saying this? What are they trying to achieve? How does it reveal what is important to them and thus show their chosen trajectory?
Also Chrysostom believes that the teacher’s mindset is grasped by the students through the shape of the teacher’s own life. A clearly articulated and firmly held trajectory can be so compelling that it can win over opponents and other observers who come to adopt the same trajectory.
Chrysostom’s preaching theory resonates with my own experience of transformation being an interpersonal experience. It is not so much “ideas” that transform, as truth. “Truth” can be understood as ideas embodied in real persons, given expression by persons and applied in their lives. Here we move from the philosophical to the relational, from the abstract to the concrete. In my own life, it has been the teachers, pastors and mentors who have revealed their earnest life direction (their gnōmē or mindset) who have provoked me to lasting change. Passion is infectious! A leader who is going somewhere, offering a coherent and consistent personal life direction, and who puts that gnōmē on display in an authentic life accessible to his or her followers, has great power to influence others to follow.
This is true of us because it is also true of God. I think that is what the gospel itself is and what it produces! God came into the world to give effect to and embody His goals for the world: his chosen life trajectory. The church today is the fruit of the power of that mindset of God.
If we accept Chrysostom’s model, our preaching will constantly present the chosen life trajectory of the author of each Bible text, of each biblical character, and of God. This will drive our exposition.
We also need ourselves to have a chosen life trajectory driven by the gospel, and to reveal that to others. The gospel as embodied in our lives will have transformative power for others. If all this is so, then openness and authenticity are two key skills of a Bible preacher and church leader, not just scholarly rigour and ideological conformity. Rigor and conformity are wonderful, but they must be embodied in an accessible and authentic life.
Personal transformation takes place not through the power of abstract truths, but by an encounter with truth embodied in persons. In particular, that truth involves our chosen life trajectory. It is more than ideas that we need to communicate. It is values that will transform others: our revelation of the things that we and God himself strives for – the things that really matter to us.
Peter Moore is involved with The Timothy Partnership, a Sydney-based online ministry training initiative by Anglican Youthworks and Presbyterian Youth.
First published Winter 2014 Edition