Preaching the Word: With John Chrysostom
Gerald Bray. Preaching the Word: With John Chrysostom. Lexham Press: Bellingham, WA 2020. 132 pp. ISBN: 978-1-68359-366-9, $12.99.
Gerald Bray is a renowned evangelical church historian and serves as Research Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, AL. He holds the DLitt from the University of Paris-Sorbonne and is an ordained Anglican minister. He is author of numerous works such as Biblical Interpretation (IVP Academic, 1996), Yours Is the Kingdom: A Systematic Theology of the Lord’s Prayer (IVP, 2007), God Is Love (Crossway, 2012), God Has Spoken: A History of Christian Theology (Crossway, 2014), and Doing Theology with the Reformers (IVP Academic, 2019). This book on John Chrysostom is his latest contribution to historical theology and Bray exhorts us “that John’s sermons should have survived in the quantity that they have is an impressive testament to their worth … we are obliged to read what was originally a three-dimensional performance in a one-dimensional format, a handicap that we must try to overcome” (p. 11).
Bray divides his 132-page book into five chapters, a helpful timeline and full-service postscript consisting of footnotes, and subject/scripture index. Bray invites us to understand Chrysostom by teaching us about what John believed concerning God and His Word. His chapters focus on Chrysostom’s (1) life – John the Man, (2) beliefs on Creation, the Fall, Adam and Eve – In the Beginning, (3) thoughts on John’s description of Jesus – John’s Portrait of Jesus, (4) imitation of Paul – In the Footsteps of Paul the Apostle, and (5) his lasting influence – The Legacy. Bray provides insight into John’s pastoral ministry and homiletic prowess. Because of this, we also become privy to John’s theology, ethics, hermeneutic, and his interpretation of significant biblical texts stating, “What I propose to do is to work my way through each of these four texts, outlining how John read them himself, how he expounded them to his hearers, and how he applied them to the Christian life” (p. 10).
Bray reflects on the life and theology of the one who just may be the ancient church’s greatest preacher (apologies to Augustine). Astonishingly, John left us with about six hundred sermons of specific biblical texts, with eighteen thousand refences or allusions to other Scripture (p. 7). Never one to shy away from a good polemic, anyone was fair game for his sermon fodder – congregant, emperor, politician, society or the church; touching on the vices of the circus, races, gambling, dice, swearing, blaspheming, etc. Bray guides the reader through a digest of John’s theology, albeit some either poor or inadequate. Bray is helpful in that he carefully points out these insufficiencies and aids us in understanding how John may have arrived at his conclusions. Just a few examples of Chrysostom’s wrong-headed theology were the notion that the ends justify the means, anti-Semitism, evangelism as a form of deception and the belief that if you are not growing in grace – then you are not a true believer at all.
Bray gives the reader great insight into John’s hermeneutic. Contra Origen, John preferred the literal interpretation of Scripture, although he did dabble in theoria (“typology”). Because of the fundamental divide between the infinite Creator and the finite creation, John saw everything through the lens of “accommodation” (p. 16). God’s greatest “accommodation” to human understanding being the Incarnation; John viewed this as “a way we can appreciate” (p. 32). Bray informs us that “the most fundamental challenge to the Christian church in the ancient world was its need to convince a pagan culture that the biblical view of creation and the material universe was true (p. 29). Hence, John began in Genesis and saw this as the origin of the gospel. While John was a creationist “he freely admitted that he was ignorant of the mechanisms that God used” (p. 33). Bray bases John’s portrait of Jesus on sermons from the gospels of Matthew and John for “Jesus Christ is both the Creator and Redeemer, having been the one for the purpose of becoming the other” (p. 93). John’s hero was Paul and his ministry reflected John in so many ways. He often referred to “the superlative excellence of Paul” (p. 103) although many of his reflections were odd to say the least.
Bray is thoroughly informative and fair, and his approach is both lighthearted in his interaction with John and the reader. As an example of Bray’s lightheartedness, he states “the philosophers of John’s day spoke to nobody but themselves” (p. 13). In the footnote he wryly asserts, “Any similarities with modern academia are of course entirely coincidental!” (p. 121).
While the book has many strengths listed above, there are a few shortcomings. Ever so slightly, Bray leaves the impression that there is a distinction between preaching and “doing theology” or between pastors/preachers and theologians/modern biblical scholars. While it is true that Chrysostom may not be the Beau idéal of either, the distinction seems to be of modern invention. Bray states, “Surprising though it may seem, John’s reputation has also suffered from the fact that most of his sermons are expositions of Scripture. One reason for this is that his expository style seldom attracts the interest of modern biblical scholars, whose work is based on different hermeneutical principles and often leads to quite different interpretations of texts” (p. 6). Whatever happened to the Pastor/Theologian? Chrysostom’s reputation suffers primarily among those who think errantly of the task of preaching – to be more precise, faithful biblical exposition of God’s Word based on sound historical grammatical hermeneutical principles.
A second shortcoming for some may be Bray’s less-than literal approach to Genesis. Bray agrees with Chrysostom’s approach to the Genesis 2 passage stating, “He knew perfectly well that God did not take one of Adam’s ribs and make a woman out of it” (p. 52) and then again he states his own view of God strolling in the Garden and Adam and Eve hiding, “Obviously the story is symbolic” (p. 59). Simply because anthropomorphic language is at use, this does not negate the reality of the narrative. A third shortcoming, or better yet, desire, involves the brief nature of the work. One would hope that Bray’s expertise would have warranted a lengthier treatment. Certainly, no fault of his, for each of these volumes in the Lived Theology series by Lexham Press follows the same format.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book for fans of church history, homiletics, or John Chrysostom. It is obvious that Bray has a firm grasp on the ancient mind, as well as the ancient man known as “Golden-mouth.” If you are looking for companion volumes, Earl M. Blackburn’s John Chrysostom (Evangelical Press, 2012) would fit well on your shelf or for a more in-depth study, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom (Cornell University Press, 1995) by J.N.D. Kelly. If you like Bray’s biography of Chrysostom, you might also peruse his volume Augustine on the Christian Life: Transformed by the Power of God (Crossway, 2015). A closing thought from Bray, “His [Chrysostom’s] pastoral approach left the impression that his theology was simplistic, and some scholars started to wonder whether he could be called a theologian at all. The result is that today John is little known and seldom read” (p. 4). One can only hope that this potent little volume will remedy those two modern misfortunes.
Tony A. Rogers, DMin
Southside Baptist Church (Bowie, TX)