St. John Chrysostom

The Christian preacher St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407) was bishop of Constantinople. A renowned orator, he earned the epithet Chrysostom, or "golden-mouthed," and is a Father of the Church.

Born at Antioch in Syria, John studied there as a young man with eminent teachers of rhetoric, philosophy, and theology. Adopting the life of Christian asceticism, he practiced austerities so severe as a desert recluse that his health collapsed, forcing him to return to his native city about age 33.

At Antioch, John was ordained deacon in 381 and presbyter 5 years later. As preacher, he drew the enthusiastic approval both of his bishop and of the Christian laity. His sermons are notable for their attention to the historical meaning of Scripture as opposed to allegorical interpretation, for their concern with practical moral application, and for their pungent thrusts against the loose morality of a city nominally Christian.

The fame of John's preaching spread to Constantinople, capital city of the empire. In late 397 he was virtually kidnaped and taken by military escort to Constantinople, where under pressure from figures in government and Church he reluctantly agreed to be consecrated bishop of that city. The ascetic and outspoken bishop was, tragically, not a sufficiently astute tactician to save himself from downfall. His personal simplicity of life, his determination toward moral reform of the clergy, and his caustic comments on the follies and vices of life at the court created enemies, the most powerful of whom was the scheming empress Eudoxia. She found a convenient ally in Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, who had long harbored resentment over John's elevation to the bishopric of Constantinople.

John was providing sympathetic shelter in Constantinople to four monks, known from their stature as the Tall Brothers, who were enthusiasts for the teachings of Origen and who had been expelled from Egypt by Theophilus. Arriving in Constantinople ostensibly to defend his expulsion of the Tall Brothers, Theophilus gathered 36 bishops hostile to John at a synod in the Palace of the Oak at Chalcedon, across the straits from the capital. There in 403 John was condemned in absentia on charges which included sponsoring heretical teachings of Origen and making treasonable statements about the Empress.

The synod was followed by an edict of banishment from the Emperor, which in spite of a temporary recall led to John's exile in 404 to a tiny village in distant Armenia. His continuing wide influence through correspondence from his place of exile prompted the government to order that he be marched on foot to a more remote and desolate place on the Black Sea. The hardships of the march killed him in September 407, before he reached his destination. A new emperor, Theodosius II, penitent for the injustice perpetrated by his parents, had John's body transported back to Constantinople in 438.

Further Reading on St. John Chrysostom

The standard work on St. John Chrysostom is C. Baur, John Chrysostom and His Time (trans., 2 vols., 1959-1960), which is very detailed and supplies complete bibliographical data. A shorter treatment is Donald Attwater, St. John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher (1959). See also the Reverend William Richard Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times (1872).