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Chapter XIV.—Chrysostom as a Preacher.
The crowning merit of Chrysostom is his excellency as a preacher. He is generally and justly regarded as the greatest pulpit orator of the Greek church. Nor has he any superior or equal among the Latin Fathers. He remains to this day a model for preachers in large cities. He was trained in the school of Demosthenes and Libanius, and owed much of his literary culture to the classics. He praises “the polish of Isocrates, the gravity of Demosthenes, the dignity of Thucydides, and the sublimity of Plato.” He assigns to Plato the first rank among the philosophers, but he places St. Paul far above him, and glories in the victory of the tent-maker and fishermen over the wisdom of the Greeks.3737 De Sacerd., IV. 6.
He was not free from the defects of the degenerate rhetoric of his age, especially a flowery exuberance of style and fulsome extravagance in eulogy of dead martyrs and living men. But the defects are overborne by the virtues: the fulness of Scripture knowledge, the intense earnestness, the fruitfulness of illustration and application, the variation of topics, the command of language, the elegance and rhythmic flow of his Greek style, the dramatic vivacity, the quickness and ingenuity of his turns, and the magnetism of sympathy with his hearers. He knew how to draw in the easiest manner spiritual nourishment and lessons of practical wisdom from the Word of God, and to make it a divine voice of warning and comfort to every hearer. He was a faithful preacher of truth and righteousness and fearlessly told the whole duty of man. If he was too severe at times, he erred on virtue’s side. He preached morals rather than dogmas, Christianity rather than theology, active, practical Christianity that proves itself in holy living and dying. He was a martyr of the pulpit, for it was chiefly his faithful preaching that caused his exile. The effect of his oratory was enhanced by the magnetism of his personality, and is weakened to the reader of a translation or even the Greek original. The living voice and glowing manner are far more powerful than the written and printed letter.
Chrysostom attracted large audiences, and among them many who would rather have gone to the theatre than hear any ordinary preacher. He held them spell-bound to the close. Sometimes they manifested their admiration by noisy applause, and when he rebuked them for it, they would applaud his rebuke. “You praise,” he would tell them, “what I have said, and receive my exhortation with tumults of applause; but show your approbation by obedience; that is the only praise I seek.”
The great mediæval poet assigns to Chrysostom
a place in Paradise between Nathan the prophet and Anselm the
theologian, probably because, like Nathan, he rebuked the sins of
the court, and, like Anselm, he suffered exile for his
Paradiso, XII. 136–139:
“Natan profeta e il metropolitano
Chrisostomo, ed Anselmo, e quel Donato,
Che alla prim’ arte degnò poner mano.” The best French pulpit orators—Bossuet, Massilon, Bourdaloue—have taken him for their model, even in his faults, the flattery of living persons. Villemain praises him as the greatest orator who combined all the attributes of eloquence.3939 Tableau, etc., p. 154: “Ce sont ces qualités plus hautes, ou plutot c’est la réunion de tous les attributs oratoires, le naturel, le pathétique et la grandeur, qui’ ont fait de saint Jean Chrysostome le plus grande orateur de l’église primitive, le plus éclatant interprète de cette mémorable époque.” Hase calls his eloquence “Asiatic, flowery, full of spirit 23and of the Holy Spirit, based on sound exegesis, and with steady application to life.”4040 “Seine Beredtsamkeit ist asiatisch, bilderreich, geistvoll und H. Geistes voll, auf gesunder Schriftauslegung, mit steter Anwendung auf’s Leben, in seinen Forderungen an Andere sittlich ernst ohne asketische Ueberspannung.”—Kirchengeschichte, I. 511. English writers compare him to Jeremy Taylor. Gibbon (who confesses, however, to have read very few of his Homilies) attributes to him “the happy art of engaging the passions in the service of virtue, and of exposing the folly as well as the turpitude of vice, almost with the truth and spirit of a dramatic representation.” Dean Milman describes him as an “unrivalled master in that rapid and forcible application of incidental occurrences which gives such life and reality to eloquence. He is at times, in the highest sense, dramatic in manner.” Stephens thus characterizes his sermons:4141 St. Chrysostom, p. 426 sq.
“A power of exposition which unfolded in lucid order, passage by passage, the meaning of the book in hand; a rapid transition from clear exposition, or keen logical argument, to fervid exhortation, or pathetic appeal, or indignant denunciation; the versatile ease with which he could lay hold of any little incident of the moment, such as the lighting of the lamps in the church, and use it to illustrate his discourse; the mixture of plain common sense, simple boldness, and tender affection, with which he would strike home to the hearts and consciences of his hearers—all these are not only general characteristics of the man, but are usually to be found manifested more or less in the compass of each discourse. It is this rare union of powers which constitutes his superiority to almost all other Christian preachers with whom he might be, or has been, compared. Savonarola had all, and more than all, his fire and vehemence, but untempered by his sober, calm good sense, and wanting his rational method of interpretation. Chrysostom was eager and impetuous at times in speech as well as in action, but never fanatical. Jeremy Taylor combines, like Chrysostom, real earnestness of purpose with rhetorical forms of expression and florid imagery; but, on the whole, his style is far more artificial, and is overlaid with a multifarious learning, from which Chrysostom’s was entirely free. Wesley is almost his match in simple, straightforward, practical exhortation, but does not rise into flights of eloquence like his. The great French preachers, again, resemble him in his more ornate and declamatory vein, but they lack that simpler common-sense style of address which equally distinguished him.”
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