“Many Shall Come from the East and the West”

A Comparison of the Preaching of Augustine and John Chrysostom

Introduction

“Many shall come from the East and the West and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 8:11). The two great preachers of the fourth and fifth centuries — John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, and Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa — drew tremendous audiences from the East and the West respectively during their lifetimes. Thomas Aquinas drew on their wisdom, quoting both Augustine and Chrysostom hundreds of times in the Summa Theologiae. Their sermons and homilies are included in the Office of Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours and are published in a number of multi-volume series for modern readers. They are timeless in their spiritual insights and refreshing in their lively style.

Is either of them a greater preacher than the other? They are remarkably alike. Their classical education was normal for fourth-century boys. Their milieu was the same: although Augustine was from the Roman Empire and John Chrysostom from Byzantium, they were contemporaries in a time when crowds gathered to hear public speakers. Their talent in reading the mood of and addressing their congregations seems to have been comparable. Details from their lives and preaching may suggest more similarities than differences, but the reader is invited to weigh the evidence.

 

Early Years and Education

John was born in Antioch of Syria probably around 347 AD, and was thus a little older than Augustine, born in 354 in what is now Algeria. Both boys studied the classical trivium — grammar, the knowledge of one’s language; logic, the assembling of ideas in plausible order; and rhetoric, the skill to which all future orators of the ancient world aspired because of its power in swaying audiences. Their training shows in powerful homilies that apply their rhetorical skill.

John’s widowed mother Anthusa devoted herself completely to her son’s education. For his rhetorical training, she chose the school of the famous sophist Libanius. The pupil was “declared by . . . Libanius to surpass all the orators of the age.” On the point of death, Libanius “was asked by his friends who was in his opinion capable of succeeding him. ‘It would have been John,’ he replied, ‘had not the Christians stolen him from us.’”1 In fact, this “theft” was John’s own doing, due to his admiration of the heroic Miletius, Bishop of Antioch, exiled three times by the Arians. Miletius in his turn had noticed the “bright lad.” After becoming Miletius’ protégé, John was baptized and spent three years studying Scripture under his mentor.2

Then John announced his intention to be a monk. John himself tells us of his mother’s reaction. Fearing that the eremitical life would cut her off from her only son, she trained all of her powerful speaking ability on him:

As soon as she saw that this was my intention. . . . Sitting close by me on the bed on which she had given me birth, she burst into tears, and then spoke words more touching than tears. And this was her sad complaint. . . .

“[Your father’s death] left you an orphan and me a widow before my time. . . . I found great consolation in those trials in gazing continually at your face and treasuring in you a living and exact image of my dead husband. . . . [When] you have committed me to the ground and united me with your father’s bones, then set out on your long travels and sail whatever sea you please. . . . But until I breathe my last, be content to live with me.”3

John was thus content, but when his mother died, he headed to the caves around the city to fulfill his dream. Two years later, his health nearly ruined by fasting and sleep deprivation, he had to give up monastic ambitions and go back to Antioch. After five years, Meletius ordained him as a deacon and he was subsequently ordained as a priest by Meletius’ successor, Flavian. From the time of his ordination, Chrysostom’s talent was already evident. His biographer Palladius, a contemporary, remarks that John had “already become famous [by this time] . . . the people were sweetened from the bitterness of life when they met up with him.”4

Augustine, too, showed great promise as a young boy. He tells us in the Confessions, “My declamation was applauded above . . . many of my own age and class.”5 His declamation, in fact, was so good that his father sent him for formal studies. After his education, Augustine began teaching, but his Carthaginian students were unruly and his Roman students cunning in withholding tuition. Augustine heard that a “rhetoric reader” was needed for the city of Milan. Besides, he had heard that the bishop of that city, Ambrose, was so famous for his homilies that, Augustine thought, he could pick up some public-speaking techniques. He packed up and went to Milan. But Augustine picked up more than techniques. The young classicist, who in Carthage had held the Christian Scriptures in contempt — “they seemed to me to be unworthy to be compared to the stateliness of Tully” — went from scorn to desire for Scripture under the spell of Saint Ambrose.6 After his baptism and priestly ordination, Augustine realized how much he had to learn. He immersed himself in the Bible and “seems to have committed to memory the greater part” of the Bible.7 Armed with this the immense body of preaching material, Augustine practiced his eloquence from the time he was ordained. He approached preaching with humility, but “the more [he] belittled himself the more overwhelming became the torrent of praise, even adulation, that was poured out on him.”8

Both men were bishops by 398 and famous for their sermons.

Use of Scripture

Augustine wrote hundreds of homilies on Scripture. His series on the Psalms, Enarrationes in Psalmos, consisted of 265 thematic discourses. He wrote multiple commentaries on Genesis, seventeen on the Sermon on the Mount, ten on the First Epistle of John, and 124 short sermons (“tractates”) on the Gospel of John. His love for Sacred Scripture was evident in the way he quoted it throughout his sermons: “At times, he repeats the scriptural phrase, as though pondering it, rolling it over, as it were, on his tongue, savoring its sweetness.”9

The preponderance in the number of Augustine’s sermons is due most likely to his longer life — he lived to age seventy-six. Muldowney uses simple arithmetic to estimate the total number of sermons and homilies preached by the Bishop of Hippo. “Forty years of preaching even at the rate of two sermons a week,” she concludes, “would entail more than 4,000 sermons.” Due to his bishop’s “unfamiliarity with the Latin tongue to his death,” Augustine did all the preaching in the diocese of Hippo. He “preached regularly on Sundays and on all special feasts. Instances of sermons on five successive days, and on three successive days, besides numerous references to discourses on two consecutive days may be cited.”10

In comparison with his African counterpart, Chrysostom preached, according to the same liturgical categories by week (Sundays and holidays throughout most of the year and more frequently during Lent), about 150 sermons annually, totaling 2700 over the space of eighteen years. Like Augustine’s, John Chrysostom’s preaching was also overwhelmingly scriptural. Over 400 of his homilies were series on Genesis, John, Matthew, Galatians and others of Paul’s letters, not to mention hundreds of references from both Testaments in his Sunday and occasional homilies, illustrating his favorite topics: for example, almsgiving, wealth versus poverty, and the evil of swearing oaths.11

From his scriptural mentor Diodorus of Tarsus, Chrysostom had learned the principles of Antiochene exegesis, a method based on the literal meaning of the text. Dom Chrysostom Baur emphasizes Chrysostom’s unique contribution:

Chrysostom . . . is the chief and almost the only successful representative of the exegetical principles of the School of Antioch. Diodorus of Tarsus had initiated him into the grammatico-historical method of that school, which was in strong opposition to the eccentric, allegorical, and mystical interpretation of Origen and the Alexandrian School. . . . [Chrysostom] did not . . . exclude all allegorical or mystical explanations, but confined them to the cases in which the inspired author himself suggests this meaning.12

Augustine, on the other hand, had learned from his model and mentor Ambrose the Alexandrian school. Allegorical exegesis became his lifelong method. “‘The letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life,’” wrote Augustine, “whilst [Ambrose] drew aside the mystic veil, laying open spiritually what, according to the letter, seemed to teach something unsound.”13

Use of Rhetoric

In Chrysostom’s fervent preaching, the figures of speech of classical rhetoric, learned under Libanius, are often the same as Augustine’s: powerful parallelism; words repeated at the beginnings and ends of phrases; and his characteristic pounding home time and again the refrains that he took from his text of Scripture. Nevertheless, Chrysostom writes in Six Books on the Priesthood that the preacher should balance eloquence for effective preaching with care for his own soul, lest he begin to like applause too much:

[The preacher] must divert [the congregation’s] attention to something more useful [than entertainment]. . . . It is impossible to acquire this power except by these two qualities: contempt of praise and the force of eloquence. If either is lacking, the one left is made useless through divorce from the other. If a preacher despises praise, yet does not produce the kind of teaching which is “with grace, seasoned with salt,” he is despised by the people and gets no advantage from his sublimity. And if he manages this side of things perfectly well, but is a slave to the sound of applause, again an equal damage threatens both him and the people. . . . Like a good charioteer, the preacher should have reached perfection in both these qualities.14

The resourceful Chrysostom took advantage of the people’s love of novelty and of oratory in general. Public speaking in the fourth and fifth centuries was a public spectacle whose attractiveness ranked along with horse races (although given a choice on the same day, Christians tended to prefer the latter over going to church, a fact drily noted by their preacher).15 He played to the crowd, luring his audience by references to their everyday lives into the moral message he unfailingly drove home. He criticized women for wearing expensive jewelry. He scolded the wealthy for being stingy in giving alms. He held up slaves as examples of virtue.16 Whatever it took, he did, saying with St. Paul, “I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible” (1 Cor. 9:19).

Augustine’s post-conversion life as a Christian, a priest, and a preacher must at first have buried the memories of the career he left behind as a pagan rhetorician. For this reason, he did not distrust rhetoric as an occasion of sin as did Chrysostom, whose public speaking had only ever been preaching. Because content and delivery were a delicate balance, Chrysostom saw recourse to oratory for mere applause as an ever-present temptation. Augustine instead had a marvelous epiphany precisely that the two could be combined. In On Christian Teaching, he recounts this discovery that Christian preaching not only did not lose its power but in fact benefited from pagan delivery. He writes,

What astonishes and overwhelms me is that [Christian writers have already] used our eloquence side by side with a rather different eloquence of their own . . . You could visualize it as wisdom proceeding from its own home (by this I mean a wise person’s heart) and eloquence, like an ever-present slave, following on behind without having to be summoned.17

If Augustine had any caution in the use of rhetoric, it was not like Chrysostom’s explicit fear that the preacher might succumb to vanity or even go to hell because he had not delivered to the people the message entrusted to him.18 Augustine’s concern, as he writes explicitly in On Christian Teaching, was more for the message than for the soul of the preacher. If the preacher attributed the sermon’s success to its delivery, this would undermine the spiritual source of the message, from whence it derived its power. For subject and style alike, the speaker must have recourse not to rhetoric but to God: “He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words.”19

Augustine appropriated from his beloved Cicero three categories of style suited to the response desired from the hearers:

The selfsame authority on Roman eloquence wanted to relate . . . three aims — of instructing, delighting, and moving an audience — to the following three styles, when . . . he said, “So the eloquent speaker will be one who can treat small matters in a restrained style, intermediate matters in a mixed style, and important matters in a grand style.”

Augustine retained the stylistic categories of restrained, mixed, and grand, but declared that the truth itself would supply its own attractiveness: “When God is being praised, either in himself or in his works,” wrote Augustine, “what a display of attractive and brilliant oratory appears in the mouth of the preacher . . . !” If listeners’ pleasure in eloquent delivery would bring about their salvation, then eloquence there must be: “We often have to take bitter medicines, and we must always avoid sweet things that are dangerous: but what better than sweet things that give health, or medicines that are sweet?”20

Augustine’s lively, person-centered delivery and his art in using his sources and styles were enough to keep an audience’s attention for a long time. From his background in classical rhetoric came his “love of a neat phrase, in his habit of playing on words, in his rhyming phrases which defy translation.” He had mastered a dazzling array of figures of speech: “Epanaphora and antistrophe, paranomasia and polyptoton, give emphasis and vigor to one passage after another. Clever plays on words abound . . . Parachesis, assonance, and alliteration are frequently used to give point and effectiveness to the matter under discussion.” Even more attractive than these figures, learned in Carthage during his student days, was his direct engagement of his audience — for example, in a “stylistic pattern of short questions and answers arranged in dialogue form.”21

John Chrysostom also played the crowd with rhetorical art delivered with uncanny psychological accuracy. He was the fourth-century counterpart of today’s televangelist preacher. When he stood up before his congregation, he did not preach a sermon. He was the sermon. He writes, “When I begin to speak, weariness disappears; when I begin to teach, fatigue too disappears. Thus neither sickness itself nor indeed any other obstacle is able to separate me from your love. . . . For just as you are hungry to listen to me, so too I am hungry to preach to you.”22

Two Sermons Compared: John 14

It is fitting to close by letting these two great preachers speak for themselves. Their similarity is no better demonstrated than in a comparison of homilies on the same scriptural material. Chrysostom’s Homilies on Saint John and Augustine’s Tractates on the Gospel of John are ideal for this purpose, divided as they are into discrete chapter-and-verse sections. John Chrysostom’s homily on John 14:8–15 was preached in Antioch in about 390 AD.23 It is almost a perfect overlap with Augustine’s “Tractate 70: On John 14:7–10,” probably written about 418 AD.24

Chrysostom picks up with John 14:8: “Philip said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, show us the Father, and that is good enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, “Have I been so long a time with you, and you have not known Me, Philip? He who sees me sees also the Father.’” Here Chrysostom hints that a sober commentary will follow: “Let us examine the exact meaning of what was said.” However, the “examination,” not at all sober, swerves off-road immediately and launches into a lively paraphrase of the conversation:

“Have I been so long a time with you, and you have not known Me, Philip?” He asked.

“What, then? Are you the Father about whom I am inquiring?”

“Not at all.” That is why He did not say, “You have not known Him, but: You have not known Me” [emphasis added].

Now Chrysostom moves into his explication of the text:

The point that he was making clear above all else was that the Son is nothing other than what the Father is, though continuing to be the Son in His [own] Person.

But whence did Philip come to ask this question?

Christ had just said, “If you had known me, you would also have known my Father,” and He had often said this to the Jews. Peter frequently had asked Him . . . “Who is thy Father?” Furthermore, Thomas had asked him, too, but no one had learned anything explicit, and they were still perplexed at His words. Therefore, when Philip himself asked: “Show us thy Father,” he added: “and it is enough for us; we are looking for nothing more,” so that he might not seem offensive and as though carping at Him.

It is hard not to see Chrysostom teasing an audience who themselves evidenced more perplexity than learning, but which was a little afraid to seem as if they were “carping” at their preacher. Perhaps he is poking fun at himself for his frequent carping back. A few lines later, having repeated Christ’s question as a refrain — “Have I been so long a time with you, and you have not known Me, Philip?” — Chrysostom puts another of his original responses into the mouth of the frustrated Philip:

“Yes, I certainly do know You,” Philip meant, “so why should I want to learn about You? [Emphasis added.] At this time I am asking to see your Father, yet You say to me, ‘Have you not known Me?’ What connection, then, has this with my question?”

A very close connection, to be sure. For, since He is what the Father is, though He remains the Son, with good reason does He direct you to His Father in Himself.25

Augustine also begins his explication of the passage with 14:8:

Philip, one of the Apostles, not understanding what he has heard, says, “Lord, show us the Father, and that is enough for us.” And to him the Lord says, “Am I with you so long a time and you have not known me, Philip? He who sees me sees also the Father.”

The Lord’s surprise that Philip does not know him, says Augustine, is because some other apostles in the gathering do know him. For them, Jesus goes on: “If you have known me, you have also known my Father.” In asides to the congregation, Augustine translates this verse into everyday language:

Look, he finds fault because he was with them so long a time and was not known. . . . For in regard to two persons very much alike we are accustomed to speak to those who see one of them and wish to know what the other is like, so as to say, “If you’ve seen this one, you’ve seen that one.” So then was it said, “He who sees me also sees the Father.”

Then Augustine comes to Philip’s aid, playing on the words “alike” and “like”:

But must he be accused and chided who, when he sees the like, also wishes to see him to whom he is alike? “I know indeed the like [Philip is made to continue defensively], but I still know one without the other; it is not enough for me unless I also know him of whom he is the like.” Therefore [and here Augustine returns to the Scripture verse] “show us the Father and it is enough for us.”

Concluding the tractate with a playful scolding for Philip, Augustine turns to his congregation to make his final point:

But the Teacher accused the disciple precisely because he saw the heart of the one asking. For as though the Father were better than the Son, so Philip desired to know the Father; and therefore he did not know the Son than whom he believed something to be better. . . . I see how you say it! You do not seek to see another alike, but you think he is better. . . Why do you wish to see difference in likes? Why do you desire to know inseparables separately? Then he speaks, not to Philip alone but to them collectively, things that must not be confined narrowly in order that, with his help, they may be explained more diligently.26

In this vigorous line-by-line engagement with the Scripture text itself, both Augustine and Chrysostom argue back and forth, inviting the listeners to side first with Christ, then with Philip, then with Christ again. Chrysostom jumps in among the dramatis personae; Augustine dialogues rather with his hearers, inviting them to see and judge Philip in terms of themselves. In these short passages, we become the spectators and the congregation. We are drawn in by the brilliance of the two men at the pinnacle of fourth-century preaching. We see just how, drawing on years of scriptural meditation, rhetorical skill, and sheer grace, they could instruct, delight, and move their hearers to engage the Word personally themselves, not only in their minds but also in living their Christian lives.

  1. Sozomen, Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Chester D. Hartranft, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Series Two, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 399.
  2. Palladius, Dialogue on the Life of St. John Chrysostom, trans. Robert T. Meyer (New York: Newman Press, 1985), 35.
  3. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), 37–40.
  4. Palladius, 36.
  5. Augustine, Confessions, trans. E.B. Pusey (Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1838), 20.
  6. Augustine, Confessions, 41, 92.
  7. Mary Sarah Muldowney, “Introduction,” Saint Augustine: Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, Fathers of the Church 38 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1959), xiv.
  8. Hugh Pope, Saint Augustine of Hippo (Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 1949), 109; Sozomen, Church Histories, 400.
  9. Muldowney, Saint Augustine, xiv.
  10. Muldowney, Saint Augustine, xi.
  11. Jaclyn L. Maxwell, Christianization and Communication in Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 5, 149–51.
  12. Chrysostom Baur, “John Chrysostom,” Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 8 (Robert Appleton Co., 1910), 456.
  13. Augustine, Confessions, 100.
  14. John Chrysostom, Six Books, 128–29.
  15. Maxwell, Christianization, 133–34.
  16. Baur, 454; Maxwell, Christianization, 65, 76–77.
  17. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 106–107.
  18. Maxwell, Christianization, 93.
  19. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 121.
  20. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 123, 126, 105.
  21. Pope, Saint Augustine of Hippo, 185; Muldowney, Saint Augustine, xix–xx. The figures of speech listed denote repetitions of words or sounds, or words in the same passage realized in different grammatical forms.
  22. Carl A. Volz, “The Genius of Chrysostom’s Preaching,” Christian History 13, no. 4 (1994): 24.
  23. Thomas Aquinas Goggin, “Introduction,” Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist Homilies, 48–88 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1960), vii.
  24. Augustine, “Tractate 70: On John 14:7–10,” St. Augustine: Tractates on the Gospel of John 55–111, trans. John W. Rettig (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1994), 73, 75; Pope, Saint Augustine of Hippo, 378.
  25. John Chrysostom, “Homily 74 (John 14.8–15),” Saint John Chrysostom: Commentary on Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist Homilies, 48–88 (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1960), 291–93.
  26. Augustine, “Tractate 70,” 73–75.
Sr. Mary Dominic Pitts, OP About Sr. Mary Dominic Pitts, OP

Sister Mary Dominic Pitts, OP, a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, Tennessee, taught on the faculty of Aquinas College in Nashville from 1987 to 2018 and is currently writing supplementary materials for online educational projects. Her other published works include a chapter on religious vows in The Foundations of Religious Life: Revisiting the Vision (Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious, 2009) and notes on regionalisms in the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Comments

  1. Tom McGuire says:

    Sister Mary Dominic,

    Your article was delightful reading. Two great preachers that have caught my attention for years, my favorite being St John Chrysostom. His emphasis on “almsgiving, wealth versus poverty, and the evil of swearing oaths” speaks so eloquently to contemporary human experience. Would that Catholic preaching today would take seriously preaching. So often homilies are like theological summaries of seminary notes, rather than the explorations of the living Word of God that engage hearts of people.

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