Was Chrysostom a Lutheran?


Many yonks ago, long before the rupture between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, Little Johnny Goldentongue held the latter position (pictured here in a mosaic in his patriarchal Church, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople–yes, I took the picture!). So although you could hardly claim that he was a Roman Catholic, he is owned as a Father and Doctor of the Church by both Catholics and Orthodox. Still, it seems to me a little much to try and claim him as a Lutheran.

Yet this unlikely strategy appears to have been adopted by two eminent Lutheran commentators in reaction to the announcement that (former) Lutheran philosophy Professor Robert Koons is entering into full communion with the Catholic Church.

Perhaps this is because in a rather lengthy essay he wrote in order to clarify his own thinking before taking the leap (“A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism”), Koons himself had cited Chrysostom (among many others). Here are two relevant passages from this essay:

In short, we find the Fathers affirming what Lutherans affirm, but not denying what Lutherans deny, and it is the denials rather than the affirmations that are in dispute in the conflict between Rome and the Lutherans. This point is admitted by both Martin Chemnitz and by Robert Preus, in his more recent book, Justification and Rome. Some examples:…

“Repentance without alsmsgiving is a corpse and is without wings.” (John Chrysostom, Homily 7)

“’For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith working through love.’ What is the meaning of `working through love?’ Here he gives them a hard blow, by showing that this error had crept in because the love of Christ had not been rooted within them. For to believe is not all that is required, but also to abide in love.” (John Chrysostom, Commentary on Galatians)

He mentions the good Doctor again in relation to another book by a protestant on the Fathers, this time by Thomas Oden:

Thomas Oden, a contemporary Baptist theologian, compiled The Justification Reader in order to persuade Protestants that they should not disregard the testimony of the ancient Church Fathers. Although this was not Oden’s primary intention, Oden’s book could be taken as a defense of the catholicity of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, demonstrating that the doctors of the Church have continuously affirmed it. However, Oden fails to distinguish between the thesis that faith is necessary for justification and the thesis that faith is sufficient. Oden’s textual evidence clearly supports the first thesis but utterly fails to support the second. The Lutheran and Reformed doctrine that we are justified by faith alone corresponds exactly to the sufficiency of faith. The necessity of faith (in opposition to the Pelagian heresy) was readily conceded by the Council of Trent.

Here is what Koons calls “the one passage cited by Oden that comes close to affirming the Protestant doctrine”–and it is from our mate Chrysostom :

“Does faith save without itself doing anything at all? Faith’s workings are themselves the gift of God, lest anyone should boast. What then is Paul saying? Not that God has forbidden works but forbidden us to be justified by works. No one, Paul says, is justified by works, precisely in order that the grace and benevolence of God may become apparent” (Homily on Ephesians 4:2.9).

Maybe it was these several citations that got our good friends, Pastor William Weedon and Dr Adam Cooper, thinking about the one-time Patriarch of Constantinople and whether his doctrine agrees more with the Lutheran “salvation by faith alone” and “forensic justification” than with the undivided tradition of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches that salvation is in Christ by grace alone through faith and love.

Let’s start with Pastor William Weedon (whose blog is the beesknees of evangelical catholic Lutheranism since Fr John Fenton swam the Bosphorus). You can go to his post “Someone needs to write a book…” to get all the quotes (this blog is already long enough), but here are the juicier bits:

“They said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed; but he, Paul, shows that he who adhered to faith alone is blessed.” – (Homily on Galatians 3)

“Here he shows God’s power, in that He has not only saved, but has even justified, and led them to boasting, and this too without needing works, but looking for faith only.” (Homily 7 on Romans)

That sounds pretty Protestant, doesn’t it?

Well, Weedon aside, I was quite surprised then to find that my friend Dr Adam Cooper (Lutheran Pastor of the Parish of Geelong down in the South Western corner of the Melbourne Archdiocese, PhD from Durham University in St Maximus the Confessor’s doctrine of “the body”, and now lifted higher yet to the rank of FIRST THINGS contributor) has lobbed a blog into the Public Square entitled “Another big fish”–the fish in question being Dr Koons. Dr Cooper is a fair minded fellow who should be a Catholic but isn’t (yet–I admit that I am working on it–that is one fish that so far hasn’t taken the bait), and who thinks that there is much in what Koons’ essay has to say–especially regarding the place of “the body” in justification and the tendancy of the Lutheran doctrine of justification to tend toward docetism and gnosticim, at least in practice if not in the doctrine itself.

Dr Cooper is also intrigued by Chrysostom:

Speaking of the Fathers, I am still reminded of a hypothetical situation proposed in the fourth century by John Chrysostom, precisely to address the problem of ecclesial division. Suppose a new convert were to approach you, wanting to become a true Christian, but is confused and scandalized by the multitude of Christian denominations. “Which teaching shall I choose?” he asks. “There is so much fighting and faction among you!” To this, the Golden Mouthed Orator would have us respond with what to me seems like a singularly Lutheran-sounding answer: “Those that agree with the Scriptures are the true church. Those that fight against the Scriptures are not.”

So, there you have it. A sola scriptura, sola fide Patriarch of Constantinople–a Lutheran before his time! Or was he.

Of course he wasn’t. Koons is right. Almost everything that the Lutherans affirm in the faith of the Catholic (and, for that matter, Orthodox) Church is affirmed by Chrysostom (and the rest of the Fathers). It’s just that you won’t find them denying the things about the Catholic faith that the Lutherans deny.

Of course Chyrsostom would say “the Church that agrees with the Scriptures are the true Church etc.”. What? Do you think that he would say that his Church, the Church of Constantinople, in communion with the Churches of Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria, do not agree with the Scriptures? Do you think that he would have thought that they “fight against” them? Of course not. And yet he venerated and prayed to Mary and the Saints. He prayed for the dead, and regarded the Eucharist as a Sacrifice. He was a bishop who would have been aghast at the idea that bishops in apostolic succession were not essential to the
nature of the Church. He was a liturgist who could not have comprehended the idea that his ritualistic mode of worship was contrary to the scriptures. Scripture yes. Sola (nuda?) Scriptura, no.

And just the same, Koons is right. Affirming the neccesity of faith is not the same thing as affirming the sufficiency of faith. Affirming faith does not mean denying love (although note in this context Dr Cooper’s very good point about the difference of meaning between Lutheran and Catholic conceptions of faith and love).

Again Dr Cooper is right: What about the body? I was listening to EWTN tonight (yes, from the sublime to the ridiculous). Marcus Grodi was saying that one day we will stand as resurrected bodies before God in heaven “without embarassment”. Hold on a moment, I thought: Forensic justification says that when I stand before God on judgement day, God will look at me, but will in fact see Jesus rather than me, and accept me for his sake. Well…, I have no problem with being accepted for Jesus’ sake, but when God looks at me in heaven, I want him to see ME! I want him to be able to look at ME! I will, in fact, never be fully redeemed until I am able to stand before him without shame, fully cleansed from sin and fully sanctified, and share that gaze where he and I see one another face to face. Then I will be a real person.

I am not denying grace in this operation. And God forbid that I should deny the all sufficient merits of Christ’s atoning sacrifice in the equation. But the final bit, the bit after the “=” sign, must be me before God.

And I would be surprised if St John Chrysostom didn’t know this too.

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