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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12 Responses to Was Chrysostom a Lutheran?

  1. William Weedon says:

    What the devil is a “beesknees”? Is it Oz-speak or a more universal time of which I am ignorant.

    I am not arguing that Chrysostom was a Lutheran in his confession of justification, but I do believe his approach to the topic was far more complex than most folks make it out to be and that it skates closer to the Lutheran Confession than the Tridentine of the same. He could indeed confess the sola fide (usually did so when he was dealing with a passage that clearly taught it) but would add often the corrective that such faith must be REAL, not just knowledge of Orthodox teaching and assent to it, but a living appropriation of it. Fiducia, not mere assenssus.

    As to the quote on almsgiving, I confess that it puzzled me what significance Koons found in it. “Repentance without almsgiving is a corpse.” What is objectionable about THAT for a Lutheran? Remember the words of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession: “So here we say about alms that this entire newness of life saves. Alms are also the exercise of faith, which receives the forgiveness of sins and overcomes death, while it exercises itself more and more, and in these exercises receives strength.”

  2. Chris Jones says:

    Fr Weedon,

    I’m surprised that you don’t know the expression “the bee’s knees”, which was a favorite of my Mom. I’m also a bit surprised to see it used by an Aussie, as I’ve always assumed it was uniquely American.

    “The bee’s knees” means “the best of the best”; you know, “the tops”, “the cat’s pajamas”, and so forth. When Schütz says that your weblog is the beesknees of evangelical catholic Lutheranism, he’s paying you quite a high compliment.

    He’s right, of course (about your weblog, not about justification!).

  3. William Weedon says:

    Goodness, Christopher! I’m heaping up more proof that English is a sea one can sail, but never master. Thanks for the info.

    And David, thanks, then, for the kind words, (though I think they are quite undeserved).

  4. Schütz says:

    I think “bees knees” is one of those 1920’s saying that got around on both sides of the Atlantic, especially due to a character like P. G. Wodehouse–who also liked the term “cat’s pyjamas”, if I’m not mistaken.

    Re: Chrysostom. The thing about people who come before a certain controversy in support of positions taken for the first time in a certain controversy is that the controversy itself has created a new and previously unheard of context–a context in which ancient passages may take on new meanings. Happens all the time.

    In this case, there never was anything like a controversy of justification in Chrysostom’s time. While at times he could make statements about the role of faith in justification that look very Lutheran (because they are simply restatements of the Gospel as Paul preached it) I don’t think he would have been too comfortable with the positions taken by the later Lutheran dogmatists (and some contemporary ones).

    It simply remains to be said that Chrysostom was a Church Father, owned by Lutherans, Orthodox and Catholics alike. The thing is that Lutherans would probably still find stuff in Chrysostom with which they would be uncomfortable, whereas Orthodox and Catholics give full affirmation to his teaching–on justification inter alia.

    From the Catholic point of view, we don’t have to ask “Is there a conflict between Chrysostom and Trent?” because we know that there isn’t. If you do find a conflict, then you are misunderstanding either one. The seeming “conflict” is likely to arise from the different contexts into which they were speaking. Trent was speaking into a situation where they THOUGHT the Lutherans were denying the necessity of love and action in the matter of justification.

    Whether they were right or wrong, we need to be wary of reading either Trent or Chrysostom outside their context.

  5. Past Elder says:

    Great Scott. Bee’s knees was an expression my mom used too here in America. Likewise cat’s pyjamas, though she would have spelled it pajamas — thank my Irish English teacher at a Catholic school in Minnesota for my English written English.

    As to the rest: since we just know that there is no conflict, therefore it can’t be there and it must be just me. That’s right up there with “development” as a way to find black a development of our understanding of white in post Vatican II newspeak.

    Oh well, was a time when I read the Church Fathers and thought how could anyone read these guys and not be Catholic, or at least Orthodox, too. I mean, they were, after all. Been there, done that.

    However, poking around in some of the links, I find things are even worse than I thought. Apparently “traditional” Catholicism is now a block to the working of the Holy Spirit. Guess I’d have to renounce two faiths to “come home” — Catholicism undeveloped and aggiornamentoed, and Lutheranism. Man, where’s the old Abjuration of Heresy when you need it?

    Good thing I AM home.

  6. William Weedon says:


    Which IS precisely why I think someone should do a book on the beloved Saint’s teaching on this particular topic. To do as much justice as possible to the fact that he spoke before the questions were put at the Reformation (and before that in the West with the rejection of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism – council of Orange and such). He’s a pastor who is unpacking the Scriptures before him for his people. At times you see him offer them the sweetest gospel comfort; at times you see him take up the stern warnings that sham faith is worthless – and how often he does the later by pointing to our love and care of the poor. I’ll be there’s tons more in the stuff that never made it into English.

    Past Elder, I know you live in Nebraska, but as they say a few miles to the south… “There’s no place like home.” ;)

  7. Past Elder says:

    Speaking of Oz — as in wizard of, not Aussieralia, as my long time Crocodile Dundee roomie in grad school called it — it always amused me that Omaha (where I live) seems to be placed in Kansas at the end. And you thought Vazquez de Coronado was lost looking for Quivira!

    It seems to me all creedal statemens are skewed by the points at controversy when they were written.

    Likewise theology. We have Christianised Platonism, Christianised Aristotelianism, Christianised phenomenology in post conciliar thought.

    Which is why neither creeds nor theology substitutes for Scripture. Way too often our theological schools get more into the models they have borrowed to explain faith than the faith itself. I still like Aquinas best, who said that theology is fine if it helps understanding of what is already believed, but otherwise forget about it, and certainly do not argue on its basis rather than Scripture lest the unbeliever think we believe on the basis of such flimsy arguments.

    If that’s not good enough how about St Paul, something about resolving to know nothing but Christ and him crucified, lest faith rest on human wisdom rather than divine power.

  8. Past Elder says:

    Gee whiz, as a recovering academic I clean forgot to supply a citation. Contra gentiles, Book One, Chapter Nine. I trust everyone got the St Paul one.

  9. Schütz says:

    There is a Chrysostom expert here in the Lutheran Church of Australia–I know her, but Adam Cooper would know her better–I haven’t spoken to her in yonks. Dr Wendy Mayer is an Orientalist with a specific interest in Chrysostom. I would be interested in what she had to say, but (and please forgive me here from the sin of making an evaluative criticism) I believe that she perhaps has more expertise in history and languages than in theology per se. In otherwords, as a precise historian of that particular era, I don’t know how well she would be able to evaluate Chrysostom’s thought in the light of the later controversies.

    I believe that I may catch up with her at the Orientale Lumen conference here in Melbourne later this year (a big “East-West” ecclesiastical dialogue/seminar/conference/do — they have them in the states too), so I will suggest the book idea to her. Or Adam can do it for me if he is reading this suggestion and expects to see her in the near fut.

  10. L P Cruz says:


    Then I will be a real person

    But in Christ you have been. Why the preoccupation? Let Christ be your all in all, or is that bad?

    I am not denying grace in this operation

    But I think you are.

    Cheers mate,


  11. the filthy augustinian says:

    Good post, sir!

    Chrysostom was an influencing factor in my conversion from Lutheranism to Catholicism.

  12. Schütz says:

    Dear Mr Cruz,

    My point is that despite the union that there is between me and Christ, there is also a distinction to be made. The marriage image is a good one here (which is why Paul used it of Christ and the Church). Husband and wife are one flesh, but without the individual identity of either the husband or the wife being subsumed by the other. In the same way the Church is the Body of Christ, yet we confess that Christ exists as the Fully divine fully human Son of the Father and born of the Virgin Mary distinct from the Church. In the same way, my unity with Christ is not such that my individuality is subsumed by Christ (in some sort of Buddhist Nirvana sense). So when I stand before God I don’t simply wish for him to see Christ “instead of me”, I want him to see ME redeemed by Christ. Do you get the distinction?

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