St. John Chrysostom: Scripture as the second best course

It would be indeed meet for us not at all to require the aid of the written word, but to exhibit a life so pure, that the grace of the Spirit should be instead of books to our souls, and that as these are inscribed with ink, even so should our hearts be with the Spirit. But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace, come, let us at any rate embrace the second best course.

Mosaic in the northern tympanon depicting Sain...

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For that the former was better, God hath made manifest, both by His words and by His doings, since unto Noah, and unto Abraham, and unto his offspring, and unto Job, and unto Moses too, He discoursed not by writings, but Himself by Himself, finding their mind pure. But after the whole people of the Hebrews had fallen into the very pit of wickedness, then and thereafter was a written word, and tables, and the admonition which is given by these.

And this one may perceive was the case, not of the saints in the Old Testament only, but also of those in the New. For neither to the Apostles did God give anything in writing, but instead of written words He promised that He would give them the grace of the Spirit: for He, saith our Lord, shall bring all things to your remembrance (John 14:26). And that thou mayest learn that this was far better, hear what He saith by the Prophet: I will make a new covenant with you, putting my laws into their mind, and in their heart I will write them, and, they shall be all taught of God [cf. Jer. 31.33 LXX; John 6.45]. And Paul too, pointing out the same superiority, said that they had received a law not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart [II Cor. 3:3].

(from St. John Chrysostom‘s Homily 1 on the Gospel of Matthew)

This is certainly in contrast to those who hold the creation of the canon to be the greatest gift God ever gave to the church, second only to Jesus (or so they say).

Chrysostom certainly held Scripture to be divine in origin; in fact the above remarks were brought forth to emphasize that it would only compound our foolishness if, having been so hard-hearted as to require the holy writings as a “second remedy,” we ignore even those. But notice the logic here: written Scripture is only necessary because we refuse to obey the voice of the Spirit in our hearts.

Because of our incorrigible tendency toward ignoring the law promised to be written on our hearts, it certainly helps to have Scripture and other sacred sources (like our theological traditions) for signposts. But those things, including the Bible, can never take the place of that Word of God that is spoken directly into our hearts — and they certainly can’t trump it. The caution is that if we take those often useful and even necessary crutches as the foundation on which we stand, we’ll find ourselves hugging the floor soon enough.

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  • Gusmcattison

    Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it sounds like you are saying this passage from SJC would support the idea of listening to our hearts (or God in our hearts if you prefer that) instead of – or at least strongly in supplement to – the second best course, the bible.

    However, he says “But, since we have utterly put away from us this grace…”

    I take it by “utterly … away” he means we’re not going to be recovering that distance any time soon. If we could get back to that place, I would think his advice would be to get back there, not to embrace the second best course.

    I’m not against listening to God in our hearts, and even letting that voice overrule uber-dogmatic interpretations of the text. But I would think that the kind of listening we can now do would be more like the third course, or Second Course Part II maybe, not a legitimate return to the first course.

    • I have little doubt that Chrysostom would have considered it too late to return to the first course. I don’t necessarily hold to his compartmentalization of the courses or, indeed, whether God Himself presented these courses to us as a curriculum. But I do find it interesting that the church hasn’t always placed the same premium on the Bible that we Protestants do. The ideal course is, as you said, to interact with all sources of information, tradition and Bible featuring prominently, engaging them with humility about our own understanding but ultimately not allowing any testimony from those sources to violate our conscience, which I trust is becoming more and more attuned with God’s heart.

      • Gusmcattison

        Okay, reading the post again, I see you didn’t make the leap I thought you made. You only meant it as evidence against our “premium-placing.” Yeah, that IS interesting. Bible-worship is surely a destructive force in the modern church (to state the obvious).

  • Steve, great post again – highlighting some key points I’ve been considering lately.

    I think we should strive for the first course and realize the second course for what it is – a fallback, a pacifier, a baby walker if you will. It gets us into the Kingdom but is not the limit of the kingdom.