This week the Orthodox cycle of saints included not one but two of my favorites: Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom. Both were Archbishops of Constantinople back in one of my favorite centuries: the fourth.
The fourth century was the time of the biggest arguments about the biggest issues, and so became the time of the first global Councils to define Christian doctrine.
And times of big conflict sometimes bring out the best in people. John and Gregory, in particular, had good minds to begin with. Then they had well formed lives of Christian discipleship. When they found themselves in prominent positions, they poured out their lives to understand and teach the faith and help people live it.
These guys so shaped theology, worship, and Christian living that they are still remembered as two of the “Three Hierarchs,” along with St. Basil of Caesarea. Icons frequently portray them as a group, though John was born after Basil’s death. The grouping is about influence.
John and Gregory compiled the two primary forms of the Divine Liturgy still used today.
They wrote works about the life of a Christian minister that are better than anything that has followed.
They taught. And they preached.
Gregory’s teaching (especially in his “Five Theological Orations”) was so important that he became one of only three Orthodox saints to be nicknamed “The Theologian.”
And his writing is beautiful. I once met a grad student who set out to master Patristic Greek–which is much tougher than the biblical Koine– just so he could read the Five Theological Orations in their original language.
John’s preaching was so filled with insightful biblical exegesis, and so effective in helping people live the biblical faith, that he got nicknamed “The Golden Mouth,” (that is, “Chrysostom”). Later his sermons were published as Bible commentaries.
And he had serious courage: He sheltered religious refugees condemned by the emperor. He preached against the bad behavior of the Empress when she showed up for worship.
Preaching about problematic government leaders is relatively easy when they aren’t around. And they usually are not around. Chrysostom’s insistence on preaching faithful discipleship led to his being exiled. He was forced farther and farther away until he died.
If I could, I would convince you to read some of their works. They aren’t easy at the first go. Some are only available in old and rather wooden translations. Even when translated well, readers of modern English are not used to the long sentences, the cadences, and the kinds of arguments in these books.
But stick with it. Read them twice. Once you get used to it they reward your labors.
You can even download and print a nice pdf. Underline it. Highlight it. Take notes.
Go for it. Pick something fun. If you want recommendations, send me an email.
And once you do pick one and read it, let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you!
If you find the idea of reading great theological texts appealing but know that you need some company and accountability, I have a great idea for you.
I’m working out a plan for an online reading group. I’ll choose great texts and provide introductions and a reading schedule for members. For those who are game to share the journey, there will be a private discussion forum.
If you want me to keep you posted, click the button below.