“As long as a city is encircled with walls all around,” wrote John Chrysostom, “it mocks its besiegers and remains in perfect safety. But once a breach is made in the wall, no larger than a gate, the circuit is no more use to it, though all the rest stands safe.”
It is the same, he says, in the church: “As long as the nimble wits and the wisdom of the shepherd encompass it like a wall all around, all the enemy’s devices end in his own shame and ridicule, and the inhabitants remain unharmed; but when someone manages to break down a part of this defense, even though he fails to destroy it all, from that moment practically the whole city is ruined through that one part.”
As a “shepherd,” Chrysostom tried to defend the faithful with faithful preaching. He was especially concerned about three questions that troubled the church at the end of the fourth century.
Is Jesus God?
Chrysostom began preaching just after Arianism, a teaching that denied the full deity of Christ, had been officially condemned (by the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 and by Emperor Theodosius). After fifty years of ascendancy, the political power of Arianism was gone, but it remained influential at Antioch and Constantinople.
Chrysostom argued that such heresy is produced by following human reasoning rather than the true sense of Scripture. It may arise from not reading the Bible, or from something more sinister: “The desire to rule,” he once said, “is the mother of heresies.”
In his attacks on Arianism, Chrysostom cared as much about the Arians’ moral defects—their vanity and self-seeking—as about their misunderstanding: “They are like some labyrinth or puzzles which have no end … and have their very origin in vanity.… Ignorant of heavenly things, they involve ...