March 7, 2008

Quote of the Day: Chrysostom on Private Scripture Reading

I desire to ask one favor of you all, before I touch on the words of the Gospel; do not you refuse my request, for I ask nothing heavy or burdensome, nor, if granted, will it be useful only to me who receive, but also to you who grant it, and perhaps far more to you. What then is it that I require of you? That each of you take in hand that section of the Gospels which is to be read among you on the first day of the week, or even on the Sabbath, and before the day arrive, that he sit down at home and read it through, and often carefully consider its contents, and examine all its parts well, what is clear, what obscure, what seems to make for the adversaries, but does not really so; and when you have tried, in a word, every point, so go to hear it read. For from zeal like this will be no small gain both to you and to us. We shall not need much labor to render clear the meaning of what is said, because your minds will be already made familiar with the sense of the words, and you will become keener and more clear-sighted not for hearing only, nor for learning, but also for the teaching of others. Since, in the way that now most of those who come hither hear, compelled to take in the meaning of all at once, both the words, and the remarks we make upon them, they will not, though we should go on doing this for a whole year, reap any great gain. How can they, when they have leisure for what is said as a bywork, and only in this place, and for this short time? If any lay the fault on business, cares, and constant occupation in public and private matters, in the first place, this is no slight charge in itself, that they are surrounded with such a multitude of business, are so continually nailed to the things of this life, that they cannot find even a little leisure for what is more needful than all. Besides, that this is a mere pretext and excuse, their meetings with friends would prove against them, their loitering in the theaters, and the parties they make to see horse races, at which they often spend whole days, yet never in that case does one of them complain of the pressure of business. For trifles then you can without making any excuses always find abundant leisure; but when you ought to attend to the things of God, do these seem to you so utterly superfluous and mean, that you think you need not assign even a little leisure to them? How do men of such a disposition deserve to breathe or to look upon this sun?

There is another most foolish excuse of these sluggards; that they have not the books in their possession. Now, as to the rich, it is ludicrous that we should take our aim at this excuse, but because I imagine that many of the poorer sort continually use it, I would gladly ask, if every one of them does not have all the instruments of the trade which he works at, full and complete, though infinite poverty stand in his way? Is it not then a strange thing, in that case, to throw no blame on poverty, but to use every means that there be no obstacle from any quarter, but, when we might gain such great advantage, to lament our want of leisure and our poverty?

Besides, even if any should be so poor, it is in their power, by means of the continual reading of the holy Scriptures which takes place here, to be ignorant of nothing contained in them. Or if this seems to you impossible, it seems so with reason; for many do not come with fervent zeal to hearken to what is said, but having done this one thing for form's sake on our account, immediately return home. Or if any should stay, they are no better disposed than those who have retired, since they are only present here with us in body. But that we may not overload you with accusations, and spend all the time in finding fault, let us proceed to the words of the Gospel, for it is time to direct the remainder of our discourse to what is set before us. Rouse yourselves therefore, that nothing of what is said escape you.
     - St. John Chrysostom, 11th Homily on the Gospel of St. John, tr. C. Marriot, ed. Philip Schaff

I find it rather interesting that Chrysostom should emphasize private Scripture reading so strongly. This is typically viewed (both by Protestants and by other Christians) as a characteristically Protestant emphasis (which is not to say that anyone believes that other Christians do not practice private Scripture reading, but simply that they emphasize it less). One reason typically given for this is that the Reformation grew up along side the invention of the printing press, which led to drastic decreases in the cost of books and increases in literacy. What puzzles me most about this passage is that Chrysostom considers the former issue, but never mentions the latter. I noticed earlier in the Homilies on John that Chrysostom discusses how the text should be punctuated (Fifth Homily, discussing John 1:3), and expects his audience to know what he is talking about. Marriott notes in his preface that there is internal evidence that these homilies "were delivered to a select audience at an early hour of the day" and Chrysostom does speak in this passage of his hearers teaching others. So perhaps the homilies were delivered to deacons-in-training or some other such group who had been taught to read already. The homilies are believed to have been delivered between 390 and 398, while Chrysostom was Bishop of Antioch (in 398 Chrysostom became Bishop of Constantinople). Does anyone who happen to be a fount of esoteric historical knowledge and know what the literacy rate was like in Antioch at the end of the fourth century?

Posted by Kenny at March 7, 2008 2:44 PM
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Comments

Actually reading Scriptures did not start with the Protestants. It has ALWAYS been a part of the Christian East. First thing that they did when going to a new country was to translate the Scriptures into the native language. Literacy is a hotly debated thing, we don't truly know the literacy rate in the East, some say many could read, others say near to none could read. St. John Chrysostom was in an affluent area that would have had high literacy rate. Also, those who could not read could get someone to read to them. Those who could not afford could borrow from another. Those who had no time could cut out socializing time. We are without excuse for not reading the Scriptures, though Orthodoxy strongly encourages being guided while reading the Scriptures (writings of the Fathers and/or constant communication with your spiritual father -- the one who baptized you into the Orthodox Church)

www . ancientfaith . com / searchthescriptures

She does a really good job of explaining this in her podcasts.

Posted by: Ken Wells at March 12, 2008 11:50 AM

Only those baptized and Catechumens were in the Holy of Holies. He was preaching to his congregation, not to inquirers of the faith. During liturgy now-a-days, the priest says "Catechumens depart, let no Catechumen remain," and the Catechumens just go to their seats, but they used to go for their pre-baptismal lessons out in the Narthex. Inquirers would then most likely leave altogether (this is my assumption could be false). Meanwhile, the Orthodox Christians who have been baptized partake of Communion and the closing prayers. This was not just to the deacons, but to all the priestly class (all those who are baptized) -- this was the tearing of the veil, we all become priestly class.

Posted by: Ken Wells at March 12, 2008 11:56 AM

Ken - I did try to be careful not to insinuate that any other Christian tradition did not read the Scripture. What I said was that private Scripture reading is a characteristic emphasis of Protestantism. When I've talked to Orthodox believers and read Orthodox writers, there has generally been a big emphasis on hearing the Scripture read in Church (they are quick to point out that there is more public reading of Scripture in Eastern Orthodoxy than in any other tradition), and much less emphasis on individuals reading Scripture privately (though some have still encouraged the latter, and certainly none have discouraged it).

Your comments on literacy are interesting. If Chrysostom was in an especially wealthy area where literacy was unusually high, that would help explain his remarks. And of course the other avenues you mention remain open to everyone.

As to your second comment, are you implying that the illiterate were taught to read as part of the catechism? If so, can you point to some evidence for that claim?

Posted by: Kenny at March 12, 2008 8:09 PM

Forgive me, I did not mean to insinuate that you were saying that it was discouraged in the Eastern Church. I was merely trying to explain that this was not as odd of a thing.

You are correct though that many people do not read Scripture on their own, but the individual reading has always been encouraged. My point also of the second comment was that no one heard the reading of the Gospels, nor the homilies except the Faithful (the baptized). This is just a clarification of who would be listening to this homily (all the baptized). Also, this says that inquirers and catechumens had to read the scriptures on their own with guidance of the faithful before entering the Church through baptism. Catechesis classes are about the doctrine of the Church, and were led by the Bishops. This is where the Doctrine was taught, not how to read, though they might have helped people learn to read and write, but that was not standard practice. Catechesis serves the same purpose now, for Catechumens to learn the Doctrine of the Church before becoming Baptized. However, the classes are no longer held at that time because catechumens are no longer expected to leave at that time. (I know this because I am currently a catechumen preparing to be baptized soon-- which is all the more reason to consult a priest to make sure that what I say is right).

In case you would be interested, I have a blog about my findings in the Orthodox Church as I am entering it. www. warlockcomputing .com / leap

Posted by: Ken Wells at March 15, 2008 4:53 PM

Thanks for the clarification. I find it odd that the reading of the Gospel and the homily should occur after the non-members are asked to leave, since the part of the service that is open to all is called "the Liturgy of the Word." What is it that actually takes place in the Liturgy of the Word if not the reading and exposition of Scripture?

By the way, I've added your blog to my RSS reader and will try to stop by now and then. It looks like you've got a lot of interesting stuff there.

Posted by: Kenny at March 15, 2008 5:22 PM

Oops, sorry... I retract my statement, it is right AFTER the reading of the Word, though some parishes give their Homilies at the end. This was a faulty memory, I should have looked at the written out Liturgy in my prayer book.
Forgive me again... I seem to be making quite a few mistakes and should double check myself before I post comments.

Posted by: Ken Wells at March 16, 2008 9:03 AM

Very Interesting.

Posted by: vangelicmonk at March 22, 2008 5:47 PM

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