Reading Titus with John Chrysostom (1:1-4)

More and more my reading turns away from both Scripture and the Fathers to secondary literature in my field. This is, unfortunately, unavoidable. As much as I would like to make a life of reading only the Fathers and interacting only with blessed dead, occupational necessity requires that I examine the literature of my contemporaries as well. Thus, in an effort to keep myself devotionally grounded both in the apostolic documents and the Fathers, I am going to (attempt) to read through Titus with John Chrysostom. John preached six extant homilies on Titus while he was a priest in Antioch (386-398) which I hope will help to direct and challenge my own thoughts both on the text and on the early theology of the church.

His first homily concerns Titus 1:1-4

Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness— a faith and knowledge resting on the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior. To Titus, my true son in our common faith: Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior. (NIV)

The text of the homily may be found here.

Underserved Grace

“Observe how the introduction is full of the mercies of God, and this whole epistle is especially of the same character…”

This is John’s overarching analysis of the text. It is, for all its other nuances to be discussed at length below, a text about the wonderful gifts of God to His people. Paul himself is a gift; he was made a servant of God not for his own sake or for God’s sake but as a blessing of God for the His elect.

The most glorious of these gifts, however, is that of eternal life, something which is sealed by the very fact of God’s perfection and foreknowledge. Our gift of eternal life is “not now upon a change of mind,” but has been part of God’s plan since before time began and is inviolable since God cannot lie. That this was achieved by foreknowledge rather than by a decision in time further displays the goodness of God to us since it shows “our high origin, in that He did not love us now first, but from the beginning.” John makes a particularly compelling point here that “it is no little matter to be loved…from the beginning.” Consider how much God loves us such that from before the beginning of time He had already begun to love us; before we existed, before anything existed, God had already begun an eternal, inexhaustible outpouring of love for His elect. In this love, he ordained for those elect eternal life with an unbreakable promise.

Paul even concludes, in typical fashion, by praying even greater mercies upon them: “grace and peace” from the Father.

To what end has Paul reminded us of the manifold blessings of God? John suggests “nothing profits us so much as constantly to remember the mercies of God, whether public or private.” The constant reflection on what God has done is a constant inspiration for Christians. In realizing what He has done for us, we are humbled. In realizing what He has done for us, we are stirred to do even greater works of righteousness for him. After all, “if our hearts are warmed when we receive the favors of our friends, or hear some kind word or deed of theirs, much more shall we be zealous in His service when we see into what dangers we had fallen, and that God has delivered us from them all.”

Thus, in this short exposition about God and the work that He has done through Paul for Titus and the church in Crete, we see the picture of a Father who has provided abundantly for His children. Paul in the act of writing it is imitating this example by providing also for his “true son,” Titus so that he might continue to provide for his flock. And we too should seek to live a life of response to the great blessings which have been showered on us, none more great than the promise of eternal life, ordained for us before the ages.

A Theologically Consistent Methodology

John is the beneficiary of a rich, systematized theological tradition which had not yet developed in the time of the apostle Paul. To that end, John presents some interpretations which would undoubtedly seem foreign to Paul had he read this homily and is equally likely to seem forced and eisegetical to modern readers.

For example, that Paul is “a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ” is fundamentally an anti-Arian statement for John. The fact that Paul can be something at the same time “of God” and “of Christ” here suggests that the two are coequal (or, in Nicene-Constantinopolitan language, consubstantial).

He will also develop with regard to this first part of the passage in question a doctrine of the free will activity of man in relation to God in the process of election. He begins by emphasizing that it was through God’s providential activity that the elect were entrusted to Paul. “It was wholly through the effect of His goodness who intrusted [sic] me.” This divine activity of God takes primacy in Paul’s election as an apostle, but it is not the entirety of that election, because “the whole was not of Him, for why did He not intrust [sic] it to others?” Instead, John understand Paul’s election as the act of God followed by the free will response of the apostle. He extrapolates this process onto his readers: “First we are apprehended, and afterwards we apprehend; first we are known, and then we know; first we were called, and then we obeyed.” In doing so, John believes he can at the same time say that it is in no way Paul who merited election as an apostle, that it was solely for “the sake of the faith of God’s elect,” but at the same time Paul is not chosen arbitrarily nor is he appointed apart from his response to God.

Later he will attach the reference to Titus as a “true son” to this question of the free will of man. Sonship, for John, is dependent on one’s behavior, and he cites 1 Cor 9:16 for a list of behaviors which may make one a “spurious” son. What’s more, these categories of true and spurious sonship are not absolute or static but “subject to frequent changes.” “For one who was a true son may become spurious, and a spurious son may become a true one. For it is not the force of nature, but the power of choice, on which it depends…” An example: Onesimus, who John says was a true son, become “unprofitable,” and then was restored again to true sonship. (I wonder to what degree these very early doctrinal beliefs on free will contributed to the fierce reaction to the Eastern Church when Calvinism started creeping into its doctrine.)

Finally, John’s interpretation of “truth that is after godliness” (ESV “truth, which accords with godliness) is intriguing, particularly given my recent studies on Eastern epistemology. According to John, Paul is drawing a distinction here between two types of knowledge of the truth. “For there is a truth in other things, that is not according to godliness; for knowledge in matter of agriculture, knowledge of the arts, is true knowledge.” These natural truths which are acquired naturally (i.e. through intellection and sense perception to borrow later theology) are distinct from truth which is “according to godliness.” The other kind of truth is the truth of faith which transcends rational knowledge: “This acknowledging then is from faith, and not from reasonings.”

This raises the question for the modern reader: to what degree can these four seemingly insignificant verses bear the weight of all of John’s theology? The simple answer: they can’t. But as easy as it would be to write off John’s exegesis with that matter-of-fact evaluation, there is value in his methodology even apart from the immense value of the theology which it betrays. Certainly, Titus 1:1-4 cannot be seen as the definitive text to settle the Arian, Calvinist, and Palamite controversies. (Would that it were that uncomplicated?) Nevertheless, John does provide a stark corrective to the way modern readers might normally treat these verses.

The superscriptions of Paul’s letters, and perhaps of an underappreciated letter like Titus in particular, are generally only glanced at by clergy, laymen, and scholars alike. Yet, of the six homilies recorded in NPNF that John preached on Titus (and they by no means cover the full text of the epistle), this sermon was recorded and saved for generations. John treats this passage not only with dignity and care, but with urgency as if it contained great answers to life’s questions, to the turmoil of the church, and to the personal struggles of his congregants. Each word, each sentence, is richly layered with meaning and importance. It seems to me ironic that while the Bible has assumed a theoretical importance in our day which would probably scandalize most people in the time of John, it is then and not now that we see a great plumbing of Scriptures depths. John takes what has devolved into an insignificant introductory formula and makes it a rich statement of orthodoxy meant to encourage, to vivify the faithful. He is theologically consistent in his treatment of Scripture in that he looks for God in all its parts, not only where He is most evident.

Certainly I am not suggesting that Christians ought to neglect other texts to focus on the introductions and closings of the epistles, nor do I suppose that we can found any great theologies on closer examinations of these texts. We can, however, afford to them the same respect which is afforded to the rest of Scripture and read them with the same theological presuppositions (whatever those happen to be for the reader). Paul is certainly not intending to combat Arianism in Titus 1:1, but that does not mean that his dual reference to God and Jesus does not have theological implications. And what does it mean to be a “servant” and an “apostle” for the faith of others? Is there truth which is according to godliness and how is it distinct from other truth? These are some questions, among countless others, which should be addressed by the minds of the faithful in ways not so unlike John tries to address them here.

“By grace through faith” should not be treated as more inspired than “God who cannot lie.”

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