John Chrysostom on Hermeneutics

The Relationship of the OT to the NT according to John Chrysostom

(This is a post from 2007 back by popular demand).
Reflecting on texts like Hebrews 10.1 “the Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming– not the image/portrait (eikon)/ realities themselves” John Chrysostom (which means golden mouth), the greatest preacher and teacher of the Greek-speaking Fathers who commented on the NT in detail (mainly in Antioch and Constantinople–349-407 A.D.) has some interesting reflections on the relationship of the OT and the NT. Bear in mind that Chrysostom, like all these church fathers was very orthodox in his theology and had an extremely high view of the inspiration, authority and truthfulness of the Scriptures. Here is what he said in one of his homilies:

“”What then is the shadow (skia) what then is the truth (aletheia)? …You have often seen an Emperor’s portrait which is prepared on a dark background, then the artist by drawing white lines all around it, makes an emperor, an imperial throne, and horses standing nearby, and body guards, and bound prisoners of war lying down. Now when you see these things merely sketched out you neither know everything nor are you totally ignorant of everything, but you know that a man and a horse are drawn there, though they are indistinct. But you don’t accurately [or fully] know what sort of emperor or what sort of prisoner it is until the truth of the colors comes and makes the face distinct and clear. For just as you don’t ask everything of that image/portrait before the truth of the colors, but if you receive some indistinct knowledge of what is there, you consider the sketch to be sufficiently ready , in just that same way consider with me the Old and New Testaments , and don’t demand from me the whole fullness of the truth in the [OT] type…For as in the painting, until someone draws in colors it is a shadowy sketch.” (Hom. om 1 Cor. 10.1ff).

Chrysostom is putting his finger on some important Christian guidelines for properly reading the OT, namely that it must be seen in the light of its sequel, but it must not be confused with that sequel. The OT is not the NT in advance and the conditions, terms of discussion, theological rubrics and ethical categories are all preparatory, sketchy so to speak, not final, full, or completely revealing. The ‘shadows’ or ‘sketches’ are true as far as they go, but they must not be confused with the full bodied portraits of Christ, the Christian life, the nature of reality, the ultimate and full character of what God demands of those saved by grace and so on.

Now this whole way of reading the OT involves a consciousness of historical development, and also of progressive revelation. There is a before and after to God’s revelation of the divine purpose and will, and one gets the clearest picture of what God is like, what God intends, what God demands in Christ and in the eschatological revelation that comes to Christians after Pentecost. This in turn led to the reading of the OT in terms of typology– types and ante-types, and again we can see this played out in both Paul in texts like 1 Cor. 10, and in Hebrews. In fact the NT writers believed that what was happening to Israel at least in part happened as an object lesson for later generations, particularly the eschatological people of God to heed and shun.

This way of thinking assumes that God’s character is the same at all times (sorry ‘openness theologians’) and so it is not a surprise that things that God has done in the past, and the way he has dealt with his wayward people then foreshadows what is yet to come. In a sense then, Chrysostom is urging Christian readers of the OT to remember that what we find there is a preliminary sketch which begins to give one the idea of proper theology and ethics, proper ways that humans can relate to God and the like, but not the final definitive revelation of what that ought to look like. He also affirms that the new covenant is not simply the old covenant renewed. It involves new promises, new stipulations, new expectations. This is in part because it is believed that more has been given by way of grace to the followers of Christ than was given to God’s OT people. ‘To whom more is given, more is required’.

Then too, this whole way of reading the canon, is narratological. You don’t have the climax to the story prematurely. The hero does not show up prematurely in the OT, but only when the ‘fullness of time’ has come (see Gal. 4). As C.S. Lewis once aptly put it ‘when the author of the play steps out on the stage, the play is over” (or nearly so).

Now what is so interesting about this whole hermeneutical approach is that it believes that one must do justice to the history if one is to do theology and ethics right. Christianity was a religion grounded and founded in history, and so theology proper was a reflection on God’s mighty acts in history which had a before and after to them. It was not an abstract science or philosophy where one took ideas and simply linked them together without them arising out of historical events and their substance. In the end, Chrysostom’s hermeneutic mirrors that of Paul and the author of Hebrews. It would be my view that we should go and do likewise.

Let me stress in closing, that Chrysostom would have been horrified if someone had said to him– ‘well then you are saying that some of the things in the OT are not true’. His response was clear– ‘No, I am saying that we only have the outline, the preliminary sketch of truth in the OT, and we cannot tell what it fully or properly means to so or ought to look like without the fuller definitive filling in of the substances or colors in the NT.’ Chrysostom was clear enough that just because something is preliminary and not definitive, this does not mean it is untrue. It does mean it is incomplete. A timely truth, is no less true than a timeless or more complete one, but if must be evaluated for what it intends to tell us, not what we would like it to tell us. The OT must not be read as if it already was the NT, and all the same things applied, but it must certainly be read as the pre-quel to the sequel if you are to fully understand the sequel at all correctly. Reading the Bible processively and progressively as historical development from front to back, and then also from back to front provides the sort of balance necessary for proper interpretation. All of it is needed and valuable if we are to ‘get the picture’ God has been painting for us for so long.

Think on these things.

  • http://patheos.com david gibbs

    Oh I love this perspective: could we get some actual examples as to how we can use this approach? Say for example the sabbath: Zachariah 14 seems to suggest that the Feast of Tabernacles will be kept after the return of Christ – i.e it has an eschatological application. Heb 4: 9 (“there remaineth a keeping of the sabbath..” ) also. Using Chrysostom’s approach who do we explain these verses?

  • Mac S.

    I was going over something similar to this with my students today, but was using Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible as the text. Bonhoeffer says that the Psalms (take Psalm 22 as an example) are only fully complete or perfected prayers when they are prayed by Christ and through Christ by his disciples.

    Do you think that Bonhoeffer’s christological approach to the OT is in line with Cyrsostom’s?

  • Charles

    This is wonderful, Ben. A reminder that our ancient ancestors (“pre-critical” as they allegedly are) have much to teach us. Chrsysostom, “Antiochian” that he was, nevertheless illustrates much of what Fr Andrew Louth talks about in his celebrated chapter on allegory in his marvelous DISCERNING THE MYSTERY. Many thank.


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