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[ Published in Phronema 34:1 (2019) 131-34 ]

David Rylaarsdam, John Chrysostom on Divine Pedagogy: The Coherence of his

Theology and Preaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 317 pages.
ISBN 978-0-19-871538-2.

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate the overall coherence of St John Chrysostom’s
theology and preaching via an assessment of the theme of divine adaptability featured
throughout his works. More precisely, David Rylaarsdam outlines how the Church Father
adopted and transformed the pedagogical assumptions and methods of the classical authors and
orators to describe to both the clergy and laity God’s saving actions throughout history. In
addition to its introduction (1-10) and conclusion (283-87), the book is comprised of two parts
(‘Divine Pedagogy,’ 11-154, ‘Imitation,’ 155-282), each consisting of three chapters.

In the first chapter, ‘The Divine Teacher’ (13-54), Rylaarsdam evaluates how the
Church Father has presented God as the master of the art of persuasion as defined by Aristotle,
who emphasised that an orator must demonstrate their noble character, display sensitivity
towards their audience, and communicate a lifechanging message. For example, Chrysostom
affirmed that God consistently revealed His many virtues


through Scripture, ancient theophanies, and the earthly ministry of Christ (38-45), as well as
perfect knowledge of His people’s inner state (45-48) and unique calling to a superior
existential mode (48-53). In the second chapter, ‘Adaptable Pedagogy’ (55-99), the author
examines Chrysostom’s representation of God as the ultimate psychagogue who has made
Himself known to humankind by means of: (i) corporeal images (e.g. human language,
customs, and even form in the person of Christ, 56-75), (ii) ‘variation’ (e.g. combinations of
gentle and harsh rhetoric, on the one hand, and lowly and lofty teachings, on the other, 75-85),
and (iii) ‘progression’ (i.e. accommodation to both individuals and communities at specific
points in time based on their level of spiritual maturity and needs, 86-96).

The scholar subsequently outlines how the theme of God’s loving adaptation to the
limitations of fallen humanity is integral to all aspects of Chrysostom’s thought, especially his
perception of history, hermeneutics, Christology, and soteriology (100-154). Having offered a
valuable assessment of the term that the Church Father most often adopted to express divine
adaptability (i.e. συγκατάβασις, 22-30), Rylaarsdam emphasises the response which he
expected on the part of humanity (i.e. ἀνάβασις, 148-51). In short, this response consists in the
practice of “godly virtues such as love, humility, and adapting to the weakness of others for the
sake of guiding them to salvation” (153). In the course of his analysis, the author also refutes
the erroneous yet popular notion that St John belonged to a so-called literalist ‘School of
Antioch,’ pointing out his constant prioritisation of the divine aspects of Scripture, Christ’s
person, and the salvific economy. Yet Rylaarsdam’s contention that Chrysostom dismissed the
Lord’s human soul, intellect, and volition as major factors of His saving actions lacks merit
from a traditional Christian perspective (135-40). This is because St Maximus the Confessor,
the greatest exponent of the dyothelite doctrine, considered the Church Father a major defender
of Christ’s human will in his Small Theological and Polemical Works. Moreover, St Agatho of
Rome referred to Chrysostom multiple times as a primary witness to the Lord’s divine and
human wills in a letter presented to Emperor Constantine IV at the


Sixth Ecumenical Council.1 Since Maximus and Agatho both attained the state of holiness on
account of their unwavering commitment to Christ, their perception of Chrysostom as a
defender of His two natures stemmed from more than mere literary analysis. It resulted from
God’s grace and ought to be taken as authoritative.

Returning to the book, the scholar then shows how the concept of divine adaptability is
essential to the Church Father’s understanding of the priesthood (194-227), as well as his
homiletical methods (228-82). Rylaarsdam thus examines Chrysostom’s representation of St
Paul the Apostle as a rhetorician and philosopher who adopted and transformed the classical
means of persuasion in imitation of God, by Whom he was empowered (157-93). According
to the Church Father, St Paul therefore serves as a model of virtue for the clergy in particular
(193, 204-8). Indeed, Chrysostom emphasised that all priests must be willing to embrace the
major aspects of their rhetorical culture for the sake of the Church, which he perceived as a
philosophical school open to all and therefore superior to those of the pagans (194-95). He
maintained that effective rhetoric assists a presbyter in holding their audience’s attention and
countering the arguments of their faith community’s opponents (208-13). It therefore enables
them to train genuine ascetics and philosophers whose virtuous lifestyle, reiteration of divine
teachings heard during sermons, and accommodation to the weaknesses/needs of their own
listeners (e.g. their children and neighbours) purifies and exalts their city (218-25).

Furthermore, Rylaarsdam discusses Chrysostom’s own use of


corporeal images, variation, and progression (239-82). He examines how the Church Father
attempted to refashion the imagination and worldview of his audiences through ‘anagogical
visualisation’: “telling them what images to focus on and how to perceive them, often
augmenting and redefining those images through the generation of additional ones” (229).

Opuscula theologica et polemica 15 (PG 91, 161C-164D); The Sixth Ecumenical Council–The Third Council of
Constantinople, A.D. 680-681, in The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Church, trans. Henry R.
Percival, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 2, vol. 14, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody,
Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1995) 328-39. See also Joseph Hermenegild Juzek, Die Christologie des
hl. Johannes Chrysostomus (Breslau: Druck von R. Nischkowsky, 1912); Chrysostomus Baur, John Chrysostom
and His Time. Vol. 1: Antioch, trans. M. Gonzaga (Westminster, Maryland: The Newman Press, 1959), 357-58.
These images include scenes from daily life, Scripture, and the martyr acts, in addition to the
Church’s sacraments and rituals. Interestingly, the author examines Chrysostom’s strategic
adoption of theatrical imagery (247-54) and inversion of earthly values (254-61) for
catechetical and pastoral purposes, as well as his rich portraits of saints, monks, and virgins

Contrary to recent scholarship, Rylaarsdam reveals that Chrysostom’s ostensibly

simple theology, on the one hand, and allegedly inconsistent tone, ethics, and perception of
rhetoric, on the other, actually form part of a conscious and complex pastoral strategy: i.e. his
imitation and promotion of divine adaptability. In fact, the scholar offers the most thorough
and accessible analysis of St John’s concept of divine adaptability to date. He also highlights
the importance of Chrysostom’s censure, adaptation, and transformation of classical paideia in
the Christianisation of the Greco-Roman world. Notwithstanding the abovementioned issue
regarding St John’s Christology, this work is an important contribution to Chrysostomian
studies owing to Rylaarsdam’s demonstration of the Church Father’s uniqueness and
consistency as a theologian and preacher.

Chris Baghos
University of Sydney