Chrysostom on the Good of Marriage, Part 1

51VwMu+rXkLThis week, we turn from Augustine in the West to a contemporaneous, and equally influential, figure in the East: John, who would later come to be known as “Chrysostom” (Golden Mouth) was born in Antioch around the middle of the fourth century, but his early life and writings held few clues that he was destined to become “the greatest apologist for Christian marriage.”[1] After receiving a pagan education, he was baptized in 367/368, and shortly thereafter embarked on a life of extreme asceticism, first within a semi-communal monastery and then as a completely isolated hermit, until ill health forced him to return to Antioch in 378.[2] His service in the diaconate at Antioch, however, initially did little to temper his ascetic zeal. In his treatise On Virginity, likely written during the early years of his diaconate, Chrysostom “goes out of his way to make an attack on marriage, not, of course, as an institution but in its actualities.”[3] Though marriage was not sinful, according to Chrysostom, it was far inferior to virginity, and its good was little more than to keep men from fornication.[4] Marriage is therefore, at best, a “haven of chastity, preventing human nature from relapsing into bestiality.”[5] Chrysostom even goes so far as to make a catalogue of all of the negative features of marriage, such as jealousy and the pain of childbirth.[6] As Catherine Roth observes, “His early life as the son of a widow and as a young monk perhaps failed to give him the opportunity of fully appreciating the potential for grace in married life.”[7]

Chrysostom, we should here note, was swept up in a larger ascetic movement that reached its peak in the late fourth century; in other words, his writings on marriage and virginity at this point reflect the times.[8] Similar ideas are found in other writers in the East around this time. For example, in Gregory of Nyssa’s treatise On Virginity, which was likely written in the 370s, Gregory had similarly outlined all of the dangers and disappointments of marriage. In both cases, marriage is described in bleak terms for the purpose of comparing it to the much loftier, more noble state of virginity.[9]

But Chrysostom’s views on marriage would evolve over the course of his time in Antioch. Following his ordination to the priesthood in 386, he assumed preaching duties. Chrysostom’s talents as a preacher were and continue to be well-recognized; “Chrysostom was born to be an orator and a preacher.”[10] And it is precisely in his powerful sermons that we find a new, even poignant vision of the good of Christian marriage, one in which “he no longer represents marriage to be the inevitably miserable affair he wrote of in the treatise On Virginity,” but instead “sets forth the practicable ideal of marriage very beautifully.”[11]

As an entry point into Chrysostom’s new views on marriage, we can note that he echoes the three-fold purpose of marriage set out by Augustine, albeit with a radically different view of marital sexuality undergirding his argument at each turn. We see this most clearly in his Homily 12 on Colossians, likely preached during his time as bishop of Constantinople in the 390s. Commenting on Colossians 4:18, in which the Apostle calls on the church at Colossae to “remember my bonds,” so Chrysostom compares marriage to a bond [δεσμός], “a bond ordained by God.”[12] This marriage bond, Chrysostom preaches, is “for the procreation of children and for moderation of life.”[13] Here we have a rough equivalent of Augustine’s proles and fides. Sharpening the parallel to Augustine, Chrysostom then goes on to give a third positive aspect of marriage, namely, the “mystery” (μυστήριον, corresponding to the Latin sacramentum) by which the marriage between husband and wife symbolizes the relationship between Christ and his church.[14] This much one could imagine coming from the pen of the bishop of Hippo.

But Chrysostom in this very sermon begins to reveal that he’s operating under a very different paradigm than Augustine when it comes to precisely how marital sexual relations figure into this scheme. For Chrysostom, sex is viewed positively within the bonds of marriage. As such, whereas Augustine’s sacramentum focused more on the non-sexual fides between husband and wife, Chrysostom’s μυστήριον identifies the union of the two as occurring first and foremost in the sexual act. In sexual intercourse, Chrysostom argues, two become one, as if each person were finally becoming complete.[15] The language which Chrysostom uses to describe the act of intercourse is positive, even lyrical:

“How do they become one flesh? As if she were gold receiving the purest of gold, the woman receives the man’s seed with rich pleasure, and within her it is nourished, cherished, and refined. It is mingled with her own substance and she then returns it as a child! […] But suppose there is no child; do they remain two and not one? No; their intercourse effects the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.”[16]

This is quite a colorful endorsement of sexual intercourse, and Chrysostom recognizes that his words are causing his listeners some discomfort and embarrassment.[17] It is worth noting that Chrysostom describes the wife as receiving her husband’s semen “with rich pleasure [τῆς ἡδονῆς χωνευούμενος],” allowing for the sexual act required for reproduction to also be one of physical enjoyment.[18] But, Chrysostom has a hypothetical objector interject, is this kind of sexual pleasure only limited to acts which produce a child? By no means, answers Chrysostom! For when husband and wife engage in sexual intercourse (there is no indication that any other kind of sexual activity is in view here), it is a beautiful thing, as the imagery of scent and sensation makes clear.

That sexual intercourse within the confines of marriage is a positive thing, Chrysostom goes on to argue, is evident on account of the fact that “the Church is made from the side of Christ, and He united Himself to her in a spiritual intercourse.”[19] In other words, the physical union of man and wife is a good thing because it parallels (that is, it signifies as a sacramentum or μυστήριον) the spiritual union of Christ and his church. Thus, in his homilies, we find “little of the mistrust of human sexuality that characterizes so much of the Christian literature of this period.”[20] Here we have an evident parting of the ways with thinkers like Augustine (and even the earlier Chrysostom) on account of the nature of the sacramental view of marriage; it is hard to imagine, therefore, a call to sexual continence on such a view, and indeed Chrysostom does not hold out, as does Augustine, an ideal of marriage in which sexual relations have ceased.

But we have not yet gotten to the heart of Chrysostom’s positive view of marriage, which we will take up next time to conclude this series.


[1] Catherine P. Roth, “Introduction,” in St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (PPS 7; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986), 8.

[2] On these early years of Chrysostom’s life, see J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom–Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (London: Duckworth, 1995), 1-35.

[3] Donald Attwater, St John Chrysostom: Pastor and Preacher (London: Harvill Press, 1959), 34.

[4] Attwater, St John Chrysostom, 35.

[5] Kelly, Golden Mouth, 45, quoting from his translation of De virginitate.

[6] Kelly, Golden Mouth, 46.

[7] Roth, “Introduction,” 8.

[8] Kelly, Golden Mouth, 45.

[9] On Gregory of Nyssa’s views on marriage and virginity, see Otten, “Augustine on Marriage,” 389-90. For a recent, more nuanced perspective on Gregory, see Valerie A. Karras, “A Re-evaluation of Marriage, Celibacy, and Irony in Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity,” JECS 13 (2005): 111-121.

[10] Chrysostomus Baur, John Chrysostom and His Time, Vol. 1: Antioch; trans. M. Gonzaga (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1959), 207.

[11] Attwater, St John Chrysostom, 60.

[12] In Col. hom. 12.418. All English translations of Chrysostom’s homilies taken from St. John Chrysostom, On Marriage and Family Life (PPS 7; Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1986). It is interesting that Chrysostom takes what is exclusively a negative image in the NT (δεσμός) and uses it as his foundation for developing a positive vision of marriage.

[13] In Col. hom. 12.418.

[14] In Col. hom. 12.419. Μυστήριον is, of course, the word the apostle Paul uses to describe marriage in Ephesians 5.32.

[15] In Col. hom. 12.419.

[16] In Col. hom. 12.420.

[17] In Col. hom. 12.420.

[18] Interestingly, all 5 NT usages of ἡδονή are decidedly negative (Luke 8.14; Titus 3.3; James 4.1; 4.3; 2 Pet 2.13), in contrast to Chrysostom’s usage positive here.

[19] In Col. hom. 12.420.

[20] David G. Hunter, Marriage in the Early Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 19-20.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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