Tag Archives: Church Fathers

Review: Genesis 1–11 (ACCS)

The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture is a cross-denominational effort to compile the best passages from the first millennium of Christianity, organized canonically (verse by verse). The series was painstakingly created using digital databases of the Greek and Latin Fathers, as well as some sources in Syriac and other languages. The result is a very readable, accessible compendium of quotations from a variety of Church Fathers.

The first volume is necessarily weighted towards the creation and Paradise (Adam and Eve) narratives. In fact, half of the volume covers Genesis 1–3; the second half covers Genesis 4–11.

The Value of ACCS

I found this book extremely useful. Here is why:

Last year, I decided to read every commentary I could find on Genesis. It was easy to get around 100 in English, from after 1700. Luther was difficult to find in English; Melanchthon is out of print and only in Latin. But I could find almost nothing in English from Church Fathers before 1500. It is beyond doubt many times more difficult.

I knew (and know) very little about Church Fathers. I could not afford a seminary education. It has been very difficult to get started from scratch, as a Pentecostal—sometimes Pentecostals act like the church started at Azusa Street. The only Church Father I hear about with any frequency is Augustine.

Eventually, I found four relevant works by Augustine, three of them in Latin. I was so excited that I made it through quite a bit of his commentary. And I saw references online to Ambrose’ On Paradise, Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis, Basil the Great’s Hexaemeron, Gregory of Nyssa’ works on creation, Ephrem the Syrian’s commentary on Genesis, and others.

Any one of these was not available online in a citable form or a reputable translation. Altogether, I was looking at hundreds upon hundreds of dollars to collect these important works (only 10 or 12 of them!), whereas I had spent almost nothing collecting 100+ English commentaries. Ironically, the original works would be in the public domain; but translated volumes from Church Fathers are both expensive and copyrighted.

After much difficulty, I noticed the Glossia Ordinaria, from the 12th century, but it does not name its primary sources, and I did not find Nicholas of Lyra very enlightening (and the Latin was a little cumbersome!). I wanted to read what Lyra had read!

The ACCS volume on Genesis 1–11 has opened up a wealth to me. After reading the whole volume, I have a very clear direction about which Church Fathers are the most important, readable, and interesting to me.

Patristic Interpretations of Genesis 1–11

Some of the interpretations are pretty boilerplate. In quite a few places, they preserve wisdom from Jewish interpretations of Genesis. Others are fresh, Christological readings of the Old Testament that I have never heard before despite reading quite a bit on Genesis.

For instance, the story of Noah’s ark was consistently regarded as a type of Christ’s salvation, down to the smallest details of the narrative.

Other interpretations were mere speculation or tradition, but even these were still interesting as they preserve for us the Fathers’ ways of thinking. Perhaps they should be regarded as cultural imbalances more than hermeneutical failures; our own cultures have their own ideological imbalance.

I am very much looking forward to reading other volumes from the ACCS and slowly piecing together a library of favorite patristic readings of the Bible, from the best works I discover through ACCS.

Free Bible Commentaries — Recommended Resources

I have been spending some time collating lists of free Bible commentaries. But first, I want to share where others have worked tirelessly to make them available.

BibleHub

Many readers will know that you can compare a dozen English Bible translations side-by-side on BibleHub; you can see even more by clicking “Additional Translations”; but did you know that you can also search a dozen commentaries on a verse?

The nearly “infinite scroll” can be taxing on a mobile device, but BibleHub is still the fastest and easiest way to get a sense for what classic Protestant commentaries have said about a verse. If you are just getting started on a verse and don’t have access to a big theological library, I definitely recommend starting there.

BlueLetterBible

BlueLetterBible is a great website for checking the Hebrew and Greek quickly. On the mobile app, you can download several translations easily, and you have access to a nice variety of resources, somewhat similar to BibleHub. It also has a few classic commentaries like Matthew Henry, and a few contemporary commentaries like Chuck Smith, David Guzik, and J. Vernon McGee. BLB seems to follow a specific theological school so the commentaries there are constrained by this.

CatenaBible

CatenaBible.com includes verse-by-verse comments on the Bible, mostly from Church Fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom. You can easily look up a verse and see quite a few comments, all (amazingly) in English. It is difficult to find collections of Church Fathers’ writings in English, and that makes this a very valuable resource.

In reality, a ‘catena’ (Latin for “chain”) is a collection of biblical commentaries, usually from Church Fathers, arranged together in canonical (or verse-by-verse) order for easy reference. Along with the Jewish Mikraot Gadolot, medieval “catenae” were predecessors of modern study Bibles. Lord willing, the mass digitization of world libraries will eventually make apps and repository websites like Catena, BibleHub, and BlueLetterBible into unbelievably rich sources of information; for now, all of them draw from different public domain material.

My one complaint about CatenaBible is that it is not easy to see the source documents that these comments are drawn from. This is confusing if you want to buy a print version, or read the comment in the original language. I am honestly surprised by how difficult it is to find the works of the Church Fathers, and CatenaBible is a step in the right direction.

Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL)

PRDL is an impressive resource for finding books between 1500 and 1800. Similar to the Online Books Page and Reformed Books Online, PRDL is not a repository, but a collection of lists showing where other websites give access to commentaries. What’s special about PRDL (unlike Reformed Books Online) is that it is organized as a database, which means that you can use a variety of different search terms to find a book: date, author, topic, title, etc. Unlike others, it is also a funded academic research project (though it incorporates and vets contributions from volunteers).

As one instance of PRDL’s value, I spent an hour looking for commentaries from the 1500s which I saw cited in a theology book: Brenz, Musculus, Pellikan, and others. After an hour of searching for (Wolfgang) Musculus on archive.org, Google Books, worldcat.org, and Google, I could not find a digital copy of his commentary on Genesis. There is great difficulty because the title used medieval orthography, so his name could be spelled Mvscvlsvs, and library websites may or may not update that to Musculus, etc. To my great relief, you can type his name into PRDL, and you can see 178 of his works on his author page, including several editions of his Genesis commentary. What a brilliant website!

Unlike all the other sites listed here, PRDL is multilingual, so you can find commentaries in English, Latin, German, French, Dutch, and probably a couple of other European languages. PRDL is part of a funded research project which explains its tremendous erudition and quality—it is much more than a blog. I highly recommend checking it out if you are looking for contemporaries of Luther and Calvin; but it is very incomplete when considering the English Victorian era, which was a very rich time for the publishing of Christian books.

Reformed Books Online

Reformed Books Online claims for itself that it is the “best and largest” collection of Bible commentaries online—I suppose the authors mean in English. It is very useful in that it includes organized links for a large number of commentaries, many taken from PRDL. But it leaves out quite a number of commentaries, especially comments from Church Fathers, medieval commentaries, and any of the great Jewish writers. The site omits or downplays many useful Arminian resources and, following their great father Spurgeon, takes great care to “warn” readers of any Arminian authors. It is clear that most of the bibliography work was done by consulting other works by Spurgeon and Cyril Barber, not by scanning through libraries or digital repositories, which include many works not listed here.

Reformed Books Online also sets up Spurgeon as sole arbiter of which old commentaries should be read, the authors not taking time to write their own reviews. Spurgeon’s 1876 book on Bible commentaries is routinely quoted as the only authority on the quality of a work, so that even his admirers must tire of hearing of it. Sometimes I think “only Spurgeon” is the sixth sola, as Reformed readers seem to know no other preacher or writer between Whitefield (d. 1770) and the present day. We would do well to bear no heroes on our shoulders, and to test everything by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

Sefaria

The Sefaria Digital Library is a Jewish resource, and I highly recommend it to Christians who want to find historic Jewish wisdom on the Hebrew Bible. If you are totally unininitiated, you may want to start by reading a few passages from the Midrash Rabbah (6th century), or Ramban (13th c.). You can also read the Talmudim here, which are important though not exactly “commentaries”.

Sefaria is amazingly well-indexed, so you can click a Bible verse and find upwards of 100 comments, ranging over many centuries—which is unbelievable, when you consider that Reformed Books Online lists only 70-odd commentaries on Genesis, and the sources listed in Sefaria don’t overlap with those. Most on Sefaria are from medieval Jewish writers, but some, like the Targumim and some of the Midrashim, are much older.

Sefaria does have many books that are in Hebrew only, so you may have to do some scrolling to find those that are translated into English (especially on mobile devices). This is great if you’re learning Hebrew; if you’re not, it may be a chore. In any case, any student of the Hebrew Bible should be aware of this wonderful repository.

StudyLight

StudyLight.org has 128 (mostly Protestant) Bible commentaries (in HTML) including many that I have not found anywhere else, even in PDF format. Examples of less-noticed commentaries here include Adam Clarke (early Methodist), Ellicott’s Commentary (late Victorian), Paul Kretzmann (an early 20th-century Lutheran author whose biography of Krapf we published), and Charles Simeon (an Anglican who was extremely influential in early modern missions in a number of ways).

StudyLight is impressively thorough and well-indexed, and reading on a mobile device is seamless, apart from the ads. Aside from older, public domain commentaries, it also incorporates several modern commentaries that are used by permission. I recommend scrolling through these to see what’s there.

I have one caveat: the commentary given there as “Thomas Coke” (a Methodist) is in fact just a plagiarized reprint of William Dodd. I am not sure if Coke’s commentary includes some original material or is entirely a reprint, but students of the Bible should just consult Dodd’s 1770 commentary.

Chrysostom’s Invincibility Before the Byzantine Empress

There is a famous story about John Chrysostom, the Archbishop of Constantinople facing persecution at the hands of Eudoxia and the Emperor Arcadius in the Byzantine Empire in the fifth century. First, Eudoxia threatens Chrysostom with banishment, to which he replies:

“You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house,” said John.
“But I will kill you,” the empress said.
“No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.”
“I will take away your treasures,” said Eudoxia.
“No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.”
“But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left,” Eudoxia responded.
“No, you cannot,” said John, “for I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. For there is nothing you can do to harm me.”

Is the Story True?

This is a fantastic sermon illustration on persecution. I found it in F. W. Boreham‘s book Mountains in the Mist, where Chrysostom is never mentioned. It has been quoted on The Gospel Coalition, John MacArthur’s commentary, and many other sources.

The earliest source I have found for this quote is from 1874 (1). It is given in a Scottish commentary on Daniel. It gives a summary of something Chrysostom preached more than once, but it doesn’t appear that he said these words in dialogue with any of his persecutors.

Chrysostom was in fact banished under the emperor Arcadius and his wife Eudoxia. He faced threats of violence more than once in his lifetime. In 1840, Henry Milman’s famous church history quotes Chrysostom as saying (2):

What can I fear? Death? “To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Exile? “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” Confiscation? We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out of it. I fear not death. I desire to live only for your profit. . . .

Milman says this homily is uncertain. As will be shown, it seems that Chrysostom in fact said this, but not at the end of his life, but much earlier.

What Did Chrysostom Say While Facing Banishment?

What Chrysostom did say when facing banishment is very similar to this quote, but much longer. Phillip Schaff, in his biography of Chrysostom, gives the following from a letter from Chrysostom to Bishop Cyriacus (3):

When driven from the city, I cared nothing for it. But I said to myself, if the empress wishes to banish me, let her banish me—”the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.” If she would saw me in sunder, let her saw me in sunder—I have Isaiah for a pattern. If she would plunge me in the sea—I remember Jonah. If she would thrust me into the fiery furnace—I see the three children enduring that. If she would cast me to wild beasts—I call to mind Daniel in the den of lions. If she would stone me, let her stone me—I have before me, Stephen the protomartyr. If she would take my head from me, let her take it—I have John the Baptist. If she would deprive me of my worldly goods, let her do it—naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. . . .

It appears that, because he here quotes Psalm 24 and Job 1, to the same effect, the two quotations have been conflated. Below, you will find the original sermon (or homily) in which Chrysostom did in fact say something very similar to the quote that is passed around today. If anything, his original words state his invicibility more strongly, and more scripturally.

Chrysostom Protects Eutropius

The rabbit hole keeps going. Mosheim’s church history (4) appears to be the first to point out the significant quotation as an example of eloquence. He recommends Montfaucon’s 13-volume edition of Chrysostom’s works (5). Thanks to Google, Internet Archive, and my Latin teacher, I found there the two homilies on Eutropius, which are the original source of the famous anecdote (6). The second homily (7) contains the following words:

For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12). (8)

This also has been included in Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 9, which is widely available. It seems a volume set like this is so large, we hardly know what is there.

So here’s what we know about the story: It is a homily—not a dialogue—that Chrysostom wrote about Eutropius, who had found sanctuary in his church from Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of the Byzantine Emperor, Arcadius. Eutropius was a consul who had fallen out of favor with Byzantine royalty, and it seems he had great trust in John Chrysostom, whom he had previously nominated for Archbishop of Constantinople. When Eutropius fled to the church, armed soldiers entered, demanding that Chrysostom release him. Chrysostom told them to leave, and appealed to the emperor, claiming that he would not give up his church’s right to be a place of sanctuary. After he left the church, Eutropius was eventually apprehended, sentenced, and beheaded.

Within a few days after Eutropius fled the church, Chrysostom gave two homilies related to the events, which you can read in English with an introduction here. It seems that the story was variously paraphrased in the mid-19th century, and while the speaker is correctly given as Chrysostom, it was not his heroic reply to an emperor or empress; it was his exhortation to believers while he was still in a place of great influence as Archbishop of Constantinople. Now that you know the context, here is a fuller quotation. (8)

“I Saw the Swords and I Meditated on Heaven”

Walls are shattered by barbarians, but over the Church even demons do not prevail. And that my words are no mere vaunt there is the evidence of facts. How many have assailed the Church, and yet the assailants have perished while the Church herself has soared beyond the sky? Such might hath the Church: when she is assailed she conquers: when snares are laid for her she prevails: when she is insulted her prosperity increases: she is wounded yet sinks not under her wounds; tossed by waves yet not submerged; vexed by storms yet suffers no shipwreck; she wrestles and is not worsted, fights but is not vanquished. Wherefore then did she suffer this war to be? That she might make more manifest the splendour of her triumph. Ye were present on that day, and ye saw what weapons were set in motion against her, and how the rage of the soldiers burned more fiercely than fire, and I was hurried away to the imperial palace. But what of that? By the grace of God none of those things dismayed me.

Now I say these things in order that ye too may follow my example. But wherefore was I not dismayed? Because I do not fear any present terrors. For what is terrible? Death? Nay, this is not terrible: for we speedily reach the unruffled haven. Or spoliation of goods? “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart” (Job 1:21); or exile? “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1); or false accusation? “Rejoice and be exceeding glad, when men shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for great is your reward in Heaven” (Mt. 5:12).

I saw the swords and I meditated on Heaven; I expected death, and I bethought me of the resurrection; I beheld the sufferings of this lower world, and I took account of the heavenly prizes; I observed the devices of the enemy, and I meditated on the heavenly crown: for the occasion of the contest was sufficient for encouragement and consolation. True! I was being forcibly dragged away, but I suffered no insult from the act; for there is only one real insult, namely sin: and should the whole world insult thee, yet if thou dost not insult thyself thou art not insulted. The only real betrayal is the betrayal of the conscience: betray not thy own conscience, and no one can betray thee.

(1) November 1874 issue of The Original Secession Magazine of the Church of Scotland, on page 839.
(2) Henry Milman. History of Christianity, vol. 3, p. 229.
(3) Phillip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 9, p. 14.
(4) The original title of this book was Institvtiones Historiae Ecclesiasticae Novi Testamenti, published in 1727 in Frankfurt.
(5) Mosheim points this out in footnote 17 on page 241-242 of the English edition.
(6) Montfaucon. Opera Omnia Quae Exstant, etc. volume 3, page 454. (This PDF file is over 1,000 pages.)
(7) The translation of these homilies is by W. R. W. Stephens. You can read them here in the original Greek.
(8) Phillip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 9, p. 14.

Chrysostom and the Goal of Missions

In early modern missions, Carey and many of his contemporaries seemed to think that they were ushering in the Millennial kingdom in some sense. It’s interested that their optimism may have been partially misfounded, or misdirected; we are not commanded to Christianize all nations, but simply to preach, as the following from Chrysostom shows:

For the signs too are now complete, which announce that day. For “this Gospel of the Kingdoms,” saith He, “shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” Attend with care to what is said. He said not, “when it hath been believed by all men,” but “when it hath been preached to all.” For this cause he also said, “for a witness to the nations,” to show, that He doth not wait for all men to believe, and then for Him to come. Since the phrase, “for a witness,” hath this meaning, “for accusation,” “for reproof,” “for condemnation of them that have not believed.”

So the goal of missions is not a Millennial kingdom; the goal of missions is that all may hear. May the offer of Christ’s grace go forth.

(Source: John Chrysostom, Homily X on Matthew. Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post Nicene Church Fathers.)