St. John Chrysostom on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians

St. John Chrysostom, Doctor of the Church (+407), wrote and preached extensively on the mystery of Christ as revealed in Scripture and Tradition. In his Homilies on Ephesians he comments on our predestination in Christ before the foundation of the world and how this economy of grace was foreordained. He also speaks of the immutable purpose of God and how all things, including the Angels, are under the headship of Christ.

Ironically, while he illustrates so many points that confirm the Franciscan perspective (which is the perspective of St. Paul, indeed of God Himself! – one can read my own exposition of the Pauline perspective here), St. John frequently speaks as if Christ’s coming was occasioned by sin. Here is but one example: “It was well near come to this, that man had been made in vain, brought into the world in vain, nay, rather to his ruin; when all were absolutely perishing, more fearfully than in the deluge, He devised this dispensation, that is by grace; that it might not be in vain, might not be to no purpose that man was created.” One senses from these words that Christ is a sort of “plan B” which God devised to salvage man. Although Chrysostom does not seem to have held what is today called the “absolute” primacy of Christ (sin or no sin), nonetheless, he offers many insights which clearly uphold the position of Christ’s absolute predestination and primacy.

Commenting on Eph. 1:4 he writes:

Ver. 4. “Even as,” he [St. Paul] proceeds, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before Him in love.”

His meaning is somewhat of this sort: Through whom He has blessed us, through Him He has also chosen us. And He, then, it is that shall bestow upon us all those rewards hereafter. He is the very Judge that shall say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (Mt 25:34). And again, “I will that where I am they will also be with Me.” (Jn 17:24). And this is a point which he is anxious to prove in almost all his Epistles, that ours is no novel system, but that it had thus been figured from the very first, that it is not the result of any change of purpose, but had been in fact a divine dispensation and fore-ordained. And this is a mark of great solicitude for us.

According to St. John Chrysostom, St. Paul is anxious to drive home the point that all graces, all spiritual blessings come to us from God the Father in Christ: “…ours is no novel system,” he writes, “…it had thus been figured from the very first, that it is not the result of any change of purpose, but had been in fact a divine dispensation and fore-ordained.” This plan to make us His adopted children in Christ was established by God before creation, before any consideration of the fall, and this was not “the result of any change of purpose.” From the Franciscan perspective (which, as one can see, is rooted in Scripture and Tradition) the decree of the Incarnation was an immutable one. Sin or no sin, God wills to bless us in Christ Jesus. Because of sin that purpose remains unaltered; however, as a result of Adam’s sin Christ comes also as Redeemer and manifests not only God’s love for us, but also His infinite mercy.

St. John Chrysostom continues:

What is meant by, “He chose us in Him?” By means of the faith which is in Him, Christ, he means, happily ordered this for us before we were born; nay more, before the foundation of the world. And beautiful is that word “foundation,” as though he were pointing to the world as cast down from some vast height. Yea, vast indeed and ineffable is the height of God, so far removed not in place but in incommunicableness of nature; so wide the distance between creation and Creator! A word which heretics may be ashamed to hear.

And this incommunicability of the divine and human nature, this abyss which separates creation from the Creator on the level of being, does it not make sense that for all of the elect, both the Saints and the Angels, that ontological separation would be bridged by a Mediator? “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, Himself a man, Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Mt. 11:27; Jn. 14:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Indeed this is what God “happily ordered for us before we were born… before the foundation of the world.”

But wherefore has He chosen us? “That we should be holy and without a blemish before Him.” That you may not then, when you hear that “He has chosen us,” imagine that faith alone is sufficient, he proceeds to add life and conduct. To this end, says he, has He chosen us, and on this condition, “that we should be holy and without blemish.”

The plan is stupendous! But it is not by faith alone that it is accomplished in us. We must correspond to God’s plan for us in Christ by a life of virtue if we are to enter the eternal blessedness of His kingdom. As St. John of the Cross would say, “Love is repaid by love alone.” Chrysostom goes on to say:

Ver. 4, 5. “In love,” says he, “having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto Himself.”

Do you observe how that nothing is done without Christ? Nothing without the Father? The one has predestinated, the other has brought us near. And these words he adds by way of heightening the things which have been done, in the same way as he says also elsewhere, “And not only so, but we also rejoice in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rm 5:11). For great indeed are the blessings bestowed, yet are they made far greater in being bestowed through Christ; because He sent not any servant, though it was to servants He sent, but the Only-begotten Son Himself.

Christ is, to use the expression of Bl. John Duns Scotus, the summum opus Dei – the great Masterpiece of God’s creative hand. The Father does nothing in the universe without Christ, the Word Incarnate. If God gives us every spiritual blessing on high in Christ, as St. Paul says, then this means that God gives no spiritual blessing apart from Christ – whether to Angels or to men. While the blessings are great, they are “far greater in being bestowed through Christ.” Is it even possible to think that this perfect, sublime plan of God in Christ is but a remedy for Adam’s sin? Does Scripture reveal to us a different way, truth and life for the good Angels and for Adam and Eve before the fall? No. Before the foundations of the world God established one economy of grace in Christ.

St. John Chrysostom clarifies what St. Paul means in v.10 by the word ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι – often translated to re-establish.

Ver. 10. “Unto a dispensation of the fullness of the times to sum up all things in Christ, the things in the heavens and the things upon the earth, even in Him.”…

The fullness of the times, however, was His coming… [for more on St. Paul’s phrase “the fullness of times” one can read here]

That “He might sum up” [ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι] he says.

What is the meaning of this word, “sum up?” It is “to knit together.” Let us, however, endeavor to get near the exact import. With ourselves then, in common conversation, the word means the summing into a brief compass things spoken at length, the concise account of matters described in detail. And it has this meaning. For Christ has gathered up in Himself the dispensations carried on through a lengthened period, that is to say, He has cut them short. For “by finishing His word and cutting it short in righteousness,” (Rm 9:28) He both comprehended former dispensations, and added others beside. This is the meaning of “summing up.”

The root of the word ἀνακεφαλαιώσασθαι (anakephalaiosasthai) is κεφαλ- which comes from the Greek word for “head”. The prefix ἀνα- means up or upwards. What the Holy Apostle is literally saying is that God’s dispensation which is realized in the fullness of times is to bring all things – both in Heaven and on earth – under the headship of Christ. “Sum up” is closer to the Greek than the Latin instaurare or the English “re-establish.” The significance of the verb in Greek is clear – God’s will before the creation of the world was that all things be brought under the headship of Christ, summed up in Him. This is dealt with more in-depth in my commentary on the christocentric canticle of Paul in Colossians 1:15-20.

It has also another signification; and of what nature is this? He has set over all one and the same Head, i.e., Christ according to the flesh, alike over Angels and men. That is to say, He has given to Angels and men one and the same government… So also here He has brought all under one and the same Head. For thus will an union be effected, thus will a close bond be effected, if one and all can be brought under one and the same Head, and thus have some constraining bond of union from above. Honored then as we are with so great a blessing, so high a privilege, so great loving-kindness, let us not shame our Benefactor, let us not render in vain so great grace. Let us exemplify the life of Angels, the virtue of Angels, the conversation of Angels, yea, I entreat and conjure you, that all these things turn not to our judgment, nor to our condemnation, but to our enjoyment of those good things, which may God grant we may all attain, in Christ Jesus, our Lord, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Ghost, be glory, strength, etc. etc.

St. John Chrysostom is only confirming the teachings of St. Paul that Christ is Head of the Angels: “the Head of every Principality and Power.” (Col. 2:10). But how can the God-Man be Head of the good Angels who have no need of Redemption? Because Christ was predestined as Head of the whole Church, of all the elect, before any consideration of sin. Below is a video where I explain this notion of Christ’s headship according to St. Paul.

In conclusion, let us ask St. John Chrysostom to intercede for us and obtain for us the graces to penetrate ever more deeply the wealth of Christology found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.