(St John Chrysostom’s commentaries on man-woman relations,  marriage and conjugal abuse)

3.  Appraising Chrysostom's works through the  Orthodox phronema

Orthodoxy pertains to the proper/upright (ortho-) faith or belief (doxa) which was revealed to the disciples of Christ at Pentecost. Part of this faith has been preserved in written form through the Holy Scriptures. However, in Orthodox tradition the unwritten Holy Tradition which was perpetuated through the life of the Church and embodied in the experience of the saints has been equally important and complementary to the written revelations. The Holy Scriptures validate the importance of the Holy Tradition, while the Holy Tradition confirms and reinforces the revelations of the Holy Scriptures. This Holy Tradition was not altered, but has been preserved in its essence as inherited by Christ. It includes the teachings of Orthodox Church Fathers, the Synodical decisions of the Church Councils[1] and other elements that have defined the liturgical life of the ancient Orthodox Church.

At the core of this Holy Tradition is the very soteriological aim of the Orthodox faith to heal the corruption of the human nature that was incurred following the disobedience of the first-fashioned couple and their expulsion from heaven.
Within this tradition, it is understood that the first-fashioned couple was made in the image and likeness of God, but due to the disobedience the latter prospect was not fulfilled. The Orthodox are called to become one with God and to fulfil this potential. In this strife, the Orthodox must face their sin-prone nature which carries the marks of the expulsion from heaven (physical desires, genetic inclinations, idiosyncrasies, temperament, etc.). This struggle is exacerbated by the works of Satan and his fallen angels who are the eternal enemies of God and humanity.

The faithful are called to overcome the sin-prone nature through prayer, ascesis and the cultivation of the Orthodox phronema. This should ultimately result in the achievement of meekness and love that emanates from a full union with God. Following St Maximos the Confessor, this therapeutic pathway has been described as purification, enlightenment and theosis[2]. As the faithful undergoes purification, she begins to be enlightened and to obtain insight into divine mysteries. This awakening of the nous[3] to the grace and wisdom of God is what the Orthodox tradition has identified with ‘noetic’ theology. In other words, theology in this tradition has not been predicated on reason or intellect, but rather on the enlightenment of the nous.

The implication of this ‘noetic’ Soteriology and theology is that women had no reasons to be excluded from this Holy Tradition. In fact, women were as much involved in the preservation and embodiment of apostolic teachings as were men.
Readers should not be led to believe that theology was gender-exclusive on the premise that the actual articulation of theology was dominated by males, which has ecclesiastical and socio-cultural explanations.[4] It is undisputed that the Orthodox Church has historically venerated both female and male prophets and saints, with the Virgin Mary being considered the Holiest of all the Holy. In addition, there have been instances where female saints have explicated divine mysteries to male saints with extraordinary theological clarity,[5] and have been considered authoritative to settle doctrinal Church positions among male clergies.[6]

Chrysostom’s homilies should be assessed within this comprehensive Orthodox cosmology, which he echoed and enforced through his commentaries. In accordance with apostolic teachings, Chrysostom taught the full spiritual equality of men and women and seemed to grant women a higher capacity to create an environment of spiritual renewal and growth in their homes for their husbands and their families.[7] Simultaneously, as it was cautioned, his commentaries should not be isolated from the context in which he lived and the conditions of the faithful and especially of women in the times during which he spoke his homilies.[8] It is to be apprehended that his pastoral concern led to some concessions or adaptations in the expression and rhetorical strategies of the saint to make himself relevant and convincing to his audience.[9]

To appraise this tradition through the Orthodox phronema is to understand that the Orthodox tradition does not consider the saints infallible and understands that there should be accord among their teachings, which should echo the apostolic didascalia. For other matters that are not directly doctrinal or theological, the teachings of the Church Fathers are taken as suggestive. It is upon the faithful and their own Orthodox diakrisis[10] to decide how these teachings reflect on their own life. Reading through the Orthodox phronema means to understand all the aforementioned characteristics of the Orthodox tradition and these nuanced hermeneutical particularities, which only personal exposure to the tradition could grant. While the logic of the tradition may be penetrated by reading established Church Fathers or modern Church scholars who have summarised the Orthodox cosmology faithfully, unless this ‘reading’ is complemented by an insight into the experience-based conscience of the Orthodox Church, the tradition cannot be grasped in full. It is important to recognise that the author writes from the perspective of an Orthodox insider who has studied and experienced this tradition in everyday life across multiple cultural contexts.[11]

[1] This is best exemplified in the Church’s Patristic tradition and in the Ecumenical Synods of the Church. The Synodical decisions were considered valid because of the Holy Fathers who participated in them, who were proven to be holy due to being steady in their faith and echoing apostolic teachings. Therefore, Chrysostom’s commentaries have been considered Orthodox not because he was a convincing homilist, but because he echoed apostolic teachings through the grace of the Holy Spirit who dwelled in him.


[2]θέωσις’; translates verbatim as ‘making divine’ or ‘deification.’          


[3]νοῦς’; might be thought of as the rational core of the human soul, as differentiated from the intellect. It has also been called the ‘eye of the soul.’
[4] This is probably explained by the fact that males already held more prominence in the early societies and women were generally dedicated to the life of the household and child-rearing. In addition, in the Orthodox traditions only men could serve in the role of priests and this provided an additional platform for prolific teaching, such as in the case of Chrysostom. However, it should be noted that while the Orthodox Church has traditionally preserved the priestly order for men, this has been explained in reference to theological reasons that do not suggest an ontological male superiority. This is one issue that has attracted attention in contemporary debates among some strands of Orthodox scholars.
[5] As exemplified in the dialogue that bedridden St Macrina had with her brother Gregory Nyssa on the state of the soul which enforced his steadiness in the faith. Notably, Gregory of Nyssa considered St. Macrina his ‘teacher’.
[6] As exemplified at the fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in Bithynia (AD 451) when the final decision about Christology was made by a miracle of the deceased local saint Euthemia.
[7] David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church: The Full Views of St. Chrysostom (South Canaan, Pennsylvania: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996).
[8] See for example, Deborah F. Sawyer, Women and Religion in the First Christian Centuries (New York: Routledge, 1996).
[9] It is thus not denied that Chrysostom seemed inclined to believe that the female sex was inherently more delicate or weaker, such as in instances where he said that the woman needs more understanding and condescension. (In Epistulam ad Ephesios, Homily 20). He also seemed to suggest at various occasions that women could be more talkative, frivolous or superficial (De Virginitate, Paragraph 40). These comments should be appraised in consideration of women’s realities in the early centuries. Since females in the pre-Christian times had been generally treated as lesser than men, it is understood that they had consistently lacked opportunities for education and refinement of thought, which could have made them susceptible to such proclivities, as well as enforced the general idea of them being less intellectual. However, while Chrysostom showed these proclivities, he attributed to men their own share of negative tendencies, such as irascibility, arrogance and abusiveness (De Virginitate, Paragraph 40). In speaking this way, Chrysostom was ultimately trying to help females and males recognise commonplace spousal defects and cultivate a Christian ethos in their marriage, which he considered essential to achieve the soteriological ends of the union. (See “Ο Άγιος Ιωάννης ο Χρυσόστομος και η Οικογενειακή Ζωή του Αρχιμ. Εφραίμ, Καθηγούμενου Ιεράς Μεγίστης Μονής Βατοπαιδίου. Πηγή: Περιοδικό ‘Πεμπτουσία’ Νο 25,” republished by OODE, 18/4/2008,
[10]διάκρισις’; translates as ‘discernment’.’ It is understood that one cultivates this through prayer and Orthodox ascesis.
[11] The author was born in the Republic of Moldova and was raised and educated in Greece. Both countries have been traditionally Orthodox, albeit socio-cultural specificities. 

Chapter 2 Back to Index Chapter 4