Chrysostom’s Devil: Demons, the Will, and Virtue in Patristic Soteriology

Ok. Of all the books that I’ve gotten and all the books I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as excited as I was to get this book. When I went back to school to finish my undergraduate education, on a whim I took Introduction to Spiritual Formation. The professor of that class was Dr Samantha L Miller. Over time I took more classes with her and she introduced me to “new” ways of thinking about my faith as I learned Church history and Patristic theology. Once I learned that she had a book coming out I knew I needed to get it for review. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good time to read it. So it sat on my shelf for a year until now, as it is the book I am reviewing this month. Chrysostom’s Devil was published by InterVarsity Press on March 17, 2020, and is part of the New Explorations in Theology series. Miller seeks to teach John Chrysostom’s theology, especially reguarding his demonology and soteriology and finishes by showing just how relevant this late 4th century theologian is to us today. I did my best to approach this book as I do others, but I quickly found myself feeling like I was back in the classroom.

Miller sets the beginning of her book to describe this world to the reader, because it is a far different one than what he inhabit today. In the ancient world, people saw demons everywhere. She writes, “Spirits were everywhere in the ancient world, and people wanted to control them.” People often sought out talismens, texts, and rituals inorder to subdue demons and remove their ability to get people to sin. Her first chapter is designed to give an overview of many different demonologies that existed in the world that Chrysostom was born and preaching into. In the second chapter we are introduced to Chrysostom’s own demonology. Miller points out that his belief is that “demons are neither as powerful as the [people think] nor the cause of all suffering and sin in the world.” This belief, according to Chrysostom, means that people believe it is demons, and not God, who rule the world. Miller then walks us through Chrysostom’s description of Job found in De diabolo tentatore, where he suggests that it is the primary work of the Devil and demons to tempt, but they cannot force one to sin.

The proairesis is self-determinig, making human being self-determining, and this self-dertermination and freedom are what allow for virtue and vice, praise and blame…God’s punishment of human wickedness is evidencet that God did not create humans wicked by nature.

At the center of Chrysostom’s demonogly is the concept of human proairesis, understood here as the ability to deliberately choose to do something. According to Miller, Chrysostom believes that his congregation is incorrect in believing that demons hold any power over them, rather all they do is tempt. Yes, the temptation is strong, however, sin only occurs when we have considered the paths between God and temptation and choose the path of temptation. According to Miller, Chrysostom believes this shows that nothing is created evil, “… he argues that not only are human not evil by nature, but that nothing is evil by nature…If somthing were evil by nature, that would imply that it was created evil, and Chrysostom is adameant that God does not create evil.” Rather Chrysostom believes that the human proairesis is trained for evil or good, through Christ. In her final chapter, Miller shows that Christ teaches us how to train our proairesis to chose the things that make us virtuous people, and therefore worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

As Christians, we do not simply sit around resting on what Christ has done for us and waiting for heaven. Chrysostom tells us that we need to participate in our ongoing salvation, perhaps even working it out “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

At the end of her book, Miller provides a conclusion entitled Implications for the Church Today. Here she turns her gaze away from the ancient world and brings Chrysostom into our contempoary time. She states that we should not be “simply sit[ting] round resting on what Christ has done for us and waiting for heaven.” Instead, we should be practicing our faith by actively resisting the temptations our demons that would tempt us away from God. In a critique of our times, Miller says, “Most of our battles in the church today are about our behavior, or in some casese theological description of behavior, and most of the arguments, at their core, are about how behavior salvation.” The truth for her is that “Chrysostom preached that demons were indeed tempting and deceiving, but it is human being who sin.” I won’t ruin the ultimate end of her book, but know that as long as the Church works on training its proairesis towards virtue and to not simply teach “behavior modification.”

This book was an incredible read and I was so glad I had the opportunity. There is such a rich history of theology that, sadly, many people in our churches do not know it. You could walk into any Protestant/Evangelical/Pentecostal church, say the name John Chrysostom, and it is unlikely anyone will know who you are talking about. Miller does a fantastic job of balancing her academic work with making it relevant to the church today. I’m not sure if I would recommend this book to your average layperson, but I definitely recognize the value it has to any academic or clergy member. The conclusion, alone, is most certainly worth the cost of the book. I look forward to getting to read more of her books (I hope to get a copy of her newest!). But pick yourself up a copy of Chrysostom’s Devil and tell me what you think! I’m always open to having discussion on the books I have read.

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