"Chrysostom's Devil" by Samantha L. Miller. A Review


Chrysostom's Devil: Demons, the Will, and Virtue in Patristic Soteriology
Samantha L. Miller

There is a rich value to reading and engaging with the earlier church pastors and theologians. They served and spoke into a premodern pluralistic context, and they have much to give us as they coach us in our postmodern pluralistic climate. Samantha L. Miller, associate professor of the history of Christianity at Anderson University in Anderson, Indiana, has given thinking readers an example of just such an engagement in her new 216-page softback, "Chrysostom's Devil: Demons, the Will, and Virtue in Patristic Soteriology". This is a new installment in IVP Academic’s “New Explorations in Theology” series. In this slender work, Miller narrows her investigation to look primarily at the social context in which Chrysostom served, especially the cultural obsession with demonology. It is an easily manageable work, especially for anyone interested in the earlier church thinkers.

In this investigation Miller exhibits that as Chrysostom took on the subject of demons, he responded by engaging anthropology, soteriology, sanctification (virtue), theodicy, and sacramentology.  She begins by laying out the cultural context of later Roman and Jewish concepts, and the assumptions about these unseen beings, the ways they bring misfortune and sickness, how they were handled with amulets and spells, and the attitude that devils can make people do wrong. Chrysostom supposed with his congregation and culture that demons actively exist and energetically assault humans at many different levels. But the author goes on to show pointedly that Chrysostom did not follow his age all the way; "Chrysostom understands demons to be created beings who cannot harm human beings without their consent." Therefore, for Chrysostom self-determination to virtue is an important means for battling against and defeating demonic ploys (6).

Much of the volume is focused on Chrysostom's emphasis on self-determination in the fight with demons, and the role of developing virtue as an antidote. As Miller states, "the point Chrysostom emphasizes most is that the devil's power is limited and unable to harm a person's virtue...congregant's ought not fears demons as they do because demons cannot cause any true harm...human beings are responsible for their own state of virtue" (97). This brings the author to note that Chrysostom's soteriology is cooperative. God acts, and humans cooperate with God's saving work (150-7). That cooperation, as regards responses to demons, means we Christians are wrestlers, but our sparring partner is already defeated and bound. But God wants us to "struggle against the devil...to become stronger, better able to resist, to forge one's character out of stronger steel" and as we do this we see more clearly that "Christ's goodness makes the devil's wickedness appear more wicked, and the devil's vileness makes Christ's goodness appear more pure" (74-5).

One of our difficulties (out of many), is to read Chrysostom through the lens of 1500 years of theological tournaments. To demand that Chrysostom speak our guild languages at this place in history is an inequitable expectation. Nevertheless, there are surprising hints that show that this pastoral prelate had hold of important subjects, if even in seed form. For example, Chrysostom clearly taught that we did nothing to make ourselves worthy of God’s loving salvation. But Christ died on our behalf and made us worthy before God, and now that we have been made worthy by Christ, we are called upon to progress in this worthiness (159-68). As Miller developed this whole section, I couldn’t help but see shades and shadows of Calvin’s duplex gratia – double grace – of justification (made worthy before God by Christ) and sanctification (developing this new-found condition in life). Miller has brought forward enough source material one can hear directly from Chrysostom on this to profitably gather such conclusions, without forcing things. As I read this section, my heart kept on being strangely warmed.

“Chrysostom’s Devil” is a mildly academic work, scholarly written, but open for most any thoughtful reader. The introduction, five chapters and conclusion can easily be worked through to advantage. It would make a useful addition to any early church history class. And it will be a useful resource for any simply wanting to grow their knowledge of one earlier church pastor. I recommend the work.

My thanks to IVP Academic. I asked for a copy of the book to review, and they happily sent me the volume used for this assessment and made no demands on me. Therefore, with glad liberty, I have liberally made my appraisal, and I liberally bestow it. You can easily obtain a copy for yourself by going here: Chrysostom’s Devil

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