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The Tale of John Chrysostom’s Letter to Caesarius: Eucharist, Dogma, Textual Criticism, and Propaganda

Around the year 1548, Peter Martyr Vermigli published the following quote from John Chrysostom, said to be from a letter to Caesarius the monk:

For as [in the eucharist] before the bread is consecrated, we call it bread, but when the grace of God by the Spirit has consecrated it, it is no longer called bread, but is esteemed worthy to be called the Lord’s body, although the nature of bread still remains in it; and we do not say there be two bodies, but one body of the Son; so here, the divine nature being joined with the [human] body, they both together make up but one Son, one person.

The quotation proved explosive, as its claim that “the nature of bread still remains in it” directly contradicted the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. It naturally began to reappear in the polemical writings of other English divines, particularly Bishop Ridley and John Cosin. As a counter, Cardinal Bellarmine protested that the citation was not from Chrysostom at all and that it was an outright forgery. His view carried significant influence for many years, as the original source could not be found, however, in 1680 a rediscovery of the letter to Caesarius was made by Emeric Bigot, thus clearing Vermigli of any dishonesty.

Of course, this did not simply settle the matter. Various new readers and critics arose, some accepting the quotation as authentic and even attempting, perhaps a little too impressively, to harmonize it with the doctrine of transubstantiation. Others questioned whether or not the manuscript really was from the pen of John Chrysostom, suggesting an authorship of later date as more reasonable.

Is It Authentic?

The majority view of the present day–if we can speak of a meaningful majority view in this case–is that the writing known as ad Caesarium Monachum Epistola contra Apollinaristas is not authentic to Chrysostom, but was, nevertheless, written quite close to his time and does, in fact, represent what was understood to be the ordinary orthodox view. A footnote in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection puts it succinctly, “whoever the writer may have been, he is clearly representing the current orthodox belief of the Church in his day” (NPNF, vol. 9, pg. 46). To this, however, it is important to add the fact that many important early writers did indeed accept this letter as authentic to Chrysostom, including John of Damascus, Anastasius Sinaita, and Nicephoros I. Thus the mistake, if it was indeed a mistake, happened relatively early and obtained a solid pedigree in the church.

This consensus is still relatively tentative, and it seems that scholars all point back to a very limited selection of sources. Two of the more engaging and accessible examples are those of W. R. W. Stephens and Edmund Venables. Recently the late professor David Wright wrote rather confidently on the matter, though McLelland,1 whom he cites as an authority, appears more cautious.

Thomas Birch’s Contribution to the Discussion

Perhaps the most thorough and entertaining commentary on Chrysostom’s Letter to Caesarius comes from Thomas Birch, in the celebrated 1735 General Dictionary.2 Though confined to a footnote under the entry for Emeric Bigot, Birch devotes an impressive amount of detail to the historical criticism of the disputed text. He ultimately concludes that the letter is indeed authentic.

While this essay is available online, its extremely small print and archaic formatting prevent one from calling it readable. In the hopes of expanding its readership, and out of a bit of simple editorial bias, I have decided to reprint it below. I have modified the formatting to make it more accessible, but I have retained most of Birch’s spelling.3 He gives several quotes from earlier writers, allowing readers to see the evidence for themselves. Perhaps what makes it most entertaining is the way in which Birch highlights a sort of spectrum between textual scholarship and ecclesiastical intrigue.

 ***

Some particulars relating to the suppression of St. Chrysostom’s Letter to the Monk Caesarius in his edition of Palladius’s Life of that Father.

by Thomas Birch 

It was printed at Paris 1680 in 4to, under the following title, Palladii Episcopi Helenopolitani de Vitâ S. Johannis Chrysostomi Dialogus. Accedunt Homilia S. Johan. Chrysost. in laudem Diodori Tarsensis Episcopi; Acta Tarachi, Probi, & Andronici; Passio Bonifatii Romani; Evagrius de octo Cogitationibus; Nilus de octo Vitiis. Omnia nunc primum Graeco-Latina prodeunt curâ & studio Emerici Bigotii Rotomagensis. i.e. “The Dialogues of Palladius Bishop of Helenopolis concerning the Life of St. John Chrysostom. To which are added St. John Chrysostom’s homily in praise of Diodorus Bishop of Tarsus; the Acts of Tarachus, Probus, and Andronicus; the Passion of Bonifacius Romanus; Evagrius concerning the eight Thoughts; Nilus concerning the eight Vices. All now first published in Greek and Latin by the care and study of Emeric Bigot of Roan.”

He designed to have added the Epistle of St. Chrysostom to the Monk Caesarius, which he had copied from a manuscript in the Library of Florence; but it appeared so express against the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the examiners obliged him to suppress it. This was particularly taken notice of in the year 1686 by Mr. Wake, the present Archbp. of Canterbury, who in the Appendix to his Defence of the Exposition of the Doctrine of the Church of England against the Exception of Monsr. de Meaux, late Bp. of Condom, and his Vindicator, observes that since the main thing, which he had charged the Bishop of Meaux with, is, that a first edition of his book was suppressed for containing some assertions not so suitable to the sentiments of the Sorbonne doctors, to whom it was sent for their approbation; to shew the undistinguishing justice of their proceedings, and that M. de Meaux is not the only Bp. whom they have dealt thus rudely with on these occasions; he was willing to communicate to the world one instance more of the like nature, especially since the original leaves rased out and suppressed by them had here also fallen into his hands, and might at any time be seen with the suppressed edition of the Bp. of Meaux’s Exposition of the Doctrine of the Catholic Church.

St. Chrysostom wrote an epistle to Caesarius a Monk, who had a little before fallen into the Apollinarian heresy, in order to reduce him to the Catholic faith. In this epistle he proves the divine and human natures to be distinct in Christ; that the properties of the one ought no otherwise to be confounded with the other, than as they are united in the same person. He charges the Apollinarians with saying, that our Saviour’s body is converted into the divinity, and upon that account attributing passion to the deity; and concludes with this exhortation to Caesarius:

Wherefore, dearly beloved, laying aside the novel phrases and vain speeches of these men, let us return to what we have before said; that it is pious, most pious indeed, that we should confess, our Saviour Christ, who died for us, to be perfect in the Godhead, perfect in the Manhood; one only begotten Son, not divided into two, but bearing in himself together the unmixt proprieties of two distinct natures. Not two different persons, God forbid! But one and the same Lord Jesus, God, Word; cloathed with our flesh, and that not inanimate, without the rational soul, as the wicked Apollinarius pretends. Let us then assent to these things; let us sly those, who would divide him; for tho the natures be distinct, yet is there but one undivided and undivisible union to be acknowledged in the same one person and substance of the Son.

Mr. Wake observes upon this, that if this be the Catholic doctrine, which St. Chrysostom here designs to bring Caesarius to, and such the errors, which by the subtlety of the Apollinarians he was involved in; it will be very easy to conceive the allusion, which that father here makes between the two natures united in Christ, and the two parts, “which the Catholic Church,” says Mr. Wake, “has ever acknowledged in the holy eucharist to the destruction of the Romanists’ pretences of transubstantiation, and to the solid establishment of the real presence of Christ in this sacred mystery, such as the Church of England believes, and has been established by me in the foregoing discourse.”

The words of St. Chrysostom, upon which the Controversy turns, are as follow:

Christ is both God and man; God, in that he is impassible; man, for that he suffered, yet but one Son, one Lord; he is the same without doubt having one dominion, one power of two united natures. Not that these natures are consubstantial, forasmuch as either of them does without confusion retain its own properties, and being two are yet inconfused in him. For as [in the eucharist] before the bread is consecrated, we call it bread, but when the grace of God by the Spirit has consecrated it, it is no longer called bread, but is esteemed worthy to be called the Lord’s body, although the nature of bread still remains in it; and we do not say there be two bodies, but one body of the Son; so here, the divine nature being joined with the [human] body, they both together make up but one Son, one person. But yet they must be confessed to remain without confusion after an indivisible manner, not in one nature, but in two perfect natures.

Et Deus & homo & Christus est; Deus propter impassibilitatem, homo propter passionem. Unus filius, unus Dominus, idem ipse procul dubio unitarum naturarum, unam dominationem, unam potestatem possidens, etiamsi non consubstantiales existunt, [& unaquaeq; incommixtam proprietatis conservat agnitionem, propter hoc quod inconfusa sunt, dico.] Sicut enim antequam sanctificetur panis, panem nominamus, divinâ autem illum sanctificante gratiâ, mediante Sacerdote, liberatus est quidem appellatione panis, dignus autem habitus est Dominici corporis appellatione, etiamsi natura panis in ipso permansit, & non duo corpora, sed unum corpus filii praedicatur; sic & hic Divinâ ἐνιδρυσάσης, id est, inundante corporis naturâ unum filium, unam personam, utraq; haec secerunt. Agnoscendum tamen inconfusam & indivisibilem rationem, non in unâ solum naturâ, sed in duabus perfectis.

Mr. Wake then proceeds to observe that it was about the year 1548, when this passage was first produced by Peter Martyr in his dispute with Dr. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, concerning the eucharist. He then professed, that he had copied it out of the Florentine Manuscript, and that the whole epistle was placed by him in Archbp. Cranmer’s library. This Gardiner could not deny, who therefore in his answer to him in 1552 endeavoured first to ascribe it to another John of Constantinople, who lived about the beginning of the sixth century. Secondly to elude the force of this passage, by urging, that by the bread’s retaining still its own nature, we are to understand only this, that its accidents remain, but for its substance, that it is changed into the body of Christ.

Turrian, who by his writing seems to shew, that he had somewhere or other seen this epistle, contends in like manner, and, if we may believe Vasquez and de Valentia, proves it too, that this epistle was not Chrysostom’s, but the other John’s, to whom Gardiner had before ascribed it. But yet still the argument recurred upon them, since this other John was in the beginning of the sixth century, and transubstantiation by consequence was not the doctrine of the Church then. And indeed Gamachaeus is not very unwilling to acknowledge this; for having with the rest assigned this epistle to the other John, he tells us, that he is to be “excused, since transubstantiation was not so plainly delivered and explained in those days as it is now.” Excusari posse, quod nec transubstantiatio ejus temporibus ita perspicue tradita & explicata fuerat, sicut hodie.

But this Cardinal Perron could not bear; he neither thought fit to rely upon an evasion, which he saw would not do their business, nor could he endure to allow so ancient an author as either of the two Johns to have been so directly opposite to their sentiments in this matter. He therefore flatly accuses Peter Martyr of forgery, and uses a great many arguments to persuade the world, that there never was any such epistle as had been pretended. Thus stood this passage and the whole epistle for its sake, till about the year 1680.

Bigot, who had twelve years before brought a copy of it from Florence, resolved to ruin all the endeavours of these men by publishing the very epistle, which the Cardinal had so loudly proclaimed to be a forgery, and proving it to be indeed the genuine offspring of St. Chrysostom, contrary to what the rest had in vain pretended. And this he accordingly with great sincerity performed in 1680. For in his edition of Palladius that year, among the other pieces, which he added to it, this Epistle of St. Chrysostom had one of the first places, and was strengthened by him with such attestations, as shew it to be beyond all doubt authentic. In his Preface he declared how he came by it, and made a short apology for that passage of it, which had caused so great a contest: but such as it seems he was either conscious to himself not to have been very strong, or feared at least that his censors would not esteem it to be so.

And in this Mr. Wake observes, that he speaks no more than Bigot himself declared to his friends, so that he resolved to reserve privately some few copies, for fear the rest should run that risque, which indeed they accordingly did. For being now quite finished, and just ready to come abroad, some of the doctors of the Sorbonne, of whom monsieur Grandin and monsieur Faure have been charged as the principal, caused it to be suppressed, and the printed leaves cut out of the book, without any thing to supply the place of them. And of this the edition of Palladius of that year remains a standing monument both in the Preface and in the book; and it was publickly complained of by a very learned man in an Expostulation prefixed to S. Anastasii in Hexaemeron lib. 12, published at London 1682, in 4to.

But what that reverend person could not then obtain, being since fallen into Mr. Wake’s hands, that is, the very leaves cut out by these Doctors of Mr. Bigot’s Preface, and the Epistle rased out of the book, he was unwilling to come into a part of their fraud, by detaining any longer that, which both so well deserved, and had so long since been prepared for a publick view. And he tells us, that he hopes the learned world, whom he principally designed to gratify in this matter, would accept this never the worse, because Mr. le Moyne the year before published this Epistle among his Varia Sacra, that learned man having neither given the Greek fragments, which Mr. Wake now published from Mr. Bigot’s own impression; nor Monsieur Bigot’s account of it in the part of the Preface which was suppressed. Not to add, that the Latin copy of Mr. le Moyne is so very false, that it renders the Epistle utterly unintelligible. However he observes, that he does not pretend to anticipate that gentleman’s design, which he appeared so jealous of, since it is too vast to be injured by any thing he could offer; and he should be glad, if what he now published might be any way serviceable to it. As to the authority of the piece, he should need to say no more than what Monsieur Bigot had already done to prove it to be genuine. So many ancient authors have cited it as St. Chrysostom’s Epistle to Caesarius; such fragments of it remain in the most ancient writers as authentic, that he, who after all these shall call this piece in question, may with the same reasonableness doubt of all the rest of his works, which perhaps upon less grounds are on all sides allowed as true and undoubted.

Mr. Wake then gives us that part of Monsieur Bigot’s Preface, which had been suppressed, and afterwards the Epistle exactly as it was printed in the Paris edition, the pages of which, says he, “I have retained, that those, who please, may see the defect in that part of Palladius, out of which it was rased. For the little notes, which I have added, they contain a collation, 1. Of the Latin Bigotius, with the Latin of Mr. le Moyne’s copy, in which I do not know that I have omitted the least variation even of a single Letter. 2. Of the Greek Fragments collected by Bigotius, with some other MSS. that have been communicated to me.”

Monsieur Baillet likewise in the second volume of the Jugemens des Savans takes notice of the retrenchment of the Latin version of this Letter, which seemed to contain a difficulty “with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist, under pretence that we have not the Greek original. Upon which the Protestants exclaimed against this retrenchment, and represented it as a piece of fraud and imposture.” But Monsieur Baillet observes, that it would perhaps have been much more proper in the opinion of a great number of Catholicks, to have published the Letter exactly, with an explication of that passage, rather than to have endeavoured to suppress it, since that was not possible, the passage having been published above a century, and quoted by Peter Martyr and other Protestants, and replied to by several Catholick Writers.

Father Niceron in his Memoires pour servir à l’Histoire des Hommes Illustres tells us, that it was Mr. Faure Doctor of Sorbonne, who suppressed this Letter, “imagining it to be a supposititious piece, and being apprehensive of its contradicting the doctrine of transubstantiation.” However Father Hardouin published it in 1689 in Greek and Latin with Notes, and a Dissertation upon the Sacrament of the Altar. Mr. James Basnage likewise published it at Utrecht in 1687, and the Marquis Massei has given an edition of it at Florence in 1721 in 12mo, from a manuscript in the Library of the Dominicans of St. Mark in that city; and it was reprinted according to this edition in the Nova Literaria of Leipsic for January 1722, pag. 9.

 

[Taken from: A General Dictionary, Historical and Critical. by the Reverend Mr. John Peter Bernard, The Reverend Mr. Thomas Birch, Mr. John Lockman, and others, Vol. III (London, Printed by James Bettenham,1735), pg 341-342.]

 

  1. Wright cites McLelland’s The Visible Words of God: an Exposition of the Sacramental Theology of Peter Martyr Vermigli, AD 1500-1562. (Oliver & Boyd, 1957) pg. 269
  2. For documentation that this entry was indeed by Birch, see James Marshall Osborn, “Thomas Birch and the ‘General Dictionary’ (1734-41)” in Modern Philology Vol. 36, No. 1 (Aug., 1938), pg. 35
  3. I must express my gratitude to Dr. E.J. Hutchinson for assistance with the Latin. I could not have gotten far without him, and any remaining errors should be ascribed to my inabilities in this field.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.