John Chrysos­tom was the late fourth-cen­tu­ry arch­bish­op of Con­stan­tino­ple, present-day Istan­bul, Turkey. He was thor­ough­ly expe­ri­enced in his prac­tice of the dis­ci­pline of imi­ta­tion. Rather than installing Demos­thenes or Homer in his soul, Chrysos­tom sub­sti­tut­ed Paul and Christ. Dur­ing two years spent in soli­tude in a cave above Anti­och, a learn­ing space” for immer­sion in Paul’s let­ters, Chrysos­tom mem­o­rized most, if not all, of the New Testament. 

As Mar­garet Mitchell, a not­ed Chrysos­tom schol­ar observes, Chrysos­tom inscribed on his brain a lot of Paul, and, at that, a lot of Paul speak­ing in the first per­son, now vocal­ized through [Chrysostom’s] own mouth. Not only did con­stant reread­ing and mem­o­riza­tion of these texts serve to lay the foun­da­tion for a life of Scrip­tur­al expo­si­tion, but it also ori­ent­ed Chrysostom’s own con­scious­ness in a Pauline direction.” 

Dur­ing the years in the cave, Chrysos­tom devel­oped key habit pat­terns he would lat­er encour­age his own con­gre­ga­tion to devel­op. He writes: The inex­pe­ri­enced read­er when tak­ing up a let­ter will con­sid­er it to be papyrus and ink; the expe­ri­enced read­er will both hear a voice, and con­verse with one, the one who is absent … The things their writ­ings said, they man­i­fest­ed to all in their actions … You have a most excel­lent por­trait [of the apos­tle Paul]. Pro­por­tion your­self to it.

In Chrysostom’s think­ing and prac­tice, to pro­por­tion one­self to Paul — through the use of a high­ly devel­oped mem­o­ry soaked in the Scrip­ture and through con­crete imi­ta­tion of key aspects of Paul’s life — is by def­i­n­i­tion to pro­por­tion one’s mind and life to Christ. 

All of us prob­a­bly have indi­vid­ual teach­ers and men­tors whom we want to emu­late. For many at Ren­o­varé, Dal­las Willard was just such a per­son. If they are still liv­ing, we want to spend time with them when­ev­er pos­si­ble; if they have died, we want to read their works and find out more about their lives. 

In the case of Christ him­self and of his apos­tles and prophets, one can hard­ly go wrong by enter­ing into the Holy Scrip­tures, as Chrysos­tom did, with care­ful, gra­cious imi­ta­tion always in mind. To imi­tate Christ is to regard his words and deeds as pre­cious trea­sures, to con­tem­plate them, mem­o­rize them, med­i­tate upon them, to chew on them as a cow chews its cud. To imi­tate Paul is to ask how he con­duct­ed him­self from day to day, and what were the prac­tices that nour­ished and sus­tained his own life in Christ? 

Now, this call to attend care­ful­ly to the bib­li­cal wit­ness regard­ing Christ, Paul, Peter, Mary, Martha, and oth­ers is not mere­ly in order to imi­tate; we are also attend­ing to an instance of imi­tat­ing, since both our Sav­ior and his apos­tle were (like all good Jews) steeped in the Scrip­tures. If we are to fol­low them in the knowl­edge of God, our think­ing, too, must be pro­found­ly shaped by the steady, paced mem­o­riza­tion of the Word of God. This need not, and should not, sig­nal slav­ish­ly rote mem­o­riza­tion, but cre­ative prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tion as well. The aim of mem­o­riza­tion is not to pass some cos­mic Bible quiz but to have our intel­lec­tu­al and imag­i­na­tive con­scious­ness shaped by God him­self. We need not have a bib­li­cal phrase to toss into every con­ver­sa­tion, but we do want to speak and to live in the world in the way that Scrip­ture itself illustrates. 

This sort of thought­ful, com­mit­ted, cre­ative imi­ta­tion of the exem­plary lives we see in Scrip­ture (and else­where) pre­pares us for deep­er entrance into the knowl­edge of God that such lives embody. Think­ing and behav­ior, behav­ior and think­ing, are all one piece, one whole. I’ll close with advice from Athana­sius of Alexan­dria, bish­op of Alexan­dria in the ear­ly fourth century:

One can­not pos­si­bly under­stand the teach­ing of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is try­ing to imi­tate their life … Any­one who wants to look at sun­light nat­u­ral­ly wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approx­i­ma­tion to the puri­ty of that on which he looks …” 

This series has been adapt­ed from Steven D. Boy­er and Chris Hall’s The Mys­tery of God: The­ol­o­gy for Know­ing the Unknow­able. Hun­gry for more? Please vis­it Bak­er Aca­d­e­m­ic for more information.

Pho­to by mike ander­son on Unsplash

Text First Published January 2017

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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