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Asterius of Amasea: Sermons (1904) pp. 1-15.  Introduction.

Ancient Sermons
Modern Times

By Asterius, Bishop of Amasia Circa 375-405, A. D.

Put into English from the Greek
Professor of Homiletics, University of Chicago,
Instructor in Biblical and Patristic Greek, University of Chicago

"As ye go, preach"

The Pilgrim Press

Copyright, 1904, by J. H. TEWKSBURY

To those who have studied Homiletics under my direction and are now engaged in the peerless work of preaching Christ.


FOUR or five years ago, while lecturing in the Divinity School of the University of Chicago on the History of Preaching, I spoke of the sermons of Asterius as especially interesting, and, although preached in the fourth century, as still fresh and admirably fitted to our times. Dr. Goodspeed, at that time a member of my class, and an enthusiastic and accurate Greek scholar, impressed by my remark, began to read some of the Greek discourses which I had so warmly commended. Convinced of their excellence, he made a literal translation of five of them. He chose for translation those sermons concerning whose authenticity there can scarcely be a reasonable doubt. Each of us went over this |6 translation again and again, striving to present faithfully both the thought and spirit of the author, and at the same time to clothe his thought in clear and forceful English. All who have undertaken such a task, know how very difficult it is. How near we have come to the realization of our ideal the reader himself must judge.

Very little is known of the life of Asterius. We have no knowledge of his family. We have barely one fact concerning his early education. His principal teacher was a Scythian, who in his youth had been sold as a slave to a citizen of Antioch. His owner was a schoolmaster, and took great pains in educating him thoroughly. He made marvelous progress in learning and won for himself a great name among both Greeks and Romans. Under the immediate direction of this celebrated educator Asterius was trained for his life-work. |7 

At some time, probably early in his' career, he made a careful study of Demosthenes, and became himself no mean orator. He won popular favor. He was made Bishop of Amasia, in Pontus, Asia Minor. A few of his sermons there delivered have come down to us. They show rare rhetorical skill, a vivid and disciplined imagination, great power of expression, and, above all, intense moral conviction. He acted with the orthodox party of his day, and should be carefully distinguished from a contemporary of the same name, who was an Arian and a controversialist. He also has the reputation of having been a faithful pastor, one who earnestly devoted himself to the care of his flock. Moreover, his life was without a stain; his teaching and preaching were enforced by his godly living. Nor was his fame confined to the place where he preached publicly and from |8 house to house. During the iconoclastic controversy, at the second council of Nicaea, with a play on his name, he was referred to as "a bright star illumining the minds of all."

The limits of his public career are not definitely known. He preached in the latter part of the fourth century and it may be for a short time in the fifth. In his sermon, On the Festival of the Calends, he refers to the fall of Eutropius from his consulship as an event of the preceding year; now that event was in 399; this sermon therefore was called forth by the festivities of New Year's Day, A. D. 400. Elsewhere Asterius spoke of himself as a man of advanced age, so that he probably did not continue to preach long after the beginning of the fifth century. So far as our knowledge extends that New Year's sermon closed his career. He then historically |9 passed from view. What he did thereafter, no one in our day has ascertained. When, where and how he died is as yet wrapped in impenetrable mystery; but he lives on in the very few of his many discourses that have survived the ravages of time. We have between twenty and thirty of them. Some scholars have doubted the authenticity of all that have been attributed to him, but he is in all probability the author of most of them. In addition to these discourses, with a high degree of plausibility, he has also been considered the author of a life of his predecessor, St. Basil of Amasia. These five sermons, which we send out to the public in English dress, meet the altogether reasonable demand of our day for ethical preaching. In them moral subjects are handled with discrimination and with rare tact. This early Greek preacher laid right hold of the problems that were thrust |10 upon his attention by his immediate surroundings and solved them by the application of the immutable principles of righteousness, and the acknowledged truths of the Word of God. Measuring the conduct of men by principles and truths universally admitted, his discourses are as applicable to men now as they were to those living in the fourth century. But he confined himself so strictly to topics purely ethical, that we cannot but wish that he had treated ethically some of the great fundamental doctrines of grace. Still, in whatever respect he may be justly criticized, all, we are sure, will agree that he was a "live preacher."

We wish also to call attention to the fact that since these sermons deal with men as they were in the society of that early period, they vividly present to us conditions and customs then prevailing among the common people, that historians have |11 failed to portray. Moreover, these discourses are enriched with passages quoted from the Scriptures, which for the most part are suggestively and justly interpreted; so that the words of our author contribute something of value to our knowledge both of history and exegesis.

Asterius was a contemporary of Chrysostom; but while all of Chrysostom's sermons have been more than once translated into English, so far as we are aware this is the first time that any of the discourses of Asterius have appeared in our own tongue. And it will give us great pleasure, if, by this small volume, we shall be able to give to any one a larger knowledge of the early Greek pulpit, and at the same time incidentally to call attention to a striking evidence of the unity in thought and spirit of the believers of the fourth and twentieth centuries. |12 

These sermons stand in the Greek without texts; but in conformity to the custom of our day, I have placed on the page preceding each discourse the Scripture which the preacher freely discussed. There is, however, one exception. In his sermon, On the Festival of the Calends, he expounded no passage of Scripture. Like Chrysostom in his Homilies of the Statues, he seized upon a passing event, making that the foundation of his discourse, and with great force castigated a crying evil.

Last of all we wish to call special attention to the fact that these discourses are genuine sermons. They are at the farthest possible remove from essays. They were spoken directly to men. The preacher frequently said "you." He also often interrogated those to whom he spoke. He abundantly illustrated his thought. He appealed to reason; he pinched the |13 conscience; he ridiculed folly; he shamed vice; he allured to virtue. He was not, to be sure, faultless, but in many respects he is a fine homiletical model, that will richly repay thoughtful study.

The Greek text from which these sermons were translated is found in Migne's Library of the Greek and Latin fathers. 


Newton Centre, March 1, 1904.






V. ON DIVORCE         131

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