The Teachers of the Church: Clement of Alexandria (Part 2)

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The History of Christianity #48

Our Scripture verse today is Philippians 2:5 which reads: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.”

Our quote today is from Clement of Alexandria. He said: “Let us realize how near he is, and that nothing escapes him, not our thoughts, or the plans we make.”

Today, we are looking at “The Teachers of the Church” (Part 5) from Dr. Justo L. Gonzalez’s fine book, The Story of Christianity (Volume 1).

Clement of Alexandria (Part 2)
But the reason why Clement calls upon Plato is not only that it is convenient for his argument. He is convinced that there is only one truth, and that therefore any truth to be found in Plato can be none other than the truth that has been revealed in Jesus Christ and in scripture. According to him, philosophy was given to the Greeks just as the Law was given to the Jews. Both have the purpose of leading to the ultimate truth, now revealed in Christ. The classical philosophers were to the Greeks what the prophets were to the Hebrews. With the Jews, God has established the covenant of the Law; with the Greeks, that of philosophy.

How can one see the agreement between scripture and the philosophers? At first sight, there seems to be a great distance between the two. But Clement was convinced that a careful study of scripture would lead to the same truth that the philosophers have known. The reason for this is that scripture is written allegorically or, as Clement says, “in parables.” The sacred text has more than one meaning. The literal sense ought not to be set aside. But those who are content with it are like children who are content with milk and never grow to adulthood. Beyond the literal sense of the text there are other meanings that the truly wise must discover.

There is a close relationship between faith and reason, for one cannot function without the other. Reason builds its arguments on first principles which cannot be proven, but are accepted by faith. For the truly wise, faith is the first principle, the starting point, on which reason is to build. But Christians who are content with faith, and do not use reason to build upon it, are again like children who are forever content with milk.

Clement contrasts such people, who are satisfied with the rudiments of faith, with the wise person or, as he says, the “true Gnostic.” Those who are wise go beyond the literal meaning of scripture. Clement himself saw his task, not as that of a shepherd leading a flock, but rather as that of the “true Gnostic” leading others of similar interests. Naturally, this tends to produce an elitist theology, and Clement has often been criticized on this account.

It is not necessary to say a great deal about the actual content of Clement’s theology. Although he sees himself as an interpreter of scripture, his allegorical exegesis allows him to find in the sacred text ideas and doctrines that are really Platonic in inspiration. God is the Ineffable One about which one can only speak in metaphors and in negative terms. One can say what God is not. But as to what God is, human language can do no more than point to a reality that is beyond its gasp.

This Ineffable One is revealed to us in the Word or Logos, from whom the philosophers as well as the prophets received whatever truth they knew, and who has become incarnate in Jesus. On this point, Clement follows the direction set earlier by Justin. The main difference is that, while Justin used the doctrine of the Logos to show to pagans the truth of Christianity, Clement uses the same doctrine to call Christians to be open to the truth in philosophy.

In any case, Clement’s importance does not lie in the manner in which he understands one doctrine or another, but rather in that his thought is characteristic of an entire atmosphere and tradition that developed in Alexandria and that would be of great significance for the subsequent course of theology. Later in this chapter, when discussing Origen, we shall see the next step in the development of that theological tradition. It is also interesting to note that Clement is the author of the oldest Christian hymn whose authorship is known – a hymn whose translation by Lowell Mason in 1831, now commonly sung, begins “Shepherd of tender youth, guiding in love and truth.”

Next time, we will look at The Teachers of the Church: Tertullian of Carthage.

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