Tuesday, March 16, 2010

St. Clement of Alexandria & Sola Scriptura


St. Clement of Alexandria was born to pagan parents and later converted to Christianity. He studied under Pantaenus, who was the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria (in modern-day Egypt), was ordained a Priest, and later became himself the head of the School after the passing of his teacher. He is also famous for having been the mentor of Origen of Alexandria, who became head of the School after Clement's passing.

Clement's writings, which he penned during his time in Alexandria from about AD 180 to AD 200, are some of the most difficult of the writings of the early Fathers. He never attempts, in any of his writings, to explicate a cohesive, overarching argument; he instead jumps from topic to topic, often without any logical transition, following his thoughts wherever they take him. His writings have also been the subject of some controversy in the Church, even into modern times, as he drew freely on pagan and heretical works and ideas, using them to support his own theses; but more on this in a moment.

First, let's look at the common proof-text presented by Protestant apologists:

"But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves." - St. Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, 7, 16

Sounds like a good proof-text in support of Sola Scriptura at first read, but if we dig anywhere below surface level, we start to encounter some major problems. First, these apologists apparently didn't finish the chapter this quote comes from. Here's Clement a few paragraphs later on what heretics do with the Scriptures:
"And if those also who follow heresies venture to avail themselves of the prophetic Scriptures; in the first place they will not make use of all the Scriptures, and then they will not quote them entire, nor as the body and texture of prophecy prescribe. But, selecting ambiguous expressions, they wrest them to their own opinions, gathering a few expressions here and there; not looking to the sense, but making use of the mere words. For in almost all the quotations they make, you will find that they attend to the names alone, while they alter the meanings; neither knowing, as they affirm, nor using the quotations they adduce, according to their true nature." - Stromata, 7, 16
And again, seeming to actually argue against Protestants nearly 1300 years before Protestants even existed:

"For those are slothful who, having it in their power to provide themselves with proper proofs for the divine Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, select only what contributes to their own pleasures. And those have a craving for glory who voluntarily evade, by arguments of a diverse sort, the things delivered by the blessed Apostles and teachers, which are wedded to inspired words; opposing the divine tradition by human teachings, in order to establish the heresy.

For, in truth, what remained to be said—in ecclesiastical knowledge I mean—by such men, Marcion, for example, or Prodicus, and such like, who did not walk in the right way? For they could not have surpassed their predecessors in wisdom, so as to discover anything in addition to what had been uttered by them; for they would have been satisfied had they been able to learn the things laid down before." - Stromata, 7, 16 [emphasis mine]

According to Clement, then, the heretics introduce innovations and contradict the Apostles by falsely believing that they can interpret Scripture for themselves; they disregard the Apostolic Traditions which, according to Clement, have been "wedded" to the Scriptures, and produce their own necessarily false interpretations. And what is Clement's answer to this problem? The Church.

"Now, since there are three states of the soul—ignorance, opinion, knowledge—those who are in ignorance are the Gentiles [pagans], those in knowledge, the true Church, and those in opinion, the Heretics. Nothing, then, can be more clearly seen than those, who know, making affirmations about what they know, and the others respecting what they hold on the strength of opinion, as far as respects affirmation without proof." - Stromata, 7, 16
And again, on membership in the Church being necessary to correctly interpreting Scripture, a few paragraphs later:
"Our Gnostic [not referring to the heretical groups of the same name, but to an Orthodox Christian with True Knowledge of God] then alone, having grown old in the Scriptures, and maintaining apostolic and ecclesiastic orthodoxy in doctrines, lives most correctly in accordance with the Gospel, and discovers the proofs, for which he may have made search (sent forth as he is by the Lord), from the law and the prophets. For the life of the Gnostic, in my view, is nothing but deeds and words corresponding to the tradition of the Lord." - Stromata, 7, 16
And Clement closes this chapter with an indictment of the heretics as having corrupted the truth and stolen the Holy Scriptures, which properly belong to the Church:
"For we must never, as do those who follow the heresies, adulterate the truth, or steal the canon of the Church, by gratifying our own lusts and vanity, by defrauding our neighbours; whom above all it is our duty, in the exercise of love to them, to teach to adhere to the truth." - Stromata, 7, 16
When we move into the next chapter, chapter 17, Clement tells us more about this Church, in fact, he uses many of the same arguments we encountered with St. Irenaeus of Lyons previously. Here's a few quotes (although I strongly encourage you to read Clement's arguments for yourself here):
"But not having the key of entrance, but a false (and as the common phrase expresses it), a counterfeit key , by which they [heretics] do not enter in as we enter in, through the Tradition of the Lord, by drawing aside the curtain; but bursting through the side-door, and digging clandestinely through the wall of the Church, and stepping over the truth, they constitute themselves the Mystagogues [those who initiate into the mysteries] of the soul of the impious." - Stromata, 7, 17

"From what has been said, then, it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree honourable is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the One, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one Church, which they strive to cut asunder into many sects." - Stromata, 7, 17

"But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself." - Stromata, 7, 17
Now let's look at the opening chapter from the same writing, The Stromata, in which Clement explains how he came to the knowledge of the True Faith, and how the True Faith is passed down, namely, through Apostolic Succession:
"Well, they [the three men whom Clement learned of the Faith from -- probably Tatian the Syrian, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Pantaenus of Alexandria] preserving the Tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the Holy Apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the Fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the Truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed Tradition." - Stromata, 1, 1
So, we can see that using the proof-text from Clement's Stromata to support Sola Scriptura is taking his words out of context. But there's also another problem with a Protestant using his quote this way. Clement's idea of what constitutes "Scripture" is very, very different from a Protestant's; in fact, it's very different from mine as well. Essentially, Clement believed that anything that agreed with the Faith of the Church could be considered Scriptural, no matter by whom it was written, when, or where. Here's Bruce Metzger (a Presbyterian, by the way), one of the most famous and widely respected historians of early Christianity, in his book The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance:
"He [Clement] refers to [pagan poet] Orpheus as 'the theologian', and speaks of [pagan philosopher] Plato as being 'under the inspiration of God'. Even the Epicurean [pagan philosopher] Metrodorus uttered certain words 'divinely inspired'. It is not surprising then that, that he can quote passages as inspired from the epistles of Clement of Rome and of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter." (page 134)
In all, of the approximately 8000 citations of other works in Clement's writings, about one-third of them are from pagan authors. He cites 359 pagan writings, 70 biblical writings (including all of the deuterocanonical books and some apocryphal ones -- all as authoritative), and 36 patristic or New Testament apocryphal writings, including those of heretics.

It's to be noted, though, that 1. he doesn't quote all of these various writings as Scriptural, though he quotes many that neither you nor I would consider Scriptural as such; and 2. even though Clement's definition of "Scripture" was a little wider than that used by your or I, he does seem to have attributed more authority to the writings of Apostles than to other writings. Even here, however, his list of books differed significantly from our current 27-book New Testament (the New Testament being, as it is, an attempt at a complete library of Apostolic writings).

St. Clement believed all of the following books were Apostolic writings, in addition to what we have in our New Testament today:
  • Gospel of the Egyptians
  • Gospel of the Hebrews
  • Traditions of Matthias
  • Preaching of Peter
  • 1 Clement
  • Epistle of Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas
  • Apocalypse of Peter
And his New Testament didn't include the following books which we do include:
  • Philemon
  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John
The problem all of this presents for the Protestant apologist is obvious. Even if Clement was a Sola Scripturist (we've already seen that he was not), his Scriptura was very different from that of a Protestant. Hence, he couldn't have been Sola Scripturist in the way a Protestant is; from a Protestant perspective, he's including a whole lot of extra-biblical stuff in his theology, and excluding some of Scripture!

If you'd like to read the writings of St. Clement of Alexandria for yourself, check them out here.

(originally posted as Pious Fabrications on 5 January 2010)

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