The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

I have so far profiled Clement here, and his major trilogy here. But in this third post on Clement of Alexandria, I would like to focus in on the first of those three major works. The Protrepticus.

This first work, split into twelve books, makes the case for the Christian faith. More specifically, Clement addresses a pagan audience, and presents them with Christ, the Divine Logos, the only true Saviour of humanity. The twelve books are divided into two groups of six. Books 1-6 form the argumentatio, where Clement considers the gods of ancient Greece and Rome. The likes of Zeus and Bacchus are exposed as daemonic falsehoods. Lies and demons used by the Evil One to corrupt humanity, and lead them to an immoral end.

In a stark contrast to the first half of the work, Clement turns to present the Christian Gospel in books 7-12, his refutatio. Refuting the claims of the pagan gods, Clement shows how Hebrew and Christian Scripture, and even the writings of the pagan world, point to one true God ruling over all. Clement then shows his readers Christ. The Divine Word made man. The coming, immortal Saviour of humanity.

The work sets the truth, hope and life of Christ against the immorality, falsehood and death of the pagan gods. As his appeal builds in the tenth book, Clement makes the comparison clear.

“It is the Lord of whom you are ashamed. He promises freedom, but you run away into slavery! He bestows salvation, but you sink down into death. He offers eternal life, but you await His punishment; you prefer the fire, which the Lord has prepared for the Devil and his messengers!”

Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, 10.

Christ offers freedom, salvation and life. Yet mankind so willingly embraces slavery, death and punishment. Clement’s appeal is salvific: repent and be saved! Turn from the lies of the world, embrace Christ alone! It is a wonderful cry, and a brilliant argument. Truth against lies, life against death, hope against despair.

A Reasoned Faith

In the Protrepticus, Clement confronts the unbeliever with this reasoned faith. As he presents his pagan readership with the Divine Logos of Christ, Clement seeks (1.2) to “let truth… point to salvation.” As the scholar David Rankin puts it (2005, 6) “[the Protrepticus] is purposed for exhorting conversion to the faith and directed towards pagans.” Clement is wanting to show his readers the truth of Christ, exposing the falsehoods of their own beliefs, and urging them to thus embrace a reasoned faith.

Faith in Christ is not the blind belief of the pagans. It is not the irrational faith of those who believe in the gods of Greece or Rome (gods Clement quite clearly believes – Book 3 – are dead!) No, faith in Christ, says Clement, is reasoned. It is dependant on truth, it is predicated on Christ’s work of salvation.

Challenging Culture with a Better Story

But Clement doesn’t just present his truth of Christ in a vacuum. He clearly holds is up to and against the gods of the ancient world. Clement opens his work with the music and myths of famous pagan minstrels. Amphion, Arion and Eunomus open the first book, before Clement brings on Orpheus, the most famous ancient Greek musician. All these men sing songs in praise of the gods of the ancient world, says Clement, but what does their music amount to?

“By their chants and enchantments they have held captive in the lowest slavery that truly noble freedom which belongs to those who are citizens under heaven…”

Protrepticus, 1.

These musicians are part of a culture, a religious infrastructure, that enslaves humanity! Their very songs are part of the lies that doom Clement’s pagan readers. But, says Clement, there is more. He continues:

“… But far different is my minstrel, for He has come to bring to a speedy end the bitter slavery of the daemons that lord it over us!”

Protrepticus, 1.

Clement’s minstrel is Christ. And the song He sings, the message He brings, is so much sweeter to hear. It is a message of hope, one of real life. Clement goes on throughout his work to engage with this song of the pagans. He uses the poetry, drama, philosophy and history of the Greeks and Romans to show his readers their gods. He uses their own words to expose the lies they believe. And then he points them to Christ. He tells them the story of their broken worldview, and then he gives them the better story of Christ.

It’s a wonderful rhetorical structure. Clement weaves in literature from across the ancient world to tell these two stories, and at the end of it, the only rational response is faith in Christ. The pagan gods are pathetic before the wonderful might of Christ. Clement’s greater Minstrel is the true God. Clement challenges the culture of the ancient world, he engages with it, and he leads his readers to look to Christ.

Offering Hope

Because as Clement works through his exposé of the gods of ancient Greece and Rome, he highlights the sinfulness of his readers. Taken in by lies, they embrace the moral depravity and licentiousness of these daemonic gods. And their end is destruction.

But Clement brings Christ onstage to offer hope to a fallen and broken humanity. Christ has come to enact salvation for a lost humanity. Even the vilest offender is not too far gone. And so Clement closes his work with a simple appeal.

“But with you still rests the final act, namely this, to choose which is the more profitable, judgement or grace.”

Protrepticus, 12.

The stories have been told. Reasoned and rational faith is the answer. So it is time to decide, a final question to a world that believes in dead gods, judgement or grace?

Good Friday: The Shame of the Cross

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

John 19:16b-18.

In agony, the body hangs off the cross. Blood pours out of a series of brutally inflicted wounds. From a back that has been torn by the vicious lashes of a three lined whip, one woven through with pieces of lead or bone (designed to rip open the skin, and tear off chunks of the body). From hands and feet that have been pierced through by rough and jagged nails. From a brow crowned with thorns only a short while before, sweat mixing with blood as it pours down a face that cannot be wiped.

Breathing is quickly sharp and jagged. A body wracked with pain, agony in every breath. Hung from a wooden cross, the weight of the body pulls down on the lungs. Slowly, suffocation closes in. The heart becomes weaker as blood pours out of the wounds. Only pain remains, from a body damaged beyond belief. Humanity is stripped away as the naked body hangs, skin in tatters, life fading fast.

This was the horror of the Roman crucifixion. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, called it “the most wretched of deaths.” Cicero, the Republican orator and polymath, labelled it the “most cruel and terrible punishment.” As Christ hung upon that wooden cross, on the darkest day we know as Good Friday, He hung as a broken, humiliated criminal.

Tacitus, the Roman historian who was born just a few decades after the death of Jesus, gave a simple and methodical account of Jesus’ death.

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.

Lacking the details of the Gospel accounts, Tacitus nonetheless confirms the horrifying truth at the heart of the Christian faith. Their founder and Messiah had died upon a cross like a common criminal. The same fate handed out to runaway slaves was inflicted upon the one they thought would be their Saviour. The Cross was a horrifying way to die. And in the Roman world, it was a shame without equal.

The Horror of the Death

Crucifixion is a horrific form of execution, and the suffering inflicted upon the victim is immense. A reading of any one of the four Gospel accounts illustrates this quickly. We can so easily gloss over the details when we read these narratives, but it is human brutality at its worst. The body is wracked with unimaginable pain. Crucifixion was the ultimate statement of the state’s authority.

Runaway slaves were caught and hung to illustrate how their freedom was an illusion before the might of Rome. Criminals were hung to show their crimes had no impact on the power of the Empire. Jesus was hung on the cross as a political prisoner. The sign above His head declared Him to be the King of the Jews. Here, says the might of Rome, is what has become of your king. Your great king, your hope, your so-called Messiah, see how He hangs upon our cross. It was the ultimate defeat at the hands of the state, and the sign above Jesus’ head was an open ridicule of any hopes of deliverance through this now beaten Messiah.

As Jesus hung His head and died, the horror of His death had one final, brutal reality. As He hangs on the cross, Christ’s words are recorded in the Gospel accounts. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” In His final moments, this Son of God felt His Father turn His back. Abandoned by friends, disciples and followers, now His God had turned away.

The Shame of Those Left Behind

Just a few days before, Jesus has ridden into the city on a colt, with crowds surrounding Him, cheering “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Truly, this Messiah was at His earthly peak. Adoring crowds surrounded Him, welcoming the Son of God come to save a broken humanity. The disciples marched proudly behind Him, basking in His glory. Yet by the end of the week, His battered and torn body hung limply on a cross. The disciples retreated to an upper room. Not for a supper such as the one they had shared just a few hours before, but instead, in fear and trembling, to assess their options.

Only a week earlier they seemed headed for certain success. Now, their leader hung lifeless on a wooden cross, and the faithful lieutenants hid fearfully. Victory had turned to shame. Their king hung like a criminal. Rome had won. The High Priest and the Pharisees had won. This lowly band of fishermen and tax collectors had seen their hopes crushed in the most public of ways.

The disciples offer a painful absence in the Gospel account of the death and burial of Jesus. The Gospel writers tell us that several of the women who followed Jesus stood by watching, but as Joseph comes to request and collect the body, before burying it in his family tomb, there is only silence from the disciples.

Their wonderful leader was seemingly crushed, and in their shame and sorrow, their response was hopelessness.

The Faintest Hope?

Amazingly, in the face of this most horrific of executions, there was a glimmer of hope. The disciples shivered alone in their locked upper room, because they had fled in panic as their leader was defeated. Except He wasn’t defeated. Though all seemed lost, though Rome and the Jewish leaders seemed to have crushed this Jesus Christ, the story was by no means over.

Because this death was not the end.

Jesus Himself had made that clear. He was the first man for whom death was not the end, because He had come to defeat it. He was in charge of the dark events of this first Good Friday. And He had made that clear to all those who would listen just a short while ago.

“I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.

John 10:17b-18a.

Jesus knew exactly what was coming when He rode into Jerusalem in triumph. It wasn’t a triumph at a past victory, but one He was about to win. As Christ breathed His last on that humble wooden cross, the story was far from over. He had laid down His life for the very people who had surrounded Him at that triumphal entry, for the same people who had called for Him to hang upon that cross. But He had the authority to take it back up again.

Good Friday is only the start of the weekend.

Because Easter Means Hope.

Rockin’ around the Saturnalia tree? Christmas in the Early Church.

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Wednesday is Christmas day. If you’re anything like me, you’ve been buying presents, going along to carol services, and decorating your tree. The prospect of a week off of work looms large and joyful, and time spent with family and friends fills you with joy/despair (delete as appropriate).

The Early Church celebrated many things together. They ate meals as church families regularly (far more than we do today), they celebrated the resurrection as the sure foundation of their faith. But for the first three hundred years of Church History, it doesn’t seem that they celebrated Christmas.

Indeed, it’s only in 356 that we find the words “25th Dec, natus Christus in Betleem Judae.” Quite literally, 25th December, Christ is born in Bethlehem, Judea. So for three hundred years, we have no record of the Church or any other Christian group celebrating Christmas. The death of Christ and of notable saints or historic Christian figures received much more attention than their birth, and at Epiphany celebrations on the 6th January the Church was more concerned with reflecting on Christ’s baptism than His birth. It seems that Christ’s birth was not something reflected with a special day of celebration.

Why December 25th?

Quite why we celebrate Christ’s birth on the 25th of December then remains a mystery. Some have posited that it super-ceded the Roman festival of the Saturnalia, others suggest that as the Catholic Church began to celebrate Christ’s conception on March 25th, his birth naturally falls nine months later.

The former seems more likely, and the 25th of December reflects not only the Roman festival in honour of Saturn but also the Persian festival to Mithra. These major festivals may naturally have become usurped by a growing Christian population in the Roman world, keen to encourage pagans to comfortably assimilate to the new religion.

Either way, it seems unlikely that Christ was born on the 25th December, and the Bible certainly gives no date or time. Regardless of quite why the 25th was picked as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the most important thing to not was that it was. And for hundreds of years, Christians have taken time to celebrate this birth, of a baby boy to a humble carpenter in Bethlehem, some two thousand years ago.

Why Celebrate at all?

Christians celebrate because this baby is special. When Mary became pregnant, the Lord said to her husband Joseph:

“She will give birth to a Son, and you shall give Him the name Jesus, because He has come to save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21 (NIV).

Jesus came to save. Jesus, this baby in a Manger, was born to save men and women across the world and throughout history, from themselves.

Because we all need it. Look at the world around us, look at our own hearts. So often the biggest problem we deal with is ourselves. We cause trouble for ourselves, we make foolish and unkind decisions. Our actions, words and thoughts can be dirty, cruel and selfish. And the Bible says that’s wrong. And we know in our hearts that it is.

The Bible also says that this wrongdoing, what the Bible calls sin, is punishable by death. That’s why death is the certainty we all face. But on Christmas day two thousand years ago, a baby was born to challenge that. A baby was born to die. When the wise men visited, they brought gifts fit for a king (gold) a god (frankincense) and a corpse (myrrh). Myrrh, an embalming oil for bodies in the tomb. Christ was born to face death. Not in the way we are, as an inevitable end to our lives, but to face it head on.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, by taking upon His perfect and divine shoulders, the punishment of death our sins deserve. And in its place, He gives us His goodness, His right standing with God, and we walk free. Not just in this life, but for all eternity. The baby in the manger came to bring hope to a world that seems so hopeless.

That’s why we celebrate Him. A baby born to die. A King born to save.

Maybe this Christmas you could meet this King for the first time? The links below are just to help you explore who He is, and think about why it is we celebrate Christmas quite so enthusiastically, every year.

https://www.ligonier.org/blog/real-meaning-christmas/

http://speaklife.org.uk/HeCameDown/

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+1&version=NIV