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?

‘Food sacrificed to idols.’ 1 Corinthians 8 in Context.

This blog is a little different. My church recently had a sermon on 1 Corinthians 8. In this chapter Paul addresses the response of the Corinthian believer to the problem of food that has been sacrificed to idols (vs1).

The pastor who preached this sermon was really helpful in unpacking the cultural background Paul is writing in and this blog is my effort to put those thoughts down on screen for people to engage with.

Paul’s argument in this chapter is that this sacrificed food is as an issue of strong/weak believers. In a similar manner to his teaching in Romans 14 and 15, Paul encourages believers for whom this food is not an issue to be wary of the impact it may have on believers who may still see such food as defiled. If it could be a stumbling block for someone, Paul says he would never eat meat again, rather than defile a brother with sin!

But why is this an issue? Whether preaching this text in church or tackling it in a personal devotional, let me flesh out the cultural background to Paul’s instruction.

Roman religion was transactional. If one wanted to thank the gods for something, or ask the gods for something, or even to apologise to the gods, then they had to give something. Sacrifice. The worshipper parted with a sacrificial item in return for the good favour or grace of the god or goddess to whom their worship was aimed.

And food was a common sacrifice in the Roman world. The gods feasted on the action of giving and the aroma of the sacrifice. A portion of the food may have been burnt in order to send up to heaven this fragrance of sacrifice, but the food “sacrificed to idols” that Paul was concerned with would have been more than just what was consumed by the fire. The food would be a gift to the gods, left in the temple and consecrated as holy to a particular god or goddess. But the food could then go on to be part of a sacrificial feast which the people shared with the gods.

Food sacrifices could include bread, grains, wine, fruit, meat, cakes and much more. It could even include whole animals, which would be roasted over a fire, part consumed by the flames and part by the priest and the people.

So what was the problem facing Christians in this setting? Temples, idols and altars were everywhere. Think of Paul in Acts 17. In verses 22-23 Paul talks of how he walked round the city seeing their many “objects of worship”, so many in fact they even have an altar to an unknown god!

Because it was so widespread, the Christian couldn’t avoid the religion of the Roman world, and in the food sacrificed in the temples of the ancient world, they were faced with a moral dilemma. Could they eat it? The Christian knew such food, which was available all over the towns and cities they lived in, was sacrificed to gods that didn’t exist and thus had no power or meaning. But they also knew such food was defiled (1 Cor 8:7). It was offered to false gods and idols. It was food of pagan religion. Could the Christian eat it?

Paul says yes.

But should they?

Paul says maybe.

If it would cause the weaker brother, unable to move past the purpose of the food sacrifice, to stumble into the sin of eating food offered to a god who is not God, then it ought to be rejected. But if those involved recognised that food “does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (vs8), then they were free to eat, what difference does it make asks Paul?

Food was sacrificed to idols as part and parcel of pagan religion in the ancient world. Much of that food was then kept and distributed by the priests and temple workers, it was often free to take and eat.


Should the Christian get involved? Paul says this is a matter of freedom, but also of showing grace to the weaker brother.

We ought to read this passage as a challenge to our own freedoms. By God’s wonderful grace we are eternally free in Him. There is much we can do as we live for Him. This specific example, food sacrificed to idols, though an issue for the Corinthian church, is rarely an issue for the modern church. But Paul’s point translates directly. Are we to put exercising our freedoms above looking our for the moral purity of our brothers and sisters? By no means. Just because we are free to do something, might not mean it is right. If it were to cause our brother to sin, we ought to mirror Paul in his meat eating example of vs13. If doing ‘x’ might cause our weaker brother to sin? Then it would be better that we never do ‘x’ again!

In grace we are free. But in our freedom we can extend grace.

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

The agora of Smyrna, where the charge against Polycarp was read out.

My pastor recently opened his sermon with the story of Polycarp, the second century Bishop of Smyrna. It’s a story I’ve come across many times in my studies, and used in research papers on anything from Early Christian community organisation to evangelism in pagan urban environments. But I’ve never focussed in on the story itself, and it’s a gripping tale of a man standing fast for Christ in the face of persecution. A version of the story is preserved in the eponymous text, the Martyrdom of Polycarp. So this blog is going to be a bit different, focussing in on the story of Polycarp, who he was and what happened to him.

The  Martyrdom of Polycarp was written around 160 AD and provides our earliest account of a Christian martyr outside the New Testament. The text tells the story of Polycarp’s martyrdom: his arrest, trial and death, from the point of view of an eye witness. This witness tells us that he is writing his work so that we might see how Polycarp lived out the Gospel in his death.

So what happened?

Polycarp, an old man well into his 80s, was a key church leader in the Roman city of Smyrna. Though almost none of his teaching survives directly to us, the one letter we have, a missive to the church at Philippi, shows a pastoral man, humble and direct. He was a respected leader, both in his own time, and also in the centuries to come.

Born in AD 69, he was killed in 156.

Polycarp had heard the news that the Roman authorities were coming for him. But he did not run, seeing it better that he submit to the authorities God had placed over him. When friends urged him to flee, he calmly replied “The will of God be done” and waited for the inevitable.

Whilst he was resting in the country house of a good friend a short way out of the city, the soldiers arrived. Having tortured two slave boys for the location of the aged bishop, the soldiers rode out to the house and confronted Polycarp.

His response amazed them. He willingly submitted to them, but in a remarkable show of grace and humility, Polycarp fed and watered his captors, asking that he be given a few hours to pray alone before they took him away. The soldiers relented, giving him his time alone, and we are told that his humble kindness so amazed them that some began “to repent that they had come forth against so godly and venerable an old man.”

Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?

Polycarp.

After he had prayed, the soldiers led him into the city and took him before the Roman proconsul. Here Polycarp was defiant. The proconsul, a senior Roman figure and the imperial authority in the region, demanded that Polycarp recant his faith. He demanded that Polycarp “swear by the fortune of Caesar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists.” He pressed him, offering him his freedom and indeed, his life, if only he would recant his faith.

Polycarp could not. He looked at his captors and he declared, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”

In this act of defiant faithfulness, Polycarp signed his own death warrant. The proconsul continued to press him. The Martyrdom of Polycarp records the trial suffered by the old man. After being pressed hard, the old saint would not relent, and eventually, the proconsul sentenced him to death. The charge that was read to the people? “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian.”

Polycarp was taken to a pyre, put against a stake, and burned to death. The  Martyrdom of Polycarp describes how he prays as the flames surround him, and it says the smell was not like burning flesh but the beautiful aroma of a loaf baking. Polycarp was ready to go to His Lord and be forever with Him.

The death of Polycarp was religious persecution. State persecution. The charge was Christian faith, denial of the Roman gods and the divinity of the emperor. The story of Polycarp is a picture of humility, grace and faithfulness. At the end of it all, Polycarp considered his God worth everything he had. Even his very life.