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?

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

My first post on Clement can be found here. My more recent post, detailing his life in a little more depth, is available here.

I finished the last post by mentioning Clement’s surviving trilogy. Three works that point the reader towards the intellectual, or perhaps more aptly, intentional, Christian life. I do not believe Clement advocates for an academic or intellectual elitism. Rather, through the Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, Clement urges his readers to work through, grapple with, and understand their faith. It is not a call to a faith of the academy, but a deeper and richer faith in Christ.

As Clement writes in the opening chapter of the Paedagogus:

“The Instructor being practical, not theoretical, His aim is thus to improve the soul, not to teach, and to train it up to a virtuous, not to an intellectual life. “

Paedagogus, 1.1.

Understanding leads to wisdom, which leads to virtue. This is Clement’s view, and informs the structure and urging of his teaching.

Clement is therefore at times quite critical of those who treat their faith too simply, as through this trilogy he argues for an informed and considered faith. If the believer was not engaged on a deeper level with working through their salvation, to Clement they were cheapening their faith. Thus he presents his trilogy. His Exhortation to faith (the Protrepticus), his Instructor (Paedagogus) and his Miscellanies (Stromateis – literally a ‘patchwork’ of wisdom teaching).

The Structure of the Trilogy

I will focus more on the protreptic text of Clement’s Exhortation in the next post, a document that urges a pagan readership to reject their false religion in favour of the Divine Word, Jesus Christ. Only Christ can save, only He is the true divine. He is the basis for real, living faith. And it is a belief in Him that Clement urges for anyone who shall be saved.

The Paedagogus and Stromateis follow this exhortatory work. These two texts charge the Christian reader with the behaviour and thinking of the Christian life. They are didactic texts. They construct a theoretical framework around which Christians are to structure their life, to further their understanding of Christ and their relationship with him.

In his Stromateis (1.1.11), Clement labels the truth of the Christian life “a deathless element of knowledge.” This is what his writings urge his readers to embrace. A knowledge of the truth that leads to a deathless existence: that leads to eternal life.

The structure of the trilogy is therefore simple. The Protrepticus urges true faith, the Paedagogus contemplates the enactment of a considered and maturing faith, before the Stromateis develops this intellectually informed belief.

The Reason for the Trilogy

Clement is consistent in his message: we must seek to grow as Christians. He urges a living and active faith, seeking to know and love Jesus more. A short passage from the Stromateis gives a good indication of what Clement is seeking to achieve.

“Now the Lord is figuratively described as the vine, from which, with pains and the art of husbandry, according to the word, the fruit is to be gathered. We must lop, dig, bind, and perform the other operations. The pruning-knife, I should think, and the pick-axe, and the other agricultural implements, are necessary for the culture of the vine, so that it may produce eatable fruit.

So also here, I call him truly learned who brings everything to bear on the truth; so that, from geometry, and music, and grammar, and philosophy itself, culling what is useful, he guards the faith against assault.”

Stromateis, 1.9.

Referencing the language of Jesus in John 15, Clement likens his argument to Christ’s. As we live out our lives as branches of the True Vine, God prunes and works on us, helping us grow into those who bear fruit. Clement is adamant that God uses our learning, our interests and expertise, to show us more of Himself. Clement believes that as we invest in our faith, by engaging with Scripture, by meditating on God’s word and speaking with Him in prayer, we grow. The Christian life is not inactive, it is a life of growth, and Clement urges the believer not to stagnate. Grow, says Clement, not so that you may know more, but that you may know God more.

This is Clement’s heart. That the believer may not cheapen his faith. That by growing in Christ he would embrace ever closer his Saviour. Clement isn’t teaching a faith that is earned through works and intellect, but one that is strengthened as we surrender more to Christ and His ways. Rejoicing in and relying upon His word, and delighting in following and serving Him.

In light of this blog post, I’d thoroughly recommend David Mathias’ book: Habits of Grace. I’m currently reading it, and it’s a helpful book for thinking through disciplines of the Christian life that can encourage us to rejoice all the more in our Saviour, and get to know Him better!