Tuesday, February 26, 2008

St. Clement of Alexandria on Sola Scriptura, Church Unity & Authority

From his "Stromata" book 7,

First, then, they [Greeks & Jews] make this objection to us, saying, that they ought not to believe on account of the discord of the sects. For the truth is warped when some teach one set of dogmas, others another.
I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard that one. Looks like they haven't thought of many new excuses in the last 1800 years.

If one, then, violate his engagements, and go aside from the confession which he makes before us, are we not to stick to the truth because he has belied his profession?
So the problem is heretics. The true (Catholic) Church has remained orthodox it seems. There is one (and he seems to assume only one) that has stayed true. Notice, he didn't use the modern Protestant rebuttal of: there's different denominations for different styles of worship. We will see his 'one Church' ecclesiology more clearly as we progress.
But as the good man must not prove false or fail to ratify what he has promised, although others violate their engagements; so also are we bound in no way to transgress the canon of the Church. And especially do we keep our profession in the most important points, while they traverse it.
This passage on Church authority is important to keep in mind as we continue.
And as, while there is one royal highway, there are many others, some leading to a precipice, some to a rushing river or to a deep sea, no one will shrink from travelling by reason of the diversity, but will make use of the safe, and royal, and frequented way; so, though some say this, some that, concerning the truth, we must not abandon it; but must seek out the most accurate knowledge respecting it. Since also among garden-grown vegetables weeds also spring up, are the husbandmen, then, to desist from gardening?
In this allegorical passage I think his ecclesiology is especially clear. The Church is the only way to Christ and the fact that there are other Christians outside the Church is a lame excuse to dismiss Christianity.

So what is the test of the true Church? Did Clement teach sola scriptura as the Reformers taught it?
There being demonstration, then, it is necessary to condescend to questions, and to ascertain by way of demonstration by the Scriptures themselves how the heresies failed, and how in the truth alone and in the ancient Church is both the exactest knowledge, and the truly best set of principles.
We have two statements of interest here - 1. It is possible to demonstrate the errors of the heresies by Scripture and 2. The truth can be found in the ancient Church (presumably exclusively though this context doesn't make it especially clear whereas the previous ones, I think, do make it clear).

A slight divergence from the current topic in the interest of chronology:
* Edit - I misread this section. Comments deleted. *
Back to Scripture:
Now all men, having the same judgment, some, following the Word speaking, frame for themselves proofs; while others, giving themselves up to pleasures, wrest Scripture, in accordance with their lusts. And the lover of truth, as I think, needs force of soul. For those who make the greatest attempts must fail in things of the highest importance; unless, receiving from the truth itself the rule of the truth, they cleave to the truth. But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, (cough cough - Magisterium) strictly trained to select what is essential (sound like anyone you know? "but the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception isn't needed for salvation"). For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures.


He, then, who of himself believes the Scripture and voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly [regarded] faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things
Let's be clear - the Scriptures are certainly an infallible criteria to determine heresy. No quarrels there. We still haven't reached 'sola scriptura' though...
Since also, in what pertains to life, craftsmen are superior to ordinary people, and model what is beyond common notions; so, consequently, we also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration.
As the Protestant is fond of repeating - Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. Such a statement can certainly be true - depending on how far you're willing to take it. Scripture must be read in light of the entirety of Scripture - there is no Catholic disagreement here. And before you go making this into a proof-text, be sure to read Clement in light of the entirety of his work! We have already demonstrated his ecclesiology to be close to modern Catholic thought - (the ancient Church is both authoritative and uniquely true in the fullest sense of the word). He goes on to talk about heretics routinely taking Scriptures out of context and later says:
Accordingly, those fall from this eminence who follow not God whither He leads. And He leads us in the inspired Scriptures.
A Catholic apologist might have wanted him to say something about the Church at this point. He didn't but let us take this time to remind ourselves of Clement's canon. Being from Alexandria it should come as no surprise that he takes the deutero-canonical books for granted as Scripture. He quotes extensively from all of them - especially Sirach and Wisdom. So when he talks about 'the Scriptures', he's talking about the Catholic bible. Luckily, he does remind us again of his ecclesiology:
Our Gnostic (in this context, he's not talking about Gnostics as we would use the word but in contradistinction to the so-called Gnostics. For Clement, the true Gnostic is the perfected Christian) 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.
I think we should be comfortable in asserting that for Clement, merely using bits of Scriptures to prove points doesn't amount to truth. The Scriptures must be studied not only in the light of other Scripture but in accordance with apostolic orthodoxy.

I like this:
For that the human assemblies (ecclesial communities) which they held were posterior to the Catholic Church requires not many words to show.


Therefore in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith -- which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament in different times by the will of the one God, through one Lord -- those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.
We have so far seen in his writings the four marks of the true Church - one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. So in summary, if we are to read his work in its proper context, we must concede that he taught Scripture as belonging to the treasury of the Church and not to be interpreted apart from it. Certainly the idea that the Church answered to Scripture would have seemed as alien to Clement as the idea of the Church existing as an invisible entity comprised of members from thousands of sects with radically differing doctrines.

Overall, I found Clement to be quite cumbersome to read- I didn't particularly like his writing style. He has been accused of drawing too near to the errors of Gnosticism and even Neo-Platonism. In spite of this and the several doctrinal errors he did make (I'm not pretending to place myself as a judge of Saint Clement - I'm merely asserting that the Church has come to define certain dogmas which are incompatible with some of his views) we ought to consider his writings to be decidedly orthodox. He has left us a number of jewels which we would do well to learn from. This is my final post on St. Clement of Alexandria (at least for a while).

Here were my others:

St. Clement of Alexandria on Sexuality in the OT Law

St. Clement of Alexandria Against Metrosexuals

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