Thursday, February 13, 2014

Clement of Alexandria (part 1)

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150 – ca. 215)

Jerome writes an account of Clement’s life in his work, Lives of Illustrious Men. That work seeks to demonstrate that there were excellent “ecclesiastical writers,” and Jerome’s list includes 135 men (with Jerome being the 135th). Chapter 38 of Lives of Illustrious Men tells us that Clement was a presbyter in the church at Alexandria, that he was “the author of notable volumes, full of eloquence and learning, both in sacred Scripture and in secular literature,” and that he succeeded Pantaenus as the head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria (although Jerome’s depiction of a coherent “school” at this early stage may be somewhat idealized).

The Christian “school” in Alexandria leaned toward utilizing typology or allegory to interpret Scripture, an approach also taken by Philo of Alexandria (a similar approach had long been used by Greek interpreters of Homer and other ancient Greek works). Clement can show much interest in the literal words of the biblical text, however (more so than other Alexandrian interpreters; Cosaert 2008: 23).

Clement’s symbolic interpretations of parables are more understandable after reading his discussion of the “symbolic” style by poets and philosophers (Miscellanies 5.8). Symbolism is used by all who seek the truth—whether Hebrew, Egyptian, Greek, and even “barbarians” who pursued philosophy— including “concealment,” enigmas, and symbolism. Similar to how the secrets of the Jewish Temple were restricted to a few, likewise the Egyptians, for example, “did not entrust the mysteries they possessed to all and sundry, and did not divulge the knowledge of divine things to the profane.” They instead only divulged those mysteries to royalty and the “worthiest” among the priests (5.7). Clement thus argues:

Very useful, then, is the mode of symbolic interpretation for many purposes; and it is helpful to the right theology, and to piety, and to the display of intelligence, and the practice of brevity, and the exhibition of wisdom. “For the use of symbolical speech is characteristic of the wise man,” appositely remarks the grammarian Didymus, “and the explanation of what is signified by it” (5.8).

Clement also says that symbolism is important, because the truth must be concealed from those who might abuse or pollute it. Symbolism contains more power than simple, direct statements of truth, and it also permits more than one layer of meaning. Thus, Clement argues, interpreters who understand this symbolism must be sought so they can discern and explain the truth within it. This interpretation is most important, in Clement’s view, because God’s prophetic Scriptures that contain the plan of salvation are filled with metaphors and parables, and Christ the incarnated logos gives us the knowledge by which we can reach the spiritual world beyond our senses. Some people will remain ignorant; for them the prophecies remain enigmatic parables and, in some cases, stumbling blocks. For those “who have ears to hear,” however, the truth of the Scriptures will be explained (Hägg 2010: 180). So, unlike the Gnostics, Clement’s view of gnosis (knowledge) is not a secret, hidden teaching only revealed and passed on to a select few (and Jesus was truly incarnated; he became flesh and blood within human history to reveal the nature of God’s character); it is a collective truth in that it comes from the apostolic tradition and the Scriptures.

Roland Bainton sums up Clement’s view succinctly: For Clement, “Christianity was the true poem, and he waxed poetic in his description of the work of the Lord Jesus” (78). Clement’s allegorical means of interpreting the Bible is part of that poetic approach that discerns the truth veiled within enigmas, symbols, and allegories (e.g., Miscellanies 5.4).

How does this approach apply to the parables? In Stromata 6.15, Clement presents the way to interpret “in a manner worthy of God and of the Lord” and “according to the teaching of the Lord by His apostles.” The task of a true interpreter of Scripture is to proclaim “what you hear in the ear” (i.e., figuratively in a hidden manner and in a mystery)—from the rooftops, “according to the canon of the truth.” Jesus announced the divine mysteries in parables, a form that was not easily apprehended by all (Matt. 13:34; cf. Mark 4:10-12, 33-34;).

Clement notes that when Scripture “hides the sense” by using parabolic, symbolic language, it stimulates us to be inquisitive (cf. C. H. Dodd’s “tease the mind into active thought”; 1961: 16). This ambiguity stimulates us to be “ever on the watch for the discovery of the words of salvation.” Also, in Stromata 6.15, Clement discusses what he means by parable:

Wherefore also [Jesus] employed metaphorical description; for such is the parable,—a narration based on some subject which is not the principal subject, but similar to the principal subject, and leading him who understands to what is the true and principal thing; or, as some say, a mode of speech presenting with vigour, by means of other circumstances, what is the principal subject.

Clement then argues that the whole “economy” prophesied by God appears as a parable to “those who know the truth,” and that it is of “the greatest antiquity” so that the Holy Spirit could speak to the philosophers among the Greeks, as well as the wise ones among the barbarians. All this is in addition to “the prophets who foretold the Lord’s coming,” “the Lord Himself, in explaining the Scriptures,” and Jesus’ “disciples who preached the word like Him,” all used parables.


The next post will discuss specific examples of interpretations of parables by Clement.

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