I am participating in the reading group Read the Fathers. In order to help me maintain this discipline I have been posting my notes each weekend. This will be the last weekend that I participate in the reading group (see “Abandoning the reading groups”). This week’s readings are from Clement of Alexandria’s The Instructor, Book 1.
This work discusses discipleship. Clement speaks of Jesus as the Word, the Instructor, who teaches our souls. The aim is strengthened virtue, not a stronger intellect (Chapter 1). Jesus is the Word of his Father sharing in the divine nature. Therefore, the teachings on the Instructor (Jesus) are not hindered by human frailty (“passions”). Jesus teaches us how to overcome sin (though we cannot be perfect, we must pursue the avoidance of sin).
Jesus’ teachings are not presented as merely informative, but transformative. Clement mixes metaphors: Teacher and Physician. Jesus’ teaching heal the weary soul from the impact of sin. Jesus empowers people to become children of God (Chapter 2).
The invitation to learn from God through Christ is based on the imago Dei. God created us out of his love. We humans are special objects in Creation. Our existence is as it ought to be when we are loving God in response (Chapter 3).
Men and women are invited to learn from Christ become children of God are not determined to be children because of their gender (though Clement does state this point in the context of married people, Chapter 4). This image of being like children is grounded in the teachings of Jesus, especially when he speaks of becoming like a child. The Spirit choses the children of God and our identity of children is something exalted in the Gospel and in Scripture.
Clement is quick to provide this caveat: the analogy doesn’t mean unlearned. Children are in the process of growing and maturing. We are to learn. The imagery is meant to convey dependency on the Father, not intellectual simplicity. We are to see ourselves as never “there,” but becoming mature always. God the Father has adopted us with his Spirit. We join Jesus, the King, as children of God for as Clement notes even Jesus is called a child (Chapter 5).
Jesus is the model human. Clement grounds Jesus’ need for John’s baptism and Jesus’ anointing of the Spirit in the reality that the Word was a human, a real human, who modeled for us true human existence. Yet Jesus’ oneness with God allows him to participate in the giving of grace to others. Clement speaks of Christians as receiving this grace which he deems as illumination and sight. We see the light of the Spirit. Seeing we remove ignorance, which has led us to sin. This transformation begins at baptism and it is the gift given to the baptized.
Clement states that this is not like gnostic thought: there are not some who are knowing and some who are animals, but anyone who “abandons the desires of the flesh” can begin to seek God. This sheds light on gnostic thought. The worst idea is not knowledge from a divine source, but knowledge from a divine source based on their ontology. For Clement anyone and everyone may be enlightened by God.
Another clarification that must be made by Clement is Paul’s words about “putting away childish things.” He attributes this to Paul’s pre-converted state as a persecutor of Christians. Similarly, exegeting Galatians 4:1-5 he presents the Old Covenant as a time of youth waiting for the maturation provided by the New Covenant. When Paul was an adherent to the Old Covenant he had not received the full maturity offered by the New Covenant. Clement’s synthesis: “childhood which is in Christ is maturity.”
Those who have the Spirit of God, who know the Word, Clement calls “God-taught.” This is knowledge above knowledge. This is more than human wisdom. On several occasions Clement cites language about consuming the body and blood of Christ as a means of spiritual nourishment. There seems to be a wisdom in this action that is superior to mere human wisdom. Other images are provided as well based on Scripture such as milk, manna, win, water, bread, meat, etc. (side note: interesting imagery is provided when Clement speaks of us sucking on the breast of the Father for milk mixing masculine and feminine imagery). The basic idea is that we are fed and sustained by God, this is our knowledge and wisdom (Chapter 6).
Clement discusses Jesus the Instructor, noting that, “…our Instructor is the holy God Jesus, the Word, who is the guide of all humanity. The loving God Himself is our Instructor.” The Word instructed Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and now us (Chapter 7).
Clement presents the Father and his Word as giving existence to those things loved by God only. Anything that exists is loved by God. God can hate nothing in existence. He does good to all things he loves, especially humans. Of course, Clement must address how this jives with God’s anger and judgment. He uses analogies that present God as using his wrath to heal like a chastising parent, a surgeon, a vine dresser. Also, Clement aims to make a distinction between human wrath which may be based on wildly unstable emotions and God’s holy, calculated, wise wrath.
Clement will not equate language about God’s punishment of humans with the human idea of revenge. God is patient and slow to judge. God’s presence is goodness. When God doesn’t act evil appears. When God appears, evil must begin to dissipate. Yet Clement goes to lengths to show that God wills good on people, wrestling with Jesus’ teachings about God’s mercy, goodness, and his willingness to allow rain for the just and unjust (Chapter 8).
Clement argues that, “Reproof is the bringing forward of sin, laying it before one.” That God does this at all shows his mercy. That he offers mercy shows his goodness. Sin will destroy us if God does not reprove us. Clement discusses the many ways God attempts to intervene for humans, saving them. Humans act in ways that are a “rush toward death,” from which God attempts to deliver them. It is this context within which we must understand the justice of God and the requirement to fear God (Chapter 9).
The Word models this approach of God (Chapter 10). Christ is the divine Instructor who will feed us and teach us (Chapter 11). Christ is the perfect imago Dei and all humans who want to match their potential learn from him (Chapter 12). If philosophy (something Clement embraces) is aimed at cultivating right reason, and if it makes better humans, then the virtues taught by Christ must be sought (Chapter 13).