Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review of "Exhortation to the Heathen" by Clement of Alexandria

[Note: This work is a part of Volume 2 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which I am working my way through on some sort of masochistic 20-year plan. This work seemed good enough to merit some consideration on its own.]

If you're anything like me and have been slogging your way through the church Fathers in some kind of loosely-chronological order, then this monograph by Clement of Alexandria is your reward. It is witty, thoughtful, scathing, and magnanimous all at the same time. In it, he exhorts the heathen (appropriately enough) to recognize the limitations and evils of paganism and see the truth and hope offered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He walks through several aspects of pagan life -poetry, philosophy, art, and so on- and shows how each of these are on the one hand corrupted by human sin and twisted into instruments of our destruction, and on the other hand are lived rightly in Christ and become pictures of God's mercy to and sovereignty over the world.
For example, Clement discusses how music has been used in the service of myth and fable to lead individuals astray into sin (171-172). For the Christian, however:
Not such is my song, which has come to loose, and that speedily, the bitter bondage of tyrannizing demons; and leading us back to the mild and loving yoke of piety, recalls to heaven those that had been cast prostrate to the earth. (172)
Art, likewise, has been corrupted by being used to create idols. For the Christian, the universe is God's art, which we picture when we create out of the material he has made. How awful it is then for us to take God's art and use it in rebellion against Him! (189-190)

Philosophy and poetry also have been used to rebel against God. The small bit of truth available to philosophers and poets has done them no good, and indeed has simply revealed how deep the need for the true philosophy and poetry of the living Word runs in the world:
For I think it has now become evident to all that those who do or speak aught without the Word of truth are like people compelled to walk without feet. (193)
 Even custom itself has become a source of sin. Giving up the good things custom has prepared for us (citizenship, family inheritance, social respectability) in the name of Christ simply means we get the benefits of those things returned to us in their better and proper form. We become citizens of heaven, receive the inheritance of the children of God, and the social respectability of living a life of true virtue and obedience. All of these are given not by conforming to the customs of the world, but by living the life of faith.

In addition to making all of these important points, this particular work is exceptionally well-written. I don't know if credit for that goes to the translator, to Clement himself, or to some combination of the two, but in many ways this has been the most delightful of the ante-Nicene fathers to read so far.

A sampler of quotes:
Do not play the tyrant, O man, over beauty... Be king over beauty, not its tyrant. Remain free, and then I shall acknowledge thy beauty, because thou hast kept its image pure: then I will worship that true Beauty which is the archetype of all who are beautiful. (185)
 O the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage; He bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction; He confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment, and prefer the fire which the Lord 'has prepared for the devils and his angels.' (195)
 The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth and crying Abba, Father. (197)
 For man has been otherwise constituted by nature, so as to have fellowship with God... placing our finger on what is man's peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him -born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant- to the knowledge of God, counselling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety. Practise husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. (200)
For in us, buried in darkness, shut up in the shadow of death, light has shone forth from heaven, purer than the sun, sweeter than life here below. That light is eternal life; and whatever partakes of it lives.... He hath changed the sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, He hath raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven. (203)

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