We are looking at Christian apologists of the 3rd century. In our last study, we looked at Hippolytus of Rome, who is probably best known for writing ten books that refuted heresies of the early part of the 3rd century.
The Egyptian city of Alexandria was an early center of Christianity. Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived during the 3rd and 4th centuries, wrote that John Mark (who wrote the Gospel of Mark) preached the Gospel in Egypt and established churches in Alexandria during the 1st century (Ecclesiastic History, Book II, Chapter 16).
Three prominent Christian apologists in Alexandria during the 3rd century were Clement, Ammonius and Origen. We will look at some of their writings to learn more about what heresies they and other Egyptian Christians faced at that time.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria was born Titus Flavius Clemens about 150 AD and died about 215 AD. While there is some disagreement about whether he was born in Athens or Alexandria, historians seem in agreement that Clement lived in Alexandria toward the end of the 2nd century and early part of the 3rd century.
Clement was born to pagan parents, but became a Christian as a young man. He served with Pantaenus at the Catechetical School of Alexandria and was appointed president of the school. The writings of Clement of Alexandria that we have access to include To the Newly Baptized, Exhortation to the Heathen, Paedagogus, Stromata, and Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?
To The Newly Baptized
One of the benefits of reading early Christian writings is to learn how they explained to new and young converts what it meant to be a Christian. To the Newly Baptized is a good example for us today. Clement’s instruction to new Christians included this sage advice:
“Cultivate quietness in word, quietness in deed, likewise in speech and gait; and avoid impetuous eagerness. For then the mind will remain steady, and will not be agitated by your eagerness and so become weak and of narrow discernment and see darkly; nor will it be worsted by gluttony, worsted by boiling rage, worsted by the other passions, lying a ready prey to them. For the mind, seated on high on a quiet thrown looking intently towards God, must control the passions. By no means be swept away by temper in bursts of anger, nor be sluggish in speaking, nor all nervousness in movement; so that your quitness may be adorned by good proportion and your bearing may appear something divine and sacred. Guard also against the signs of arrogance, a haughty bearing, a lofty head, a dainty and high-treading footstep.” (To the Newly Baptized, Translated by G.W. Butterworth)
Exhortation to the Heathen
Clement understood what it meant to be a pagan because that’s how he grew up. He looked at paganism as something that people must abandon:
“And some even of the philosophers, after the poets, make idols of forms of the affections in your breasts,–such as fear, and love, and joy, and hope; as, to be sure, Epimenides of old, who raised ar Athens the altars of Insult and Impudence. Other objects deified by men take their rise from events, and are fashioned in bodily shape, such as a Dike, a Clotho, and Lachesis, and Atropos, and Heimarmene, and Auxo, and Thallo, which are Attic goddesses. There is a sixth mode of introducing error and of manufacturing gods, according to which they number the twelve gods, whose birth is the theme of which Hesiod sings in his Theogony, and of whom Homer speaks in all that he says of the gods. The last mode remains (for there are seven in all)–that which takes its rise from the divine beneficence towards men. For, not understanding that it is God that does us good, they have invented saviours in the persons of the Dioscuri, and Hercules the averter of evil, and Asclepius the healer. These are the slippery and hurtful deviations from the truth which draw man down from heaven, and cast him into the abyss. I wish to show thoroughly what like these gods of yours are, that now at length you may abandon your delusion, and speed your flight back to heaven. “For we also were once children of wrath, even as others; but God, being rich in mercy, for the great love wherewith He loved us, when we were now dead in trespasses, quickened us together with Christ.” For the Word is living, and having been buried with Christ, is exalted with God. But those who are still unbelieving are called children of wrath, reared for wrath. We who have been rescued from error, and restored to the truth, are no longer the nurslings of wrath. Thus, therefore, we who were once the children of lawlessness, have through the philanthropy of the Word now become the sons of God.” (Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter II, Translated by Roberts-Donaldson)
“But you say it is not creditable to subvert the customs handed down to us from our fathers. And why, then, do we not still use our first nourishment, milk, to which our nurses accustomed us from the time of our birth? Why do we increase or diminish our patrimony, and not keep it exactly the same as we got it? Why do we not still vomit on our parents’ breasts, or still do the things for which, when infants, and nursed by our mothers, we were laughed at, but have corrected ourselves, even if we did not fall in with good instructors? Then, if excesses in the indulgence of the passions, though pernicious and dangerous, yet are accompanied with pleasure, why do we not in the conduct of life abandon that usage which is evil, and provocative of passion, and godless, even should our fathers feel hurt, and betake ourselves to the truth, and seek Him who is truly our Father, rejecting custom as a deleterious drug? For of all that I have undertaken to do, the task I now attempt is the noblest, viz., to demonstrate to you how inimical this insane and most wretched custom is to godliness. For a boon so great, the greatest ever given by God to the human race, would never have been hated and rejected, had not you been carried away by custom, and then shut your ears against us; and just as unmanageable horses throw off the reins, and take the bit between their teeth, you rush away from the arguments addressed to you, in your eager desire to shake yourselves clear of us, who seek to guide the chariot of your life, and, impelled by your folly, dash towards the precipices of destruction, and regard the holy word of God as an accursed thing. The reward of your choice, therefore, as described by Sophocles, follows:- “The mind a blank, useless ears, vain thoughts.” (Chapter X)
Paedagogus (The Instructor), Book I
One of Clement’s most famous writings is Paedagogus (The Instructor). In the first of three books, Clement identified The Instructor:
“When, then, the heavenly guide, the Word, was inviting men to salvation, the appellation of hortatory was properly applied to Him: his same word was called rousing (the whole from a part). For the whole of piety is hortatory, engendering in the kindred faculty of reason a yearning after true life now and to come. But now, being at once curative and preceptive, following in His own steps, He makes what had been prescribed the subject of persuasion, promising the cure of the passions within us. Let us then designate this Word appropriately by the one name Tutor (or Paedagogue, or instructor).” Paedagogus (The Instructor), Book I, Chapter I
“Since, then, we have shown that all of us are by Scripture called children; and not only so, but that we who have followed Christ are figuratively called babes; and that the Father of all alone is perfect, for the Son is in Him, and the Father is in the Son; it is time for us in due course to say who our Instructor is.
He is called Jesus: Sometimes He calls Himself a shepherd, and says, “I am the good Shepherd.” According to a metaphor drawn from shepherdS, who lead the sheep, is hereby understood the Instructor, who leads the children–the Shepherd who tends the babes. For the babes are simple, being figuratively described as sheep. “And they shall all,” it is said, “be one flock, and one shepherd.” The Word, then, who leads the children to salvation, is appropriately called the Instructor (Paedagogue) … But our Instructor is the holy God Jesus, the Word, who is the guide of all humanity. The loving God Himself is our Instructor. Somewhere in song the Holy Spirit says with regard to Him, “He provided sufficiently for the people in the wilderness. He led him about in the thirst of summer heat in a dry land, and instructed him, and kept him as the apple of His eye, as an eagle protects her nest, and shows her fond solicitude for her young, spreads abroad her wings, takes them, and bears them on her back. The Lord alone led them, and there was no strange god with them.” Clearly, I trow, has the Scripture exhibited the Instructor in the account it gives of His guidance.” Chapter VII
The ‘instructions’ of Book I include:
- Our Instructor’s Treatment of Our Sins
- The Philanthropy of the Instructor
- Men and Women Alike Under the Instructor’s Charge
- All Who Walk According to Truth are Children of God
- Against Those Who Think That What is Just is Not Good
- Virtue Rational, Sin Irrational
The last chapter of Book I, Virtue Rational, Sin Irrational, has some interesting insights for today’s Christian apologist:
“Everything that is contrary to right reason is sin. Accordingly, therefore, the philosophers think fit to define the most generic passions thus: lust, as desire disobedient to reason; fear, as weakness disobedient to reason; pleasure, as an elation of the spirit disobedient to reason. If, then, disobedience in reference to reason is the generating cause of sin, how shall we escape the conclusion, that obedience to reason–the Word–which we call faith, will of necessity be the efficacious cause of duty? For virtue itself is a state of the soul rendered harmonious by reason in respect to the whole life. Nay, to crown all, philosophy itself is pronounced to be the cultivation of right reason; so that, necessarily, whatever is done through error of reason is transgression, and is rightly called, (amarthma) sin. Since, then, the first man sinned and disobeyed God, it is said, “And man became like to the beasts:” being rightly regarded as irrational, he is likened to the beasts. Whence Wisdom says: “The horse for covering; the libidinous and the adulturer is become like to an irrational beast.” Wherefore also it is added: “He neighs, whoever may be sitting on him.” The man, it is meant, no longer speaks; for he who transgresses against reason is no longer rational, but an irrational animal, given up to lusts by which he is ridden (as a horse by his rider).
But that which is done right, in obedience to reason, the followers of the Stoics call proshkon and kaqhkon, that is, incumbent and fitting. What is fitting is incumbent. And obedience is founded on commands. And these being, as they are, the same as counsels–having truth for their aim, train up to the ultimate goal of aspiration, which is conceived of as the end (telos). And the end of piety is eternal rest in God. And the beginning of eternity is our end. The right operation of piety perfects duty by works; whence, according to just reasoning, duties consist in actions, not in sayings. And Christian conduct is the Operation of the rational soul in accordance with a correct judgment and aspiration after the truth, which attains its destined end through the body, the soul’s consort and ally. Virtue is a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting. For the life of Christians, in which we are now trained, is a system of reasonable actions–that is, of those things taught by the Word–an unfailing energy which we have called faith. The system is the commandments of the Lord, which, being divine statues and spiritual counsels, have been written for ourselves, being adapted for ourselves and our neighbours. Moreover, they turn back on us, as the ball rebounds on him that throws it by the repercussion. Whence also duties are essential for divine discipline, as being enjoined by God, and furnished for our salvation. And since, of those things which are necessary, some relate only to life here, and others, which relate to the blessed life yonder, wing us for flight hence; so, in an analogous manner, of duties, some are ordained with reference to life, others for the blessed life. The commandments issued with respect to natural life are published to the multitude; but those that are suited for living well, and from which eternal life springs, we have to consider, as in a sketch, as we read them out of the Scriptures.” Book I, Chapter XIII
We will look at Book II of Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus in the next part of our study. Until then, we invite you to read Book I here.