Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Instructor by Clement of Alexandria

Today I begin a new series on the second book of the trilogy written by Clement of Alexandria named "The Instructor." Clement of Alexandria lived and wrote near the close of the second century. He was educated in Apollos' native city of Alexandria and learned the apostolic traditions and teachings from those who knew and remembered the apostles. He is often counted among those early Christian writers who became the founders of Christian thought, and this in a time when the scriptures as we have come to know them had not yet been gathered and assembled together as a single work. We owe a a great debt to such men who labored to bring definition, clarity, and practicality to our then still forming Christian faith.

Clement is most remembered for his three books, "The Exhortation to the Heathen", "The Instructor", and "The Miscellanies". In the first book of the trilogy, Clement exhorts the unbelievers to leave behind their many gods for the one true God, the God of Gods and the Lord of Lords. He contends mightily against their sordid rituals and illogical beliefs. In His third book, Clement undertook to write, almost randomly, about various disconnected subjects pertaining to life in Christ. In the end, many remembered him mostly for this third book and it earned him the nickname, the Stromatist, from the Greek word for Miscellaneous. However, it is the second book in the trilogy that is of interest to us in this series, "The Instructor". The Gospel was "constantly bearing fruit and increasing" (Colossians 1:6) throughout the world and especially in the east where its presence predated its introduction in the west. In fact, even the church at Rome was a missionary colony planted my believers venturing further and further into areas that had not yet been visited by the Gospel.

The church at Alexandria saw many new converts and believers, yet they were being converted from a society that was foreign and alien to the redemptive history of God. They did not know the one true unbegotten God. They had not the benefit of His written word. They had not been previously introduced to God's only begotten Son. As far as true religion and true faith was concerned, they were a blank slate. We too, as a church, are more frequently finding ourselves in the same situation. Recently a friend of mine was on a missions trip to England. While in London he met a woman on the streets and asked her if she knew Jesus Christ. Her response was that she had only been in London two weeks and had not had time to meet many people. To her, Jesus was just one of the millions of people she had not yet had an opportunity to meet. We are increasingly finding ourselves in what anthropologists refer to as post-Christian nations.

Clement, and his fellow believers, faced the challenge of how to assimilate people who had no history with God's redemptive working into the culture of Christian living? The people were being converted to a love for God but did not know how to walk with God. While there were being "saved", they had no clue how to live a pious and religious life. It is one thing to find salvation, but another to grow to full maturity in our salvation. It was for this reason that Clement wrote The Instructor; to teach the new believers how to live with God; how to comport themselves in a lifestyle that would be pleasing and acceptable to God. In writing his book, Clement hoped to answer this question.

However, before we begin, there are three things we must understand. First, Clement, being familiar with the Greek language, used the Septuagint version of the Old Testament scriptures. This can give rise to some differences with the version of the Old Testament scriptures that many of us are familiar with. For example, in treating on the different types of sin, clement quotes Numbers 6:9 as "If any one die suddenly by him, straightway the head of his consecration shall be polluted, and shall be shaved" (The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 1) while our common bibles record it as, "But if a man dies very suddenly beside him and he defiles his dedicated head of hair, then he shall shave his head on the day when he becomes clean." (Numbers 6:9) While these differences may be many, the same message is uttered by both versions of the Old Testament scriptures.

Secondly, Clement was of an oriental mind. This produced the unique character of teachings that flowed out of Alexandria as compared to those that came out of Antioch. The Alexandrian mind was quite familiar with the allegorical interpretation of scriptures while the Antiochian mind understood them in a more literal and historical fashion. For example, in interpreting the above scripture from Numbers, Clement writes, "wherefore He prescribes the cure with all speed, advising the head to be instantly shaven; that is, counselling the locks of ignorance which shade the reason to be shorn clean off, that reason (whose seat is in the brain), being left bare of the dense stuff of vice, may speed its way to repentance." (The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 1) As westerners we might find his interpretations of the scriptures odd or curious and not in keeping with our own western understanding of the scriptures. However, we must remember that allegorical investigation was as natural to Clement as our data driven, locked step, computer like approach to life that has become so common to us. In approaching the writings of Clement it will be helpful to try and think like an oriental. If we can, then there is great insight to be gained from his writings, and besides, who is to say which mode of thinking is "right"?

Finally, as we read The Instructor, we must keep in mind his purpose for writing this book. Some will read his commands and injunctions as legalism or as being out of mode for our present day. To the legalistic, everything is legalism and, to the one trying to defend his present lifestyle, all calls for change are to be rejected as irrelevant and unnecessary, but to the one seeking wisdom and counsel to live a christian life and to grow into all that God has for them, the wisdom contained in this book can be life changing. When reading his recommendations, try to look behind the actual command to the wisdom that it contains. For example, Clement will talk at length about the use of cosmetics. Some will read it as simply a prohibition against makeup, but for those who can see the wisdom behind the command, they will be challenged to consider if, in attempting to alter their looks, they are at the same time accusing God of creating something less than beautiful; their actions criticizing God for what He has made. Let not our modern sensibilities keep us from finding the wisdom of God even when conveyed through simple and practical commands.

The book, The Instructor, is subdivided into three books. The first introduces us to the Instructor, showing us His modes, means, and methods. The second and third books address every detail of life giving wisdom and counsel as to how a first-century Christian should live their life. I hope this series is a blessing to you.

David Robison

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