Monday, November 18, 2013

Praising the not so perfect - The Instuctor

This is a continuation of my series on Clement of Alexandria and his book, "The Instructor." If you are new to this series or are unfamiliar with Clement and his book, you may want to first read the introduction to this series.
"Again, showing the opposite scale of the balance of justice, He says, 'But not so the ungodly—not so; but as the dust which the wind sweeps away from the face of the earth.' By showing the punishment of sinners, and their easy dispersion, and carrying off by the wind, the Instructor dissuades from crime by means of punishment; and by holding up the merited penalty, shows the benignity of His beneficence in the most skilful way, in order that we may possess and enjoy its blessings... Do you see the goodness of justice, in that it counsels to repentance?" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 10)
The goodness and the severity of God go hand-in-hand. Both are necessary and both are salutary. The truth is that God loves both the righteous and the wicked, the sinner and the saint, and wishes both the blessings of eternal life. All His instruction and discipline in our lives is that we might obtain to that hope and promise.
"We might have adduced, as supporters on this question, the philosophers who say that only the perfect man is worthy of praise, and the bad man of blame. But since some slander beatitude, as neither itself taking any trouble, nor giving any to any one else, thus not understanding its love to man; on their account, and on account of those who do not associate justice with goodness, the following remarks are added. For it were a legitimate inference to say, that rebuke and censure are suitable to men, since they say that all men are bad; but God alone is wise, from whom cometh wisdom, and alone perfect, and therefore alone worthy of praise." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 10)
Clement challenges the pervading philosophical thought of his day that saw perfection, especially moral and behavioral perfection, in absolute terms. One was either good or evil; the one engendering praise and the other rightly receiving punishment. For them, rewards and punishments were the earned fruit of behavior and one could only earn one or the other but not both and certainly not a mixture of both. However, if this were true then only God would be blessed, since He alone is good, and mankind would always be under punishment, since he is ever showing himself bad. Clement, however, does not see reward and punishment this way.
"But I do not employ such language. I say, then, that praise or blame, or whatever resembles praise or blame, are medicines most essential of all to men. Some are ill to cure, and, like iron, are wrought into shape with fire, and hammer, and anvil, that is, with threatening, and reproof, and chastisement; while others, cleaving to faith itself, as selftaught, and as acting of their own free-will, grow by praise:— 'For virtue that is praised Grows like a tree.'" (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 10)
Clement sees both rewards and punishment as medicine for the soul, one to correct and the other to encourage. Even a wicked man can benefit from praise of the things that remain good within him. For there are in each of our lives things worthy of praise and things needing God's correction and instruction; we are in need of rewards and punishments at the same time.
"But there are myriads of injunctions to be found, whose aim is the attainment of what is good, and the avoidance of what is evil." (Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book 1, Chapter 10)
This is the goal of God's instruction, that we might avoid what is evil and attain to what is good, and to this end, whatever might be the manner of God's instruction in our lives, it is always good.

David Robison

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