Posts tagged with: clement of alexandria

I wrote several blogs last week about the value and importance of the Church Fathers. One of the early Greek Fathers was Clement of Alexandria, born in Athens around A.D. 150. His parents were pagans. He was converted to faith in Christ and began to travel widely searching for faithful Christian teachers. He attended the famous School of Theology in Alexandria, founded by Pantaenus in A.D. 180. After he settled there he became the director of the school, thus Clement of Alexandria. A few years after he became the director he was forced to quickly flee during the persecution of Septimius Severus. He took refuge in Cappadocia, where he died in A.D. 215, thus he is called a Cappadocian Father.

StClementOfAlexandriaSt. Clement is considered one of the forerunners of what we now call systematic theology. He was the first Christian writer to recognize secular philosophy (Neoplatonism) and incorporate some of its major ideas in service of the Christian faith. Most of his literary output has been lost but one work, on riches and wealth, is still considered valuable to the church. Commenting on Mark 10:17-22 Clement addressed some of the common interpretations of this text by saying:

1. Our Lord was not telling Christians to get rid of their wealth. He was telling them to banish from their souls the primacy of riches. “Unfettered greed can suffocate the seed of true life.”

2. It is not something new to renounce riches and distribute them to the poor. This, said Clement, was done long before Jesus came. Some did this to devote themselves to the arts and in search of vain knowledge while others sought fame and glory by this means.

3. What our Lord does command here is something new, something proper to God who alone gives life. Clement writes:

He does not command what the letter says and what others have already done. He is asking for something greater, more divine, more perfect than that which is stated –that we denude the soul itself of its disordered passions, that we pull out the roots and fling away what is foreign to the spirit. Here, then, is the teaching proper to a believer, and the doctrine worthy of the Savior. Those, who before Christ’s coming despised material goods, certainly gave up their riches and lost them, but the passions of the soul increased even more. For having believed that they had done something superhuman, they came to indulge in pride, petulance, vainglory, despising others.

Clement wrote that a person could give everything away only to doubly regret his decision. To teach that Jesus intends for every disciple to give up everything contradicts statements like those of Luke 16:9, which urges us to make friends by the use of wealth. “Riches then should not be rejected if they can be of use to our neighbor. They are accurately called possessions because they are possessed by people, and goods or utilities because with them one can do good and because they have been ordained by God for the use of men.”

What Clement is saying is that goods and possessions can be instruments in the hands of skilled servants who use them to bless others and advance great good. “Riches, then, are also an instrument.” If rightly used they can bring about justice and service. He added, “In themselves riches are blameless.”

So what is the problem with riches? Riches present an opportunity to do great good or serious evil. “The one to be accused is the person who has the ability, through the choice he makes, to put it to good use or to misuse it. And this is up to the mind and judgment of man, who is free and able to manage what is given him for his use.” Simply put, we are required to be good stewards of all goods and possessions we have been given by whatever means.

So the problem riches present to us, concludes Clement, is in how they are used by our disordered passions. “The rich – who are going to find it difficult to enter the kingdom – will have to understand these words intelligently, and not in a dull and superficial way.”

My experience with people who possess great means is that this is an accurate understanding of the true problem. The real problem is not in riches themselves but in human passions and desires. Wealthy people can bring immense blessing to people and mission. Make no mistake about this, prosperity is always to be preferred to poverty. But those who prosper must understand that they bear greater responsibility to deal with their passions and desires and to use their possessions and goods for the kingdom of God.

Readings in Social Ethics: Clement of Alexandria, Who Is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved?

  • The soteriological status of the rich: “So also let not the man that has been invested with worldly wealth proclaim himself excluded at the outset from the Saviour’s lists, provided he is a believer and one who contemplates the greatness of God’s philanthropy; nor let him, on the other hand, expect to grasp the crowns of immortality without struggle and effort, continuing untrained, and without contest” (III).

  • The absence of the necessities of life drive people to consider only material needs: “For although such is the case, one, after ridding himself of the burden of wealth, may none the less have still the lust and desire for money innate and living; and may have abandoned the use of it, but being at once destitute of and desiring what he spent, may doubly grieve both on account of the absence of attendance, and the presence of regret. For it is impossible and inconceivable that those in want of the necessaries of life should not be harassed in mind, and hindered from better things in the endeavour to provide them somehow, and from some source” (XII).
  • Wealth is a precondition for charitable giving: “And how much more beneficial the opposite case, for a man, through possessing a competency, both not himself to be in straits about money, and also to give assistance to those to whom it is requisite so to do! For if no one had anything, what room would be left among men for giving?” (XIII)
  • The good of affluence: “Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument” (XIV).
  • The internal condition is of primary concern: “So also a poor and destitute man may be found intoxicated with lusts; and a man rich in worldly goods temperate, poor in indulgences, trustworthy, intelligent, pure, chastened” (XVIII).
  • Lofty claims about the results of giving: “One purchases immortality for money; and, by giving the perishing things of the world, receives in exchange for these an eternal mansion in the heavens!” (XXXII) Could such language be construed in a negative way? In what way is it right to say that one “purchases” eternal life? In what way is it not right?
  • Promiscuous giving: “How then does man give these things? For I will give not only to friends, but to the friends of friends. And who is it that is the friend of God? Do not you judge who is worthy or who is unworthy. For it is possible you may be mistaken in your opinion. As in the uncertainty of ignorance it is better to do good to the undeserving for the sake of the deserving, than by guarding against those that are less good to fail to meet in with the good. For though sparing, and aiming at testing, who will receive meritoriously or not, it is possible for you to neglect some that are loved by God; the penalty for which is the punishment of eternal fire” (XXXIII).
  • How does charity relate to baptism? “Forgiveness of past sins, then, God gives; but of future, each one gives to himself. And this is to repent, to condemn the past deeds, and beg oblivion of them from the Father, who only of all is able to undo what is done, by mercy proceeding from Him, and to blot out former sins by the dew of the Spirit” (XL). Recall Cyprian of Carthage.

The Friday morning plenary address at last week’s Assembly of World-Wide Partners was given by Ruth Padilla deBorst, a 15-year veteran of work with Christian Reformed World Missions. Padilla deBorst’s talk focused on relations between the global north and global south, “Together in Missions in the 21st Century.” In the following I’ll summarize her talk and intersperse the summary with some of my own reflections. One general comment, with Acton University beginning today: the valuable uniqueness of a conference like Acton U comes into sharp relief given the economic, political, and ideological attitudes on display at an event like the Assembly of World-Wide Partners. (more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, trans. William Wilson, ch. XIV:

Riches, then, which benefit also our neighbours, are not to be thrown away. For they are possessions, inasmuch as they are possessed, and goods, inasmuch as they are useful and provided by God for the use of men; and they lie to our hand, and are put under our power, as material and instruments which are for good use to those who know the instrument. If you use it skilfully, it is skilful; if you are deficient in skill, it is affected by your want of skill, being itself destitute of blame. Such an instrument is wealth. Are you able to make a right use of it? It is subservient to righteousness. Does one make a wrong use of it? It is, on the other hand, a minister of wrong. For its nature is to be subservient, not to rule. That then which of itself has neither good nor evil, being blameless, ought not to be blamed; but that which has the power of using it well and ill, by reason of its possessing voluntary choice. And this is the mind and judgment of man, which has freedom in itself and self-determination in the treatment of what is assigned to it. So let no man destroy wealth, rather than the passions of the soul, which are incompatible with the better use of wealth. So that, becoming virtuous and good, he may be able to make a good use of these riches. The renunciation, then, and selling of all possessions, is to be understood as spoken of the passions of the soul.

Wealth, like liberty, is not an ultimate end in itself. Wealth is the good product of a rightly ordered economic system. Liberty is the result of a properly functioning political structure. These are both penultimate realities.

But to what end are wealth and liberty (economics and politics) to be subsumed? I know no better answer than to say, “To glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.”