Tag Archives: Greek mythology

Open Theology, Clement, Stoicism, and Prevenient Grace

There are many parallels between Clement of Alexandria’s theology and John Wesley’s. In fact, there was a study that I read and recommend, A Definitive Study of Evidence Concerning John Wesley’s Appropriation of the Thought of Clement of Alexandria by Neil D. Anderson.  Today, I want to briefly look at what John Wesley and Arminian theologians call preparatory, or preventing grace.  Prevenient grace is where “Wesley believed that God places a little spark of divine grace within us that enables us to recognize and accept God’s justifying grace.”  My apologies in advance for the long quotes followed below.  

“So there is no absurdity in philosophy having been given by Divine.  Providence as a preparatory discipline for the perfection which is by Christ; unless philosophy is ashamed at learning from Barbarian knowledge how to advance to truth.”

– The Stromata (Carpets/Miscellanies), Book 6, Chapter 17

This selection is one but many where Clement refers to the philosophies of the Gentiles as objects of preparation. As such, as Clement argues, these ideas and practices are in no way equal to the revelation that the Scriptures passed down to the Church attest to. On the subject of the Stoics, Clement of Alexandria was a bit critical of their doctrine. “Thence also the Stoics have laid down the doctrine, that living agreeably into nature is the end, fitly altering the name of god into nature; since also nature extends to plants, to seeds, to trees, to stones.”- The Stromata, Book 2, Chapter 19.

Now, the subject matter, the literary context where Clement is talking about the Stoics confusing nature for god is what’s crucial. If nature is god (similar to process naturalism), god is an impersonal force. In the paragraph before, Clement is discussing Plato, and how Plato says that happiness is to be in the likeness of God. But Plato, according to Clement’s account, plagiarized Moses, and so it’s really only through the Exodus God that Moses wrote about that we can know personally who to (YHWH) and how (the Ten Commandments) to participate in the life of the Creator. “For the law calls assimilation following; an such a following to the utmost of its power assimilates. ‘Be,’ says the Lord, ‘ merciful and pitiful, as your heavenly Father is pitiful. [CoA citing Luke 6:36]’- ibid.

Following Clement’s argument, CoA is arguing that to partake in the Triune God’s life is to obey and be on one accord with the One True God of the Exodus. In his commentary on the Decalogue, on the first commandment, Clement explains there is but one God who revealed Godself to humanity in the deliverance of the Hebrews from Pharaoh.  YHWH freely defines Godself as a Loving and Just Divinity by showing pathetic acts of mercy.  It is in this self-revelation of the divine that humanity knows God in God’s pathos, the self-humiliating journey from the throne of heaven to the world.

Not only is the Exodus Creator God willing to demonstrate God’s holiness through acts of self-giving and self-revealing acts, God is awesomely generous.  God’s grace, as the Gospels say, is like the Sun, that shines on the just and  unjust.  For Clement, Truth has revealed himself in the Logos.  Speaking to the “Greek preparatory culture” since Clement was located in Alexandria, the Greek speaking city of Roman Egypt, Clement compares the salvific work of the Good Shepherd who not only takes “care of sheep, but the care of herds, and breeding of horses, and dogs, and bee-craft.”  While all of these philosophies differ, they can be useful for life. Now, question is how does Clement define “philosophy.”  They are in his words “whatever has been well said by each of those sects, which teach righteousness along with a science pervaded by piety,” and more importantly, Clement stresses, “But such conclusions of human reasonings as men have cut away and falsified, I would never call divine.”

Two important notes: first, Clement says that what ever is beneficial to Christian holy praxis, these philosophies are worthy.  However, these truths and practices are not to be understood as universal or binding, never to be called divine, or ever on par with Scripture.  These philosophies are glimpses of indirect contact with God,”in the way showers fall on the good land, and on the dunghill.” (above quotes taken from,The Stromata/The Carpets Book 1, Chapter 7).  The difference between the God as self-revealed, personal, and covenantal living with God’s people in the Promised and Athenian sophists speculating on a dungheap is great.  For example, take Clement’s critical appropriation of the Stoics, once more, “Now the Stoics say that God, like the soul, is essentially body and spirit.  You will find explicitly in all their writings.  Do not consider at present their allegories as the gnostic [Christian mystical] truth. presents them; whether they show one thing, and mean another, like dexterous athletes.  Well, they say that God pervades all being; while we [Christians] call Him solely Maker, and Maker by the Word,  They [the Stoics] were misled by what is said in the book of Wisdom: ‘ He pervades and passes through all by reason of His purity,’ since they did not understand that this was said of Wisdom, which was the first of the creation of God.” (Stromata/Carpets, Book 5, Chapter 14).

So Clement continues the line that the Greeks, even the Stoics, badly plagiarized concepts from Scriptures.  While the Stoics saw an impersonal force of nature throughout everything, Clement argues to say that it is the work of the Logos, the Wisdom of God.  An impersonal force cannot share life or any of its attributes with creation.  This ancient version of what we now call  process naturalism. This is why Clement, like a few other Church Fathers had to radically redefine ideas like impassibility.  God is covenantally and dynamically sovereign over Godself and the world, is in control of God’s emotions, but God also chooses to use passions to accomplish God’s mission in the world: salvation.  I will save Clement’s thoughts on grace, wrath and atonement for another post.  On God’s happiness, Clement says,

“And for this reason we rightly do not sacrifice to God, who, needing nothing supplies all men with all things; but we glorify Him who gave Himself in sacrifice for us, we also sacrificing ourselves; from that which needs nothing to that which needs nothing, and to that which is impassible from that which is impassible.  For in our salvation alone God delights.  We do not therefore, and with reason too, offer sacrifice to Him who is not overcome by pleasures […] The Deity neither is, then, in want of aught, nor loves pleasure, or gain, or money being full, and supplying all thing to everything that has received being and has wants.And neither by sacrifices nor offerings, nor on the other hand by glory and honor, is the Deity won over; nor is He influenced by any such things but He appears only to excellent and good men, who will never betray justice for threatened fear, nor by the promise of considerable gifts.”-


Stromata/Carpets, Book 7, Chapter 3

The Triune God is not some self-glorifying Johnny Bravo as Piper and the New Calvinism teaches, neither is God the recipient of all of human experiences as forms of process theism teach.  Rather God freely determines Godself, whose freedom and covenantal natural when God reveals Godself to us, operates as the source of what Clement calls “the self-determination of the soul.” Because “believing and obeying are in” our [the Christian mystics’] power, works always out of neighborly love, so that their neighbors may experience goodness, and become good themselves.  The person who is justified in Christ first rules over herself, and by partaking in the true, shared life of the Trinity, becomes a most moved mover and shaker co-creating a more just society with the God of the Exodus [Clement gives the example of Moses, specifically in politics] (ibid).  In conclusion, in order to understand what true justice is, and the purpose of social justice, humanity must have Justice revealed to them

Plutarch, the New Testament, and the Church Fathers

Portrait of Herodotus, identified after other ...

Last year in December, Joel made note of the similarities between the Pastoral Letter of 1st Timothy and Plutarch.

As I was reading Plutarch’s Morals on Kindle myself, I noticed a few similarities between this 2nd century thinker’s viewpoint and the apostles. One difference I would maintain is that for Plutarch, his code of ethics is for males who were born of good birth.

Plutarch wrote his Morals because he believed that ethics was philosophy, and vice versa:

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 207-13 |

Philosophy, therefore, ought to be regarded as the most important branch of study. For as regards the cure of the body, men have found two branches, medicine and exercise: the former of which gives health, and the latter good condition of body; but philosophy is the only cure for the maladies and disorders of the soul. For with her as ruler and guide we can know what is honourable, what is disgraceful; what is just, what unjust; generally speaking, what is to be sought after, what to be avoided; how we ought to behave to the gods, to parents, to elders, to the laws, to foreigners, to rulers, to friends, to women, to children, to slaves: viz., that we ought to worship the gods, honour parents, reverence elders, obey the laws, submit ourselves to rulers, love our friends, be chaste in our relations with women, kind to our children, and not to treat our slaves badly”

The life of virtue is one of an on going nourishment:

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 1653-55 |

For just as nurses mould with their hands the child’s body, so tutors, receiving it immediately it is weaned, mould its soul, teaching it by habit the first vestiges of virtue.”

The language of teachers being serving as mothers, breastfeeding the soul is reminiscent of Clement of Alexandria’s views on the Church, giving breast milk to all of her little babies: CoA refers the nourishing Father who provides us with milk to drink, which is the teachings and sacrifice of Christ in Clement’s The Educator.

Plutarch continues,

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Note Loc. 269 |
I will next state something quite as important, indeed, if anything, even more important. That is, that life must be spent without luxury, the tongue must be 15under control, so must the temper and the hands.”

Do not these words ring with the Wisdom of the Letter to James:

“But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:25-27

The pure religion has a bridled tongue, solidarity with the poor, and a sanctified lifestyle to offer to the Father.

What I found to be most interesting is Plutarch’s take on wives submitting to husbands, or rather husbands not ruling over wives as complementarians would have us to understand the cultural context,

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 1365-67 |

But the husband ought to rule his wife, not as a master does a chattel, but as the soul governs the body, by sympathy and goodwill.”

Plutarch is not trying to appease egalitarians out of some dream of political correctness, as egalitarians like me are accused of. No, what he is saying is that there is an essential unity between man and woman in marriage, and so the overlordship that complementarian academic scholars like the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is not consistent with Greek philosophy of the 1st and 2nd centuries Common Era. My point is that Plutarch’s understanding of submission, although not perfect, or Christian, still come pretty close to what egalitarians have been arguing about men being the SOURCE of women (like Adam “birthing” Eve in Genesis)–Thanks Suzanne!

I have been wondering silently to myself what a Christian Plutarchian understanding of kephale would mean when Christians read 1st Corinthians. Maybe if we took consideration of the Incarnation, how the mystery of the Logos became one with the anatomy of a fetus inside the womb of a 2nd Century Jewish virgin. A soul governing the body? Sound familiar? Read the above paragraph again. Think about it.

Plutarch had a good grasp of what justice is; it is not vengeance or privatized judgements in favor of one person over the other. No, he had a social understanding of justice.

“Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Note Loc. 1736 |

For virtue, when it considers what it ought to do and what it ought not to do, is called prudence; and when it curbs passion, and sets a fit and proper limit to pleasure, it is called self-control; and when it is associated with our dealings and covenants with one another, it is called justice”

Justice cannot be understood without relationships with others, without covenants. Plutarch’s admonition for his audience (rich Greek males) to practice self-control rings odd in the ears of our hedonistic society today, where the rich get richer and more hedonistic (even when they do go to church) while the poor get poorer and the Republican lecturing circuit.

I will end this post with Plutarch’s political advice to those of us living in the United States today:

Plutarch’s Morals (Plutarch)
– Highlight Loc. 327-28 |

Abstain from beans: that is, do not meddle in state affairs, for the voting for offices was formerly taken by beans.

Beans beans they are good for your heart, if you eat too many, they will make you fart. Don’t vote, folks, or you’ll get the runs!

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The Hebrew word for the sea is yam. In Hebrew, the sea is considered chaotic and scary. Yam also happens to be a Canaanite deity. Which one? The God of primordial chaos and raging sea. Fits, right? Yam is also shown to be a serpent called Lotan, with 7 heads. Well, it seems that tons of mythologies have gods of the sea as chaotic deities that are also serpents. In Norse Mythology, Jörmungandr, the midgard serpent is the snake that circles the worlds seas and will slay Thor during Ragnarok. Typhon (typhoon…), in Greek mythology is the uber-powerful Titan that fought Zeus and is laden with serpentine coils. Tiamat, the goddess of the sea and chaos, is a dragon often in Babylonian myths. The serpent of Chaos in Egyptian myths is Apep. Vritra, the serpent God kept the waters of the world captive in Vedic Brahmanism.

So interestingly, Christian writers began to merge their idea of Satan with the primal chaos of the sea serpents. This is why we get Christian writers talking about Satan being the one who deceived Adam and Eve. While this is certainly a valid opinion to have, I tend to see things a bit differently. I see two different evils in the world. First, there is this ancient Chaos, represented in the seas, formless and void. This is the thing that God overcame when creation happened. This is what we fight against when we chose life over death. This is what is overcome when we chose order and light over chaos and darkness. But there is another evil.

There is the evil that desires not destruction, but power. The anti-God. Not opposite of God, but putting itself in place of God. This is what the scripture calls the Satan. The powers and principalities. The “world”. The system of domination that is in our world today as militaristic, technological, therapeutic imperialism. The suicide machine that focuses on itself as the only thing. Selfishness incarnate. Now, you may see similarities, but make no mistake, the Satan does not desire destruction of all. It needs creation in order to function, because it is a parasite. It corrupts the life.

So… just thought you should know…

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