I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Revelational Epistemology in Clement of Alexandria

Although the Patristic fathers, most notably the Easterners, had a penchant for compromising with Greek philosophy, at points unmistakable Gospel-consistent epistemological nuggets shine through. Early on, I cited a brilliant passage from Justin on the epistemological ultimacy of the Word of God (see here). With this post, I’m offering this nice piece from Clement of Alexandria (late second century).

What’s noteworthy about it is that herein he recognizes the three ultimate epistemological authorities: empiricism, rationalism and revelation. He is decidedly a revelationist. He , like Justin, further notes the impossibility of demonstrating one’s final epistemic authority, what he calls the “first principle.” Thus, regardless of one’s choice of epistemological authority, ultimately circular reasoning is inevitable. As Christians, we should go back to the future and with Justin, Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, and Van Til and Bahnsen of our own time, come to grips with this fact. Honestly and faithfully admit that we indeed reason from (not to) and because (not in spite of) of God’s Self-revelation.

Clement says,

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves.

There are certain criteria common to men, as the senses (i.e., empiricism)[1]; and others that belong to those who have employed their wills and energies in what is true,--the methods which are pursued by the mind and reason, to distinguish between true and false propositions (i.e., rationalism)....

And let him who once received the Gospel, even in the very hour in which he has come to the knowledge of salvation, “not turn back, like Lot’s wife,” as is said; and let him not go back either to his former life, which adheres to things of sense, or to heresies....

For we have, as the source of teaching, the Lord, both by the prophets, the Gospel, and the blessed apostles, “in divers manners and at sundry times,” leading from the beginning of knowledge to the end. But if one should suppose that another origin was required, then no longer truly could an origin be preserved.[2]

He, then, who of himself[3] believes the Scripture and the voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly regarded faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things. What is subjected to criticism is not believed till it is so subjected; so that what needs criticism cannot be a first principle. Therefore, as is reasonable, grasping by faith the indemonstrable first principle (i.e., Scripture), and receiving in abundance, from the first principle itself, demonstrations in reference to the first principle, we are by the voice of the Lord trained up to the knowledge of the truth.”

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, VII:XVI

[1] All parentheses are mine.
[2] Here, with “origin,” Clement is referring to a final epistemological authority—a final first principle.
[3] This phrase may suggest the sad thread of synergism in Clement’s thought.

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