Archive Early Church Fathers Eric Parker Natural Law Philosophy Reformed Irenicism

Clement of Alexandria on Faith, the Mother of the Virtues

Today is the feast day for Clement of Alexandria in the Church of England. Born Titus Flavius Clemens (150-215 AD), Clement is now known as one of the first church fathers and one whose theological syncretism had a profound affect on the theologies of both Origen and Augustine (among others), and through them the rest of Christendom. In book 2 of his Stromata, Clement demonstrates his knowledge of classical philosophy in an effort to defend the reasonableness of the Christian faith against the attacks of both Platonists and Gnostics. This passage is particularly pertinent to those interested in virtue ethics and the role of higher forms of cognition in both Platonic and Christian virtue ethics.

Clement argues in this passage that Aristotle, Epicurus, and Plato all concur with his view that faith, as does right reason, rests in certain non-demonstrable first principles. One may only know God by faith, since as Aristotle says, the judgment which follows knowledge is faith. Unbelievers do not truly know God but, like money changers, they know enough to distinguish between truth and falsity in order to detect counterfeit coins, yet they are not able to give an explanation for their knowledge.

Faith – as Epicurus confirms – is a “preconception of the mind” (πρόληψσιν διανοίας) concerning the object of one’s aim. Faith is a “voluntary preconception” (πρόληψις ἑκούσιος) and thereby qualifies as knowledge. Faith is a voluntary and unswerving choice (ἀπερίσπαστος προαίρεσις) to assent to the teachings of the eternal Word who is the sole Instructor (μόνος διδάσκαλος ὁ λόγος), the only Truth and the source of all knowledge. Faith, like the Siren’s song, is beyond demonstration because the desire for God is an innate preconception – so faith fulfills right reason because it is a “power of seeing” and “doing the will of the Father” for which purpose human reason was created.

The intellect is persuaded to assent to the promises of God by means of the Holy Scriptures through which one hears the voice of God, which is a “demonstration that cannot be opposed (ἀναντίρρητος).” Thus, faith is not based on the authority of reason yet reason agrees on the basis of “ipse dixit”, that is, the authority of the Instructor.

In terms of the practicality of faith, Clement argues that it is the only way of Wisdom, the only way of ensuring that our deeds conform to right reason, since it leads to the way of truth and separates the mind from falsehood. Faith turns the mind away from the material world to that which is universal and simple. Faith unites one to the Truth that one desires. Christ, the universal Truth, was prophesied by Plato and is the true philosopher king because he proclaims divine laws that are agreeable to right reason. Being united to his truth sets one free to pursue what is truly good.

Clement is convinced that the primary authorities of classical philosophy agree that faith fulfills right reason. He argues:

With the fullest demonstration, Plato proves, that there is need of faith everywhere, celebrating peace at the same time: “For no man will ever be trusty and sound in seditions without entire virtue. There are numbers of mercenaries full of fight, and willing to die in war; but, with a very few exceptions, the most of them are desperadoes and villains, insolent and senseless.” If these observations are right, “every legislator who is even of slight use, will, in making his laws, have an eye to the greatest virtue. Such is fidelity,” which we need at all times, both in peace and in war, and in all the rest of our life, for it appears to embrace the other virtues. “But the best thing is neither war nor sedition, for the necessity of these is to be deprecated. But peace with one another and kindly feeling are what is best.” From these remarks the greatest prayer evidently is to have peace, according to Plato. And faith is the greatest mother of the virtues (μεγίστη δέ ἀρετῶν μήτηρ, ἡ πίστις). Accordingly it is rightly said in Solomon, “Wisdom is in the mouth of the faithful.” Since also Xenocrates, in his book on “Intelligence,” says “that wisdom is the knowledge of first causes and of intellectual essence.” He considers intelligence as twofold, practical and theoretical, which latter is human wisdom. Consequently wisdom is intelligence, but all intelligence is not wisdom. And it has been shown, that the knowledge of the first cause of the universe is of faith but is not demonstration. For it were strange that the followers of the Samian Pythagoras, rejecting demonstrations of subjects of question, should regard the bare ipse dixit (Αὐτὸς ἔφα) as ground of belief; and that this expression alone sufficed for the confirmation of what they heard, while those devoted to the contemplation of the truth, presuming to disbelieve the trustworthy Teacher, God the only Saviour, should demand of Him tests of His utterances. (Stromata II.V.)

Thus, faith, for Clement,  is the highest virtue and the mother of the virtues because it is the fulfillment of philosophy, that is, “[human] effort to grasp that which truly is.” Faith brings peace both to the soul and to civil society. Neither love nor hope are higher than faith because faith is the foundation of love and it “introduces  the doing of good” and engenders godly fear, the “pedagogue of the law” which is “believed to be fear by those, by whom it is believed.” Love and faith work by a “friendly alliance” but since desire depends upon knowledge naturally, so faith is greater than love. Just as reason is the governor of the soul, so faith perfecting reason causes the soul to be “uniform and equitable.”

I think it is fitting that the church sets aside a day of feasting and remembrance for the faithful to contemplate the life and wisdom of saint Clement. And rightly does the BCP recommend the prayer:

O God of unsearchable wisdom, you gave your servant Clement grace to understand and teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, the source of all truth: Grant to your church the same grace to discern your Word wherever truth is found; through Jesus Christ our unfailing light, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.