Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) vs. Sola Scriptura

Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) vs. Sola Scriptura April 6, 2017


St. Clement of Alexandria: icon from before 1800 [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]




For preliminaries concerning my methodology and the burden of proof for showing if a Church Father believed in sola Scriptura, see my paper, Church Fathers & Sola Scriptura.


The following passage has been offered as “proof” of Clement’s alleged belief in sola Scriptura:

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. (The Stromata, 7:16)

Just as with other such “proofs,” this poses no problem for the Catholic outlook. Catholics, too, “demonstrate” things from the Scriptures. Those who doubt this ought to look over the Vatican II documents sometime, or any recent papal encyclical. Scripture is consulted at every turn. But does this mean that Clement adopted the sola Scriptura position, whereby Scripture is somehow pitted against the Church, tradition, and apostolic succession? No. When we examine his writings more closely, we find that he takes the same view as the other Fathers, and it is not sola Scriptura as the regula fidei, or Rule of Faith. Let’s start with this same work, and take a look at the context of the above statement. Note especially how Clement explicitly asserts that Christian oral tradition is as authoritative as written tradition:

“Thou, therefore, be strong,” says Paul, “in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things which thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” And again: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”If, then, both proclaim the Word-the one by writing, the other by speech-are not both then to be approved, making, as they do, faith active by love? It is by one’s own fault that he does not choose what is best; God is free of blame. As to the point in hand, it is the business of some to lay out the word at interest, and of others to test it, and either choose it or not. And the judgment is determined within themselves. But there is that species of knowledge which is characteristic of the herald, and that which is, as it were, characteristic of a messenger, and it is serviceable in whatever way it operates, both by the hand and tongue. “For he that soweth to the Spirit, shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well-doing.” On him who by Divine Providence meets in with it, it confers the very highest advantages,-the beginning of faith, readiness for adopting a right mode of life, the impulse towards the truth, a movement of inquiry, a trace of knowledge; in a word, it gives the means of salvation.

. . . But the husbandry is twofold,-the one unwritten, and the other written. And in whatever way the Lord’s labourer sow the good wheat, and grow and reap the ears, he shall appear a truly divine husbandman.

. . . they preserving the tradition of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the sons receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed tradition.

. . . The dogmas taught by remarkable sects will be adduced; and to these will be opposed all that ought to be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge, which, as we proceed to the renowned and venerable canon of tradition, from the creation of the world, will advance to our view; setting before us what according to natural contemplation necessarily has to be treated of beforehand, and clearing off what stands in the way of this arrangement. So that we may have our ears ready for the reception of the tradition of true knowledge; the soil being previously cleared of the thorns and of every weed by the husbandman, in order to the planting of the vine. (The Stromata, Book I, Chapter I: “Preface-The Author’s Object-The Utility of Written Compositions”)

For the whole Scripture is not in its meaning a single Myconos, as the proverbial expression has it; but those who hunt after the connection of the divine teaching, must approach it with the utmost perfection of the logical faculty. (The Stromata, Book I, Chapter XXVIII.-“The Fourfold Division of the Mosaic Law”)

The liars, then, in reality are not those who for the sake of the scheme of salvation conform, nor those who err in minute points, but those who are wrong in essentials, and reject the Lord and as far as in them lies deprive the Lord of the true teaching; who do not quote or deliver the Scriptures in a manner worthy of God and of the Lord; for the deposit rendered to God, according to the teaching of the Lord by His apostles, is the understanding and the practice of the godly tradition. “And what ye hear in the ear ” – that is, in a hidden manner, and in a mystery (for such things are figuratively said to be spoken in the ear) – “proclaim,” He says, “on the housetops,” understanding them sublimely, and delivering them in a lofty strain, and according to the canon of the truth explaining the Scriptures; for neither prophecy nor the Saviour Himself announced the divine mysteries simply so as to be easily apprehended by all and sundry, but express them in parables. The apostles accordingly say of the Lord, that “He spake all things in parables, and without a parable spake He nothing unto them;” and if “all things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made,” consequently also prophecy and the law were by Him, and were spoken by Him in parables. “But all things are right,” says the Scripture, “before those who understand,” that is, those who receive and observe, according to the ecclesiastical rule, the exposition of the Scriptures explained by Him; and the ecclesiastical rule is the concord and harmony of the law and the prophets in the covenant delivered at the coming of the Lord. (The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter XV: “Different Degrees of Knowledge”; cf. ANF II:509)

(Note: ANF = The Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, A. Cleveland Cox, and A. Menzies, 10 volumes, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1951-1956)

In the same Book VII of the Stromata which was cited at the top of this paper, in the chapter (XV) before his citation above, Clement writes:

. . . so also are we bound in no way to transgress the canon of the Church. And especially do we keep our profession in the most important points, while they [the heretics] traverse it. Those, then, are to be believed, who hold firmly to the truth.. . . it is necessary to condescend to questions, and to ascertain by way of demonstration by the Scriptures themselves how the heresies failed, and how in the truth alone and in the ancient Church is both the exactest knowledge, and the truly best set of principles (airesis).

He then begins the next chapter (just three paragraphs later) with the words above: at the top:

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.

But context, of course, shows conclusively that he is not conceiving Holy Scripture as a formally sufficient principle in and of itself, over against the Church and Tradition, since he also states — a mere three paragraphs previously — that “in the ancient Church is . . . the exactest knowledge.” In other words, he writes and thinks precisely as Catholics and Orthodox do, not as Protestants, who would scarcely ever say that the ancient Church possessed “exactest knowledge,” as it believed in a host of things which many or most Protestants reject (baptismal regeneration, infused justification, merit, the office of the priesthood, invocation and intercession of saints, prayers for the dead, penance, various tenets of Mariology, episcopacy, the Eucharistic sacrifice, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, etc., etc.). One could not hope to find a clearer proof that Clement would reject sola Scriptura as Protestants conceive and apply it (as a Rule of Faith and formal principle), and in the immediate context of the alleged “prooftext,” at that.

Shortly afterwards (five paragraphs later), he writes about how the heretics pervert the true meaning of Scripture, which must be determined by the Church and Tradition. This is strictly contrary to sola Scriptura as Protestants understand it, and is exactly the way that Catholics then and now view such matters:

Now all men, having the same judgment, some, following the Word speaking, frame for themselves proofs; while others, giving themselves up to pleasures, wrest Scripture, in accordance with their lusts. And the lover of truth, as I think, needs force of soul. For those who make the greatest attempts must fail in things of the highest importance; unless, receiving from the truth itself the rule of the truth, they cleave to the truth. But such people, in consequence of falling away from the right path, err in most individual points; as you might expect from not having the faculty for judging of what is true and false, strictly trained to select what is essential. For if they had, they would have obeyed the Scriptures.


As, then, if a man should, similarly to those drugged by Circe, become a beast; so he, who has spurned the ecclesiastical tradition, and darted off to the opinions of heretical men, has ceased to be a man of God and to remain faithful to the Lord.

He then follows up with a superb description of how the heretics (particularly the Gnostics) do not know how to interpret Holy Scripture properly. Catholics would not disagree with a single word of it. Note, however, how he freely incorporates in his discussion of solid hermeneutics, the standard and criterion of orthodoxy, the Church, and Sacred Tradition:

Seeing, therefore, the danger that they are in (not in respect of one dogma, but in reference to the maintenance of the heresies) of not discovering the truth; for while reading the books we have ready at hand, they despise them as useless, but in their eagerness to surpass common faith, they have diverged from the truth. For, in consequence of not learning the mysteries of ecclesiastical knowledge, and not having capacity for the grandeur of the truth, too indolent to descend to the bottom of things, reading superficially, they have dismissed the Scriptures.

. . . So, then, they are not pious, inasmuch as they are not pleased with the divine commands, that is, with the Holy Spirit. And as those almonds are called empty in which the contents are worthless, not those in which there is nothing; so also we call those heretics empty, who are destitute of the counsels of God and the traditions of Christ; bitter, in truth, like the wild almond, their dogmas originating with themselves, with the exception of such truths as they could not, by reason of their evidence, discard and conceal.

Near the end of the chapter, he sums up the approach of the orthodox Christian, who:

. . . having grown old in the Scriptures, and maintaining apostolic and ecclesiastic orthodoxy in doctrines, lives most correctly in accordance with the Gospel, and discovers the proofs, for which he may have made search (sent forth as he is by the Lord), from the law and the prophets . . . nothing but deeds and words corresponding to the tradition of the Lord. (The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter XVI: “Scripture the Criterion by Which Truth and Heresy are Distinguished”; cf. ANF II:550-554)

The next chapter (XVII) is entitled, “The Tradition of the Church Prior to That of the Heresies.” I shall cite almost all of it:

Those, then, that adhere to impious words, and dictate them to others, inasmuch as they do not make a right but a perverse use of the divine words, neither themselves enter into the kingdom of heaven, nor permit those whom they have deluded to attain the truth. But not having the key of entrance, but a false (and as the common phrase expresses it), a counterfeit key (antikleis), by which they do not enter in as we enter in, through the tradition of the Lord, by drawing aside the curtain; but bursting through the side-door, and digging clandestinely through the wall of the Church, and stepping over the truth, they constitute themselves the Mystagogues of the soul of the impious.For that the human assemblies which they held were posterior to the Catholic Church requires not many words to show.

. . . it is evident, from the high antiquity and perfect truth of the Church, that these later heresies, and those yet subsequent to them in time, were new inventions falsified [from the truth].

From what has been said, then, it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree honourable is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the One, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one Church, which they strive to cut asunder into many sects.

Therefore in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith – which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament in different times by the will of the one God, through one Lord – those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.

But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself. But of this afterwards.

Of the heresies, some receive their appellation from a [person’s] name, as that which is called after Valentinus, and that after Marcion, and that after Basilides, although they boast of adducing the opinion of Matthew [without truth]; for as the teaching, so also the tradition of the apostles was one. Some take their designation from a place, as the Peratici; some from a nation, as the [heresy] of the Phrygians; some from an action, as that of the Encratites; and some from peculiar dogmas, as that of the Docetae, and that of the Harmatites; and some from suppositions, and from individuals they have honoured, as those called Cainists, and the Ophians; and some from nefarious practices and enormities, as those of the Simonians called Entychites.

J. N. D. Kelly expounds upon Clement’s conception of the Church, which had both an invisible and a visible element, but yet is far closer to Catholic ecclesiology than Protestant:

. . . at Alexandria, as we might expect, while the visible Church received its meed of recognition, the real focus of interest tended to be the invisible Church . . . Clement, for example, is ready enough to use the empirical categories and to distinguish [Strom. 7,17,107] ‘the ancient and Catholic Church’ from heretical conventicles. This is the Church in which the apostolic tradition is enshrined, and to which those whom God predestines to righteousness belong. Like God Himself, it is one [Paed. I,4,10]; it is also the virgin mother of Christians, feeding them on the Logos as holy milk [Ib. I,6,42; cf. I,5,21] . . .Platonizing influences were clearly at work in Clement’s distinction between the visible but imperfect Church and the perfect spiritual one . . . (Early Christian Doctrines, HarperSanFrancisco, revised 1978 edition, 201-202)

In describing both Clement’s and Origen’s views, Kelly notes how they both presupposed Christian Tradition in their quest for gnosis (deeper knowledge):

[They] went so far as to distinguish two types of Christianity, with two grades of Christians corresponding to them. The first and lower type was based on ‘faith’, i.e. the literal acceptance of the truths declared in Scripture and the Church’s teaching, while the second and higher type was described as ‘gnosis’, i.e. an esoteric form of knowledge. This started with the Bible and tradition, indeed was founded on them, but its endeavour was to unravel their deeper meaning.The position of both of them, it is true, is complicated by the fact that, in addition to the Church’s public tradition, they believed they had access to a secret traditin of doctrine. Clement . . . regarded [E.g., Strom. 6,7,61; 6,8,68; 6,15,131] it as stemming from the apostles and including quasi-Gniostic speculations, while for Origen it seems to have consisted of an esoteric theology based on the Bible; in both cases it was reserved for the intellectual elite of the Church. Although Clement seems to have confused his secret Gnostic tradition with ‘the ecclesiastical canon’, he had clear ideas about the latter, and defined [Ib. 6.15.125] it as ‘the congruence and harmony of the law and the prophets with the covenant delivered at the Lord’s parousia‘. According to Origen, the rule of faith, or canon, was the body of beliefs currently accepted by ordinary Christians; or again, it could stand for the whole content of the faith . . . he meant by it the Christian faith as taught in the Church of his day and handed down from the apostles. Though its contents coincided with those of the Bible, it was formally independent of the Bible, and indeed included the principles of Biblical interpretation. (Ibid., 5, 43)

Note in the last sentence how Origen — much like Clement and the other Fathers — distinguished between the formal and material sufficiency of the Bible. The “rule of faith” or “canon” or Sacred Tradition or orthodox teaching or apostolic deposit of the Church was “formally independent” of the Bible, yet its contents “coincided” with Scripture (which includes all the necessary theological tenets and teaching), and also included principles of hermeneutics or biblical interpretation. This is precisely the Catholic view. Kelly then sums up Clement’s position, citing a passage we have examined above:

. . . the ancient idea that the Church alone, in virtue of being the home of the Spirit and having preserved the authentic apostolic testimony in her rule of faith, liturgical action and general witness, possesses the indispensable key to Scripture, continued to operate as powerfully as in the days of Irenaeus and Tertullian. Clement, for example, blamed [Strom. 7,16,103] the mistakes of heretics on their habit of ‘resisting the divine tradition’, by which he meant their incorrect interpretation of Scripture; the true interpretation, he believed, was an apostolic and ecclesiastical inheritance. (Ibid., 47)

Historian Jaroslav Pelikan essentially concurs with Kelly’s judgment:

. . . no one can fail to be reminded of Gnosticism when he reads Clement’s claim to possess a secret tradition, neither published in the New Testament nor known to the common people; one of his terms for the secret tradition was “gnosis.” . . . would one be justified in regarding Clement and Origen as the right wing of Christian Gnosticism rather than as the left wing of Christian orthodoxy? A consideration of the entire body of their thought makes such an interpretation, however attractive it may be, finally untenable . . . (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Vol. 1 of 5: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971, 96)

Thus Dr. Pelikan, a great scholar who knows how to examine the entirety of a thinker’s outlook, doesn’t fall into the foolish trap of finding isolated snippets which sound “Gnostic,” and concluding that Clement was a heretic. In other words, he doesn’t make the same fundamental methodological mistake that anti-Catholic polemicists make: extreme neglect of context leading to a radically mistaken notion of what Clement believed (in this instance, on the relationship of Bible, Tradition, and Church).

The eminent Protestant Church historian Philip Schaff describes the perspective of the Ante-Nicene Fathers generally, concerning Scripture, Church, and Tradition, and includes Clement among their number:

Nor is any distinction made here between a visible and an invisible church. All catholic antiquity thought of none but the actual, historical church . . .The fathers of our period all saw in the church, though with different degrees of clearness, a divine, supernatural order of things, in a certain sense the continuation of the life of Christ on earth, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the sole repository of the powers of divine life, the possessor and interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, the mother of all the faithful . . .

Equally inseparable from her is the predicate of apostolicity, that is, the historical continuity or unbroken succession, which reaches back through the bishops to the apostles, from the apostles to Christ, and from Christ to God. In the view of the fathers, every theoretical departure from this empirical, tangible, catholic church is heresy, that is, arbitrary, subjective, ever changing human opinion; every practical departure, all disobedience to her rulers is schism, or dismemberment of the body of Christ; either is rebellion against divine authority, and a heinous, if not the mosty heinous, sin. No heresy can reach the conception of the church, or rightly claim any one of her predicates; it forms at best a sect or party, and consequently falls within the province and the fate of human and perishing things, while the church is divine and indestructible.

This is without doubt the view of the ante-Nicene fathers, even of the speculative and spiritualistic Alexandrians . . .

Even Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, with all their spiritualistic and idealizing turn of mind, are no exception here. (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970; reproduction of 5th revised edition of 1910, Chapter IV, section 53, “The Catholic Unity,” pp. 169-170, 172)

Schaff’s characterization of the views of the Fathers in this same period concerning Tradition is also perfectly consistent with the Catholic perspective and my own general thesis throughout this paper. His natural (somewhat charming) Protestant bias is obvious (e.g., “traditions of later origin, not grounded in the scriptures,” “blind and slavish subjection of private judgment to ecclesiastical authority”), yet he fairly cites the facts of history, as always:

Besides appealing to the Scriptures, the fathers, particularly Irenaeus and Tertullian, refer with equal confidence to the “rule of faith;” that is, the common faith of the church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles to their day, and above all as still living in the original apostolic churches, like those of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Tradition is thus intimately connected with the primitive episcopate. The latter was the vehicle of the former, and both were looked upon as bulwarks against heresy.Irenaeus confronts the secret tradition of the Gnostics with the open and unadulterated tradition of the catholic church, and points to all churches, but particularly to Rome, as the visible centre of the unity of doctrine. All who would know the truth, says he, can see in the whole church the tradition of the apostles; and we can count the bishops ordained by the apostles, and their successors down to our time, who neither taught nor knew any such heresies. Then, by way of example, he cites the first twelve bishops of the Roman church from Linus to Eleutherus, as witnesses of the pure apostolic doctrine. He might conceive of a Christianity without scripture, but he could not imagine a Christianity without living tradition; and for this opinion he refers to barbarian tribes, who have the gospel, “sine charta et atramento,” written in their hearts.

Tertullian finds a universal antidote for all heresy in his celebrated prescription argument, which cuts off heretics, at the outset, from every right of appeal to the holy scriptures, on the ground, that the holy scriptures arose in the church of Christ, were given to her, and only in her and by her can be rightly understood. He calls attention also here to the tangible succession, which distinguishes the catholic church from the arbitrary and ever-changing sects of heretics, and which in all the principal congregations, especially in the original sects of the apostles, reaches back without a break from bishop to bishop, to the apostles themselves, from the apostles to Christ, and from Christ to God. “Come, now,” says he, in his tract on Prescription, “if you would practise inquiry to more advantage in the matter of your salvation, go through the apostolic churches, in which the very chairs of the apostles still preside, in which their own authentic letters are publicly read, uttering the voice and representing the face of every one. If Achaia is nearest, you have Corinth. If you are not far from Macedonia, you have Philippi, you have Thessalonica. If you can go to Asia, you have Ephesus. But if you live near Italy, you have Rome, whence also we [of the African church] derive our origin. How happy is the church, to which the apostles poured out their whole doctrine with their blood,” etc.

To estimate the weight of this argument, we must remember that these fathers still stood comparatively very near the apostolic age, and that the succession of bishops in the oldest churches could be demonstrated by the living memory of two or three generations. Irenaeus in fact, had been acquainted in his youth with Polycarp, a disciple of St. John. But for this very reason we must guard against overrating this testimony, and employing it in behalf of traditions of later origin, not grounded in the scriptures.

Nor can we suppose that those fathers ever thought of a blind and slavish subjection of private judgment to ecclesiastical authority, and to the decision of the bishops of the apostolic mother churches. The same Irenaeus frankly opposed the Roman bishop Victor. Tertullian, though he continued essentially orthodox, contested various points with the catholic church from his later Montanistic position, and laid down, though at first only in respect to a conventional custom – the veiling of virgins – the genuine Protestant principle, that the thing to be regarded, especially in matters of religion, is not custom but truth. His pupil, Cyprian, with whom biblical and catholic were almost interchangeable terms, protested earnestly against the Roman theory of the validity of heretical baptism, and in this controversy declared, in exact accordance with Tertullian, that custom without truth was only time-honored error. The Alexandrians freely fostered all sorts of peculiar views, which were afterwards rejected as heretical; and though the [Greek] plays a prominent part with them, yet this and similar expressions have in their language a different sense, sometimes meaning simply the holy scriptures. So, for example, in the well-known passage of Clement: “As if one should be changed from a man to a beast after the manner of one charmed by Circe; so a man ceases to be God’s and to continue faithful to the Lord, when he sets himself up against the church tradition, and flies off to positions of human caprice.”

In the substance of its doctrine this apostolic tradition agrees with the holy scriptures, and though derived, as to its form, from the oral preaching of the apostles, is really, as to its contents, one and the same with those apostolic writings. In this view the apparent contradictions of the earlier fathers, in ascribing the highest authority to both scripture and tradition in matters of faith, resolve themselves. It is one and the same gospel which the apostles preached with their lips, and then laid down in their writings, and which the church faithfully hands down by word and writing from one generation to another.

(History of the Christian Church, Vol. II: Ante-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 100-325, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1970; reproduction of 5th revised edition of 1910, Chapter XII, section 139, “Catholic Tradition,” pp. 525-528 {complete, minus footnotes: see the web version below} )

Note again how material sufficiency of Scripture is wholeheartedly accepted:

1. “In the substance of its doctrine this apostolic tradition agrees with the holy scriptures”
2. “as to its contents, one and the same”
3. “Cyprian, with whom biblical and catholic were almost interchangeable terms”
4. “It is one and the same gospel which the apostles preached with their lips, and then laid down in their writings”

The formal sufficiency of Scripture as a Rule of Faith, on the other hand, is denied:

1. “the ‘rule of faith;’ that is, the common faith of the church, as orally handed down in the unbroken succession of bishops from Christ and his apostles”
2. “unadulterated tradition of the catholic church”
3. [For Tertullian] “the holy scriptures arose in the church of Christ, were given to her, and only in her and by her can be rightly understood”
4. [Clement’s words] “so a man ceases to be God’s and to continue faithful to the Lord, when he sets himself up against the church tradition”

My thesis could not be any more explicitly upheld, and by a Protestant historian: one who (I highly suspect) has never been accused of Catholic bias . . .

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