Bound to the Wood

The “Shield of the Trinity” or Scutum Fidei (Latin for “shield of faith”).

Clement (150 – 215) and Origen (184 – 253) were the great exponents of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the “Fathers of the Church” who initiated the Patristic period and were enormously influential in the formation of Christian doctrine and in the attempt of synthesis with the greco-roman philosophy.

Clement of Alexandria was a Greek theologian who wrote three very important works: “Protreptic”, “Pedagogue”, “Tapestry”.

 The “Protreptic” is an exhortation to the pagans to adopt the Christian faith. In it he tries to find points of contact between pagan philosophy with its myths and the Bible, extolling faith almost as a logical consequence of reason. For example, he makes repeated allusions to Homer’s Odyssey, and equates Jesus with the Logos:

“Sail past the song; it works death. Only resolve, and thou hast vanquished destruction; bound to the wood of the cross thou shalt live freed from all corruption.”

“Bound to the wood” alludes to Ulysses tied to the mast of his boat in order to escape the temptation of the sirens, just as the Christian must be bound to the cross. Clement also calls for the mysteries of the Greek religion to be replaced by the Christian mysteries — the word “mystery” being interpreted here as a rite or sacrament, that which puts man in contact with God:

“Come thou frenzy-stricken one, not resting on thy wand, not wreathed with ivy! Cast off thy headdress; cast off thy fawnskin; return to soberness! I will show thee the Word, and the Word’s mysteries, describing them according to thine own semblance of them.”

Here Clement makes clear mention of the drunken cult of Bacchus, and is explicit as to his aim of substituting the rites. It is interesting to note how a religious text calls for reason.

In his text “Pedagogue”, Jesus is the incarnation of the Logos, the master who teaches his children, the teacher who shows the right path to humanity.

His work “Tapestries”, as the name suggests, is like a patchwork quilt, a set of varied texts. But despite his poor systematization, it is in this work that Clement sets forth his main thesis that just as God prepared the Jewish people with the Mosaic laws and the prophets, God prepared the pagans with philosophy — as a propaedeutic for religion. Reason thus prepares man for faith.

His greatest disciple, Origen of Alexandria, also a Greek, can be considered one of the great geniuses of the Patristic period. Origen allegedly wrote more than 6,000 works.

In one of his most famous books, “Contra Celsus,” he creates a polemic in response to a Meso-platonic pagan philosopher manifestly contrary to Christianity. He refutes, among other things, the claim that Christian moral doctrine would not be a respectable science, but only a faith deprived of reason. God, according to Origen, is exactly the bridge that connects Greek science and Christian faith.

In another important book, “On the First Principles,” a much more philosophical text, Origen makes the first systematic exposition of Christian theology, developing among others the concept of the Trinity, and defending the incorporation in it of the Holy Spirit.

From his efforts to interpret the Bible (having translated the Hebrew original into five Greek versions arranged in side-by-side columns in a single edition), it can be said that he is the father of the science of biblical hermeneutics. Such an approach is summarized in the medieval dictates:

“The letter teaches the facts,

What to believe, the allegory,

Morality, what to do,

Where to go, the anagogy.”[1]

This quotation demonstrates the four levels of interpretation of the biblical text: literal, allegorical, moral, and anagogical (Anagogical interpretation may be understood as trying to answer “To what level of spiritual ascension can the text, understood as rite, lead us?”).

I can accept that reason and faith coexist, because reason can not explain everything yet, and will probably never do. But I will never accept that reason leads to faith, as Clement and Origen try to assert. However, in reading their texts, it is almost impossible not to believe that faith has led these men to reason.

 


Footnote

1. “Littera gesta docet / Quid credas allegoria / Moralis quid agas / Quo tendas anagogia.”

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