Clement of Alexandria’s Aesthetic Theology

Clement Alex

I just found out about the group Read the Fathers, and jumped right in.  We’re reading Clement of Alexandria’s Exhortation to the Heathen, and Clement’s extended musical metaphors soar!  Some excerpts from ch. 1:

“Behold the might of the new song!  It has made men out of stones, men out of beasts.  Those, moreover, that were as dead, not being partakers of the true life, have come to life again, simply by becoming listeners to this song.  It also composed the universe into melodious order, tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony.”

“And He who is of David, and yet before him, the Word of God, despising the lyre and harp, which are but lifeless instruments, and having tuned by the Holy Spirit the universe, and especially man,–who, composed of body of soul, is a universe in miniature,–makes melody to God on this instrument of many tones; and to this instrument–I mean man–he sings accordant:  ‘For thou art my harp, and pipe, and temple.’–a harp for harmony–a pipe by reason of the Spirit–a temple by reason of the word; so that the first may sound, the second breathe, the third contain the Lord.”

“A beautiful breathing instrument of music the Lord made man, after His own image.  And He Himself also, surely, who is the supramundane Wisdom, the celestial Word, is the all-harmonious, melodious, holy instrument of God.  What, then, does this instrument–the Word of God, the Lord, the New Song–desire?”

“The instrument of God loves mankind.”

“Well, inasmuch as the Word was from the first, He was and is the divine source of all things; but inasmuch as He has now assumed the name Christ, consecrated of old, and worthy of power, he has been called by me the New Song.”

“This is the New Song, the manifestation of the Word that was in the beginning, and before the beginning … The Word, who was in the beginning bestowed on us life as Creator when He formed us, taught us to live well when He appeared as our Teacher; that as God He might afterwards conduct us to the life which never ends.”

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Humility in the “Worship Wars”

In his outstanding book, Tempted & Tried:  Temptation & the Triumph of Christ, Russell Moore meditates on narcissism and humility.  He takes disagreements about musical styles in worship as an example of how we can exalt our personal preferences to the level of divine revelation …

“We need more worship wars, not fewer:  What is the war looked like this in your congregation–the young singles petitioning the church to play more of the old classics for the sake of the elderly people, and the elderly people calling on the leadership to contemporize for the sake of the young new believers?  This would signal a counting of others as more important than ourselves (Phil. 2:3), which comes from the Spirit of the humiliated, exalted King, Christ (Phil. 2:5-11).  When I insist that the rest of the congregation serve as backup singers in my own little nostalgic hit parade of back-home Mississippi hymns, I am worshiping in the spirit all right, but not   the Holy Spirit.  I am worshiping myself, in the spirit of self-exaltation.  The church negates the power of the third temptation [of Christ–to accept control of the world from Satan’s hands] when we remind ourselves that we all have this devilish tendency and cast it aside whether in worship planning or missions or budget decisions” (Tempted & Tried, 150).

The Blessed Unity of our Singing

In A New Song for an Old World:  Musical Thought in the Early Church, Calvin Stapert shows how important congregational singing was to the early church as a visible and audible expression of Christian unity:

Building on Paul’s exhortation in Romans 15:5-6, Stapert asks:  “Does ‘with one voice’ refer directly to singing?  Probably not–at least not exclusively.  But no one can doubt that it articulates a principle that the church took very seriously for her singing.  The importance of singing ‘with one voice’ was a constant refrain among the early Christian writers.  Listen to some of its recurrences during the first few centuries of the Christian era.  Clement of Rome (ca. 96):

In the same way [as the angels] ought we ourselves, gathered together in a conscious unity, to cry to Him as it were with a single voice …

Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215):

The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth, and crying Abba, Father.

Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260-ca. 340):

And so more sweetly pleasing to God than any musical instrument would be the symphony of the people of God, by which, in every church of God, with kindred spirit and single disposition, with one mind and unanimity of faith and piety, we raise melody in unison in our psalmody.

Ambrose (ca. 339-397):

[A Psalm is] a pledge of peace and harmony, which produces one song from various and sundry voices in the manner of a cithara …  A psalm joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice?  It is after all a great bond of unity for the full number of people to join in one chorus.  The strings of the cithara differ, but create one harmony (symphonia).”

Stapert comments:  “Unity was an important matter to the early Christians, and, as these quotations show, almost from the beginning music was an expression of, a metaphor for, and a means toward unity” (25-26).