Friday, March 06, 2009

Clement of Alexandria on Good Works

Those who neglect good works may fail to grasp just how much the good work of God has benefited them. Hence they are less capable of praying fittingly so as to receive good things from God. And even as they receive them, they will likely be unaware of what has been given them. And even if they enjoy them, they will not enjoy worthily what they have not understood. For from their lack of knowledge they will not grasp how to use the good things given to them. And from their impulsiveness they will remain ignorant of how to avail themselves of the divine gifts offered.

Stromata 6.14

I confess that my own pattern of thought is to prioritize different kinds of work: to first look and reflect upon the work that God has done for us and on our behalf, and only after that to reflect on what this might mean for our own good works. But here, without eroding the priority of God's work on our behalf (I trust this is enough to preserve Clement - and myself - from a kind of Pelagianism), Clement does something I find far more helpful than a simple hierarchical prioritizing of the different kinds of good work. Instead, for Clement, it is our own neglect of our own good works that leads us to an inability to recognize the scope of God's work on our behalf. Further, we are unable to fully enter into a life of prayer, and how God works through prayer to provide for us. Without good works our knowledge of God is impaired to a degree that makes us unable to even see the goodness of God's providence. And, most strikingly, it's not our lack of reflection upon God's work on our behalf that makes us ignorant of the full meaning of God's gifts to us; rather, we are ignorant of God's good gifts without our own good works. Our own good works are not secondary, nor are they primary; the same goes for God's good work for us and on our behalf. Both good works are fully complementary. Without one complement, the fullness of the divine life is misunderstood.

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