St. Clement, Sola Scriptura, and Mary

After a post I wrote about sola Scriptura, John Armstrong suggested that I read The Shape of Sola Scriptura by Keith Mathison. The book is written by a creedal Protestant – that is, he believes in sola Scriptura, but believes that any interpretation of the Bible which falls outside of the historic Creeds is wrong. He just doesn’t think that the Creeds or Councils were infallible. He calls this view Tradition 1 [he’s borrowing this distinction from Heiko Oberman], and compares it with: Tradition 0 [anti-creedal reliance on Scripture alone], Tradition 2 [Scripture and Tradition are equally Divine revelation – the actual Catholic and Orthodox position], and Tradition 3 [“Church Alone,” the position he ascribes to the Catholic Church].

His book is divided into four parts: (1) The Historical Context [looking at the Early Church, the Middle Ages, and then the Reformation era], (2) The Witness of Scripture, (3) The Theological Necessity of Sola Scriptura, and (4) Objections and Issues. His claim is that Scripture and the early Church are all about Tradition 1, that Tradition 0 will always lead to widely divergent beliefs, and that since Tradition can develop, Tradition 2 isn’t stable, either. He gets a lot wrong about the Catholic stance, which is a shame, because the book has the potential to be decent. As it is, of the four parts, the only part I would really recommend is the latter half of part 1, showing the early Reformers’ views on sola Scriptura, because they were pretty clearly ok with Creeds, what with their use of Confessions and the like. Mathison knows the early Reformers far better than he knows (or understands) the Church Fathers, and it shows.

Armstrong’s point, if I understand him, was that anti-creedal Evangelicals have sort of hijacked the term sola Scriptura, so much of my original criticism doesn’t apply to Protestants who aren’t, say, Independent Baptists or Non-Denominationalists. This is an issue which infuriates Mathison to no end. He doesn’t like when Catholic apologists say they’re attacking sola Scriptura, but then attack the Evangelical interpretation of that doctrine, rather than the Tradition 0 version (which he derides as solo Scriptura). I understand his frustration, but at a certain level, if slews of Christians who hold Tradition 0 call it “sola Scriptura,” sane Catholics trying to address their beliefs would do well to address it by name. I think Calvinists misunderstand predestination, but if I made up a derogatory term for their belief, and then attempted to refute that belief, it’d be hard to get a hearing. So I think Catholics are fine in addressing the belief structure by the name given to it by its proponents, even if it does mean here that two distinct views of authority [Tradition 0 and Tradition 1] are called by the same name.

The largest problem with Mathison’s book is his obvious disdain for Catholicism. At various points throughout the book, he just can’t contain himself, and has to try and throw a jab against the Church. Repeatedly, it backfires, as he misstates and misunderstands the Catholic Church’s position and/or the evidence at hand. For example, he argues on the basis of St. Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata that Clement (c. 150 – c. 215) believed in Tradition 1. Mathison just can’t help himself, and throws in footnote 18: “It is interesting to note that the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, for which Rome claims a universal and continuous tradition, is explicitly declared by Clement to be false in this chapter.

I. What the Church Teaches
Here, he botches both the Catholic view, and completely misunderstands Clement’s teaching. First, the Catholic view is that there is a universal and continuous Tradition, but it doesn’t mean what Mathison seems (at various points in this book) to think it means. Rather, universal and continuous Tradition means that this view of Mary was, from the earliest days of Christianity, taught throughout Christendom. Universal here means the opposite of parochial. It wasn’t as if the Western Church believed in this while the East didn’t, or that this was just some peculiar Spanish belief. The reason that this is important is that if this is a religious novelty, we’d see it spring up in a certain place and spread. Calvinism, for example, starts with Calvin in the 16th century, and spreads throughout much of the West. The Eastern Orthodox Church rapidly denounced it. We can locate both a time and a place where the error arose (in this case, even the error’s initial proponent). The perpetual Virginity of Mary isn’t like that. We see it from the earliest days in the Church, it never goes “out of style,” and it’s seen from one end of Christendom to the other.

It does not mean, however, that literally everyone always and everywhere believed this teaching. If that were the case, there would be no need to define it. So even, hypothetically, if he’d gotten Clement’s views on Mary right, it wouldn’t disprove that this belief about Her was universal and continuous. A universal and continuous view can have naysayers. The Divinity of Christ, for example, was denied by various heretics, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t the universal and continuous Christian view.

II. What Clement Actually Said.
The notion that Clement wrote against the perpetual Virginity of Mary isn’t restricted to Mathison. The CCEL version of the Stromata seems to be the the William Wilson translation with some foonotes added. For Book VII, Chapter 16, fn. 3666, they write, “A reference to the sickening and profane history of an apocryphal book, hereafter to be noted. But this language is most noteworthy as an absolute refutation of modern Mariolatry. My hunch is that these two sources aren’t alone, so that’s probably all the more reason to quickly dispel this notion. Here’s what Clement actually said:

But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of her child, as having been in the puerperal state, although she was not. For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin.

Now such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth. “And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth,” says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction. Wherefore the Scriptures have conceived to Gnostics; but the heresies, not having learned them, dismissed them as not having conceived.

It’s admittedly a confusing passage (I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the translator, or just the complexity of the work) so let’s take it a bit at a time.

  • But, as appears, many even down to our own time regard Mary, on account of the birth of Her Child, as having been in the puerperal state“:

In other words, since Mary had a Son, many regard Her to have gone through birth pains (the “puerperal state”). Clement seems surprised that it appears many still believe this.

  • although she was not.

In other words, Clement denies that Mary experienced birth pangs.  St. Thomas Aquinas explains this at good length in the Summa Theological, Third Part, Question 35, Article 6. In other words, Clement and Thomas (and a whole slew of others) believed that Genesis 3:16 didn’t apply to Mary on account of her perpetual sinlessness. Aquinas says it best:

The pains of childbirth in the woman follow from the mingling of the sexes. Wherefore (Genesis 3:16) after the words, “in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children,” the following are added: “and thou shalt be under thy husband’s power.” But, as Augustine says (Serm. de Assumpt. B. Virg., [Supposititious]), from this sentence we must exclude the Virgin-Mother of God; who, “because she conceived Christ without the defilement of sin, and without the stain of sexual mingling, therefore did she bring Him forth without pain, without violation of her virginal integrity, without detriment to the purity of her maidenhood.” Christ, indeed, suffered death, but through His own spontaneous desire, in order to atone for us, not as a necessary result of that sentence, for He was not a debtor unto death.

Or as the Catechism of Council of Trent (Second part of the Third Article of the Creed) puts it, “just as the rays of the sun penetrate without breaking or injuring in the least the solid substance of glass, so after a like but more exalted manner did Jesus Christ come forth from His mother’s womb without injury to her maternal virginity.

To my knowledge, the belief that Mary suffered no birth pangs is not dogmatically defined, and a Catholic can take either position. But the reason that Clement, et al, believed She didn’t suffer birth pangs, is because they believed She was without sin and a perpetual Virgin — and thus, exempt from Genesis 3:16’s curse. So rather than explicitly denying some modern Catholic Marian doctrine, St. Clement is one of its earliest known proponents, and even at the time of his writing, he’s baffled that anyone still holds a contrary view.

  • For some say that, after she brought forth, she was found, when examined, to be a virgin.

This is Clement’s first piece of evidence for his belief. To modern ears, it’s not very compelling. But he’s writing in the pretty early days of Christianity, with a vibrant oral tradition.

  • Now such to us are the Scriptures of the Lord, which gave birth to the truth and continue virgin, in the concealment of the mysteries of the truth.

In other words, his next proof will be Scriptural, which he slyly notes also remains perpetually virgin (in this case also meaning perpetually without sin). I liked this, because why does Scripture remain perpetually Virgin and without error? Because it contains the word. And what did Mary contain? The Word!

  • “And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth,” says the Scripture; as having conceived of herself, and not from conjunction.

A few things here. First, CCEL footnote 3667 is actually a good starting place here:

“Tertullian, who treats of the above-mentioned topic, attributes these words to Ezekiel: but they are sought for in vain in Ezekiel, or in any other part of Scripture. [The words are not found in Ezekiel, but such was his understanding of Ezek. xliv. 2.]”

The verse from Ezekiel mentioned by is Ezekiel 44:2, which the NASB renders as “The LORD said to me, ‘This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the LORD God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.'” Originally, this was a reference to the Temple gate, but the obvious Marian parallel wasn’t lost on the Church Fathers, who quickly picked it up as support for the idea that Mary remained a Virgin.

That said, CCEL footnote 3667 is wrong. The reason Tertullian attributes these words to Ezekiel isn’t because they’re loosely translating Ezekiel 44:2. It’s because both Tertullian and Clement take as authentic the Apocryphon of Ezekiel. Today, we have only a few fragments of the text (since it was a phony, it wasn’t worth preserving). Fragment 3 says “Look at the cow, She has calved, and yet she is pregnant.” I’m not sure what the original says: it may well be “she has brought forth, and yet not brought forth; it may also be that Clement is paraphrasing, or quoting a similar section.

Still, Clement is using what he (wrongly) believes to be Scripture to provide support for the notion that Mary suffered no birth pangs. Frankly, while it’s nice to see that Clement believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity and sinlessness, leading to his belief She suffered no birth pangs, his isn’t really the best testimony to rely on: it’s hearsay and appeals to non-canonical texts. Far better to rely on the Fathers appealing to Ezekiel 44:2.

III. What This Means for Sola Scriptura
This turns out to be one of the most ironic attempts to use a Church Father to support sola Scriptura. Why? Because the Father in question, despite his best efforts, quotes something which turns out not to be Scripture. For starters, this blows out of the water Calvin’s absurd claim that anyone who listens to the Holy Spirit will know the canon. But it more fundamentally raises the obvious need for an objective and reliable Authority – the Magisterium – by which to set the canon of Scripture. Tradition 0 doesn’t offer that Authority at all, and Tradition 1 offers it only in so far as the Authority agrees with Scripture… which creates an awful Catch-22. Obviously, the Church, in declaring anything not canonical, disagrees with those books. Does that violate Tradition 1? It depends on whether the books are canonical or not. Which brings us right back to the starting place.


  1. I’m confused. If the part about “And she brought forth, and yet brought not forth” is not in the fragments of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel, then how do you know that is what Tertullian and St. Clement were referring to and that they believed this book to be inspired? You mention that they believe this book to be inspired, I’m just curious how we know that if the quote you say they are referring to isn’t actually in what we have left of the book? Get my question? Sorry, I feel like I’m unclear.

  2. Because the part he quotes is very similar to one of the parts that we do have from fragment 3: “Look at the cow, She has calved, and yet she is pregnant.” I’d be interested in how similar the Greek parts of Fragment 3 are to the Greek texts of Clement and Tertullian. Most likely, the difference between this and what Clement and Tertullian are quoting is simply a matter of translation or paraphrasing.

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