Occasionally, an ancient writer hits you with a jaw-dropping-ly fresh insight. The first theologian to discover the power of the idea of Jesus as God’s “New Song” was Clement of Alexandria in the early 200s: “I have called Him a New Song.”
This is the promise He (Jesus) made to the Father: “I will declare Your name to My brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I sing praises to You” (Heb 2:12). Clement then asks Christ to sing praises, and declare to Me God Your Father. Your story will save, Your song will instruct me.
Clement ministered in a city that had been founded 500 years earlier by Alexander the Great as the portal for bringing Greek “reason” and “culture” to the “unenlightened” and “uncultured” East. In addition, Alexandria had long been home to a large number of Jews in permanent exile. Alexandria was the place where the Old Testament was translated into Greek. It was also the center of an intellectual approach to Judaism that had come close to reducing Israel’s story of redemption to a mere philosophy of moral improvement.
The genius of Clement lies in his ability to take an Old Testament motif of a New Song (see Isa 42:10; Ps 33:3) that is fulfilled in the New Testament (Rev 5:9; 14:3) and apply it creatively and re-demptively in a non-Christian world that already had its own thoughts about music.
MAGIC OF MUSIC
Ancient Greece was fascinated with music, imagining the cosmos itself to reverberate to various musical modes. Personifying the magic of music was the Greek hero Orpheus. His music was sup- posed to have tamed beasts and moved inanimate objects. In classical Greece, great contests of song—of Olympian pro-portion—honored Orpheus’s memory. By the time of the emergence of Christianity, however, buffoons like Nero (who rigged musical contests to make himself the winner) made a mockery of this memory. Still, the games went on—an unending run of American Idol, despite a talent drain.
EVERLASTING NEW SONG
There is a “harmony” to the uni- verse, grants Clement in his extended tract Exhortation to the Greeks. But that “harmony” has nothing to do with speculation about musical modes, and everything to do with the “symphony” of being that has constituted the Trinity from eternity.
With the fatherly purpose of God … and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Word of God arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man too, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instrument of the universe He (the Word of God) makes music to God.
This eternal “harmony” and “symphony” between Father, Word, and Spirit became concrete when the Word became a human being. Christ came to make us like Himself and to draw us into the eternal relationship—the eternal “harmony” and “symphony”—that has always existed within the Godhead.
JESUS THE NEW SONG
Thus, Clement proclaims: “Because the Word lately took a name—the name consecrated of old and worthy of power, the Christ, I have called him a New Song.” And while ancient Greeks mythologize and fantasize about a revered hero of the past taming beasts through song, Christians know a more powerful Singer:
He is the only one who ever tamed the most intractable of all wild beasts—human beings. For he tamed birds, that is, people who are flighty; reptiles, that is, those who are crafty; lions, that is, the passionate; swine, that is, those who are pleasure-loving; wolves, that is, the rapacious. … All these most savage beasts, … the heavenly song of itself transformed into gentle people. …
See how mighty is the New Song! It has made … humans out of wild beasts. They who were otherwise dead, who had no share in the real and true life, revived when they heard the song.
Those who awake to God’s song of redemption…
will dance with angels around the unbegotten and only imperishable and only true God, the Word of God joining us in our hymn of praise.
What an amazing thought! Clement compellingly contextualized biblical imagery to speak to a culture of disbelief at the beginning of the 3rd century. May we at the beginning of the 3rd millennium be as faithfully creative. Because the story Jesus tells still saves, and the song He sings still instructs.