Clement of Alexandria

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Revision as of 19:14, February 28, 2011


Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens), was the first well-known theologian of the Church of Alexandria. He was born about the middle of the 2nd century, and died between 211 and 216.



He was not born in Egypt (Stromata, i. 1) as his name suggests; rather, Alexandria was his bishopric. Athens is named as his birthplace by the sixth-century Epiphanius Scholasticus, and this is supported by the classical quality of his Greek. His parents seem to have been wealthy pagans of some social standing. The thoroughness of his education is shown by his constant quotation of the Greek poets and philosophers. He traveled in Greece, Italy, Palestine, and finally Egypt. He became the colleague of Pantaenus, the head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria and the man who likely converted him to Christianity, and finally succeeded him in the direction of the school. His best known pupil was Origen (who was condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. During the persecution of Septimius Severus (202 or 203) he sought refuge with Alexander, then bishop of Flaviada in Cappadocia, afterward of Jerusalem, from whom he brought a letter to Antioch in 211. After this, he died sometime in the next five years without returning to Egypt.

Literary work

The trilogy into which Clement's principal remains are connected by their purpose and mode of treatment is composed of the Protrepticus ("Exhortation to the Greeks"), the Paedagogus ("Instructor"), and the Stromata ("Miscellanies"). In it Clement for the first time attempted to set forth Christianity for the faithful in the traditional forms of secular literature. The Protrepticus forms an introduction inviting the reader to listen, not to the mythical legends of the gods, but to the "new song" of the Logos (that is, Christ), the beginning of all things and creator of the world. He denounces the folly of idolatry and the pagan mysteries, the shamefulness of the pederastic practices of the Greeks, and the horrors of pagan sacrifice. Clement argues that the Greek philosophers and poets only guessed at the truth, while the prophets set forth a direct way to salvation; and now the divine Logos speaks in his own person, to awaken all that is good in the soul of man and to lead it to immortality. Having thus laid a foundation in the knowledge of divine truth, he goes on in the Paedagogus to describe the Christian ethic. His design does not prevent him from taking a large part of his material from the Stoic Musonius Rufus, the master of Epictetus; but for Clement the real instructor is the incarnate Logos.

The first book deals with the religious basis of Christian morality, the second and third with the individual cases of conduct. As with Epictetus, true virtue shows itself with him in its external evidences by a natural, simple, and moderate way of living. The Stromata goes further and aims at the perfection of the Christian life by initiation into complete knowledge. The first of these works is addressed to the unconverted, the second to the new Christian, and the third appeals to the mature believer. It attempts, on the basis of Scripture and Tradition, to give such an account of the Christian faith as shall answer all the demands of learned men. Clement entitled this work Stromateis, "patchwork," because it dealt with such a variety of matters. He intended to make but one book of this; at least seven grew out of it, without his having treated all the subjects proposed. The absence of certain things definitely promised has led scholars to ask whether he wrote an eighth book, as would appear from Eusebius (VI. xiii. 1) and the Florilegia, and various attempts have been made to identify with it short or fragmentary treatises appearing among his remains. In any case, the "excerpts" and "selections" which, with part of a treatise on logical method, are designated as the eighth book in the single (11th century) manuscript of the Stromata, are not parts of the Hypotyposes which Clement is known to have written. This work was a brief commentary on selected passages covering the whole Bible, as is shown in the fragments preserved by Oecumenius and in the Latin version of the commentary on the Catholic Epistles made at the request of a certain Cassiodorus.

Besides the great trilogy, another important work of Clement that has been preserved is the treatise "Who is the Rich Man that Shall Be Saved?" based on Mark 10:17-31. This commentary lays down the principle that not the possession of riches, but their misuse, is to be condemned. We also have fragments of numerous other works, including: Exhortation to the Greeks, The Instructor of Children, and Hypotyposeis (Sketches).

His significance for the Church

Clement's most lasting impact was his attempt to unite Greek pagan philosophy with Christianity. He shows exhaustively that the philosophers owe a large part of their knowledge to the writings of the Old Testament and expresses his own personal conviction when he describes philosophy as a direct operation of the divine Logos, working through it as well as through the law and his direct revelation in the Gospel to communicate the truth to men.

Clement spend much time defining for Christians the originally pagan philosophical concept of the Logos, the principle of true Christian gnosis, through whom alone God's relation to the world and his revelation is maintained. God he considers transcendentally as unqualified Being, who can not be defined in too abstract a way (see apophatic theology). Though his goodness operated in the creation of the world, yet immutability, self sufficiency, incapability of suffering are the characteristic notes of the divine essence.

Thus Clement emphasizes the permanent importance of philosophy for the fullness of Christian knowledge, explains with special predilection the relation between knowledge and faith, and sharply criticizes those who are unwilling to make any use of philosophy. He pronounces definitely against the sophists and against the hedonism of the school of Epicurus. Although he generally expresses himself unfavorably in regard to the Stoic philosophy, he really pays marked deference to that mixture of Stoicism and Platonism which characterized the religious and ethical thought of the educated classes in his day. This explains the value set by Clement on gnosis. To be sure, he constantly opposes the concept of gnosis as defined by the Gnostics. Faith is the foundation of all gnosis, and both are given by Christ. As faith involves a comprehensive knowledge of the essentials, knowledge allows the believer to penetrate deeply into the understanding of what he believes; and this is the making perfect, the completion, of faith. In order to attain this kind of faith, the "faith of knowledge," which is so much higher than the mere "faith of conjecture," or simple reception of a truth on authority, philosophy is permanently necessary. Christianity truly is a philosophy, and the perfect Christian is the true Gnostic—but again only "Gnostic according to the canon of the Church," not as in the heretical sect.

Clement lays great stress on the fulfillment of moral obligations. In his ethical expressions he is influenced strongly by Plato and the Stoics, from whom he borrows much of his terminology. He praises Plato for setting forth the greatest possible likeness to God as the aim of life; and his portrait of the perfect Gnostic closely resembles that of the wise man as drawn by the Stoics. Hence he counsels his readers to shake off the chains of the flesh as far as possible, to live already as if out of the body, and thus to rise above earthly things. He is a true Greek in the value which he sets on moderation; but his highest ideal of conduct remains the mortification of all affections which may in any way disturb the soul in its career.

The way to union with God (theosis) is for Clement only the Church's way. The simple faith of the baptized Christian contains all the essentials of the highest knowledge; by the Eucharist the believer is united with the Logos and the Spirit, and made partaker of incorruptibility.

Charges of heresy

According to Clement, though Christ's goodness operated in the creation of the world, the Son himself was immutable, self-sufficient, and incapable of suffering. According to his interpretation, such are the characteristic qualities of the divine essence. Though the Logos is most closely one with the Father, whose powers he resumes in himself, to Clement both the Son and the Spirit are "first-born powers and first created"; they form the highest stages in the scale of intelligent being, and Clement distinguishes the Son-Logos from the Logos who is immutably immanent in God. Because of this Photius would later charge that he "degraded the Son to the rank of a creature." Separate from the world as the principle of creation, the Logos is yet in it as its guiding principle. Thus a natural life is a life according to the will of the Logos. Clement has also been accused of Docetism in his teachings on the Incarnation. According to him, the body of Christ was not subject to human needs. See the following passage from Stromateis which clearly denies Christ's full humanity:

In regard to the Savior, however, it were ridiculous to suppose that the body demanded, as a body, the necessary aids for
its maintenance. For He ate, note for the sake of the body, which had its continuance from a holy power, but lest those
in His company might happen to think otherwise of Him, just as aftewards some did certainily supposed that He had appeared
as a mere phantasm. He was in general dispassionate; and no movement of feeling penetrated Him, whether pleasure
or pain.2

Instead, Clement's Christ is a supernatural physician; He is not subject to humanity's bodily pain. The medicine which he offers is the communication of saving gnosis, leading men from paganism to faith and from faith to the higher state of knowledge. This true philosophy includes within itself the freedom from sin and the attainment of virtue. As all sin has its root in ignorance, so the knowledge of God and of goodness is followed by well-doing. Against the Gnostics Clement emphasizes the freedom of all to do good (for which he has also been called Semi-Pelagian).

Also, some have downplayed Clement's influence on the Church: "Clement has had no notable influence on the course of theology beyond his personal influence on the young Origen"1.


The Word of God, became man just that you may learn from a Man how it may be that man should become god.

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