Clement of Alexandria

views updated May 29 2018


CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (150?215?), Christian theologian. Little is known about the life of Titus Flavius Clemens. A few details can be gathered from Clement's allusion to his education (Miscellanies 1.1, 2.2) and from the report of the fourth-century Christian writer Eusebius of Caesarea (Ecclesiastical History 5.1011, 6.6, 6.11.56). Born in the mid-second century to pagan parents, perhaps in Athens, Clement traveled extensively as a young man, seeking an intellectual mentor. This he found in Pantaenus, who, according to Eusebius, served as head of a Christian school in Alexandria. Clement is said to have succeeded Pantaenus as chief of the school in the late second century, probably remaining a layperson after his conversion to Christianity. In 202 or 203, at the time of the emperor Septimius Severus's persecution of Christians, Clement left Alexandria for Asia Minor. Presumably he died before 215.

The following treatises of Clement are extant: Exhortation to the Greeks (Protrepticus ); The Instructor (Paedagogus ); Miscellanies (Stromateis ); Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? (Quis dives salvetur? ); a collection of excerpts from Valentinian teachings, with Clement's comments (Excerpta ex Theodoto ); and a work of exegetical notes on the Old Testament (Eclogae propheticae ). Only fragments remain of other treatises. Although scholars disagree on the precise dating of Clement's works, the period 195210 probably encompasses them all. He wrote the Protrepticus first, followed by the Paedagogus, the Stromateis, and the Quis dives salvetur? Clement's influence on later theology was largely channeled through the writings of his brilliant successor, Origen.

Clement's works testify to the diversity of Christians in Alexandria around the year 200. There were "simple believers," wary of speculation, who understood Scripture literally and thought ecclesiastical authority enough to direct their lives. Those able to embrace a more advanced theology sought to align the best of classical culture with their faith. (Perhaps this group included those Clement hoped to comfort with his assurance that riches did not automatically debar them from salvation if they practiced inward detachment from their wealth and heeded Christianity's call for charity.) In addition to Alexandrians within the Catholic Christian fold, there were many Gnostics, especially the followers of Valentinus and Basilides, who self-identified as Christians, but whom Clement considered heretics. Clement, following his predecessors, the second-century Apologists, also addressed pagan critics who mocked Christianity as a religion for the uneducated. The pagan writer Celsus's searing attack on Christianity, The True Word, had been composed only about fifteen years before Clement began his writing career.

Although Clement did not reject the "simple believers," he advocated higher theological education and an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, conceding that the Bible was stylistically inelegant and was replete with anthropomorphic depictions of God. Responding to more theologically educated Christians and to pagan critics, Clement argued that Christianity was a species of philosophy, far superior to Greek myth or to the mystery religions. (Recent scholars have emphasized Clement's indebtedness to various philosophical traditions, especially Middle Platonism.) Clement attempted to display his erudition by quoting several hundred passages from classical authors in his writings, although he probably derived many of his citations not from the original sources, but from the handbooks popular in his day. Like the Gnostics, Clement valued religious knowledge highly, but he argued, allegedly against them, that God's creation, the material world, was good. He accused Gnostics of holding either overly ascetic or, conversely, libertine positions regarding the use of the body and material things, thus he (somewhat lukewarmly) endorsed the virtues of Christian marriage. Moreover, since Clement understood Gnostic notions of "election" to mean "fatalistic determinism," he championed the freedom of the will and freely chosen good deeds as necessary components of Christian salvation.

Among the more prominent themes in Clement's works are the following: the progressive revelation of truth through the Logos (the Word) from ancient to early Christian times; Greek philosophers' plagiarism of ideas from the Old Testament; humans' creation in the "image of God" that constantly recalled them to more virtuous lives; the incorporeality of God, misrepresented by Scripture's anthropomorphisms (although Clement sometimes engaged feminine images for God); the necessity of allegorical interpretation of Scripture; detailed guidelines provided by the Logos as "Instructor" for daily activities such as eating and sleeping; the benefits that preparatory instruction in philosophy and other secular disciplines provided for Christians; the possibility of advancement in the Christian life from belief to knowledge and from self-control to impassability (although good deeds and love were incumbent upon Christians at all stages); and the claim that the appellation "Gnostic" was more appropriately applied to those advanced in Catholic orthodoxy than to those he deemed heretics.


Bardy, Gustave. Clément d'Alexandrie. Paris, 1926. A standard older biography of Clement, with discussion of his writings.

Buell, Denise Kimber. Making Christians: Clement of Alexandria and the Rhetoric of Legitimacy. Princeton, 1999. Explores Clement's metaphors of procreation and kinship which authorize power relations.

Chadwick, Henry. Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen. New York, 1966. An insightful study of Clement's relation to the classical tradition.

Countryman, L. William. The Rich Christian in the Church of the Early Empire: Contradictions and Accommodations. New York, 1980. An examination of Clement's treatise Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved? in relation to early Christian attitudes toward wealth. See especially Chapter 1.

Dawson, David. Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria. Berkeley, 1992. Analyzes Clement's hermeneutic and the social purposes of his allegorical reaings. See especially Chapter 4.

Hoek, Annewies van den. "The 'Catechetical' School of Early Christian Alexandria and Its Philonic Heritage." Harvard Theological Review 90 (1997): 5987. Discusses the debate over whether there was a "school" at Alexandria and its possible origins.

Hunter, David G. "The Language of Desire: Clement of Alexandria's Transformation of Ascetic Discourse." Semeia 57 (1992): 95111. Shows how differentiating the terms Clement uses for "desire" creates a more nuanced view of his discussion of marriage.

Kovacs, Judith L. "Divine Pedagogy and the Gnostic Teacher according to Clement of Alexandria." Journal of Early Christian Studies 9 (2001): 325. Analyzes how Clement's notion of teaching relates to his view of the Logos as an "instructor."

Lilla, Salvatore R. C. Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism. Oxford, 1971. A detailed investigation of Clement's philosophical interests and his relation to gnosticism.

Méhat, André. Étude sur les Stromates de Clément d'Alexandrie. Paris, 1966. A comprehensive study of the Miscellanies, Clement's major work.

Elizabeth A. Clark (1987 and 2005)

Clement of Alexandria

views updated Jun 11 2018


Titus Flavius Clemens, 3d-century Father of the Church, after origen, the principal representative of the early theological School of alexandria.

Life. Of the two traditions for Clement's birthplace extant in Epiphanius's time, modern authors prefer Athens, even though Clement spent most of his life in Alexandria. Clement, a convert to Christianity, traveled extensively to seek instruction from famous Christian teachers, until he came to Egypt. There he attached himself to one whom Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.11.2) assumed to be pantaenus, the earliest of the Alexandrian teachers known to us and one of Origen's masters.

Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 6.6) asserts that Clement succeeded Pantaenus as head of the catechetical School of Alexandria and places Origen among Clement's disciples. But modern historians offer serious objections to these assertions. As J. Munck observes, the Christian instruction given by Clement probably never had an official character, but remained a private enterprise, in keeping with the pedagogic practice of other philosophers in those days. Such institutions ended when their founders ceased teaching. The fact that Origen never cites Clement in his writings is a reason for doubting that he had studied under Clement, despite their obvious intellectual affinity.

Clement's activities in Alexandria were interrupted by the persecution of Septimius Severus in 202 or 203, and he left Egypt apparently never to return. About 211 Alexander, Bishop of Cappadocia, sent a priest named Clement with a letter to the Church of Antioch: "I am sending you, my lords and brothers, this letter through the intermediary of Clement, the blessed priest, an esteemed and virtuous man whom you already know. His presence here, through the providence and vigilance of the Master, has strengthened and enhanced the Church of the Lord" (Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 6.11.6). It is possible that this refers to Clement of Alexandria, for Bishop Alexander was his friend and admirer, and Clement had dedicated one of his

works to him (Hist. eccl. 6.13.3). In a letter addressed to Origen in 215 or 216, the same Alexander, having meanwhile become bishop of Jerusalem, mentions some deceased teachers, including Pantaenus and "holy Clement who has been my master and has helped me," thus giving rise to the conjecture that Clement had taken refuge in Cappadocia and that he was dead by the time Alexander wrote to Origen.

Eusebius is apparently relying on the letter from Alexander to the Church at Antioch when he designates Clement as a priest in his Chronicle, but a passage in the Paedagogus (1.6.37) often cited to prove Clement's priesthood can no longer be advanced after O. Stählin's textual correction.

Writings. Clement was a cultured Greek philosopher and scholar, though his erudition was often secondhand; a Christian apologist and exegete; a theologian and mystic. His open mind and enthusiasm are reflected in a varied literary output, original and daring in content, refined and elegant in style. The absence of method and synthesis in his work was often calculated, but it disconcerts the modern reader.

Protrepticus, following the meaning of the word, is an "exhortation" to conversion and an apology for Christianity, addressed to pagans. The work reveals close links with the earlier Christian apologetic, whose terms and types of argument Clement uses, but with a personal touch and uncommon warmth. Clement criticizes Greek religion (he supplies valuable details on the "mysteries") and Greek philosophical doctrines about God (ch. 25). He maintains that the best philosophers and poets of old had caught glimpses of the truth (ch. 67); but this truth is revealed through the Hebrew prophets and above all by the Logos, who calls men to faith and conversion, and whose role in the world Clement extols in remarkable language (ch. 812).

Paedagogus, a sequel to the Protrepticus, is addressed to the baptized. Clement portrays Christ the Educator as He trains the Christian in a moral way of life. Book 1 presents the pedagogy of the Word and introduces the reader to a thoroughly evangelical spirituality that stamps the ethics of Clement with a truly Christian character. Books 2 and 3 form a treatise on practical morality and describe in detail the Christians' daily life, mixing together moral precepts and rules of decency and hygiene. This combination of Christian casuistry and etiquette parallels Stoic literature and employs long excerpts borrowed from Musonius, the teacher of epictetus. The Stoic influence gives a highly rational character to Clement's presentation of morality: man must follow "nature" or "reason" (logos ), which for Clement meant at the same time following the divine Logos.

After the "exhortation" to conversion and moral "pedagogy" at the outset of the Paedagogus, Clement calls attention to a third stage in the action of the Logos: doctrinal instruction. Historians debate whether Clement had contemplated a trilogy that would add a dogmatic work to the Protrepticus and Paedagogus and whether the Stromata should be considered an imperfect attempt in this direction.

Stromata (tapestriesa term used for a work of very free composition comparable to an anthology or miscellany), in eight books, is the most important of Clement's extant writings, and is a veritable mine of ideas, but it defies analysis. The absence of a plan and the deliberate obscurity of style make for difficult reading. Certain principal themes dominate the whole: the relations between Christianity and hellenism, and between faith and philosophy; the elaboration of a Christian gnosis to confront the "false gnosis"; and the search for ways to know God and achieve union with Him. The only definite chronological indication is that Book 1 was written after the death of the Emperor Commodus in 192 (cf. Strom. 1.21.139147).

Quis dives salvetur? (What rich man will be saved?), a homily, is a delicately expressive commentary on Mk 10.1731. Eclogae Propheticae, exegetical notes, and the Excerpta ex Theodoto, annotated extracts from Gnostic writings, are collections of materials assembled by Clement in preparation for further work. Of other writings only fragments survive, especially in the case of the Hypotyposes, a long exegetical work on the Old and New Testaments.

Doctrine. In his Stromata Clement deals extensively with the problem of the relation of Christianity to Greek culture and philosophy. In Christian thought he opened an optimistic and liberal approach to secular knowledge, laying the foundations for a Christian humanism and introducing philosophy to its role as "the servant of theology." He considered Plato the best of philosophers (1.42.1); but far from being a confirmed Platonist, Clement exemplifies the eclecticism of his time. If Platonism serves to clarify his conception of man's union with God, it is Stoicism that permeates his ethic. He admits that by philosophy he means "what each of the different schools has said that is good" (1.37.6). As such, philosophy is a gift of God (1.37.1); it is partial but nonetheless real truth (6.83.2). It forms a propaedeutic to faith for the unbeliever (1.28.1; 7.20.2; cf. 1.28.3), a useful exercise for the believer (1.20.2), and a necessary aid to a deeper scientific penetration of the faith (1.35.2). Still, faith can spring up in a soul and lead it to salvation without philosophy (ibid. 2 and 4).

Clement affirms the autonomy and transcendence of faith and Christian truth. On occasion he goes back to the less fortunate themes of the older Christian apologetic, which claimed that the truths known by the pagan philosophers had been "stolen" by lesser angels or borrowed from the Bible, and thus he insists on the "barbarian" origin of Greek philosophy (1.661.81; 148).

The influence of Greek philosophy contributed greatly to the intellectualist tendency of Clement's ethic and spirituality, and to his desire to fashion an authentically Christian gnosis. Knowledge and contemplation are in the foreground of the spiritual life: the perfect Christian is a gnostic. But Clement dissociates himself sharply from unorthodox gnosticism. Every Christian is, in a real sense, perfect from the moment of his Baptism (Paed. 1.2531). Gnosis is not in conflict with faith, but is faith's perfection and flowering: "Gnosis is faithful, and faith is gnostic" (Strom. 2.16.2; cf. 5.1.3). "Faith, to all intents and purposes, is a condensed gnosis of essential truths, but gnosis is the strong and solid demonstration of the truths accepted by faith leading to an unshakable certainty and a scientific understanding" (ibid. 7.57.3). In opposition to the Gnostics, and while clearly underlining the role and necessity of grace (ibid. 2.5.45; 3.57.2), Clement insists that free choice is a condition of salvation (ibid. 2.115.2). Likewise the Platonic dualism that crops up sometimes in his spirituality does not prevent him from defending the essential goodness of the body, worldly goods, and marriage.

On the other hand, Clement draws closer to the Gnostics when he introduces into the Christian gnosis the knowledge of revelations secretly transmitted from the time of the Apostles or hidden in Scripture under symbols discoverable only by an allegorizing exegesis whose method he derives from philo judaeus. This esotericism sometimes leads the author of the Stromata to place the favored Christian who is a gnostic in opposition to a mere believer.

Völker, however, has clearly shown that Clement's gnosis is as much an ethic as an intellectual quest. It leads to the πάθεια, apathy (Strom. 6.7179) and the γάπη or love (ibid. 7.57.4) that assimilate and unite the soul to God. By thus sketching the states of mystical ascent and by orienting his spiritual doctrine toward contemplation, Clement, together with Philo and Origen, exercised a profound influence on the whole of Greco-Christian spirituality.

Clement's contribution to speculative theology is of minor importance; at times it is unfortunate, as when he seems to favor a kind of docetism. Only occasionally in his theology does he mention the place of the Church (Strom. 7.89; 7.107), Baptism (Paed. 1.26), and the Eucharist (ibid. 4243) in the process of salvation. But he witnesses to what might be termed a pastoral approach to theology in the third century that was actual and effective. He depicts the life of the intelligent Christian family in its ascent toward union with God. For this reason, too, his contribution to the development of Christian thought is far from negligible.

Bibliography: j. quasten, Patrology (Westminster, Md.) 2:536. j. munck, Untersuchungen über Klemens von Alexandria (Stuttgart 1933). m. spanneut, Le Stoïcisme des Pères de l'Église (Paris 1957). e. f. osborn, The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, Eng. 1957). f. quatember, Die christliche Lebenshaltung des Klemens von Alexandrien nach seinem Paedogogus (Vienna 1945). c. mondÉsert, Clément d'Alexandrie: Introduction à l'étude de sa pensée religieuse à partir de l'Écriture (Paris 1944). p. t. camelot, Foi et Gnose: Introduction à l'étude de la connaissance mystique chez Clément d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1945). w. vÖlker, Der wahre Gnostiker nach Clemens Alexandrinus (Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur 57; 1952), with important bibliog.

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Clement of Alexandria

views updated May 21 2018

Clement of Alexandria

The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) sought to integrate Greek classical culture with Christian faith.

The date and place of birth of Clement of Alexandria, born Titus Flavius Clemens, are not known, though it is likely that he was born in the decade 150-160, possibly in Athens. Having studied with religious and philosophical teachers in Greece, southern Italy, and Syria, he settled in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. There he was deeply impressed by the teachings of Pantaenus, who had been converted to Christianity from stoicism and who was at the time head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. Clement, remaining a layman, eventually succeeded Pantaenus in this office and held the post for a number of years, probably not more than a decade. In relation to his activities as a Christian teacher Clement produced his three most important writings: The Exhortation to Conversion, The Tutor, and Miscellanies.

In Alexandria, Clement was at one of the leading intellectual centers of the Hellenistic world. Highly speculative and heretical Gnostic forms of Christian thought had been prominent there for decades among those who professed any form of Christianity. Gnosticism itself represented one way of synthesizing Christian faith with Hellenistic culture. Clement was of the firm conviction that Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic metaphysics and Stoic ethics, represented one of the ways in which God had prepared the world for the coming of Christ. His task, then, was to work toward an orthodox Christian appropriation of Greek thought.

The reader senses in Clement's writings the presence of three groups of critics against whom he constantly defends himself. To the pagan representatives of classical culture he argues the defensibility of any kind of "faith" and of Christian faith in particular. To the heretical Christian Gnostics he shows that the experience of redemption in Christ does not entail a depreciation of the material world created by God. To the simple and orthodox Christians he gives assurance that faith and intellectual sophistication are not incompatible and that philosophy does not inevitably lead to Gnostic heresy.

Clement left Alexandria on the outbreak of persecution against the Christians in 202. There is a fleeting glimpse of him in Syria shortly afterward. Later still he appears in the company of an old pupil, now a bishop in Asia Minor; the bishop sends his old teacher with a letter of congratulation to a newly elected bishop of Antioch. It is generally thought that Clement died about 215.

Further Reading

The classic study in English, R.B. Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Liberalism (2 vols., 1914), is particularly useful for the way in which it synthesizes widely scattered materials, though it is sometimes dull. A splendid treatment of much smaller scope is Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (1966).

Additional Sources

Ferguson, John, Clement of Alexandria, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974. □