Church Fathers: Clement of Alexandria, Part I

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 06, 2015

Clement was the first great writer of the catechetical school of Alexandria, a city which under his influence became the intellectual center of Christianity. It was he who first made philosophy the handmaid of theology. Quasten calls him the “pioneer of Christian scholarship” and “founder of speculative theology.”

He was born Titus Flavius Clemens to pagan parents in Athens around 150. After converting to Christianity he traveled to Italy, Syria and Palestine seeking instruction; in his own words, he “was privileged to hear discourses of blessed and truly remarkable men” (Strom. 1, 1). He finally came to Alexandria (180), where he became a disciple of Pantaenus:

When I came upon the last (he was the first in power), having tracked him out concealed in Egypt, I found rest. He, the true, the Sicilian bee, gathering the spoil of the flowers of the prophetic and apostolic meadow, engendered in the souls of his hearers a deathless element of knowledge. (Ibid.)

At some point Clement became a priest and Pantaenus’s assistant, and upon his old master’s death in 200, he succeeded him as the new head of the school of catechumens.

The school closed during the persecution of Septimius Severus (202-203), and Clement fled to Cappadocia with his student, Alexander, the future bishop of Jerusalem. He died between 211 and 216, without ever having returned to Egypt.

Pantaenus had attained an excellent reputation by his oral teaching, but Clement expanded the influence of his school by producing writings. Demonstrating a thorough knowledge of Greek literature, philosophy, and mythology, quoting Plato, Homer and the great tragedians and comedians as well as the Bible and early Christian writings both orthodox and heretical, he was the first writer to make Christianity fully conversant with the intellectual and literary culture of its time.

Divine Tutelage

Clement’s three major works are typically grouped together as a trilogy. The first is the Protrepticus (Exhortation to the Greeks or Exhortation to the Heathen), written before 200. This book, like some of the earlier Christian apologetic works, in part shows the absurdity of pagan myths and the immorality of the pagan mysteries. However, the need is no longer felt to refute false accusations against Christians. Clement confidently writes of the beauty of Christianity and the promises of the Christian life, in order to inspire his pagan readers to conversion.

The Paedagogus (The Instructor of Children or Tutor) was written sometime before 202. Following immediately upon the Protrepticus, it assumes that the reader has taken Clement’s advice and converted to Christianity. Now the Logos is brought forth as the one who will teach us how to live a Christian life.

In the first part of the work, Clement writes generally about the role the Son of God plays as the Instructor, and what it means for us to be like children. Being like children in a spiritual sense does not, as the Gnostics claim, mean having a lower level of faith. Rather, we are all children of God and all educated by the Logos. God has various ways of teaching His children—He uses fear and love, punishment and mercy, for He is both good and just. There is a kind of beneficial fear that keeps us from sinning.

The latter part is a comprehensive guide on how to live every aspect of one’s life. Jurgens describes Clement here as “a kind of 3rd-century Emily Post,” for he covers eating, drinking, clothes, furniture, music, dancing, bathing, perfume, and many other things. He is greatly concerned that Christians should avoid the kind of debauched, effeminizing luxury he observes in many citizens of Alexandria. He can appear extraordinarily strict in his prohibitions of various forms of dress, ointments and so on, but typically, after extended censures in a given area, he indicates that what is really important is the interior detachment from worldly goods. It is just that the most direct way to achieve this detachment is not to possess them or seek after them in the first place.

The Instructor ends with a beautiful hymn to Christ the Savior, which begins:

Bridle of untamed colts, Wing of unwandering birds, sure Helm of babes, Shepherd of royal lambs, assemble Thy simple children to praise holily, to hymn guilelessly with innocent mouths, Christ the guide of children.

The Stromata

Clement’s third major work is the Stromata (Miscellanies). While many scholars believe that the Protrepticus and the Paedagogus were meant to be the first two parts of a trilogy, some contend that the Stromata is not the third part, if one was ever completed. Stromata means something like a tapestry or patch-work quilt, the latter being a description the Greeks gave to works that we would now call Miscellanies. As the name indicates, Clement passes freely from topic to topic over the course of eight books. (Books I-IIBooks III-V, Books VI-VIII)

(You may notice that a few parts of the Instructor and Stromata in the Catholic Culture library are in Latin. This is because nineteenth-century translators of the Fathers sometimes chose not to provide English translations of passages containing details scandalous to Victorian sensibilities—typically those dealing with sexual morality. Readers who peruse our Fathers collection will find numerous examples of this; Clement just happens to be the first writer I have covered who received such treatment.)

Much of the Stromata deals with the relationship between Greek philosophy and Christianity. From the start, Clement criticizes those who say that philosophy is worthless or dangerous for Christians; he calls them babblers “who in their ignorance are frightened at every noise” (Strom. 1, 1). He goes further than earlier thinkers like St. Justin Martyr who thought pagan philosophy contained seeds of the Logos; Clement suggests that philosophy was given to the Greeks by God to prepare them for the coming of Christ, just as the Law was given to the Hebrews for the same purpose:

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. "For thy foot," it is said, "will not stumble, if thou refer what is good, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us, to Providence." For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring "the Hellenic mind," as the law, the Hebrews, "to Christ." Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ. (Strom. 1, 5)

Thus philosophy was not only necessary for the Greeks; it is still useful in preparing Christians to accept the faith, as well as helping them to understand it better and defend it against error.

Interestingly, though, Clement is convinced that most or all that was worthy in Greek philosophy was plagiarized from the barbarian (Hebrew) prophets. He goes to great lengths, comparing timelines and compiling similar passages to show that Plato learned much from the books of Moses. Whether this is true or not, however, he is confident that all wisdom, whether of the Jews or the Greeks, comes from God.

Clement also distinguishes between the false (heretical) and what he calls the “true Gnostic”; i.e., one who has reached the highest level of perfection in faith and therefore in true knowledge of God. The true Gnostic is known by his moral virtue, love of God and chastity. The idea of “Gnostic martyrdom”—martyrdom as the perfect confession of God—is explored at length in the fourth book.

(As an interesting side note, he condemns those who seek out martyrdom by inciting persecution or presenting themselves for capture. He considers them cowards and suicides whose suffering is in vain, comparing them to the Indian philosophers who threw themselves into fire. No doubt Clement would have disapproved of some of the weirder legends about eager martyrs which arose in later centuries.)

Though the idea of the “true Gnostic” apparently came about as a response to the false claims to gnosis with which we associate the term, Clement does not actually spend much time attacking heresy. He points out some errors of Valentinus and Basilides, but he also quotes heretical writers approvingly from time to time and believes that Christians can learn from those who have the essentials right despite lacking accuracy on particular points.

Other Works

The only other work of Clement’s that has survived completely is Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, a wonderful literary homily on Jesus’s words to the rich young man (Mark 10:17-31). It advocates a spiritual rather than a literal interpretation of Jesus’ command to “Go, sell whatever you have and give to the poor,” insofar as it is not the mere possession of wealth that is harmful but attachment to it. This is self-evident because if all Christians followed this advice literally, who would support the poor? It is the passions, not the outward objects, that must be relinquished. Nor is there anything meritorious about mere material poverty; it is poverty of spirit that we ought to cultivate.

Fragments survive of the Hypotyposeis (Outlines or Sketches), a commentary on Scripture. Photius, the ninth-century Patriarch of Constantinople who was greatly responsible for the schism between East and West, had access to a complete text. He claimed there were as many as eight heresies in it, and therefore doubted its authenticity, but we can make no judgment based on the excerpts that remain to us.


Previous in series: The Third Century and the School of Alexandria
Next in series: Clement of Alexandria, Part II

 

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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