Church Fathers: Clement of Alexandria, Part II

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

In the previous article I gave an overview of the life and works of Clement of Alexandria, the head of the catechetical school of that city. He set out a new speculative path in theology, one which used philosophy both for preparatory study and as a tool for developing new insights. Now I will touch on some of the particular theological topics that interested him, quoting more extensively from his own writings.

Faith and Gnosis

I have already mentioned Clement’s theme of the “true Gnostic.” While it could be said that sticking to this conceit sometimes led him to overemphasize speculative knowledge over love in his theological system, it was crucial to the opening of a new era in Christian thought because it fully integrated faith and reason. We may forgive him his imperfections because he was a true pioneer bravely mapping out uncharted territory. He did not merely condemn and refute, as Irenaeus did, the unbounded intellectualism of the Gnostics who opposed knowledge to faith; he actually showed positively how faith and knowledge could work together when one submits one’s intellect to revealed truth.

Clement’s gnosis, unlike that of the false Gnostics, is not fundamentally different from the faith of the common believer; it is a perfection of faith proceeding along the same lines and from the same foundation, the Word of God. Pope Benedict XVI explains:

Only this knowledge of the Person who is truth is the “true gnosis”, a Greek term which means “knowledge”, “understanding”. It is the edifice built by reason under the impetus of a supernatural principle.

Faith itself builds true philosophy, that is, true conversion on the journey to take through life. Hence, authentic “gnosis” is a development of faith inspired by Jesus Christ in the soul united with him. Clement then distinguishes two steps in Christian life.

The first step: believing Christians who live the faith in an ordinary way, yet are always open to the horizons of holiness. Then the second step: “gnostics”, that is, those who lead a life of spiritual perfection.

In any case, Christians must start from the common basis of faith through a process of seeking; they must allow themselves to be guided by Christ and thus attain knowledge of the Truth and of truth that forms the content of faith.

Clement also distinguishes these two steps in the moral life:

But the first purification which takes place in the body, the soul being first, is abstinence from evil things, which some consider perfection, and is, in truth, the perfection of the common believer—Jew and Greek. But in the case of the Gnostic, after that which is reckoned perfection in others, his righteousness advances to activity in well-doing. (Strom. 6, 7)

The Logos

Clement develops the idea of the Logos further than previous writers like Justin. It is the Logos who both created the world and revealed God to the world through the Law and philosophy, and finally through His incarnation. Though Clement holds that the Logos is but one member of the Trinity, his system is practically dominated by the Logos. God the Father cannot be named or comprehended, so it is only by grace and the sending of the divine Word that we understand Him.

Quasten goes so far as to say that Clement “failed in his attempt to create a scientific theology” because “the supreme idea in Christian thought is not the idea of the Logos but the idea of God” (in the sense of the whole Godhead) [Patrology Vol. II, p. 23]. Indeed, if God the Father cannot be named or understood, neither can the Logos. While it is true that the Father is revealed only through the Son, to make the latter more inherently comprehensible than the former betrays a hint of subordinationism.

The Church

Clement, in describing the unity of the Church, calls her our virgin mother who feeds us with the holy milk of the Logos. The Church’s unity is of great importance, being along with its antiquity what distinguishes it from heretical sects:

From what has been said, then, it is my opinion that the true Church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God's purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree honourable is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the One, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one Church, which they strive to cut asunder into many sects.

Therefore in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic Church is alone, collecting as it does into the unity of the one faith—which results from the peculiar Testaments, or rather the one Testament in different times by the will of the one God, through one Lord—those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous.

But the pre-eminence of the Church, as the principle of union, is, in its oneness, in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself. (Strom. 7, 17)

He recognizes that the division of Christianity into sects is a major obstacle to conversions.

Clement references a symbol (rule or creed) which stated the essential doctrines of Christianity: “And especially the confession, which deals with the essential articles of the faith, is observed by us, but disregarded by the heretics” (Strom. 7, 15). He also insists on the divine inspiration of Scripture, while warning against its misuse.

Clement compares the hierarchy of the Church (bishops, priests, deacons) to that of the angels and the grades of glory in heaven. He puts forth the most advanced theory of angelic intellection yet. Since they carry our prayers to God, they must know our thoughts; they have no senses and so they know instantaneously. This surpassed St. Justin’s concept of angels and laid the foundation for that of St. Augustine.

Baptism

Clement describes baptism as the rebirth and regeneration by which we are adopted by God as His children. He also uses the terms grace, illumination, perfection and washing:

Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal. "I," says He, "have said that ye are gods, and all sons of the Highest." This work is variously called grace, and illumination, and perfection, and washing: washing, by which we cleanse away our sins; grace, by which the penalties accruing to transgressions are remitted; and illumination, by which that holy light of salvation is beheld, that is, by which we see God clearly. Now we call that perfect which wants nothing. For what is yet wanting to him who knows God? For it were truly monstrous that that which is not complete should be called a gift (or act) of God's grace. (Instructor 1, 6)

Eucharist

Clement does not believe in sacrifices in the old bloody sense, and at one point describes the sacrifice of the Church thus: “The sacrifice of the Church is the word breathing as incense from holy souls, the sacrifice and the whole mind being at the same time unveiled to God” (Strom. 7, 6). However, we ought not conclude from this passage that he does not recognize the Eucharist to be the everlasting sacrifice of the New Covenant.

Because he condemns heretical sects for using water instead of wine in the “oblation,” “not according to the canon of the Church” (Strom. 1, 19) it is clear that he recognizes a Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. Indeed, he also refers to the sacrifice of Melchizedek as prefiguring the Eucharist, and describes it as food by which Christ is “enshrined” in our souls (Instructor 1, 6). Finally he writes thus:

The blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord's immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh.

Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality.

And the mixture of both—of the water and of the Word—is called Eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul. (Instructor 2, 2)

Sin and Penance

Clement’s idea of original sin is faulty, since he believes that it was inherited not through generation but through Adam’s bad example. For Clement, as Quasten writes, “only a personal act can stain the soul.” The scholar continues: “His conception resulted most likely from a reaction to the Gnostics, who held matter responsible for wrong” (p. 31).

In his discussion of punishment for sins, he follows Plato in giving it a solely purgative and corrective purpose, but does not say anywhere that he applies this concept to hell.

Like Hermas, he says that there should only be one repentance of sins, before baptism, because after one has been forgiven one should not sin again. However, God, who “foresaw both the fickleness of man and the craft and subtlety of the devil...has vouchsafed, in the case of those, who, though in faith, fall into any transgression, a second repentance, so that should any one be tempted after his calling, overcome by force and fraud, he may receive still a repentance not to be repented of” (Strom. 2, 13).

He almost seems to say that this second repentance can occur only once, because one who knows he is sinning and yet keeps sinning and successively repenting possesses only “the semblance of repentance, not repentance itself” (ibid). However, this seems more like a practical consideration than a doctrinal one; he does not say that it is categorically impossible to obtain forgiveness multiple times for the same sin.

Another angle to be considered is Clement’s distinction between voluntary and involuntary sin. Sins committed when one is “overcome by force and fraud” may be forgiven, but voluntary sins committed after baptism, which effect a complete break with God, may not. Yet in practice, Clement does not name any sin so great it cannot be forgiven in the second repentance. Apostasy is not such, for example, since he prays for the return of heretics.

A story he tells at the end of Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? further indicates that no sin, even committed after baptism, is too great to be forgiven. In this tale, a youth who had been a disciple of St. John became the leader of a gang of robbers, “the fiercest, the bloodiest and the cruelest,” yet in the end St. John “restored him to the Church, presenting in him a great example of true repentance and a great token of regeneration” (42, 7). Thus it seems that the “voluntary” or unforgiveable sin must be like that against the Holy Spirit; it is the refusal to repent and convert.

Finally, he does recognize that it is not so much lack of sin but repentance that distinguishes the righteous man:

But He welcomes the repentance of the sinner—loving repentance—which follows sins. For this Word of whom we speak alone is sinless. For to sin is natural and common to all. But to return [to God] after sinning is characteristic not of any man, but only of a man of worth. (Instructor 3, 12)

Marriage and Virginity

In defending marriage against Gnostic disparagement, Clement gave it praise quite unequalled among the Fathers. Starting at the most basic level, it is morally good. It is also a civic duty and a means of improving the world by procreation:

Therefore we must by all means marry, both for our country’s sake, for the succession of children, and as far as we are concerned for the perfection of the world; since the poets also pity a marriage half-perfect and childless, but pronounce the fruitful one happy. (Quoted in Quasten, p. 34)

Even higher, marriage is a cooperation with the Creator: “Thus man becomes an image of God in so far as man cooperates in the creation of man” (Instructor 2, 10). But Clement does not limit the dignity of marriage to procreation; it is also for mutual love and assistance in acquiring virtue and salvation:

The virtue of man and woman is the same. For if the God of both is one, the master of both is also one; one church, one temperance, one modesty; their food is common, marriage an equal yoke; respiration, sight, hearing, knowledge, hope, obedience, love all alike. And those whose life is common, have common graces and a common salvation; common to them are love and training. (Instructor 1, 4)

(It is well worth noting the equality of men and women in this passage. While Clement believes wives ought to submit to their husbands and occupy themselves with duties around the house, and certainly that women are the “weaker” sex at least in a social context, he goes out of his way numerous times to show that men and women are called to and capable of the same perfection. At one point he even makes a long list of great women philosophers.)

At the highest level, marriage is a spiritual, religious and “sacred state” (Strom. 3, 12) which fulfills the promise of Jesus’s presence: “Who are the two or three gathered in the name of Christ, in whose midst is the Lord? Are not they man, wife and child because man and wife are joined by God?” (Strom. 3, 10) He apparently believed that the marital union was not entirely dissolved even by death, and was therefore against second marriages.

Probably the most interesting and unusual aspect of Clement’s teaching on marriage comes when he compares it to virginity. He himself chose virginity “out of love for the Lord” (Strom 3, 7), and certainly he regards virginity as highly meritorious: “He who remains single in order not to be separated from the service of the Lord will gain a heavenly glory” (Strom. 3, 12). Yet when he compares the two states, marriage seems to come out the better:

One is not really shown to be a man in the choice of single life; but he surpasses men, who, disciplined by marriage, procreation of children, and care for the house, without pleasure or pain, in his solicitude for the house has been inseparable from God's love, and withstood all temptation arising through children, and wife, and domestics, and possessions. But he that has no family is in a great degree free of temptation. Caring, then, for himself alone, he is surpassed by him who is inferior, as far as his own personal salvation is concerned, but who is superior in the conduct of life. (Strom. 7, 12)

Many have taken this to mean Clement believed marriage to be a higher state than celibacy, and I would not want to make the passage seem less remarkable than it is. Yet I think theirs is a misreading, since Clement says that the married man is “inferior, as far as his own personal salvation is concerned” (i.e., insofar as celibacy, as a state, has a higher rank in heaven ceteris paribus), but in a particular case he might surpass the single man by being “superior in the conduct of life.” Clement is commenting that it is the perfection with which ones lives one’s calling, not so much the calling itself, which makes one “superior.” (And he seems also to think that married life is more challenging, especially in terms of detachment, and so provides more opportunities to demonstrate perfection.)


Previous in series: Clement of Alexandria, Part I
Next in series: Origen's Life and Legacy

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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