Clement of Alexandria A.D. 150 – c. 215

His full name, Titus Flavius Clemens, is given by Eusebius and Photius in the title of the Stromateis. The remarkable coincidence of the name with that of the nephew of Vespasian and consul in 95 cannot have been accidental, but we have no direct evidence of Clement’s connection with the imperial Flavian family. Perhaps he was descended from a freedman of the consul; his wide and varied learning indicates that he had received a liberal education, and so far suggests that his parents occupied a good social position. The place of his birth is not certainly known. Epiphanius, the earliest authority on the question, observes that two opinions were held in his time, “some saying that he was an Alexandrian, others that he was an Athenian”. Alexandria was the principal scene of his labours; but there was no apparent reason for connecting him with Athens by mere conjecture. The statement that he was an Athenian must therefore have rested upon some direct tradition.

Moreover, in recounting his wanderings he makes Greece the starting-point and Alexandria the goal of his search; and in the 2nd cent. Athens was still the centre of the literary and spiritual life of Greece. We may then with reasonable probability conclude that Clement was an Athenian by training if not by origin, and the fact that he was at the head of the catechetical school of Alexandria towards the close of the century fixes the date of his birth c. A.D. 150–160.

Nothing is recorded of his parentage; but his own language seems to imply that he embraced Christianity by a personal act, as in some sense a convert, and this is directly affirmed by Eusebius, though perhaps simply by inference from Clement’s words. Such a conversion would not be irreconcilable with the belief that Clement, like Augustine, was of Christian parentage at least on one side; but whether Clement’s parents were Christians or heathens it is evident that heathenism attracted him for a time; and though he soon overcame its attractions, his inquisitive spirit did not at once find rest in Christianity.

He enumerates six illustrious teachers under whom he studied the “true tradition of the blessed doctrine of the holy apostles.” His first teacher in Greece was an Ionian (Athenagoras?); others he heard in Magna Graecia; others in the East; and at last he found in Egypt the true master for whom he had sought. There can be no doubt that this master was Pantaenus, to whom he is said to have expressed his obligations in his Hypotyposes. Pantaenus was then chief of the catechetical school, and though the accounts of Eusebius and Jerome are irreconcilable in their details and chronology, it is certain that on the death or retirement of Pantaenus, Clement succeeded to his office, and it is not unlikely that he had acted as his colleague before.

The period during which Clement presided over the catechetical school (c. A.D. 190–203) seems to have been the season of his greatest literary activity. He was now a presbyter of the church and had the glory of reckoning Origen among his scholars. On the outbreak of the persecution under Severus (A.D. 202, 203) in which Leonidas, the father of Origen, perished, Clement retired from Alexandria, never, as it seems, to return. Nothing is directly stated as to the place of his withdrawal. There are some indications of a visit to Syria; and, later, we find him in the company of an old pupil, Alexander, afterwards bp. of Jerusalem, and at that time a bp. of Cappadocia, who was in prison for the faith. If therefore Clement had before withdrawn from danger, it was through wisdom and not through fear. Alexander regarded his presence as due to “a special providence”, and charged him, in most honourable terms, with a letter of congratulation to the church of Antioch on the appointment of Asclepiades to the bishopric of that city, A.D. 311. This is the last mention of Clement which has been preserved. The time and the place of his death are alike unknown.

Popular opinion reckoned him among the saints of the church; and he was commemorated in the early Western martyrologies on Dec. 4. His name, however, was omitted in the martyrology issued by Clement VIII after the corrections of Baronius; and Benedict XIV elaborately defended the omission in a letter to John V of Portugal, dated 1748. Benedict argued that the teaching of Clement was at least open to suspicion, and that private usage would not entitle him to a place in the calendar

Works.—Eusebius, whom Jerome follows closely with some mistakes has given a list of the works of Clement; from the variations in the titles and the omission of 9, it is evident that he derived his knowledge of these simply from the secondary Greek version of Jerome’s list. Elsewhere Clement speaks of his intention to write On First Principles; On Prophecy; Against Heresies; On the Resurrection; On Marriage. But the references may be partly to sections of his greater works, and partly to designs never carried out.

No doubt has been raised as to the genuineness of the Address, the Tutor, and the Miscellanies. Internal evidence shows them all the work of one writer, and they have been quoted as Clement’s by a continuous succession of Fathers even from the time of Origen. These three principal extant works form a connected series.

The first is an exhortation to the heathen to embrace Christianity, based on an exposition of the comparative character of heathenism and Christianity; the second offers a system of training for the new convert, with a view to the regulation of his conduct as a Christian; the third is an introduction to Christian philosophy.

The series was further continued in the lost Outlines, in which Clement laid the foundation of his philosophic structure in an investigation of the canonical writings. The mutual relations of these writings show that Clement intended them as a complete system of Christian teaching, corresponding with the “whole economy of the gracious Word, Who first addresses, then trains, and then teaches”, bringing to man in due succession conviction, discipline, wisdom. The first three books correspond in a remarkable degree, as has frequently been remarked, with the stages of the neo-Platonic course, the Purification, the Initiation, and the Vision. The fourth book was probably designed to give a solid basis to the truths which were fleeting and unreal in systems of philosophy. Though his style is generally deficient in terseness and elegance, his method desultory, his learning undigested; yet we can still thankfully admire his richness of information, his breadth of reading, his largeness of sympathy, his lofty aspirations, his noble conception of the office and capacities of the Faith.

The works of Clement were composed in the order in which they have been mentioned. The Tutor contains a reference to the Address in the first section; and, if we can trust the assertion of Eusebius, some of Clement’s works were composed before the accession of Victor (A.D. 192). Putting these two facts together, we may reasonably suppose the Address written c. A.D. 190. It was addressed to Greeks and not to Gentiles generally, as Jerome understood the word. It deals almost exclusively with Greek mythology and Greek speculation. Its general aim is to prove the superiority of Christianity to the religions and the philosophies of heathendom, while it satisfies the cravings of humanity to which they bore witness.

The gospel is, as Clement shows with consummate eloquence, the New Song more powerful than that of Orpheus or Arion, new and yet older than the creation, pure and spiritual as contrasted with the sensuality and idolatry of the pagan rites, clear and substantial as compared with the vague hopes of poets and philosophers. In such a case, he argues, custom cannot be pleaded against the duty of conversion. Man is born for God, and is bound to obey the call of God, Who through the Word is waiting to make him like unto Himself. The choice is between judgment and grace, between destruction and life: can the issue then be doubtful? It is not difficult to point out errors in taste, fact, and argument throughout Clement’s appeal; but it would be perhaps impossible to show in any earlier work passages equal to those in which he describes the mission of the Word, the Light of men, and pictures the true destiny of man

The Tutor was written before the Miscellanies, in which the Tutor is described generally —i.e. c. A.D. 190–195. The writer’s design was “to prepare from early years, that is from the beginning of elementary instruction, a rule of life growing with the increase of faith, and fitting the souls of those just on the verge of manhood with virtue so as to enable them to receive the higher knowledge of philosophy”.

The main scope of the Tutor is therefore practical: the aim is action and not knowledge; but still action as preparatory to knowledge, and resting upon conviction. It is divided into three books. The first gives a general description of the Tutor, Who is the Word Himself; of the “children” whom He trains, Christian men and women alike; and of His general method, using both chastisements and love. The second and third books deal with special precepts designed to meet the actual difficulties of contemporary life and not to offer a theory of morals. It would not be easy to find elsewhere, even in the Roman satirists, an equally vivid and detailed picture of heathen manners. The second book contains general directions as to eating and drinking, furniture, entertainments, sleep, the relations of men and women, the use of jewellery. The third book opens with an inquiry into the nature of true beauty. This leads to a condemnation of extravagance in dress both in men and in women, of luxurious establishments, of the misuse of wealth. Frugality and exercise are recommended; and many minute directions are added—often curiously suggestive in the present times—as to dress and behaviour. General instructions from Holy Scripture as to the various duties and offices of life lead up to the prayer to the Tutor—the Word—with which the work closes.

Immediately after the Tutor are printed in the editions of Clement two short poems, which have been attributed to him. The first, written in an anapaestic measure, is A Hymn of the Saviour Christ, and the second, written in trimeter iambics, is addressed To the Tutor. The first is said to be “Saint Clement’s” in those MSS. which contain it; but it may be a work of primitive date, like the Morning Hymn which has been preserved in our Communion office as the Gloria in Excelsis. If it were Clement’s, and designed to occupy its present place, it is scarcely possible that it would have been omitted in any MS.; while it makes
an appropriate and natural addition if taken from some other source. There is no evidence to shew that the second is Clement’s work; it is doubtless an effusion of some pious scholar of a later date.

The Miscellanies. The title, patchwork (or rather bags for holding the bedclothes), suggests a true idea of the character of the work. It is designedly unmethodical, a kind of meadow, as Clement describes it, or rather a wooded mountain, studded irregularly with various growths, and so fitted to exercise the ingenuity and labour of those likely to profit by it. But yet the book is inspired by one thought. It is an endeavour to claim for the gospel the power of fulfilling all the desires of men and of raising to a supreme unity all the objects of knowledge, in the soul of the true gnostic—the perfect Christian philosopher. The first book, which is mutilated at the beginning, treats in the main of the office and the origin of Greek philosophy in relation to Christianity and Judaism. Clement shows that Greek philosophy was part of the Divine education of men, subordinate to the training of the law and the prophets, but yet really from God. In his anxiety to establish this cardinal proposition he is not content with shewing that the books of O.T. are older than those of the philosophers; but endeavours to prove also that the philosophers borrowed from the Jews. After this he vindicates the character and explains the general scope of the law—”the philosophy of Moses”. The main object of the second book lies in the more detailed exposition of the originality and superiority of the moral teaching of revelation as compared with that of Greek philosophy which was in part derived from it. The argument includes an examination of the nature of faith, resting on a godly fear and perfected by love; and of repentance. He discusses the sense in which human affections are ascribed to God; and shows that the conception of the ideal Christian is that of a man made like to God, in accordance with the noblest aspirations of philosophy. The book closes with a preliminary discussion of marriage.

The third book investigates the true doctrine of marriage as against those who indulged in every license on the ground that bodily actions are indifferent ; and, on the other hand, those who abstained from marriage from hatred of the Creator. Various passages of Scripture wrongly interpreted by heretics are examined; and the two main errors are shown to be inconsistent with Christianity. The fourth book opens with a very interesting outline of the whole plan of the comprehensive apology for Christianity on which he had entered. The work evidently grew under his hands, and he implies that he could hardly expect to accomplish the complete design. He then adds fresh traits to his portrait of the true “gnostic.” Self-sacrifice, martyrdom, lie at the root of his nature, virtues within the reach of all states and of both sexes, though even this required to be guarded against fanaticism and misunderstanding. Other virtues, as love and endurance, are touched upon; and then Clement gives a picture of a godly woman, and of the gnostic, who rises above fear and hope to that perfection which rests in the knowledge and love of God.

In the fifth book Clement, following the outline laid down, discusses faith and hope, and then passes to the principle of enigmatic teaching. This, he argues, was followed by heathen and Jewish masters alike; by Pythagoras; by Moses, in the ordinances of the tabernacle; by the Aegyptians; and by many others. The principle itself is, he maintains, defensible on intelligible grounds, and supported by the authority of the apostles. For in fact the knowledge of God can be gained only through serious effort and by divine help. This review of the character and sources of the highest knowledge leads Clement back to his characteristic proposition that the Greeks borrowed from the Jews the noblest truths of their own philosophy.

The sixth and seventh books are designed, as Clement states to show the character of the Christian philosopher (the gnostic), and so to make it clear that he alone is the true worshipper of God. By way of prelude Clement repeats and enforces what he had said on Greek plagiarisms, yet admitting that the Greeks had some true knowledge of God, and affirming that the gospel was preached in Hades to those of them who had lived according to their light, though that was feeble compared with the glory of the gospel. He then sketches the lineaments of the Christian philosopher, who attains to a perfectly passionless state and masters for the service of the faith all forms of knowledge, including various mysteries open to him only. The reward of this true philosopher is proportioned to his attainments. These are practically unlimited in range, for Greek philosophy, though a gift of God for the training of the nations, is only a recreation for the Christian philosopher in comparison with the serious objects of his study.

In the seventh book Clement regards the Christian philosopher as the one true worshipper of God, striving to become like the Son of God, even as the heathen conversely made their gods like themselves. The soul is his temple; prayers and thanksgivings, his sacrifice; truth, the law of his life. Other traits are
added to the portraiture of “the gnostic”; and Clement then meets the general objection urged against Christianity from the conflict of rival sects. Heresy, he replies, can be detected by two tests. It is opposed to the testimony of Scripture ; and it is of recent origin.

At the close of the seventh book Clement remarks that he “shall proceed with his argument from a fresh beginning”. The phrase may mean that he proposes to enter upon a new division of the Miscellanies, or that he will now pass to another portion of the great system of writings sketched out in Strom. iv. 1–3. In favour of the first opinion it may be urged that Eusebius and Photius expressly mention eight books of the Miscellanies; while on the other hand the words themselves, taken in connexion with vii. 1, point rather to the commencement of a new book. The fragment which bears the title of the eighth book in the one remaining MS. is in fact a piece of a treatise on logic. It may naturally have served as an introduction to the examination of the opinions of Greek philosophers, the interpretation of Scripture, and the refutation of heresies which were the general topics of the second principal member of Clement’s plan; but it is not easy to see how it could have formed the close of the Miscellanies. It is “a fresh beginning” and nothing more. In the time of Photius (c. A.D. 850) the present fragment was reckoned as the eighth book in some copies, and in others the tract, On the Rich Man that is Saved (Bibl. 111). Still further confusion is indicated by the fact that passages from the Extracts from the Prophetical Writings are quoted from “the eighth book of the Miscellanies”, and also from “the eighth book of the Outlines”; while the discussion of prophecy was postponed from the Miscellanies to some later opportunity . Perhaps the simplest solution is to suppose that at a very early date the logical introduction to the Outlines was separated from the remainder of the work, and
added to MSS. of the Miscellanies. In this way the opinion would arise that there were 8 books of the Miscellanies, and scribes supplied the place of bk. viii. according to their pleasure.

The Outlines probably grew out of the Miscellanies. Several express quotations from the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th books of the Outlines have been preserved; but the fragments are too few and Clement’s method too desultory to allow these to furnish a certain plan of the arrangement of the work.

The remaining extant work of Clement, Who is the Rich Man that is Saved? is apparently a popular address based upon Mark x. 17–31. The teaching is simple, eloquent, and just; and the tract closes with the exquisite “story, which is no story” of St. John and the young robber, which Eusebius relates in his History

Clements’ Position and Influence as a Christian Teacher.—In order to understand Clement rightly, it is necessary to bear in mind that he laboured in a crisis of transition. This gives his writings their peculiar interest in all times of change. The transition was threefold, affecting doctrine, thought, and life. Doctrine was passing from the stage of oral tradition to written definition. Thought was passing from the immediate circle of the Christian revelation to the whole domain of human experience. Life in its fulness was coming to be apprehended as the object of Christian discipline. A few suggestions will be offered upon the first two of these heads. Clement repeatedly affirms that even when he sets forth the deepest mysteries, he is simply reproducing an original unwritten tradition. This had been committed by the Lord to the apostles Peter, James, John, and Paul, and handed down from father to son, till at length he set forth accurately in writing what had been delivered in word. But this tradition was, as he held it, not an independent source of doctrine, but a guide to the apprehension of doctrine. It was not co-ordinate with Scripture, but interpretative of Scripture. It was the help to the training of the Christian philosopher, and not part of the heritage of the simple believer. Tradition in this aspect preserved the clue to the right understanding of the hidden sense, the underlying harmonies, the manifold unity of revelation. More particularly the philosopher was able to obtain through tradition the general principles of interpreting the records of revelation and significant illustrations of their application. In this way the true “gnostic” was saved from the errors of the false “gnostic” or heretic, who interpreted Scripture without regard to “the ecclesiastical rule”. The examples of spiritual interpretation which Clement gives in accordance with this traditional “rule” are frequently visionary and puerile. But none the less the rule itself witnessed to a vital truth, the continuity and permanent value of the books of Holy Scripture. This truth was an essential part of the inheritance of the Catholic church; and Clement, however faulty in detail, did good service in maintaining it. As yet, however, the contents of the Christian Bible were imperfectly defined. Clement, like the other Fathers who habitually used the Alexandrine O.T., quotes the books of the Apocrypha without
distinguishing them in any way from the books of the Hebrew canon, and he appears to regard the current Greek Bible as answering to the Hebrew Scriptures restored by Ezra. There is the same laxity of usage in Clement with regard to the N.T. He ascribes great weight to the Ep. of Barnabas; and makes frequent use of the Preaching of Peter; and quotes the Gospel acc. to the Hebrews. Eusebius further adds that he wrote notes on the Revelation of Peter, which is in fact quoted in the Extracts from the Prophets. The text of his quotations is evidently given from memory. But as the earliest Greek writer who
largely and expressly quotes the N.T. (for the Greek fragments of Irenaeus are of comparatively small compass), his evidence as to the primitive form of the apostolic writings is of the highest value. Not unfrequently he is one of a very small group of witnesses who have preserved an original reading. In other cases his readings, even when presumably wrong, are shewn by other evidence to have been widely spread at a very early date.

It is impossible here to follow in detail Clement’s opinions on special points of doctrine. The contrast which he draws between the gnostic (the philosophic Christian) and the ordinary believer is of more general interest. This contrast underlies the whole plan of his Miscellanies, and explains the different aspects in which doctrine, according to his view, might be regarded as an object of faith and as an object of knowledge. Faith is the foundation; knowledge the superstructure. By knowledge faith is perfected, for to know is more than to believe. Faith is a summary knowledge of urgent truths: knowledge a sure demonstration of what has been received through faith, being itself reared upon faith through the teaching of the Lord. Thus the gnostic grasps the complete truth of all revelation from the beginning of the world to the end, piercing to the depths of Scripture, of which the believer tastes the surface only. As a consequence of this intelligent sympathy with the Divine Will, the gnostic becomes in perfect unity in himself, and as far as possible like God. Definite outward observances cease to have any value for one whose whole being is brought into an abiding harmony with that which is eternal: he has no wants, no passions; he rests in the contemplation of God, which is and will be his unfailing blessedness.

In this outline it is easy to see the noblest traits of later mysticism; and if some of Clement’s statements go beyond subjects which lie within the powers of man, still he bears impressive testimony to two essential truths, that the aim of faith through knowledge perfected by love is the present recovery of the divine likeness; and that formulated doctrine is not an end in itself, but a means whereby we rise through fragmentary propositions to knowledge which is immediate and one.

The character of the gnostic, the ideal Christian, the perfect philosopher, represents the link between man, in his earthly conflict, and God: it represents also the link between man and men. The gnostic fulfils through the gospel the destiny and nature of mankind, and gathers together the fruit of their varied experience. This thought of the Incarnation as the crown and consummation of the whole history of the world is perhaps that which is most characteristic of Clement’s office as an interpreter of the faith. It rests upon his view of human nature, of the providential government of God, of the finality of the Christian dispensation. Man, according to Clement, is born for the service of God. His soul is a gift sent down to him from heaven by God, and strains to return thither. For this end there is need of painful training; and the various partial sciences are helps towards the attainment of the true destiny of existence. The “image” of God which man receives at his birth is slowly completed in the “likeness” of God. The inspiration of the divine breath by which he is distinguished from other creatures is fulfilled by the gift of the Holy Spirit to the believer, which that original constitution makes possible. The image of God, Clement says elsewhere, is the Word (Logos), and the true image of the Word is man, that is, the reason in man. It flows necessarily from this view of humanity, as essentially related to God through the Word, that Clement acknowledged a providential purpose in the development of Gentile life. He recognized in the bright side of Gentile speculation many divine elements. These he regarded as partly borrowed from Jewish revelation, and partly derived from reason illuminated by the Word, the final source of reason. Some truths, he says, the Greek philosophers stole and disfigured; some they overlaid with restless and foolish speculations; others they discovered, for they also perhaps had “a spirit of wisdom”. He distinctly recognized the office which Greek philosophy fulfilled for the Greeks as a guide to righteousness, and a work of divine providence. He regarded it as a preparation for justifying faith, and in a true sense a dispensation, a covenant.

The training of Jews and of the Greeks was thus in different ways designed to fit men for the final manifestation of the Christ.

The systems were partial in their essence, and by human imperfection were made still more so. The various schools of philosophy, Jewish and heathen, are described by Clement under a memorable image, as rending in pieces the one truth like the Bacchants who rent the body of Pentheus, and bore about the fragments in triumph. Each, he says, boasts that the morsel which it has had the good fortune to gain is all the truth. Yet by the rising of the light all things are lightened, and he who again combines the divided parts and unites the exposition in a perfect whole will look upon the truth without peril.

Towards this great unity of all science and all life Clement himself strove; and by the influence of his writings kept others alive to the import of the magnificent promises in the teaching of St. Paul and St. John. He affirmed, once for all, upon the threshold of the new age, that Christianity is the heir of all past time, and the interpreter of the future. Sixteen centuries have confirmed the truth of his principle, and left its application still fruitful.

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