Clement was born in 150 A.D. of pagan Greek parents. It seems he was Athenian by birth. Of his youth we do not know much. However, he seemed to have searched for knowledge and truth in many lands before finally finding satisfaction in Christianity in Alexandria. Clement studied philosophy and theology under many unknown teachers. He referred to them in his Stromata, his miscellaneous studies.
Clement was attracted to Alexandria as a pupil. Then in 190 A.D. he succeeded Pantaenus as head of a Christian catechetical school. This was not a school as such, but more of an instruction place which had existed from the late second century. The school was concerned with the propagation of the Christian faith.
In order to appreciate Clement’s contribution to the thinking of his period, it is necessary to sketch out some of the main features of his background. Alexandria was an important seaport where all sorts of cargoes were shipped overseas from Egypt but also foreign goods were imported. It was more than a centre of commerce and a meeting place of trade routes, it was also a melting pot for all kinds of cultures. This meant that a great number of the inhabitants of Alexandria were involved in one trade or another. Consequently, their living standards were very high because of the profit they gained from the selling and buying of goods. Indeed, in the Paedagogus Clement dealt with the problem of Christian appearance and behaviour, e,g. their clothing and their behaviour in public baths and in social events,–indications of how rich his readers and listeners were.
Clement did not seem to condemn wealth and luxury such as, for example, fine clothes worn by Christians and their attendance at public baths but he rejected the excessive use of it, Thus in interpreting the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Clement warned the wealthy of the danger for their salvation. According to our Lord’s teaching, he urged the rich to give generously to the poor, contending that this injunction shows Christian charity. To such well-off Christians he addressed his later volume Can the Rich be Saved? Clement advised his readers not to let life’s material goods get in the way of better concerns. He argued that property itself does not bring a man closer to God.
Clement dealt in great detail with the practical moral life and the problems of tho daily lives of Christians in Alexandria–problems such as gentlemanly behaviour, drinking, etc. Here moral rule and ethical behaviour are intermingled. Thus Clement urged Christians to keep bodily appetites under control. On the question of food, Clement said simple food was healthy, but that overeating spoiled digestion and was therefore bad. Obviously Clement was writing to Christians who knew the luxuries of the very wealthy. He seems to argue for a kind of detachment, a Platonic detachment. Clement was writing for those who ate well, those for whom eating was highly regarded. He was giving practical advice to these rich Christians. He rejected the action of some philosophers, particularly the Stoics, who reacted to the world. For Clement, a Christian was in the world but not of the world.
A fairly large number of the Christians in Alexandria were not only affluent but well educated like Clement himself. Otherwise his book Paedagogus would have missed its target. Alexandria was also a cultural and intellectual centre with a famous university. It was therefore not surprising that it attracted various philosophers and philosophies such as Platonism, Aristotelianism, Pythagoreanism and Stoicism. Philo, the great Jewish-Hellenic philosopher, lived for a long time in Alexandria. Gnostic influence was also great there: Basilides (c. 125 A.D.), Marcion (2nd century), and Valentinus (mid 2nd century) lived in Alexandria. Indeed Clement was often in conflict with these various Gnostic movements.
In Alexandria, Christianity was a widely accepted philosophy of life. Thus philosophy and theology were so close in Alexandria that every theologian had to be well acquainted with philosophy. This was why the catechetical school which he headed was so successful and well attended even though we know more of the catechetical school in the third century under Clement’s successor, Origen. At the catechetical school scientific and literary forms were taught alongside theology. Under Pantaenus and Clement the school was characterized by a broad spirit of learning.
Alexandria was probably one of the few exceptional cities where Christians were not only recruited from the lower classes (slaves and women) but also from the upper classes and the highly educated. In Rome this also happened, showing the polarization of society in the two most important cities of the Roman Empire, Rome and Alexandria.
Clement’s three main works which formed a trilogy are the Protrepticos (or “Exhortation”), the Paedagogus (or “The Tutor”) and the Stromateis (or “The Miscellanies”):
The Protrepticos: This work was written to convert the philosophically-minded Greeks to Christianity. Clement turned his attention to the divine Logos. He saw all the best in Greek thought and philosophy as foreshadowing all else. The subject matter is Christ. Like most early Christian writers he saw in Christ a fulfilment and a revealer of true knowledge and the giver of immortality.
The Paedagogus: This work was written for those turning to Christianity and follows the theme of the divine Logos. He argued that the Logos functioned as a tutor and inspired man toward high moral endeavours. Clement mentioned the distinction between a Christian who has knowledge or faith and a non-Christian.
To Clement all baptized persons are saved. He rejected the Greek view that matter is inherently evil. His view that the cause of sin is found in human free will is similar to St. Augustine’s (354-430 AD) in the fifth century. According to Clement, man is transformed by God’s help into heavenly man thus fulfilling tho biblical objective of making man into the likeness of God. Christ, he argued, is the image and the stage of becoming like God. We may desire to fulfill the Father’s will and imitate the life of Christ. To Clement the divine tutor gives us commandments and explains them so that we can fulfill them. What is contrary to reason is sin. The Christian life to which Paedagogus directs us is the sum total of reasonable action and provides us with spiritual guidance. The commands of the Old Testament and the New Testament are fulfilled by the help of the Holy Spirit.
- The Stromateis (“The Miscellanies”) is the third work of the trilogy, intended to follow the other two. Tertullian did not produce a systematic theology. For him accepting faith and living in a certain way that is the Christian way, is Christian ethics. The Stromateis is a collection of diffuse materials describing the ideal of complete Christian perfection in all spiritual knowledge. Clement was thoroughly versed in Scripture. He was firmly convinced that the basic principle is in figurative or analytical language. Contemporary theology spoke in analytical terms.
An Overview of Clement’s Teaching
It is not easy to summarize Clement’s teaching but the following strands in his thought may be drawn out.
(i) The doctrine of creation was basic in his thinking. Clement clung to the belief that all truth is one and comes from the same Father. The truths of secular science, therefore, must be one with the truths of revelation and thus there was much to be learned from the philosophers. In this way Clement at once opposed the Gnostics who disparaged the created materialistic order, and at the same time helped to rescue learning from the disrepute into which Gnosticism had plunged it in the Alexandrian church.
(ii) Despite his opposition to the Gnostics, Clement had some affinity with the educated Greek world. Like them he described spiritual perfection in intellectual terms and taught a “true gnosis” as the Christian ideal. Faith was the foundation of Christianity but the enlightened Christian could advance to knowledge.
(iii) Clement sought to be faithful to Scripture. In attacking Gnosticism he defended the Old Testament which he explained by often using the allegorical method, a method he applied to the New Testament too. But there was none of the fantastic allegorizing typical of the Gnostics. His Scriptural exposition was safeguarded by fidelity to the apostolic tradition.
(iv) Ethics had a considerable place in his writings. He rejected the Gnostic disparagement of sex and maintained that the good things of the material order are to be used with gratitude. His teaching was marked by moral earnestness: for Clement the high life of the spirit was to be attained by a moral as well as by a spiritual ascent.
A Comparative study of the Teachings of Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria
Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria were contemporaries. Tertullian was a lawyer who taught in Carthage at the end of the second century and the beginning of the third, while Clement, a philosopher, taught in Alexandria during the same period.
It is interesting that there were unconfirmed reports that each was ordained as presbyter but neither of them made any reference in his writings to any clerical status. Both men sought to counter heresy and laboured at the task of apologetics, moral earnestness being a feature of their writings. But despite these parallels in the life and work of the two men, their outlook and thought were radically different.
1. Polemics against Gnosticism
In his Prescription for the Heretics, Tertullian used arguments from tradition. He pointed out that the church had received its Scripture and its teaching directly from the Apostles, and that there was a harmony to be discerned everywhere in the teaching of the church. He thus argued that apostolicity and universality guaranteed the truth of the church’s faith, the lack of these two elements highlighting the falsity of Gnosticism. Clement was much more sympathetically inclined toward the aims of the Gnostics and tried to understand them and learn from them. Indeed Clement was prepared, like the Gnostics, to interpret Christianity in intellectual terms and to teach the “true gnosis” as the ideal of the Christian life.
This is not to say that Clement approved of Gnostic teaching. Indeed he vigorously attacked it, taking as his basis the doctrine of creation in which he saw that all the truths of science and of revelation and all goodness came from the Creator. This, of course, cut the nerve of the Gnostic argument which was basically dualistic in its disparagement of the created order as the result of confusion and the work of an inferior God. Thus, while the basis of Tertullian’s argument against Gnosticism was ecclesiastical, Clement’s argument was intellectual.
Clement’s view that truth is one and comes from the Father governed also his approach to Greek philosophy. He believed that there was much for Christians to learn from the philosophers and that just as the Law was a schoolmaster bringing the Jews to Christ, so philosophy served the same role for the Greeks. For him Greek philosophy was a preparatio Evangelica.
For Tertullian, such a view was impossible. There was but one word to describe the pagan philosophies: they were demonic. There was no meeting place between Christianity and Greek culture. To Tertullian’s words, “What, indeed, has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church?” Clement would have said: “Athens has a lot to do with it.” Tertullian could not attempt to woo the educated Greek minds for Christ as Clement sought to do. His apologetic was of a very different character. Tertullian exposed the emptiness of philosophy, the vanity of polytheism, the licentiousness of paganism. He pleaded on the other hand, the loyalty of the Christians, their high moral standards, the universality of the faith of the faithful. It was thus that he presented his case for Christianity to a hostile world. While Tertullian held that martyrdom was the goal of a Christian, Clement contended that to seek martyrdom was a waste of time and a denial of God’s word. It was exhibitionism.
Ethics had a considerable place in the writings of both men. In his Montanist days Tertullian preached a moral code of extreme rigour with martyrdom as the supreme desideratum. Clement’s moral earnestness was no less than Tertullian’s, but he had none of Tertullian’s militant zeal nor any sympathy for the radical asceticism which was characteristic of the Carthaginian.
3. As Theologians
Neither man was as considerable a theologian as Origen or St. Augustine. Tertullian was too pragmatic while Clement was too speculative. Nonetheless Tertullian provided the vocabulary which became normative for western Trinitarian theology. He described God as being of “one substance consisting of three persons.” His interest was in the unity of God. This way of thinking was not congenial in Alexandria where emphasis was placed on the distinctions between the persons rather than on the unity. Clement himself had little to say about this problem which the Monarchian controversy in Rome posed in an acute form for Tertullian.
The two men form a fascinating contrast. Where Tertullian’s interests were practical, Clement’s interests were speculative or academic. Where Tertullian emphasized the place of the will, Clement appealed to the intellectual element in man. Where Tertullian was dogmatic and authoritative, Clement posed questions and invited discussion. Tertullian was a foreshadowing of the western spirit, Clement was the embodiment of the Greek mind at its best.
“It is incredible because it is foolish. He (Christ) was buried and rose again. It is certain because it is impossible.”
“What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic or dialectic Christianity.”
“What is more foreign to us than the Stoic?”
“Indeed heresies are themselves instigated by philosophy.”
“There is but one river of truth, but many streams pour into it from this side and from that.”
“The law is for the Jews a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ.”
“He himself was wholly without passion and into him there entered no emotional movement, neither pleasure nor pain.”
“Philosophy therefore is a preparation, making ready the way for him who is being perfected by Christ.”
“Can you also rise superior to your riches? Say so, and Christ does not draw you away from the possession of them.”
“A first kind of saving is change from heathenism to faith, a second from faith to knowledge.”
G. A. Oshitelu
Suggestions for further reading:
A. H. Armstrong and R. A. Markus, Christian Faith and Greek Philosophy (1960).
W. Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1972).
C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, 2nd Edition (1913).
H. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and Classical Tradition (London: Clarendon Press, 1966).
——— and Oulton (transl.), Alexandrian Christianity (Library of Christian Classics) 2 Vol. (London: SCM Press).
F. L. Cross, The Early Christian Fathers (1960).
J. A. Danielou, History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea (1964).
J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (London: A & C. Black, 1958).
S. Lilla, Clement of Alexandria and Greek Philosophy (1971).
E. F. Osborn, The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria (1957).
R. B. Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria, 2 vols.
J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius- Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London SPCK, 1965).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from The African Fathers of the Early Church, copyright © 2002, by G. A. Oshitelu, Ibadan, Nigeria. All rights reserved.