The life and career of Titus Flavius Clement mark the ascendancy of Alexandrian theology. Whereas Clement’s contemporary, the sarcastic Latin lawyer Tertullian (whom we read next) famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the Alexandrians answered that pagan philosophy had a vital role to play in bringing the world to Christian faith. For better or worse, Clement had an almost reckless confidence that pagan philosophy was the underpinning of Christian truth, so that Christ fulfilled not only the law of Moses but also the myriad attempts of pagan thought to discern the immutable nature of all things true, good, and beautiful.
Clement was born to wealthy pagans in Athens sometime in the middle of the second century. Given the breadth of learning displayed in his writings, he was undoubtedly well traveled. We learn from an autobiographical brief in Stromateis 1.2 that his education under a variety of teachers took him from Greece to southern Italy to Egypt, where his career as a student of Christian philosophy seems to have begun upon meeting Pantaenus (c. 180), the master of the catechetical school in Alexandria at that time. (Clement’s intellectual pilgrimage is reminiscent of that of Justin Martyr). The learned circles of Alexandria at the time melded Hellenistic and Judaic religious sensibility, which is evident in Clement’s thought. Clement became the master of the Alexandrian school around 190. According to tradition, Clement suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Septimius Severus sometime after 203.
Clement was the teacher of Origen (whom we will read later), the third-century Egyptian prodigy who popularized the Alexandrian approach to theology, in particular its exegesis. Clement failed to attain to universal acclaim in later Christendom despite his martyrdom. His pupil Origen suffered posthumous condemnation at the second council of Constantinople in 553, and the eclecticism of Clement’s theological works led Photius of Constantinople to criticize them sharply in the ninth century. Clement all but disappeared from western calendars by the seventeenth century, having achieved little recognition except among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east, such as the Coptic church.
Clement thus stands as a threshold figure, representing a passage from the era of the apostolic charism of theological intuition and the vigor of the apologists to an age of intellectual acuity and precise theological definition. In Clement, we finally begin to see Christianity “plunder the Egyptians,” taking pagan philosophy captive and turning it to its own purposes, which culminated in the first three general councils and the formulae of Nicea ratified at Constantinople.
Clement is best known for three principle works: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Pedagogus (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis (“Miscellanies”). In addition, “Who is the Rich Man who Shall be Saved?” is a surviving work of Clement’s, written to exhort some of his wealthier Christian students not to despair over their salvation, and to maintain a disposition toward riches in keeping with that taught in the gospel. There are numerous “lost” works by Clement, the one worth mentioning being the Hypotyposes, or “Outlines,” which, according to Photius, was an “impious” work of esoteric speculation about the heavenly hierarchies.
The Exhortation to the Greeks is a polemic against pagan thought. Clement here strives to demonstrate the utter undesirability of pagan religion and theology, and to encourage his Greek audience to abandon the ignorant worship of malignant and misanthropic deities in favor of the worship of the true God of Christianity. The Instructor is a reflection of somewhat less consequence, which focuses on the practical elements of Christian discipleship. Here we see Clement not as a polemicist but as a tutor, schooling his audience in the basics of the moral life and Christian piety.
The Miscellanies is a work of tremendous scope and varied interests; it seems to be more a sketchbook of thoughts than a theological treatise with a unified intention. Nevertheless, it is from this work that we encounter Clement’s overall theological perspective. The work is an attempt to develop a Christian gnosticism. The Miscellanies, therefore, brings Clement more fully into view as a metaphysician and speculative theologian.
The most noteworthy element of Clement’s theology is his belief that philosophy is as divine a preparation for the gospel as the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Strom. 1.5, 20). Whereas many of Christendom’s most prolific writers, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, had been trying to pin heresy on the influence of Greek philosophy among Christians, Clement sees in philosophy the prospect of a “preliminary cleansing” which prepares students to receive the faith. So we see that Clement’s eclecticism did have a conservative purpose: not to sow pagan tares in the midst of Christian wheat, as it were, but rather to till the soil of paganism such till it was capable of finding its fulfillment in Christ. Hence, Clement proposes a version of “gnosticism” that is quite Christian: theology is the culmination of a course of study which ascends the heights of mystical truth by way of the pedagogy of pagan thought.We must note that for Clement, the successful student will outgrow the pedagogue: therefore, Clement’s eclecticism is best understood not as an affirmation of the efficacy of paganism to convey the truth, but rather as an affirmation of the gospel to make better sense of paganism than paganism can make of itself.
In speculating about apokatastasis, or “restoration,” Clement is the first known Christian writer to refer to the fire of hell as a purifying fire, a “wise fire that penetrates the soul” (Strom. 7.6). So it is that the wrath of God is understood by Clement as remedial, even therapeutic: “God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but he chastises for the benefit of the chastised” (Strom. 7.16). The chastisement of divine wrath is intended as an aid in the divine therapy of man’s deification, the end toward which knowledge (gnosis) is most expedient. For knowledge of God presupposes conformity to God’s very self, and conformity to God is the sum of salvation. According to Clement, it seems that all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, when they encounter the divine substance in the form of a consuming fire, will invariably somehow be brought to genuine gnosis, to conformity to divine truth, in the end. While the universalist implications of this teaching would be condemned in 553, we will see the idea of apokatastasis recur in the writings of several other eastern church fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa.
Finally, Clement may be credited as an early proponent of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (cf. Strom. 1.27). It is not necessary to develop this point very much, as Origen is the Alexandrian exegete most notable for his allegorical interpretations. Let it suffice to say that Clement’s use of Scripture is influenced by his bent towards metaphysics, yet, as is most common with early Christian allegory, his conservative method results in very little overt mishandling of the biblical texts.
Alternate Editions and Further Reading
There has been a re-publication of the ANF translation in an affordable volume edited by Paul A. Boer. The Loeb Classical Library has published a critical edition, both in Greek and in English, of the “Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” and a fragment titled “To the Newly Baptized” (trans. G. W. Butterworth). Complete editions of Clement’s three major works might easily be found distributed by smaller publishers individually, but substantial excerpts and helpful commentary can also be found in the Library of Christian Classics volume Alexandrian Christianity (ed. Henry Chadwick) and in Henry Bettenson’s The Early Christian Fathers.
Eric Osborn has published a study of Clement’s synthesis of the apostolic faith and classical philosophy in Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2008), and the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies has published an interesting Orthodox take on Clement’s apophatic mystical theology, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism. Also, for an enjoyable apologia for the Alexandrian allegorical method as well for the eclecticism of Alexandrian fathers such as Clement and Origin, see John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, a dated yet pertinent work regarding Alexandrian dominance at the creative edge of Christian theology.