Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-c.211 AD)
Who was Clement of Alexandria?
Born: c. 150, Athens
Died: c. 211-216, Cappadocia
Feast day: December 4
Clement of Alexandria was one of the major Greek-speaking thinkers of the early church. He came from a pagan background at Athens and his Christian theology was strongly influenced by Greek philosophy. Clement taught at the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt, where he was succeeded by another great teacher, Origen of Alexandria. Clement's best-known work is a set of three treatises entitled Protrepticus, Paedagogus, and Stromata.
According to a tradition cited by Eusebius, St. Mark is the founder of the Church of Alexandria. Between St. Mark and Bishop Demetrius, who governed that church in 221, Julius Africanus counts ten bishops. Valentine, Carpocrates, and Basilides went out from Alexandria to establish their dissident sects, a circumstance which alone implies that, already in the middle of the second century, the intellectual activity there was intense.
A catechetical school had been founded there, dependent, to a certain extent, upon the official authority, without being precisely its organ. In this school not only were the elements of faith explained to the catechumens, but a more substantial theological teaching was given to those Christians desirous of learning, and the grounds of Catholic belief were discussed even before pagans. This school must have existed in the early part of the second century, although it does not appear to us before 180, with two of its earliest known presidents, Pantaenus and Clement.
Pantaenus, "The Sicilian Bee," was the teacher of Clement. He was appointed president of the catechetical school of Alexandria after he had been a missionary. He explained "by word of mouth and in writing the treasures of the Divine Scriptures." Notwithstanding the assertion of Eusebius, it is doubtful whether Pantaenus published any works. The most ancient orthodox writer of Alexandria of whom we can be sure is Clement.
Clement was born probably c. 150 of heathen parentage at Athens. The circumstances of his conversion are not known. It is supposed that he was troubled, like Justin, by the problem of God and, like him, was attracted to Christianity by the nobility and purity of the evangelical doctrines and morals. His conversion, if it had not yet taken place, was at least imminent when he undertook the journeys spoken of in his writings. He set out from Greece and travelled through southern Italy, Palestine, and finally Egypt, seeking everywhere the society of Christian teachers.
Towards 180, he met Pantaenus at Alexandria, and took up his permanent residence in that city. There he was ordained a presbyter and, from being a disciple of Pantaenus, became, in 190, his associate and fellow-teacher. In 202 or 203, he was forced to suspend his lessons on account of the persecution of Septimius Severus, which closed the Christian school of Alexandria. He withdrew into Cappadocia, residing there with his former disciple, Bishop Alexander. We meet him again in 211, carrying to the Christians of Antioch a letter from Alexander, in which are mentioned the services he, Clement, had rendered in Cappadocia.
In 215 or 216, the same Alexander, now bishop of Jerusalem, writes to Origen and speaks of Clement as having gone to his rest. Clement must therefore have died between 211 and 216. Ancient authors speak of him as St. Clement, but his name was not admitted to the Roman Martyrology by Benedict XIV.
Clement was naturally of a broad and noble mind. His character was sympathetic and generous, and he was always eager to help his disciples and readers. His erudition was prodigious; no other ancient writer, not even Origen, knew or cited so many pagan and Christian authors as he. No doubt his was not all first-hand knowledge but obtained largely by reading florilegia and miscellaneous collections of extracts. His learning is none the less surprising and, in any case, proves that he had read widely and remembered much of what he had read. Add to this a fluent, agreeable, and florid style, and you will be able to form some idea of Clement's ability as a writer.
Unfortunately, these marvellous qualities are disparaged by considerable defects, which render the study of his works fatiguing. He never analyses the subjects he is treating, so as to present them in an orderly manner to the reader. He exposes his subject all at once and, as he never exhausts it, is constantly forced to retrace his steps and make up for omissions. Hence, a tiresome prolixity, aggravated by an excess of digressions and quotations.
It is in the Stromata especially that this absence of plan and discrimination is felt the most. Again, his style, although fluent and easy, lacks finish and is often incorrect in both Attic grammar and syntax. Clement wrote very fast and cared little for Hellenic elegance of structure. We must remark, however, that many of his defects are less personal ones than defects of his sphere and time. At the end of the IInd century Greek had already lost much of its classical purity.
From a theological point of view, one of the chief aims of Clement was to determine the relations between faith and reason and to show what philosophy has achieved to prepare the world for Christian Revelation and how it must be used in order to transform the data of this revelation into a scientific theology. The solution given by Clement is, on the whole, exact. He is accused of a few errors in the details of his work which are not always proved to be such. It would be surprising if, in so vast and so new a subject, there could be found everywhere the finest discrimination and absolute exactness of expression.
Nearly all the extant works of Clement are comprised under these three treatises, which form parts of one complete whole. The author gives the outline of this work in the Paedagogus. In the Protrepticus he exhorts the pagans to abandon their errors, - then he will convert them (προτρεπων); in the Paedagogus he will teach him how to lead an honest Christian life (παιδαγογων); finally, in a third work he will instruct him in the dogmas of the Catholic faith and will explain to him the speculative truths of his new religion (επι πασιν εκδιδασκων). It was therefore a complete theology, - apologetical, moral and dogmatic, - that Clement purposed to write.
The Protrepticus (προτρεπτικος προς Ελληνας: Exhortation to the Greeks), in twelve chapters, is an apology which is connected with similar writings of the second century. The author exposes the worthlessness and untruth of heathen beliefs and the powerlessness of philosophy to furnish men with a sufficient teaching on God and religion. He concludes that the entire truth must be sought from the Prophets and from Jesus Christ. Both the matter and the form of this book are well finished; it has all the merits of a beautiful literary composition.
In the Paedagogus appear for the first time the defects of Clement. The work is divided into three books. The first commences with a disputation with the false Gnostics.
These men regarded themselves as of superior intelligence and treated ordinary Catholics as children (νηπιοι), incapable of reaching perfection. Clement argues that by Baptism we are all the children of Christ, our Teacher, and that Baptism, which is an illumination rendering us capable of seeing God, contains the germ of Christian perfection; the true gnosis, therefore, is nothing more than a development of faith, effected through the educative influence of the Logos. This process, directed by goodness, is as old as the world itself, since the Logos who became incarnate is the same as He who created man and instructed him from the beginning.
The second and third books of the Paedagogus deal with practical questions. Clement makes a survey of the various circumstances of our everyday life and, under the guise of a lofty and sprightly chat, scores the current views of his time and gives advice on virtue and even on politeness and hygiene. He develops no special moral theory, but places before his readers a series of realistic illustrations, to which he joins exhortations to do good.
The Paedagogus reveals a moralist quite different from the speculative Clement we are generally accustomed to think of. He appears, however, in the latter capacity in the Stromata. From what has already been said one would expect to see this last work of Clement's trilogy entitled The Master ('Ο διδασκαλος) and to find it a treatise on Christian dogma. Instead of that, it is a collection of miscellanies, the full title of which is "Tapestries of Gnostic Memoirs on the True Philosophy." Is this the work announced by Clement? Probably it is, although it represents only rough sketches and preliminary studies. Instead of giving a didactic exposition of Christian doctrine, the author preferred to personify Christian perfection and to offer a living portrait, most lovingly painted, of the true Gnostic, i.e., the perfect Christian. As in the Paedagogus, the facts are outstanding, while the theory is kept in the background.
Actually we possess only seven Stromata and perhaps enough material for an eighth one. The first proves that it is permissible for a Christian not only to write books, but to study Greek philosophy and, generally, the sciences. The second treats of the relations between faith and Christian gnosis; the third deals with marriage; the fourth speaks of martyrdom and the possibility for every Christian to become a true Gnostic, i.e., a perfect man; the fifth treats of symbols and allegory; the sixth recalls what has been said in the two preceding "stromata" and completes them; the seventh depicts the religious life of the Christian Gnostic. This last is the most interesting and the best written portion of the whole work.
It is certain that the Protrepticus was written before the Paedagogus, and the latter before the Stromata. The Stromata are generally regarded as Clement's last work, and the date of their composition is not placed before 202-203 or even 208-211. The Protrepticus and the Paedagogus may date from 189-200.
After the great trilogy, the most important of Clement's works is the Hypotyposes (υποτυποσεις, sketches, outlines). It contained in eight books a commentary on passages chosen from the Old and New Testaments, notably the Epistles of St. Paul, the Catholic Epistles (except the third of St. John), and the Acts of the Apostles. Clement's exegesis is especially allegorical. Photius, who read the work, passed a rather severe judgment upon its theological teaching. Many Greek citations have been preserved and, in Latin, the commentaries on the First Epistle of St. Peter, the First and Second Epistles of St. John, and the Epistle of St. Jude, gathered together under the single title of Adumbrattones dementis Alexandrini in Epistulas Canonicas.
Besides this great commentary, there is the Quis dives salvetur? (Who is the rich man that is saved?). It is a homily on Mark x, 17-31, and is preserved entire. Clement remarks that the spirit of detachment commanded by our Lord is not always effective and exterior, but more often affective and interior. Riches are no obstacle to salvation if good use is made of them, - rather, they may become a means of salvation, since they make works of mercy and charity easier for their possessor.
At the end of this homily is to be found the well known story of the thief converted by St. John the Apostle, which Eusebius reproduces in his Church History. This little work was highly prized in antiquity; it is full of unction and pious reflections. The date of its composition is unknown.
The other works contained in the editions of Clement are not so much treatises proper as excerpts Clement had made from other books, and notes he intended to use in future compositions. There is a fragment edited by Potter as the eighth Stromaton, but it is taken from a treatise on logic and deals with definition, genus, species, method, etc. The Excerpta ex Scriptis Theodoti, 86 in number, are selected fragments of Valentinian Gnostic works, especially of the works of Theodotus. Lastly, the 53 Eclogae ex Scripturis Propheticis are notes on various subjects whose origin it is hard to determine.
Eusebius in the sixth book of his "Church History" enumerates a few other Clementine compositions: On Easter, On Fasting, On Calumny, Exhortation to Perseverance (or To the Newly Baptized), an Ecclesiastical Canon (or Against Judaisers). Only a few fragments remain of these writings.
- The best edition of his works is that of Staehlin, Leipzig, 1905-1909, in the collection of Christliche Schriftsteller in Berlin. That of Potter (1715) is reproduced in the Patrologia Graeca, VIII, IX. See Freppel, Clement d'Alexandrie, Paris, 1865. E. de Faye, Clement d'Al., 2nd edit., Paris, 1906. J. Patrick, Clement of Alexandria, Edinburgh, 1914.
- H. E., ii, 16.
- Eusebius, H. E., V, 10.
- Eusebius, H. E., VI, 11, 5-6.
- De Faye sees in the Stromata only a series of essays destined as a preface to serve Clement in the composition of the "Master," but forming no part of that work.
- 13, 3, 9.
- H. E., iii, 23, 5 ff.
- J. Tixeront, Handbook of Christian Patrology, translated by S.A. Raemers. This article incorporates some public domain text from this source.
- "Clement of Alexandria " - Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04045a.htm>
- "Bede the Venerable" - Patron Saints Index. <http://www.catholic-forum.com/ saints/saintb10.htm>
- "St. Bede's Tomb" - University of Durham, 2004. <http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla0www/c_tour/point4.html>