Clement of Alexandria

greek text

When you think of Clement of Alexandria (not to be confused with Clement of Rome, whom we’ve already considered), think of intelligent orthodoxy. Born in a pagan Greek family in the middle of the second century, Clement sought an orthodox alternative to Gnosticism, which had became commonplace in Egypt. Amidst the profusion of the Gnostic heresy there was one teacher who refused to capitulate; his name was Pantaenus. A Stoic philosopher who taught in Alexandria, he converted to the Christian faith and sought to reconcile his new faith with Greek philosophy. Clement described Pantaenus as "the Sicilian bee,” for he was incessantly reading and writing. In the face of an overwhelming Gnostic threat, Pantaenus stood for a Christian orthodoxy that was intellectually viable. In due time, Clement succeeded Pantaenus before Clement himself was succeeded by an even more influential leader, Origen.

Three major works of Clement survive. Exhortation to the Greeks is an apologetic work, not unlike that of Justin Martyr. Tutor is a discipleship manual which in some ways resembles the Didache. Then there is Carpet Bags (sometimes referred to as Miscellaneous or Stromata) which is a conglomeration of spiritual lessons, largely directed against the Gnostic heresy. Here is an example:

Accordingly, before the advent of the Lord, philosophy was necessary to the Greeks for righteousness. And now it becomes conducive to piety; being a kind of preparatory training to those who attain to faith through demonstration. For your foot, it is said, will not stumble, if you refer what is good, whether belonging to the Greeks or to us, to Providence. Proverbs 3:23 For God is the cause of all good things; but of some primarily, as of the Old and the New Testament; and of others by consequence, as philosophy. Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenic mind, as the law, the Hebrews, to Christ. Galatians 3:24 Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.

In the above quote, as with much of Clement’s writings, we see the same challenge that we observed in Justin Martyr—Greek philosophy is appropriated to such an extent that it begins to rival and occasionally displace Judeo-Christian thought. For instance, fundamental to Clement’s thinking is the notion that God is “impassible”: beyond all emotions and feeling. Clement also used the term “gnostic” for Christians who had attained a deeper teaching of the Logos (divine reason). His reliance upon Plato has resulted in many historians calling his theology “Christian Platonism.” Accordingly, Clement presented the goal of the Christian life as “deification” which includes Plato’s idea of assimilation into God on top of the biblical concept of union with Christ.

It is appropriate for us to be inspired by the principled resolve of Pantaenus and Clement in standing against the tidal wave of Gnosticism. On the other hand, their systems of thought should also challenge us to constantly pursue a more biblically chaste understanding of Christian faith. 

About the author

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) is the lead pastor at New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and coauthor of The Unfinished Reformation.


  1. Chris,

    Where in the above quotation from St. Clement does Greek philosophy “challenge,” “rival,” or “displace” Judeo-Christian thought? I’m wondering what justifies the [ecclesial deistic] spin implicit in your use of these terms, especially the last term. If St. Clement and St. Justin were simply following and developing the thought of St. Paul, in seeing Greek philosophy as God’s providential way of preparing the Greeks for the reception of the gospel, how would the evidence look any different? Why spin it as “displacement” rather than see it as authentic development?

    You seem to think that St. Clement’s notion of deification is at odds with the NT’s teaching of union with Christ. What exactly is the difference? If union with Christ is not what St. Peter refers to as a participation in the divine nature (2 Pet 1:4) then what do you think union with Christ is, and what makes that notion of union of Christ more true than the notion of theosis we find in the Church Fathers such as St. Clement and St. Athanasius?

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

    1. Thanks Bryan. The part of Clement’s quote that makes me uncomfortable is his correlation between philosophy, which is said to prepare the Greeks as a schoolmaster, and the Old Testament Scriptures. I (with most evangelicals, I think) recognize that in God’s providence, Hellenistic thought was instrumental in preparing the way for the Christian message… raising questions and even creating categories of theology in which the gospel would be understood. However, I am concerned that the Hebrew Scriptures, precisely because they are inspired, are a fundamentally different plane. No doubt that Clement, with Justin et al., would have confessed Scripture to have been inspired and therefore more authoritative than Greek Philosophy. However, quotes such as the one above blur the lines and leave us more vulnerable to syncretism (e.g., God’s impassibility and Clement’s overemphasis on gnosis).

      I hear what you’re saying about the relationship of divination and union with Christ. I wouldn’t say that they are at odds. I just don’t think they are synonymous. Divination, as the term is used by our Eastern Orthodox brethren, often means more than simply union with Christ. It is for them, as you know, the center and circumference of soteriology. This became evident to me when I took a couple of classes at Holy Cross in Brookline, MA. Correct me if I’m wrong, but, as important as theosis is for Catholics, following Augustine and Aquinas and their wonderful emphasis on beatific vision, the Orthodox view is different still. Here is how Andrew Louth describes the difference in his essay, “The Place of Theosis in Orthodox Theology.”

      …I have suggested that deification, by the place it occupies in Orthodox theology, determines the shape of that theology: first, it is a counterpart to the doctrine of the Incarnation, and also anchors the greater arch of the divine economy, which reaches from creation to deification, thereby securing the cosmic dimension of theology; second, it witnesses to the human side of theosis in the transformation involved in responding to the encounter with God offered in Christ through the Holy Spirit – a real change that requires a series ascetic commitment on our part; and finally, deification witnesses to the deeper meaning of the apophatic way found in Orthodox theology, a meaning rooted in the ‘the [sic] repentance of the human person before the face of the living God.’”

      If you mean by theosis what 2 Peter 1:4 seems to say on face value, that we somehow participate and grow in likeness and union with God, I agree. It’s just that most conversations about theosis tend to mean a whole lot more.

      Thanks Bryan!

  2. Chris,

    The only way, in my mind, that quotations such as the above “blur the lines and leave us more vulnerable to syncretism” is if you think that’s the only thing St. Clement ever taught or wrote on the subject, and if you think that he held a different position from the one affirmed by all the Fathers regarding the nature of Scripture verses that of what can be known about God from nature. The quotation is a mere excerpt from his corpus; it cannot be expected to say everything about the difference between the two (i.e. Scripture and philosophy). It is therefore unfair, in my mind, to claim that the quotation blurs the lines; rather, it is only the abstraction of the quotation from its larger context that “blurs the lines.” I don’t see any justification here for a vulnerability to syncretism, because the evidence would look exactly the same if in fact there was no vulnerability to syncretism, but only good theology, misconstrued by looking at an excerpt as though it were not an excerpt. That’s why it seems to me that you are using a hermeneutic of suspicion. I’m not saying St. Clement was right about everything, but in my opinion, if we’re going to discredit the Fathers, it shouldn’t be on the basis of evidence that is fully compatible with their being entirely orthodox. It seems like because of their proximity, they ought to get the benefit of the doubt on the basis of the principle of charity and belief that the Holy Spirit was with His Church and guiding her into all truth.

    I haven’t found anything but a semantic difference between theosis in Orthodox theology and divination in Catholic theology. But I know that theosis/divination in Orthodox and Catholic theology means much more than Reformed persons mean by union with Christ. What’s puzzling to me is that in the last three lines of your post, you seem to suggest that the Catholic/Orthodox notion of theosis/divination is not “biblically chaste,” but is a result of syncretism from Platonic philosophy. But, I’m wondering how you know that the Catholic/Orthodox notion of theosis/divination is not “biblically chaste” and is a syncretic corruption, rather than being an authentic explanation and development [in the St. Vincent of Lerins / Cardinal Newman] sense] of the NT teaching on union with Christ and being made partakers of the divine nature. In other words, I’m challenging what seems to me to be an implicit hermeneutic of suspicion, and presupposition of syncretic-corruption-rather-than-development in your evaluation of the Fathers. 🙂

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  3. Thanks Bryan. My hermeneutic of suspicion isn’t implicit; it is entirely explicit. I think the Fathers are valuable only insofar as their teaching is consistet with Scripture, which is why I am an evangelical and not a Catholic 🙂

  4. Chris,

    I’m asking a more fundamental question. Here are the two options: (1) hold the Church Fathers to the bar of my interpretation of Scripture, rejecting or dismissing in them whatever disagrees with my interpretation of Scripture, but embracing in them whatever fits with my interpretation of Scripture or (2) subject my interpretation of Scripture to the Tradition found in the Fathers, allowing the Church Fathers to inform and revise my interpretation of Scripture, per Fr. Kimel’s third law.

    On what basis or ground are you choosing (1) over (2)? That’s my question.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. Thanks Bryan. Will I seem like a typical Protestant if I come up with a third option? I see the Old Testament as the ground for reading the New Testament, and the New Testament for understanding the Old… as in Augustine’s Old Testament is the New concealed and the New is the Old revealed. The Fathers help to interpret and apply the truth of Scripture (not unlike the Pastor who stands in the Pulpit to preach on Sunday) but their words are always measured against the plumb line of God’s Word. I realize that this sounds silly to someone who rejects the doctrine of sola scriptura; however, if you happen to believe in sola scriptura, I think this is the best way to slice the hermeneutical onion.

  6. Hello Chris,

    The Fathers help to interpret and apply the truth of Scripture (not unlike the Pastor who stands in the Pulpit to preach on Sunday) but their words are always measured against the plumb line of God’s Word. I realize that this sounds silly to someone who rejects the doctrine of sola scriptura;

    The question isn’t about Scripture per se. It is about interpretations: yours or theirs. Why should your interpretation of Scripture be the plumb line for theirs, rather than theirs be the plumb line for yours?

    In my opinion, talking about Scripture per se just side-steps the question of interpretation, and is therefore not a viable third option.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  7. Thanks Bryan. John of Salisbury, the 12th Century Bishop of Chartres, in his Metalogicon 3.4, offers a helpful insight when he said: “We are like dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants [the ancients]. We see more than them and things that are further away—not because our sight is better than theirs, nor because we are taller than they were, but because they raise us up and add to our stature by their enormous height.” Having the benefit of time and distance in which to reflect upon the great tradition, we can analyze it in ways that earlier centuries couldn’t have. As they say, “It’s often darkest at the foot of the lighthouse.” How else can you explain Peter getting the gospel wrong in Galatians 2? This reality shouldn’t denigrate our appreciation of the Fathers; rather, we must be honest and confess that we enjoy our perspective because they have enabled us to do so. At the end of the day, isn’t this how the Catholic magisterium operates in developing the seminal ideas of earlier thinkers (in the St. Vincent of Lerins / Cardinal Newman sense). Why is this approach appropriate for Catholic Bishops but not for Protestant theologians? Blessings brother, Chris

  8. Chris,

    I agree with John of Salisbury, and I agree that doctrine develops (in the St. Vincent / Newman sense). But in order for doctrine to develop, doctrinal questions have to be resolvable over time in a definitive manner, so that further development can rest on previous development. Otherwise, developmental progress would be indistinguishable from regress, error, opinion, speculation, or misdirection; we would not know whether any previous figure was a giant to stand on, or a heresiarch to avoid. All doctrinal questions would still be up for grabs, having never been definitively answered. And that would leave us right back in the me-and-my-Bible situation. If only those count as ‘giants’ who agree with my interpretation of Scripture, then I’m merely painting a theological/historical Tradition as the target around where my interpretive arrow has already landed. But if the Tradition and who-counts-as-giants is already in place, then it can guide both our interpretation of Scripture and the development of doctrine.

    I see no middle position that is not arbitrary or ad hoc. Either I’m guided by an authoritative Tradition already given, or I’m counting as the ‘authoritative Tradition’ only those who agree with my interpretation of Scripture, and thereby engaged in a kind of self-deception if I think I’ve avoided what Keith Mathison calls ‘solo scriptura.’

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

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