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. 

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