Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria (Titus Flavius Clemens Alexandrinus) is one of many brilliant Alexandrian theologians that arose between the first and third centuries c.e. The writings of Jewish sages such as Philo and Sirach influenced all these Alexandrian thinkers.

His teacher was supposedly Pantaenus, a noted Christian thinker who was principal of the “official” school for aspiring candidates for Christianity. (Conversion to Christianity required a rigorous initiation program in the early days.)

Clement in turn took Pantaenus’s position and educated Origen, the brilliant Christian polymath of the early third century c.e. Most of the speculation about Clement of Alexandria’s life comes from Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century c.e.

In fact, Clement never cites Pantaenus, and Origen never cites Clement. Eusebius’s claim that the school was an official catechetical school does sit well with the usual picture that historians project of the usually quite private institutes that are organized around philosophers and thinkers. Eusebius was enamored with Origen and may have simply wanted him connected to the apostles who would have set up such programs for believers.

Eusebius says that Clement traveled around the Mediterranean world seeking out intellectual mentors until he found what he was looking for in Alexandria. The school he operated seems to have been set up for the rich and the educated. His writings give clues about the intellectual life of second-century Alexandria.

The city was stratified into groups of “simple believers,” more advanced students of philosophy and religion to whom Clement offered instruction and advice, Christian Dualism and its adherents who claimed secret knowledge, and conventional pagan intellectuals and the pagan religionists who followed the mystery cults. Clement criticized the latter groups.

The most famous extant work is a trilogy: “Exhortation,” “Instructor,” and “Miscellaneous.” The trilogy seems to address progressively select audiences.

The “Exhortation” speaks to beginners and outsiders about the advantages of Christianity; the “Instructor” speaks to those who are converted and needing discipline; and the “Miscellaneous” is a patchwork of material, but at least some of it addresses those who are true “Gnostics.”

While Clement writes in elegant Greek, at times he is pretentious and rambling. His main point is that knowledge of Christ as Logos brought salvation to the believer. Paideia, or education, is the way to know the Logos better, and Clement’s school was to offer this education.

Clement avoided the heresy of Gnosticism because he affirmed the material world as real and Christ as incarnate (fleshly), although he conceded that much of the Bible was better understood as allegory and not literal truth.

The problems people have with Clement’s thinking were many. He downplays the plain meaning of the Bible and through allegory brings in classical Greek philosophy. He fosters elitism in his preference for the secret and more mature understanding of religious knowledge.

This elitism is found in the writings of later Christians (such as Madame Guyon and Archbishop Fenelon) and shows why the public resented second-century Gnostics. On the other hand, his theology is truly innovative for Christian mysticism, and individuals like the Pseudo-Dionysus, Meiser Eckhart, and John Wesley found consolation in his writing.