Clement of Alexandria: Merging Greek and Christian

24 Aug

Before I get to specific ideas Clement proposes, I think it’s important to discuss my overall impression of him and some of his dominant themes. First, he is the most long-winded Early Christian author I’ve run across to date. A lot of words, quite a bit of repetitiveness and he comes across as disorganized in the Stromata. He is much more coherent in The Instructor, Exhortation to the Heathen and Who is the Rich Man that Shall be Saved. 1 Now Stromata translates to Miscellanies and he openly states these are just his thoughts written down so I could forgive him for this except for one thing; I had to read it (well, I guess nobody made me). 2

Clement is the most philosophical of all of the writers I’ve gone through to date, and that’s saying something. Justin Martyr uses philosophical methods extensively, Irenaeus less so but it’s still present and most of the other apologists do as well. Clement takes this to a new level. His writings are a true merging of Greek and Christian thought. He admires Plato and uses him extensively and also borrows quite a bit from Philo. He quotes philosophers a lot and some of their writings are only known of through him.

There is a lot of information in Clement, even though he could have said the same in a third of the space. What is interesting is how little of it became part of post-Nicene Orthodoxy. I originally thought this would be a fairly short post but have decided that talking about these various items which were not adopted by The Church is as important as discussing what was.

ClemensVonAlexandrienClement of Alexandria, image from Wikimedia Commons. Notice the lack of a halo
indicating he is not a saint however keep in mind that in some Christian churches he is.

Clement’s overall theology isn’t heterodox though there are a few items that must have disturbed early theologians which I’ll touch on. However, while generally mainstream, he engages in a general rewrite of scriptures so they mean what he thinks they say, to an extent I’ve not seen outside of Barnabas. Irenaeus would have hated parts of it, particularly where Clement places great importance on the hidden, mystical symbolism of words and numbers. 3

Clement’s overriding theme is one of how to be a good Christian. Except for in Exhortation, his discussion of this is dominant throughout his surviving writings. This merging of Greek and Christian thought has a great deal of impact on how he approaches this topic. For Clement, there are multiple levels of the faithful. Simple faith and good works is a means by which Christians may be saved however those who advance in their understanding of God and Christ will also advance in their reward. Clement’s ideal Christian is one who seeks to understand and know God as fully as possible, who tries to unlock what are repeatedly referred to as the “mysteries of the faith”. This is achieved through knowledge, contemplation and study. Clement uses the term Gnostic in a positive manner, to represent the enlightened Christian. To believe is good, to know is better. In essence men are children but by using philosophy, Christians can advance in knowledge to become the type of Christian which God had in mind when he formed Adam. This Gnostic, “perfect” man will come to know God and the mysteries of the religion in a way one who simply believes will not, and will be given higher status in heaven. 4

One of Clement’s most profound ideas is that the Greeks and the Jews are not wrong, it is just that the Christians are more right. The Greeks and Jews know God, the Greeks through philosophy, the Jews through the Old Testament. Philosophy is a gift to men from God, a means whereby they may come to know him more fully. Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, have been studying God for centuries although Christians are better at it. 5 This is a huge shift from prior authors and apologists who argued not just for their faith but that Jews and Greeks were in error. For Clement philosophy has a great deal of value and even heretics have some usefulness. Keep in mind this is not the same as Clement believing that the worship of the Roman Gods is correct. He is quite explicit that the Roman Gods do not exist, that stories of them are either invented or of evil men. 6 However Clement’s Christianity is more inclusive than that of other early writers and Greek philosophers. Jews, and even heretics are not wholly excluded. Personally, of all of Clement’s ideas I find this one the most interesting. Christianity may have evolved very differently if this had gained acceptance.

Following the lead of Irenaeus and others, Clement states that the Greeks received their philosophy from other sources. For the most part this is from Moses and the Old Testament. He also believes much of their thought originated with barbarians including Egyptians and Indians. By the time Clement gets done comparing the ideas of the Greek philosophers with concepts from the Old Testament and barbarians, the Greeks are pretty much left without an original thought they can call their own. 7

While Clement’s theology is not heretical, hints of heresy pop up from time to time. The most serious are some statements that I think are pretty close to Adoptionism. Clement provides several instances where he indicates that Christ did not truly suffer, was not harmed and did not truly die. This is significant enough that I’ll provide a couple of quotes, using bold text for emphasis:

And where, then, was the door by which the Lord showed himself? The flesh by which he was manifested. He is Isaac (for the narrative may be interpreted otherwise), who is a type of the Lord, a child as a son; for he was the son of Abraham. as Christ the Son of God, and a sacrifice as the Lord, but he was not immolated as the Lord. Isaac only bore the wood of the sacrifice, as the Lord the wood of the cross. And he laughed mystically, prophesying that the Lord should fill us with joy, who have been redeemed from corruption by the blood of our Lord. Isaac did everything but suffer, as was right, yielding precedence in suffering to the Word. Furthermore there is an intimation of the divinity of the Lord in His not having been slain. For Jesus rose again after his burial, having suffered no harm, like Isaac released from sacrifice. 8


Well, I assert, simultaneously with His [Christ’s] baptism by John, He becomes perfect? Manifestly. He did not then learn anything more from him? Certainly not. But He is perfected by the washing – of baptism – alone, and is sanctified by the descending of the Holy Spirit? Such is the case. 9

Another interesting concept he provides is that Christ descended to Hades and preached the Gospel there, so that those who might believe would be saved. In Hades Christ did as he instructed the Apostles; to go and preach the Word of God. Clement clearly believes that the souls in Hades would not be left without an opportunity for salvation. 10

He also has some interesting things to say about Martyrdom. Martyrdom is a good thing and the man or woman who gives up his or her life for the faith is blessed. The Martyr “has exhibited the perfect work of love.” However this is not the case for those who rush to martyrdom, eager for death. Clement considers them cowards, engaged in a form of suicide and self-death, and these are not truly Christians though they may share the name. How have those who desire death suffered? Those who fear death but hold fast to their faith despite this fear are to be admired and considered perfect. These others, the suicides, are guilty of their own deaths and accomplices in the crimes of the persecutors. 11

In order to not make this post too long, I’m going to list some other themes from Clement. I’ll discuss them a bit more in the notes.

  • 1. Places are not holy, people are. 12
  • 2. Men and women are spiritually equal though men are to be obeyed, particularly in marriage. 13
  • 3. However much man might study and learn; even to the Gnostic Christian, God is not fully comprehensible and cannot be described by words or ideas. 14
  • 4. He is not extensively anti-heretical though he identifies some heretics, particularly Valentinus and Basilides. He believes that even heretics have a purpose and can help Christians discover the truth. 15
  • 5. He does not seem to be strictly vegetarian however at times he appears to be opposed to eating meat. 16
  • 6. Christians should not give oaths. As a Christian, their statements should be accepted as true without them. 17
  • 7. Marriage is a blessed institution and a virtuous married man is superior to a virtuous unmarried man. 18
  • 8. Bodily pleasures are not in and of themselves evil or sinful but overindulgence and becoming obsessed with them is. 19
  • 9. He believes Barnabas is an apostle and quotes extensively from the Shepherd of Hermas, to me as if he believes it is part of scripture. 20
  • 10. He provides the earliest statement I’ve come across in favor of free range chickens. 21

Clement of Alexandria is a tedious read. While the other three works aren’t bad, his Stromata came across to me as confused and disorganized and he repeats the same ideas a LOT. It really wasn’t until Book 5 where he seemed to get his thoughts organized. Other than his discussion of Martyrdom, I think you could start Stromata with Book 5 and get most of his main ideas.

Much of what he says ended up being outside of eventual mainstream Christian thought. I’m unaware that different levels in heaven ever gained widespread acceptance (though Purgatory did appear and he may have had something to do with that) and his granting to the Greeks extensive knowledge of God goes beyond anything else I’ve seen, though during the Middle Ages Plato was pointed to as an example of someone who at least had some knowledge of God before the coming of Christ. I’m also not aware that the idea of Christ preaching in Hades was ever accepted by mainstream Christianity and his concept of a man becoming perfect and thereby abstaining from eating meat sure sounds like a Cathar/Albigensian precursor. 22 As for his thoughts on the willing martyr, while this theme does surface occasionally, stories of the willing or even eager martyr became its own literary form. As I stated above, the idea that Jesus was anything other than fully God and Man from the moment of conception has always been considered heretical. And the idea of marriage being as beneficial as abstinence, while not exactly what Clement said (his single person was not identified as a virgin though as for Clement sex was only for the purposes of procreation and marriage was the only way to legitimately produce children I think it’s implied) became a knock-down, drag-out fight between Jovinian and Augustine in the early 5th century, something I’m looking forward to reading about.

I keep coming back to how he tried to merge Greek and Christian thought. If this had caught on, how different would Christianity’s development have been, or its final form? It evidently did not though until I read Tertullian and Origen I won’t be able to say whether it gained traction for a little while. As a minority religion, or a superstition as the Romans believed it, there was little chance of Clement convincing the Greeks of that time and once Christianity received official recognition in the early 4th century the need for compromise was over. Clement becomes notable, not for his legacy to what would become Orthodox Christianity, but in considering how so much of what he wrote did not become part of it.

NOTE: I was originally going to spend some time talking about Clement’s ideas on wealth and poverty but I’ve decided to make a separate post about this. Very interesting stuff though, at least I think so. In any case, my followup post is here.

1 I’m using the titles as given in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume II even though I have a feeling these aren’t the preferred ones. For example, Exhortation to the Heathen is usually given as Exhortation to the Greeks.

2 I’ve decided to skip the bio because, other than that he lived in Alexandria in the late 2nd/early 3rd century, almost all we know about Titus Flavius Clemens is through his writings. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History VI.13.2, mentions that Clement studied under Pantaenus which indicates he was associated with the Christian School at Alexandria.

3 This pops up several times, most extensively in Stromata V.4-10 and VI.16, the latter related to numbers, particularly 10. He also discusses divine symbolism contained in music in Stromata VI.10.

4 This general theme pervades all of Stromata but is most clearly described, including Clement’s celestial hierarchy, in VI.10-18. For Clement’s concept of men as Children see Instructor I.5-6 where he discusses this in detail.

5 This is another idea Clement frequently returns to. He is most explicit in Stromata VI.5 and VI.17 in discussing how philosophers had some knowledge of God and he talks all the time about how Greek philosophy came from the Old Testament. In VI.5 he writes, “For clearly, as I think that he [Christ] showed that the one and only God was known by the Greeks in a Gentile way, by the Jews Judaically, and in a new and spiritual way by us.”

6 This is a main theme of Exhortation, particularly Chapters 2-4.

7 There’s a lot of discussion of the origin of Greek thought in Clement. He approaches the topic early in Stromata I.15-16 regarding the barbarians and in V.14 he goes into great detail about it, including with the Jews. The Egyptians and Indians are mentioned in VI.4. In I.21, he writes, “And Numenius, the Pythagorean philosopher, expressly writes: ‘For what is Plato, but Moses speaking in Attic Greek.'”

8 The quoted passage is from Instructor I.5, towards the end (the ANF II does not provide passage numbers). Stromata VII.3 describes Christ as “wholly immutable” and the ANF II p. 586 quotes JA Cramer’s Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, Oxford (1840), Volume VI, p 385 as saying that Clement’s fourth book of Hypotyposes states that Christ was not subject to the influences of the flesh, including being hungry, thirsty, weary or needing sleep.

9 Instructor I.6. Adoptionism was the idea that Jesus did not always contain Christ, that God’s Son entered him at some point after his birth, and that up to that time Jesus was a man though one who was being prepared to be the vessel of Christ. A variation on this includes the belief that Christ was immune to suffering and pain as is evidenced by Jesus crying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross indicating that Christ’s spirit left him and the man was left to endure the crucifixion alone. Clement doesn’t quite go this far but this statement indicates that something was added at Jesus’ baptism.

10 Stromata VI.6.

11 For his thoughts on martyrdom, Stromata IV.7-9. For his criticism of the willing martyr, IV.4 and IV.10.

12 He first brings this up in Stromata V.11 and expands on it in VII.5. This theme that Christians as people were holy but things, including places, were not was a prominent theme in Early Christianity.

13 Both concepts are discussed in Stromata IV.8. He also implies male dominance in Instructor at various points where he advises women that one of their main roles is to please their husbands and do things for them which might otherwise be considered sinful, in particular in III.11 where he tells women that they may adorn themselves to please their husbands and keep him from seeking his pleasures elsewhere.

14 This concept is also discussed several times, most fully in Stromata V.12

15 Clement is quite mild when discussing heretics, particularly when you read him, as I did, right after Irenaeus. This specific idea is covered in Stromata VI.15.

16 Clement is pretty contradictory with this. To provide a couple of examples, in Instructor Chapter 2 he says that meat can be eaten in moderation and this is not a sin. However in Stromata VII.6 he comes out and says, “But I believe sacrifices were invented by men to be a pretext for eating meat.” In VII.12 he states that the true Gnostic will not eat meat as to do so would involve succumbing to pleasure, “How, then, can what relates to meat, and drink, and amorous pleasure, be agreeable to such an one?”

17 Stromata VII.7. This was a fairly widespread opinion among early Christians though if you really want to get your fill of it, read John Chrysostom’s homilies.

18 I will be very curious when I read up on it to see whether Jovinian’s ideas can be traced back to Clement. Clement speaks highly of marriage in Stromata II.23. In VII.12 he states that the married man, having to deal with all of the distractions that come with having a wife, family, household, etc., is superior to the single man whose study of God is unencumbered with all of this.

19 This is related to Clement’s discussion of wealth where various things are permitted but should not be indulged in. He discusses this related to eating in Instructor II.1, in II.2 on drinking and in II.10 on enjoying sex within marriage so long as its primary purpose is procreation.

20 Barnabas is quoted many times but Clement calls him an apostle in Stromata II.6, II.7, II.20 (here named as one of the 70 sent out by the 12), V.10, and I may have missed one or two. The important issue here is not that Barnabas is an Apostle as he is named in Acts but that Clement believes the Epistle of Barnabas should be attributed to him, something which even then was not universally accepted. Irenaeus’ disavowal of mystical imagery and numerology to explain scripture is a pretty strong indicator that Barnabas was falling out of favor at the time, at least among some Christian circles. Hermas is most extensively quoted in Stromata II.9, II.12, IV.9 and in VI.15 Clement comes awful close to calling it Scripture.

21 I thought about saving this for a separate brief humorous post sometime when I hit a lull. The agriculturalist in me caught this quote in Stromata II.1, “And they say that fowls have flesh of the most agreeable quality, when, through not being supplied with abundance of food, they pick their sustenance with difficulty, scraping with their feet.” Meaningless theologically but it entertained me and I’m including it in case I ever get into a conversation about the topic. I probably need to read On Agriculture by Varro but for the time being this is the earliest mention I’m aware of extolling the benefits of free range poultry.

22 Then again, I’m not very up on eastern religions and maybe one or more of these influenced his thoughts in this direction.

Eusebius of Caesarea, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, C.F. Cruze, trans. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (1998). ISBN: 978-1-56563-371-7.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.


Posted by on August 24, 2013 in Religion


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7 responses to “Clement of Alexandria: Merging Greek and Christian

  1. Lucas

    August 25, 2013 at 10:21 am

    I’m really enjoying your posts on early Christianity, Curt. They’re fabulous, and I particularly find your attempts to tie them into the middle ages fascinating. I’m very interested in seeing your conclusions further down the road on how influential some of these churchmen (particularly those writing in Greek) were in the medieval west, since at least most of those I’m familiar with come from the period of imperial Christianity when the west had a much larger corpus of authors.

    The apparent canonical status of ‘The Shepherd of Hermas’ is not actually very surprising. It’s one of the most attested early Christian texts and there are currently eleven known manuscripts dating from the 2-3rd centuries, giving it fourth place behind the Psalms, Matthew, and John. Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Origen all cited it as well. It appears in the Codex Sinaiticus and was listed by Athanasius as deutero-canonical. (L. Hurtado, ‘The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 32-3)

    • Curt Emanuel

      August 25, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Thanks Lucas. The tough part of all this is that when it comes to transmission of this to the West, it’ll come down to Augustine, not completely but he was so influential. Which means I’ll need to read him, a LOT, to see which earlier concepts he accepted. I’ve read some – City of God, Confessions, some letters – but I may end up having to read many more of his treatises than I’d anticipated.

      When I think about Hermas it seems – and this is just my impression so far – that there must have been a tug-of-war between accepting it or the Revelation of John as canonical. For myself I can’t see why they didn’t choose both. They are very different but not directly contradictory in too many places that I can remember and if eliminating contradictions was a primary concern all we’d have as a Gospel is John. I guess I’ll need to read more on Montanism because to be honest, the Shepherd’s focus on repentance would seem to be more appealing than Revelation’s apocalyptic vision at a time when the apocalyptic thing was beginning to come into question.

      Barnabas is another story. He rewrites the Old Testament so completely that I have a hard time seeing how his Epistle ever received much consideration though I guess linking it to an Apostle as Clement does would have some impact.

  2. Carla Rupprecht

    August 27, 2013 at 12:27 am

    This is very excellent. I have read some references to Clement in the past, but never got around to reading Clement himself. The early Christian writers have an impact on Medieval period with it’s reliance on the Church and it’s teachings, but much of that had to start somewhere. I find it interesting where Clement mixes Christian and Greek worlds together, but that might also be a reflection of the mixing of his world views…. seeing the christian world throught the eyes of a Greek education. This definately bears reading more, and maybe adding more to my personal library….

    • Curt Emanuel

      August 27, 2013 at 6:39 am

      Thanks Carla. If you do read Clement, brace yourself for some tedium. He takes a lot of words to reach his point. For me, Clement is the writer to point to and say, “Yup, here’s someone who comes from Middle Platonism.” I knew I’d need to take a detour to learn more about it at some point and I think now is the time.Tertullian and Origen, who are next up, will also show influences.

  3. Jonathan Jarrett

    September 8, 2013 at 5:05 pm

    I’m looking forward to you getting to Tertullian, whom I read a little bit of as an undergraduate. Suffice it to say he worked in the most abusive tradition of Roman rhetoric, or at least so I remember. Also, though I would certainly not wish to read as much of Augustine as you’re likely to have to, I suspect it will be one of those things like Shakespeare is for us where once you’ve read it you see it being referenced everywhere, at least in medieval writing. Meanwhile:

    his concept of a man becoming perfect and thereby abstaining from eating meat sure sounds like a Cathar/Albigensian precursor

    taps into a long-lived debate, though you might not know it, about Catharism’s connection to eastern religions. Most often the people dealing with Cathars linked them directly, following Augustine indeed, to the Manichees. Now, no-one claims that Mani himself went to Alexandria as far as I know and he’d have missed Clement if he had, but all the same I wonder if that idea might have got eastwards that way anyway. (Which is not to pronounce on whether or not the Cathars could have come up with the idea indepedently, of course!)

    • Curt Emanuel

      September 8, 2013 at 8:05 pm

      Thanks Jonathan. Zoroastrianism is yet another religious movement I’m largely ignorant of. If I ever get a chance to read more on the Eastern Empire I’ll need to look at Persia which will hopefully lead me in that direction.

      At one time I had an opinion on whether there was an actual Bogomil Church in Eastern Europe, I think after reading John Fine’s 2-volume set on the Balkans. I can’t even recall what my opinion was but I remember discussing it on soc.history.medieval so I must have argued my position impeccably. :) Edit: Found it. I may have a few of the details wrong but as I suspected, my argument was flawless. (“grin” as the flawless argument is one I’ve not yet encountered)

      To be honest, I’m dreading Tertullian a bit. Part of the reason I’m taking a Middle Platonism/Neoplatonism detour is to brace myself for him. And then I have to hope the ANF translations are pretty solid.


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