Clement of Alexandria, Theologian for the Wealthy

28 Aug

As I mentioned in my first post on Clement I think his thoughts on wealth are very interesting and possibly indicative of a contemporary social movement which I’ll discuss at the end of the post. Clement comes across as something of an anti-ascetic. To this point none of the other Early Christian writers I’ve read have promoted extreme asceticism as would later become monasticism, either cenobitic or eremitic. 1 Their opinions on things seem to have been pretty close to those of Clement; eat but do not be a glutton, have sex within marriage but do not be lustful, drink wine but don’t be a drunk, etc. However Clement takes this to a new level, not by simply arguing for moderation, but spending considerable time arguing against asceticism, particularly voluntary poverty.

It’s important to remember that throughout Clement’s writings his dominant theme is instruction on what it takes to be a good Christian. In Instructor he talks about behavior. Christians are not to dress extravagantly, women should be veiled with head covering in public and beyond the wearing of a finger-ring to carry a seal, or women doing so to please their husbands (see note 13 in my prior post), the wearing of jewelry is to be avoided. He discusses items such as whether men should wear beards, if their hair should be short or if women can wear extensions made of another’s hair. Much of this involves restraining oneself but the Christian is also allowed to eat at sumptuous meals to please one’s host, his bed may be comfortable, the gymnasium is acceptable while the baths are not, he may drink wine or eat meat in moderation, etc. 2 Significant for its absence from Clement’s writings (so far as I can recall) is any admonition that the Christian should distance himself from non-believers. The overall impression I received from this is that Clement is saying that in order to be part of Roman society, Christians are permitted to participate in some aspects of Roman life which might be viewed as luxurious. Even here he goes into details not found in Justin Martyr or the other apologists but I don’t think they would have found anything in it to disagree with.

Clement takes his discussion of wealth to a whole new level. He returns to this issue regularly throughout the Stromata and devotes an entire treatise, Who is the Rich Man That Can be Saved to this question. He again has a dominant message; wealth is not in and of itself evil but loving wealth or becoming obsessed with it is. The wealthy man is able to pursue Clement’s path of Gnostic contemplation of God and the mysteries of the faith. The poor man, consumed by the need to secure what he needs to live, will be distracted from this contemplative life and will find it nearly impossible to become Clement’s Gnostic perfect man.

StPakhomSaint Pachomius, reputed to be the founder of the first Christian Monastery. I don’t think
Clement would have joined his fan club. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Clement sets out his theme rather neatly in Stromata IV.5:

The same holds good also in the case of poverty. For it compels the soul to desist from necessary things, I mean contemplation and from pure sinlessness, forcing him who has not wholly dedicated himself to God in love, to occupy himself about provisions; as, again, health and abundance of necessaries keep the soul free and unimpeded, and capable of making a good use of what is at hand.

In IV.6 he uses the Beatitudes to support his point. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that the wealthy are able to be saved, so long as they desire to be poor, and he combines this with, “Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” to craft the following statement:

“And blessed are the poor,” whether “in spirit” or in circumstances – that is, for righteousness’ sake. It is not the poor simply, but those that have wished to become poor for righteousness’ sake, that He pronounces blessed – those who have despised the honours of this world in order to attain “the good” …

He continues by discussing the wealthy man from Matthew 19.16-22. This man was not rejected by Christ because of his wealth but because he did not choose to cast aside the burdens of his soul and live his life according to Christ:

For God dispenses to all according to desert, His distribution being righteous. Despising, therefore, the possessions which God apportions to thee in thy magnificence, comply with what is spoken by me; haste to the ascent of the Spirit, being not only justified by abstinence from what is evil, but in addition also perfected by Christlike beneficence.

All of Who is the Rich Man that shall be Saved is full of these types of arguments, quotes from scripture where Clement explains how the hidden meaning of statements such as “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” in Mark 10.25 actually returns to the theme of someone using wealth to live good works and for the benefit of others rather than casting aside all possessions. From Rich Man Chapter 16, contrasting the rich who lust after wealth and those who do not:

For he who holds possessions, and gold, and silver, and houses, as the gifts of God; and ministers from them to the God who gives them for the salvation of men; and knows that he possesses them more for the sake of the brethren than his own; and is superior to the possession of them, not the slave of the things he possesses; and does not carry them about in his soul, nor bind and circumscribe his life within them, but is ever laboring at some good and divine work, even should he be necessarily some time or other deprived of them, is able with cheerful mind to bear their removal equally with their abundance. This is he who is blessed by the Lord and called poor in spirit, a meet heir of the kingdom of heaven, not one who could not live rich.

I suppose I could keep quoting as I have several thousand words to choose from (I really like Chapter 26 of Rich Man as a summary) but I think this is enough to give Clement’s general direction. His tendency is to interpret Christ’s discussion to not mean material wealth but a poverty of spirit. Since for Clement the surest way to be a good Christian was to grow in the understanding of God and the mysteries of the faith, anything which distracted from the pursuit of that understanding was to be avoided. 3 This might mean to be wealthy and obsessed with and in love with wealth. Or it might mean to be poor and for your life to be consumed with pursuing the needs required to maintain your existence. It never occurs to Clement that you might give away all your possessions and remove yourself from all worldly cares to pursue a life of contemplation. If it had, I have a feeling we’d have an argument against it as he sure wasn’t one to back down from a challenge.

As with so many of his other concepts, Clement’s opposition to living a life of poverty never caught on, not officially anyway. His vision of a poor Christian was not of someone divesting him- or herself of all worldly cares and possessions to live a contemplative life but of someone who had to spend so much time just living as to not be able to pursue this contemplative life. Yet this became the mainstream view of the person who gave all to the poor to enter monastic life, whether solitary or communal. On the other hand, the idea that a wealthy person could still enter the kingdom of heaven by using his or her wealth for the benefit of others certainly gained favor. If it hadn’t the Church would never have gained so many possessions. Clement’s belief that it was OK to be wealthy and that you could be a good Christian with money or property was not out of the mainstream either during that time or at any point in time including today. His criticism of those giving away all they own to live in poverty is another story, at least once we reach the 4th century.

To date none of the authors I’ve read can be considered proponents of asceticism. They certainly don’t resemble later figures such as Athanasius or Jerome. Their guidelines were for a Christian to be modest in behavior and appearance. However none of the others have taken a stance which I’d consider to be anti-ascetic, to the point of interpreting the Scriptures, including the words of Christ, to mean pretty much the opposite of what they say. The question which makes this particular aspect of Clement so interesting to me is, why?

Why is Clement so vehemently opposed to “sell all you have and give to the poor” as to devote an entire treatise and substantial portions of another to this topic? The only reason I can come up with is that asceticism was beginning to pick up in Egypt about this time. There had probably always been a few Christians around who practiced extreme asceticism but perhaps they began to become more active, were forming into groups and gaining new adherents about this time. Perhaps one of the ascetic heretical sects was active. I have to think there was someone, some popular voice, group or movement, that was accusing the wealthy of not being true Christians and stating that their wealth was a hindrance to their salvation and doing so effectively enough to gain some converts/adherents/support.

How would Clement have viewed this? He seems to have been a very Roman Christian. He understood classical society and it’s very possible that he viewed this development as one in which members of his faith were willingly removing themselves from the upper levels of society and, consequently, from positions of influence. I think it’s very possible, even probable, that he viewed this potential loss of influence as disastrous. I’m making a fair amount of conjecture here (and have read nothing in any secondary books which raise this issue though I haven’t yet explored the development of monasticism) but something inspired Clement to go to these lengths to argue against this practice. We’re over a century before the first known founding of a Christian monastery but to me, Clement’s concern over this activity; that wealthy Christians might give away all they own, shows that something was probably going on, he didn’t like it, and he was going to do what he could to put a stop to it.

1 Eremitic monasticism equals solitary, cenobitic equals communal.

2 These concepts are discussed throughout Instructor.

3 As part of being a philosopher included having time to oneself to think rationally about things, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is so important to Clement. Similarly his concern that a true Gnostic Christian not be overly consumed worrying about mundane issues of the world.

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.


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