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Dear visitor: Summer is here, and you may be thinking about a well-deserved vacation, family get-togethers, BBQs with neighborhood friends. More than likely, making a donation to Catholic Answers is not on your radar right now. But this is exactly the time we most need your help. The “summer slowdown” in donations is upon us, but the work of spreading the gospel and explaining and defending the Faith never takes a break. Your gift today will change lives and save souls for Christ this summer! The reward is eternal. Thank you and God bless.

Clement of Alexandria

Greek theologian and head of the catechetical school of Alexandria (d. about 215)

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Clement of Alexandria (properly TITUS FLAVIUS CLEMENS, but known in church history by the former designation to distinguish him from Clement of Rome), date of birth unknown; d. about the year 215; an early Greek theologian and head of the catechetical school of Alexandria. Athens is given as the starting-point of his journeying, and was probably his birthplace. He became a convert to the Faith and traveled from place to place in search of higher instruction, attaching himself successively to different masters: to a Greek of Ionia, to another of Magna Graecia, to a third of Coele-Syria, after all of whom he addressed himself in turn to an Egyptian, an Assyrian, and a converted Palestinian Jew. At last he met Pantaenus in Alexandria, and in his teaching “found rest”.

The place itself was well chosen. It was natural that Christian speculation should have a home at Alexandria. This great city was at the time a center of culture as well as of trade. A great university had grown up under the long-continued patronage of the State. The intellectual temper was broad and tolerant, as became a city where so many races mingled. The philosophers were critics or eclectics, and Plato was the most favored of the old masters. Neo-Platonism, the philosophy of the new pagan renaissance, had a prophet at Alexandria in the person of Ammonius Saccas. The Jews, too, who were there in very large numbers, breathed its liberal atmosphere, and had assimilated secular culture. They there formed the most enlightened colony. of the Dispersion. Having lost the use of Hebrew, they found it necessary to translate the Scriptures into the more familiar Greek. Philo, their foremost thinker, became a sort of Jewish Plato. Alexandria was, in addition, one of the chief seats of that peculiar mixed pagan and Christian speculation known as Gnosticism. Basilides and Valentinus taught there. It is no matter of surprise, therefore, to find some of the Christians affected in turn by the scientific spirit. At an uncertain date, in the latter half of the second century, “a school of oral instruction” was founded. Lectures were given to which pagan hearers were admitted, and advanced teaching to Christians separately. It was an official institution of the Church. Pantaenus is the earliest teacher whose name has been preserved. Clement first assisted and then succeeded Pantnus in the direction of the school, about A.D. 190. He was already known as a Christian writer before the days of Pope Victor (188-199).

About this time he may have composed the “Hortatory Discourse to the Greeks” (Greek: IIpoTpE7rTLK?S 7rpds EXX vas). It is a persuasive appeal for the Faith, written in a lofty strain. The discourse opens with passages which fall on the ear with the effect of sweet music. Amphion and Arion by their minstrelsy drew after them savage monsters and moved the very stones; Christ is the noblest minstrel. His harp and lyre are men. He draws music from their hearts by the Holy Spirit: nay, Christ is Himself the New Canticle, whose melody subdues the fiercest and hardest natures. Clement then proceeds to show the transcendence of the Christian religion. He contrasts Christianity with the vileness of pagan rites, and with the faint hopes of pagan poets and philosophers. Man is born for God. The Word calls men to Himself. The full truth is found in Christ alone. The work ends with a description of the God-fearing Christian. He answers those who urge that it is wrong to desert one’s ancestral religion.

The work entitled “Outlines” (T7rorvirtgeLS) is likewise believed to be a production of the early activity of Clement. It was translated into Latin by Rufinus under the title “Dispositiones”. It was in eight books, but is no longer extant, though numerous fragments have been preserved in Greek by Eusebius, Oecumenius, Maximus Confessor, John Moschos, and Photius. According to Zahn, a Latin fragment, “Adumbrationes Clementis Alexandrini in epistolas canonicas”, translated by Cassiodorus and purged of objectionable passages, represents in part the text of Clement. Eusebius represents the “Outlines” as an abridged commentary, with doctrinal and historical remarks on the entire Bible and on the non-canonical “Epistle of Barnabas” and “Apocalypse of Peter”. Photius, who had also read it, describes it as a series of explanations of Biblical texts, especially of Genesis, Exodus, the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and the Pauline and Catholic Epistles. He declares the work sound on some points, but adds that it contains “impieties and fables”, such as the eternity of matter, the creatureship of the Word, plurality of Words (Abyoc), Docetism, metempsychosis, etc. Conservative scholars are inclined to believe that Photius has thrown the mistakes of Clement, whatever they may have been, into undue relief. Clement’s style is difficult, his works are full of borrowed excerpts, and his teaching is with difficulty reduced to a coherent body of doctrine. And this early work, being a scattered commentary on Holy Writ, must have been peculiarly liable to misconstruction. It is certain that several of the more serious charges can rest upon nothing but mistakes. At any rate, his extant writings show Clement in a better light.

Other works of his are the “Miscellanies” (Greek: Erpware%s) and “The Tutor” (llaLSaywybs). The “Miscellanies” comprise seven entire books, of which the first four are earlier than “The Tutor”. When he had finished this latter work he returned to the “Miscellanies”, which he was never able to finish. The first pages of the work are now missing. What has been known as the eighth book since the time of Eusebius is nothing more than a collection of extracts drawn from pagan philosophers. It is likely, as von Arnim has suggested, that Clement had intended to make use of these materials together with the abridgment of Theodotus (Excerpts from Theodotus and the Eastern School of Valentinus) and the “Eclogae Prophetic”, Extracts from the Prophets (not extracts, but notes at random on texts or Scriptural topics) for the continuation of the “Miscellanies”. In the “Miscellanies “Clement disclaims order and plan. He compares the work to a meadow where all kinds of flowers grow at random and, again, to a shady hill or mountain planted with trees of every sort. In fact, it is a loosely related series of remarks, possibly notes of his lectures in the school. It is the fullest of Clement’s works. He starts with the importance of philosophy for the pursuit of Christian knowledge. Here he is perhaps defending his own scientific labors from local criticism of conservative brethren. He shows how faith is related to knowledge, and emphasizes the superiority of revelation to philosophy. God‘s truth is to be found in revelation, another portion of it in philosophy. It is the duty of the Christian to neglect neither. Religious science, drawn from this twofold source, is even an element of perfection; the instructed Christian—”the true Gnostic “—is the perfect Christian. He who has risen to this height is far from the disturbance of passion; he is united to God, and in a mysterious sense is one with Him. Such is the line of thought indicated in the work, which is full of digressions.

“The Tutor” is a practical treatise in three books. Its purpose is to fit the ordinary Christian by a disciplined life to become an instructed Christian. In ancient times the paedagogus was the slave who had constant charge of a boy, his companion at all times. On him depended the formation of the boy’s character. Such is the office of the Word Incarnate towards men. He first summons them to be His, then He trains them in His ways. His ways are temperate, orderly, calm, and simple. Nothing is too common or trivial for the Tutor’s care. His influence tells on the minute details of life, on one’s manner of eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, taking recreation, etc. The moral tone of this work is kindly; very beautiful is the ideal of a transfigured life described at the close. In the editions of Clement “The Tutor” is followed by two short poems, the second of which, addressed to the Tutor, is from some pious reader of the work; the first, entitled “A Hymn of the Savior Christ” (Greek: Twos roi Bwri7Pos X pcvrof)), is, in the manuscripts which contain it, attributed to Clement. The hymn may be the work of Clement (Bardenhewer), or it may be of as early a date as the Gloria in Excelsis (Westcott).

Some scholars see in the chief writings of Clement, the “Exhortation”, “The Tutor”, the “Miscellanies”, a great trilogy representing a graduated initiation into the Christian life—belief, discipline, knowledge—three states corresponding to the three degrees of the neo-Platonic mysteries—purification, initiation, and vision. Some such underlying conception was doubtless before the mind of Clement, but it can hardly be said to have been realized. He was too unsystematic. Besides these more important works, he wrote the beautiful tract, “Who is the rich man who shall be saved?” (Greek: rls o aw5menos aXovacos;). It is an exposition of St. Mark, x, 17-31, wherein Clement shows that wealth is not condemned by the Gospel as intrinsically evil; its morality depends on the good or ill use made of it. The work concludes with the narrative of the young man who was baptized, lost, and again rewon by the Apostle St. John. The date of the composition cannot be fixed. We have the work almost in its entirety. Clement wrote homilies on fasting and on evil-speaking, and he also used his pen in the controversy on the Paschal question.

Duchesne (Hist. ancienne de l’Eglise, I, 334 sqq.) thus summarizes the remaining years of Clement’s life. He did not end his life at Alexandria. The persecution fell upon Egypt in the year 202, and catechumens were pursued with special intent of law. The catechetical school suffered accordingly. In the first two books of the “Miscellanies”, written at this time, we find more than one allusion to the crisis. At length Clement felt obliged to withdraw. We find him shortly after at Caesarea in Cappadocia beside his friend and former pupil Bishop Alexander. The persecution is active there also, and Clement is fulfilling a ministry of love. Alexander is in prison for Christ’s sake; Clement takes charge of the Church in his stead, strengthens the faithful, and is even able to draw in additional converts. We learn this from a letter written in 211 or 212 by Alexander to congratulate the Church of Antioch on the election of Asclepiades to the bishopric. Clement himself undertook to deliver the letter in person, being known to the faithful of Antioch. In another letter written about 215 to Origen Alexander speaks of Clement as of one then dead.

Clement has had no notable influence on the course of theology beyond his personal influence on the young Origen. His writings were occasionally copied, as by Hippolytus in his “Chronicon”, by Arnobius, and by Theodoret of Cyrus. St. Jerome admired his learning. Pope Gelasius in the catalogue attributed to him mentions Clement’s works, but adds, “they are in no case to be received amongst us”. Photius in the “Bibliotheca” censures a list of errors drawn from his writings, but shows a kindly feeling towards Clement, assuming that the original text had been tampered with. Clement has in fact been dwarfed in history by the towering grandeur of the great Origen, who succeeded him at Alexandria. Down to the seventeenth century he was venerated as a saint. His name was to be found in the martyrologies, and his feast fell on the fourth of December. But when the Roman Martyrology was revised by Pope Clement VIII his name was dropped from the calendar on the advice of Cardinal Baronius. Benedict XIV maintained this decision of his predecessor on the grounds that Clement’s life was little known, that he had never obtained public cultus in the Church, and that some of his doctrines were, if not erroneous, at least suspect. In more recent times Clement has grown in favor for his charming literary temper, his attractive candor, the brave spirit which made him a pioneer in theology, and his leaning to the claims of philosophy. He is modern in spirit. He was exceptionally well-read. He had a thorough knowledge of the whole range of Biblical and Christian literature, of orthodox and heretical works. He was fond of letters also, and had a fine knowledge of the pagan poets and philosophers; he loved to quote them, too, and has thus preserved a number of fragments of lost works. The mass of facts and citations collected by him and pieced together in his writings is in fact unexampled in antiquity, though it is not unlikely that he drew at times upon the florilegia, or anthologies, exhibiting choice passages of literature.

Scholars have found it no easy task to sum up the chief points of Clement’s teaching. As has already been intimated, he lacks technical precision and makes no pretense to orderly exposition. It is easy, therefore, to misjudge him. We accept the discriminating judgment of Tixeront. Clement’s rule of faith was sound He admitted the authority of the Church‘s tradition. He would be, first of all, a Christian, accepting” the ecclesiastical rule”, but he would also strive to remain a philosopher, and bring his reason to bear in matters of religion. “Few are they”, he said, “who have taken the spoils of the Egyptians, and made of them the furniture of the Tabernacle.” He set himself, therefore, with philosophy as an instrument, to transform faith into science, and revelation into theology. The Gnostics had already pretended to possess the science of faith, but they were, in fact, mere rationalists, or rather dreamers of fantastic dreams. Clement would have nothing but faith for the basis of his speculations. He cannot, therefore, be accused of disloyalty in will. But he was a pioneer in a difficult undertaking, and it must be admitted that he failed at times in his high endeavor. He was careful to go to Holy Scripture for his doctrine; but he misused the text by his faulty exegesis. He had read all the Books of the New Testament except the Second Epistle of St. Peter and the Third Epistle of St. John. “In fact”, Tixeront says, “his evidence as to the primitive form of the Apostolic writings is of the highest value.” Unfortunately, he interpreted the Scripture after the manner of Philo. He was ready to find allegory everywhere. The facts of the Old Testament became mere symbols to him. He did not, however, permit himself so much freedom with the New Testament.

The special field which Clement cultivated led him to insist on the difference between the faith of the ordinary Christian and the science of the perfect, and his teaching on this point is most characteristic of him. The perfect Christian has an insight into “the great mysteries”—of man, of nature, of virtue—which the ordinary Christian accepts without such clear insight. Clement has seemed to some to exaggerate the moral worth of religious knowledge; it must however be remembered that he praises not mere sterile knowledge, but knowledge which turns to love. It is Christian perfection that he extols. The perfect Christian—the true Gnostic whom Clement loves to describe—leads a life of unalterable calm. And here Clement’s teaching is undoubtedly colored by Stoicism. He is really describing not so much the Christian with his sensitive feelings and desires under due control, but the ideal Stoic who has deadened his feelings altogether. The perfect Christian leads a life of utter devotion; the love in his heart prompts him to live always in closest union with God by prayer, to labor for the conversion of souls, to love his enemies, and even to endure martyrdom itself.

Clement preceded the days of the Trinitarian controversies. He taught in the Godhead three Terms. Some critics doubt whether he distinguished them as Persons, but a careful reading of him proves that he did. The Second Term of the Trinity is the Word. Photius believed that Clement taught a plurality of Words, whereas in reality Clement merely drew a distinction between the Father’s Divine immanent attribute of intelligence and the Personal Word Who is the Son. The Son is eternally begotten, and has the very attributes of the Father. They are but one God. So far, in fact, does Clement push this notion of unity as to seem to approach Modalism. And yet, so loose a writer is he that elsewhere are found disquieting traces of the very opposite error of Subordinationism. These, however, may be explained away. In fact, he needs to be judged, more than writers generally, not by a chance phrase here or there, but by the general drift of his teaching. Of the Holy Ghost he says little, and when he does refer to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity he adheres closely to the language of Scripture. He acknowledges two natures in Christ. Christ is the ManGod, who profits us both as God and as man. Clement evidently regards Christ as one Person—the Word. Instances of the interchange of idioms are frequent in his writings. Photius has accused Clement of Docetism. Clement, however, clearly admits in Christ a real body, but he thought this body exempt from the common needs of life, as eating and drinking, and the soul of Christ exempt from the movement of the passions, of joy, and of sadness.

EDITIONS.—The works of Clement of Alexandria were first edited by P. Victorius (Florence,1550). The most complete edition is that of J. Potter, “Clementis Alexandrini opera quw extant omnia” (Oxford, 1715; Venice, 1757), reproduced in Migne, P.G., VIII, IX. The edition of G. Dindorf (Oxford, 1869) is declared unsatisfactory by competent judges. A new complete edition by O. Stahlin is appearing in the Berlin “Griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller”, etc. So far (1908) two volumes have been published: the “Protrepticus” and the “Paedagogus” (Leipzig, 1905), and the “Stromata” (Bks. I-VI, ibid., 1906). The preface to the first volume (pp. ilxxxiii) contains the best account of the manuscripts and editions of Clement. Among the separate editions of his works the following are noteworthy: Hort and Mayor, “Miscellanies”, Bk. VII, with English translation (London, 1902); Zahn, “Adumbrationes” in “Forschungen zur Geschichte des Neutestamentlichen Kanons”, III, and “Supplementum Clementinum” (Erlangen, 1884); Koster, “Quis dives salvetur?” (Freiburg, 1893). The last-mentioned work was also edited by P. M. Barnard in “Cambridge Texts and Studies” by W. Wilson (1897), and translated by him in “Early Church Classics” for the S. P. C. K. (London, 1901). For an English translation of all the writings of Clement see Ante-Nicene Christian Library (New York).


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