Clement of Alexandria

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Apostolic Fathers

  • Clement's original name was Titus Flavius Clemens. He lived ca 150-215 CE.
  • He was known as Clement of Alexandria in order to distinguish him from Clement of Rome.
  • It is not known where he was born; scholars from the sixth century claim he was from Athens.
  • His parents were quite well-to-do and had a high social standing.
  • Hence, he was highly educated, and constantly referenced Greek philosophers in his writings. Yet, he would later write that he found no lasting satisfaction from these efforts.
  • He was also well-traveled – Greece, Italy, Palestine, and Egypt – and constantly studied under new teachers.
  • It is believed that he arrived in Alexandria around 180 CE.
  • He apparently was converted to Christianity by Pantaenus, who had founded the Catechetical School at Alexandria. It is not known whether he came to Alexandria seeking more information about Christianity or whether it all unfolded to him when he arrived. (At that time, Alexandria was considered to be the intellectual capital of the Roman Empire.)
  • Around 190 CE, Clement succeeded Pantaenus and become head of the Catechetical School.
  • Clement believed that the writings of the Greek philosophers and scientists prepared one for the revelation of the Gospel. So, his school included both religious as well as secular instruction.
  • Clement was one of the first to bring together ideas from Greek philosophical traditions and Christian doctrine, so he became known as the theologian of the "intelligentsia."
  • He also tried to mediate between the Gnostics and the orthodox Christians.
  • Not only was Clement able to defend the Christian faith against its pagan detractors, but he and others like him were also instrumental in establishing Christianity's place in the world of learning.
  • That they were able to do this without compromising essential Christian doctrine is a testament to their success.
  • Their accomplishments meant that Christianity spread throughout the intellectual circles of the Empire.
  • It was no longer the religion of uneducated, simple-minded people.
  • This work paved the way for others. Indeed, one of Clement's students was Origen, who later became one of the most distinguished writers of the early church (though he would later fall out of favor).
  • During the years that Clement was head of the Catechetical School, he was highly influential. Some might consider him the first systematic theologian.
  • He was able to take the existing tradition and develop a doctrine or code of beliefs that were authoritative.
  • He was able to bring opposing traditions together, mediating their disagreements and sometimes blending them together.
  • He wrote three books that illustrated his views.
  • The first, Protrepticus, (Exhortation to the Greeks), was an introductory work for unbelievers, in which he tried to fully explicate the Christian faith while exhorting them to embrace its teachings.
  • The second, Paedagogus, (Instructor), was more of a primer for Christians, focusing on the duties and ethics taught by the Christ.
  • The third, Stromata, (Miscellanies), is a collection of advanced teachings expounding philosophical ideas, ethics, and instruction for those who were more advanced, i.e. the Christian Gnostics.
  • The breadth of his knowledge has been demonstrated by the over 8000 citations found in his writings. He cites over 350 classical and non-Christian writers, 100+ Biblical texts, and numerous heretical works.
  • It was his intention to present Christianity in a way that people could understand, whether they were highly learned or simplistic. He , distinguished the "perfect" Christians from the "ordinary" Christians. The former had insights into the mysteries/science of being while the latter accepted everything on faith alone.
  • Needless to say, Clement extolled the virtues of the "perfect" Christian.
  • Everything changed dramatically in 201-2 CE, when Severus, the Roman emperor, began persecuting Christians.
  • Clement was fortunate enough to escape from Alexandria and flee to Jerusalem.
  • Later, he settled in Cappadocia, where he remained until his death in 215 CE.
  • He was venerated as a saint until the 17th century. At that point, the Church removed him from the list, claiming that too little was known about his life, nor had he ever gone through the vetting process for sainthood. Many scholars, however, think that by this time some of his writings were considered "suspect."
  • Because of his students (especially Origen), his influence remained for generations.
  • In the 1700s, John Wesley used some of his writings to describe Christian perfection.

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