The Great Alexandrians Clement

While Tertullian was writing in Carthage there was beginning to flower in Alexandria a school of Christian thought which was to contribute even more than did he to the intellectual formulation of the Christian faith. Alexandria was one of the chief cities of the Roman Empire. Founded by Alexander the Great in the fourth century before Christ, it had become a cosmopolitan centre of commerce and of Hellenistic culture. Here was one of the great libraries of the world. Here Greek and Oriental philosophies met and here the latest of the Grsco-Roman non-Christian philosophies, Neoplatonism, was born. Here the Jewish Philo had lived and had interpreted his hereditary faith in Greek forms. In the Museum was the equivalent of a university, famous throughout the Grsco-Roman world. Before the end of the second century Christianity was represented by vigorous but divided communities. Alexandria was a stronghold of the Catholic Church and Gnosticism also flourished. In contrast with Tertullian, who, although influenced by Stoicism, professed to scorn philosophy, in Alexandria Christian thinkers regarded Greek philosophy as a tool to be used and the greatest of them became experts in it.

In Alexandria the main focus and stimulus to Christian intellectual life was in a catechetical school, made famous through two of its heads. Clement and Origen. This catechetical school was already in existence late in the second century. As its name indicates, its primary purpose was the instruction of candidates for Church membership in the principles of the Christian faith. Yet it also became a centre for advanced and creative thought and extensive literary activity. The first head of the school of whom we hear was Pantsnus, a Stoic philosopher who had become a Christian. His most distinguished pupil was Titus Flavius Clement, a contemporary of Tertullian.

We do not know the precise year or place of Clement's birth or death. He may have been a native of Athens. It seems certain that he was born a pagan and that he was reared in the atmosphere of Hellenistic culture and thought. Possessed of an eager, inquiring mind, Clement appears to have conformed gladly to the eclectic temper of the Grsco-Roman world of his day. He dipped into the various philosophical schools with which he came into contact and read extensively in some of them, notably in Platonism. Either before or after he became a Christian, he travelled widely in the eastern part of the Empire, seeking out those who could tell him what the apostles had taught. He was especially attracted by Pantsnus and succeeded the latter as head of the catechetical school. Again exact dates are uncertain, but the last decade of the second century appears to have seen the height of Clement's Alexandrian career. He left Alexandria some time before the year 203, perhaps because of a persecution instituted by the Emperor Severus. We hear of him in Jerusalem and Antioch, called "the blessed presbyter," and praised by the Bishop of Jerusalem as having "built up and strengthened the Church of the Lord." When and where he died we cannot say.

Clement's three major surviving works are the Protreptikos, urging pagans to become Christians, the Paidagogos, translated, but not with entire accuracy, as the Instructor, intended to teach Christians the kind of conduct to be expected of those of their faith, and the Stromateis, or miscellanies, an admittedly poorly organized collection of notes, giving more advanced instruction in Christianity.

In these books Clement so far conceded to those Christians who cherished an aversion to philosophy as to agree with Paul that "the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God," and to admit that Jeremiah was right in insisting that the wise man is not to glory in his wisdom. Yet he contended that the philosophy of the Greeks was a preparation for the Gospel, to those who were familiar with it paving the way for perfection in Christ. He held that God is the source of all good things, of philosophy as well as of the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, he held that the Greek philosophers had learned much from Moses. It is possible, so he said, for one who is unlearned to become a Christian believer, but it is impossible for one without learning to comprehend fully what has been made known in the Christian faith. While he repudiated those who are usually called Gnostics, he held that there is a truly Christian Gnosis, or knowledge, a Gnosis which comes by faith and not through reason. He who has this Gnosis, so Clement declares, imitates God so far as possible, exercises self-restraint, loves God and his neighbour, and does good, not out of fear, but out of love. The Christian, Clement says, will gladly learn all that he can from all branches of human knowledge, whether music, mathematics, astronomy, dialectics, or Greek philosophy.

God, so Clement held, is knowable only through the Logos, His mind. The Logos has always existed and is the perfect mirror of God. The Logos is the face of God by whom God is manifested and made known. The Logos inspired the philosophers. Jesus is the Logos, the Word, who is holy God, the guide to all humanity, the paidagogos, or instructor, of Christians. Clement said that the Logos had shed his blood to save humanity. Yet Clement seems not to have thought of Jesus as really a man, but as merely in human form because he chose to appear so. Clement spoke of the Holy Spirit, but in such fashion that it is difficult to gain a clear picture of what he conceived the Spirit to be. He declared that "the universal Father is one, and one the universal Word" (Logos), "and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere, and one is the only virgin mother ... the Church." He affirmed that the Lord Jesus is the Word (Logos) of God, the Spirit made flesh.

Like Tertullian, Clement believed that every individual is free and is able to respond to God or to refuse to do so. Man may and does miss the mark, but he is capable of repentance. Yet, like Tertullian, he taught that after the initial repentance when one becomes a Christian only a single additional repentance is possible for a grievous sin.

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