Clement of Alexandria: The Third Alternative

Clement of Alexandria (150 - 215 AD)

Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 AD)

Clement of Alexandria: The Third Alternative

By Christopher C. MacDonald  

Whether unearthing the mystery cults from the roots up by artful and learned argument or providing intellectual argument beyond anything one can call a mere “debunking,” Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)[1] is noted as one of the first true “intellectuals” to take on not only large philosophical questions, but also to work out a biblical philosophy that could be re-presented and used for future generations. As Shelley states:

“After him, Greek thinking united with Christian thought. In the great saints and theologians of later Eastern Christianity this bond was secured. Without it the staggering theological achievements of the first church councils would have been impossible.” [2]

To understand this quote in context one needs to perhaps reference an earlier one:

“Clement’s purpose was clear. He seized not only the external garb and forms of expression of the contemporary pagan philosophers but also their problems. If, for example, he discussed the universe and its meaning (cosmology), so loved by the gnostics, he did not do it with the intention of proving these ideas wrong offhandedly and then discarding them quickly, but instead he pointed out how the fundamental religious questions about the creation of the world, the existence of evil in this life, and the salvation through the Word, Jesus Christ, found their last and deepest answer in Christian revelation.”[3]


It is on this approach to the world of ideas, and with Gnosticism (as the most obvious test case of Clement’s day) as the backdrop that I would like to examine some of his Stromata (“miscellaneous”) – the third collection in his supposed trilogy of works – an unfinished collection of theology that has come down to us as seven books.[4]

Clement demonstrates a boldness few today would possess in his use of overt tactics. He will at once identify an oppositional category (like “Gnostic”) in a positive light then re-define it openly in what he will then refer to as a “true way.” Well versed in the philosophy itself (no novice) as he is in the poetry, philosophy and literature of the time (staggeringly so), Clement simply hijacks the philosophical question at hand.

Thus when it comes to the question of motive for moral behavior, Clement argues that the “True Gnostic” does good not out of fear, but in response to the love of God:

But he who obeys the mere call, as he is called, neither for fear, nor for enjoyments, is on his way to knowledge (γνῶσις). For he does not consider whether any extrinsic lucrative gain or enjoyment follows to him; but drawn by the love of Him who is the true object of love, and led to what is requisite, practices piety. So that not even were we to suppose him to receive from God leave to do things forbidden with impunity; not even if he were to get the promise that he would receive as a reward the good things of the blessed; but besides, not even if he could persuade himself that God would be hoodwinked with reference to what he does (which is impossible), would he ever wish to do aught contrary to right reason, having once made choice of what is truly good and worthy of choice on its own account, and therefore to be loved.[5]


In one fell swoop he both debunks the Gnostic view and far out distances it with something far greater for moral behavior itself is of no real consequence to the Gnostics. He points ot he good than supersedes it with the superior motive.

All of this he does in the open – in direct contradistinction of the secretive Gnostic teachings.

This is Clement’s pattern: fearless and intelligent confrontation, followed by commandeering the discussion/topic and the expansion of it.

It is a practice we can learn from today as opposed to what Shelley earlier referred to as merely disproving the offending ideas and “discarding them quickly.” That is to miss the huge opportunity to teach and go deeper – one which Clement was not willing to miss.

I cannot imagine facing Clement in any type of debate – he would swarm you with detailed arguments – but worse – pull your own argument up by its roots.  One author estimates that his works “contain over 700 quotations from some 300 pagan authors, an achievement which well justifies Cayré´s remark that his prodigious erudition was unsurpassed even by that of Origen.”[6]


That would be the postmodern equivalent of some real mastery of the top novelists, poets and cultural/musical icons responsible for shaping the current major symbolic/meaning structures that lead and inform our culture and the major subcultures.

I would assert that Clement would be well familiar with the world and science of the “New Physics” and rather than being dismissive or seeing it as antithetical, would be looking for ways in which the Logos was being revealed in such studies.

Christians have the tendency to run from new discoveries when they should do just the opposite. What Clement demonstrated in 2nd Century Alexandria – among the intelligentsia there – was not only the ability to hold his own – but actually advance given the advantage of divine revelation via the Word.

To be sure, Clement has what all good theologians have – the sure knowledge that Reality is not based just in a clever argument or any such sophistry. Or as C.S. Lewis so eloquently says of Christian apologetics – that we must be saved this “by falling back continually from the web of our own arguments, as from our intellectual counters, into the reality–from Christian apologetics into Christ Himself.” [7]

Against the World, For the World

But embodying the age-old tension within the Church between being called to be “in the world but not of it,” (a complicated relationship that Jesus spent no small amount of time praying about in detail in what is now referring often to as His “High Priestly Prayer as recorded in John 17) – Clement engaged  the world; disregarded and dispatched anything useless but embraced anything worthwhile. Reminiscent of a modern teacher, Prof. Arthur Holmes same titled book, I think Clement would say that “All Truth is God’s Truth wherever it may be found.”[8]   Thus Clement affirmed the Greek philosophers where he could – just as I think we should do anyone who does good and solid work – not with some attitude of superiority as if we were the adults and they children – but rather as legitimate co-explorers who – at this time do not share faith as a spiritual “optic.” We should often expect to take a back seat.

Gregory saw faith as a gift and the start of all true in-depth inquiry:

Now faith is the ear of the soul. And such the Lord intimates faith to be, when He says, “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear;”(Matt. 11:15) so that by believing he may comprehend what He says, as He says it. Homer, too, the oldest of the poets, using the word “hear” instead of “perceive”—the specific for the generic term—writes:— “Him most they heard.”(Odyss., vi. 185.) [9]


One gets the real sense that Clement’s ear is attuned to this as he reads the pagan poets and philosophers that he so readily quotes – even on the subject of faith.  As such he needs to be revived as a stunning example for postmoderns for he both fearlessly wades into the culture at-large looking for Truth wherever it may be found – yet will not mute the Word or be caught in the despairing mire of relativism which ends – when pushed – in impotence.

Shelley writes of Clement’s situation: “The Christian convert often faced a choice between clever eloquently defended heresy or a dull, narrow-minded orthodoxy.”[10]

Is this not often our situation today? Where in the Church is the open academy for new belieers which gives instruction on how to understand orthodoxy while engaging the culture at large?

To this Shelley says “Clement was determined to offer a third alternative.”[11]

While a reading of Clement ‘s three collections shows a man caught in his time – and a man reacting and perhaps more effected by the Sophists than he would have been able to admit or see (for there is an asceticism in him even alongside his attack upon it), it should be remembered that he is, in fact, perhaps the first truly intellectual theologian of the Christian faith. It was with an uncanny boldness and faith that Clement took on top philosophical ideas and issues and sought to understand them, then push them to the farthest extreme in relationship to God in the world via the Word.

Thus he says:

Now, inasmuch as there are four things in which the truth resides—Sensation, Understanding, Knowledge, Opinion,—intellectual apprehension is first in the order of nature; but in our case, and in relation to ourselves, Sensation is first, and of Sensation and Understanding the essence of Knowledge is formed; and evidence is common to Understanding and Sensation. Well, Sensation is the ladder to Knowledge; while Faith, advancing over the pathway of the objects of sense, leaves Opinion behind, and speeds to things free of deception, and reposes in the truth. [12]


Clement saw Faith as providing the ability to advance “over the pathway of the objects of sense” and leaving “Opinion” behind thus speeding “to things free of deception.”

He did this while openly considering the works of those outside the “faith.”

Of course this is not all he says, or even a good summary. A review of his collection The Instructor (Paedagogus) or Tutor  shows with greater exactitude his fuller mind. But we can surmise that Clement – was far from seeing every vantage point outside a rigid and safe Christian orthodoxy as being antithetical to the Truth. He did this despite seeing the pervasive dangers of the popular Gnosticism of Basilides which was supported by Valentinus in his day.

We still face Gnosticism in a variety of forms from the ridiculous (Scienology) to the more sublime (The Secret) . In all cases – as with other issues requiring cultural engagement it does not have to be a question of capitulation and syncretism on the one hand – or utter withdrawal in fear of being besmirched. A robust reengagement with the dominant cultural forms, thinkers, poets and artists with a wise eye of discernment via living faith and the Word as revelatory epistemologies can grant not only safe passage – but real advances in exploration.

Clement made such advances in theology. Others throughout the ages have made similar advances in art, music, literature and philosophy. They did so by seeing a third alternative and by not being motivated by fear.




[1] As referenced in the Wlikipedia article Clement of Alexandra, as cited on December 21, 2015.

[2] Shelley, Bruce.  Church History in Plain Language, (Thomas Nelson, Nashville 1995) p.82.

[3] Ibid., p. 81.

[4] Wikipedia, Ibid.

[5] Clement of Alexandra, The Ante Nicene Fathers Vol. 2, (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Grand Rapids, Il), Philip Schaff, editor p. 919

[6] Wood, Simon P. (Translator and author of the introduction). Christ the Educator: The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation (Patristic Series. The New Catholic University Press, Washington, D.C. 1954),  Vol. 23. P. X



[7] Lewis, C.S. Christian Apologetics, as quoted at length on Dec. 22, 2015.

[8] Holmes, Arthur, All Truth is God’s Truth. (Eerdmans Pub Co July 1977.)

[9] Clement, Ibid., p. 747.

[10] Shelley, Ibid., p.81.

[11] Ibid,, p. 82.

[12] Gregory, Ibid,, p. 747.


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