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Clement of Alexandria - His Life and Work

Julian Spriggs M.A.

It is likely that Clement (150-215) was brought up in a pagan family and trained in Hellenistic culture. He read extensively from the Greek philosophers, particularly Plato, but also had several Christian teachers. Otherwise, nothing is known about his early life. Around 180 he came to Alexandria to seek out Pantaenus, the master of the famous catechetical school. Clement joined him as one of the teachers in the school until his death, when Clement succeeded him as the head. His most famous pupil was Origen. He remained there in 203, when the Emperor Septimus Severus began to persecute the church, by a prohibition of proselytising. Following this, Clement left Alexandria and fled to another city, probably Jerusalem.

The main trust of Clement’s teaching was that the world was prepared for the coming of the Gospel by Judaism, as well as by Greek philosophy. In this, he attempted to reconcile Christianity with contemporary philosophy, understanding that all truth ultimately comes from God. The central theme of his theology was the doctrine of the ‘Logos’. He understood the Logos as being the mind of God, and the only way that the distant God can become knowable. It was the Logos that inspired the philosophers, as well as being incarnated as Jesus Christ. Because of this, Clement has been accused of teaching Sabellian doctrine, as he is seen to have failed to distinguish the Son sufficiently from the Father.

In rejecting Gnosticism, which had been strong in Alexandria, he saw the Gospel as the true ‘gnosis’. His aim was to lead his students to become the ‘True Gnostics’, referring to himself as a Gnostic. This was the opposite approach from teachers in the Western Church, who saw Gnosticism and Christianity as utterly opposed. In contrast to the Gnostics, who rejected the Old Testament, Clement accepted it but interpreted it using the allegorical method. This had been introduced by the Jewish scholar Philo, and since become a distinctive approach of the Alexandrian school. Like all Gnostics, Clement emphasised knowledge, even saying that sin was merely ignorance. It is clear from this that his understanding of the atonement was flawed, limiting the work of Christ.

His writings are patterned after the successive steps of initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which Clement had followed in his pre-Christian days. The first was purification. In his ‘Address to the Greeks’ he attempted to show how Christ, the Logos, drew pagans to himself, and urged pagans to become Christians. The second, the ‘Pedagogue’ or ‘Tutor’, Christ teaches the convert from paganism how to live the Christian life. This book covers all practical details of life, including food, table manners, language and dress. The third step was revelation, covered in his ‘Miscellanies’ or ‘Stromateis’, meaning carpet bags, in which odds and ends were kept. In this, he developed his Christian philosophy, showing the Christian as the ideal Gnostic, established in faith and knowledge. Only fragments still exist of his last work, ‘Sketches’ or ‘Outlines’. In this, he continues his instruction of the new convert by including a commentary on Scripture.