Clement of Alexandria

The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-ca. 215) sought to integrate Greek classical culture with Christian faith.

The date and place of birth of Clement of Alexandria, born Titus Flavius Clemens, are not known, though it is likely that he was born in the decade 150-160, possibly in Athens. Having studied with religious and philosophical teachers in Greece, southern Italy, and Syria, he settled in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. There he was deeply impressed by the teachings of Pantaenus, who had been converted to Christianity from stoicism and who was at the time head of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. Clement, remaining a layman, eventually succeeded Pantaenus in this office and held the post for a number of years, probably not more than a decade. In relation to his activities as a Christian teacher Clement produced his three most important writings: The Exhortation to Conversion, The Tutor, and Miscellanies.

In Alexandria, Clement was at one of the leading intellectual centers of the Hellenistic world. Highly speculative and heretical Gnostic forms of Christian thought had been prominent there for decades among those who professed any form of Christianity. Gnosticism itself represented one way of synthesizing Christian faith with Hellenistic culture. Clement was of the firm conviction that Greek philosophy, particularly Platonic metaphysics and Stoic ethics, represented one of the ways in which God had prepared the world for the coming of Christ. His task, then, was to work toward an orthodox Christian appropriation of Greek thought.

The reader senses in Clement's writings the presence of three groups of critics against whom he constantly defends himself. To the pagan representatives of classical culture he argues the defensibility of any kind of "faith" and of Christian faith in particular. To the heretical Christian Gnostics he shows that the experience of redemption in Christ does not entail a depreciation of the material world created by God. To the simple and orthodox Christians he gives assurance that faith and intellectual sophistication are not incompatible and that philosophy does not inevitably lead to Gnostic heresy.

Clement left Alexandria on the outbreak of persecution against the Christians in 202. There is a fleeting glimpse of him in Syria shortly afterward. Later still he appears in the company of an old pupil, now a bishop in Asia Minor; the bishop sends his old teacher with a letter of congratulation to a newly elected bishop of Antioch. It is generally thought that Clement died about 215.

Further Reading on Clement of Alexandria

The classic study in English, R.B. Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Liberalism (2 vols., 1914), is particularly useful for the way in which it synthesizes widely scattered materials, though it is sometimes dull. A splendid treatment of much smaller scope is Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition: Studies in Justin, Clement, and Origen (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Ferguson, John, Clement of Alexandria, New York, Twayne Publishers 1974.

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