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Clement of Alexandria

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Clement of Alexandria (c.150 - c.215). Little is known about the life of Titus Flavius Clemens.[1] He succeeded the converted stoic philosopher Pantaenus[2] as head of the Christian Catechetical school in Alexandria, founded by the latter in the middle of the second century. He is regarded as an inferior theologian to his immediate successor to the post, Origen.[3]

Clement drew extensively on Philo,[4] and followed both Philo and Justin Martyr[5] in claiming that the Greek philosophers had plagiarised their teaching from Moses.[6] His reasons for doing this were twofold. First, he wished to counter the negative attitude that many uneducated Christians had towards Greek philosophy. That (in his opinion) would have greatly hindered its spread in the Hellenistic world. Secondly, he was faced with the attacks of educated Pagans, such as Celsus (late second century), who in his work True Doctrine[7] argued for the superiority of Greek culture, of which Judaism and Christianity were but shabby counterfeits.[8] On the contrary, Clement argued, Plato and the other philosophers had read the writings of Moses and the Prophets: whatever good could be found in their works was a result of divine inspiration and/or their use of biblical material.[9] This theory is often referred to as “the theft of the Greeks”. Lilla points out that Clement and Celsus shared the common conviction that the Greeks had inherited, not invented their superior culture and philosophy from the ancient civilisations of India, Persia, Babylon and Egypt.[10]

In extolling the divine character of the philosophy of Plato, Clement claims several times that Plato was dependent on Scripture,[11] as was Pythagoras (who is also warmly praised).[12] This is amply demonstrated in the reading list of the Catechetical school in Alexandria, which included the works of all the philosophers (except those of the Epicureans, who denied the existence of God), and was clearly modelled on the Platonic schools of the time.[13] He interpreted Greek philosophy in a biblical sense[14] and maintained that it had prepared the Hellenistic world for the ‘true philosophy’: the Christian gospel.[15] Philosophy gave Clement an the means by which he could penetrate beyond the literal sense of Scripture to reveal the true meaning, namely allegory.

Interpretation of Genesis

Clement was the first to suggest a definite theory of a threefold sense of Scripture,[16] which was further developed by his successor Origen. Clement wrote that: “The saviour taught the apostles, first of all in typical and mystic fashion, and then by parable and enigma, and thirdly when they were alone with him clearly without disguise.”[17] Unfortunately Clement never wrote a systematic account of his views on the Creation,[18] and the subject does not form a prominent theme in his works.[19] We can deduce from other passages that he followed Philo closely,[20] so I will not discuss the details of Philo’s account here (see Philo). Clement denied that the six days of creation were literal,[21] because all things were created by God at once. The ordering of the creation into days indicated the increasing value of each part, culminating in man.[22] Clement held that Adam was a historical figure[23] created in 5 592 BC,[24] but he denied that human mortality was the result of sin,[25] and the reality of the Tree of Life.[26] Adam fell because of lust, possibly because Adam and Eve “anticipated the time fixed by God for their marriage”.[27]

Three times Clement claims that the world was made out of nothing,[28] but the Greek phrase he employs refers to relative rather than absolute non-being - that is “unformed matter, so shadowy and vague that it cannot be said to have the status of ‘being’, which is imparted to it by the shaping hand of the Creator”.[29] He found support for this in Wisdom of Solomon 11:17[30] and in Plato.[31] Genesis 1:1-5 is for him,[32] as it was for Philo, an account of the creation of the unseen world of the spirit, and from verse 6 onwards that of the physical world.[33]


  1. Albert C. Outler, “The ‘Platonism’ of Clement of Alexandria,” The Journal of Religion 20.3 (1940): 217.
  2. Eusebius, Church History 6.6 (Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers [NPNF], 2nd series, Vol. 1, pp.253-254). Henry Chadwick in A. Hilary Armstrong, ed. The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy. Cambridge: CUP, 1970. p.168.
  3. Outler, op.cit., p.217.
  4. Joseph W. Trigg, “Allegory,” Everett Ferguson ed. Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. New York: Garland, 1990. p.24.
  5. Though Clement nowhere gives Justin credit when he develops Justin’s ideas. Chadwick, op.cit., p.170.
  6. E.g. Clement, Stromateis 1.20-29; 2.1.1; 4.1.2 (Ante-Nicene Fathers [ANF], Vol. 2, pp.323-341). Salvatore R.C. Lilla., Clement of Alexandria, A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism. Oxford: OUP, 1971. pp.31-41.
  7. Written c.178 AD.
  8. Lilla, op.cit., 34-36.
  9. Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation 6; Stromateis 1:15, 21; 2.5, 11, 14; 6.3 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.316-317, 324; 351-353, 460, 465-476; 486-488).
  10. Lilla, op.cit., 37-39.
  11. Clement, Stromateis 1.25; 2.22; 5.14 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.338, 375-376, 465-469). Lilla, op.cit., p.42, n.4.
  12. Lilla, op.cit., p.43.
  13. Gregory Thaumaturgus’ (or ‘the wonder-worker’) Thanksgiving to Origen is our source for details of the school’s curriculum. G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics. London: SCM, 1963. pp.49-52; Lilla, op.cit., pp.55-56.
  14. Ibid., p.43.
  15. Lilla, 56; Jean Daniélou, Gospel Message And Hellenistic Culture. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980. p.109.
  16. R.P.C. Hanson, Allegory and Event. London: SCM, 1959. p.120. Clement, Stromateis 1.28 & Fragment 66 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.340-341).
  17. Clement, Fragment 66, cited in J.F. Bethune-Baker, An Introduction To The Early History of Christian Doctrine. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1929. p.53.
  18. “His announced intention of discussing cosmogony was not fulfilled.” Chadwick, op.cit., p.171.
  19. Robert P. Casey, “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” Harvard Theological Review 18.1 (1925): 56.
  20. Lilla, op.cit., pp.190-191. Daniélou, op.cit., p.109: “One in indication of the concealed influence of this text from Plato is undoubtedly the frequent use of the expression ‘Father of the universe’ to refer to God. [Justin, Apology 45, 1; 2 Apology 6, 1; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1, 28:178, 2]. Similarly both Justin and Clement speak of the ‘Maker… of the universe.’ [Justin, Dialogue, 56.4; Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, 5, 13:86, 2.]” Brackets in footnotes in original.
  21. Clement, Stromateis 6.16 (ANF, Vol. 2, 512-514). Chadwick, op.cit., p.47.
  22. Clement, Stromateis 6.16 (ANF, Vol. 2, 513). Charles Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913. p.107.
  23. F.R. Tennant, The Sources of the Doctrines of the Fall and Original Sin. New York: Shocken Books, 1968. p.292.
  24. 5,784 years from the creation to the death of Emperor Commodus in 192 AD = 5,592. Clement, Stromateis, 1.21 (ANF, Vol. 2, 333); Henry Chadwick, Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966. p.47.
  25. Clement, Stromateis 2.19; 3.9 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.369-370, 392-393); Tennant, op.cit., 294.
  26. Clement, Stromateis 2.11 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.461).
  27. Bigg, op.cit., p.112, n.1; Stromateis 3.17.103 (ANF, Vol. 2, pp.383-385) untranslated Latin text. Cf. Philo, Creation 152 (C.D. Yonge, The Works of Philo. [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993], p.21).
  28. Clement, Stromateis 5.14 (ANF, Vol. 2, p.466).
  29. Chadwick, Early Christian Thought, pp.46-47.
  30. “For your all-powerful hand, which created the world out of formless matter, did not lack the means to send upon them a multitude of bears, or bold lions.” NRSV.
  31. Timaeus 28c; Daniélou, op,cit., p.109.
  32. Clement, Stromateis 5.14, (ANF, Vol. 2, p.466).
  33. Lilla, 192; Daniélou, op.cit., pp.117-118. Cf. Plato, Timaeus, 29a.

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