In Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures edited by Paul Foster the chapter on Clement of Alexandria is written by Judith L. Kovacs.
“An exuberant and dynamic thinker, Titus Flavius Clemens of Alexandria (c. 150-c. 215) was a biblical exegete, Platonic philosopher, polymath and apologist for Christianity. Clement cites widely from the Bible and Greek poetry , drama and philosophical writings. He calls Plato ‘lover of the truth’ and Euripides ‘the philosopher of the stage (Misc. 126.96.36.199). Classicists value Clement for preserving fragments of works otherwise lost, including works of pre-Socratic philosophers and ancient plays. As the first to attempt a thoroughgoing synthesis of the Bible and Greek philosophy, Clement began a long tradition of Christian philosophical reflection.” (p. 68)
Yet we know little about Clement’s personal life. Many believe he was born to pagans somewhere near Athens and he came to Christ after a long, philosophical journey (like Justin) (pp. 68-69). Clement was well-versed in Greek literature and philosophy, especially the works of Plato and Heraclitus. He was influenced by Middle Platonism and Stoic idea (pp. 70).
Kovacs says of Clement:
“Clement is known as a particularly irenic thinker who affirms seeds of truth wherever he finds them. Nonetheless, his writings contain many polemical passages. His theology was formulated in critical conversations with several groups: (1) Greeks who cling to old religions; (2) simple believers who oppose the use of Greek philosophy to interpret Christian teaching; (3) Marcion and Christian gnostics such as Basilides and Valentinus and their followers.” (p. 71)
“Clement’s translation of the teachings of the Bible into philosophical terms was challenged by simple believers who insisted on ‘bare faith’ (Misc. 188.8.131.52) and claimed that philosophy was from the devil (Misc. 184.108.40.206). In their turn the followers of Valentinus depreciated the faith of the Christian majority–the group with which Clement allies himself–for its lack of gnosis, that is, superior knowledge (Misc. 220.127.116.11). Clement worked hard to counter the charge, and he also responded to Valentinian views on the god of the Old Testament, the law, the role of fear in the religious life and martyrdom.” (p. 71)
For any Christian who has sought to defend the Christian faith to the intellectual and academic community while also being rebuked by that same Christian community for dabbing in the “world’s philosophy” Clement sounds like a dear friend.
Most of Clement’s works no longer exist. His main works were Protreptikos, Paidagogos, and Stronmateis. Each work aimed to take Christian deeper into their faith adding knowledge. Clement’s theology is hard to pin down because, as Kovacs writes, “His theology has the character of dynamic exploration rather than a well worked-out theological system.” (p. 75) I love this line because as one who appreciates “dynamic exploration” I have been accused of being too “postmodern” lacking a serious system of thought. Clement is very premodern. Some of us do theology from the motif of journey rather than that of structure building. We like pilgrimages more than creating cathedrals. One author said of Clement, “No one enjoyed theology more than Clement, yet his skilful synthesis of Athens and Jerusalem has furrowed many brows.” (p. 74)
For Clement Christ was central. It was from the person of Christ that he sought to answer these questions:
1. What is the purpose of human life?
2. Who is God and how can he be known?
3. How is the revelation in scripture to be understood?
4. What is God’s plan for human salvation?
5. How are believers to become perfect. (p. 76)
Clement saw the purpose of human life through a Platonic lens: To seek the most perfect Good. God is that Good. If knowing and loving God is the purpose of life then question #2 is answered by pointing toward Christ, the Logos of God. As with many early Christians the allegorical hermeneutic was used by Clement and he sought to find Christ and “deeper meaning” in Scripture (like Origen). Yet human knowledge was not evil. Like the Law prepared the Jews for Christ so Greek philosophy prepared the non-Jews. Clement doesn’t deny revelation, but he does see God working outside of Scripture to reveal Christ. (pp. 76-78).
God aims to save humanity through the “pedagogy of the Logos.” Jesus is the Great Teacher who shows the true way to be human. Spiritual progress is something all Christians should seek. Simple faith is good, but further knowledge and understanding is better. (pp. 78-80)
Overall I found this introduction to Clement to be one of the most interesting chapters in the book thus far. I loved the line about Clement’s theology having the “character of dynamic exploration.” It makes me want to read some of his works now!