Clement of Alexandria: a Saint Arguing for Both Faith and Philosophy

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Egypt Map (Ägypten Landkarte)

This map of Egypt also shows Alexandria, the cultural hub at the mouth of the Nile, where Clement lived. Image by Peter Hermes Furian.

The Orthodox, Coptic and Anglican churches regard Clement of Alexandria as a saint, as do the Eastern rites of the Catholic Church, but in 1586. the-then pope, Sixtus V, excluded him from Rome’s official list or saints because of his unorthodox views, a decision confirmed by Clement VIII, 1592-1605. 

Benedict XIV took a kinder view, saying that some of Clement’s beliefs were dubious, but that there is little point in making a saint of one whose life is so little known.

Clement of Alexandria’s Beliefs

If today a theologian said that the risen Christ is neither male nor female and that God the Father has male and female aspects he might arouse some odium theologicum – hatred or bitterness that arises from differences of religious opinion.

If he then said that women should be as entitled to hold leadership positions in the church as are men and provided a list of inspirational religious women to back up his proposal, his chances of ecclesiastical advancement in certain churches would be low.

Clement also, according to Henry Chadwick in The Early Church, believed that sex was good, and while he accepted celibacy, he did not consider it superior to marriage, which probably displeased the monks. He also rejected arguments that teetotalism and vegetarianism are necessary to the Christian lifestyle.

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Describing the Eucharist as milk from the Father’s breast might sound odd to many Christians, even when Clement explains in his book, Pedagogus, that Christ is symbolically the Father’s breast, which constitutes a rich assertion of the divine feminine in Christ.

An almost certain belief in some form of reincarnation, appearing in his work Stromateis, could also mean that his job prospects in the Catholic church might not be too high. Clement said all these things. But he was a thoughtful and scholarly man, as even his enemies had to acknowledge.

Clement’s Early Life and Career

Born Titus Flavius Clemens in 150 A.D. his birth place was either Athens or Alexandria. Clement’s parents were pagan, and they provided him with a deep knowledge of paganism and Greek philosophy, knowledge easily available in these learned cities.

Clement absorbed philosophy deeply, holding a great regard for Plato, but he rejected the Greek deities as morally unworthy. Rather than join a mystery religion, he opted for Christianity, which he believed had a righteous God who demanded holy life of his people.

By 180 A.D. Clement was in Alexandria and soon his great learning led him to the headship of the catechetical school, which taught potential Christians. Alexandria was a scholar’s dream town: an intellectual ferment where Greek philosophy met with well-established rabbinical thinkers, and the trade routes from India to the Red Sea ports of Egypt had brought Buddhism and some knowledge of Hindu thought.

Pharos of Alexandria

The Pharos of Alexandria, which spread its beams across the Mediterranean night. All Alexandrians would have been familiar with this sight. Image by Sergey Kamshlin.

Clement’s Intellectual Influences

Notably, Clement and his pupil, Origen, later to become the foremost interpreter of Scripture of the ancient world, seem to have been believers in a cyclic world view, which the philosophy of Orphism and eastern scholars taught.

By that time, Christians had become aware that they needed philosophy to analyse and expound their faith, and they were  searching for the philosophy that suited their task.

Clement, with his great philosophical depth, could draw upon a range of philosophical knowledge. There is no evidence that he drew on Indian thought, but he would have been aware of it because of the trade routes through Alexandria.

One philosophy that entered the creative melting pot of Clement’s mind was Stoicism. Like Orphism, this held to a cyclic universe with a series of creations, though Clement and Origen did not hold to Stoicism’s belief in the eternal recurrence of the same events.

The key Stoic concept was the Logos. The prologue of John’s Gospel used this so it had scriptural backing. “In the beginning was the Word [Logos] and the word was with God…,” begins John, chapter one. Christ was the Word who reveals God and effects his will in the world.

In Stoic thought, God’s Word was the underlying rationality of the created world; its organizing principle. For Clement, Christ makes sense of the world.

Clement’s Belief in Reincarnation

We are creatures of the Logos, declares Clement, according to his book Stromateis, and he pities us in our wanderings. These words foreshadow the words of the later Egyptian Synesius, who, according to Joseph Head and Sylvia Cranston, argues that we descend from the heavenly realms and unless we make it back at the first attempt, we must wander long in Earth’s lower regions. There are echoes of Clement here. Reincarnation fits well into a cyclic world view.

Pope Sixtus’ 1586 condemnation of Clement, on the advice of Cardinal Baronius,cited Clement’s beliefs in a cyclic world view and an eternal creation as heresies. Contemporaries of the time knew that Clement wrote stories or speculations about worlds before Adam, but none of these writings survive.

The condemnation also states that he was sympathetic to Docetism, the belief that Christ’s body was illusory, but this is untrue. He simply thought that Christ was a pure being, free of normal passions.

Bible Scrolls

Bible Scrolls, on which Clement based much of his thought. Philosophy building on Scripture and faith was his principle. Image by James Steidl.

Clement’s End in Palestine

Scholars believe Clement died in 215 A.D, but first, he left Egypt for Palestine in the Severan persecution of 211 A.D. and Origen assumed the headship of the school.

There is some suggestion that Clement moved to Cappadocia. Ultimately, whether he suffered excecution for his faith is unclear.

Clement’s Legacy on Faith and Philosophy

What marks Clement out is the belief that the Christian must be a true philosopher. Clashing with the Gnostics, who believed that they, as intellectual Christians, were superior to people with mere faith, Clement insisted that faith and philosophy must go together in the Christian life.

Clement believed that the Christian must live an intellectually-respectable life. It is the Christian who is the true Gnostic, as he draws his knowledge from God and explores it through philosophy.

Not all Clement’s views have stood the test of time, but his insight that Christianity must meld faith and philosophy is surely a challenge to those who uphold simple or blind faith, and uncritical obedience to church authorities.

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  1. Clement and Origen were philosophers before their time. The ancient world,including the Greek and very early Christian,believed in rebirth. This was in direct conflict with the status of the Church and great effort was made to discredit this belief.This was finally achieved at the 2nd ecumenical at Constantinople.

  2. I fully agree. My own view is that the afterlife is more complicated than the simplistic heaven/hell/purgatory division that theologians make. Even the New Testament does not support the simplistic official view, as we note in the tale of the Gerasene demoniac Jesus was too compassionate even to condemn unclean spirits to the pit. Rebirth/reincarnation is the best evidenced form of afterlife