The Original Christian Philosopher
OUT OF THE CATACOMBS AND "HOUSE"-CHURCHES of early Christendom
rose a new
brand of Christian Orthodoxy under the leadership of the Alexandrian fathers of
the second and third century. It is these ancestors that defended the
Christian faith against the disdain and hatred launched against them and their
religion. Yet, while their pains to defend the legitimacy of Christianity is
still remembered today, it is their innovative theology, their Christian
philosophy in particular, that set so many precedents for later believers to
behold and effectively use. In essence, it is these fathers - Clement, Origen,
Athenagoras, and many others - that developed new ways to manifest Christianity
as a philosophical religion in response to pagan humiliation.
Why, though, did these theologians have to defend themselves at all? The
answer is the fact that Christianity was never going to remain an enclosed sect
of believers. At one point or another Christianity was going to diffuse and
spread across imperial society. Thus, the religion had to be presented as the
least bit legitimate in its doctrines and yet on par intellectually with the
philosophical sciences of the age. Otherwise, Christianity would have been
ridiculed and refuted as too mysterious and not liable to be understood by the
human mind. In one way or another, Clement and his followers had to present
Christianity as a form of philosophy without ever compromising the essence of
the Christian faith.
At the same time, these early defenders of the faith worked against a twofold
danger. While they genuinely tried to resolve the pagan antagonisms they
experienced so much of for simply being Christians, it was their own fellow
believers who were also hostile for any sort of theological compromise. As
Lilla observed, it seemed that a chance of any peace between the Greeks and
Christians was virtually impossible:
On the one hand, the completely negative attitude of many
uneducated Christians towards Greek philosophy prevented
Christianity from assuming a scientific and philosophical
character, and thus limited greatly its chances of success; on the
other hand, the pagan world did not refrain from attacking the new
However, the Alexandrian fathers found a solution. It was contained in the
mission of the Alexandrian school and its teachers to develop once and for all
a coherent synthesis of Greek science and religion. The result was Christian
philosophy, which, Clement realized, was the only hope of joining the pagan and
Christian parties together under one rational and acceptable Christian
religion. While those in the like of Tertullian renounced the remolding of
Christian doctrine to fit philosophical ideals, the Alexandrian party became
a pioneer in both its fresh theological endeavors and in its success to finally
spread the Christian faith among the intellectual circles of imperial society.
Clement of Alexandria, one of the most revered deans of the Catechetical School
for his philosophical theology and intellectual acumen, was one of the foremost
figures who succeeded in uniting the missions of religion and science. In
setting the stage for the feats of such theologians as Gregory of Nyssa and
Athanasius the Apostolic, Clement had to first understand the origins of Greek
philosophy and then apply his learning to form a readily accepted "rapport" of
sorts with Greek intellectualism. Yet, before turning to Clement and his
teaching, an essential historical and intellectual background of sorts is due
By the middle of the second century the city of Alexandria was already one of
the intellectual capitals of the Roman Empire. Philosophy was prominent in the
capital, and yet Christianity was also rising despite the popular hatred
against it. For this the Coptic Church had already instituted its known
Catechetical School to train pagan converts. As Dawson points out, the school
was an ecclesiastically sponsored institution devoted to preparing candidates
for Christian baptism by teaching them the basic tenets of the Christian
faith. While its earliest known dean was the Sicilian Pantaenus, Clement and
Origen became its most famous leaders. As will be shown, Clement's goals and
motivations for his theology were clearly influenced by the school in which he
taught and was most known.
The school itself was built on a tradition that always emphasized allegory more
than literalism. Its approach to scripture and its overall exegesis mirrored
"otherworldly" concerns. Its teachers as a result tended to look for the
hidden and spiritual meanings of what they confronted. Alexandrian theology,
just like Platonism, was idealistic, not materialistic. From this one can see
how easy it was for the school's teachers to reformulate their ideas to
effectively unite Christianity with Greek thought. Clement of Alexandria was
no exception to his school's line of thought.
Titus Flavius Clemens was born towards the middle of the century from pagan
parents and grew up in Athens. Like most of the students of his time, he was
trained in all the classical works. Yet, his attraction towards the Christian
faith brought him to Alexandria, where his philosophical and religious ideals
were both met. He was tutored by the above mentioned Pantaenus, and took over
the leadership of the school towards the end of the second century. Clement's
writing was not voluminous. His three chief works were Exhortation to
Conversion (Protrepticus), the Tutor (Paedagogus), and the Miscellanies
(Stromateis). While he also had other treatises written specifically to guide
rich converts in living by true Christian ethics, he strove, more than anything
else, to unite the Christian faith and science.
Clement realized that before he could start on his philosophical theology he
had to prove that Christian philosophy was itself a justified solution for the
enmity between the pagan and Christian communities. First, he had to convince
Greek philosophers that their doctrines were actually very similar to Christian
doctrines. Both share doctrines that are fundamental to their respective
religions. Secondly, he had to present to his Christians a coherent enough
argument that philosophy is not inherently evil. Instead, philosophy agrees
for the most part with every Christian notion of both this world and eternity.
While during Clement's time Christianity was still predominant only among
slaves and uneducated women, he showed that his faith was not just for the
ignorant. Christianity, depending on both faith and reason, crossed all
intellectual boundaries, from the ignorant to the most educated, in imperial
society. When Clement finally proved that Christianity was the ultimate goal
of philosophers, and that at the same time philosophy was a necessary but not a
dangerous means to convert more pagans, he went ahead and showed that
Christianity and philosophy were actually a perfect match. Their unity and
compatibility was all too easily derived by the Alexandrian pioneer.
As for Christians, Clement perceived that if Christianity was to be more than a
religion for the uneducated it must come to terms with Greek philosophy and
Greek science; simple-minded Christians must no longer "fear philosophy as
children fear a scarecrow". Clement encouraged Christians to study
philosophy. He felt that doing so would provide protection to a faith that was
always under much attack. "Rather than attempting to define and restrict the
concept of the Christian dogma, Clement searched even among heretical
literature for material he could utilize, and as Quasten puts it '... it is not
exaggeration to praise him as the founder of speculative theology.'"
In his Stromateis he listed several hypotheses as to why his argument was
right. The first, as Lilla explains, was that he believed in the divine origin
of Greek philosophy. Secondly, he tried to prove that Christianity, instead,
was actually the "true philosophy". The Greeks had absorbed some elements of
truth, but their knowledge was mostly constrained in comparison to the light
that Christians have been presented with. Greek thought, Clement claimed, was
actually "stolen" from the Old Testament. He concluded that Greek philosophy
was inferior to the perfection of the Christian faith. Even then, it was still
very useful for the Christians, who could find it to be an excellent
preparation to study Christian doctrines.
Clement also focused on how to convince his Greek foes. While Greek philosophy
was clearly seen as "at least essentially and consistently rational, in the
efforts of its earliest representatives to frame a rational interpretation of
the cosmos and in connection with every problem to which their successors
addressed themselves", Clement considered it critical to go further in
regarding the philosophy of his day. For him, philosophy was a true
preparation for the gospel. Until the incarnation, he says, philosophy was
essential to the Greeks for righteousness, but even after the incarnation it
may still prove useful in leading them to Christ. What the Law of Moses
provided for the life of a Jew, philosophy enlightened the mind and heart of a
learned Greek. Moreover, because the practice of philosophy was bestowed upon
the best and most virtuous among the Greeks, the source of such learning was
granted by the providence of God. The Creator himself brought this
righteousness upon both Gentiles and supposed barbarians, having a universal
calling for one united faith. Philosophy was not unique it its own right but
rather wholly depended on Christianity for its own ideology.
THUS, IT IS CLEAR THAT CLEMENT WANTED TO USE A NEW BRAND OF PHILOSOPHY to
attract Gentiles to the faith, and yet prove that Christianity is actually a
"higher" philosophy, and therefore quite rational in itself. It is here then,
that Clement comes forward with his presentation of "Christian" philosophy. He
had a three-step approach for formulating his ideas. The first and most
obvious was his effort to prove that philosophy had its origins not in the
minds of Aristotle, Plato, or Pythagoras, but rather in the writings of the Old
Testament itself. After proving his case, he goes on to show that
philosophical and Christian perspectives of human reason, mind and soul are
particularly similar, deriving from the same supreme God. At the same time, it
is this supreme Creator and divine Being that is present in and out of this
world, with His Logos appearing in flesh and providing the fulfillment of all
promises for both pagans and Jews. Both philosophers and Christians alike had
premonitions of a supernatural existence, but only the latter had a clear
perspective of Him, due to the supremacy of their faith. As Charles Bigg
explains, the Gospel in his view is not a fresh departure, but actually the
meeting point of two converging lines of progress, of Hellenism and Judaism.
To him all history is one, because all truth is one. Philosophy and
Christianity, then, are the product of "one river of truth".
Clement claimed that there existed an identity, arising from their common
origin in God, between the law of nature and the law of instruction. Eager
to show the agreement between Greek philosophical doctrines and the teaching of
Scripture, he adds that the followers of Pythagoras and of Plato had also held
the view that reason was something which had been given by God to man.
Timothy relates that Greek science itself had one dominant source. "There is
an element of truth which each of them contains, a fragment torn from, but
still a part of, eternal truth, for many of the dogmas of the sects, although
pitched on different keynotes, compose one harmony, and he who reassembles the
separate fragments and restores their unity 'will without peril ... contemplate
the perfect Logos, who is truth'".
As was a common characteristic of the teachers at the Catechetical School of
Alexandria, Clement had looked up to the great master-minds of the Hellenic
schools with a generous admiration, and infused the same spirit into his
teachings and theology. It is within the philosophical spectrum that he
attempted to define the Christian man and the Christian God. While he would
use Plato's system of this and the supernatural world to explain less
understandable Christian mysteries to pagan proselytes, he took every
opportunity to fuse the system of Stoic virtue to the mannerisms and behavior
of a true Christian. Philosophy for Clement, and specifically the Stoic ideals
of virtue, were not static but actually dynamic qualities for pagan converts to
utilize in their Christian endeavors as new humans in a new faith. Yet,
even though the Church and its school used philosophical ideals to explain
one's conduct to a pagan proselyte, it still possessed purer morals and a more
reasonable creed than pagan philosophy as evidence of its superior quality of
Even if a negative attitude could be accepted against certain negative aspects
of philosophy, like Stoic pantheism or the subordinate view of the Logos, the
merits of philosophy were strenuously asserted by Clement not only for its past
but its continuous necessity for church members. While Stoicism clearly had
a defined materialistic view of the universe, denying any separate world of
"spirit" and maintained that the universe only contained matter, Stoicism was
still used with Christianity in two main areas. Clement used this side of
philosophy to show that all human beings are rational and have within them the
"spark of reason" or the "divine spark". Secondly, Stoicism was used to
show to pagan converts that Christian morals were actually quite similar to the
ethics they had somewhat embraced in their Stoic beliefs.
Clement here developed a doctrine quite unique to himself. He believed in a
"seminal" Christ. Clement supposed that God had installed a notion in every
human of an eternal God who had the essential role in creation of the world and
humanity itself. Clement also supposed that humanity as a whole understood
Christ and the eternal existence of another world in some form or another. It
is obvious that Christians have the fullest understanding of Him, but
philosophers alike received a clue to at least who the ultimate focus of
worship really was.
Clement gives examples of some of those that were given that "spark" of divine
knowledge. Pythagoras, his disciples, and Plato are inspired "prophets" who
had attained a partial knowledge of the truth. "Plato in fact reaches a
position not very far from that of the Psalmist who says 'The knowledge of God
is the beginning of wisdom' - though he reaches this position by a very
different road. Although Plato does not formally identify the Good with God,
he speaks of its divine nature in such a way that formal identification would
make little difference." Moses, David and Plato were all "Christians before
Secondly, Platonism held that every human being is comprised of soul and body.
However, since the soul is a spiritual, not a material, entity, its true home
is not in the material world and thus is imprisoned, in some sense, until it
attains its freedom. One of the most famous sayings of the Platonists was "the
body is a tomb" (ho soma sema), which indicates the philosophy's distinct
differentiation and separation of the spiritual and earthly realms. Against
this, though, Clement had his objections and agreements.
Clement clarified his Christian beliefs against Greek speculation by stating
that their was an eternal unity between soul and body once a human being is
created. While indeed flesh and spirit continuously fight each other, one
will rise again with both soul and a transformed body of a different and
glorious nature. Thus, as is clear about Clement, the body has a definite use
and value. Clement, then, used Platonic thought in this case to reach pagan
converts, but at the same time purified their beliefs to a more Christian
standard. The end result is a Christianized philosophy, whether in Stoic or
Besides a human being's innate divine qualities, he must be admired also for
his reasoning capabilities, even if it was not initially used for belief in
Christ. "Philosophy for one and all is a gift, not of devils, but of God
through the Logos, whose light ever beams upon his earthly image, the
intelligence of man." The Alexandrian theologian even used scripture to
prove his theory. Biblical passages (Gen. 1:26, 27) showed that God bestowed
upon man a rational principle which was an imitation of his own image, the
Logos. Thus, it does not matter whether one was a philosopher or a Jew.
All had the same gift to realize the power, wisdom, and teachings of God by
which they should live their lives. For Clement, there is a close kinship
between the human mind and the universal Logos, the Son of God. No matter
how distorted their beliefs were, there was a divine element dwelling in them
which allowed them to attain even the faintest reflection of the eternal truth.
CLEMENT ALSO SHOWED SIMILARITIES BETWEEN PLATONIC THOUGHT AND THE CHRISTIAN
GOD. Platonists had no doubt of the existence of a spiritual realm, and their
main concern was trying to relate it to the impure and lustful world that
humanity exists in. Their answer was that there exists a Source of All Things,
named "The One", who has been existing eternally from the beginning and is the
potential for all things. Secondly, Platonic thought assumed that creation was
not possible without The Divine Mind, who is actually the thought process by
which The One can possibly cause creation at any level. However, for the full
mode of creation to occur The World-Soul has to join the above two entities and
thus all concrete particular ideals of the world can come to fruition through
their united action.
It is obvious, first of all, that the Platonic view of the world had some
correct intuition. As with the Christian Trinity, there exists a triune entity
in the Platonic spiritual world. At the same time, creation for either party
is impossible without the participation of all members of that entity. There
is ample evidence in the creation story of the Trinitarian involvement of the
seven days of creation. Yet, neither Jesus Christ the Logos of God, who
corresponded to The Divine Mind of Platonic thought, nor the Holy Spirit, the
equivalent of The World-Soul, are subordinate to the Father. As opposed to
Platonism in this note, all three hypostases in the Trinity are equal, unlike
the pagan argument. Hence, the Christian religion is still superior
theologically despite a quite coherent argument from the Greeks.
Indeed, Clement actually proved that what was taught in the classical schools
abroad was actually the same teachings that Christianity held so dear. One had
to incorporate all that is believed in by Greek society, and finally produce a
faith that is both appealing to the learned in philosophy yet profound to the
believers. Clement, arguably, never failed to accomplish his goals of uniting
the opposite ends of faith and science. All the more surprising, his Orthodoxy
remained intact for later generations to take example from and marvel at. In
doing so, he was apparently a professional teacher of the kind who in all parts
dispensed the ideas of both philosophy and rhetoric. He set both the
example and the method by which the School would present Christianity to
prospective proselytes and how a Christian was to approach and benefit from
In order for one to attempt to understand Clement's motives, one has to grasp
both the role and the popularity of the Catechetical School during his time.
The school itself was motivated to teach of the allegorical side of
Christianity. It was famous for its role in developing catechisms of scripture
far from a literal approach. Though Origen might have admittedly went too far,
Clement's allegory itself related quite strongly to the highly idealistic
philosophy he fought.
There are a few implications that lie behind our interpretations and portrayals
of Clement of Alexandria. The first and most obvious is the fact that Clement
was quite successful in his endeavors. While this work does not do him any
justice whatsoever, he was the first and probably most adventurous, next to
Athanasius, in presenting Christianity in pagan terms, as explained above, to
pagan proselytes. The sudden rise of pagan conversion during his time are
quite a testimony to his success. Secondly, he philosophized Christianity in
order to develop a Christian system of rational and quite understandable
doctrines. He was able to speak of the mysterious Trinity in an Orthodox
standard and yet reach out to Greek intellect. Thirdly, Clement proved that
Christianity is not really an ignorant religion. He showed that both
philosophers and Christians believed in the same doctrines, and that the faith
was actually for one and all, regardless of their education. If Plato and
Moses believed in the same God, then neither can really be called unlearned.
On the contrary, both were geniuses in their own right. In setting a precedent
for later generations, he showed that all the negative nuances of one's
environment can actually be used and incorporated into theory and practice. A
pure faith can indeed afford the sciences and new discoveries of everyday life.
For that particular reason, more than any other, Clement of Alexandria fused
Greek philosophy and the "true" religion, Christianity, to produce what we now
know as Christian philosophy. While he pointed out the faults in Greek
learning, he still used it without ever compromising the righteousness of his
faith. As none can object, Clement was justified in Lilla's view:
Since the universal truth represented by the Logos is scattered in
the different systems of Greek philosophy, it naturally follows, in
Clement's opinion, that he who wants to know the whole truth must
gather together the best doctrines of the different systems; in
this way he can build up a kind of absolute philosophy which is
also identical with the truth.
[ 1] S. Lilla, Clement of Alexandria (London: Oxford University Press, 1971),
[ 2] "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" (Prescription Against Heretics 7)
is a much quoted saying of his that exemplifies his hostile attitude
towards Greek thought in general. The quotation could be found in
E. Daily, etc., Tertullian: Apologetical Works. FOTC. (Washington: CUA
[ 3] H. B. Timothy, The Early Christian Apologists and Greek Philosophy (Assen:
Van Gorcum, 1973), 13.
[ 4] D. Dawson, Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria
(Oxford: University of California Press, 1992), 219.
[ 5] D. Bell, A Cloud of Witnesses (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1989), 44.
[ 6] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1965), 106; cf. Strom. 1.6.80.
[ 7] C. W. Griggs, Early Egyptian Christianity (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 60.
J. Quasten's quote is from his Patrology, vol. II (Westminster, Maryland:
Christian Classics, 1986), 20.
[ 8] Lilla, p. 10; cf. Strom. 1.20.1-2.
[ 9] Lilla, p. 11; cf. Strom. 1.28.3, 1.80.5,6, and 1.28.4 for example.
 Timothy, 10.
 Bell, 46.
 Timothy, p. 60.
 C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria (Oxford: Clarendon Press,
1968 [repr. from 1913]), 76.
 Strom. 1.5.29.
 Timothy, p. 59.
 C. Roth's introductory notes in her translation of Gregory of Nyssa, On
the Soul and the Resurrection (Crestwood, New York: Saint Vladimir's
Seminary Press, 1993), 14.
 Strom. 1.8.57 quoted in Timothy, pp. 60-61.
 Bigg., p. 70.
 Eph. 4:24.
 Bigg, p. 71.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Ibid., p. 79.
 Bell, p. 22.
 Lilla, p. 17.
 H. D. F. Kitto, The Greeks (Edinburgh, 1951), pp. 193-194, quoted from
Timothy, p. 23.
 Bell, pp. 23-26.
 Gal. 5:17.
 Bigg., p. 77.
 Lilla, p. 15.
 Ibid., p. 15.
 Genesis 1 containing God speaking in the first person plural, only the
beginning of Orthodox evidence that the creation was an act of the
Trinity, not the Father alone.
 John 1:1.
 Stuart Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (Grand Rapids:
Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992) 95.
 Lilla, p. 54.
(All three of the following have both patristic translations and introductory
biographies of each respective author. None of them, however, give complete
presentations of Clement's three chief works.)
Bettenson, H. THE EARLY CHRISTIAN FATHERS (London: Oxford University
Press, 1991 [eleventh ed.]).
St. Gregory of Nyssa, trans. by C. Roth. ON THE SOUL AND THE RESURRECTION
Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1993.
Jurgens, W. A. THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS (Collegeville, MN: The
Liturgical Press, 1970).
MacMullen, R. and E. Lane, eds. PAGANISM AND CHRISTIANITY; A SOURCEBOOK
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992).
Bell, D. N. A CLOUD OF WITNESSES Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1989.
Bigg, C. THE CHRISTIAN PLATONISTS OF ALEXANDRIA London: Oxford University
Press, 1968, [repr.].
Blair, H. A. THE KALEIDOSCOPE OF TRUTH Worthing: Churchman Publishing, 1986.
Chadwick, H. EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT AND THE CLASSICAL TRADITION New York:
Oxford University Press, 1966.
______. THE EARLY CHURCH New York: Penguin Books, 1967.
Dawson, D. ALLEGORICAL READERS AND CULTURAL REVISION IN ANCIENT ALEXANDRIA
Oxford: University of California Press, 1992.
Dodds, E. R. PAGAN AND CHRISTIANITY IN AN AGE OF ANXIETY Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1965.
Ferguson, J. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Griggs, C. W. EARLY EGYPTIAN CHRISTIANITY Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991.
Gruner, R. "Science, Nature, and Christianity" JOURNAL OF THEOLOGICAL STUDIES
26 London, April 1975.
Lilla, S. R. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA London: Oxford University Press, 1971.
Osborn, E. THE BEGINNING OF CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHY Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1981.
Timothy, H. B. THE EARLY CHRISTIAN APOLOGISTS AND GREEK PHILOSOPHY Assen: Van
Wagner, W. AFTER THE APOSTLES Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.