Of Titus Flavius Clemens’, known as Clement of Alexandria, early years there is very little or nothing known. According to church tradition, however, he was born either in Athens or Alexandria, around A.D. 150.[i] According to the Fourth Century Bishop Epiphanius, as well as Eusebius and Clement himself, his parents were Athenian pagans, which is significant in arguing for an Athenian birth. As his parents were pagans, Clement was not a “birthright Christian;” he was a convert. He and Eusebius tell us themselves, though it might have been deduced that his parents were pagans just from his intimate knowledge of the pagan Greek religion, as displayed in the second chapter of The Exhortation, a work of his which will later be discussed.[ii] There is also little that is significant about his early life. He travelled to various schools throughout Italy, Magna Graecia, Palestine, and the eastern Mediterranean, as a student,[iii] and some time after his arrival in Alexandria was converted to Christianity, probably by his last teacher, Pantaenus,[iv] who was formerly a Stoic philosopher[v] and possibly the first recorded president of the Christian catechetical school in Alexandria. Though it is likely that Pantaenus helped issue his conversion, there is strikingly little written about this by Clement himself. The position as head of the school in Alexandria, whether held previously by Pantaenus or no, was later succeeded by Clement- although there is some dispute[vi]- some time after the year A.D. 180.[vii] Some time after Clement’s arrival in Alexandria and his conversion, the bishop Julian ordained Clement to the office of elder; and some later sources describe him as a priest. By the time Demetrius became bishop, Clement was already well established [as principal of the catechetical school and as an elder or priest]. But here there is little to nothing known about his life in Alexandra- not even a mention about it exists from his greatest pupil, Origen.[viii] Clement left Alexandria never to return in the midst of the persecutions of 202-203, when thousands lost their lives in Egypt and the Thebaid. At his leave, his pupil, Origen, took over the teaching. It is not known where he went during this time, but it is clear that around 211 he was in touch with the then-future bishop of Jerusalem, Alexander, one of his former pupils, and Alexander wrote to commend him to the church in Antioch.[ix] Whether he went to the church in Antioch or no, it is not known. But it is known that by 216 Alexander referred to him in such a way that he was likely dead.[x] All together, what is apparent is that there is not much at all known about Clement’s life or death.[xi]
Concerning his writings, of the dates no one is certain, but there have been proposed dates and timetables that seem reasonable.[xii] His major works include what is now known as the Trilogy, comprised of his most important works the Protreptikos (“Exhortation”), the Paidagogos (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis or Stromata (“Miscellanies”).[xiii] His other works also include Salvation for the Rich?; Extracts form the Prophetic Scriptures; and Outlines (probably written in that order).[xiv] For the most part, these works are considered to be apologetic or polemical. The Trilogy is considered polemical, dogmatic, and miscellaneous (that is, containing all sorts of different genres throughout), respectively. He often took up and wrote against Gnosticism. He did, though, attempt to mediate between the heretical Gnostics and the orthodox Christians by taking the term gnostic or gnosis from the Gnostics and reinterpreting it to meet the needs for both the uneducated and the educated Christians. Gnosis became for Clement knowledge and aspect of faith. It was loving and teaching the ignorant and instructing everyone in creation to honor God.[xv] The Protreptikos was his exhortation to the pagan Greeks to accept or adopt Christianity.[xvi] The Paidagogos, which can be translated as “tutor”, refers to Christ as the teacher of mankind. But, as the name may mislead to believing, it is not simply instructional: Clement attempts to show how the Christian should respond to God’s love authentically.[xvii] The Stomata was his work of miscellaneous subjects. Because of the fact that its topics are many and miscellaneous, its place in the Trilogy has been disputed. Not only that, but according to Ferguson, Clement initially intended to write the Didasculus, a work which would complement to instruction of the Paidagogos in a more intellectually oriented and theological way.[xviii]The Stomata contained 8 books originally,[xix] but only seven remain.[xx] The first book begins with the topic of Greek philosophy. The second book is devoted to the roles of faith and philosophical arguments. The third book covers asceticism. The fourth book’s focus is on martyrdom, in which book he claims that certain heretic groups cannot become martyrs because they do not believe in or worship God the Father.[xxi] In the fifth book, Clement argues that truth, justice, and goodness can only be seen by the mind- his subject is that of faith. In the sixth book, Clement argues that the works of Greek poets were derived from the Old Testament’s prophetic books and then digresses to the subject of sin and hell, where he argues and espouses a universalist doctrine that salvation is available to all, even to those condemned in hell.[xxii] The seventh and final book discusses his Christology and his understanding of the Christian life.[xxiii]The Sitz im Leben, that is, the reason for writing these works has not been clearly specified in any of the discovered research of this writer. But one could easily make the informed speculation that Gnosticism was weighing heavily on him mind in the writing of the Protreptikos, that the Pedagogos could have been written in order to disciple and teach students at the school at which he was the principal, and, more clearly, that the Stomata was an anthology of Clement’s miscellaneous thoughts, writings, and teachings.
Indeed there is much that is not known about Clement of Alexandria. It is known not for sure either the date of his birth or the date of his death, who it was that he studied under during his travels as a student before coming to Alexandria, when he actually arrived in Alexandria or when he succeeded the position as principal, or if the position of principal was even established by this time or not. But what is known is also much. The majority of his works- and so subsequently his thought and theology- have been preserved. Still, through his many preserved writings there are many things yet to learn about Clement himself, and early Christianity as well.
[i] John Ferguson, Clement of Alexandria (Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974), 13.
[ii] Ibid, 13.
[iii] Ibid, 13-14.
[iv] Philip Schaff, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), VI.XIV.VIII.
[v] Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. Stoicism teaches that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment. Stoics were concerned with the relationship between determinism and human freedom. They believed that it was virtuous to maintain a will that is in accord with nature. They believed everything to be material (even God) and that everything that existed, existed in spirit (like a fish living in water). The philosophy also holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason (logoς or logos).
[vi] Ferguson argues that Clement only just arrived in Alexandria about 180 and began meeting with and learning under Pantaenus then. According to Ferguson, it was only later that he succeeded the presidency of the school. This is in contrast to the claims of Frederickson in his article on Clement. He argues that it was in or about the year 180 when Clement succeeded the office. But it seems that more evidence is given to affirm a later date than 180. Such a source to be referred to is Stromata I.I.II.1-2, one of Clement’s own works.
[vii] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Saint Clement of Alexandria", accessed September 14, 2013, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/121112/Saint-Clement-of-Alexandria.
[viii] Ferguson, Clement, 16.
[x] Schaff, Fathers of the Christian Church, VI.XIV.VIII-IX.
[xi] Ferguson, Clement, 17.
[xiii] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, "Saint Clement of Alexandria"
[xiv] Ferguson, Clement, 17.
[xv] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, "Saint Clement of Alexandria"
[xvi] Ferguson, Clement, 44.
[xvii] Eric Osborn, Clement of Alexandria (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 244
[xviii] Ferguson, Clement, 106.
[xix] Schaff, Fathers of the Christian Church, VI.XIII.I.
[xx] Philip Schaff, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II: Fathers of the Second Century (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), Stromata I-VIII.
[xxi] Eric Osborn, Arguments for Faith in Clement of Alexandria, Vigiliae Christianae 48 (1994): 8.
[xxii] Charles Seymour, On Choosing Hell, Religious Studies 33 (1997): 262-263
[xxiii] Philip Schaff, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Stromata.