Clement of Alexandria Essay - Critical Essays

Clement of Alexandria


Clement of Alexandria c. 150-c. 215

(Full name Titus Flavius Clemens.) Greek author and Christian apologist.

The author of numerous theological works, Clement is credited with synthesizing Greek thought, particularly Platonism and Stoicism, with Christian beliefs. His openness to using outside sources familiar to non-Christians helped make Christianity more acceptable to many. Writing and teaching in a time when most Christians were uneducated and even openly hostile to intellectuals, Clement nevertheless was able to make logical and convincing arguments—based on scripture and philosophy—in favor of his adopted religion and against the thriving, learned, Valentinian Gnostics. Clement appropriated the word “gnostic” to describe his notion of the perfect Christian. After Clement's arguments, Gnosticism's appeal to the well-educated diminished. Clement's most famous pupil was the brilliant Origen, who in his own career improved upon many of Clement's initial ideas. Extremely well read, Clement made use of the work of many other writers, including lengthy excerpts of their work in his own; he is thus responsible for the preservation of great portions of ancient literature that would otherwise no longer exist. He was revered as a saint until the seventeenth century, when questions concerning his orthodoxy led to his removal from the church calendar. The great historian Eusebius of Caesarea called Clement an incomparable master of Christian philosophy, and St. Jerome stated that Clement was the most learned of all the Fathers.

Biographical Information

Most of what little is known of Clement's life comes from his own writings and from those of Eusebius, who wrote in the fourth century. Clement was born in Athens to parents who were probably pagans. He traveled extensively and was educated in Greece, Southern Italy, Syria, and Egypt. His teacher in Alexandria, then a center of intellectual activity and a base for Gnostics, was Pantaenus, who headed the city's catechetical school. In about 175 he began teaching Clement, who succeeded him as leader of the school around 189. Clement held the position until about 202. It was during this time in Alexandria that he began writing. Sometime after 202, when religious persecution had reached new heights, Clement fled to Caesarea in Cappadocia where he worked with a former pupil, Bishop Alexander. While Alexander was in prison, Clement became head of his church.

Major Works

Although the total number of pages of Clement's surviving works rivals that of perhaps any other Christian writer of the second century, scholars point out that his texts are are plagued with corruption. Damaged, mutilated manuscripts, the result of both time and incompetent copyists, would be difficult enough to work with if the author wrote systematically, and Clement's writing has never been described as systematic. He began his career fully devoted to oral instruction and was distrustful of writing—an unease he shared with many Christians of his time. Polished and persuasive writing was even more to be feared, for a winning style is not necessarily a true one, and a reader could be swayed by a clever style, falling prey to a false message. Thus Clement's writings are deliberately digressive and disorderly so that a patient, devoted, and intelligent reader can gain insight here and there while an insincere one will become frustrated and give up. Although many attempts have been made to date his writings, no one has been persuasively successful in narrowing the time frame beyond crediting the majority of it to the latter half of his many years spent in Alexandria. Three of his works are considered his most important, and many scholars view them as constituting a trilogy of sorts. Protreptikos pros Hellenas [Exhortation to the Greeks] is possibly his first work. It attempts to render the beauty and truth of Christianity in contrast to the errors of paganism. The second main work is Paidagogus [Tutor], a social history intended to provide students of Christianity with instruction in morality and ethics. Rounding out the three major works is the Stromateis [Miscellanies], an unsystematic carpetbag of notes on a wide variety of themes. The first book ofStromateis was written between 193 and 211 and probably much of the other volumes were written after Clement left Egypt. Hypotyposes [Sketches] exists only in fragments preserved by other Greek writers but originally encompassed eight volumes devoted to scripture commentary. Excerpta ex Theodota [Excerpts of Theodotus] is a notebook of quotations and comments believed to have been written by a student of Valentinus and edited and annotated by Clement. One sermon is extant, Quis Dives Salvetur? [Who Is the Rich Man that is being Saved?], which is based on Mark 10:17-31. It concerns the use of wealth and contends that money is not intrinsically evil. Another notebook, known as the Prophetic Eclogues is also extant, as is the discourse Exhortation to Endurance, also known as To the Recently Baptized. Eusebius mentions several other treatises and discourses of Clement's which are now lost: Peri Tou Pascha [On the Pascha]; Peri Nesteias [On Fasting]; Peri Katalalias [On Slander]; Peri Anastaseos [On Resurrection]; Peri Enkrateias [On Continence]; and Ecclesiastical Canon, also known as Against the Judaizers.

Critical Reception

There has been considerable controversy for at least a century over the nature of the relationship between Clement's three major works, particularly as to whether the Stromateis should be considered the third part of a loose trilogy. Basing their arguments on Clement's own statements, many scholars believe the third part would have been a work entitled the Didaskalos [Master], but there is much disagreement whether the Stromateis is actually the Didaskalos under a different name, or even whether the Didaskalos was indeed ever written. Although Clement makes references to such a work, the critical consensus is that it was never realized. A great deal of scholarly effort has also been devoted to interpreting the message of his work. Most critics agree that it should be viewed in its entirety, for misunderstanding is inevitable if only small portions of it are studied. Many critics suspect that the fact that Clement wrote such discursive works was not so deliberate as he maintained. It is likely that he simply was not up to the task of creating order from his multiplicity of ideas. Fortunately Origen was able to develop a systematic theology and, in interpreting the difficult ideas of Clement, honored the man who taught and influenced him.

Principal Works

Excerpta ex Theodota [Excerpts of Theodotus] (notebook)

Exhortation to Endurance [To the Recently Baptized] (essay)

Paidagogus [Tutor] (philosophy)

Prophetic Eclogues (notebook)

Protreptikos pros Hellenas [Exhortation to the Greeks] (philosophy)

Quis Dives Salvetur? [Who Is the Rich Man that Is Being Saved?] (sermon)

Stromateis [Miscellanies] (philosophy)

Fathers of the Second Century The Ante-Nicene Christian Library (translated by W. Wilson) (philosophy, essays, notebooks, and sermon) 1868

Clement of Alexandria: Quis dives salvetur (translated by P. Mordaunt Barnard) (sermon) 1897

Exhortion to the Greeks, Rich Man's Salvation, To the Newly Baptized (translated by G. W. Butterworth) (essay) 1919

The Excerpta ex Theodoto of Clement of Alexandria (translated by Robert P. Casey) (notebook) 1934

Alexandrian Christianity (contains Stromateis III & VII) (translated by John Ernest Oulton and Henry Chadwick) (philosophy) 1954

Christ the Educator (translated by Simon P. Wood) (philosophy) 1954


Charles Bigg (essay date 1886)

SOURCE: “Lecture III” in The Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Clarendon Press, 1886, pp. 76-114.

[In the following excerpt, Bigg provides an overview of many of Clement's beliefs, including those concerning evil, fear, knowledge, and faith.]

And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.—I Cor. xiii. 13.

Clement did not admit the pre-existence of the soul or the eternity of Matter,1 but in other respects followed closely the Philonic view of Creation. God of His goodness and love created the world of Ideas, the invisible heaven and earth, and in...

(The entire section is 11340 words.)

R. B. Tollinton (essay date 1914)

SOURCE: “Literary Work, ” in Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Liberalism, Vol. I, Williams and Norgate, 1914, pp. 178-209.

[In the following excerpt, Tollinton examines difficulties Clement faced in his writing and how he dealt with them—by acting positively instead of defensively, by tailoring his writing to the intelligent reader, and by deliberately disregarding style.]

During the later years of his residence in Alexandria Clement determined to give his teaching a permanent and written form. It was a natural decision on several grounds. He had lived the life of a student since his early school-days. He had gathered abundant materials. Even within...

(The entire section is 9789 words.)

E. F. Osborn (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: “Teaching and Writing in the First Chapter of the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria,” in The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 66, January, 1916, pp. 335-43.

[In the following excerpt, Osborn explains Clement's justifications for writing: to spread the word of God, to carry on tradition, and to battle heresy. Additionally, Osborn advances arguments that the Stromateis is actually the Didaskalos.]


The prejudice against writing was strong in the Church of the second century. The living voice was the best medium for the communication of Christian truth.1 Writings were...

(The entire section is 4081 words.)

G. W. Butterworth (essay date 1916)

SOURCE: “The Deification of Man in Clement of Alexandria,” in The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 66, January, 1916, pp. 157-69.

[In the following excerpt, Butterworth explores the influence of Greek thought on Clement's teachings concerning the process of man achieving union with God both on earth and after death.]


The possibility of man being deified, or becoming a god, is asserted by many Christian Fathers from the middle of the second century onwards, but by none more frequently or unreservedly than by Clement of Alexandria. In the following pages all the passages of Clement which bear upon this subject will be...

(The entire section is 5135 words.)

Robert P. Casey (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” in Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1925, pp. 39-101.

[In the following essay, Casey examines the effect of Platonism and Stoicism on Clement's theology and summarizes the “great trilogy.”]

One of the most fruitful branches of recent patristic study has been the effort to determine the relation between early Christian theology and Greek philosophy. Starting from the assumption that the affinities between the two were many and close, scholars have found themselves able to draw detailed inferences of literary and intellectual dependence, and in the case of many...

(The entire section is 19527 words.)

W. C. de Pauley (essay date 1925)

SOURCE: “The Image of God: A Study in Clement of Alexandria,” in The Church Quarterly Review, Vol. C, April-July, 1925, pp. 96-121.

[In the following essay, de Pauley summarizes Clement's views on God the Father and explores the difficulties involved with his use of the word “spirit” in analyzing man's psychic elements.]

Religion, mysticism, and idealist philosophy, even when their careers have run along different roads, have always made the problem of man's relation to God a central problem; for right thinking and right living presuppose that man is aware, more or less clearly, of his place in the order of things. The Alexandrian Fathers, though acquainted...

(The entire section is 9542 words.)

J. T. Muckle (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “Clement of Alexandria's Attitude toward Greek Philosophy,” in The Phoenix, Supplementary Vol. I, 1952, pp. 139-46.

[In the following essay, Muckle discusses Clement's view that philosophy enabled the Greeks to begin the assent to the truth of the Gospel.]

It is uncertain where Titus Flavius Clemens (ca.150-ca.216) was born. It is generally considered by scholars today that he was a native1 of Athens and that he received his early education in that city. After his conversion to Christianity, he travelled considerably, like St. Justin Martyr, seeking a teacher to give him higher instruction. His journeys took him from Greece to...

(The entire section is 3459 words.)

John R. Donahue (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: “Stoic Indifferents and Christian Indifference in Clement of Alexandria,” in Traditio, Vol. 19, 1963, pp. 438-46.

[In the following essay, Donahue explains how Clement's usage of the term “indifferent” was influenced by Stoic notions of indifference; he also cites it as an example of how Clement adapted the thoughts of others into his own teachings of a practical Christian morality.]

Throughout the Paedagogos, the Stromata, and the Quis dives salvetur? Clement of Alexandria uses the term ‘indifferent’…or one of its derivatives. In all of these instances except three, the term is found in the moral sense redolent of Stoic...

(The entire section is 3661 words.)

Walter Wagner (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Another Look at the Literary Problem in Clement of Alexandria's Major Writings,” in Church History, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, September, 1986, pp. 251-60.

[In the following essay, Wagner surveys the history of the theses concerning the controversial relationship between Clement's three major works.]

The relationship among Clement of Alexandria's three major works, Protreptikos, Paidagōgos and Stromateis, has vexed scholars for almost a century. Present state of the question reflects the condition of Clement studies as a whole: a welter of promising insights, ingenious theories, many contradictions and frustrating confusion. Recent attempts to...

(The entire section is 4484 words.)

John Ferguson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “Clement's Achievement,” in Clement of Alexandria, Twayne Publishers, 1974, pp. 192-94.

[In the following essay, Ferguson summarizes Clement's ideas and his importance, crediting him with being the “real founder of a Christian philosophy of religion.”]

In his masterly book Christ and Culture H. Richard Niebuhr identified five main attitudes which Christians have taken towards secular culture. The first emphasizes the opposition between Christ and culture. The second claims a fundamental agreement between Christ and culture. In the third (“Christ above culture”), Christ is seen as the fulfillment of cultural aspirations, at once continuous and...

(The entire section is 844 words.)

James E. Davison (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “Structural Similarities and Dissimilarities in the Thought of Clement of Alexandria and the Valentinians,” in The Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 201-17.

[In the following essay, Davison compares and contrasts the stances of the Valentinians and of Clement in four areas: the doctrine of God; creation and humanity; salvation; and eschatology.]

Even a cursory reading of selections from the work of Clement of Alexandria suggests that there are characteristic motifs at work that set him somewhat apart from the general trend of developing orthodoxy in the late second and early third centuries.1...

(The entire section is 6982 words.)

Donald Kinder (essay date 1989-90)

SOURCE: “Clement of Alexandria: Conflicting Views on Women,” in The Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 1989-90, pp. 213-20.

[In the following essay, Kinder contends that Clement believed that while women should be subservient to men in daily life, they could ultimately be equal before God.]

In his introduction to the Library of Christian Classics translation of Stromata III, Henry Chadwick pronounced Clement of Alexandria's views on marriage as “curiously confused.”1 One might also regard Clement's views on women as equally so. Clement grants to women equal capacity with men for attaining virtue...

(The entire section is 2996 words.)

David Dawson (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Clement: The New Song of the Logos,” in Allegorical Readers and Cultural Revision in Ancient Alexandria, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 183-234.

[In the following excerpt, Dawson describes Justin of Flavia Neapolis's method of interpreting allegorically the word of God in Biblical and non-Biblical texts, and contends that Clement applied Justin's ideas in his own reading.]

Like Valentinus, Clement (Titus Flavius Clemens) was an independent Christian intellectual and teacher in second-century Alexandria. He was born around 150 c.e. of pagan parents, probably in Athens. Following a topos of Hellenistic intellectual autobiography, he...

(The entire section is 9205 words.)

Eric Osborn (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “Arguments for Faith in Clement of Alexandria,” in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 48, No. 1, 1994, pp. 1-24.

[In the following essay, Osborn examines in turn each of Clement's eight arguments for faith and the resulting philosophical problems.]

In the history of ideas, the defence of faith, which is offered by Clement of Alexandria, ranks beside that of Paul who, in Romans 4, sought to prove the primacy of the faith of Abraham over the law of Moses. Paul was supported by the Letter to the Hebrews, which claimed that not only Abraham, but all the notables of Jewish scripture were persons of faith. Yet faith found its first principle and perfection in Jesus. For...

(The entire section is 9492 words.)

Annewies van den Hoek (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Techniques of Quotation in Clement of Alexandria: A View of Ancient Literary Working Methods,” in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 50, No. 3, 1996, pp. 223-43.

[In the following excerpt, van den Hoek examines Clement's use of borrowed and quoted passages, including his accuracy, his method of giving credit, and his characteristic way of incorporating the material.]


Borrowed material embedded in the flow of a writer's text is a common phenomenon in Antiquity. Since Clement's writings have so many borrowings, his case is of almost emblematic significance for this aspect of ancient literary technique. The problem has many...

(The entire section is 8132 words.)

Peter (Panayiotis) Karavites (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Clement's Gnostic,” in Evil, Freedom, and the Road to Perfection in Clement of Alexandria, Brill, 1999, pp. 139-74.

[In the following excerpt, Karavites describes Clement's ideas concerning the perfect Christian and contrasts them with the views of the Gnostics.]

It is certain that Clement's basic purpose in writing his various treatises was to sketch the picture of the perfect Christian, the gnostic, as he visualized him. Clement's picture differs fundamentally from that offered by the Gnostics who, in his view, diverted from the true apostolic tradition, ending up with a caricature of the perfect Christian. Had they grasped the true spirit of the...

(The entire section is 17920 words.)

Further Reading


Buckley, Jorunn Jabobsen. “Females, Males, and Angels in Clement of Alexandria's Excerpta ex Theodoto.” In Female Fault and Fulfilment in Gnosticism, pp. 61–83. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986.

Analysis of Clement's use of the terms “female,” “male,” and “angel.”

Buell, Denise Kimber. “Producing Descent/Dissent: Clement of Alexandria's Use of Filial Metaphors as IntraChristian Polemic.” Harvard Theological Review 90, No. 1 (January 1997): 89-104.

Study of Clement's use of procreative and kinship imagery to legitimatize certain Christians as heirs....

(The entire section is 649 words.)