(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Born and reared in Athens, Greece, Clement went to Alexandria, Egypt, around 180. He served as a teacher and then, from 190 to 202, as head of the “school” of Alexandria founded by Pantaenus, accommodating Christian faith to the burgeoning number of cultured and well-educated folk who were then making inquiry. A Platonist, he drew heavily from Alexandrian Gnostics but distinguished himself from them at critical points. His three major extant works—Address to the Greeks, The Instructor, and Miscellanies—were directed to three different audiences—the unconverted, the cultured faithful, and those who sought a higher level of gnosis, or spiritual knowledge.

Clement divided The Instructor into two major parts. In book 1, he urged his pupils to strive to imitate the Word, who is without sin and who can heal unnatural human passions. God loves humankind. Humankind should reciprocate by fulfilling God’s commandments, turning away from evil and doing what is good. The unerring guide is the Instructor, Christ, who in the flesh demonstrated not only the theory but also the practice of virtue. Christians must come to him like children who are gentle and teachable. In baptism they are cleansed and enlightened and begin a journey toward perfection in knowledge (gnosis) and, ultimately the vision of God. Enlightenment leads to withdrawal from material things and a quest for spiritual nourishment by the Word, who feeds us as a mother feeds her children. He also chastises us so that we will keep striving toward the blessed life. He models the true life, both human and divine, and if we conform to him, we will truly live.

In books 2 and 3 Clement sets forth from Scriptures the practical rules for conducting the Christian life, emphasizing Stoic suppression of desire (apatheia) and moderation as the way to distinguish Christians from pagans in the use of food, drink, home furnishings, conduct at banquets and parties, wearing of adornments and perfumes, sleep, sexual intercourse (for procreation only), clothing and footwear, jewelry, toiletry, reliance on slaves, bathing, wealth, exercise, and even walk. All of these things, Clement insisted, should agree with the teachings of the Instructor as found in the Scriptures.

The Miscellanies, as the title suggests, contains a variety of materials, but each of its seven books stresses a dominant theme. Book 1 discusses the relationship between philosophy and Christian truth; book 2, faith and gnosis vis-à-vis the purpose of humankind; book 3, marriage (against certain heretical sects); book 4, martyrdom and gnostic perfection; book 5, the knowledge of God and symbolism; book 6, philosophy and revelation and human sciences as they prepare the true gnostic; and book 7, the true gnostic. Clement was the first Christian writer to grapple seriously with the question of the relationship of Christian faith to philosophy and culture. With him began a true Christian Platonism and humanism.

In book 1 Clement expressed his vigorous opposition to those who want to restrict Christian investigation to “what is most necessary and which contains the faith” or who thought philosophy was introduced by “an evil influence, for the ruin of humankind.” His main aim in the Miscellanies was to prove that philosophy is “in a sense a work of Divine Providence.” God was the source of all knowledge, including secular science and art. It served the Greeks as a Pedagogue to Christ, just as the Old Testament prophets served the Jews. Against those who contended for faith alone, Clement insisted that even interpretation of Scriptures required preparation in Hellenic philosophy. For him the ideal gnostic was one who could bring everything—geometry, music, grammar, and philosophy—to bear on truth, culling what is useful from what must be discarded. The Christian should avoid some elements, such as Epicurean rejection of providence and deification of pleasure or Stoic pantheism, not philosophy itself. If one were to bring together the fragments of eternal truth found in Hebrew and Greek philosophy, one would find the perfect Word, the truth.

Clement here confused his basic thesis when he outlined the history of Greek philosophy, for he argued that the Greeks borrowed from the “barbarians,” the Jews—a viewpoint he inherited from predecessors. If the divine Word taught the great philosophers directly, they would not have had to rely on the writings of Moses or Old Testament prophets. (Evidently Clement was stretching his argument to make philosophy as acceptable as he could to those who said, “Bible alone!”) Unlike other church fathers, Clement disallowed connections between heresies and philosophy. Philosophy might espouse errors, but they would not be as bad as heresies. Its purpose was to lead to truth, even if imperfectly.

In book 2 Clement defined faith as...

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