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Clement of Alexandria's Christian Gnostic in Stromateis I–II - ATWD a thing worth doing blog | Daniel Aaron Webster - worship, ministry, and culture

Clement of Alexandria’s “Christian Gnostic” in Stromateis I–II

In the introduction to his 1954 translation of Clement of Alexandria’s (c. 150–215) Paedagogus, P. Simon Wood expresses “hesitancy” on the part of Catholics due to Clement’s alleged Gnostic leanings: “While admiring his humanism and appreciating his richness of thought, it (the Catholic opinion) regrets some of the Gnostic developments of that thought.”[i] This hesitancy is rooted in early scholarship’s depiction of Clement’s “Gnostic,” sometimes called the “true Gnostic” or the “Christian Gnostic.” Robert P. Casey (1925), citing Stromateis 6.12 and 6.14, suggests that Clement’s Christian Gnostic is superior to the average Christian. Casey says that Clement recognizes his error and chooses to “evade the difficulty, and he does this with such skill that his system betrays hardly a sign of the danger to which it had been exposed.”[ii] Casey continues: “There are then two kinds of perfection, measured by different standards; and whereas all faithful Christians possess the one, only the Christian gnostic attains the other.”[iii] Late Clement scholarship too has given reason for continued “hesitancy.” Hans Von Campenhausen (1997) suggests that “Clement himself and his own teachers are outside the rank of the professional clergy, and remain laymen, so too in his spiritual instructions. . . . the pattern of the ‘priestly’ man is for him not the bishop or priest of the official hierarchy but the Gnostic and the Gnostic teacher.”[iv] Eirini Artemi (2014) has called into question Clement’s view of Scripture: “Clement insists that educated and mature Christians inevitably seek an understanding superior to that of the teaching of Bible.”[v] To summarize these descriptions, Clement is teaching apart from Scripture and the tradition of the Church a knowledge available only to a select few. These portrayals of Clement’s Christian Gnostic appear to be, well, Gnostic.[vi]

But other late scholars have contended for a different Clement. Clayton N. Jefford (1993) advocates that Clement is not adapting Gnostic thought, but rather, he has “borrowed the very weapons of the gnostics in order to wage war against them.” This is evidenced in his writings as he opposed by name the sect of Valentinus and Basilides,[vii] and he was careful to separate from others who falsely claimed the title of Gnostic:

I know that I have myself encountered a particular heresy whose chief proponent claimed to conquer pleasure by practicing pleasure. He was a deserter to pleasure through a simulated battle. What a marvelous Gnostic! (He said he was a Gnostic.) He did not even say that it was a major achievement to keep off pleasure if you had never experienced it; the difficulty is, once you are in the middle of it not to be overpowered by it, which is why he practiced living in it.[viii]

Recent scholarship has also challenged the accusation that Clement is teaching apart from Scripture and the tradition of the Church a secret knowledge available only to a select few. Eric Osborn (2005) has argued that Clement’s “true gnostic or man of knowledge, was within the reach of all believers.”[ix] Osborn goes on to say that Clement “insisted that the source of truth was to be found in the scriptures of the Jews and in the Gospels and Epistles.” In his extensive work, Clement of Alexandria: A Project of Christian Perfection (2008), Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski admits that “Clement’s model appears to address a kind of spiritual and intellectual loner who is entirely focused on inner progress towards the higher, divine realm,” but he quickly adds that “this perception is misleading.”[x] Ashwin-Siejkowski contends that according to Clement “the natural habitat” for the Christian Gnostic is the κοινωνία of the ἐκκλησία.[xi]

The goal of this project is to provide an exposition of every reference to the Christian Gnostic in Clement’s Stromateis, Books I–II for the purpose of providing a sample of Clement’s Christian Gnostic for those who may share in the “hesitancy” outlined in the first paragraph. Books I–II have been chosen because these books contain a high concentration of Christian Gnostic material, and there is not as much published material available for Books I–II as there is for other portions, especially Book VII. Employing John Ferguson’s use of “Christian Gnostic” from his 1991 translation,[xii] I will arrange these nearly twenty references in similar categories. Throughout the process, I will demonstrate how in each of these passages Clement is in step with the ethos of both Testaments. I believe my method is important; Clement must be interpreted in light of Clement. Isolating his references to the Christian Gnostic has been a major source of the “hesitancy” represented in the first paragraph of this paper. By observing Clement of Alexandria’s nearly twenty references to “Christian Gnostic” in Stromateis, Books I–II, the reader can obtain a more accurate picture of Clement’s meaning in an effort to resolve potential hesitancy. 


What to read more about Clement of Alexandria? Check out this post on Clement’s use of music to engage culture.


The Christian Gnostic Is a Person of Many Skills

The first reference to the Christian Gnostic is found in a chapter entitled, “Faith Grounded in Reason Is Preferable to Simple Faith.” In this section, Clement commends a well-rounded life experience; he suggests that this broad experience allows the believer to bring “everything to bear on the truth.”[xiii] Quoting Homer, Clement commends the “man of many skills;” the “Christian Gnostic, is also competent to distinguish sophistry from philosophy, superficial adornment from athletics, cookery from pharmacy, rhetoric from dialectic, and then in Christian thought, heresies from the actual truth.”[xiv] Clement espouses a similar idea in his chapter entitled, “Greek and Non-Greek Philosophies Contain Germs of the Truth.” Appealing to a loose paraphrase from Ecclesiastes, he states, “Anyone skilled in all aspects of wisdom is a Christian Gnostic in the full sense of the word.”[xv] Today’s readers may mistakenly perceive Clement’s instruction as elitism or some unhealthy form of intellectualism, but this approach to life is not only commended in Ecclesiastes and the wisdom of the Proverbs, but it is also commended by Paul who admonishes believers to seek that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8). Paul continues, “If there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”[xvi]

Clement does not see achievement in the arts, the sciences, and philosophy as a threat to theology; in fact, he sees it as beneficial to understanding theology. But it is also important to note that Clement does not view these pursuits as required for the faith. He is not promoting elitism. In a chapter entitled “Philosophy’s Contribution to the Attainment of Truth,” Clement says, “In saying that philosophy is a joint and contributory cause to the grasp of truth, because it is a search for truth, we shall be accepting it as a kind of preparatory education for the Christian Gnostic.” He also says, “The truth vouchsafed to the Greeks is not the same as ours. . . We are God-taught. We have been educated in a course which is really holy by God’s Son. The Greeks do not develop their souls in the same way at all; their process of learning is different.”[xvii] Clement understood that believers who have been taught by God, although they have some of the same truths as the Greeks, are in a different and better place. This next quote is vital for understanding the Christian Gnostic. “We do not regard philosophy as a sine qua non. Almost all of us, without going through the full curriculum of Greek philosophy, sometimes even without literacy, under the impulse of non-Greek philosophy coming from God, have in power grasped through faith the teaching about God.”[xviii] Clement clearly states that philosophy is not sine qua non, or “without which, not.” In other words, he does not view philosophy as essential to grasping the teaching about God through faith. Clement’s Christian Gnostic is no elitist, but rather a person of many skills who has received divine instruction and goes about life pursuing that which is true, good, and beautiful.

The Economical Life and Thoughtful Speech of Clement’s Gnostic

In chapter 10, which is entitled “Excess in Speech Should Be Avoided,” Clement challenges his readers to “practice an economical way of life combined with a speech which avoids the extravagant and recondite.”[xix] More will be said about this economical way of life in the following paragraph. For now, let us consider avoiding extravagant speech. Referring to the Pharisees (Mat. 23:6), Clement says, “You must not make your phylacteries broad in eagerness for empty repute. The Christian Gnostic is satisfied with finding an audience of one.”[xx] After citing a poem from Pindar Boeotian (fifth century BC Greek poet), Clement appeals to Paul’s admonition in 2 Timothy 2: “The blessed Apostle is urgent in his admirable warning ‘to avoid disputing about words, an unprofitable activity which only harms the listeners, and to keep away from irreligious gossip. It will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and the words will start battening like gangrene.’”[xxi] Clement is careful to consult the Apostle Paul, but he is also in step with the sagely advice of the Proverbs (12:18, 15:4, 18:21, 21:23, etc.) and the wisdom of James: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).

Concerning the aforementioned “economical way of life,” Clement seems to be pushing against the person that is boisterous, thrill-seeking, and dissatisfied. He says, “Faith and the knowledge of truth establish the soul which chooses them to remain the same and follow the same principles. Change is related to falsehood; it is an alteration of a way of life; it is a form of rebellion; the Christian Gnostic is naturally related to quietude, rest, peace.”[xxii] Clement’s “economical way of life” is ordinary and humble. This way of life is commended in Scripture. Paul challenges the believer to pursue “godliness with contentment” (1 Tim. 6:6) and the leading of “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2). 

The peaceable life and thoughtful speech of the Christian Gnostic are accompanied by contemplation: “Our philosopher holds firmly to these three things: first, contemplation; second, fulfilling the commandments; third, the formation of people of virtue. When these come together, they make the Gnostic Christian. If any one of them is missing, the state of Gnostic knowledge is crippled.”[xxiii] Clement’s emphasis on contemplation may cause some to fear he is promoting an ascetic lifestyle, but his emphasis on “fulfilling the commandments” reveals that he has a biblical view of contemplation. In Scripture, contemplation leads to obedience. Joshua said, “you shall meditate on it (the Book of the Law) day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” (Joshua 1:8). Contemplation is also a common theme in the Psalms (1:2, 49:3, 63:6, 77:12, 104:34, 119:15, 143:5). Clement goes on to carefully instruct about a knowledge that is not divorced from practice: “This has to be the only knowledge known to wisdom, and it is never separated from the practice of righteousness.”[xxiv] In another place, Clement again affirms the connection of practice and belief: “For the Gnostic Christian, will, judgment, and praxis are one and the same. If a person’s professions are the same, his doctrines and judgments will be the same, so that his words, his life, his behavior may accord with his commitment.”[xxv]

One last note should be made about Clement’s three-part formula: contemplation, obedience, and formation. His emphasis on the “formation of people of virtue” reveals that Clement has an eye toward the community. The use of the plural “people” is significant; his Christian Gnostic is not the forerunner of fourth-century monasticism. He strikes this balance when he mentions church membership as being bolstered by the kind of education he promotes, this broad education across many disciples especially Greek philosophy: “In particular, wide learning which is evidenced by expounding the most important philosophic views contributes to the confidence of the audience; creating astonishment in candidates for church membership, it disposes them towards the truth.”[xxvi] Clement sees the Christian Gnostic, not as a scholar who never takes his nose out of a book, but as one who is edifying the community of faith while he conducts himself peaceably and thoughtfully in word and deed. 

The Fundamental Faith of the Christian Gnostic 

While in book 1, Clement said that philosophy is not regarded as a sine qua non, in book 2, in a chapter entitled “Connection between Faith and Repentance, Charity, and Gnosticism,” he argues that “faith is a more fundamental element, as it is essential to the true Gnostic.”[xxvii] He continues to explain that faith is “as essential as breath is to life for anyone living in this world. Without the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water) it is not possible to live. Without faith, knowledge cannot follow. So, faith is the foundation of truth.” This suggestion that faith is the most fundamental thing is reminiscent of the writer of Hebrews: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6). 

Clement also teaches that “the Christian Gnostic is rooted in faith. People wise in their own conceits use unstable, unfounded impulses and deliberately ignore the truth.”[xxviii] According to Clement, truth, wisdom, and knowledge are dependent on faith. Without faith, people have no place to hang their intellectual hat; they are unstable and unfounded, and they ignore the truth. In a similar way, the writer of Hebrews says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . . By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible” (Heb. 11: 1–3). Just as the writer of Hebrews sees faith as being foundational to understanding God and his physical world, so Clement uses sees a relationship to the physical world and refers to the foundational elements of earth, air, fire, and water to make his point. Faith is fundamental to our most basic understanding of God and his world. 

Clement’s view of faith is not some philosophical, abstract idea for the deep thinker; his faith has hands and feet, and it edifies the community of faith. He suggests that faith results in love. In a chapter entitled “Double Object of Faith and Gnosticism,” in a Pauline manner (1 Cor. 13:13), Clement brings together faith, hope, and love: “Further, we show love because we are convinced by faith that the past is as it is, and because we accept the future at the hands of hope. Throughout, love has been the companion of the Christian Gnostic.”[xxix]

The last thing we should note about the fundamental faith of the Christian Gnostic is its object—Christ. Clement quotes the Apostle as saying “O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20-21) and then argues that the Gnostics try to claim that the letters to Timothy are not authentic because it exposes their falsely called knowledge (τῆς ψευδωνύμου γνώσεως). This is significant. Clement uses this text in his polemic against the Gnostics, and he sees them as having swerved from the faith. Clement continues: “Well, if the Lord is ‘truth’ and ‘the wisdom and power of God,’ as in fact he is, it would be demonstrated that the true Gnostic is the one who has come to know him and his Father through him.”[xxx] The object of Clement’s faith is Christ. The fundamental faith of the Christian Gnostic is Christological, soteriological, and ecclesiological.

The Virtue System of the Clement’s Gnostic 

Clement seeks to ground the virtues of the Christian Gnostic in the teachings of Jesus found in Matthew’s gospel:

The Christian Gnostic will refrain from errors of reason, thought, perception, and action. He has heard that ‘anyone who looks with lust has committed adultery.’ He has taken it to heart that ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ He knows that it is ‘not what goes into the mouth which defiles a person, but the things which emerge from his mouth which defile him. For out of the heart emerge intentions’” (Matthew 5:28, 5:8, and 15:11).[xxxi]

Lest he be misunderstood, Clement is not promoting some moralistic performance. He sees virtue as being tied to the image of God: “It is the Christian Gnostic who is in the image and likeness, who imitates God so far as possible, leaving out none of the things which lead to the possible likeness, displaying continence, patience, righteous living, sovereignty over the passions, sharing his possessions so far as he can, doing good in word and deed.”[xxxii]

Clement also taught the discipline of the body and shunned an extreme life of luxury: “We must join in disciplining ourselves to beware of all that is subject to the passions. We must, like true philosophers, escape from any foods that arouse sexual desire, from a dissolute relaxation in bed, from luxury, and all the passions that make for luxury. We realize that others find this a grievous struggle. It is no longer so for us, since self-discipline is God’s greatest gift.”[xxxiii] This is in keeping with Paul’s admonition to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12). Paul personally practiced self-discipline: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27). As far as shunning an extreme life of luxury, the writer of Hebrews says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). It is important to note that Clement sees the result of virtue and self-discipline as patience and perseverance, not monasticism or self-flagellation: “So the king of the Babylonians drove Daniel down into a pit full of wild animals, and the king of the universe, the faithful Lord, brought him up again unharmed. This is the patience which the Christian Gnostic will gain qua Gnostic. Under trial he will give blessing like noble Job.”[xxxiv]

To support his teaching on virtues, Clement also appeals to Psalm 82: “God has taken his place in the council of the gods, in their midst he will hold judgment over the gods. Who are these gods? Those who have mastered pleasure, those who keep themselves aloof from passions, those who understand all their actions, the Christian Gnostics, those who are superior to the world.”[xxxv] Regardless of the debate surrounding the interpretation of “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6) it should be noted that Clement desires to ground his Christian Gnostic in the text of the Old and New Testaments. His suggestion that the Christian Gnostic is “superior to the world” find familiarity in texts that refer to “worldly passions” (Titus 2:12) and not being “conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). 

Let us conclude this portion on the Christian Gnostic’s virtue with Clement’s conclusion: “It is a reasonable conclusion about the whole sum of these virtues, if we have grasped the facts about them, that a person who holds one single virtue with revealed knowledge as a Christian Gnostic, holds them all because of their mutual links.”[xxxvi] Akin to our understanding of the “fruit” (singular) of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), the virtues of the Christian Gnostic are a package. They are not ordered à la carte.

Conclusion

By observing Clement of Alexandria’s nearly twenty references to “Christian Gnostic” in Stromateis, Books I–II, we have obtained a more accurate picture of Clement’s Christian Gnostic with a goal of resolving potential hesitancy on the part of today’s reader. But the question remains: Why would Clement use this title in the first place? Why would he not just stick with something like Paul’s title of “Spiritual” (1 Cor. 2:15, Gal. 6:1, Rom. 8:6). Given Clement’s propensity to appropriating Greek culture,[xxxvii] it is possible that he is endeavoring to appropriate a term invented by the sects already opposed by Justin Martyr (ca. 100–ca. 165) and Irenaeus (ca. 130–ca. 202). It could also be that Clement is attempting to steal back a concept that had been invented by Christians then corrupted by the teachings of Valentinus (ca. 100–ca. 160), who spent his formative years in Alexandria, and Basilides, who taught in Alexandria from AD 117–138. We can only surmise; there is not enough evidence to be sure either way. What we do know is that Clement of Alexandria did not see himself in the same stream as the second-century Gnostics. He opposed Valentinus and Basilides, and he was careful to separate from others who falsely claimed the title of Gnostic. In doing so, this late second century Father who taught just 100 years after the last apostle portrays a picture firmly rooted in Scripture of a spiritual person—the Christian Gnostic—who possesses many skills to the glory of God, leads a peaceable life in word and deed, has a faith that edifies the community, and adheres to the virtues of the Spirit-led life.


[i] Clement of Alexandria, Christ the Educator, trans. Simon Wood, vol. 23, The Fathers of the Church (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1954), vi.

[ii] Robert P. Casey, “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” The Harvard Theological Review 18, no. 1 (1925): 107.

[iii] Robert P. Casey, “Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Platonism,” 108.

[iv] Hans Von Campenhausen, Ecclesiastical Authority & Spiritual Power in the Church of the First Three Centuries, trans. J. A. Baker (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997), 249–50.

[v] Eirini Artemi, “Clement’s of Alexandria Teaching about the Cryptic Philosophical Tradition,” Vox Patrum 34, no. 62 (2014): 63.

[vi] In this paper, I refer to the gnostic heretics as “Gnostic” and, following John Ferguson’s pattern, I refer to Clement’s gnostic as “Christian Gnostic,” “Gnostic Christian” or “True Gnostic.” 

[vii] Strom. 3.1.1.1. For this project, all quotes are from “Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis, Books 1–3: The Fathers of the Church, Volume 85, trans. John Ferguson (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991).”

[viii] Strom. 2.20.117.5–6.

[ix] Eric Osborn, Clement of Alexandria (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 25.

[x] Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, Clement of Alexandria: A Project of Christian Perfection, 1st edition (London: T&T Clark, 2008), 192.

[xi] Ashwin-Siejkowski, Clement of Alexandria, 189–225.

[xii] For the sake of clarity, Ferguson takes liberty in his translation when supplying the word “Christian;” this word is not always present in the original Greek text.

[xiii] Strom. 1.9.43.4

[xiv] Strom. 1.9.44.2

[xv] Strom. 1.13.58.2

[xvi] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced employ the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

[xvii] Strom. 1.20.98.4

[xviii] Strom. 1.20.99.1

[xix] Strom. 1.10.48.5

[xx] Strom. 1.10.49.1

[xxi] Strom. 1.10.49.2

[xxii] Strom. 2.11.52.3-4

[xxiii] Strom. 2.10.46.1

[xxiv] Strom. 2.10.46.1

[xxv] Strom. 2.17.77.5-6

[xxvi] Strom. 1.2.19.1–4

[xxvii] Strom. 2.6.47.4

[xxviii] Strom. 2.11.51.3

[xxix] Strom. 2.12.53.5-7

[xxx] Strom. 2.11.52.7

[xxxi] Strom. 2.11.50.2

[xxxii] Strom. 2.19.97.1

[xxxiii] Strom. 2.20.126.1

[xxxiv] Strom. 2.20.103.3

[xxxv] Strom. 2.20.125.4

[xxxvi] Strom. 2.18.80.3

[xxxvii] See the opening paragraphs of Clement’s Protrepticus for a prime example of his appropriation of Greek mythology.

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bio picture for Daniel Webster A Thing Worth Doing ATWD blog - worship, ministry, and culture

Daniel Aaron Webster is a minister, writer, and teacher. His primary research interest is Early Christian music, especially the musical thought of Clement of Alexandria.

Daniel serves at Welch College as Director of Enrollment & Marketing and as Adjunct Instructor of Music & Theology. He also serves as the Associate Pastor for Music & Worship at Immanuel Church in Gallatin, TN.

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