05 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (6): 5 December, Clement of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria ... a saint for Advent or a theologian on the margins of heresy?

Patrick Comerford

Clement of Alexandria is commemorated on 4 December in the Calendar of Common Worship in the Church of England and in the calendar of many other Anglican churches. The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt also venerates him as a saint, and he is usually regarded as a Church Father.

But Clement does not appear in the calendars of Greek, Slavonic or western Orthodox churches, and he was removed from the Roman Martyrology by Pope Clement VIII.

Saint Clement’s Church, Cambridge ... named after which Clement among the Early Fathers?

Saint Clement’s Church, on the corner of Bridge Street and Portugal Place, Cambridge, is shared by the Church of England with the Greek Orthodox Parish of Saint Athanasios and Saint Clement in Cambridge. Saint Clement’s Church, Cambridge, and Saint Clement Danes on the Strand in London are examples of the popularity of dedicating churches to Saint Clement in Danish settlements in England.

But the saint who gives his name to these churches is Saint Clement of Rome, the first Apostolic Father of the Church.

So, is Clement of Alexandria a saint?

And is he worth considering as an example in Advent as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child and Christ the Child?

Clement of Alexandria, who was born Titus Flavius Clemens, probably in Athens into a Greek family, lived from ca 150 to ca 215. He was a convert to Christianity, and is remembered as a leading teacher in the Catechetical School of Alexandria, where his pupils included Origen and Alexander of Jerusalem.

Clement’s writings show how familiar he is with classical Greek philosophy, literature, mythology and mystery religions. He was influenced by Hellenistic philosophy, especially Plato and the Stoics, to a greater extent than any other Christian thinker of his time.

As a young man, he rejected his family’s religious practices, and in a religious quest travelled through Greece, Asia Minor, Palestine and Egypt. During his wanderings, his teachers included Athenagoras of Athens, Tatian, and Theophilus of Caesarea.

In the year 180, Clement arrived in Alexandria, and he was ordained priest within ten years. He left Alexandria during persecutions at the beginning of the third century, and may have lived in Antioch or Cappadocia from 202. The date of his death is unknown, although he probably died ca 215.

Clement’s three principal theological works are: the Protrepticus or Exhortation (ca 195); the Paedagogus or Tutor (ca 198); and the Stromata or Miscellanies (ca 198-203).

Eusebius in his Church History is the first writer to provide an account of Clement’s life and works. He also provides a list of Clement’s works, biographical information, and an extended quotation from the Stromata.

Clement is also important because he shows how faith is related to knowledge and he emphasises the superiority of revelation over philosophy. But Clement had no notable influence on the course of theology beyond his influence on the young Origen, who succeeded him at the school in Alexandria.

His writings were copied by Hippolytus and Theoderet of Cyprus, and were admired by Saint Jerome.

Clement has grown in favour for his charming literary temper, his attractive candour, his brave spirit that makes him a pioneer in theology, and his leaning to the claims of philosophy. To readers today, he is modern in spirit.

He was exceptionally well-read, with a thorough knowledge of Biblical and Christian literature and of Greek poets and philosophers, of orthodox and heretical writings, and he has preserved the fragments of many lost works.

But in his teaching, Clement lacks technical precision and makes no pretence to orderly exposition. He uses philosophy as an instrument to transform faith into science and revelation into theology. Clement refuses to have anything but faith for the basis of his speculations. He had read all the Books of the New Testament, except II Peter and III John. Yet he often fails in his endeavours and misuses texts in his faulty exegesis, interpreting the Scripture after the manner of Philo and finding allegories everywhere, so that the facts of the Old Testament become mere symbols to him.

Clement argues for the difference between the faith of the ordinary Christians, who are without insight, and the science of the perfect Christians who have insights into “the great mysteries” of humanity, of nature, and of virtue, and live lives of unalterable calm, in closest union with God through prayer.

Clement’s writings come before the days of the great Trinitarian controversies. Some critics doubt whether he distinguishes the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as Persons, but a careful reading of him proves that he did. While Photius believed Clement taught a plurality of Words, in reality Clement drew a distinction between the Father’s Divine immanent attribute of intelligence and the Personal Word who is the eternally-begotten Son.

He acknowledges two natures in Christ; Christ is the Man-God, who profits us both as God and as man. He regards Christ as one Person – the Word. There are frequent instances in his writings of the interchange of idioms, so that Patriarch Photios of Constantinople later s accuses him of Docetism. However, Clement clearly admits in Christ a real body, although he thought this body exempt from the common needs of life, such as eating and drinking, and that the soul of Christ is exempt from the movement of the passions, including joy and sorrow.

In places, Clement appears to be close to Modalism, in other places close to Subordinationism. He says little of the Holy Spirit, but when he refers to the Third Person of the Trinity he adheres closely to the language of Scripture.

In the ninth century, Patriarch Photios wrote an extensive critique of Clement’s theology, in which he is appreciative of Clement’s learning and literary merits of his work, .but he condemns many of his ideas as heretical.

Until the 17th century, Clement was venerated as a saint and martyr in the Roman Catholic tradition, and his feast fell on 4 December.

So, can we consider Clement of Alexandria a saint worth pondering in this first week of Advent? Certainly, as an experimental and pioneering theologian who raises important questions about the incarnation and personhood of Christ in the decades immediately before the great Christological and Trinitarian debates, he is worth re-reading in the weeks before Christmas.

Tomorrow (6 December): Saint Nicholas of Myra.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecture in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

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