Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Feast of Clement of Alexandria

O Lord, you called your servant Clement of Alexandria from the errors of ancient philosophy that he might learn and teach the saving Gospel of Christ: Turn your Church from the conceits of worldly wisdom and, by the Spirit of truth, guide it into all truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Clement of Alexandria was most probably a citizen of Athens and was born around the year 150 C.E. As is usually the case with saints from the earliest centuries, we don't know much about his early life; we know that he was a convert to Christianity and that he did not come from a Christian home. We do know that he was a "wandering scholar," a student of philosophy and that he studied with many different Christian teachers. Clement wrote that one was in Greece. . . the next was in Magna Graecia. . . others in the East and in this region (Egypt) one was an Assyrian, the other a Palestinian, a Hebrew by descent. Alexandria was the center of knowledge in the Greek world; it had an incredible library which was famous throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Alexandria was the center of many different philosophical schools and was becoming a center for Christian teaching, too. Clement eventually took over the catechetical school in Alexandria from his predecessor, Pantaenus, who left Alexandria never to return. Clement's aim was for the school to be a means of converting educated Alexandrian Greeks to Christianity. Clement believed that Christianity was the end to which all philosophy had been moving. He was very much influenced by Judaism, and he also found Greek philosophy to be full of wisdom (boy, that would get him in trouble nowadays!). He admitted that there were coincidences between Christian truth and the beliefs of the Greek philosophers. He said that even though these philosophers hit on the truth accidentally, it was because God had revealed himself to them, too. God's wisdom was not confined to the Hebrews and no race was deprived of the opportunity of apprehending God, so philosophy must be God-given. He believed that Plato prepared the way for the Greeks to accept the Christian faith. Philosophy shared with the Torah "In making the way for him who is perfected in Christ."

Clement was a prolific writer and his school began to attract many students. His followers included the father of Origen, and Origen himself became a student of Clement and eventually became the master of the school in Alexandria. Cement was one of three Fathers of the Church, along with Hippolytus of Rome and Tertullian of Carthage, writing against the various heresies of their time. This was the time in which various Gnostic schools were making their gains. Hippolytus wrote the text Refutation of All Heresies in which he analyzed each heresy and showed how each could be traced to a different Greek philosophical school, and therefore rejected. Tertullian had a background in law, and he used his skills in his book On Prescription Against Heretics to prove that the heretics had no right to use the Christian scriptures because they were usurpers and latecomers whose sects had come into being long after the Church was formed. Clement's contribution to the debate was to show that Platonism and scripture could be combined to demonstrate not dualism but the harmony and goodness of the universe. Clement believed that the institutions of society, such as marriage, were good in themselves. Most Gnostic groups taught that sin was a defect of nature and that the things of this world, in fact, all matter, were evil and prevented one from experiencing God. Clement taught that sin was not the result of a defect in nature, but a defect of will. He taught that wealth in itself was not evil since it could be used for the good of the community, which was the opposite of Tertullian's teaching that wealth was sin. The various Gnostic groups taught that there was a secret gnosis, or knowledge, which only certain people were able to understand, and that only those with this gnosis would be saved. Gnostics believed that the world was evil and that the world of spirit was superior. They wanted salvation from the world instead of the salvation of the world. Cement agreed that a gnosis, or spiritual understanding, was the chief element of Christianity, but he believed that this gnosis was there in the faith of the Church. Cement had great respect for the intellect and for scholarship, and he had a lot of problems with some Alexandrian Christians. There were a group of Christians in Alexandria who had no use at all for philosophy or philosophical Christians. They were anti-intellectual and suspicious of educated Christians (sound familiar?) Clement came to dislike these people who called themselves orthodox. He wrote: The so-called orthodox are like beasts that work out of fear. They do good works without knowing what they are doing. They are as scared of Greek philosophy as they are of actor's masks, fearing it would lead them astray. They are dumb animals that have to be driven by fear. Clement said that one would not get anywhere if one tried to tell educated Greek catechumens that the Greek poets were inspired by the devil: The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof, and anyone who seeks to help catechumens, especially if they are Greeks, must not shrink from scholarly study. Clement's combination of Platonism and Christianity was continued by Origen, and their understanding of the transcendence of the Creator was the root of the Alexandrian school's emphasis on the divinity of Christ, which became the basis of the theological battles between the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch.
By the year 200 Clement had built up a flourishing community of well-educated Alexandrians, secure in their faith and willing to defend themselves against the arguments of the pagans and Gnostics. A savage persecution broke out in Alexandria in the year 202; Clement wrote of "roastings, impalings and beheadings" taking place in Alexandria at that time. Origen's father was martyred in the persecution, and Origen, a young teenager, so wanted to wear the crown of martyrdom that his mother had to hide his clothes to keep him in the house, safe! Cement left Alexandria during the persecution, traveling through Syria to Cappadocia. His name does appear on the early martyrologies, and he may have been martyred on December 5, 202, possibly in Antioch.

Clement also wrote hymns, and the Hymnal 1940 contains translations of two of his hymns: #81 "Sunset to Sunrise Changes Now" and #362 "Master of Eager Youth." He also wrote several apologies. Clement was able to make the faith attractive to the intellectuals of his time, and so he could be considered the patron saint of intellectual Christians. He demonstrated that Christianity could be an optimistic and rational creed that made the highest demands of human morality, while requiring acceptance of the rule of the Church and its essential articles of faith.


Paul said...

Great post, Padre. I borrowed the quote about the so-called orthodox from your comment at Jake's place and posted it at mine. Wanted to spotlight it.

I am not well-suited to the academic world, though I love good scholarship. A double-doctoral-dropout, I give thanks for Clement's approach to things. Optimistic and rational sounds good to me.

Keep up da good work!

June Butler said...

Beautiful, El Padre. I gave you a link. I'm going to start charging you ad fees for all the publicity I give you on your early saints posts.

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