BMCR 2006.12.06

Clement of Alexandria

, Clement of Alexandria. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xviii, 324. $85.00.

Table of Contents

Clement of Alexandria’s major work, the Stromateis, appears unsystematic, unpolished, and disjointed. Clement, who is fond of concealment and of giving hints, confirms that its contents are “deliberately jumbled” (Str., yet he expresses confidence that “the writing will find the one who will understand it,” and that the Stromateis will benefit the one who is able to search μετὰ λόγου (Str. The bold purpose of Eric Osborn’s work is to demonstrate that Clement of Alexandria is a “coherent thinker” (xiii) who has “clear concepts” (xii), and that one can indeed understand Clement’s works, provided that one recognize that “logos means logic” (22 n 77) and that one attend to the problems that Clement was trying to solve. Osborn succeeds in what he sets out to do in this book—to show that the arguments that Clement makes in response to these problems must be taken seriously. Classicists, especially those who study Plato and Middle Platonism, will learn much from seeing how Clement, who has been called “the most Greek of early Christian writers” (25), looked to Greek philosophy for help in understanding and articulating the meaning of the Bible, a move of utmost significance for the history of Christian theology and for the west in general.

In his earlier book on Irenaeus, Osborn (hereafter O.) distinguished a “philosopher’s philosopher,” who makes arguments about important matters, from a “historian’s philosopher,” who notes what philosophers have said but engages in little or no argument.1 O.’s sympathies clearly lie with the former. As he notes in the preface to the present book, some have examined Clement’s works for their role in the development of Christian doctrine, others have focused on the gold-mine of classical citations found therein—Clement cites 348 different classical authors (5)—but he has adopted the “analytic or problematic method” (xii), which, while not neglectful of the doxographers’s findings, entails “simply ask[ing] what problems forced Clement to write and where he found Christian teaching in need of elucidation” (xiii). O. identifies three such problems: 1) How can one derive answers to questions of theology, anthropology, and ethics from the account of what God does? 2) How can father and son be one God? 3) What is the meaning of “salvation by faith,” and how is faith related to knowledge? (xiii, 4). These problems give rise to the structure of the book: three parts, each devoted to one of these problems, are framed by an introductory chapter and a conclusion.

This book is indeed analytic. O. identifies, breaks apart, and considers Clement’s arguments. But the book is also synthetic. O. brings together Clement’s often scattered statements on given themes and shows how these fit together to form a “pilgrim theology” (261 n 10). A remarkable feature of the book is the notion, advanced more than once, that Clement’s path-breaking “fusion of faith with Plato’s search for the best reason” (280) in no small measure helped to foster the optimism that traditionally has been at the foundation of European culture. With reference to the work of U. Schneider, O. also suggests that Clement’s coherent Christian philosophy, which is capable of intelligently, confidently, and logically engaging other positions, can offer modern theology a route toward “academic integrity” (275).

This book represents the fruits of O.’s more than half-century long engagement with Clement’s works and marks a return to the subject of his Cambridge dissertation and first monograph (1957), although his numerous writings over the years indicate that, happily for us, he has never really stopped thinking about Clement. O., honorary Professor in History at La Trobe University, Professorial Fellow in Classics at the University of Melbourne, and Fellow of Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne, repeatedly shows how thoroughly Clement adopted the idiom of Scripture. Something analogous can be said about O. himself, whose prose is remarkably similar to Clement’s, which is to say that one finds the language of Scripture and of Plato, the playfully tricky idiom of Heraclitus, references to recent philosophical and cultural turns (such as the ideas of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and even Mikhail Gorbachev), citations of a wide-range of scholarship (including dissertations and articles both old and new), blunt criticisms of other positions (especially Discourse Power theory), a sharp wit, hints of his intellectual odyssey, pietas towards his teachers, and an obvious delight in rigorous theology. This book, like the Stromateis, is “logical rather than narrative” (11). In order to read it, one must possess the very “conceptual stamina” (24, 75) that O. identifies as a prerequisite for grasping Clement’s work. The Stromateis, O. says, were intended “to separate sophists from philosophers and turn boys into men” (xiv). Finally, notwithstanding their affinity for riddling language, both Clement and O. are impatient with those who never probe the realities into which words grant insight.

In the first chapter, “Life and works,” O. takes up various biographical, literary, and historical questions, such as the problem of the trilogy of Clement’s major works, the reason for the obscure character of the Stromateis, the nature of the catechetical school at Alexandria and Clement’s role within it, and the perennial question concerning the nature and extent of Clement’s Hellenism. Anticipating some important themes of the book, O. draws attention to the primacy of Scripture in the Stromateis, and he devotes a brief section to “Plato and Heraclitus,” Clement’s two favorite Greek philosophers. The influence of the former on Clement is well known, but O.’s treatment of this question throughout the book is insightful. O. is concerned with concepts rather than verbal parallels or allusions. The influence of the latter is not nearly as well known and in O.’s opinion has been underestimated even by those who have studied it. O. several times makes a strong case that there is more than a “stylistic affinity” (18) between Clement and Heraclitus, and that Clement seriously engaged the ideas of the Ephesian philosopher.

Part I, “Divine Plan/Economy,” comprises Chapters 2 through 4. In Chapter 2, “Divine Plan/economy and mobility,” O. seeks to show that Clement, like Tertullian and Irenaeus, was principally concerned to articulate the apostolic kerygma, according to which the plan of the one good God to make salvation available has come to perfection in Christ. Readers who tend to associate the notion of divine οἰκονομία chiefly with Irenaeus will benefit from seeing how central this was for Clement as well. For Clement and Irenaeus the divine economy is rational; therefore it can be studied, understood, and declared. But according to O., Clement more than Irenaeus emphasizes the “present splendours which Christ has manifested” (35). Readers of this book will benefit from O.’s deep knowledge of the works of Clement’s immediate predecessors or contemporaries. He has written monographs on Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. A comparison between Clement and Irenaeus, who are said to “deal with similar problems” (269), forms an underlying theme of this book, and is taken up formally in an appendix.

In Chapter 3, “Scripture,” O. argues that Clement was the first to show logically how one can move from “biblical text to metaphysic,” “from prophecy to Plato” (56), or how one can glimpse noetic realities through the prophetic narrative of Scripture. O. identifies and expounds the four steps in Clement’s argument. Noteworthy here is the discussion of how and why Clement approaches Scripture by means of true dialectic, and O.’s observation that Clement’s defense of dialectic is not a tactic to appear palatable to Greeks but is directed rather to those Christians who, demanding faith alone, wanted nothing to do with philosophy, dialectic or science. O. also argues that true dialectic, “governed by Christ” (65), leads the believer not only to truth, the proper understanding of Scripture, and the vision of God, but also to a proper way of living in the world. Related to this is O.’s distinction between “theological analogy,” which Clement employs, and “philosophical allegory” (78). The former, because of the Incarnation, enables Clement to join the “cosmic and noetic in one meaning” (79). Clement, according to O., does not forsake the historical meaning of Scripture.

Chapter 4, “Philo and Clement: from Divine Oracle to True Philosophy,” falls naturally within the scope of Part I because Philo also made the move from narrative to philosophy. This chapter illustrates well O.’s priorities: in his examination of the relationship between the two Alexandrians, O. says that he has followed Rorty in separating a “rational reconstruction” from a “historical reconstruction” (82 n 6). Although there is much to learn from O.’s comments on the latter, he prefers the former approach. As always, he does not want to probe influence on the basis of citations alone. O. considers both Clement and Philo “original and passionate thinkers,” and he wants to resist a “homogenisation” of them (103). He notes similarities, but he identifies critical differences: Philo is a “philosophical exegete” (83, 93) while Clement is a “biblical theologian” (100); Clement does not owe his Platonism to Philo, and his “commitment to Plato was stronger than that of Philo” (104); Clement argues more than Philo does (100-101); Philo and Clement have different understandings of the Jews (82-83) and of the Law (82, 91); Clement speaks of the fall and “the descent of a redeemer;” “The decisive difference lies in the relation of logos to God” (82). This chapter will certainly be of interest to many, given the attention in recent years to a proper assessment of Clement’s debt, and that of Christian theology in general, to Philo. In particular, O. acknowledges the “magisterial” (81) contributions of David Runia and Annewies van den Hoek.

In Part II, “Divine Reciprocity,” the briefest of the three parts, O. shows that Clement looked to Greek philosophy, not only Plato but also Heraclitus, for help in solving certain puzzles that he found in Scripture. O.’s premise is that Clement’s thought about God, salvation, and ethics is marked by “reciprocity.” He cites passages in Clement’s works that point to this concept. To illustrate the three reciprocities, or reciprocal unities, that he discerns in Clement’s thought, O. describes three ellipses, each with two foci: the foci of the first ellipse are “father and son”, in the second they are God and the human person, in the third they are man and man. The first ellipse “produces” (137) the second, the second produces the third. All three elucidate the “mystery of love” (149). In Chapter 5, “God beyond God and God within God: The known centre of the unknown God,” O. shows that Clement seized upon the notion of a duality in God that he found in certain Middle Platonists and used it to account for the reciprocity between the Father and the Son that is especially apparent in the Gospel of John. Chapter 6, “God beside God: the ellipse,” contains a more formal discussion of the three ellipses, and concludes with a section on the Holy Spirit.

Part III, “Faith and Salvation,” the longest part of the book, comprises six chapters. For Clement, O. argues, faith is not “passive acceptance;” rather, it renews, enlivens, and prompts the mind to undertake an active search for the “best reason” (155). Faith is simple, yet it grows into knowledge (157). In Chapter 7, “The Spark and ferment of faith,” O. organizes Clement’s numerous statements about faith and explores its “generative” character. He discusses Clement’s understanding of the canon or rule of faith, tradition, and the relationship between faith and philosophy, faith and knowledge, and faith and virtue. O. is especially concerned throughout the third part of the book to show that Clement was greatly influenced by St. Paul, something that has not always been accepted.2

In Chapter 8, “Arguments for faith,” O. identifies and summarizes six arguments for faith that Clement makes in Str. II and takes up again in Str. V. He demonstrates that Clement, with “a spectacular intellectual hospitality and inventiveness” (183), makes use of the arguments of a wide range of Greek philosophers, including even Epicurus, in order to show that faith does not hinder reason but is its necessary foundation.

Chapter 9, “Knowledge, sciences and philosophy,” may be divided into three sections. The first explores Clement’s arguments in defense of philosophy, the sciences, and dialectic, all of which can be used to discover truth and to investigate Scripture. The second section contains a succinct summary of Book VIII of the Stromateis, which O. dubs a “logic notebook.” In the third section O. turns to consider the account of knowledge that Clement gives in the Excerpta ex Theodoto.

In Chapter 10, “Church and heresy,” O. chooses not to assess Clement’s views on heresy in terms of “social theory” because he believes that Clement’s position results from his embrace of logic, argument, and rationality. Clement, he writes, emphasizes tradition, the rule of faith, and “the canon of the church” as safeguards against the incoherent interpretation of Scripture that the heretics give (220). O. also brings together Clement’s statements on the Church.

Chapter 11, “Twofold hope,” takes up several subjects, all of which involve ethics, for O. says that “the hope of Christians is that they should become like Christ, and this is the theme of all ethical discourse” (226). As in previous chapters, O. shows the great extent of Clement’s appropriation and modification of Greek philosophy, but he also shows that Clement looks first and foremost to the New Testament. O. gives particular consideration to the treatment of hope in Str. 2.20. He takes up the distinction between image and likeness, which, he says, is “one of Clement’s chief contributions to Christian theology” (233), and he discusses Clement’s notion of apatheia, particularly the extent to which it is compatible with love. The concluding sections offer insight into ethical themes of the Paedagogus and Quis Dives Salvetur, respectively.

In the final chapter, “Love and reciprocity,” O. calls attention to “the exuberant optimism of Clement’s account of love” (268). Having stated that Clement is “the first writer, after the New Testament, to deal at length with Christian spiritual life” (258), O. focuses on the reciprocity of the second ellipse, i.e., how love marks a human being’s response to God. He discusses the relationship between love and the virtues and between love and knowledge, and he identifies the characteristics of the true sage, such as his manner of prayer and the nature of perfection.

It remains to be said that this rewarding book is demanding. O.’s prose is terse ‘. But prospective readers of this book will be comforted to learn that the similarities with Clement’s style do not extend too far. This book is not “deliberately jumbled.” O. provides helpful summary paragraphs at the end of several sections, as well as a select bibliography (in twelve pages), a subject index, and indices of citations from Clement, the Bible, and ancient authors. One minor complaint I have is that the original Greek is provided too sparingly, and when it is provided, it is typically, but not always, in transliteration. This is no doubt consistent with O.’s effort to dissuade his reader from focusing too much on isolated words rather than on the concepts and realities they indicate, but it necessitates having the Greek text close at hand. Similarly, readers would do well to have a Bible close at hand when they read this book.

This book deserves to be read widely, by patrologists, scholars of classical philosophy, historians of the early Church, theologians, and those working in related fields. Students of Clement, in particular, will be grateful for O.’s continued commitment to teach through writing.3


1. Irenaeus of Lyons (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 8 n 20.

2. See the discussion in W. H. Wagner, “A Father’s Fate: Attitudes Toward and Interpretations of Clement of Alexandria,” The Journal of Religious History 6 (1971), 221-22.

3. Cf. E. Osborn, “Teaching and writing in the first chapter of the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria,” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1959), 335-43.