December 4 is the feast day of St. Clement of Alexandria.
Titus Flavius Clemens was born in the mid-second century, belonging to the Hellenistic world of his day. We do not know exactly when he became a Christian, but only that he was a convert.
As a young man, he traveled from place to place, learning from “blessed and truly remarkable men.” (Miscellanies, I.1.11, quoted by Eusebius). He lists their locations as Greece, south Italy, Lebanon, Egypt, Assyria, and Palestine, before he “found rest” in Alexandria, Egypt. His Palestinian teacher was a Jewish Christian. His Alexandrian teacher was a Sicilian named Pantaenus, who was then head of a catechetical school. Pantaenus had learned the Stoic school of philosophy, and had been a Christian missionary to India, before he became head of the school where he taught Clement.
Clement was known for “his patient study of Holy Scripture. He also studied the writings of Justin Martyr and of Justin’s followers Tatian and Irenaeus. Irenaeus is a possible source for Clement’s story here quoted, which Clement described as “handed down and committed to the custody of memory, about the Apostle John.” Irenaeus had committed to memory Polycarp’s stories about John, although Irenaeus does not mention this one in any writing still extant. The image it gives of John as archbishop rings true in its display of his energy and determination. It may give us a glimpse of why Jesus might have given John and his brother the name “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). That fiery side of John shows in the gospels at Luke 9:54 and Mark 9:38.
For evangelistic purposes, Clement gained extensive knowledge about the writings of poets and philosophers. W.H.C. Frend wrote that “he realized from what he read that his missionary task would be hopeless unless he was able to interpret Christian truth in terms which educated inquirers could accept.”
In 190 A.D., Clement succeeded Pantaenus as head of the catechetical school. He chose to work as a lay teacher of Christian philosophy and as a lay spiritual director, and was not ordained.
Alexandria was the most prestigious intellectual city of his day. Clement’s presence there placed him in the midst of Hellenistic intellectuals and an affluent Christian community. His converts included educated and wealthy people, married, active in business, and possibly even in positions of civil authority.
One of Clement’s three foremost books, The Paedagogus, is a “guide to ethics and etiquette for a Christian moving in a cultivated society” (Chadwick, Early Church, pg. 94). In reaching that culture for the Gospel message of salvation, Clement commented on the life of cultured people in Alexandria and accepted the truth he found in Greek philosophy as indicative of God’s creation of man in His image, planting the seed of truth in all people. He saw Plato and Aristotle as preparing the Greek people for the true message of the Gospel, just as the Old Testament had prepared the Hebrews. While earlier Christians had looked for connections between the Old Testament and the New Covenant, following the exegesis of Palestinian Judaism, Clement also drew from Philo, using secular culture to understand Scripture. As described by Jean Daniélou (pp. 132-133):
“But the interesting thing about Clement is that these transpositions are not merely adaptations; he justifies each one with very deep learning. It is the unique Word which has given out to each nation, through the angel set over it, the form of wisdom proper to it; this wisdom is one in principle but multiform in presentation. This same Word manifests itself anew in Christ, but the same pattern remains. The revelation of Christ takes the form appropriate to the various cultures. If Christianity spreads in the Greek world, it must doff its Semitic form and put on a Hellenist form, it must speak the language of Plato and Homer and take the attitudes of Hermes and Ulysses.”
Clement loved intellectual conversation and debate with cultured people, saw no wrong in having a glass of wine in polite company, had no objection to marriage, and loved to drop the names of well known philosophers and poets in an entertaining manner. He wanted to make his surrounding culture comfortable with his message and comfortable with Christianity. To nervous Christians, he justified his use of philosophy and literature by the example of St. Paul, explaining that he too would become all things to all men that he might by any means save some. It is probably no accident that his manner of telling the story of John galloping into the mountains is an entertaining, or even seductively masculine, view of the apostle.
Clement sought to evangelize affluent Alexandrians, but he also taught that a Christian should accept the world as a good gift from God, but remain detached from it as a pilgrim, dressing and living simply, and living a life of prayer.
In 202 to 203 A.D., severe persecution struck the church under the reign of Septimius Severus. Clement fled Alexandria, never to return. His student Origen took over the school. By 211, Clement resurfaced in Cappadocia, as a friend of Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem. He carried a letter from Alexander to the church at Antioch that year (Eusebius, pg. 189). Not long before his death, he was finally ordained a presbyter. He lived at least to 215 A.D.
Chadwick, The Early Church
Daniélou, Jean, S.J., and Henri I. Marrou, The Christian Centuries: The First Six Hundred Years , translated by Vincent Cronin, McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964.
Eusebius, The History of the Church
Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity