Question: "Who was Clement of Alexandria?"

Answer: According to the 4th-century bishop Epiphanius, Titus Flavius Clemens was born into a pagan family in Athens. Clemens is today called Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 155–c. 220)—his city of residence is added to distinguish him from the earlier Clement of Rome. As a seeker of truth, Clement traveled through Greece, Italy, Syria, Palestine, and finally to Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria was a melting pot of all sorts of religious and philosophical ideas. There he encountered the teacher of the Alexandria Catechetical School, Pantaenus, who presented him with the Christian message; Clement became a believer.

In time, Clement would succeed Pantaenus as head of the school in Alexandria. Clement’s approach was tailored to reach the educated intelligentsia and those steeped in Greek culture. He believed that, just as the Mosaic Law provided background to prepare Jews to come to Christ, so pagan philosophy provided the background that could prepare the pagan for faith in Christ. He presented Christianity as a new philosophy in terminology that would appeal to Gnostics. At a time when Gnostic teaching was becoming ever more popular, Clement taught that faith was the basis of true knowledge (or gnosis).

It was during his time at the school (190–202) that Clement did most of his writing. He wrote Exhortations (often called Exhortations to Greeks, Exhortations to the Heathen, or Exhortations to Gentiles) using extensive philosophical quotations and sophisticated argumentation to show pagan unbelievers that Christianity was reasonable. In his work to Christians, Instructor, he covered many areas of Christian behavior as taught by the Instructor (the Logos) and stressed moderation. In Miscellanies Clement explains that one must sift through a lot of beliefs to come to the truth. Christianity, according to Clement of Alexandria, is complete in itself—the true gnosis—but philosophy is a useful tool to arrive at the truth.

One sermon, many letters, and fragments of a few other works of Clement survive. The sermon, Who Is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, is significant in that it addresses a problem that Christians did not have to often face in the early years of the church—what is the responsibility of rich Christians? Clement of Alexandria teaches that being rich is not a problem if one is not greedy. This has been the dominant Christian attitude toward wealth since then.

In about 202, Clement fled Alexandria to escape the persecution of Roman Emperor Septimus Severus and later died in Asia Minor. Clement’s influence has been debated, but, according to tradition he was a teacher of Origen, who later became a theologian of major influence in the Eastern Church.