Clement’s Attack on Hellenism

Clement of Alexandria, or Titus Flavius Clemens (not be confused with the earlier Apostolic Father, Clement of Rome) was a Greek theologian. He lived from around 150 AD to 215 AD. He was one of the most learned men of his time, heavily educated in Greek philosophy, and he eventually rose to the head of the Catechitical School in Alexandria (a school that was rumored to have been founded by Saint Mark). He was likely born into a pagan Greek family, and he converted to Christianity at a young age. Today, we know him as a Christian “Church Father.” He was the teacher of other notable theologians, including Origen and Alexander of Jerusalem. He eventually left Alexandria due to Christian persecution, and the date and manner of his death remain unknown.

Aside from fragments of his so-called “secret works,” three major works have survived that are attributed to Clement: Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), Paedagogus (“Tutor”), and Stromata (“Miscellanies”).

The Protrepticus is an “exhortation,” or perhaps better labeled a polemic, addressed to the Greek pagans. He mocks their religion and requests that they adopt Christianity by appealing to their greater pursuit of goodness. In the text, Clement flexes his knowledge of pagan mystery cults and mythology, he includes accounts of minstrels like Amphion and Orpheus, and then he lambasts these pagan beliefs:

“How in the world is it that you have given credence to worthless legends, imaging brute beasts to be enchanted by music, while the bright face of truth seems alone to strike you as deceptive, and is regarded with unbelieving eyes?”

One might ask the same question of Clement in his beliefs. At any rate, Clement writes of a “new song” of the one eternal God. It is blended with the “sweet medicine of persuasion.” And he goes on to claim that these musical legends are “deceivers” who are influenced by “daemons” to bring about men’s ruin. They are also idolatrous and enslaving. Quite bold claims for a thousand year old belief in antiquity! According to Clement, Christianity frees men from this enslavement.

On a note of intrigue: Clement writes with a bold enthusiasm for the “new song” of Christianity. He is not a boring, or dry writer of mere treatises. Like Nietzsche, his words come alive and inspire the soul.

Clement gives a fascinating theological exposition in to the nature of the logos. In allusion to the Gospel of John, Clement notes that the “Word” or “Reason” existed in the beginning, and our birth is the rational image or reflection of the logos. However, the “Word” itself came to earth in the form of Jesus, and this is the new song, the manifestation of Him who has shined down upon us, the pre-existent Word.  It has appeared “not long ago.” Now, He converts people to the “Word” by means of Reason.

In effect, in the “exhortation” Clement signals a death knell for the ancient Hellenic religions. The Bacchic frenzies and orgies are evil (Dionysus is “evil”); the rivers of Arcadia are all dried up; the worship of the sun and moon is ridiculous; The Greek rituals are a reflection of “atheism” and “daemon worship.”

Clement says he is dedicated to the truth. His text is the embodiment of the need to do away with fictions and phantasms, in favor of the cold, harsh reality. But he cannot simply allow the Greek beliefs to lie beside the Christian beliefs (i.e. ‘live and let live’), instead he must confront the Greeks about their so-called wicked rituals, and condemn the legends of Hellenism, in favor of his self-proclaimed, and purified Christian ethos.

“Do you think that the examples which I am adducing are brought to you from some improper source? Why it seems as if you do not recognize your own authors, whom I call as witnesses against your unbelief. Alas for you! They have filled your whole life with godless foolery, until life has become truly intolerable.” 

Clement use of “witnesses” and his accusatory language point to his purpose. His goal is to put all of Hellenism on trial for being evil, immoral, and fictional. In Clement we see the seeds of a kind of progressivism emerge, as Clement mocks early religions and rituals as simplistic and ignorant, while Christianity is portrayed as elevated, refined, and true.

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