Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Today on the Christian History Almanac, we head to Egypt to learn about Clement of Alexandria and his impact on the church.

It is the 5th of December 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


December 5th is a real goocher- so many events and names, I had to stop myself and pick one- so I went with the oldest of the dates- the remembrance of one Clement of Alexandria- a sometimes shadowy figure in church history (it also doesn’t help that Clement of Rome- who lived about 50 years before him will be the bigger “Clement” in the Early Church).

But Clement of Alexandria, despite some controversy- like being stripped of his saintly status by the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century (!) deserves his day in the sun here on the Almanac.

Here’s what we know: he was born around 150, likely in Athens, to pagan parents. He sought to learn as much as he could, and this led him to an exploration that ended in Alexandria under a Christian teacher named Pantaenus. Pantaenus would establish the first Christian catechetical school- and that in the intellectual center of the 2nd century: Alexandria in Egypt.  

This was the home of the great library- of trade routes that brought religions into conflict and teachers to train a new generation of philosophical, theological, and legal scholars.

Clement was so impressive he was asked to take over the school at the death of Pantaenus around 180 and would become a teacher to Origen (who you might remember me regarding as a sneaky good church father and fun read). By 202, with the Severan persecution coming to Egypt, Clement fled, taught around the Eastern Mediterranean, and died- perhaps- on this day, the day he is recognized by some churches.  

As a man born pagan in Athens, it would make sense that Clement would not want to ditch the intellectual tradition of his past- going to Alexandria to further explore his faith reflects this.

Clement believed that Greek Philosophy was not contradictory to the Gospel (as some, like Tertullian, would say- he of the quote: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”). Clement of Alexandria believed that all truth was God’s truth- and any truth earnestly and honestly pursued would lead to the one truth of Jesus, son of God and savior.

He believed that just as the law was a tutor under Moses (see Galatians 3), ancient philosophies could similarly teach up to the point that the need for a savior was established. For Clement, that Logos- the eternal word- was the missing piece from Plato and others and that in Christ, all philosophies could be reconciled. While we only have a few of his writings, we can see in his pupil Origien and in the development of the “Alexandrian” school a prominent method for understanding Scripture.  

We should remember that Rome, Jerusalem, and Constantinople were 3 of the early centers of ecclesiastical authority along with Antioch and Alexandria. And those last two shared a long debate over the nature of scriptural interpretation. In Antioch, the emphasis was laid on the literal, historical text and glosses on modern philosophy- and especially allegorical interpretations were right out.

Not so in Alexandria, where the so-called “allegorical” approach to Scripture was adopted. Please note: “allegorical” in this sense is not in opposition to “historical” or “literal.” Rather, it gives the commentator another route to understanding Scripture. An oft-used example comes from Paul himself, who in Galatians 4 gives us the allegory of Sarah and Hagar while certainly not excluding the historical significance of the two lines from Abraham for salvation history.

He would also stress, with the Greeks, the “ineffability” of God. That is, your language and limitations make it impossible to speak of the ultimate creator, and thus his incarnation in the Logos- the Word, the Son of God is key to understanding God himself.

He was acclaimed as a saint and church father in the early church. However, some of his statements were seen as possible contradictions of later controversies- such as “that Jesus did not have to eat on account of his divine nature but did to show his disciples he was human.” There’s a reason the church met in the 4th century to define Christology, but we do well to give a little grace to those formulating theology and Christology pre-Nicene Creed.

Nonetheless, few former pagans and Christian converts did more to lay the groundwork for an intellectually defensible Christianity for Greeks and pagans than the man behind the great Catechetical school in the first centuries of the Church: Clement of Alexandria.  


The last word for today comes from Clement- the earliest hymn with a known author- appropriate from a teacher. It is his “Shepherd of tender youth.”

Shepherd of tender youth,

guiding in love and truth

through devious ways,

Christ, our triumphant King,

we come your name to sing

and here our children bring

to join your praise.


You are the great High Priest,

you have prepared the feast

of holy love;

and in our mortal pain

none calls on you in vain;

our plea do not disdain;

help from above.


So now and till we die

sound we your praises high

and joyful sing:

infants and all the throng

who to your Church belong,

unite to swell the song

to Christ, our King!


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 5th of December 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man who recognizes 3 St. Clements- of Rome, of Alexandria, and Clement Clarke Moore- the author of Twas The Night Before Christmas- he is  Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who, in case I don’t get around to it- will remind you that in Twas the Night Before Christmas, Santa is clearly a tiny elf- go check it out. I’m  Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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