Clement of Alexandria: An Orthodox Gnostic

By Logan Koontz

While several authors mused on mystical topics during the second century, there is none that had a greater impact than Clement of Alexandria. Indeed, he has been labelled by many as the “father of Christian mysticism.”[1] Unlike his contemporary Justin Martyr, Clement had no problem importing Platonist concepts such as divine incomprehensibility, vision, and deification into his theology. Interestingly, Clement also had a high view of gnosis. Christoph Markschies writes that, “Time and again, Clement is concerned with right ‘knowledge’ as opposed to a ‘knowledge wrongly so-called’”[2] He believed that gnosis naturally fit within a wholistic biblical theology and, as such, belonged in a healthy definition of mysticism.

Defining Gnosis

For Clement, gnosis does not represent secret knowledge of a divine spark that allows the believer to ascend to divinity. Clement sees gnosis as the higher mysteries of the faith which are to be imparted once a believer has mastered the more basic elements. However, gnosis should be reserved for believers who are ready, willing, and qualified through their life and actions to receive it.[3] The reception of gnosis, then, should be part of the natural growth and progression that every believer experiences in their walk with Christ. For Clement, the mystic is the true Gnostic; as the mystic’s faith grows, his knowledge of the deeper things of God grows too.[4]

Frequently in the written word, Clement and others would hide such gnosis in allegory, anagogy, and symbolism. Clement deliberately conceals gnosis in plain sight in his writings. This ‘gnostic’ writing style for mature Christians can be found throughout his corpus, particularly in works such as the Stromateis.[5]

Critical Concepts

1. God and Creation

Clement holds to several different ideas that are critical to understanding the role of gnosis in his mystical theology, but perhaps principal among these ideas is the concept of God being central to the universe, the creator and ruler of all of creation. Unlike Gnostic mythology, which perceives the material universe as evil and something to escape to an ineffable God, Clement sees the opposite. Clement holds a Pauline view of creation: that the material world points to a knowable God who must be worshipped due to His self-evident holiness and righteousness.[6]

2. Participation

Clement also argues that after man accepts the centrality of God as both creator and ruler, one must partake in that divine nature. He argues that it is necessary for the believer to enter the mystical path which leads to eternal life with God. In keeping an ecclesiological focus, Clement argues that the gnostic has a responsibility not just to himself, but also to the health of the church as a whole:

“Let us … strive to be united into one love, corresponding to the Unity of the One Being. So also, let us follow unity by the practice of good works, seeking the good Monad. For the union of many into one, bringing a divine harmony out of many diffused sounds, becomes one symphony, following one leader and teacher, the Word, until it teaches the Truth itself.”[7]

3. Ascetic Disciplines

Seeking the divine mind of God which is focused on His church, Clement contends that practice of the ascetic disciplines are key to the Christian mystic. Clement argues that through the self-discipline and the life of prayer, the Gnostic does not pursue the things of this world but the things of the next world. Clement is adamant about the importance of the life of prayer, saying that the Christian mystic must spend much time in prayer so that he might converse with God. It is only when a believer consistently meets God in prayer that the believer can be inspired to do all things in love as commanded by God.

4. Divinization

Finally, Clement argues that as the mystic pursues God, he must go through the process of divinization. Clement broaches divinization through the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility and ineffability.[8] Despite his constant adherence to this doctrine, Clement attempts to “expound his views of knowledge and faith, wisdom and understanding.”[9] In essence, Clement argues that, “It is thus by acknowledging one’s ignorance concerning the truth that one may walk the right road towards love and even be assimilated to it.”[10] Hägg sums up Clement’s view saying,

Clement’s apophaticism, then, depends on his view of the absolute ‘unknowledge’ of the divine essence. It is not an irrational knowledge, but a knowledge which is conscious of its ignorance (ἄγνοια) of the transcendent, as clement says in the well-known passage (Strom. 5.71.5): “not knowing what He is, but what He is not.” The paradox is that the negative process does not allow man to know God as he is in himself, except as the Unknowable and Incomprehensible.[11]

However, Hägg also contends that while gnosis does play a role in Clement’s concept of the virtuous life, it appears that, for Clement, gnosis has a limit. Unlike the Gnostics, who believe that gnosis is the true knowledge of the Supreme God, Clement acknowledges that while gnosis is helpful in coming to know something of God, at some point divine incomprehensibility will veil the divine from man and, as such, gnosis is inherently limited. Man’s only hope of penetrating that veil and going ‘further up and further in’ lies in a combination of gnosis and pistis, not merely gnosis.

[1] Margaret Smith, The Way of the Mystics: The Early Christian Mystics and the Rise of the Sufis (London: Sheldon Press, 1976), 48.
[2] Christoph Markschies, Gnosis: An Introduction, trans. by John Bowden (New York: T&T Clark, 2003), 31.
[3] Smith, The Way of the Mystics, 1.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Henry Fiskå Hägg, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 148.
[6] See Rm. 1:20; Ps. 19:1-4, 148:1-6, 148:7-10; Job 12:7-10; and Is. 55:12.
[7] Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus, x, ix.
[9] Hägg, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism, 211.
[10] Ibid., 214.
[11] Ibid., 263.