Bio page | Statement of Faith
Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 The Origins of Christian theoria
Chapter 3 Technical Aspects of theoria
Chapter 4 Theoria: Final Stage in the Spiritual Pathway
Chapter 5 The Practical Aspects of theoria
Chapter 6 Conclusion
Addendum Appendices, Bibliography
(You can now download the PDF of my Ph.D. Thesis, University of St Andrews - March 2001)
I will present various sections of my research in summary form with very few citations. PDF files of each chapter can be downloaded above - these represent the "official" work with page numbers and footnotes - these should be used if you plan to cite this work.
Clement of Alexandria
3.1 The Apophatic Nature of Theoria
Clement portrays God as transcendent, yet immanent. This immediately causes both theological and philosophical problems which certainly cannot be fully addressed in this study, yet can neither be ignored. For our purpose here we will begin with transcendence because it is from this concept that the other categories flow; God's nature as other demands the abstraction of the soul from the senses, to strive for apatheia, to experience the mystery of the beatific vision, and to rise up beyond this world into the heavenly realms. These are all categories which we find associated with theoria in Stromateis.
3.1.1 The Ineffable God
Clement clearly presents God as transcendent, wholly different from man and ineffable. In his discussion on this topic, Casey offers this comment, "Clement's conception of God's transcendence is from the historical point of view probably the most significant portion of his theology" (p.74). He clearly shows that Clement, though not the first Christian writer to use the word asomatos ("without body"), was the first to understand its meaning and philosophical implications referring to him as "a pioneer" in his expression of immateriality. Casey argues against Inge's comparison of Clement with Plotinus, mainly because Clement presents Christ as the great Logos element which breaks the veil of transcendence.
In order to see just how clearly Clement communicates this transcendence, we will look at a quite lengthy passage from Book V:
And John the apostle says: "No man hath seen God at any time. The only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him," - calling invisibility and ineffableness the bosom of God. Hence some have called it the Depth, as containing and embosoming all things, inaccessible and boundless. This discourse respecting God is most difficult to handle. For since the first principle of everything is difficult to find out, the absolutely first and oldest principle, which is the cause of all other things being and having been, is difficult to exhibit. For how can that be expressed which is neither genus, nor difference, nor species, nor individual, nor number; nay more, is neither an event, nor that to which an even[t] happens? No one can rightly express Him wholly. For on account of His greatness He is ranked as the All, and is the Father of the universe. Nor are any parts to be predicated of Him. For the One is indivisible; wherefore also it is infinite, not considered with reference to inscrutability, but with reference to its being without dimensions, and not having a limit. And therefore it is without form and [without] name. And if we name it, we do not do so properly, terming it either the One, or the Good, or Mind, or Absolute Being, or Father, or God, or Creator or Lord. We speak not as supplying His name; but for want, we use good names, in order that the mind may have these as points of support, so as not to err in other respects. For each one by itself does not express God; but all together are indicative of the power of the Omnipotent. For predicates are expressed either from what belongs to things themselves, or from their mutual relation. But none of these are admissible in reference to God. Nor any more is He apprehended by the science of demonstration. For it depends on primary and better known principles. But there is nothing antecedent to the Unbegotten.
There are numerous items in this passage which must be noticed. First, the abundant use of the alpha privative [all italicized words carry the negative alpha in the Greek which is difficult to deal with properly in a web page]. Undoubtedly, this is the most negatively loaded passage one will find in Stromateis; it certainly points to the apophaticism which can be found in Clement. This passage is the conclusion of a lengthy discussion on immateriality which begins at V.11.67,1. He scoffs at those who try to make the incorruptible God in their own image, failing to understand that God has given man "ten thousand things in which He does not share." He then makes a statement of the negative way of abstraction which leads to the place of saying, "we may reach somehow to the conception of the Almighty, knowing not what He is, but what He is not." Daniélou sees the influence of Albinus here, but says that Clement "marks an epoch in the history of human thought....The supreme affirmation, therefore, which the human mind can make is to acknowledge that God in his essence is wholly unknowable."
Secondly, we note that other than the opening citation from St. John, he does not cite another text from scripture in this passage. This brings up an important point in the study of Clement's apophaticism: it is not primarily driven by biblical text. In the apophatic passages, he cites from the biblical text sparingly, sometimes not at all. In each of the passages listed below where he does cite a biblical text it is clearly done according to "the godly tradition....and according to the canon of the truth" (that is, according to Clement's gnostic rule of allegorical interpretation). The biblical texts which he cites are not direct references to an apophatic theology, but are allusions. The Platonic tradition is the main influence for Clement's apophaticism. We have two more items to notice (in Strom. V.12.81,3-82,3); both will confirm our last statement.
The concept of an ineffable God for Clement is derived from a synthesis of Plato and Philo as seen through the lens of the biblical text. When I say Clement's apophatic theology comes not from the Scriptures, but from the Platonic tradition I do not at all mean that it (apophatic theology) is not a biblical idea/category. However, the biblical text does not address the negative as much as it does the positive aspects of theology. Osborn sees this same "synthesis," but gives more credit to the Pauline influence than I think is warranted. I think he is correct when he reads between the lines of Clement's text to see the Pauline influence, but the actual text betrays his analysis. The text he highlights (pp.48-49) is the same one we have chosen above, Stromateis V.12.81f. Osborn is correct that the context is "dominated by the themes of faith and mystery" (p.46), but as we follow the flow of Strom. V and the use Clement makes of biblical citations, it is clear that the Scriptures are being used to verify his Platonic ideas. In fact, he does not cite a single biblical text after his use of John 1:18 at the beginning of the passage (V.12.81,3). The remainder of the passage, as Osborn shows in his exegesis (pp.48-49), contains allusions to Plato and to Middle Platonism, mainly Philo. Overall I agree with Osborn's analysis, my disagreement is only one of emphasis: Osborn is stressing the biblical framework of Clement's apophaticism while he acknowledges the philosophical language, "Recent Pauline study has made it easier to link Paul with this theme [he has just cited Acts 17:22-23]....The further one goes into the letter to the Romans the greater is the sense of walking between immensities or of handling mysteries." (pp.49-50) While Osborn stresses the biblical framework, I see the biblical text as confirmation of the Platonic framework. It is not until Book VII that Clement purposes to neglect the citation of the Scriptures; if Osborn were correct, we would see more biblical citations in this passage.
To continue our discussion of Clement's apophaticism, further comment needs to be made on Philo's influence. Wolfson says that Clement understands Plato in terms of Philo and cites several examples to illustrate this point. Lilla rejects Wolfson's claim of Philo being the originator of the ineffable God, and shows quite convincingly that this concept was already present in Plato. Runia goes further with regard to this issue by saying, "we can actually prove that Clement was aware of the close connection between Platonism and Philonic thought." Philo was the first to use certain words to describe God, such as "unutterable," which is used by Clement several times. Clement's usage of arretos is our third item to notice in the text which preceded this discussion.
Though Clement's use of arretos might have been inspired by Philo, his use of the word points to this synthesis we have mentioned above. From the eight times he uses the word referring to the concept of God, three clearly reflect the influence of Philo, four include a biblical text, and three actually name Plato. This only confirms what we have already noted: Clement is highly influenced by Plato, Philo and the Scriptures. In relation to this synthesis Runia comments,
It cannot be emphasized enough that in all probability Clement, because he had had a pagan philosophical training before he became a Christian, will have read Plato before he gained acquaintance with Philo. Most likely he did not come across Philo until he reached Alexandria and joined his last teacher Pantaenus. This means that Philo did not teach Clement Platonism, but rather how to connect his Platonism to biblical thought...
It should be noted that utter transcendence of God was vital in second century Platonism. This brings us to our final item to notice in our main passage, and a summation: it is full of categories which fit Middle Platonism better than the Scriptures.
So it is clear that Clement's God is transcendent and ineffable. We now need to isolate passages in Stromateis where Clement links theoria with this ineffable God; this will give us an indication of how apophaticism fits into his scheme of spirituality.
3.1.2 Theoria the doorway into the invisible realm
If God is ineffable and unapproachable, then how is one to have any kind of contact with this Being? Indeed, if God is not at all like us, and "like only can know like," then the Christian has no hope of any contact. Where many second century Platonists affirmed this inability for man to make contact with the Divine, Clement has too much biblical faith to do so; his answer is to be found in the grace of the Incarnation and in the concept of theoria. God made the initial contact through the Logos in the incarnation, and the gnostic makes continual contact through theoria. In this section we want to look at the passages where the via negativa and theoria occur together.
Right away it must be said that there are very few clear references where theoria occurs within an apophatic text; we only count two (Strom. V.12.78,1-2 and VII.12.76,7). The clearest citation happens to be the one we noted in the last chapter (p.36 above), Strom. V.12.78,1-3:
"For both is it a difficult task to discover the Father and Maker of this universe; and having found Him, it is impossible to declare Him to all. For this is by no means capable of expression, like the other subjects of instruction," says the truth-loving Plato. For he heard right well that the all-wise Moses, ascending the mount for holy contemplation (dia tan hagia theorian), to the summit of intellectual objects, necessarily commands that the whole people do not accompany him. And when the Scripture says, "Moses entered into the thick darkness where God was," this shows to those capable of understanding, that God is invisible and beyond expression by words.
There are several items which must be discussed; we will begin with Clement's quotation of the well known Platonic text, Timaeus 28c. The first thing to notice is that Clement quotes the text accurately, probably from a copy of Plato rather than from an anthology. He accurately indicates that this "Father and Maker" is difficult to discover, but not impossible. In the same way, it is not impossible to declare Him, just impossible to declare Him to all. Secondly, Clement gives us his interpretation of Plato by referring to God who is "invisible and beyond expression by words" (78,3). He uses arretos here and will use it twice more (79,1 and 81,3) in this lengthy section which extends through V.12.82,3 and opened our discussion of apophaticism. This further confirms the apophatic nature of this passage. Next, we see that the whole thrust of the passage, though apophatic in nature, is actually pointing to the possibility of making contact with God: Moses ascends "to the summit of intellectual objects" through holy contemplation. This is confirmed with the citation of 2 Cor. 12:2 where Paul describes being raised up into the third heaven where he heard "unutterable" words. Clement is showing here that the God beyond expression of words can, with difficulty, be discovered. How? By "ascending the mount for holy contemplation."
Our second passage (Strom. VII.12.76,4-5) linking apophaticism with theoria does not hold the same weight of argument as our first passage. It says the gnostic, through contemplation, "sees the Lord, directing his eyes towards things invisible...", but this passage appears in the midst of Strom. VII where Clement gives the practical side of theoria. As we have mentioned, we will discuss in detail these practical aspects of theoria in Chapter Five.
3.1.3 Conclusions on the apophatic and theoria
What can we conclude from our review of the apophatic texts with respect to theoria? First, we again see the three major influences on Clement: Plato, Middle Platonism (mainly through Philo), and the Scriptures. Clement has either shaped his own Christian apophaticism from these three systems, or this is part of the paradosis. Secondly, there is not enough direct textual evidence to link theoria with Clement's apophaticism; if there is a link we will have to verify it through the association of other ideas and categories. This will be our task for the remainder of this chapter.
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Clement of Alexandria and Christian Spirituality
Origins of Christian Theoria
what is spirituality?
- studies on clement
oral tradition II
hidden - Stromateis
- theoria and oral tradition
Technical Aspects of Theoria
- apophatic theoria
- apatheia and theoria
- concept of mystery
more sections coming...
- the threefold pathway
- theoria - spirituality
- stromateis book VII
- practical spirituality
- silence, silent prayer
- egyptian christianity
- clement's theoria
- clement's influence