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R.A. Baker
Bio page  |  Statement of Faith

Chapter Downloads
Chapter 1  Introduction
Chapter 2  The Origins of Christian theoria
Chapter 3  Technical Aspects of theoria
Chapter 4  Theoria: The Final Stage in the Spiritual Pathway
Chapter 5  The Practical Aspects of theoria
Chapter 6  Conclusion
Addendum  Appendices, Bibliography

Clement of Alexandria - The Origins of Christian Theoria

Paradosis, A Secret Oral Tradition
It is clear when one reads the opening chapter of Stromateis that Clement is preparing the reader for what he believes will be a special encounter. He portrays himself as the caretaker of an apostolic tradition, a paradosis,

Now this work of mine in writing is not artfully constructed for display; but my memoranda are stored up against old age, as a remedy against forgetfulness, truly an image and outline of those vigorous and animated discourses which I was privileged to hear, and of blessed and truly remarkable men....they preserving the tradition (paradosin) of the blessed doctrine derived directly from the holy apostles, Peter, James, John, and Paul, the son receiving it from the father (but few were like the fathers), came by God’s will to us also to deposit those ancestral and apostolic seeds. And well I know that they will exult; I do not mean delighted with this tribute, but solely on account of the preservation of the truth, according as they delivered it. For such a sketch as this, will, I think, be agreeable to a soul desirous of preserving from escape the blessed tradition. - Strom. I.1.11,1-12,1

This tradition is not just apostolic — Clement believes it to be secret (or private) teachings from Jesus,

He [Jesus] did not certainly disclose to the many what did not belong to the many; but to the few to whom He knew that they belonged, who were capable of receiving and being moulded according to them. But secret things are entrusted to speech, not to writing...

[Christ] Himself taught the apostles during His presence; then it follows that the gnosis...which is sure and reliable, as being imparted and revealed by the Son of God, is wisdom...the end of the wise man is contemplation...and the gnosis itself is that which has descended by transmission to a few, having been imparted unwritten by the apostles.

The concept of an unwritten esoteric tradition in the Early Church is a very interesting and divisive one. Paradosis, “a handing down,” is the word used by the Fathers to denote oral tradition. Clement uses the term around 30 times; ten of these occurrences clearly represent oral tradition and three of these occur in the opening chapter. Before we continue our study of paradosis we need to consider the critical role of this first chapter in understanding the work as a whole.

Stromateis I.1 : A Promise to Reveal and Conceal
We have already mentioned that the opening chapter of Stromateis is like an invitation to a special encounter. Clement argues for the right to give this written account; if others can compose blasphemies, those who proclaim Truth should not be restricted. He then urges the reader, indirectly through the quotation of Proverbs 2:1-2, to hide his teaching. From that point forward this opening chapter is loaded with terms such as hidden, parable, unwritten, tradition, secret, and mystery. Clement makes it clear right away that he intends to divulge secret teaching, but that he will do so in a guarded fashion:

And we profess not to explain secret things sufficiently--far from it--but only to recall them to memory....Some things my treatise will hint; on some it will linger; some it will merely mention. It will try to speak imperceptibly, to exhibit secretly, and to demonstrate silently....The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.

This promise to reveal while concealing in the opening chapter of Stromateis is a motif which marks the whole work. There are many who recognise this intention of Clement to communicate esoteric tradition, but have concluded that, in fact, he really had no such tradition.

There are a few items in this opening chapter which we need to note and which set the tone for the whole work: the repeated promise that the Stromateis would be written in such a way as to reflect the hidden nature of Truth, repeated references to an oral tradition, the use of theoria, comments about philosophy, and finally, comments on spiritual "food" and "meat."

The first comment indicating that the Stromateis will be written in such a way to hide divine Truth is not a clear reference, but is nonetheless, interesting: "Now this work of mine in writing is not artfully constructed for display..." (I.1.11,1). This comment, along with others, has been seen by many scholars as Clement’s excuse, or rationale for his inability to construct a systematic work. We have already mentioned other references to Stromateis being written to reveal/conceal (14,2; 15,1 and 18,1). Clement refers to this purposeful hidden nature of his work from time to time to keep his reader aware of it; he hopes by this the diligent seeker will be encouraged to continue the hunt. In these texts, he not only says that he is trying to hide his teaching, but that it is good for the reader to have to work hard to find it. This he also makes clear in the opening chapter (10,1-3 and 16,3). We will see later in this chapter how Clement acknowledges the hidden nature of the Scriptures and of the philosophers; he is using these two examples as his model for Stromateis.

Another theme which is prominent in this opening chapter and which recurs several times in the work is this oral tradition, which is the focus of our current section. We do not want to belabour the point here since we will discuss this aspect further in the following two sections; suffice it to say that Clement refers to an oral tradition several times in this opening chapter and several times throughout the whole work.

At this point we want to note Clement’s use of theoria in this opening chapter. He specifically tells us that his notes in outline form nicely accomodate theoria like a relish on an athlete’s food. He also says that he will oppose "the dogmas taught by remarkable sects" (the heretics) with the "profoundest contemplation of the knowledge" which is part of the "canon of tradition." As we have already seen Clement uses theoria throughout Stromateis, but he gives us no real indication in this opening chapter as to what it means. What he does tell us in Strom. I.1 is that theoria will stand in opposition to the dogmas of the heretics; this takes our discussion to the final point we want to consider.

We want to note Clement’s comments in Chapter One concerning Greek philosophy. After the very early pejorative reference (1,2), he says that Greek philosophy is like a nut, not wholly edible. This, of course, implies that it is partly edible; the whole of this opening chapter and the rest of Stromateis bear this out as well. He makes an interesting comment about philosophy in 15,2-3:

The dogmas taught by remarkable sects will be adduced; and to these will be opposed all that ought to be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge, which, as we proceed to the renowned and venerable canon of tradition, from the creation of the world, will advance to our view; setting before us what according to natural contemplation necessarily has to be treated of beforehand, and clearing off what stands in the way of this arrangement. So that we may have our ears ready for the reception of the tradition of true knowledge; the soil being previously cleared of the thorns and of every weed by the husbandman, in order to the planting of the vine. For there is a contest, and the prelude to the contest; and there are some mysteries before other mysteries.

Clement tells us that he will examine and refute the teachings of the heretics. He will proceed by first "clearing off what stands in the way" through and in "natural contemplation." Here he is using another analogy which he utilises throughout Stromateis, the husbandman and his garden. He must rid the garden of all that hinders (thorns and weeds) the growth of the good seed, then the ground will be ready to receive the gnostic tradition. What constitutes thorns and weeds? The philosophical errors expounded by the philosophers and the Gnostics. Clement’s clearest polemical writing is in Book Three where he writes against Gnostic teaching on sexual issues, but their teachings also led to unorthodox ideas with respect to cosmogeny, anthropology and other philosophical categories. It is clear that to answer and oppose these two groups demanded engagement with philosophical ideas; this is why Clement says he will use "natural contemplation" to oppose the heretics. The study of these philosophical ideas represents the minor mysteries which must be "cleared away" before looking into the greater mysteries. This is made clear by Clement’s comments in Strom IV.1.3,1-4 where, referring to this same process of learning, he speaks of clearing away certain subject matter, "ascending thence to the department of theology." Indeed, there is virtually nothing said in this introduction about philosophical categories; if these represent the "thorns" and "weeds" there is no need to include them in his introduction. It seems then that Clement is preparing the reader in this opening chapter for philosophical discussion, but only in order to finally address what he holds to be most important, the gnostic tradition.

This is not to imply that Clement is opposed to philosophical discussion — quite the contrary. In the following discussion on the "food" of the gnostic (the final aspect of Strom I.1 we want to note) we will see that he both uses, and defends the use, of philosophy.

Finally, we want to notice Clement’s use of "food" and "meat;" this will be a recurring theme which will help us know when he is revealing. We have already mentioned two of the references to "food" in Strom I.1 in our previous discussion above, but we want to highlight this theme here. The first reference is a quotation of a text (John 6:27) which Clement will come back to in Book VI,

‘Labour,’ says the Lord, ‘not for the meat which perisheth, but for that which endureth to everlasting life.’ And nutriment is received both by bread and by words....and nourish for the life which is according to God, by the distribution of the bread, those ‘that hunger after righteousness.’ For each soul has its own proper nutriment; some growing by knowledge and science, and others feeding on the Hellenic philosophy, the whole of which, like nuts, is not eatable.

We will show later how he uses this text and theme of "meat" to end a section of concealment and to bring his purpose back into focus.

In I.1.16,1 Clement says,

Our book will not shrink from making use of what is best in philosophy and other preparatory instruction....The nicety of speculation, too, suits the sketch presented in my commentaries. In this respect the resources of learning are like a relish mixed with the food of an athlete, who is not indulging in luxury, but entertains a noble desire for distinction.

Here it is readily admitted that the best of philosophy will be used and it appears that theoria is part of "best." He refers to theoria here as "a relish mixed with the food of an athlete." We need to note that from his first mention of this "food" aspect (I.1.7,2-3) the topic for discussion has been "Hellenic philosophy." (7,3) Clement’s defense for using philosophy is a prominent theme for the remainder of the chapter. This defense is concluded with another text (I.1.17,4-18,1) which refers to the "food" of the gnostic,

For, like farmers who irrigate the land beforehand, so we also water with the liquid stream of Greek learning what in it is earthy; so that it may receive the spiritual seed cast into it, and may be capable of easily nourishing it. The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell.

Clement again refers to philosophy with the analogy of the partly edible nut, as he did in I.1.7,3. What we will see as we continue our study, is that he comes back to this "food" analogy in several places. We will show that this is part of his conceal/reveal strategy.

To conclude our discussion of Strom. I.1, I want to summarise what I think Clement is doing in his opening chapter. He wants to alert the diligent seeker/reader that he has been the recipient of a secret apostolic oral tradition which has been cautiously passed down through the years. He has included much of this tradition within his work, but has done so (by necessity) in a diffuse way, to protect it from the unworthy. He cannot clearly state the enclosed contents, especially in his introduction, otherwise it would not remain protected. And so his introduction tells the reader that if he is diligent he will ferret the gnostic tradition out. Those interested in lesser things will get bogged down in the various subservient categories and tangents. However, Clement has left some hints:

Now the Scripture kindles the living spark of the soul, and directs the eye suitably for contemplation (theoria); perchance inserting something, as the husbandman when he ingrafts, but, according to the opinion of the divine apostle, exciting what is in the soul. (10,4)

The dogmas taught by remarkable sects will be adduced; and to these will be opposed all that ought to be premised in accordance with the profoundest contemplation of the knowledge (gnosis and theoria)...(15,2)

The nicety of speculation (theoria), too, suits the sketch presented in my commentaries. In this respect the resources of learning are like a relish mixed with the food of an athlete... (16,1)

While philosophical ideas are important to him, especially when dealing with Greek converts, they serve only as "relish" mixed in with the most important ideas: "The Stromata will contain the truth mixed up in the dogmas of philosophy, or rather covered over and hidden, as the edible part of the nut in the shell." (I.1.18,1) We will see that this "meat," this gnostic "food" which is implicitly promised here in Book I.1, is the philosophical category of theoria. This is not the only “edible” part of philosophy, but it is the part which Clement desires to communicate in Stromateis; the rest is used either as "relish" or concealment.

The purpose of Stromateis is to record the gnostic oral traditions. Now we will examine two studies which represent the scholarly debate on this issue.

Clement Home Page  |  go to  -  Oral Tradition, page 2


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Clement of Alexandria and Christian Spirituality

Chapter 2
Origins of Christian Theoria
- introduction
- what is spirituality?
- studies on clement
- oral tradition
- oral tradition II
- minority tradition
- hidden - Stromateis
- theoria and oral tradition
- conclusions

Chapter 3
Technical Aspects of Theoria
- introduction
- 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

- CH101
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Clement of Alexandria Theology
Clement of Alexandria and Heresy
Clement of Alexandria and The Trinity
Clement of Alexandria and Contemplation
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Clement of Alexandria and Prayer
Clement of Alexandria Stromateis
3rd Century Fathers - Christianity
Clement of Alexandria
Origen of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria and Stromateis
Stromata, Miscellanies or Stromateis
Clement of Alexandria and The Instructor
Cyprian - Lapsed Christians
Third Century Christian History
The Trinity in the 3rd Century
Paidagogus - Stromateis - Miscellanies
Origen - De Principii - Principles
Paul of Samosata - Trinity
New Testament Canon, Canonized
Questions regarding Christian Issues
Third Century Christian Issues
Diocletian Persecution of Christians
Diocletian Persecutes Early Church
Novatian Baptism - Cyprian of Carthage
Early Christianity New Testament
Early Christianity Constantine and War
Important Issues in Early Christianity