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Clement of Alexandria - The Origins of Christian Theoria
Paradosis, A Secret Oral Tradition
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
Clement of Alexandria and Christian Spirituality
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