“Faith Seeking Understanding” (Part II): Clement of Alexandria

Editor’s note: Part I of this series may be found here.

Without a doubt, the richest source for theological epistemology in pre-Nicene Christian literature is to be found in Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215). In fact, it is Clement who gives us perhaps the most philosophically detailed treatment of knowledge in the entire first millennium of Christian thought.

Clement’s most extended and profound reflections on epistemology are to be found in his Stromateis, essentially a series of philosophical notebooks. Like Irenaeus, but with far greater philosophical elaboration, the keystone of Clement’s epistemology can be expressed in the words of Is. 7:9 (LXX): “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” The sources of this epistemology are both scriptural and eclectically philosophical: Stoic, Epicurean, Aristotelian, Platonic. Clement’s doctrine of faith takes its foundation from Paul’s Corinthian letters and the Epistle to the Hebrews. Faith is grounded in God’s own “demonstration” of his wisdom, which is opposed to the “wisdom of this world.” Faith is also a grace. And faith, according to Clement, provides the “starting point” (hormētērion) of reasoning and of knowledge. This statement ought to be taken with emphasis on the objective pole of faith, for elsewhere Clement will say that Christ himself is the sole “principle” – archē – of the knowledge of God.

Faith apprehends the first principles (ai archai, ta prota) of knowing. First principles, Clement argues following Aristotle, are essentially indemonstrable: as Aristotle pointed out, there cannot be infinite demonstration without infinite regression. Further, there can be no absolute epochē, says Clement, countering the skeptics – no absolute suspension of belief: if nothing is certain, then we cannot be certain that nothing is certain! Clement further quotes Heraclitus in the view that (true) first principles are not attainable by reason: they must be given by revelation.

The first principles of faith, which are epitomized in the rule of faith, Clement views as making room for reason. Clement places enormous stress on the need for faith to grow and mature into knowledge; this is crucial to his model of the ideal Christian. He interprets Paul’s statement about taking the Gospel to “regions beyond” (2 Cor. 10:16) as meaning epistemic regions: realms of knowledge. In fact, the act of simple faith for Clement is already a form of knowledge, even though perhaps not yet “scientific” (epistēmonikē). As he argues – in an apparently Stoic-influenced note that will appear again later as key to Augustine’s treatment of knowledge in De Trinitate knowledge always builds on prior knowledge (prognōsis). Clement presents a detailed account of elements in that growth.   

According to Clement, faith is a kind of prolēpsis, a fore-apprehension or pre-conception of some reality. This idea of prolēpsis was important to Epicurus, and was further adopted by the Stoics. More or less all philosophical schools in late antiquity seem to have agreed that knowledge required a beginning in prolēpsis. However, Clement follows the Stoic modification of the idea in that he holds that prolēpsis is not solely an intellectual act, but requires a voluntary movement of the will. This is an anti-Gnostic move on Clement’s part, as the Gnostics regarded faith as “natural” (physikē) – simply given to some but not to others; Clement, in contrast, emphatically stresses the role of free volition in knowing. Applied to faith (pistis), this is a modification not only of Epicurus but also of Aristotle. While Aristotle held that belief was necessary to knowledge, he restricted faith solely to an affair of the speculative intellect (nous theoretikos). In contrast, for Clement, the prolēpsis of faith is both a speculative and a practical, ethical affair. It is no coincidence that Clement’s Stromateis is preceded by his earlier book, the Paedagogos, dealing with questions of ethics and the control of passions: progress in Christian knowledge has its foundation in the practical moral life.Likewise, in his doctrine of faith, Clement has in fact crossed the Aristotelian pistis with the Stoic doctrine of “assent” (sugkatathesis), which had a clear element of volition to it. Faith or pistis according to Clement is a free “assent of the soul” (psychēs sugkatathesis) and an “assent of understanding” (sugkatathesis dianoias).

For Clement, knowledge of God begins in the prolēpsis of faith but moves through demonstration (apodeixis) to apprehension (katalēpsis), and finally to the perfection of knowledge (gnosis)Although it begins with a first principle that is divinely revealed and likewise ultimately arrives at a point beyond mere human rationality, the path to the knowledge of God is, then, a wholly rational affair. Faith opens up the reason to boundless expanses. Rational inquiry or demonstration is commanded to those Christians capable of it, in order that they may arrive at a truly scientific faith (epistēmonikē pistis), and a faith that is “accurate” (akribē pistin).

Clement regards the philosophical learning of the pagan Greeks as useful and necessary in providing the tools for this demonstration of faith. Indeed, philosophy was a covenant of God to the Greeks in parallel to the covenants with Israel. This does not mean, however, that Christians can ascribe to any particular philosophical school. The only “true philosophy” is rather “the barbarian philosophy” – the salvation that comes from the Jews (Jn. 4:22): that is, the Christian philosophy. The first principle of true philosophy is Christ, or faith in Christ. And the primary matter of “demonstration” for that true philosophy is the Scriptures. Clement’s writing is loaded with not only philosophical but also biblical erudition.    

Theology according to Clement is a heuristic science (heuristikē epistēmē). Epistēmē Clement interprets as the “standing [of the mind] upon [things].” Theology is concerned with not words and thoughts but “things” (ta pragmata). Scientific knowing is the repose of the mind upon realities. Theology interprets the realities with which it is concerned with the help of the witness of the Scripture and the unwritten traditions of the succession of teachers in the Church. Such theological interpretation is a matter of relating signs (semeia) to things signified (semaiomena), and names (onoma) to things (pragmata); or, in the more nuanced threefold form Clement borrows from the Stoics, of relating names (onoma), concepts (noēmata), and things (pragmata). The chief signs under consideration here are given in the narrative of the divine economy related in Scripture. Economy is an important concept for Clement, whose Stromateis has been described as a rewriting of Irenaeus’ Demonstration for educated Greeks.

Interpretation of signs is to be conducted under the guidance of the tradition of teachers in the Church, Clement stresses. Strictly speaking, however, faith cannot be taught: it can only be “caught” – from the Word of God himself. Clement likens the play of reciprocity between the Word and the faith of the believer as a kind of ball game. “The truth interprets itself” (hē alētheia eautēn hermeneuei)Jesus Christ is the truth itself, and the very prospon (face; person) of God.

There is a profound epistemological realism of faith here in Clement. However, this realism is compromised somewhat by his commitment to the Platonic-Pythagorean and Philonic notion of a gulf (chorismos) between intelligible and sensible worlds. In Clement, the knowability of the Logos of God owes something to the fact that the Word is inherently tied to the world, as mediator between the one and the many, whereas the Father in contrast appears as radically transcendent, a depth of divinity (bathos) beyond all rational apprehension. Clement’s archaic Logos-Christology would thus unfortunately provide some fodder later on for the problematics of the Arian controversy. In spite of such shortcomings on the part of an early pioneer, the contributions of this great Alexandrian deserve to be considered as a permanent touchstone for Christian theological epistemology.

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Fr. Matthew Baker is a priest of the Greek Orthodox…
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