During his general audience on April 18 in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of teachings on the early Fathers of the Church. He offered his reflections on St. Clement of Alexandria, who advocated a fruitful encounter between the Gospel and the Greek philosophical tradition. St. Clement saw faith and reason as two necessary and complementary “wings” by which the human soul comes to the knowledge of Christ, the Word of God.
Dear brothers and sisters,
After a time of celebration, we are returning to our usual catecheses even though the square is still visibly decorated for a celebration. With this catechesis, we are returning, as I said, to the series of teachings that we began earlier.
We spoke, first of all, about the Twelve Apostles, then about the disciples of the apostles, and we are now talking about prominent figures of the early Church, the Church of old. Last time, we spoke about St. Irenaeus of Lyon, and today we will speak about Clement of Alexandria, a great theologian who was born around the middle of the second century, probably in Athens.
From Athens he inherited the keen interest in philosophy that would make him a pioneer of the dialogue between faith and reason within the Christian tradition. While still a young man, he traveled to Alexandria, the “symbolic city” of the fruitful encounter between different cultures that was characteristic of the Hellenistic age. There he was a disciple of Pantaenus and succeeded him as director of the catechetical school.
Numerous sources attest to the fact that he was ordained a priest. During the persecution of 202-203, he left Alexandria and sought refuge at Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he died around the year 215.
His most important works that remain today are the Protrepticus (Exhortation), the Paedagogus (Instructor), and the Stromata (Miscellanies). Even though it seems that it was not the author’s original intention, the fact of the matter is that these writings actually constitute a trilogy, written to provide effective guidance for Christians’ spiritual growth.
The Protrepticus, as the word itself indicates, is an “exhortation” addressed to those who are both seeking and beginning on the journey of faith. Or rather, the Protrepticus corresponds to a person — the Son of God, Jesus Christ — who becomes the “exhorter” of men to set off on the path to Truth in a resolute way.
Jesus Christ then becomes the Paedagogus, the “instructor” of those who, through baptism, have now become children of God. Finally, Jesus Christ is also the Didascalos, the “teacher” who presents even more profound teachings.
These teachings have been gathered together in Clement’s third work, the Stromata, a Greek word that means “miscellanies.” This composition has not been put together in any systematic way but rather consists of various topics that are the direct fruit of Clement’s everyday teaching.
As a whole, Clement’s catecheses guide the catechumen’s and the baptized’s journey, step by step, so that they can attain, on the two “wings” of faith and reason, an intimate knowledge of the Truth that is Jesus Christ, the Word of God.
Only knowledge of this person who is the Truth is the “true gnosis,” a Greek term that denotes “knowledge” or “understanding.” It is the structure built by reason motivated by a supernatural principle.
Faith itself builds true philosophy, namely, true conversion along the journey to be taken in life. Therefore, genuine “gnosis” is the development of faith that has been kindled by Jesus Christ in hearts that are united to him.
Clement then describes two stages in the Christian life. In the first stage, Christian believers live out their faith in an ordinary way, but are always open to the prospect of holiness. In the second stage, the “gnostics” lead a life of spiritual perfection. In any case, Christians have to venture forth from the foundation of faith that they share on a quest; they have to let Christ guide them along the way and so attain knowledge of the Truth and of the truths that form the content of the faith.
This knowledge, Clement says, becomes a living reality within the soul. It is not merely a theory: It is a life force and a union of love that transforms.
Knowledge of Christ is not merely a thought, but love that opens eyes, transforms man and creates communion with the Logos, with the Word of God, who is truth and life. In this communion, which is perfect knowledge and is love, the perfect Christian attains contemplation and union with God.
Created in God’s Image
Finally, Clement returns to the teaching that holds that man’s ultimate goal is to become like God. We are created in the image and likeness of God; but this is also a challenge, a journey.
Indeed, the purpose of life, the ultimate destiny, is to become truly like God. This is possible thanks to the connaturality with him that man received from the moment that he was created and thanks to which he is already, in and of himself — already, in and of himself — the image of God.
This connaturality enables man to know divine realities, to which he adheres primarily through faith; through a faith that is lived out — through the practice of virtue — he can grow to the point of being able to contemplate God.
Thus, in relation to the journey to perfection, Clement attaches as much importance to the moral requirement as he does to the intellectual requirement. The two go together because knowledge is not possible without experience and experience is not possible without knowledge.
Becoming like God and contemplating him cannot be attained through rational knowledge alone. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to live a life according to the Logos, a life according to the truth. Consequently, good works must accompany intellectual knowledge just like a shadow accompanies the human body.
Two virtues, above all, adorn the soul of the “true gnostic.”
The first is freedom from the passions (apátheia) and the second is love — the true passion — that ensures intimate union with God. Love bestows perfect peace and enables the “true gnostic” to face the greatest sacrifices, even the supreme sacrifice in following Christ, and lets him climb step by step to the summit of the virtues.
In this way, Clement redefines ancient philosophy’s ethical ideal — freedom from the passions — and couples it with love in this unending process of growing to be like God.
Faith and Reason
Thus, Clement of Alexandria fosters the second great opportunity for dialogue between the Christian message and Greek philosophy. We know that St. Paul, on the Areopagus in Athens where Clement was born, made the first attempt at dialogue with Greek philosophy and, for the most part, failed though the people told him, “We will listen to you at another time.” Clement takes up this dialogue once again and confers utmost nobleness upon it in the tradition of Greek philosophy.
As my venerable predecessor, John Paul II, wrote in his encyclical Fides et Ratio, Clement of Alexandria came to interpret philosophy as “instruction which prepared for Christian faith” (Fides et Ratio, 38). Indeed, Clement went so far as to maintain that God had given philosophy to the Greeks “as their own Testament” (Stromata, 6, 8, 67, 1).
For him, the Greek philosophical tradition, much like the Law for the Jews, is a context for “revelation” — both being streams that ultimately flow into the Logos itself.
In this way, Clement decisively marks out the path for those who want to “give reasons” for their own faith in Jesus Christ. He can serve as an example for the Christians, catechists and theologians of our time, whom John Paul II exhorted in that same encyclical to “recover and express to the full the metaphysical dimension of truth in order to enter into a demanding critical dialogue with … contemporary philosophical thought” (Fides et Ratio, 105).
Let us conclude by recalling a few words from the famous “Prayer to Christ the Logos” with which Clement concluded the Paedagogus. He prayed the following words: “Show favor to your children. … Allow us to live in peace, arrive at your city, pass through the currents of sin without drowning in them, be transported with serenity by the Holy Spirit and by ineffable Wisdom — we, who by day and by night until the last day sing a hymn of thanksgiving to the one Father … the Son, instructor and teacher, together with the Holy Spirit, Amen!” (Paedagogus, 3, 12, 101).