The school of Alexandrian exegesis had an allegoric approach to interpreting the Word of God. This approach presupposed “preferring allegory to the grammatical, historical method of understanding the text” (Old 65). Some modern scholars assume that nowadays this approach can be of little use, it was more appropriate for the contemporaries of the school (Old 66). Nevertheless, Alexandrian exegesis can be a source of numerous theological discourses since it raises disputable issues concerning divine, salvation, etc.
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Many scholars claim that the school “draw much” from Philo and Origen (old 66). However, it is also necessary to point out that one of the most remarkable figures within the Alexandrian exegesis is Clement of Alexandria whose works and beliefs contributed greatly to the development of the exegesis. His teaching and writings have played a significant role in the process of interpretation of Biblical texts. His ideas concerning the power of word and writing, his understanding of the essence of the divine, and his unique attitude towards teaching still evoke many discussions.
When considering the beliefs of Clement of Alexandria, it is necessary to point out one important detail of his biography. He spent a lot of time traveling, “always moving on” (Osborn 1). Osborn states that this was not a mere traveling, but rather a “quest for knowledge” (Osborn 1). He traveled to numerous teachers, gaining the necessary knowledge which eventually enabled him to become a Christian teacher. Notably, when Clement had to leave Alexandria because of the persecution “he chose a way to perfection other than that of martyrdom: the way of teaching and writing” (Osborn 14).
He wrote several works which are often referred to as “a handbook to guide” faithful Christians (Osborn 14). His books are really important in terms of Biblical interpretation and teaching. It is necessary to admit that his works are also allegoric since he liked enigmas and puzzles and this makes it more difficult to interpret them. Nevertheless, many scholars have found a clue to his writings. For instance, Itter claims that even the sequence of his books is meaningful (35). Thus, Clement of Alexandria wrote 1 book of Protreptikos, 3 books of Paidagogos, and 8 books of Stromateis (Itter 35). Each of these works contains his interpretations of the Holy Book and the essence of God and divine.
Clement should be regarded as one of the brightest representatives of Alexandrian exegesis since he used the allegorical approach not only in interpreting the Bible, but also when writing his works. Clement stated:
Such were the impediments in the way of my writing, and even now I fear, as it is said, “to cast the pearls before swine, lest they tread them under foot”… But there is an outline in the notes, which have the truth sowed sparsely and scattered, that it may escape the notice of those who pick up seeds like jackdaws (qt. in Itter 18).
Thus, Clement is more concerned with themes rather than words themselves (Itter 15). This is his approach to interpret the Bible and to write his works. Clement assumes that words can often hide the truth from people who are not worthy, or rather unprepared to acknowledge it (Itter 18). Clement believes that the Word is to be found among other meaningless words, like gold to be found in earth (Itter 19). At the same time Clement claims that faithful people can perceive the Word, they can see it among other words. Clement states that God is the first and the only educator who inspires people to bring the Word to others (Itter 16). Thus, Clement believes that knowledge comes from haven. Those who are ready to understand the Word will be given the power to teach others.
Clement’s approach to teaching is also remarkable. He proclaims that truly Christian teachers bring the Word to others and their former learners become Christian teachers themselves (Itter 22). However, it’s important to note that Clement stresses that knowledge is given by God. His belief in the divine power of the Word made his comment upon the difference between the spoken and written word. Clement articulates that initially, people who knew the truth spread their knowledge by the word of mouth (Itter 36). Thus, people could address others and teach them the divine truth. God did not write his words he addressed the chosen people directly.
Therefore, Clement, like many other contemporaries, believed in a spoken word more. Many of his contemporaries did not believe that written word can contain divine power since it does not go from heavens, but is written by a human. However, Clement did not deny that the written word should be neglected. On the contrary, Clement stated that spoken word had found “its way into written form, which, though available to all, only attracts those who are fully capable of comprehending it, leaving the unprepared heedless of its ultimate content” (Itter 36).
Thus, Clement states that God inspires people to write down the word. More so, since Clement insists that knowledge comes from God, it is but natural to suppose that God enables people to reveal His word in written form for others to comprehend it. At this point, it is necessary to point out that Clement still stressed that it is inappropriate to write the truth explicitly. Every individual who had the divine power to write the Word should write it down but should hide it among many other words. Thus, the truth will still become transparent for prepared people.
Clement claimed that it would be inappropriate if the truth would be in the hands of those who are not prepared to comprehend it. This belief is one of the most significant in terms of the Alexandrian approach. Clement’s beliefs about spoken and written words, and the Word, is an explicit manifestation of the allegorical approach. Clement is focused on the ideas, the Word, hidden in the Biblical text, rather than is trying to follow facts and narration. Clement as a representative of Alexandrian school is looking for allegories, interprets them and encodes them for others to comprehend the truth.
Such a specific attitude towards words is a background for Clement’s interpretation of the goodness of God. This remarkable teacher articulates that everything comes from God, and people have their destinies which are given by God. Clement states that Almighty and good God “must grant to men the ability to fulfill the divine prescription” (Osborn 26). Thus, God gives the chance for all people to acknowledge the truth and his divine Word. In this perspective, salvation is regarded in a new perspective. According to Alexandrian exegesis, “it was God the Son who suffered, but he suffered in his humanity, not in his divine nature per se” (Fairbairn 11).
Clement goes a bit further. He claims that Christ and his sacrifice have become an instrument “which opens eyes” and people comprehend the truth (Osborn 34). Thus, people obtained the law from Moses and obtained the truth and faith from Christ (Osborn 26). The Word which was given by God and articulated by Moses reached people’s hearts only after the sacrifice of Christ. Clement states that in the salvation God’s plan is realized (Osborn 32). People who are prepared to listen to the truth can read the word which will open their eyes. The Son of God is a kind of key to the divine puzzle. His life and sacrifice become a clue to the code.
Those who use the key will comprehend the Word of God. Those who remain indifferent to this message will still be deaf and blind. Clements claims in his Protrepticus that Christ is “the logos of God, who became a man, so that you [people] might learn from a man how a man can become God” (Osborn 26). This passage evokes many disputes among scholars. However, it is clear that the Word, the logos, is the cornerstone for Clement of Alexandria. He believes that the word does not only save people’s souls but makes them divine. Eventually, the Word can enable people to join God. This approach is revealed in Clement’s ideas about salvation.
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Clement states that people’s path to God, in earthly and heavenly life, starts with the word. Clement teaches that people should acknowledge the truth on the Earth and pass their knowledge to many others. Apart from this he also states that the Word transfers souls to God. This does not contradict Alexandrian exegesis at all. For instance, people’s souls leave the Earth and “are added to either a people or a genus” (Cox and Cox 92). However, if a soul is “perfect” there is no such transition.
For instance, there is nothing said about Moses being “added to anything or taken away from anything” when he died (Cox and Cox 92). Thus, Alexandrian exegesis interprets “the fact that Moses’ transition” was made “by means of the divine word” (Cox and Cox 92). Clement also shares the same opinion stating that the word is God (Itter 186). Admittedly, perfect souls bear some kind of divinity which makes them nearer to God.
In conclusion, it is possible to state that Clement of Alexandria is one of the major figures in terms of Alexandrian exegesis. His allegorical approach to the understanding of the Bible and teaching people to understand the word is still topical. His beliefs about the spoken and written word help to understand the development of theological study and religious believes in people living at the beginning of the second century. Apart from this many scholars interpret his texts which enable them to obtain a deeper understanding of the Biblical texts. It is also possible to state that though Clement’s writings contain many puzzles and allegories, they can be regarded as a good historical guide to the development of theological thought. Finally, it is also necessary to point out that his philosophical views regarding teaching, writing, and faith also deserve the attention of contemporary scholars.
Fairbairn, Donald. “Historical and Theological Studies.” WTJ 69 (2007): 1-19.
Itter, Andrew C. Esoteric Teaching in the Stromateis of Clement of Alexandria. Danvers, MA: BRILL, 2009.
Old, Hughes Oliphant. Worship: Reformed According to Scripture. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.
Osborn, Eric Francis. Clement of Alexandria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ronald Cox, and Ronald R. Cox. By the Same Word: Creation and Salvation in Hellenistic Judaism and Early Christianity. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 2007.