Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism (Oxford Early Christian Studies)
Can humans know God? Can created beings approach the Uncreated? The concept of God and questions about our ability to know him are central to this book. Eastern Orthodox theology distinguishes between knowing God as he is (his divine essence) and as he presents himself (through his energies), and thus it both negates and affirms the basic question: man cannot know God in his essence, but may know him through his energies. Henny Fiska Hagg investigates this earliest stage of Christian negative (apophatic) theology, as well as the beginnings of the distinction between essence and energies, focusing on Clement of Alexandria in the late second century. Clement’s theological, social, religious, and philosophical milieu is also considered, as is his indebtedness to Middle Platonism and its concept of God.
In the theology of the Greek Fathers and of Eastern Orthodoxy generally the question whether, or in what sense, man can know God is of primary importance. Christian apophaticism, or Christian apophatic theology, may be seen as a response to this question. In the Greek Orthodox tradition the primary way of approaching the divine is through negation (Gr. apophasis), not aYrmation (Gr. kataphasis). What is denied or negated, then, is the possibility both to know and to express the divine nature: God is both greater than, and different from, human knowledge and thought. It also follows that human language is incapable of expressing him.
In other words, confronted with the otherness of divine being, it is less misleading to say what God is not, than to say what he is. Of course, apophasis and kataphasis are not mutually exclusive alternatives. All theology must be to some extent affirmative, otherwise it would be mere intellectual nihilism. Apophatic theology in fact presupposes kataphatic theology, otherwise there would be nothing to negate. Apophatic theology then, has as its premise that God is transcendent, and that there is an absolute gulf between the transcendent one and the rest of the cosmos, including man. It is closely related to Christian mystical theology, or Christian mysticism, but it is not the same. All types of mysticism will include apophatic approaches to God, or will use negative roads to achieve knowledge of him, i.e. a negative knowledge. Yet mystical theology (equivalent to spirituality or contemplative theology) focuses mainly on man’s inner existential relationship to God, on his union with God. Correspondingly, though apophatic theology may well have mystical aspects, its primary concern is intellectual/dogmatic and epistemological.
An important aspect of apophatic discourse is the claim that the divine is beyond human language.When affirmative language fails, apophatic theology uses alternative ways of describing the indescribable, such as parables, contradictions, and symbolism. For example, in the Christian Orthodox tradition a passage from Exodus 19, describing how Moses met God in a thick darkness or cloud, is a favourite symbol for conveying the experience of the incomprehensibility of the divine nature. The divine darkness signifies that God is essentially inaccessible and unknown to man. It also signifies the impossibility of describing God or predicating anything of him. This realization of the limits of language and thus also of the limits of man’s rationality in relation to God is a fundamental aspect of the tradition. God cannot be named or described because all language is inadequate for expressing the divine. In addition, God’s negative, or apophatic, nature also implies that dogmas or doctrines are seen rather as ways of safeguarding the divine mystery than as deWnitive expressions of the contents of faith.
Apophasis is not, however, a phenomenon peculiar to Christianity. It is found in many religions and religiometaphysical systems. Wherever a religion or a philosophy operates with a transcendent god or a transcendent principle, it is faced with the dilemma of how to know and describe that god or that principle. Recent decades have witnessed a considerable increase in the number of studies on mystical traditions within Christianity and outside it. Works on separate so-called ‘mystics’ both in the Eastern and Western traditions from Plato onwards are manifold. We have also seen a renewed interest in ‘dialogue’ between diVerent religions concerning this concept.3 In various ways negative theology is part of religions such as Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism, as well as all branches of Platonism. Recent studies that address the topic in a more general way includeMichael A. Sells’ Mystical Languages of Unsaying (1994), which deals with the diVerent types of negative theology, focusing on the Neoplatonic, Islamic, and Christian types But also studies that go beyond the traditional religious traditions Wnd the language of apophasis, negation, and negativity to be fruitful means of expressing a sentiment of our ‘postmodern’ time.
Apophatic theology works with negations: God is not good, loving, or just—which does not, of course, mean that he is evil, hating, or unjust, but that it is beyond the limits of language and the ability of man to express what he is. Yet, this does not lead to any type of agnosticism in relation to God. For, as we have seen, Christian apophaticism presupposes kataphatic, or aYrmative, theology: God has revealed himself both in the creation and in the coming of Christ; in this way God’s immanence enables man to relate to and know God. Therefore, God is—paradoxically—both known and unknown, both immanent and transcendent.
A ‘solution’ to the dilemma of God’s unknowability was expressed in Orthodox theology at an early time. Greek theologians distinguished between knowing God as he is in himself, his essence, and, on the other hand, knowing his powers or energies. By making a distinction between his unknowable, apophatic essence and his knowable, kataphatic energies, these theologians sought to safeguard the absolute transcendence and incomprehensibility of God. But since his energies too are uncreated and divine, flowing from the same nature, real knowledge of, as well as participation in, God were made possible.
The distinction between God’s ‘essence’ and his ‘energies’ was not clearly formulated until the conciliar decisions in the middle of the fourteenth century. Its roots, however, can be sought at a much earlier stage, already in the early church. In the present work, my intention is to investigate this earliest stage of Christian apophaticism as well as the beginnings of the distinction between essence and energies, focusing on Clement of Alexandria in the late second century. Though he was certainly not the first Christian theologian to touch on these questions—both in the Apologists and in Irenaeus there are traces of negative theology—his discussion is the most articulate among the earliest Fathers and his insights the deepest.
Thus, this is not a general study of Clement’s theology. It will focus on one particular aspect, but one that appears to run like a scarlet thread through much of his writings. There is a statement in Clement’s main work, the Stromateis, which seems to express the essence of apophatic theology. After a detailed description of a process of thought which aims at the contemplation of God, Clement Wnally concludes— against the expectation of his readers—that ‘we may somehow reach the idea of the Almighty, knowing not what he is, but what he is not’ (Strom. 5.71.3). This epistemological statement concerning man’s inability to know God also indicates, I would claim, a meaningful approach to understanding Clement’s theology and philosophy in general.
His study has, of course, benefited and received inspiration from many scholars and works, and it will be convenient to mention a few of the more important titles already at this stage. The following survey is not, however, intended as a regular review of research and has no pretensions of being exhaustive. It is a brief presentation of the works to which my own study owesmost; the more speciWc debts will be stated in my footnotes. Dispensing with a Forschungsbericht proper is warranted by the fact that there exist fairly recent and detailed surveys of Clementine scholarship.
Eric Osborn’s monograph The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria appeared in 1957. Though Clement’s theological statements may seem scattered and unsystematic, Osborn regards his work as a new Christian synthesis which reconciles the transcendent and the immanent in the mystery of the unity of all things in the knowable Son. Osborn is one of the few patristic scholars to keep Clement in a more or less constant focus, up to (and beyond) his more recent book on The Emergence of Christian Theology, continuously striving to give him the more prominent place in the history of theology that he deserves. Among the modern writers on Clement that I have consulted, it is Eric Osborn’s understanding of Clement’s way of writing and of his achievement that I have found most congenial to my own reading of Clement.
At an early stage, before I embarked on this study, I was much inspired by reading the unpublished thesis by David J. Gendle, ‘TheApophatic Approach to Godin the Early Greek Fathers,with special reference to the AlexandrianTradition’. Though it does not appear in my footnotes since I have not had access to it in the meantime, Iwish to expressmy general debt to it here.
Jean Danie´lou’s Message e´vange´lique et culture helle´nistique aux IIe et IIIe sie`cles, in addition to Clement, also deals with the Apologists and Origen, arranging the material systematically according to various topics. Danie´lou’s attempt to evaluate Clement’s contribution and originality within the framework of his own—pre-Nicene—time, broke with a long-standing practice and yielded lasting results. In the section ‘Theological Problems’, he treats Clement’s place in the development of Christian thought, including his Middle Platonist background, his negative theology, and the person of the Logos, all topics central to his study.
Salvatore Lilla’s Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism is the Wrst and fundamental work among several recent investigations of Clement’s theological thinking viewed against its background in non- Christian philosophy. Lilla sets out to demonstrate two things: that Clement is, to a great extent, an exponent of Middle Platonist religious philosophy and that his Christianity has a speciWcally Gnostic favour. However, although his demonstration of Clement’s Middle Platonism has met with general acceptance, when in the present study I focus on Clement as a Middle Platonist, I do not base myself primarily on Lilla’s systematic exposition. The weakness of his approach is a certain tendency to isolate phrases and propositions from their organic context. Here I have chosen to present the concept of God in three representative pagan Middle Platonists in its original (if necessarily fragmentary) context to serve as an independent background to my treatment of Clement’s own view of these matters.
In his Connaissance religieuse et herme´neutique chez Clement d’Alexandrie, Raoul Mortley discusses the problem of faith and knowledge in Clement. In addition to an investigation of Clement’s cultural and philosophical background (the area of Lilla and others), he seeks to present Clement’s contribution to epistemology, his ‘the´orie de la connaissance’. In that context he deals illuminatingly with Clement’s views on language and silence in relation to God, a topic highly relevant to my study. Mortley has also written extensively on questions related to negative theology in general, in particular in his monumental two-volume work From Word to Silence.
Finally, a scholar not primarily concerned with Clement has been of special importance in my work with Clement’s concept of God, particularly in relation to its philosophical background, namely John Whittaker. His many essays on different aspects of the Platonic tradition, some of which are included in his doctoral dissertation God Time Being: Studies in the Transcendental Tradition in Greek Philosophy, have been most instructive, also methodologically. In particular, I am indebted to his discussions of the tradition of negative theology in Platonism, in the pagan as well as the Christian (including Clement) and Gnostic traditions.
Turning now to my practice here: I have endeavoured to read and understand Clement himself before turning to the interpretation of others, and have searched his text with my own speciWc questions in mind. The book has thus to a large extent developed through the localization and interpretation of a number of key passages, primarily from the Stromateis but also from Clement’s other extant writings (including the Excerpta ex Theodoto and the fragments). Clement is no system-builder, who in one place displays hiswhole theological construction; he is constantly rethinking and revising his viewpoints, and whoever wants to understand and explain his thought must be in constant contact with the texts in which it develops.
Before arriving at the discussion proper of the concept of God in Clement, contained in my central Chapters 4–8, I have found it essential to trace Clement’s background in two respects, first his personal background as a Christian writer in second-century Alexandria (Chapter 2), then his philosophical context as a Christian Middle Platonist (Chapter 3).
The reason for first dwelling on Alexandria in the first centuries ad is best expressed by quoting from Walther Vo¨lker’s ‘Einleitung’ to hismonograph on Clement: Mysterious, like a meteor, suddenly the Wgure of Clement of Alexandria emerges from the dark, shines for a short time in the brightness of light, and then disappears forever in darkness.
The first part of this statement highlights both the challenge and the dificulties. When trying to penetrate the ‘dark’, one immediately meets with a desperate lack of reliable sources, especially concerning the history and origins of the Christian church in Alexandria. But Alexandria was Clement’s home and working place for most of his productive years, and in order to understand him it is important, I think, to try to create a picture of the multifarious social, cultural, and religious worlds that surrounded him. Further, the origins of Christianity in the city of Alexandria have to be discussed, in spite of the scarcity of sources; it is not until around ad 180 that a clearer picture emerges, partly through what may be gleaned from the writings of Clement himself. In the last part of Chapter 2, I also include a short introduction to each of these writings, discussing the purposes for which they were composed and the kinds of audience to which they may have been originally addressed.
When dealing speciWcally with his philosophy, an important concern must be not to view Clement in isolation from the intellectual world, or perhaps rather worlds, that surrounded him. Then we are, of course, no longer confined to the city of Alexandria; the whole oikoumene is his intellectual milieu. Clement was a Christian and a Platonist, a theologian and a philosopher. His struggle to combine and create a synthesis of these different thought-worlds is manifest all through his writings. I have chosen in Chapter 3 to pay special attention to the philosophical school that seems to have influenced him most, Middle Platonism, as represented by three of its main exponents, Alcinous, Atticus, andNumenius, with a special focus on their concept of the divine.
The main part of the book, comprising Chapters 4–8, discusses the aspects of Clement’s theology and philosophy that concern his so-called esotericism, the apophatic nature of God, the nature of the Son, and the question of the knowledge of the divine. When it seems appropriate, I attempt to relate Clement to the relevant passages in the works and fragments of the Middle Platonists.
More specifically, Chapter 4 considers certain aspects of Clement’s writing methods and his views of the written versus the spoken word; I also discuss the question whether Clement teaches an esoteric doctrine or not. Chapter 5 presents Clement’s concept of God the Father, particularly focusing on his apophatic nature or essence. Chapter 6 is devoted to Clement’s Logos-theology: the function, status, and role of the Son in relation to the Father, emphasizing the Son’s peculiar or paradoxical position as being, on the one hand, distinct from the One as the knowable One–Many and, on the other, united with the One. I further consider questions related to his pre-existence, generation, and divinity.
Against this background, the relationship between Clement’s apophaticism and his epistemology is discussed in Chapter 7. I dwell, in particular, on the consequences of the negative way to God—as an expression of Clement’s view of God’s absolute incomprehensibility—as well as its relation to the positive, or cataphatic, way: the way of knowing the unknowable. In Chapter 8, the argument reaches its termination with the presentation of the Clementine model(s) for a distinction between God’s essence and his power(s).
Finally, Chapter 9, by way of conclusion, addresses the question whether Clement really, in Volker’s words, disappeared ‘forever in darkness’, or if it is possible to argue that his legacy reaches far beyond his own time. Clement’s solution to the problem of the relationship between the knowable and unknowable aspects of God is seen in a wider perspective, both in the immediate historical context and in relation to later orthodox theology—especially as expressed by the Cappadocians. Is Clement’s philosophy to be regarded merely as loose and unsystematic sketches, later to be systematized and surpassed, by ‘his great pupil’ Origen? Or are we entitled to see in him an important, as well as independent, background for subsequent orthodox theology, in his apophaticism and also in his attempts at defining a distinction in God?