The Alexandrian School
The school of Alexandria was one of the great catechetical schools of the early church, and was highly influential on Christian thought. Philip Schaff, who is widely known as one of the most important of church historians and who is considered to have “founded the discipline of American church history” (Graham), says the following about Alexandria:
Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great three hundred and twenty-two years before Christ, on the mouth of the Nile, within a few hours' sail from Asia and Europe, was the metropolis of Egypt, the flourishing seat of commerce, of Grecian and Jewish learning, and of the greatest library of the ancient world, and was destined to become one of the great centres of Christianity, the rival of Antioch and Rome. There the religious life of Palestine and the intellectual culture of Greece commingled and prepared the way for the first school of theology which aimed at a philosophic comprehension and vindication of the truths of revelation. Soon after the founding of the church which tradition traces to St. Mark, the Evangelist, there arose a "Catechetical school" under the supervision of the bishop. It was originally designed only for the practical purpose of preparing willing heathens and Jews of all classes for baptism. But in that home of the Philonic theology, of Gnostic heresy, and of Neo-Platonic philosophy, it soon very naturally assumed a learned character, and became, at the same time, a sort of theological seminary, which exercised a powerful influence on the education of many bishops and church teachers, and on the development of Christian science. It had at first but a single teacher, afterwards two or more, but without fixed salary, or special buildings. The more wealthy pupils paid for tuition, but the offer was often declined. The teachers gave their instructions in their dwellings, generally after the style of the ancient philosophers (Schaff 1910).
Schaff’s snapshot of Alexandria gives us a pretty good picture of the nature of the city, as well as of the character of the catechetical school that developed there after being founded by the author of the gospel of Mark. Alexandria was a premiere cultural and intellectual center. As a modern analogy, it might be compared to the Boston area, home of Harvard, MIT and many other colleges and universities (several of them being quite prestigious). It was the place where deep thinking was done, and where the resources for scholarly learning were most available as home of the “greatest library of the ancient world.” Undoubtedly, the character of the city was a driving force in the catechetical school’s development as “the first school of theology which aimed at a philosophic comprehension and vindication of the truths of revelation.” To avoid these aims would be to ignore Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:15 to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” The Alexandrian school was therefore home to some of the most learned of all the Church Fathers, who were not only very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, but also highly adept at refuting the arguments of the Gnostics and pagan philosophers that they lived amongst.
The Alexandrian school was highly respected by the early Church Fathers and “exercised a powerful influence on the education of many bishops and church teachers.” Because of this, it is important to examine what this school believed and taught if we are to have a right understanding of the views of the early church regarding God’s judgment. To do this, we will examine the lives and writings of the earliest of Church Fathers whose writings remain from that school. According to Schaff, “the first superintendent of this school known to us was PANTAENUS” but of his writings “nothing remains but some scanty fragments” (Schaff 1910). Since the writings of Pantaenus and any previous heads of the Alexandrian school have been lost, we will begin by analyzing the life and writings of his successor as head of the school, Clement of Alexandria.
Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria lived from about 150 A.D. to about 215 A.D. It seems that little is known of his early life, but that he was born to pagan parents and later converted to Christianity. He was well-read and very familiar with Greek literature and religion and put this familiarity to use in defending the Christian faith and presenting it as the true source of knowledge to his contemporaries, rather than their own pagan and Gnostic philosophies. In fact, he used the term “Gnostic” rhetorically, saying that the true “Gnostic” (gnosis in the Greek simply means knowledge), is the Christian who is “holy and pious, and worships the true God in a manner worthy of Him” (The Stromata, Chapter 1). In such a manner, he turned the heretical Gnostic philosopher’s claim to secret knowledge on its head; the mystery of Christ and serving Him is the secret knowledge that is true and meaningful rather than the wild claims of the Gnostic heresies. Thus, he used his knowledge of pagan and pseudo-Christian culture to provide a basis for a defense of the Christian faith as reasonable and true.
Clement was highly respected in the early church. In De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), Jerome called him “the author of notable volumes, full of eloquence and learning, both in sacred Scripture and in secular literature.” In this same work, Alexander the bishop of Jerusalem is quoted, describing Clement as “the blessed presbyter Clement, a man illustrious and approved, whom you also know and with whom now you will become better acquainted a man who, when he had come hither by the special providence of God, strengthened and enlarged the church of God.” It is quite obvious that the reputation of Clement as “illustrious and approved” and one who “strengthened and enlarged the church of God” precludes the possibility that he was viewed as a heretic.
In fact, his positive reputation continues to this day: he is still venerated as a saint in the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Anglican Communion. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “down to the seventeenth century he was venerated as a saint. His name was to be found in the martyrologies, and his feast fell on the fourth of December” in the Roman Catholic tradition as well (Havey 1908). For Roman Catholics, his sainthood ended in the year 1586, approximately 1371 years after his death! So, for most of Christian history, Clement was considered a saint by most Christians. Nevertheless, sainthood or not, Clement’s writings demonstrate that he did not believe in eternal conscious torment, but rather in a God of love who punished for the purpose of correction. The facts that Clement natively spoke Greek and was able to read the original New Testament writings make his interpretations all the more significant. To these we now turn.
One of Clement’s clearest expositions of his views on the scope of salvation can be found in Book VII of The Stromata, in chapter 2, which is entitled The Son the Ruler and Saviour of All:
"Wherefore also all men are His; some through knowledge, and others not yet so; and some as friends, some as faithful servants, some as servants merely."
Here we see Clement claiming that all men belong to Christ, but that some have not yet understood this reality or attained the same level of connection with Him. This, however, does not change that they belong to Him. Clement goes on to explain his reasoning for this assertion:
For either the Lord does not care for all men; and this is the case either because He is unable (which is not to be thought, for it would be a proof of weakness), or because He is unwilling, which is not the attribute of a good being. And He who for our sakes assumed flesh capable of suffering, is far from being luxuriously indolent. Or He does care for all, which is befitting for Him who has become Lord of all. For He is Saviour; not [the Saviour] of some, and of others not. But in proportion to the adaptation possessed by each, He has dispensed His beneficence both to Greeks and Barbarians, even to those of them that were predestinated, and in due time called, the faithful and elect. Nor can He who called all equally, and assigned special honours to those who have believed in a specially excellent way, ever envy any. Nor can He who is the Lord of all, and serves above all the will of the good and almighty Father, ever be hindered by another.
In this passage, we see that Clement viewed Christ as the Savior of all people precisely because he believed in the Biblical picture of God as both good and sovereign. To be unable to save would indicate weakness which is, of course, unbefitting the God of the universe. For Clement, it is readily apparent that God could not be hindered by anyone in His purposes. He also clearly perceives that being unwilling to save people was inconsistent with goodness, and impossible to reconcile with the God who is love.
It is also clear from this passage that Clement viewed the predestination and election of some people not as an exclusive election to be saved, but rather as a special honor “to those who have believed in a specially excellent way.” In other words, Jesus is the Savior of all mankind, but some people are chosen to serve him faithfully in particular ways. Serving the Lord of all in this way is an honor and a privilege, not a reason to view ourselves as saved and others as damned for eternity.
And it cannot be said that it is from ignorance that the Lord is not willing to save humanity, because He knows not how each one is to be cared for. For ignorance applies not to the God who, before the foundation of the world, was the counsellor of the Father. For He was the Wisdom in which the Sovereign God delighted. (Proverbs 8:30) For the Son is the power of God, as being the Father's most ancient Word before the production of all things, and His Wisdom. He is then properly called the Teacher of the beings formed by Him. Nor does He ever abandon care for men, by being drawn aside from pleasure, who, having assumed flesh, which by nature is susceptible of suffering, trained it to the condition of impassibility.
In this last paragraph, Clement shows that Christ, in addition to being neither unloving nor weak, is not too ignorant of the hearts of people to know how to save them. He knows precisely how to save each and every person and he never abandons anyone. Instead, He is God’s Word and Wisdom incarnate, who was able to conquer the flesh by becoming a man yet remaining sinless. This last concept brings to mind Hebrews 4:15, which states that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” Therefore, in addition to His comprehensive knowledge of human beings as our Creator, He is also privy to understanding us experientially, since He became one of us. Clement rightly asserts that such a God could not possibly be unaware of how to reach each and every human being.
And how is He Saviour and Lord, if not the Saviour and Lord of all? But He is the Saviour of those who have believed, because of their wishing to know; and the Lord of those who have not believed, till, being enabled to confess him, they obtain the peculiar and appropriate boon which comes by Him.
This statement clearly shows that Clement was not only referring to believers when he discussed “all men.” He is the Saviour of believers, but also unbelievers. It was clear to Clement that those who did not yet believe, inevitably would believe and confess Christ as Lord. It is apparent that Clement derived this understanding from Scripture, including the verses that clearly state that “every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11, see also Romans 14:11, Isaiah 45:22-24). Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, 2 Corinthians 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are other Scriptural references to God’s ultimate purpose for unity, reconciliation and loving subjection of all through Christ, as we have already seen. Clement understood that God’s will “for all mankind to be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” as stated in 1 Timothy 2:4, would be accomplished by Christ:
Being, then, the Father's power, He easily prevails in what He wishes, leaving not even the minutest point of His administration unattended to. For otherwise the whole would not have been well executed by Him.
But, as I think, characteristic of the highest power is the accurate scrutiny of all the parts, reaching even to the minutest, terminating in the first Administrator of the universe, who by the will of the Father directs the salvation of all…
Jesus will succeed in saving everyone because of who God is, and God is truly sovereign. He cannot and will not fail in his purposes. To think that He will is absurd. Clement’s view of God’s sovereignty and will to save all people is also a critical aspect of His defense of God’s goodness. It seems that Clement anticipates that some will accuse God of wrongdoing if He is truly sovereign. In answer to this possible objection, he says: “He is in no respect whatever the cause of evil. For all things are arranged with a view to the salvation of the universe by the Lord of the universe, both generally and particularly.”
Notice that it is precisely because of God’s ultimate purpose to save the universe that He is not to blame for evil. According to Clement, whatever evils result from our choices on this earth do not take away from God’s good plan in arranging the universe as it is. Ultimately, God’s purpose through all of it is to save everyone, regardless of our temporal choices.
There is certainly enough evidence here to make an irrefutable case that Clement, who was highly respected in the early church, believed in universal salvation. Nevertheless, we will examine a few more of his statements that further support this case and offer other insights into his reasoning.
For example, Clement stated that "the Lord preached the Gospel to those in Hades" and gave his reasoning for this assertion, referencing 1 Peter 3:18-20: “Do not [the Scriptures] show that the Lord preached the Gospel to those that perished in the flood, or rather had been chained, and to those kept in ward and guard?” (The Stromata, Book VI, Chapter 6). Thus, Clement’s native reading of the original Greek text of 1 Peter 3:18-20 led him to the same natural interpretation that I discussed earlier: Jesus preached the good news to the wicked who had previously died. The rationale for this preaching is further expounded by Clement:
And, as I think, the Saviour also exerts His might because it is His work to save; which accordingly He also did by drawing to salvation those who became willing, by the preaching [of the Gospel], to believe in Him, wherever they were … since God's punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of a sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh … There took place, then, a universal movement and translation through the economy of the Saviour.
Jesus’ role as Savior is why he continues to save, even beyond the grave, according to Clement. He “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8) and for this reason his power and might to save is not restricted to our earthly lives. Instead Christ chooses repentance rather than death for the sinner, echoing Ezekiel 33:11: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! ...” The ability to turn from such evil ways was seen by Clement as especially plausible for those already dead since their fleshly desires were no longer factors that could prevent repentance. Instead of death resulting in permanent damnation, God’s punishments were viewed as saving and disciplinary, and as resulting in a universal movement of souls toward repentance and life in God.
This concept of saving and disciplinary punishment was further explained by Clement on several occasions. For example, in The Stromata, Book VII, Chapter 16, Clement declares:
For there are partial corrections, which are called chastisements (kolasin), which many of us who have been in transgression incur, by falling away from the Lord's people. But as children are chastised (kolazo) by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish (timoreitai), for punishment (timoria) is retaliation for evil. He chastises (kolazo), however, for good to those who are chastised (kolazo), collectively and individually.
This passage makes it clear that Clement views the chastisements of God as corrective rather than vindictive or vengeful. Some of the significance of this passage is lost, however, without looking at the Greek, so we will do that now. The words translated as "chastisements," "chastises," and "chastised" are all forms of the Greek word kolasin (κόλασιν) or its verb form kolazo (κολάζω). You may recall that this is the same word that Jesus used in Matthew 25:46 to describe the "punishment" of the goats in the parable of the sheep and the goats. The fact that Clement uses this word to specifically contradict the idea that God's judgment is vengeful strongly substantiates our earlier claim that kolasin has the sense of corrective chastisement. This is highly significant because Clement spoke Greek natively at a time near to the writings of the gospels. It is therefore very likely that he understood his native language correctly and knew that kolasin meant correction. In fact, he seems to take it for granted that his Greek-speaking audience understands this to be the plain meaning of the word since he does not bother to define it. Instead he simply uses it as a clear contrast to the word timoria (sometimes translated as vengeance).
Since Matthew 25:46 is one of the passages most often cited to support the view of eternal punishment in hell, Clement's testimony, (combined with a right understanding of the word aiōnion as pertaining to another age, or age-long) strongly confirms that the eternal punishment interpretation is erroneous. To the native Greek-speaker, the consequence for the uncompassionate goats in Matthew 25:46 would have been understood as "age-long corrective chastisement" or "corrective chastisment of the age to come."
To see the above passage in the original Greek and English in parallel, click here. It is the 1902 translation cited at the bottom of this page. Please note that I used kolasin (and kolazo) in the above quote instead of the inflections of kolasin used in the text (for simplicity and readability). The inflections are used in the original Greek for grammar reasons but do not change the meaning of kolasin (or kolazo).
And in Book 1, Chapter 27, he describes how the corrections and punishments of the law aim at the good of men, likening correction and punishment to the practice of medicine:
Let no, one then, run down law, as if, on account of the penalty, it were not beautiful and good. For shall he who drives away bodily disease appear a benefactor; and shall not he who attempts to deliver the soul from iniquity, as much more appear a friend, as the soul is a more precious thing than the body? Besides, for the sake of bodily health we submit to incisions, and cauterizations, and medicinal draughts; and he who administers them is called saviour and healer, even though amputating parts, not from grudge or ill-will towards the patient, but as the principles of the art prescribe, so that the sound parts may not perish along with them, and no one accuses the physician's art of wickedness; and shall we not similarly submit, for the soul's sake, to either banishment, or punishment, or bonds, provided only from unrighteousness we shall attain to righteousness?
It is impossible to deny that Clement viewed God’s judgments as remedial in light of all of this evidence. Like a skilled surgeon, God chastises “for good to those who are chastised, collectively and individually” and for the purpose of healing. This was undeniably Clement’s view and he held it as an essential aspect to faith in God:
It is essential, certainly, that the providence which manages all, be both supreme and good. For it is the power of both that dispenses salvation— the one correcting by punishment, as supreme, the other showing kindness in the exercise of beneficence, as a benefactor (The Stromata, Book 1, Chapter 27).
Prior to beginning my writing on the topic of salvation for all people I was unaware of Clement’s thoughts on the matter. It is quite remarkable then to see that we came to the same conclusion that it is a logical necessity that the scope of salvation must extend to all people due to God’s sovereignty and love. And we came to this same conclusion despite being separated by 1800 years of history and oppression of the concept.
It is also quite significant and bears repeating that Clement spoke Greek natively and read the original Scriptures from the cultural mindset of their target audience. This does not conclusively prove that his interpretation was correct, but it should make you at least consider the possibility that some of our 21st century Western views might not be as well-informed as we’ve pretended them to be. Perhaps a native Greek-speaking individual from the early church might have some insight into the New Testament that frequently monolingual English-speaking Americans (and others) lack. This consideration alone makes his testimony a significant piece of evidence for the salvation of all.
In addition, Clement’s eminence as an important, well-respected Christian in his day does prove that the church has not held the concept of universal salvation as consistently heretical, as Driscoll and others like to claim. Now, some may object that I’ve only discussed one early church father. You may be tempted to write him off as an unorthodox outlier, but you should not. Clement is not the only native Greek-speaking theologian of the early church to think this way. Not even close. We will see that Augustine was correct is stating that “very many” held views like Clement’s, especially those who spoke Greek. Although we have very many to discuss, in the interest of staying organized we will continue our study with Clement’s student and the subsequent head of the catechetical school of Alexandria: Origen.
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Citations and Notes
Clement of Alexandria. The Stromata. Translated by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0210.htm .
Clement of Alexandria. Miscellanies Book VII. Translated by Fenton John Anthony Hort and Joseph B. Mayor, Macmillan and Co., 1902, https://archive.org/stream/clementalexandr01hortgoog#page/n300/mode/1up
Note: The Stromata is also sometimes referred to as the Miscellanies because it was about a variety of miscellaneous topics.
Graham, Stephen R. “Modern Pioneers: Philip Schaff.” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church , Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-72/modern-pioneers-philip-schaff.html .
Havey, Francis. "Clement of Alexandria." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company,1908. 3 May 2018.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04045a.htm
Schaff, Philip. “Chapter XIII: Ecclesiastical Literature of the Ante-Nicene Age, and Biographical Sketches of the Church-Fathers.” History of the Christian Church, Volume II, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910. Electronically published 1998. http://www.bible.ca/history/philip-schaff/2_ch13.htm
Thévet, André. Clement of Alexandria - Internet Archive scan of Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz, latins et payens, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6885509