Wednesday, September 7, 2016


Matteo Monfrinotti, Creatore e creazione: il pensiero di Clemente Alessandrino. Fundamentis novis, 4. Roma: Città Nuova Editrice, 2014. Pp. 364. ISBN 9788831164047. €38.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, Catholic University; Angelicum; Princeton (

Version at BMCR home site

This rich study is clearly structured and accurate. Every section deals with a specific topic within the larger issue of creation in Clement, and each section begins with a list of all the Greek terms that appear in the writer's works and are relevant to that topic. The main sections of the monograph, after the introduction, focus on God as Principle (ἀρχή, a point that will be taken over and developed by Origen), Creator, and Demiurge; creation itself; Paradise and sin; and conclusions. The inscription of the whole book is aptly taken from Stromateis 5.78.1, in which, as in a number of other passages, Clement cites Plato's Timaeus concerning the difficulty of knowing the Father and Creator of the universe and the impossibility of communicating this knowledge. This choice is particularly felicitous in that, as Monfrinotti points out (38), among the main terminological families used by Clement to indicate creation, the one that revolves around the root δημιουργ- is by far the most frequently present (113 occurrences according to Monfrinotti's list [31-32]). Now, this is not Biblical terminology, but Platonic, notably stemming from Plato's Timaeus. Clement, like Bardaisan of Edessa (with whose ideas Clement may have been familiar), and like Philo, who influenced him strongly, was reading the Biblical creation account in the light of the Timaeus, to the point of replacing the Biblical ποιέω with δημιουργέω and regularly calling the Creator δημιουργός, which the Septuagint never does.

Thus, a Platonic trait in Clement's theology seems to be the unknowability and ineffability of God, which Monfrinotti rightly highlights as a central feature of Clement's thought (50-51; 244). So, what is knowable is only what God is not, and the divine epinoiai designate not God's essence, but God's dynameis. This again depends mainly on the Platonic influence on Clement—as well as on other Middle and Neoplatonists belonging to different religious traditions, Jewish "pagan" and Christian, and yet sharing the same dialectics of apophatic theology.1 It is not accidental that in the same passage, Strom. 5.78.1-3, Clement calls Plato "lover of truth," φιλαλήθης.2 The best Greek philosophers, for Clement, worshipped the same God as the Christians, albeit without full knowledge, since they ignored that the Son is God's Logos (Strom. 6.39.4; cf. 5.134.1-3). I definitely concur with Monfrinotti (268-69) that Clement was one of the most optimistic patristic thinkers with regard to the value of Greek paideia and philosophy. Origen, who was well acquainted with Clement's work, was another.

Although certainty cannot probably be reached, I share Monfrinotti's conclusion (185) that Clement refused to regard matter as uncreated and coeternal with God. This would be another of the many philosophical points that mark a profound continuity between Clement and Origen. Photius's claim that Clement in his Hypotyposeis professed a matter without time (Bibliotheca cod. 109, discussed on 181) is rightly taken with suspicion, since it probably arose from a misunderstanding, as in other cases among Clement's fragments. I argued extensively in this sense elsewhere. Monfrinotti analyses Paedagogus 1.98.1-3 (224-25), which contains, I find, an impressive parallel to Bardaisan's own anti-Marcionite and anti-Gnostic polemic. Clement says that God gave commandments to humans, but such as to make them practicable, and identifies the Creator with Christ's Father. It is worth emphasising that exactly the same two points are made by Bardaisan, within an anti-Marcionite argument, in the initial sections of the Liber legum regionum, which was written by a disciple but reflects his thought, in a discussion with Awida.

Another aspect concerning creation seems to me to be strikingly common to Clement and Bardaisan: in many points Clement speaks of creation as harmonisation, as Monfrinotti himself notes with some puzzlement (177), remarking that this might seem to be at odds with his theory of the creation of matter by God. Now, this is precisely Bardaisan's position, as results from the so-called cosmological traditions, and indirectly also from the fragments preserved by Porphyry. For, according to Bardaisan, Christ-Logos ordered "elements" or "beings" that pre-existed this world, but were not coeternal with God or on a par with God, as both the Liber legum regionum and the cosmological traditions make clear. They were created by God and it is to God that they appealed, as to their superior and Creator, when they were attacked by darkness. Monfrinotti, in his only mention of the Liber legum regionum (132 n. 337), contrasts it with Clement as an example of creation as ordering from preexisting beings. But these beings or elements (στοιχεῖα) are not coeternal with God for Bardaisan; they are creatures of God, as the Liber explicitly states, and therefore represent matter as created by God—in fact the same position as Clement's. The role of the Logos as the harmoniser of creation, very well described by Monfrinotti in Clement (128-39), will continue to be pivotal in Christian Platonism.3

While dealing with those who had treated the creation issue before Clement or in the time of Clement, Monfrinotti rightly includes (17) the mysterious "Maximus" who lived in the time of Commodus and wrote a work on the origin of evil and the creation of matter according to Eusebius HE 5.27.1. Monfrinotti does not mention the main Eusebian passage taken from "Maximus" (PE 7.22) or the remarkable connection between Eusebius's excerpts and the problematic Dialogue of Adamantius, which also deals with creation and incorporates Maximus's materials. Further work will be devoted to this intriguing interface. Monfrinotti does well to highlight that Clement never wrote a work specifically on creation, although he wrote a lost Περὶ ἀρχῶν (21)—but apparently in an exegetical and not systematic form, unlike the Περὶ ἀρχῶν by Origen, which, as I argued elsewhere, was inspired by the philosophical tradition περὶ ἀρχῶν. I definitely agree that for Clement, the study of the origin of the universe is the point of departure of theology (24), and I share Monfrinotti's observation that Clement does not separate philosophy from theology (48). This approach is typical of patristic philosophy—from Clement himself to Origen to Eriugena—which should be seen as part and parcel of ancient and late antique philosophy.

In Stromateis Clement attributes creation mostly to the Father, in Protrepticus to the Logos, but this is a difference in perspective and nuance. Monfrinotti stresses with good reason (80-81;85) that for Clement the creation took place solely by God's will (Protr. 63.1-5). I would only add, and have argued elsewhere, that this is the same doctrine that Pantaenus and Ammonius, teachers of Clement and Origen respectively, and later Origen himself, supported.4 Monfrinotti correctly emphasises that Clement insists on the coincidence of justice and goodness in God. It may be useful to explain that this is a tenet of his anti- Marcionite and anti-Gnostic polemic, shared by Origen, and this is arguably a pillar of his doctrine of apokatastasis or restoration, which will also be developed much further by Origen. If Clement quotes Sirach 39:26-27 selectively (as noted by Monfrinotti, 98), retaining only the first part but dropping the second concerning the exclusion of the wicked, this is again because of his doctrine of apokatastasis, which in his thought, as in Origen's, is closely related to the anti-Gnostic polemic against different "natures" of humans.

There are occasionally some imprecise, or at least debatable, statements, such as that Origen taught the preexistence of bare souls (127). This is a widespread assumption, which nevertheless can hardly find support in Origen's works; studies are underway on this score. For the feminine and maternal principle of God, I would perhaps not use scare quotes ("il principio 'femminile' e 'materno' di Dio," 95), since Clement is adamant that, by loving, God "became female" (ἐθηλύνθη) and this is how God gave birth to a child (Div. 37).5 The Logos as dynamis of God is rightly traced back to Philo and some Middle Platonists (135-36), although one should also consider an important antecedent in the De mundo attributed to Aristotle (esp. 397b20-398a); some of its expressions concerning the divine dynamis were taken over by Gregory of Nyssa. God's immanent dynamis was central also in Aristobulus' thought (frs. 2, 4). Now Clement knew Aristobulus and called him a Peripatetic (Strom.; = T2, T4 Holladay).6

I agree with Monfrinotti's interpretation of Clement's hamartiology (259): Clement rejects a notion of hereditary sin and insists, like Origen, on each person's moral responsibility for his or her own sins. Monfrinotti also caught well the difference that Clement (followed, I think, once again by Origen) posited between being in the image of God and in the likeness of God: the former is a datum, while the latter results from one's personal moral effort (223). I also share Monfrinotti's remark that, "if God the Father operates through the Logos (in both creation and salvation), this does not necessarily entail the subordination of the Logos, but its [sic] indispensability" (143). This, indeed, is even truer of Origen, who—as I argued extensively elsewhere—was no subordinationist. This is also the sense in which Clement's designation of the Logos as διάκονος should be understood.

Monfrinotti rightly observes that for Clement the intellect (nous) is the rational part of the human being, which makes it similar to God by nature and enables the human being to participate in the life of the divine Logos and of God (221). This conception seems to me to have influenced Evagrius Ponticus (as many other aspects of Clement's thought have, including his notion of prayer and his concept of the "gnostic"). In KG 6.73 Evagrius is referring to Gen 1:26 and agrees with Philo, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa that the likeness of God in the human being cannot be situated in the body, since God is incorporeal, but must be located in the intellect. However, the reason why the intellect can be the likeness of God is not simply because it is incorporeal, but because it can become a recipient of God, a facility that in turn depends on one's own engagement in virtue and knowledge. The fact that it can receive knowledge depends on its being incorporeal. Evagrius suggests that being incorporeal and being susceptible of knowledge, and primarily of the knowledge of God, amount to the same thing.7 Stylistically some repetitions and occasional verbosity may be observed, but these in no way detract from the value of this very interesting and detailed work.


1.   Demonstration in my "The Divine as Inaccessible Object of Knowledge in Ancient Platonism: A Common Philosophical Pattern across Religious Traditions," Journal of the History of Ideas 75.2 (2014) 167-188. On Clement's negative theology see also Henny Hӓgg, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism, Oxford: OUP, 2006, and Emmanuel Albano, I silenzi delle Sacre Scritture: Limiti e possibilità di rivelazione del Logos negli scritti di Filone, Clemente e Origene, Rome: Augustinianum, 2014.
2.   On Clement's appreciation of Plato and his many quotations from Plato see now Vladim Wittkowsky, Warum zitieren frühchristliche Autoren pagane Texte?, Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015.
3.   See my Bardaisan of Edessa: A Reassessment of the Evidence and a New Interpretation, Piscataway: Gorgias, 2009, 107-124; 314-355; Idem (ed.), Bardaisan on Human Nature, Fate, and Free Will, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2017.
4.   I thoroughly documented this in "Divine Power in Origen of Alexandria: Sources and Aftermath," in Divine Powers in Late Antiquity, eds. Anna Marmodoro and Irini Viltanioti, Oxford: OUP, 2016, Ch. 10.
5.   See Davide Dainese, "La femminilità del Padre. Note a margine di Q.d.s. 36-37," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 56 (2013) 1-11.
6.   Carl Holladay, Fragments from Hellenistic Jewish Authors, 3, Atlanta: Scholars, 1995. On the dependence of Aristobulus on De mundo see Roberto Radice, La filosofia di Aristotle e i suoi nessi con il De mundo, Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1995 and Christoph Riedweg, Jüdisch-hellenistische Imitation eines orphischen Hieros Logos, Tübingen: Narr, 1993; on a possible dependence on a common source see Fabienne Jourdan, Poème judéo- hellénistique attribué à Orphée, Paris: Belles Lettres, 2010, 94-95.
7.   Full commentary on this point within the dialectic structure of KG 6.73 in my Evagrius Ponticus' Kephalaia Gnostica, Atlanta: SBL, 2015, lxxvi-lxxvii and 361-362.

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