Friday, June 16, 2017


Kathleen Gibbons, The Moral Psychology of Clement of Alexandria: Mosaic Philosophy. Studies in philosophy and theology in late antiquity. London; New York: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 192. ISBN 9781472454447. $140.00.

Reviewed by Stuart R. Thomson, Christ's Hospital, UK (

Version at BMCR home site


Clement of Alexandria, often celebrated as 'the most Greek of the early Christian writers'1 has attracted a great deal of attention as the first theologian who engages seriously and at length with the traditions of Greco-Roman philosophy. Gibbons' monograph is a solid contribution, worthy of the attention of not only Clement specialists, but patrologists more generally, as well as those in the field of ancient philosophy. It brings together in an illuminating way the too-often separate worlds of ancient philosophy and patristics, and situates the development of Christian ideas of providence and free will clearly within the context of ancient Platonic and Stoic thought.

Gibbons sets out to frame her study as addressing two issues: first, Clement's 'rather striking literary method' (1), noting the haphazard organisation of the Stromateis in particular; and secondly, Clement's construction of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. I am not entirely convinced that the first issue is really addressed: almost without fail, studies since Méhat's comprehensive Étude2 have raised the same spectre of the unimpressed interpreter, and conclude that the confusion is a deliberate authorial technique by which the reader is prepared for gnostic illumination.3 Gibbons likewise is content to follow the conclusions of Méhat, and the issue is not raised substantively again (though see comments on chapter 3 below). Fortunately, this is not to the book's detriment, as its much more interesting content is focused on Clement's two-way relationships with Jewish and Greek traditions.

It has become a commonplace to note that Clement is more positive about Jews and the Mosaic law than other early Christian authors, but Gibbons is not prepared to let Clement off so easily. The first chapter, 'The Mosaic law in early Christianity,' situates what she sees as the porousness of Clement's Jewish/Christian divide within a comprehensively laid-out context of the approaches available to contemporary authors. Rather than setting Clement along a two- dimension spectrum of pro- or anti-Jewishness, Gibbons looks at rhetorical strategies of appropriation and exclusion which cannot be simplistically defined as for or against.

Chapter 2, 'Miming Moses: Clement's self-presentation and the dependency theme,' covers Clement's idea that Greek philosophy is dependent on Moses, territory also explored in depth by a number of recent studies.4 The chapter contains a digression on the Platonic intertextuality of the opening of Stromateis 1, following the more extensive study of Plato in Clement by Wyrwa.5 The chapter might add little new to the picture, but provides a useful summary of scholarship and establishes some of the themes and groundwork for the development of Gibbons' thesis in the remainder of the book.

The figure of Moses himself, presented by Clement as the ideal statesman, is the focus of the third chapter, 'Moses, statesman and philosopher.' Gibbons situates Clement in the debate between Stoics and Platonists over what constituted the wise man's assimilation to God, drawing on conflicting readings of the Theaetetus and Timaeus. Is assimilation achieved by a flight from the world or by a civic orientation? In Clement's presentation (heavily dependent on Philo), the latter option is illustrated by Moses' activity as lawgiver and ideal statesman, as he lives in accordance with the Stoic civic ideal of right reason according to the law of nature. Moses is even described as (divine) law embodied; Gibbons notes that this claim rests partly on Jesus' claim to be the fulfilment of the law, and that Moses is assimilated with Christ/the Logos. This is more interesting than is given credit – why does Clement focus on Moses and not Jesus as the embodied law? Further exploration of the relationship between the Mosaic embodiment of Law and Jesus' incarnation of the Logos would have been valuable, particularly of the impact on Clement's supersessionist theology if the paradigmatic function of Christ (see below on Chapter 4) is already prefigured or achieved in Moses.

There is an attempt here to link this mix of Philonic/ Stoic/ Platonic ideas with Clement's literary organisation, and Gibbons argues that the philosophical method of unifying this conflicting family of traditions in the figure of Moses is echoed in the eclecticism of Clement's composition. The argument would be more convincing if the section under observation here (1.23-28) were not one of the most structurally and narratively unified within the Stromateis; the analysis here would have benefited from clearer explication and nuance.

The fourth and sixth chapters ('The Logos of God, the problem of evil and Clement's transformation of providence,' and 'Clement's idiosyncratic concept of autonomy in the context of ancient thought'), taken together, form the most significant aspects of the book's scholarly contribution. Gibbons pursues the philosophical challenge posed to Clement by his commitment both to a divine providence which functions on an individual level and to a world-view which admits only a single original cause. This necessarily raises the problem of evil: if God is to be exonerated from the charge of being directly and deliberately the cause of evil, a strong view of human autonomy (whereby individuals can be held responsible for not only their choices, but for the conditions of character which influence those choices) is necessary.

Chapter 4 sets Clement's thinking on providence, which establishes God as cause and governor of the universe, within the problems of human freedom and autonomy addressed in chapter 6. Gibbons takes the reader through Clement's contributing intellectual streams and how they interact: Plato, especially as interpreted by Numenius, the Stoa, and both of these traditions as read by Philo, as well as a broader Jewish tradition. The influence of Jewish thought, especially the concept of intermediary dynameis and angelology, is an aspect of Clement explored already by Bogdan Bucur, and Gibbons makes good use of this previous work. The relationship between forms and individual objects in the sensible world constitutes the first step in the argument; the next related question is the location of forms (in the mind of God?), followed by the locus of demiurgic activity (the Logos or God?).

The argumentation is often dense and hard to follow, and at points by necessity relies on rather thin evidence, but Gibbons argues convincingly for a set of interlocking Clementine positions: that there is a single causal principle working through God as demiurge and the Logos, through which God accomplishes his activity and imparts knowledge of it to humanity. In turn, this leads to Gibbons' account of Clement's theology of the incarnation: 'Because human beings are rational, their complete integration into the cosmos requires that they have some cognitive grasp of its principles; yet because they are material, many who have an excessive attachment to the flesh will require the revelation of those principles through a teacher who is is accessible to human capacities of sense perception' (69).

Chapter 5 seems something of an interlude between the organically connected chapters 4 and 6, and takes us into Clement's allegorical exposition of the ten commandments, and then the Mosaic law more generally. It is here that Clement's relationship with Jewishness is seen in its most complex expressions, as he skirts the line between acknowledging the continuing importance and validity of the law, whilst denying its normativity for the true gnostic.

Clement walks the line between accepting the value of the law, whilst claiming the (true, Christian) gnostic does not need to abide by all its prescriptions (according to Gibbons) by developing a theory of situational moral reasoning (following Stoic precedents) whereby the law is given as a set of praecepta, rules to follow, which allow us to live in accordance with more general and more fundamentally important decreta, or universal moral truths. The true gnostic, able to reason correctly about the moral law, does not need the praecepta, but can deduce the right action from an understanding of universal natural law itself. This approach underpins Clement's comments on key areas of dispute in early Christianity (and, in particular, areas in which lines were drawn to delineate orthodox from heretic): dietary laws, sexual mores, and martyrdom. Gibbons' analysis of how this constructs a relationship with Judaism is particularly insightful; although a certain fluidity in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is necessary for Clement's interpretation, it also relies on a version of supersessionism. By internalizing Jewish thought and practice, especially Philo's thought, Clement sublimates '"Jewishness" to a particular Christian hermeneutic' (94).

Although the Stoic and Philonic background is laid out clearly, the idea that the Mosaic law is an outworking of deeper underlying principles is surely also one Clement finds embedded in Jesus' reduction of the law to two principles 'on which hang all the law and the prophets' (Matt. 22:40, which Clement quotes at Paed. 3.12.88). It seems puzzling that Gibbons does not examine the potential New Testament strand in Clement's thinking, especially when it is so intimately related to Clement's conceptualisation of the incarnation.

The final chapter ('Clement's idiosyncratic concept of autonomy in the context of ancient thought') continues from the groundwork laid out in chapter 4. Can individuals be responsible for their own moral failings if the preconditions for their character and the system in which they exist are set by God? This discussion of determinism and responsibilty looks both synchronically at various 'gnostic' versions of determinism in Basilides and Valentinian, and diachronically at the development of theories of choice versus nature in the philosophical schools. The former is dense and challenging: the paucity of evidence, its condition (generally embedded in hostile heresiological accounts), and its often quite strange mythic framework, means that the discussion of gnostic approaches to determinism and autonomy is necessarily hedged with qualifications. Against this background, Clement's position of radical self-determination, that human beings are responsible for the formation of their own character regardless of the natural circumstances in which they find themselves, is a significant new contribution. The argument is challenging: that human beings have radical, undetermined choice (and are therefore morally responsible for their actions) in a universe governed on an individual providential level by God, its sole cause; nonetheless, Gibbons makes her case clearly, though certainly not incontrovertibly. At the very least, she has laid the groundwork for interesting and fruitful discussion.

The typography and production of the book is generally of a very high standard; the only errors I noted in the English were an obviously missing negative on 86, and a missing word in the translation of Str. on 77 (ἀσχημάτιστον, 'without form'). However, there is one issue worth pointing out, and that is in the quotation of Greek. As in many publications, only some phrases or terms also given in Greek; in general, the rationale for what is and is not given in Greek is opaque.

Moreover, the Greek is in several instances incorrect. For instance, on 14, we find σαββατίζεινὑμας ὁ καινὸς νόμος διὰ παντὸς; a space is missing between the first two words, and the quotation needs the verb ἐθέλει to make sense. On 81, ἐκ οὑκ ὄντῶν should at least be corrected to ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων; it is included in the context of a discussion of creatio ex nihilo, with the claim that Latin has no direct equivalent to the Greek, but this phrase itself seems to appear nowhere in that particular form (though it is similar to a passage from 2 Macc. 7.28), and seems to be an attempt to re-transcribe Mark Edwards' transliterated ex ouk onton cited in the footnote.6 On 138: ἀναγαῖον should be ἀναγκαῖον, though the Greek does not seem necessary here anyway.

Overall, this is an often dense but stimulating book, providing some thought-provoking systematizing of Clement's thought in its context. Its clearest market will be for those in the field of patristics, but it is also one of the more successful efforts at linking the often too-separate worlds of early Christianity and ancient philosophy, and will be greatly appreciated by philosophers interested in ancient ideas of providence, free will and determinism, and theories of creation.


1.   Eric Osborn, Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2005), 25.
2.   André Méhat, Étude sur les 'Stromates' de Clément d'Alexandrie (Paris, 1966).
3.   E.g., Judish Kovacs, 'Divine Pedagogy and the Gnostic Teaching according to Clement of Alexandria,' JECS 9 (2001), 3-25; Osborn op cit., etc.
4.   In particular, George Boys-Stones, Post-Hellenistic Philosophy (Oxford, 2001), and Daniel Ridings, The Attic Moses (Gothenburg, 1995).
5.   Dietmar Wyrwa, Die christliche Platonaneignung in den Stromateis (Berlin, 1983).
6.   Mark Edwards, Origen against Plato (Aldershot, 2002), 62.

No comments:

Post a Comment