Reviews of

Clement’s Biblical Exegesis

In Brill, Clement of Alexandria, Jana PLATOVA, Judith L. KOVACS, Patristic exegesis, review, Robert G. T. Edwards, Veronika CERNUSKOVA on July 3, 2017 at 9:57 am

2017.07.14 | Veronika Černušková, Judith L. Kovacs, and Jana Plátová, Clement’s Biblical Exegesis: Proceedings of the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria (Olomouc, May 29-31, 2014). Vigiliae Christianae Supplements 139. Leiden: Brill, 2017. ISBN: 9789004331235

Reviewed by Robert G. T. Edwards, University of Notre Dame.

Except for one essay, this book is based on papers presented three years ago at the Second Colloquium on Clement of Alexandria in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Whereas the first Colloquium in 2010 focused on Book VII of the Stromateis, this one focused on Clement’s biblical exegesis. The collection of essays is introduced by Judith Kovacs’ comprehensive overview of scholarship and issues related to Clement’s exegesis (pp. 1-37); this essay combined with Jana Plátová’s exhaustive bibliography (pp. 38-52) ably represents the state of the field. After these introductory chapters, the book is divided into three major sections: Part 1, “Clement’s Exegetical Methods”; Part 2, “Clement between Philosophy and Biblical Theology”; and Part 3, “Clement’s Exegesis of Particular Biblical Texts.”

The three essays in Part 1 delve deeply into Clement’s so-called “methods.” Because Clement is a self-professed “eclectic,” coming up with a fixed methodology is difficult; nevertheless, each essay works towards providing a broad picture of Clement’s exegesis. The first, Alain Le Boulluec’s “L’interprétation de la Bible et le ‘genre symbolique’ selon Clément d’Alexandrie” (pp. 55-79) is concerned with several issues related to Clement’s discussion of the “symbolic style” (to symbolikon eidos). Le Boulluec shows how Clement shared the interests of pagan readers of myths (especially Plutarch and Cornutus), particularly in his discussion of barbarian uses of the “symbolic style”: the use of this veiled mode of speech was a universal phenomenon (these philosophers think) which was used to hide the true divine meaning from those who are unprepared to receive them. The “symbolic style” is for Clement not limited to texts, but also should be kept in mind when interpreting other symbols: people, acts, objects. Finally, Le Boulluec suggests that Clement, in a move very different to the philosophical interpreters of myths, orients the “symbolic style” around the “manifestation of the Logos” (79) – that is, the “coming of the Word” in the incarnation and into the heart of the Christian (true Gnostic) interpreter. This important essay is followed by Ilaria Ramelli’s, “The Mysteries of Scripture: Allegorical Exegesis and the Heritage of Stoicism, Philo, and Pantaenus” (pp. 80-110) – an invited paper, and the only one not delivered at the 2014 Colloquium. Not surprisingly, she takes something of a “history of ideas” approach to the topic of Clement’s exegesis. Even in the first part of the paper, when discussing the distinctiveness of Clement’s vocabulary of “allegoresis” – especially his use of mysterion – she often defines it with reference to that of other early Christian thinkers. Ramelli goes on to discuss the well-known influence of Philo and the Stoics, and then provides the interesting suggestion (she admits, a speculative one) that the teaching of Pantaenus (Clement’s teacher in Alexandria) is the reason for Clement’s symbolic reading of Scripture. The final essay in this section is Marco Rizzi’s “The Bible in Alexandria: Clement between Philo and Origen” (pp. 111-26), in which he sets himself the hard task of demonstrating Clement’s distinctive understanding of Scripture compared to the two towering figures of Alexandrian exegesis, Philo and Origen. In this excellent essay, Rizzi suggests that, in a way different than these other two interpreters, Clement sees scripture as what allows one to read the rest of reality. Scripture functions as a kind of map for making sense of things human and divine, such that one is led pedagogically (through the Christian teacher, the true Gnostic) to the divine. Rizzi does a valiant job of reading the landscape (to use another cartographic metaphor) of Clement’s “vague, allusive, captivating” style (in the words of Havrda, p. 167), in order to arrive at this apology for Clement’s scriptural vision.

It is at times difficult to see how Part 2 is quite as engaged with the discussion of “Clement’s Biblical Exegesis.” The section is, as the title indicates, highly philosophical, and at times dominated by the concerns of dogmatic theology. Johannes A. Steenbuch’s “Negative Theology and Dialectics in Clement of Alexandria’s Understanding of the Status and Function of Scripture” (pp. 129-46) looks at the longstanding tradition of negative theology in the Greek fathers, and examines the relationship (or seeming dilemma) between God’s ineffability and self-communication in scripture. He concludes that the “voice of God,” as Clement describes it, and scripture exist in a dialectical relationship: that scripture is a “vehicle of the voice of God” (145), which can become identical with the voice of the Lord when the one who has faith dialectically reads the Bible. This is followed by Ilaria Vigorelli’s highly philosophical essay, “Schesis and Trinitarian Thought in Clement of Alexandria: From Philosophy to Scriptural Interpretation” (pp. 147-61). Vigorelli examines Clement’s use of the word schesis (“relation” or “disposition”) which she views retrospectively through the importance attached to the term in later Trinitarian (Cappadocian) theologians (see p. 155). Clement’s most significant use of this vocabulary is in reference to John 17:24-26. Clement interprets this passage in such a way that love (agape) is understood to be the divine disposition (schesis) which is constitutive of the relation between the Father and the Son, and which, though it has “no necessary connection to the world,” is offered by the Word to the world (p. 161). Finally, Matyáš Havrda in “Clement’s Exegetical Interests in Stromateis VIII” (pp. 162-78) argues that, like the Prophetic Eclogues and the Excerpts of Theodotus (the other two fragmentary works appended to the most important manuscript of the Stromateis), the so-called Stromateis VIII evinces significant exegetical interests. He takes chapter 1 of Stromateis VIII to be a coherent introduction to a series of fragments (with occasional glosses) taken from Galen’s lost work On Demonstration (p. 165). He suggests, convincingly, that this first chapter appears to be the beginning of a never-completed examination of exegetical principles, which would have served as a guide for authoritative teachers who inquire into difficult scriptures (p. 172).

The essays of Part 3, comprising half of the volume, take seriously Mondésert’s almost 75 year old suggestion to investigate Clement’s interpretation of specific biblical passages (see p. 26). The first two essays discuss two corpora that occur with great frequency in Clement. Annewies van den Hoek (“Clement of Alexandria and the Book of Proverbs,” pp. 181-216) surveys all of Clement’s references to Proverbs (complete with tables and charts). Especially interesting is her examination of the ways in which Clement’s use of Proverbs lines up with his pedagogical project: “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom” accurately represents the positive first stage of the pedagogy; the practical advice of the later chapters of Proverbs is utilized both straightforwardly and allegorically in the ethical sections of the Paedagogus (Books II-III); Proverbs is also used at once to encourage and discourage dependence on Greek paideia. Veronika Černušková undertakes a similar project on the Sermon on the Mount (“Four Desires: Clement of Alexandria and the Sermon on the Mount,” pp. 217-58). She surveys all of its occurrences in Clement’s corpus (again, complete with tables). Černušková demonstrates that Clement highly favours some topics (freedom from desire and proper Christian attitudes towards evil), while avoiding others (especially the Sermon’s retributive language). She demonstrates how, through his use of the Sermon, Clement develops his idea of the abandonment of desire: first through fear (a desire not to be harmed), then through hope (a desire for future goods), then through love of God, neighbour, and enemy. It is Clement’s true Gnostic who has attained to the final one, living perfectly as his heavenly father is perfect (though Černušková casts some doubt on whether this Gnostic truly loves his enemy in this life). This essay is an excellent example of how scripture at once profoundly shapes Clement’s thinking, while Clement continues to interpret it selectively according to his own project: Černušková admirably walks this fine line.

The next three papers form a neat unit on Clement’s use and interpretation of Johannine literature. Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski (“Clement of Alexandria’s Reception of the Gospel of John: Context, Creative Exegesis and Purpose,” pp. 259-76) overviews Clement’s use of the Gospel of John, and shows how, as in the rest of his biblical exegesis, he interprets it eclectically and allusively. And he suggests that even in his use of John’s prologue, where we might expect the Gospel to play a more significant role in Clement’s thinking, he is much more indebted to Philo’s understanding of the Logos. Miklós Gyurkovics (“The Philosophical Problem of ‘Place’ in Clement’s Exegesis of the Prologue of the Gospel of John,” pp. 277-91) takes up the prologue alone, focusing on the idea of “place” with respect to the material, but especially the noetic, and divine worlds. He finds that certain items (“Word,” “Bosom of the Father”) in the prologue prompt discussion of place, in which the Word plays the central role in ordering both place and existence. Davide Dainese (“Clement’s Exegesis of 1 John in the Adumbrationes,” pp. 292-324) provides an excellent introduction to the Adumbrationes (and its problems) as a whole, and then specifically Adumbrationes III, which is a sort of running commentary on 1 John. Although Dainese does discuss Clement’s interpretation 1 John 2:7 and 5:16-17, his major contribution is the way in which he views the Adumbrationes as “notes” (similar to the so-called Stromateis VIII) on Clement’s “first principles” which, in the Stromateis, Clement promises to discuss later in the same work. These “first principles” in the Adumbrationes concern the “relationship between intellectual speculation and biblical exegesis” (p. 305).

The final essay in the collection is Judith L. Kovacs’ “Reading the ‘Divinely Inspired’ Paul: Clement of Alexandria in Conversation with ‘Heterodox’ Christians, Simple Believers, and Greek Philosophers,” pp. 325-43. Kovacs has published a number of times on Clement’s use of Paul, and with good reason: Paul is by far Clement’s most frequently cited individual author, and is deployed in “many and various” situations (see Heb 1:1). As Kovacs draws attention to in this essay, Clement often uses Paul in polemical or apologetic contexts: against heretics (i.e. Christian sectarians), Greek philosophers, and simple Christians. This essay functions as a good summary not only of Clement’s use of Paul (and so Kovacs’ previous findings), but also of the various, often polemical, contexts in which Clement is keen to use scripture more generally.

Indeed, if we reflect on Kovacs’ introduction and closing chapter, we begin to see how useful this volume could be. Although this is very much a collection of essays, and not an altogether cohesive and linear monograph, it nevertheless, I think, has the capacity to operate as a new introduction to Clement’s biblical exegesis. As Kovacs notes in her introductory chapter, Claude Mondésert’s, Clément d’Alexandrie; introduction à l’étude de sa pensée religieuse à partir de l’écriture (Paris: Aubier, 1944) is still the best monographic treatment of the topic. Nevertheless, this volume could function in much the same way. Kovacs’ survey of scholarship and the state of the field, along with the methodological essays (Part 1), provide a solid footing from which to begin research on Clement’s exegesis. At the same time, the latter half of the book (Part 3) significantly extends Mondésert’s project by looking to Clement’s exegesis of specific books and passages of the Bible, while Part 2 reminds us that Clement is not just an exegete, and has other philosophical and theological interests. Collections of essays are always inconsistent, if not in the quality of scholarship, then at least in focus. Though one could quibble about how much some (though, really, just a few) of the essays relate to the topic of “Clement’s Biblical Exegesis,” this volume is largely consistent in both respects. Further, that some essays tread old ground and others break new ground, as well as the fact that a large number of them are written by top Clementine scholars, provides the collection with a “textbook” quality. Because of this, this book should be referred to for many years to come.

Robert G. T. Edwards
University of Notre Dame
Robert.G.Edwards.87 [at]


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