Tag Archives: Alexandria

Clement Of Alexandria, Romans 11, And Interreligious Dialogue

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pan...

Hagia Sophia ; Empress Zoë mosaic : Christ Pantocrator; Istanbul, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While reading Clement of Alexandria during a recent church service, I happened to read what good ole Clement thought of Romans 11, and, SURPRISE SURPRISE, he saw the language of engrafting as being very helpful too. I know, WHAT ARE THE ODDS!

This is a pretty extensive quote [Clement’s Stromata/The Carpets, Book 6, Chapter 15], so I am going to break it down, and mansplain this one:

Different modes of engrafting illustrative of different kinds of conversion.  They say that engrafting is effected in four modes: one, that in which   the graft must be fitted in between the wood and the bark; resembling   the way in which we instruct plain people belonging to the Gentiles,   who receive the word superficially.

First thing I would like to note by the first mode is that Clement makes use of the biblical category of GENTILE.  Our “conversion” to the faith is not the, ahem, one way to come to know the One True God that the prophets preached. In other words, the place where we Gentiles stands is one of incorporation.

Another is, when the wood is cleft,  and there is inserted in it the cultivated branch. And this applies to   the case of those who have studied philosophy; for on cutting through   their dogmas, the acknowledgment of the truth is produced in them. So  also in the case of the Jews, by opening up the Old Testament, the new  and noble plant of the olive is inserted.

The second mode is enlightenment, and this is primarily the place of where the Jews, God’s chosen ones stand.  Why do I say this? Because Clement argues that the philosophers stole or borrowed their best ideas (monotheism, ethics that line up with The Law), from the Jews.  On the hierarchy of philosophers, the ancient Hebrews are at the very top of the pyramid for Clement. While the language of enlightment brings its own set of problem, I think a limited use in this instance is valuable.

The third mode of engrafting   applies to rustics and heretics, who are brought by force to the truth.   For after smoothing off both suckers with a sharp pruning-hook, till   the pith is laid bare, but not wounded, they are bound together.

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211/216).

Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–211/216). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of the four modes, the third one is the most troubling for me. Even if Clement means in a not-so-PC fashion that verbal confrontation of heretics and pagans, I mean, rustics, will mean arrival at truth, there is something dominionist and violent about this approach to Christianity and other religions. A fellow Alexandrian, Cyril, years later, may have taken these words to heart, and lead mobs against Egyptian Jews. Of course, that would mean overlooking Clement’s second mode for engrafting.

And   the fourth is that form of engrafting called budding. For a bud (eye)   is cut out of a trunk of a good sort, a circle being drawn round in the   bark along with it, of the size of the palm. Then the trunk is   stripped, to suit the eye, over an equal circumference. And so the   graft is inserted, tied round, and daubed with clay, the bud being kept   uninjured and unstained. This is the style of gnostic teaching, which   is capable of looking into things themselves. This mode is, in truth,   of most service in the case of cultivated trees. And “the engrafting   into the good olive” mentioned by the apostle, may be [engrafting into]   Christ Himself; the uncultivated and unbelieving nature being   transplanted into Christ–that is, in the case of those who believe in   Christ. But it is better [to understand it] of the engrafting [3425] of   each one’s faith in the soul itself. For also the Holy Spirit is thus   somehow transplanted by distribution, according to the circumscribed   capacity of each one, but without being circumscribed.


Clement’s last mode is more about sanctification and perfection, what he referred to as assimilation, or the believer (gnostic) is participating in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This requires a Trinitarian understanding of personhood: an idea that all humanity has the potential to become involved in the divine life of YHWH.

I am just still trying to sort all of this out, but I think the implications of Clement’s use of engrafting are 75% helpful when it comes to discussing other religions, and possibly even mission work.  For Gentiles, our vocation is to approach other Gentiles, as Gentiles, in honesty, and not hiding (or denying this fact). To this effect, we can have a conversation about religion not on our terms, but on possibly others’ terms, and affirm the uniqueness of their experience, all the while, Christians can present the Good News of the Resurrection, and the truth about the person Christ Jesus. As for the problematic third mode, I would revise the budding language, and rather than aim it at the “rustics” as city slicker Clement would have us, but rather a verbal confrontation towards apostates and heretical Christians.  There’s good precedent set for this by the apostle Paul in his letters to the Corinthians.  So, the difference would be the “budding” as an interior critique that takes place inside the Body of Christ.

Wherefore also, though the wild olive be wild, it crowns the Olympic victors.

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Clement on the Father of Redemption

On The Question Whether It Is Right to Abandon the Customs of Our Fathers

In politics today there’s a lot of talk about going backwards to the heritage of the Founding Fathers. For Clement, living out Jesus’ words to “call no man father” had social implications. “For God bestows life freely, but evil custom, after our departure from this world, brings on the sinner unavailing remorse with punishment.”


English: Clement of Alexandria, from book 1, f...


Clement continues,

“For God, of his great love to man [sic.], comes to the help of man […] and God the Father seeks his creature, heals his transgression, and pursues the serpent, and recovers the young one, and incites it [the baby bird] to fly up to the nest.

Clement continues,

“thus our loving Father–the True Father–ceases not to exhort, admonish, train, love us. For He ceases not to save and advises the best course: “Become righteous says the Lord.”- from Clement’s Sermon to the Greeks, Chapter 10

Against the backdrop of Roman Egyptian imperial religion, which included the Roman pantheon where New Testament scholar Warren Carter noted that the emperor of Rome was also “The Father of the Father” (see his John and Empire: Initial Explorations), Clement of Alexandria writes of God’s fatherhood as being one of redemption, saving minds, bodies, and souls. Whereas for the Founding Fathers, enslaved Africans and First Nation peoples were made to pay the ultimate price for the propertied and their freedom, the free gift of redemption is offered by the God of Moses and Zechariah, the Father of all, the Giver of all life.

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How Do We Preach Chalcedon in the 21st Century?

Have you ever heard any of the following preached from the pulpit?

  • And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature (Luke 2:52) – This refers to Jesus’ human side growing in wisdom.
  • At the temptation in the wilderness it was only Jesus’ humanity that was tempted, because God cannot be tempted.
  • At the crucifixion it was Jesus’ humanity that was killed, not his deity.
  • The miracles that Jesus performed were indicative of his divine nature, not his human.

In 451, the Council of Chalcedon was convened to address the person of Christ.  There were two opposing camps: the Alexandrians, who emphasized Jesus’ divinity over his humanity (Docetism), and the Antiochians, who emphasized Jesus’ humanity over his divinity (Nestorianism).

Instead of creating a creedal statement that drew a line in the sand, the council provided a definition that created a box or paradigm.  So long as beliefs of the two opposing camps fell within the confines of the box, then both (the more moderate Alexandrians and moderate Antiochians) could be considered orthodox.

The Definition, in summary, affirms that Jesus is fully God and fully human, and that these two natures are united but also distinct in the person of Christ.  What makes this more of a paradigm than a line is that the statement in no way tries to define the divinity or humanity of Christ, nor does it try to explain how the two natures are in relationship with one another, other than that they are indeed in relationship and not collapsed into one nature.

Karl Barth uses the Chalcedonian Definition throughout his Church Dogmatics.  Sometimes he uses it in the classical sense, referring to the person of Jesus and his two natures.  Sometimes he uses it examine the work of Christ.  And, more radically, he takes the paradigm and applies it to the relationship between God and the Church in his discussion of vocation in IV.3.2.

Some have accused Barth of being either Antiochian or Alexandrian in his leanings.  But, if you read through the Dogmatics, what he actually does is alternate and explore the Chalcedonian Definition from both positions.  The problem, which is often the problem with Barth, is that he can take hundreds of pages to get to the other side of the dialectic.  (George Hunsinger, for example, has mapped out how in CD IV Barth flips between the two idioms and basically the entire IV.1 is “Alexandrian”, IV.2 is mostly Antiochian, and IV.3 is both.  No wonder people accuse Barth of being one or the other, when an entire volume is basically in one idiom).  On the other hand, Charles Waldrop suggests that, particularly in III.2 in which Barth looks at the humanity of Christ and tends towards an Antiochian position, it is an Antiochian position working within the framework of an overall Alexandrian Christology.

Barth, of course, takes a lot of license with the Chalcedonian Definition, and refuses to be constrained by the Greek metaphysical definitions of nature and person.  For example, instead of using ‘Natur’ to talk of the natures of Christ, he uses the German word ‘Wesen.’  Sarah Coakley argues that, in general, the West and East approached the Chalcedonian Definition differently, with the West looking at it very rigidly, tied directly to the Greek language.  The East, on the other hand, saw flexibility in the Definition, and found ways to use it liturgically and with fluidity.  (I argue, in a different venue, that that is indeed what Barth is doing in his use of Chalcedon, in that he approaches it with an Eastern flexibility).

The other problem is that Barth “shorthands.”  So, he will write “Jesus, Son of God,” but what he actually means is “The Son of God who is Jesus of Nazareth.”  Likewise, when he refers to “Jesus of Nazareth,” what he means is “Jesus of Nazareth who is the Son of God.”

Of course, this is also what the NT authors do. They may refer to Jesus of Nazareth, but that does not mean that they deny that he is also the Son of God, and vice versa.  And maybe that is where our problem lies in preaching.  We assume that when the author refers to one nature, they ignore or even deny the other nature.


So here are my questions to pose to all of you pastors, preachers and teachers:

Should we preach Chalcedon today?

Do our congregations, which are steeped in a largely biblically-illiterate culture, just “know” that Christ is fully divine and fully human when we preach?

Is Chalcedon useful today?

What would happen if we dropped the “shorthand” and began using the full sentence in our preaching?

How do we guard against the tendency towards either Docetism or Nestorianism in our churches?

Should evangelical churches, that are largely creedless, begin to re-examine and find ways to adopt these ancient statements in a post-modern context?



Charles Waldrop, “Karl Barth’s Concept of the Divinity of Jesus Christ” Harvard Theological Review (1981): 241-263

George Hunsinger, “Karl Barth’s Christology: Its Basic Chalcedonian Character” in Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth, pg 131-147.

Coakley, Sarah. “What Does Chalcedon Solve and What Does it Not? Some Reflections on the Status and Meaning of the Chalcedonian ‘Definition’”, in The Incarnation: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Incarnation of the Son of God. Pg 143-163.



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