“The New and Young People”: Covenant as Anthropology in Clement of Alexandria

Studies of the covenant motif in early Christian writings have often explored it only, or primarily, from the perspective of biblical theology, as a hermeneutical device for structuring the biblical narrative (Everett Ferguson, Ligon Duncan, Susan Graham). What has often been overlooked in such treatments is that, while it does indeed perform this important function, the covenant concept actually has a multi-dimensional character for early Christians, as an essential, identity-shaping presupposition, with wide-ranging metaphysical, ritual, and ethical implications.

To illustrate this broader significance, I examine the use of the covenant concept in the works of Clement of Alexandria, who employs it not merely hermeneutically but also anthropologically. In both his polemic against the deterministic and hierarchical anthropologies of his Gnostic opponents (Stromateis) and in his instruction for his own Christian community’s moral formation (Paedogogus) and doctrinal education (Stromateis), Clement regularly appeals to the theological notion of the new covenant as an element in his unique anthropology of the Christian person, as the phenomenon which facilitates reception of the Holy Spirit, incorporation into Christ, and the cultivation and manifestation of the Christian virtues on the path to “perfection” or maturity.

I begin with a brief overview of Clement’s anthropology as described in recent scholarship (Salvatore Lilla; John Behr; Eric Osborn). Next, I consider his anthropological use of covenant motifs in his three major extant writings, with attention to their particular rhetorical contexts and purposes. In the Protrepticus, Clement seeks to persuade pagan skeptics to join the new covenant people of the church, who are transformed by the Holy Spirit and practice a new “way of life” as a result of the divine law written on their hearts (Prot. 11-12). In the Paedogogus, Clement lays out the new covenant precepts and ritual (baptism) that shape the life of the impressionable new community of “little ones” (Christians) in the educational program of the Word (Paed. 1.5.19-20; 1.6.26; 1.7.59). Finally, in the Stromateis, Clement explains how the arrival of the new covenant unites Jews and gentiles, who were previously tutored by the “covenants” of the Law of Moses and Greek philosophy, respectively, into one new “peculiar people,” worshiping in a new way as “one race,” and living in harmony according to the Logos (Strom. 6.5; 6.13).

I conclude by reviewing and synthesizing these observations to note the major anthropological implications of Clement’s understanding of new covenant membership, which, though inclusive of hermeneutical concerns, is not limited to them.

4 thoughts on ““The New and Young People”: Covenant as Anthropology in Clement of Alexandria”

  1. another good doctoral student
    another good doctoral student paper. They tend to be less relevant to a broader audience and more narrowly focused on specific topics, but it’s important to have papers like that at ETS. Looks like some good application at the end.

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  2. This seems thorough and
    This seems thorough and focused, as well as grounded in scholarly conversations. Clement of A is less studied than some fathers and thus this proposal brings another voice to the conversation.

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