On Atheism: Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria

As I briefly discussed in a much earlier blog post, the first Christians were considered atheists. Christianity was radical in the ancient world because it made a claim to the sole Lordship of Christ. The gods and goddesses of the Roman world were falsehoods and deceptions, God alone was the Lord of all creation. In a polytheistic society such as ancient Rome, such claims opened you up to the charge of radical atheism.

Charged with Atheism

The teaching of the Early Church, centred around the one God, sovereign over all creation, was contradictory to everything the ancients believed. The first Christians believed and taught that there was one God supreme in authority, sovereignty, and judgement. And for this they were labelled atheists.

The third century Christian writer Origen records how one anti-Christian thinker of the second century, Celsus, was shocked (Contra Celsum 1.5.1) that “the Christians do not consider those to be gods that are made with hands, on the ground that it is not in conformity with reason to suppose that images, fashioned by the most worthless and depraved of workmen, and in many instances also provided by wicked men, can be regarded as gods!” Behind Celsus’ words lies a charge of atheism, a common one levelled at the first Christian communities. In a similar manner, the early second century martyr, Polycarp, was accused outright of the charge. Standing before the Roman court, Polycarp was asked to recant (Martyrdom of Polycarp 9) “Swear by the fortune of Cæsar; repent, and say, away with the Atheists!” Atheism was one of the most common accusations made against the first Christians. So how did the Early Church reply? Origen offers a written response in his work Contra Celsum – literally Against Celsus – but in the decades before Origen turned to rebutting Celsus’ accusations, two influential Christian thinkers tackled this charge head on.

Tertullian of Carthage

“You say we are atheists, and will not offer sacrifices for the emperors. Well, we do not offer sacrifice for others, for the same reason that we do not for ourselves — namely, that your gods are not at all the objects of our worship.”

Tertullian, Apology, 10.

Tertullian squares up to the charge of atheism by confirming what those who oppose the Christians claim. These Christ-followers are indeed atheistic about the gods of the ancient world, inasmuch as they simply do not believe them to be true divines. There is but one God, so yes, the Christians are simply disbelieving about the false ‘gods’ of the ancient world.

Tertullian makes a mockery of the gods in this short quote. Christians do not worship the gods for the same reason they don’t worship their very selves! They simply are not worth it. God alone is the object of Christian worship, because He alone is the sovereign creator God.

Clement of Alexandria

He, then, who is persuaded that God is omnipotent, and has learned the divine mysteries from His only-begotten Son, how can he be an atheist? For he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist. And he is superstitious who dreads the demons; who deifies all things, both wood and stone; and reduces to bondage spirit, and man who possesses the life of reason.

Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies 7.1.

Clement responds in a slightly different way, instead turning the charge back upon his pagan opponents. Whereas Tertullian essentially admitted that Christians were atheists – in the sense that they did not believe in these false gods – Clement accuses the pagans of true atheism. How can Christians be called atheist, when they trust in the true God? The truth is in fact the very opposite. Clement confronts his accusers: “he is an atheist who thinks that God does not exist.” Instead of trusting in the true God, these pagans hope in mere superstitions, forsaking reason to hope in falsehoods.

It is the pagan believer who is atheistic about the truth of the one God who could save them. They have lost their minds if they think deifying wood and stone will help them! Clement confronts the charge of atheism head on, and turns it back on his accusers.

Two tactics: one Hope

Both Tertullian and Clement present examples of Christian arguments against this early charge of atheism. Though they take slightly different approaches, the truth behind their tactics remains the same. The world hopes in false gods and superstitions, the Christians trust in God alone. The one true God, worthy of divine worship and sovereign over all creation. Up against this true God, the ‘gods’ of the pagans are nothing more than mere superstitions.

Christians were regularly labelled as ‘atheists’ in those early years. But in these responses from Tertullian and Clement we find a way to counter such a charge. Our own world can accuse us of believing in fairytales and foolishness, but as these men asked some 1800 years ago, is the hope of the world in anything secure? Do our unbelieving friends and family trust in anything more than superstitions and falsehoods? Our God is still the one true Lord of all creation. We are right to worship Him, and we must not stop pointing others to the truth that He alone is worthy of our worship.

Clement of Alexandria: The intentional Christian Life

Clement is one of my favourite Early Church Fathers, and though I have offered a short profile of him before (which you can find here) – I am going to present a slightly more detailed walk through of his life and work over the following few posts.

Little is known of Clement’s early life. Born in 160 AD to pagan parents, in either Athens of Alexandria itself (Epiphanius in Panarion 32.6.1 reports that some say he was born in Athens, whilst others maintain Alexandria), he was clearly well educated as a young man. His extant writings betray a deep knowledge of both pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, alluding to a diverse and comprehensive education.

His adult career was largely spent in Alexandria. Having rejected paganism as a young man, Clement began to travel widely. He arrived in North Africa in the late second century, seeking further education, and sat under the teachings of Pantaenus in Alexandria, a man Clement affectionately labelled his “Sicilian bee.” Pantaenus, a Christian teacher, was incredibly influential in Clement’s life, and it was under his teaching that Clement accepted the Good News of the Gospel and gave his life to Christ. Clement was a faithful disciple of Pantaenus and likely succeeded him as head of the catechetical school in Alexandria (at least according to Eusebius!) This led Clement to remain in the city for a number of years, and it was from Alexandria that he wrote and taught extensively.

The scholar Eric Osborn (2005, 1) described Clement as “a traveller, always moving on,” both intellectually and physically. This is clearly seen in his both intellectual and spiritual rejection of the pagan ways of his parents and his acceptance of Christ. But this intellectual development is matched by a geographical progression that saw Clement flee Alexandria in response to persecution at the start of the third century, first to Antioch and finally seemingly to Jerusalem.

Clement was a well respected figure in antiquity. Eusebius described him as “a good and proved man… practised in Scriptures” whilst both Cyril and Jerome labelled him an “expert” in Greek history, and a connoisseur of pagan literature. He was clearly a learned teacher, and treated as such. His depth of insight and knowledge shines through in his writings. Of his extant works, On Baptism and Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved? are fragmentary (though well worth a read). His three longest surviving works, however, form a trilogy. The Protrepticus, Paedagogus and Stromateis, littered with hundreds of references to pagan, Hebrew and Christian texts, present an argument for the embrace of an intellectual and reasoned faith. It is this trilogy that I shall explore in my next post on Clement.

These three works, lengthy treatises on the Christian faith, are those for which Clement is best remembered. He was a teacher and biblical exegete, a polymath and an apologist. All of these shine through in his surviving writings, and this trilogy demonstrates Clement’s great passion, that the Christian life is lived out in an informed and engaged way. Clement was concerned that those who did not grow in their faith were cheating themselves, and his works emphasise the need to engage with Scripture and wrestle with the things of God. The Christian faith is rational and rich, it ought to be treated as such.

In 202, Clement fled persecution that was flaring up in Alexandria. A reference in a letter of Alexander of Jerusalem in 211, commending Clement to the church in Antioch, is the last contemporary reference we find to Clement. He likely died in c.215, either in Antioch or Jerusalem.

“If a man chooses to remain in his pleasures, sinning time after time, and values earthly luxury above eternal life, and turns away from the Saviour when He offers forgiveness… his soul will perish… But he who looks for salvation and earnestly desires it and asks for it with steadfast persistence shall receive the true purification and the unchanging life from God the Father who is in Heaven, to whom through His Son Jesus Christ, the lord of living and dead, and through the Holy Spirit be glory, honour, might, and eternal majesty both now and for all generations and ages to come. Amen”

Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man who Can be Saved?