Clement of Alexandria And The “Real Presence Doctrine”

Clement of Alexandria flourished at the close of the second century when he succeeded Pantaenus in the catechetical school of Alexandria. It is believed by some that Clement compiled his “stramata” (miscellaneous writings) about the time he was 40 years old. If true, he would have been born while Justin Martyr and Irenaeus were still writing, and while Polycarp was still alive. As a teacher of Christian philosophy, Clement instructed Origen who wrote during the mid third century. Among Clement’s writings are three books called, “Paedagogus” (The Instructor). In these works Clement goes far beyond simple explanations and examples. His thoughts build one upon another in a continuous development of Christian instruction. Such is the case in a well used quote from Clement in which attempts are made for supporting the doctrine of real presence.

Eat ye my flesh,” He says, “and drink my blood.” Such is the suitable food which the Lord ministers, and He offers His flesh and pours forth His blood, and nothing is wanting for the children’s growth. O amazing mystery. We are enjoined to cast off the old and carnal corruption, as also the old nutriment, receiving in exchange another new regimen, that of Christ, receiving Him if we can, to hide Him within; and that, enshrining the Savior in our souls, we may correct the affections of our flesh.

Few, if any, who read this quote from Catholic apologetic websites will ever actually attempt to read the reference in context. When presented with a borage of other out-of-context quotes seemingly supporting the doctrine, Clement’s quote appears to fit right in. This is especially true in the Catholic’s mind because the words Clement quotes are from John, chapter 6, the Bread of Life Discourse. This discourse Jesus has with the Jews is where Catholics draw their biblical support for the real presence doctrine. Those whose faith is built on the word of God, however, will notice that Clement presents the somewhat obscure metaphors in the first half of the quote, and then explains them in the second half. The explanation is consistent with Paul’s teachings about putting off the old man and putting on Christ. (Eph. 4:21-24, Col. 3:9-10) But even if Catholics were to read just a few lines further beyond the quote, they would find words that would challenge their assumptions.

But you are not inclined to understand it thus, but perchance more generally. Hear it also in the following way. The flesh figuratively represents to us the Holy Spirit; for the flesh was created by Him. The blood points out to us the Word, for as rich blood the Word has been infused into life; and the union of both is the Lord, the food of the babes–the Lord who is Spirit and Word. The food- that is, the Lord Jesus–that is, the Word of God, the Spirit made flesh, the heavenly flesh sanctified…

The words of the Lord from the bread of life discourse “eat My flesh and drink My blood,” is, according to Clement, figurative speech. Given Clement’s credentials and with regard to how much he was admired in the church, it is not at all likely he was out on a limb here. Clement was teaching orthodox Christian doctrine, widely understood in the universal church at that time. Giving a little context to the quote presented on Catholic websites, however, does little or nothing to sway a devout Catholic. When I presented the added context to one Catholic, he reacted with, “I admit I am completely bewildered by the Clement of Alexandria quotes you present I do not understand them and they seem to be very figurative, but they are not denying the real presence there either.” (Emphasis mine)

Well, yes they do. If the doctrine hinges on Jesus’ words, “eat My flesh and drink My blood” being literal, then Clement is indeed denying the real presence doctrine.From a Catholic apologist at “” I received this:

It looks like he is saying that he believes in the “Real Presence” but that he can also see some symbolism in it as well. Remember he said: “Hear it ALSO in the following way.” The word also obviously includes both views. This wouldn’t necessarily constitute a contradiction. Even in Scripture we have passages that have meanings on a number of levels.” (Emphasis his)

Obviously this apologist was trying very hard to compose a coherent response that shines brightly on the Catholic teaching, while acknowledging Clement’s obvious reference to the figurative language. I don’t know whether or not he bothered to read Clement’s Paedagogus Book 1, chapter 6, but if he did he would know that the entire chapter is an instruction on metaphors. And earlier in that chapter Clement said this:

But we are God-taught, and glory in the name of Christ. How then are we not to regard the apostle as attaching this sense to the milk of the babes? And if we who preside over the Churches are shepherds after the image of the good Shepherd, and you the sheep, are we not to regard the Lord as preserving consistency in the use of figurative speech, when He speaks also of the milk of the flock?… Elsewhere the Lord, in the Gospel according to John, brought this out by symbols, when He said: “Eat ye my flesh, and drink my blood; ” describing distinctly by metaphor the drinkable properties of faith and the promise, by means of which the Church, like a human being consisting of many members, is refreshed and grows, is welded together and compacted of both,–of faith, which is the body, and of hope, which is the soul; as also the Lord of flesh and blood. For in reality the blood of faith is hope, in which faith is held as by a vital principle.”

Clement continues his instruction that Christ is food with the metaphorical explanation.

 “‘I,’ says the Lord, ‘have meat to eat that ye know not of. My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me.’ You see another kind of food which, similarly with milk, represents figuratively the will of God. Besides, also, the completion of His own passion He called catachrestically “a cup,” when He alone had to drink and drain it. Thus to Christ the fulfilling of His Father’s will was food; and to us infants, who drink the milk of the word of the heavens, Christ Himself is food. Hence seeking is called sucking; for to those babes that seek the Word, the Father’s breasts of love supply milk.

And Clement concludes the chapter with this: Thus in many ways the Word is figuratively described, as meat, and flesh, and food, and bread, and blood, and milk. The Lord is all these, to give enjoyment to us who have believed on Him. Let no one then think it strange, when we say that the Lord’s blood is figuratively represented as milk. For is it not figuratively represented as wine? “Who washes,” it is said, “His garment in wine, His robe in the blood of the grape.” In His Own Spirit He says He will deck the body of the Word; as certainly by His own Spirit He will nourish those who hunger for the Word.Clement reiterates his instruction in Book 2 and uses it to define the eucharist.

For the blood of the grape–that is, the Word–desired to be mixed with water, as His blood is mingled with salvation. And the blood of the Lord is twofold. For there is the blood of His flesh, by which we are redeemed from corruption; and the spiritual, that by which we are anointed. And to drink the blood of Jesus, is to become partaker of the Lord’s immortality; the Spirit being the energetic principle of the Word, as blood is of flesh. Accordingly, as wine is blended with water, so is the Spirit with man. And the one, the mixture of wine and water, nourishes to faith; while the other, the Spirit, conducts to immortality. And the mixture of both–of the water and of the Word–is called eucharist, renowned and glorious grace; and they who by faith partake of it are sanctified both in body and soul. For the divine mixture, man, the Father’s will has mystically compounded by the Spirit and the Word. For, in truth, the spirit is joined to the soul, which is inspired by it; and the flesh, by reason of which the Word became flesh, to the Word.”

Clement explains the two-fold attribute of Christ’s blood. One aspect being the physical blood of His flesh that was shed for the remission of sins, and the other aspect being the Spiritual by which we receive Christ as our nourishment. To partake of the eucharist is far more than receiving communion. To partake is to receive Christ in the Spirit. The eucharist is a celebration and remembrance of the Lord’s passion to be observed by those who are born of the Spirit, for they alone are partakers of Christ’s immortality.

Clement expounds on these things elsewhere in his writings as well. One example is found among the stramata in Book 5, chapter 10:

If, then, “the milk” is said by the apostle to belong to the babes, and “meat” to be the food of the full-grown, milk will be understood to be catechetical instruction — the first food, as it were, of the soul. And meat is the mystic contemplation; for this is the flesh and the blood of the Word, that is, the comprehension of the divine power and essence. “Taste and see that the Lord is Christ,” it is said. For so He imparts of Himself to those who partake of such food in a more spiritual manner.

Clement comes nowhere close to supporting the real presence doctrine, and indeed utterly denies it through his instruction. Clement explicitly states that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said “eat My flesh and drink My blood.” Jesus told His disciples, “I have meat to eat you know not of …My meat is to do the will of Him who sent me, and finish His work.” Likewise, we desire the pure food of Christ as our nourishment and source for well-being and growth. Clement wonderfully instructs those younger in the faith on this intimate relationship between Christ and His church, things the carnal mind just can’t grasp.

The before mentioned apologist from also presented a bit of a disclaimer. He said, “The Church would have a problem with him [Clement] if he denied the “Real Presence.” And he hasn’t done that.”

Clement indeed does deny the real presence in his writings and the Catholic Church does have a problem with him. From the time the Catholic Church began to honor saints and martyrs with feast days until the 17th century, Clement was venerated as a saint. But Pope Clement VIII revised the Roman Martyrology and was persuaded to drop Clement of Alexandria from the calendar by Cardinal Baronius. Later in the 18th century, during the reign of Benedict XIV, a protest against the act emerged. But Benedict agreed with the removal of Clement from the martyrology on the grounds that Clement’s life was not well known and some of his doctrines were erroneous.

So what are the Catholic Church’s issues with Clement? According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Clement had faulty interpretations. What does that mean? According to a quote used by the encyclopedia from Tixeront (a 20th century Catholic scholar), it means (at least in part) that Clement “used allegory everywhere.” 1 In a nutshell, the Catholic Church has a problem with Clement’s use of metaphors and symbols.

The Catholic Church is in quite a predicament when it comes to Clement. They cannot accept his metaphorical teachings, and they cannot deny the evidence showing that he was orthodox. As previously mentioned, Clement was highly admired and praised as a great Christian teacher by prominent figures in the early church. If Clement’s teaching that the bread of life discourse was to be understood metaphorically was erroneous, why do we not find any protest against him by the ecclesiastical writers of the third and fourth centuries? What we do find is praise for his skill of teaching and his knowledge of Scripture.

After Clement’s death, Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, said of him, “For we acknowledge as fathers those blessed saints who are gone before us, and to whom we shall go after a little time; the truly blest Pantaenus, I mean, and the holy Clemens, my teacher, who was to me so greatly useful and helpful.” Cyril of Alexandria referred to him as “a man admirably learned and skilful, and one that searched to the depths all the learning of the Greeks, with an exactness rarely attained before.” Jerome said he was the most learned of all the ancients. And Eusebius described him as an “incomparable master of Christian philosophy.” Such admiration and praise could not been uttered for a man that was anything but orthodox.

It is interesting how easily Catholic apologists will discount any church father’s testimony if it doesn’t agree with Catholic doctrine. What is worse is that the Catholic Encyclopedia, which is supposed to be a respected source for this type of information, completely dodges Clement and Origen on the topic “The Sacrifice of the Mass.”

Passing over the teaching of the Alexandrine Clement and Origen, whose love of allegory, together with the restrictions of the Disciplina Arcani [Latin term meaning discipline of the secret], involved their writings in mystic obscurity…” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacrifice of the Mass)

In plain English, the reason the Catholic Encyclopedia passed over Clement and Origen is because they both clearly taught that Jesus was speaking metaphorically when He said, “Eat My body and drink My blood.” And Origen specifically referred to the eucharistic bread and wine as symbolical.

Now, if ‘everything that entereth into the mouth goes into the belly and is cast out into the drought,’ even the meat which has been sanctified through the word of God and prayer, in accordance with the fact that it is material, goes into the belly and is cast out into the draught, but in respect of the prayer which comes upon it, according to the proportion of the faith, becomes a benefit and is a means of clear vision to the mind which looks to that which is beneficial, and it is not the material of the bread but the word which is said over it which is of advantage to him who eats it not unworthily of the Lord. And these things indeed are said of the typical and symbolical body. But many things might be said about the Word Himself who became flesh, and true meat of which he that eateth shall assuredly live for ever, no worthless person being able to eat it; for if it were possible for one who continues worthless to eat of Him who became flesh. who was the Word and the living bread, it would not have been written, that ‘every one who eats of this bread shall live for ever.‘”

And leading up to this explanation, Origen expounded in more detail:

‘For if any one should turn to the Lord, the veil is taken away, and the Lord is the Spirit.’ Now some one when dealing with the passage might say, that just as ‘not that which entereth into the mouth defileth the man,’ of even though it may be thought by the Jews to be defiled, so not that which entereth into the mouth sanctifieth the man, even though what is called the bread of the Lord may be thought by the simpler disciples to sanctify. And the saying is I think, not to be despised, and on this account, demands clear exposition, which seems to me to be thus; as it is not the meat but the conscience of him who eats with doubt which defiles him that eateth, for ‘he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith,’ and as nothing is pure to him who is defiled and unbelieving, not in itself, but because of his defilement and unbelief, so that which is sanctified through the word of God and prayer does not, in its own nature, sanctify him who uses it, for, if this were so, it would sanctify even him who eats unworthily of the bread of the Lord, and no one on account of this food would become weak or sickly or asleep for something of this kind Paul represented in saying, ‘For this cause many among you are weak and sickly and not a few sleep.’ And in the case of the bread of the Lord, accordingly, there is advantage to him who uses it, when with undefiled mind and pure conscience he partakes of the bread. And so neither by not eating, I mean by the very fact that we do not eat of the bread which has been sanctified by the word of God and prayer, are we deprived of any good thing, nor by eating are we the better by any good thing; for the cause of our lacking is wickedness and sins, and the cause of our abounding is righteousness and right actions; so that such is the meaning of what is said by Paul, ‘For neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we eat not are we the worse.’

There are several reference from Origen that demonstrate his understanding of the eucharist and the bread of life discourse, and none of them agree with Catholic doctrine. However, it is not uncommon for Catholic apologetics sites to use references from Origen that are used to support the real presence doctrine. These references, however, are far from their context and taken from writings of doubtful authenticity known as Origen’s homilies. Unable to rely on the homilies for the topic of real presence in the eucharist, it’s no wonder the Catholic Encyclopedia decided to pass over Clement and Origen.

Text week, Tertullian of Carthage!


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