Clement: Marcion, Deified Humanity, Sects, Atonement

Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus (Westminster: Christian Classics, 1990) 10, 22-23, 25, 28.

Clement of Alexandria was a Christian thinker who lived in approximately 150-215 C.E. This post will cover Clement’s views on four issues: Marcion, the divinization of humanity, Christian sects, and the substitutionary atonement.

1. Marcion.

The basic principle by which the Logos educates His children is love, whereas the education of the Old Dispensation is based on fear. However, the Savior administers not only mild but also stringent medicines because God is at the same time good and just and a successful tutor reconciles goodness with punishment. Righteousness and love do not exclude each other in God. Clement refers here to the heretical doctrine of the Marcionites that the God of the Old Testament is not the same as that of the New. (10)

Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was mean and wrathful, whereas the God of the New Testament was full of grace. In a sense, both the New Testament and Clement agree with this idea. Clement affirms that the education of the “Old Dispensation” was based on fear, whereas that of the New Covenant is rooted in love. And, in Romans 5 and II Corinthians 3, Paul presents the Old Covenant and the Torah as a system of condemnation and death, in contrast with the grace and life that come through Jesus Christ.

At the same time, church fathers did consider Marcion to be a heretic, affirming against him that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the God of the New Testament. Like the Armstrongites, Clement believed that the Logos who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament: “The Logos…is the one who manifested God in the Law of the Old Testament, in the philosophy of the Greeks and finally in the fullness of time in His incarnation” (21-22). Moreover, the New Testament often appeals to the Old Testament for insight into God’s character and manner of doing things (Romans 12:19; I Corinthians 10; Hebrews 13:5). It obviously assumes that there is continuity between God’s Old Testament activity and God’s behavior under the New Covenant.

For my weekly quiet time on II Samuel this week, I read Tertullian’s Against Marcion 4:36, in which Tertullian tries to refute one of Marcion’s arguments. According to Marcion, we can see that the Gods of the OT and NT are different by how each treats the blind. In II Samuel 5, David orders the murder of the Jebusite blind men who guard the city. Jesus, by contrast, heals the blind man who cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” Tertullian responds that (1.) Jesus accepted the label “Son of David,” so he obviously did not reject the Old Testament, and (2.) David was upset at the Jebusites’ arrogance, not the fact that some of them were blind and lame. The Jebusites had claimed, after all, that even the blind and the lame could keep David from taking over their city (Jerusalem), showing that their reference to these maladies was a taunt. Tertullian does not say here that God was more brutal in the Old Testament, whereas he became kinder in the New. Rather, he tries to portray David’s action in a positive light.

So the New Testament and the church fathers have two parallel themes: there is a difference between the Old and the New Testaments, and yet there is also overlap, enough for the Old to still guide us as to what God is like.

2. Divinization of Humanity.

But Clement knows [Christ the Logos] as the savior of the human race and the founder of a new life which begins with faith, proceeds to knowledge and contemplation and leads through love and charity to immortality and deification. [Clement states:] “He, the husbandman of God, having bestowed on us the truly great, divine, and inalienable inheritance of the Father, deifying man by heavenly teaching, putting his laws into our minds and writing on our hearts…” (22-23)

Armstrongites maintain that Christians will become beings like God, as part of a “God family.” And, indeed, they have passages that they can draw upon for their view. II Peter 1:4 states: “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature” (NRSV). I John 3:2 has, “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”

A while back, Felix posted a link to John Ankerberg’s discussion with Garner Ted Armstrong (see Guess What I found on In it, GTA appealed to II Peter 1:4 (“partakers of the divine nature”) to defend his belief in the God family, and Ankerberg responded, “Look, we are partakers of the United States of America, but that does not mean that we’re the same as the United States of America.” For Ankerberg (if I understand him correctly), II Peter 1:4 means that Christians enjoy blessings from God, not that they will become God-like spirit beings.

But I John 3:2 and the church fathers seem to maintain that believers will become divine, in some sense. A popular cliche in the days of the church fathers was “God became as we are, so that we might become as God is.” Actually, to bridge this post with my posts on Neo-Platonism, the Neo-Platonists themselves thought that human beings could become God.

But what did they mean by that? Did they mean that we would become spirit beings who are omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent? (Actually, I’m not sure where Armstrongites stand on the last attribute, since I’ve heard them claim that God has a spirit body, which can only be in one place. One of them said to me, “God is in heaven, but his spirit is everywhere.” I’m not sure what that means, but it’s a problem that even the Bible wrestles with, as one can see in my posts on whether God in the Hebrew Bible dwelt in heaven or in the earthly sanctuary.) My impression of Neo-Platonism (which could be wrong) is that it thought we’d be united with God after death, in the sense that our souls would become part of a large soup. In this scenario, we don’t really become the One, but we become part of the One.

In the case of the New Testament and the early church fathers, maybe they thought we’d become like God in the sense that we’d share with God certain attributes, such as moral purity, immortality, and dominion over the cosmos. But did they think we’d become as great as God? My hunch is no.

3. Christian Sects.

Clement states that the existence of heretical sects is an obstacle for the conversion of Jews and pagans to Christianity. Clement responds that there are also many sects within Judaism and Greek philosophy, that Jesus predicted there would be tares amidst the wheat, that the beautiful “is always shadowed by its caricature, and that the heretics have abandoned the teaching of the church (25).

Atheists have used this argument against me: “If Christianity is true, then why are there so many denominations? God obviously wasn’t that clear, was he?” I once pointed out to an atheist that many fields have different schools of thought–psychology, science, philosophy–but he wasn’t suggesting we should discard them, was he? The intellectual snob basically replied that my point was stupid.

The challenge to Christians comes from the diversity of early Christianity. In the New Testament, there are books that have a form of works salvation and are friendly to the Torah (Matthew, James), and there are books that are more critical of the law (Romans, Galatians). In the second century, there were all sorts of movements that claimed to follow Jesus of Nazareth, and they asserted that their doctrines were consistent with the apostles. Many of them had ideas that are considered heretical by what became “orthodox Christianity.” I think that’s why Aggie continually refers to the “Early Christian Writings” (see the discussion here): there was so much debate about what Christianity was in its early years, so how can we be so dogmatic about it?

There’s a lot that I don’t know about this issue, and I’m told that New Testament studies nowadays tend to view the first century Christian church as diverse. Maybe it was, but here are two things to note: (1.) In Galatians 1-2, Paul essentially says that he’s preaching the same Gospel as that of the rest of the church, including Peter and James, and (2.) most of the “heretical writings” seem to crop up during or after the second century. For me, that lends credibility to the view that there was some consensus about Christianity in the first century, but heretical sects later broke away from the church. That’s how Clement presents the situation. Sure, the New Testament warns about false Christianities (II Corinthians 11:4), but the apostolic leadership agreed upon a normative doctrine.

4. Substitutionary Atonement.

In Quis div. salv. 23:1, Clement places these words in the mouth of Christ: “For you I fought with death and paid your death which you owed for your past sins and your unbelief towards God” (28).

The substitutionary atonement states that Christ died in our place to pay the death penalty for our sins. Many Christian intellectuals act like this doctrine was developed by Anselm (1033-1109). Actually, it appears to have been held by Clement–centuries before Anselm! Clement states that Christ paid the death that we owed for our sins.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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6 Responses to Clement: Marcion, Deified Humanity, Sects, Atonement

  1. Gospel of Mikjij says:

    Well, we definitely disagree on the “heretical” nature of the sects in question, and I personally think the narratives that you view as heretical, were simply written down later, as a reaction/(yes, and a polemic) against the orthodoxy that was threatening to (and ultimately did) literalize and legalize a fundamentally “free” religion.

    But thanks for the link! 🙂


  2. Paul Pavao says:

    I hope I can throw in a bit of input.

    Having read through the writings of the 2nd century church, it seems pretty clear to me that the early Christians equated immortality with divinity. Since only divinity existed in the beginning, and thus was eternal in the past tense, then only divinity can be eternal in the future tense, too.

    On earth we can possess eternal life, but 1 John says that life in the Son. The reward at the judgment is eternal life that is in us. Thus, we become immortal, and being immortal can automatically be called gods.

    I don’t think the early Christians were referring to any other attribute that that.

    Justin Martyr writes: “The Word exercises an influence which … by its instruction makes mortals immortal, mortals gods” (Discourse to the Greeks 5).

    My perception is that they read like this across the board in discussing becoming gods.


  3. Paul Pavao says:

    On the other subject, faith vs. works, I believe the difficulty doesn’t lie in the New Testament, but in our modern perception of it.

    The early church fathers didn’t struggle with the faith vs. works thing, nor in Paul vs. James. That’s all new. Here’s my suggestion why, which I think is real clear when you see it.

    Polycarp is an excellent example, as he writes in the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians that we are saved by grace apart from works, and then in the 2nd chapter says that God will only raise us up if we keep the commandments. When I first read that, I thought, “Polycarp understands something we don’t.”

    If you read through Paul, you’ll find there’s plenty of works verses in his writings (Rom. 2:6-7; Gal 6:8-9; Eph. 5:5, etc.).

    The difference between the works verses and faith verses in Paul is past and future tense.

    That may seem weird, but it’s very consistent. We were saved, in the past, by Jesus’ blood and death, apart from works. We will be saved, in the future, at the judgment, by the life of Christ (being lived in us throughout our Christian life) and by works.

    Romans 5:9-10 uses that past and future tense very clearly and talks about having been justified and going to be saved.

    Look through Paul’s writings. He does not believe the judgment is decided by faith. We are delivered from our sins in the past by faith alone, through the death of Christ, and then we enter into a spiritual life where Romans 7 no longer applies. (See Rom. 8:3-13, for example).

    In that state, we are expected to press forward, in the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, so that we will be found blameless at the judgment.

    That past tense/future tense thing is just as consistent in the fathers. Check it out and see if it isn’t so.

    We are born again by faith apart from works, but we will be judged–for heaven or hell–by works apart from faith.

    2 Pet. 1:5-11 makes an excellent picture of that, but if you doubt what I just said about the judgment, look up any verse you want on the judgment: Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:27-29; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 3:4-5; etc.


  4. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Thanks for your comments, Aggie and Paul.

    Paul, I realize at the outset that Paul was more complex on the faith/works issue than I presented it. After all, in Galatians and I Corinthians, Paul lists sins that can bar Christians from the Kingdom of God. Catholics appeal to these verses to support their views on mortal sin.

    I guess what I had in mind when I wrote about Paul in this post is that there are passages in which Paul presents a righteousness apart from works and law, based on looking to him who justifies the ungodly. For you, Paul is referring to the entrance requirement to a Christian life, but if we have that righteousness, then God considers us righteous, right? Any thoughts on this?


  5. Paul Pavao says:

    I do have thoughts.

    I certainly agree with the thought that there is “a righteousness apart from works and law, based on looking to him who justifies the ungodly.” I just believe that righteousness is never ONLY imputed. That righteousness apart from works and law is a life-changing righteousness.

    If the imparted part is not there, then the imputed isn’t, either.

    Surely in light of the passages you mention (Gal. 5:19-21 and similar ones), we can’t say anything other than that, right?

    In fact, I’m pretty certain that’s exactly what John is trying to say in 1 Jn. 3:7-10, and it seems like Paul’s writings agree completely.


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