Mark K. Olson, “Clement of Alexandria: An Early Church Wesleyan?”

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When the Evangelical Revival gained national attention in Great Britain during the year of 1739 a public outcry arose over a new sect called “Methodist.”[1] Criticism came from many quarters, but in defense of the new movement John Wesley (1703-1791) began to define what it meant to be a “Methodist.” One of the first tracts Wesley wrote on the subject was The Character of a Methodist, first published in 1742.[2] Rupert Davies informs us that though Wesley was inspired by Clement of Alexandria’s Stromata in the writing of the tract, the founder of Methodism sought to define the ideal Christian in more scriptural terms.[3]

In this article we explore the parallels between this early church father and Wesley on their views regarding salvation and holy living. The parallels even include theological terms and categories. This can help us to better understand how Clement inspired and possibly guided Wesley in his own theological descriptions of the ideal Christian in writings such as The Character of a Methodist and the Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Although Clement and Wesley lived centuries apart and in very different religious and cultural settings, it will be shown that the similarities between their theologies are quite striking.

Clement’s Life & Context

Titus Flavius Clemens is believed to have been born around 150 in Athens, Greece, and to have died in 215 or shortly before. His parents were pagan.[4] Nothing is known of his conversion, but he did travel to Italy, Syria, Palestine, and finally to Alexandria where he remained for a period. Sometime around or shortly after 180 he began to study under Pantaenus, who was the first instructor of the Christian school in Alexandria, and later became his assistant. He was ordained before 189 by Julian, the bishop of Rome. Around 200 Clement succeeded Pantaenus as the head of the school. Soon thereafter persecution broke out and Clement fled Alexandria for safe refuge in Cappadocia, never to return again. His surviving writings include Exhortation To The HeathenThe InstructorThe StromataWho Is The Rich Man That Shall Be Saved?, and some fragments.

The church at Alexandria was the home of several famous Christian Gnostics – Basilides, Carpocrates, and Valentinus – that flourished in the second century.[5] “Gnosis” means knowledge in Greek and refers to movements in the primitive church that taught salvation by knowledge rather than by faith in Christ crucified and risen. They stressed a strong Platonic dualism in which God is completely transcendent and matter is intrinsically evil. Thus, salvation is to escape this physical world and even materiality itself. Scholars recognize two basic groups at Alexandria during this period: (1) Christian Gnostics were those whose Gnosticism was foundational and were considered heretical by the later orthodox faith; (2) Gnostic Christians were those whose Christian faith was foundational but used Gnostic terms and concepts in their theology. Individuals in this latter group, like Clement, were also instrumental to the development of the orthodox (creedal) faith of the fourth century and beyond (and therefore are called proto-orthodox). The above three Gnostic teachers belonged to the first group and the church father Clement to the latter group. This explains why Clement, who opposed the Christian Gnostics, used of the term “Gnostic” for his description of the ideal Christian. He also discussed at large the subject of “knowledge,” a key term and concept in the Gnostic system. Of Clement’s writings, our focus will be on the Instructor and Stromata which show the similarities Clement had with Wesley theologically. What follows is a skeleton description of each book and brief discussions on the parallels between Clement and Wesley, followed with some concluding remarks.[6]


The Instructor (Gk. Paedagogue) consists of three books. In simple terms, it is a second-century discipleship manual. Wesley’s methodical approach to the Christian life naturally inclined him toward works of this kind. Another discipleship manual that Wesley perused during his Oxford period is Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Holy Dying. Book I of the Instructor spells out Clement’s philosophy of discipleship, whereas Books II and III include practical advice on various matters. Book II addresses eating, drinking, feasting, laughter, speech, ointments, sleep, clothing, and jewelry, and Book III true beauty, the body, public baths, frugality, and other issues in Roman society of the late second and early third centuries.

More importantly, Jesus Christ is presented in the Instructor as the believer’s personal guide in all things pertaining to God and the Christian life. Clement puts a strong emphasis on Christ’s full divinity as the believer’s instructor, “Our Instructor is the holy God Jesus, the Word, who is the guide of all humanity.”[7] Clement follows Justin Martyr by incorporating a robust Logos (Word) doctrine to explicate Christ’s divine relation to the Father. As we read through Clement’s work, we can sense the inspiration Wesley must have felt in this church father’s description of the ideal or perfect Christian. He was surely drawn to Clement’s method of forming small groups for the purpose of providing practical guidance in the attainment of inward holiness.

The parallels between Clement’s views in the Instructor and Wesley are many. We begin by noting Clement’s understanding of discipleship as the formation of right or holy habits, actions and passions.[8] This agrees with Wesley’s emphasis on the development of holy tempers and affections in his teachings on holiness.[9] Clement also defines sin as a disease and Christ the physician.[10] Wesley, too, speaks of sin as a disease and Christ our physician.[11] Both men therefore incorporated a therapeutic view of salvation in their soteriologies.

Another similarity regards the order of salvation (ordo salutis). Clement writes, “Being baptized, we are illuminated; illuminated, we become sons; being made sons, we are made perfect; being made perfect, we are made immortal.”[12] The linking of baptism with regeneration and the development toward Christian perfection as a prerequisite for glorification resonates with Wesley’s High Church Anglicanism that orders salvation as baptism—sanctification—final justification—eternal glory (see article: The New Birth I the Early Wesley).  Other parallels similar views on the dispensations of law and gospel,  freedom of the will, and the use of sleep as an analogy for the natural state.[13] Like Wesley, Clement connects “awakening” to spiritual awakening out of the natural state.[14] Clement also expounds on God’s love for the human race and our response to his love:

“But what is lovable, and is not also loved by Him? And man has been proved to be lovable; consequently, man is loved by God. For how shall he not be loved for whose sake the only-begotten Son is sent from the Father’s bosom, the Word of faith, the faith which is superabundant; the Lord Himself distinctly confessing and saying, ‘For the Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved Me;’ and again, ‘And hast loved them as Thou hast loved Me?’”

Again, Clement writes:

“Now, it is incumbent on us to return His love, who lovingly guides us to that life which is best; and to live in accordance with the injunctions of His will, not only fulfilling what is commanded, or guarding against what is forbidden, but turning away from some examples, and imitating others as much as we can, and thus to perform the works of the Master according to His similitude, and so fulfill what Scripture says as to our being made in His image and likeness.”[15]

Both of these quotes resonate with Wesley’s Arminian beliefs and his firm conviction that our grace-assisted response is necessary to a saving relationship with God. Wesley likewise understood our love to God as a response to his “pardoning love.”

Clement moreover is not afraid to use the language of perfection in relation to the Christian life. One reason he did so was to counter the false teachings of the Christian Gnostics, who divided the human race into three classes (spiritual, soulish, and fleshly). Clement writes, “Now we call that perfect which wants nothing,”[16] and then adds, “For what is yet wanting to him who knows God.” In this context Clement argues in a manner similar to Wesley that all Christians are perfect because in comparison to the non-Christian they are “complete” by having been reunited with their heavenly Father. Clement can even be more explicit, “Straightway, on our regeneration, we attained that perfection after which we aspired.”[17] These statements find parallels in Wesley who links the new birth and to a degree of perfection. For example, in Christian Perfection Wesley acknowledges that even new converts (“babes in Christ”) are perfect in the sense that they are no longer under sin’s reign.[18] It must be remembered that in keeping with his High Church Anglicanism Wesley did affirm degrees of regeneration and linked full regeneration to Christian perfection.[19]

Another parallel is that both Clement and Wesley distinguish between infants and adults in the faith.[20] They both affirmed stages of development and both believed the goal of redemption is our renewal in the imago Dei (image of God). The following quote reflects Clement’s perspective on the subject:

“The view I take is, that He Himself formed man of the dust, and regenerated him by water; and made him grow by his Spirit; and trained him by His word to adoption and salvation, directing him by sacred precepts; in order that, transforming earth-born man into a holy and heavenly being by His advent, He might fulfill to the utmost that divine utterance, ‘Let Us make man in Our own image and likeness.’”[21]

Wesley could not have said it better. We close this section on the Instructor with three quotes from chapter thirteen. Those who have read Wesley’s Plain Account and other writings will note parallels to Clement’s theology of holiness:

“Everything that is contrary to right reason is sin. Accordingly, therefore, the philosophers think fit to define the most generic passions thus: lust, as desire disobedient to reason; fear, as weakness disobedient to reason; pleasure, as an elation of the spirit disobedient to reason. If, then, disobedience in reference to reason is the generating cause of sin, how shall we escape the conclusion, that obedience to reason—the Word—which we call faith, will of necessity be the efficacious cause of duty? For virtue itself is a state of the soul rendered harmonious by reason in respect to the whole life.”

“The end of piety is eternal rest in God.”

“Virtue is a will in conformity to God and Christ in life, rightly adjusted to life everlasting. For the life of Christians, in which we are now trained, is a system of reasonable actions—that is, of those things taught by the Word—an unfailing energy which we have called faith. The system is the commandments of the Lord, which, being divine statues and spiritual counsels, have been written for ourselves, being adapted for ourselves and our neighbors.”


The Stromata consists of several books that cover a variety of topics. In Book VII Clement describes the ideal or perfect Christian—the true Gnostic. Because there is so much material in Book VII on the subject of perfection, only the most significant themes can be noted here. As was noted above. Clement refers to the perfect Christian as the true Gnostic. He then identifies the true Gnostic as the true worshipper of God. This was to contrast the true gospel to the heretical teachings of the Christian Gnostics. For Clement, a true Gnostic is one who studies God in “ceaseless love,” a central feature of a “Methodist” in Wesley’s tract.[22] The first step to knowing God is to have faith in Christ, who is the image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). Clement stresses Christ’s closeness to the Father and in this way argues that only the Christian can attain to the level of a true Gnostic—someone who knows God. In the following quote Clement’s views resonate with Wesley’s belief about salvation from inward sin:

“For ‘to bring themselves into captivity,’ and to slay themselves, putting to death ‘the old man, who is through lusts corrupt,’ and raising the new man from death, ‘from the old conversation,’ by abandoning the passions, and becoming free of sin, both the Gospel and the apostle enjoin.”[23]

An important parallel is how Clement and Wesley use the categories voluntary and involuntary in their theologies of sin. Clement writes, “Mistake is a sin contrary to calculation; and voluntary sin is a crime; and crime is voluntary wickedness.” He then adds in response to the Apostle Paul’s statement about sin having dominion over us, “Sin, then, on my part is voluntary . . . mistake is the involuntary action of another towards me.”[24] In essentially the same way Wesley categorized sin. For instance, in the tract Thoughts on Christian Perfection Wesley writes, “Not only sin, properly so called (that is, a voluntary transgression of a known law,) but sin, improperly so called (that is, an involuntary transgression of a divine law, known or unknown) needs the atoning blood, and without this would expose to eternal damnation.”[25] Clement and Wesley likewise hold robust views of the Christian life in regard to the commission of sin. According to Clement, the “Word, the Instructor, has taken charge of us, in order to the prevention of sin.”[26] Wesley makes the same point. In Salvation by Faith he draws on several scriptures from 1 John that assert believers are “saved from the power of sin, as well as from the guilt of it.”[27] They therefore do not commit sin as the Apostle John affirms in his first letter (see 2:1-2, 3:5-9).

Another parallel involves stages in the Christian life. Both Clement and Wesley teach there are three basic stages. Clement writes, “In my view, the first saving change is that from heathenism to faith…the second, that from faith to knowledge. And the latter terminating in love.”[28] To summarize the three stages, Clement labels them faith, knowledge, and love. The second stage reflects Clement’s religious context that stressed “gnosis” (knowledge) in relation to salvation. It is important to note that for Clement the kind of knowledge God imparts is salvific: Christ, the Word, imparts life through knowledge of himself. When we turn to Wesley, we see definite similarities. Beginning in 1740, Wesley began to teach a three-stage view of the Christian life (child—adolescent—adult) based on 1 John 2:12-14.[29] In Wesley’s scheme, saving faith defines a child, full assurance the adolescent, and perfect love the father. The link between Clement’s “knowledge” and Wesley’s “full assurance” becomes evident when we understand that for Wesley assurance is knowledge of one’s acceptance with God, out of which springs the sanctifying knowledge of God by the Spirit. So, the adolescent stage involves an increase of salvific knowledge, as Clement affirms. Furthermore, in his description Clement suggests the possibility of instantaneous saving moments in the transitions between heathenism and faith, and between faith and knowledge. In a similar way Wesley taught instantaneous saving moments at the new birth and entire sanctification.

Before we address other parallels, we would be amiss if we did not mention Clement’s belief in prevenient grace—though he did not use the term. In Book I of the Stromata Clement argues at length that Greek philosophy prepared the way for the gospel and a true knowledge of Christ. He believed the different schools of philosophy contain a gem of truth but are insufficient as paths to a true saving knowledge of God. Wesley’s views on prevenient grace are well-known and require no explanation at this point. He denied natural freewill in matters regarding salvation and affirmed a grace-assisted freedom to respond to divine truth. Clement surely would have agreed with Wesley, since he too believed in freedom of the will.

Moving forward, Clement begins an extended discussion in chapter eleven on the character of the perfect Christian. The emphasis falls on possessing Christ-like character and dispositions. Clement teaches victory over anger, the transformation of the dispositions, the idea that suffering perfects, and that self-control and courage imbue one’s character so that their “whole life is prayer and converse with God.”[30] There is much in these chapters that parallel Wesley’s theology of holiness. It can be stated that for Clement the perfect believer is established in holiness: the heart is pure, sinful passions are vanquished, and universal obedience is enjoyed. The perfect Christian is blameless in this sense. They forgive those who sin against them, and are full of good works and acts of mercy. Inward and outward holiness characterize the life. “The Gnostic is consequently divine, and already holy, God-bearing, and God-borne.”[31] Wesley offers a similar description of a “Methodist” in The Character of a Methodist. Although Wesley as a Protestant appealed more to scriptural language to describe the ideal believer, the substance of the tract reflects Clement’s description of a “true Gnostic.”

Clement defines perfection as continual communion with God. The perfect believer is one who “prays throughout his whole life, endeavoring by prayer to have fellowship with God.” Wesley, too, defined perfection as continual communion with God, “For indeed he ‘prays without ceasing;’ at all times the language of his heart is this, ‘Unto thee is my mouth, though without a voice; and my silence speaketh unto thee.’ His heart is lifted up to God at all times, and in all places. In this he is never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, his heart is ever with the Lord.”[32]

Turning to other statements that summarize Clement’s vision of the holy life, he writes:

“The Gnostic, then, is pious, who cares first for himself, then for his neighbors, that they may become very good. For the son gratifies a good father, by showing himself good and like his father; and in like manner the subject, the governor. For believing and obeying are in our own power.”[33]

“For pre-eminently a divine image, resembling God, is the soul of a righteous man…This is the true athlete—he who in the great stadium, the fair world, is crowned for the true victory over all the passions. For He who prescribes the contest is the Almighty God, and He who awards the prize is the only-begotten: Son of God. Angels and gods are spectators; and the contest, embracing all the varied exercises, is ‘not against flesh and blood,’ but against the spiritual powers of inordinate passions that work through the flesh. He who obtains the mastery in these struggles, and overthrows the tempter, menacing, as it were, with certain contests, wins immortality.”[34]

These two quotes reflect a vision of the Christian life very similar to Wesley’s. The goal is renewal in the divine image; the great enemy is unholy tempers (dispositions); the conflict is spiritual; and full sanctification is necessary to prepare for heaven and eternal “communion with the Three-One God.” Clement and Wesley essentially share the same soteriological vision of the Christian life.

We close this section with one more parallel between Clement and Wesley. In his Thoughts on Christian Perfection, Wesley likens the attainment of perfection to physical death.[35] Clement utilizes the same analogy:

“Do you not see how wax is softened and copper purified, in order to receive the stamp applied to it? Just as death is the separation of the soul from the body, so is knowledge as it were the rational death urging the spirit away, and separating it from the passions, and leading it on to the life of well-doing, that it may then say with confidence to God, ‘I live as Thou wishest.’”[36]

Closing Thoughts

From the above synopsis we can better understand why Wesley drew inspiration from Clement for his description of the ideal Christian in The Character of a Methodist. Even though both men lived in different historical periods and dissimilar religious contexts, they shared the same basic convictions and theological principles regarding salvation and the Christian life.

This is seen in the clear theological parallels between Wesley and Clement. For instance, many (if not most) of the basic themes and motifs that nuanced Wesley’s Arminian soteriology and doctrine of Christian perfection can be found in Clement’s writings. And when we remember that Wesley’s missional purpose was to restore the primitive faith of the early church, his turning to Clement’s description of the ideal Christian makes sense. But even with these parallels, since Wesley was a Protestant who lived in a post-Reformation setting, it makes sense that his description of the ideal Christian would incorporate a more scriptural description.

Regarding the question of whether Wesley derived his theology from Clement, the answer becomes more nuanced and complex. As an Anglican, Wesley considered the church fathers to be authoritative interpreters of the apostolic faith.[37] At the time there was a resurgence of interest in the church fathers within the Anglican church. So, the fathers’ collective influence on his theology is to be expected. But when it comes to specific fathers, the question of direct influence becomes more difficult to determine. A main reason is that Wesley was an eclectic reader who read the church fathers as a group through the lens of his Anglican tradition. He did not divide them into east and west, as is common today, nor did he focus on one or two fathers as a primary source for his theology. Overall, Wesley appears to have read the fathers in a thematic approach, focusing more on motifs and general concepts, rather than as a direct source for specific theological principles.

Furthermore, Wesley’s theological principles were directly shaped by sources historically closer to him. For example, in the Plain Account of Christian Perfection he lists the triumvirate of Jeremy Taylor, Thomas à Kempis, and William Law as most influential on his views of Christian holiness. These were all western Christians historically closer to his own day (Law was a contemporary). What Clement and the rest of the fathers provided was theological and doctrinal support. They confirmed to Wesley that his beliefs, theology, and practices—including his message of perfect love—were biblical and orthodox. Therefore, this article does not argue that Wesley derived his theological principles from Clement. To show this would require more detailed study. What we can conclude is that Wesley looked to the fathers, like Clement, for inspiration and doctrinal validation.

In the end, what can we conclude from this brief study? I submit that in basic theological principles Clement can be considered an early church Wesleyan. Or, should we say, Wesley was an eighteenth-century Clementian. Either way, the principles of Wesleyan theology and its message of perfect love reach back to the church fathers, which they in turn derived from the teachings of the Apostles found in the New Testament.

[1] On the history of how the term “Methodist” became identified with Wesley and those associated with him at Oxford, see Richard Heitzenrater, Mirror and Memory: Reflections on Early Methodism (Kingswood Books, 1989).

[2] In the Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1766) JW states the tract was published in 1739, though the earliest edition was published in 1742. Although his memory is faulty here, it is possible the roots of the tract go back to 1739 when JW was busy defending the new movement. Another possibility is that he wrote a first draft or initial thoughts in 1739 and later wrote the tract and published it. Consider: 1. The tract lacks any appearance of the conflict which transpired in the early 1740s over JW’s perfection doctrine among the different branches of the revival. 2. The tone of the subject matter fits very well with what JW records in his 1739 journal. 3. While JW could easily err over the date when he first published the tract, it is less likely he would err over which tract was the first he wrote on subject.

[3] Frank Baker, Richard Heitzenrater, and Randy L. Maddox. gen. eds. The Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Edition, 35 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975-83. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984-Present), 9:31; hereafter Works.

[4] Johannes Questen, Patrology Vol. II: The Ante-Nicene Literature After Irenaeus. Westminster: Christian Classics, Inc. Sixth printing, 1992.

[5] David T. Runia, Philo in Early Christian Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 123-26.

[6] Clement’s writings will be referenced according to book and chapter, from volume 2 in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols. (Charles’s Scribner’s Son, 1903). All references to the Plain Account are to Mark K. Olson, ed. John Wesley’s ‘A Plain Account of Christian Perfection’: The Annotated Edition (Truth in Heart, 2005).

[7] Instructor, Bk. 1, Ch. 7.

[8] Instructor,Bk. 1, Ch. 1.

[9]Plain Account: Annotated Edition, 6:2; 19:5. D. Michael Hendricks lists eight major concepts behind JW’s discipleship philosophy: “1. Human nature is perfectible by God’s grace. 2. Learning comes by doing the will of God. 3. Mankind’s nature is perfected by participation in groups, not by acting as isolated individuals. 4. The spirit and practice of primitive Christianity can and must be captured. 5. Human progress will occur if people will participate in ‘the means of grace.’ 6. The gospel must be presented to the poor. 7. Social evil is not to be ‘resisted,’ but overcome with good. 8. The primary function of spiritual/educational leadership is to equip others to lead and minister, not to perform the ministry personally” (John Wesley’s Class Meeting, 128-29).

[10] Instructor, Bk 1, Ch. 2.

[11] See Plain Account: Annotated Edition, 16:2-3. In The Repentance of Believers Wesley admonishes, “Though we watch and pray ever so much, we cannot wholly cleanse either our hearts or hands. Most sure we cannot, till it shall please our Lord to speak to our hearts again, to speak the second time, ‘Be clean.’ And then only the leprosy is cleansed. Then only the evil root, the carnal mind, is destroyed; and inbred sin subsists no more” (I.20).

[12] Instructor, Bk 1, Ch. 6.

[13] Instructor,Bk. 1, Ch. 6.

[14] On Wesley’s use of the sleep metaphor, see his sermon “The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption.” For discussion of the subject, see Mark K. Olson, Wesley and Aldersgate: Interpreting Conversion Narratives (Routledge, 2019).

[15] Instructor, Bk. 1, Ch. 3.

[16] Instructor, Bk. 1, Ch. 6.

[17] Instructor, Bk. 1, Ch. 6.

[18] Christian Perfection, II.2.

[19] Conference Minutes 1744, QQ. 3-8 (Albert Outler, John Wesley, 140-41).

[20] Plain Account: Annotated Edition, 12:9, 29. JW often distinguishes between the first and second gifts with maturational language.

[21] Instructor, Bk 1, Ch. 12.

[22] Stromata,  Bk 7, Ch. 1.

[23] Stromata, Bk 7, Ch. 3; compare with PA 12:44.

[24] Stromata, Bk. 7, Ch. 15.

[25] Plain Account: Annotated Edition, 19:23-25.

[26] Instructor, Bk 1, Ch. 2.

[27] Salvation by Faith, II.5.

[28] Stromata, Bk. 7, Ch. 10.

[29] Christian Perfection, II.1-2. It appears Wesley began to use the stage outlined in 1 Jn. 2:12-14 in May 1740. See Wesley’s Journal for that month.

[30] Stromata, Bk 10, Ch. 12.

[31] Stromata, Bk 10, Ch. 13.

[32] Plain Account: Annotated Edition, 10:9.

[33] Stromata, Bk 7, Ch. 3.

[34] Stromata, Bk 7, Ch. 3.

[35] Plain Account: Annotated Edition,19:73-75.

[36] Stromata, Bk 10, Ch. 12.

[37] On this point, see Wesley’s comments in his Address to the Clergy (Works, Jackson, 10:84).

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]