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  • Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism
  • Byard Bennett
Henny Fiskå Hägg Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism Oxford Early Christian Studies Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 Pp. 314. $85.

The language of finite creatures has always been an imperfect tool for describing the transcendent, infinite God. Hägg's book is an interesting and important study of the ways in which one of the earliest Christian writers, Clement of Alexandria, wrestled with the problem of the limits of theological language, drawing in part upon resources from the earlier Middle Platonic tradition. More specifically the book is concerned to investigate the claim that "the primary way of approaching the divine is through negation (Gr. apophasis)" (1) since it is through the qualification and negation of our statements about God that we become more nearly able to know and express something of God's peculiar, utterly transcendent mode of existence.

Before entering into an examination of these questions, Hägg first discusses Clement's background, outlining what is known about Christianity in Alexandria in the second century c.e. (15–51); the nature, audience, and purpose of Clement's extant writings (51–70); and the various conceptions of God's transcendence in Middle Platonism, analyzing the views of Alcinous, Atticus, and Numenius (71–133). Hägg is particularly interested in the distinctions introduced by these writers that would be embraced and further developed by Plotinus and early neoplatonism, e.g., that one cannot arrive at any conception of the essence of the first principle (the One/God) by abstraction from sensible phenomena; instead, one may know something of the first principle's peculiar mode of existence only indirectly and analogically by examining the exercise of its causal powers on what comes after it. This, Hägg argues, is the beginning of the Greek Christian distinction between God's essence, which is unknowable by created beings insofar as it is simple and has no attributes, and God's energies, which proceed from the divine nature and are uncreated, yet through their action upon creation allow created beings to know and participate in the divine life to a limited extent.

Hägg begins the analysis of Clement's works by examining Clement's claim that divine truths must be concealed and made known only in a veiled, indirect manner that takes into account the limited capacities of the recipients (134–52). He then discusses Clement's conception of the being of God and what human beings can know of it. For Clement respect for the transcendence of the first principle requires the extensive use of negative descriptions (e.g., alpha privatives like apeiron "without limit"); these the Middle Platonists had normally applied not to the first principle but to derivative entities associated with the genesis of the sensible world (161, 179). Clement, Hägg argues, was also the first Christian writer to make systematic use of the Middle Platonic method of aphaire\sis, the removal of all attributes and sensible properties as a means to know something of God's essential character (158).

Clement argues that the power of God (i.e., the activity of the Son/Logos), [End Page 425] which orders and sustains the sensible world in its multiplicity, is the only source of knowledge about the divine essence, which is unknowable in itself because of its simplicity. Since a clear distinction between God's essence and God's power is maintained (206, 212), what the activity of the Logos can mediate to human recipients will of necessity be limited, being confined to a negative knowledge of the divine essence (225), whose significance must be grasped intuitively by the mind. In a final chapter (252–68) Hägg examines the distinction between essence and power or energy in the Cappadocian fathers; while noting similarities with Clement's treatment of this topic, Hägg finds no evidence of their direct dependence upon Clement (264–67).

The book contains some minor typographical and factual errors. Three dots (i.e., an ellipsis) should be placed after the footnote marker on p. 98, line 18 to indicate a discontinuity in the quoted text. On p. 127, lines...


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