Clement of Alexandria: A Qualified Guide for Christian Essential Oil Use

“God hath permitted the production of oil for the mitigation of men's pains... Ointment is to be employed as a medicine and help in order to bring up strength when enfeebled, and against sinus congestion, colds, fatigue and depression, as the comic poet says:
The nostrils are anointed; it being
a most essential thing for health to fill the brain with good odors.
-          Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor, Book II, Chapter 8

Clement of Alexandria (c.150 – 215 A.D.) has a whole chapter dedicated to aromatic ointments and flowers in his book The Instructor. We will look more closely at his writings in the next three posts as a jumping-off point for our discussion on how Christians ought to use essential oils. Clement is an excellent theologian for our day. He was a Christian living in a secular society who suffered under a brief period of Christian persecution in 202 A.D.  He was well versed in philosophy, science, and the secular ideas of his day, including Gnosticism. (Gnosticism is the philosophical basis for much of New Age philosophy.)

   Clement was a Greek Christian and head of the catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt. In his youth he had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He studied under philosophers, scientists, and literary masters in Athens, Ionia, and Coele-Syria before finding the truth of Christianity under the tutelage of Pantænus in Alexandria. 

   Alexandria was the Paris or New York of its day. It was a melting pot of ideas – a cosmopolitan city which enjoyed relative religious tolerance. A large Diaspora Jewish community led by Philo was thriving there, as were a plethora of Gnostics under the guidance of Basilides and Valentinus. But the state sponsored university, which housed the greatest library in antiquity, was vastly Neo-Platonist. In dialogue with this populous, Clement taught the Christian faith. Origen, the most influential Christian theologian of the 3rd century, was one of Clement’s students.

   Clement saw no contradiction between true faith and philosophy, Christianity and science. He understood them to be complementary. Clement, the consummate teacher, knew the importance of forming habits of virtue before deep intellectual work. It was not enough to give up pagan error and embrace Christian faith. The true Christian must also put himself under the guidance of the Instructor, Jesus Christ, who teaches a lifestyle of self-discipline. Clement taught that nothing is too banal a subject for the Instructor. One's manner of eating, drinking, sleeping, dressing, taking recreation, and using essential oils are all important to Him.

   Clement’s Wit and Style

   Some of Clement’s prose are quite humorous. For example he writes against what he deems, “the useless art of making pastry,” because “by straining off the nourishing part of the grain” the bread becomes “emasculated.” He has Stoic leanings and embraces the philosophy - eat to live, don’t live to eat. He was critical of the Epicureans, “surrounded with the sound of hissing frying pans, and wearing their whole life away at the pestle and mortar . . . bending ever over at tables to feed themselves up for death.” Clement, with the Stoics, generally thinks the passions (emotions) should be subdued. But it is very difficult to pin Clement down to one particular school of philosophy. He makes statements that seem to be contradictory, saying first that essential oils are unnecessary but concluding that they do have necessary purposes. Please excuse his ambivalent style.

   Clement exaggerates his points but at the heart of his teaching is a sincere love of his Instructor, Christ Jesus, and care for his students. Clement’s ideal Christian is one aflame with love for God, living a life of prayer, dedicated to spreading the Gospel, courageous in the face of martyrdom, unselfishly loving enemy as well as neighbor. Like a good father and teacher, he wishes to guard his pupil’s hearts from worldly cares and disordered desires.

   The next two posts will explore practical Christian principles for using essential oils - for bodily and mental health, and for emotional well-being. Each section will deal with Clement of Alexandria’s remarks on the subject and work out from there – drawing on further resources, if necessary.

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