THE SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA
PART ONE : CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA ( 150 - 215 )
Clement of Alexandria was born probably at Athens, of heathen parents, about A.D. 150. After extensive travels he came to Alexandria. There (180) he became a disciple of St Pantaenus, his collaborator, then a priest and finally on his master’s death he became leader of the catechetical school (200) : the Didascalia. He had Origen as a disciple. The school closed during Septimius Severus’ persecution (202) and Clement went to Alexander, bishop of Cappadocia, where he died (215 or 216). He was considered as a saint by some ancient writers but Pope Benedict XIV had his name taken from the Roman Martyrologium.
As a writer he begins a new phase in Church teaching. He added to his teacher’s oral methods the written page and aimed at supplying it with a scientific exposition and establishment of Christianity, with a good basis in philosophy and contemporary thought. He was the first to expound, with a moral and pedagogical purpose, the relations of philosophy and theology and it was due in great measure to him that Alexandria became a first-class centre of influence in the East eclipsing the Churches of Asia and Syria. “If from that period Rome was the heart of the Catholic world, Alexandria was already the brain” (Prat). Clement was a pioneer in theology, and any slips he made are thus accounted for.
The Catechetical School of Alexandria, which seems to have been in existence from beginning of the Alexandrian Church, developed into a school of scientific theology (3rd century), the bishop naming the head of it. It was official and even in Origen’s time was only in initial stages of organisation. All the different philosophies had a meeting-ground in Alexandria and reaction against Gnosticism in particular directed the energies of the School. The masters of the school, especially Clement and Origen, created a powerful intellectual movement which may be called the School of Alexandria.
1) The Trilogy of Clement : Protrepticus, Paedagogus, Stromata
These are three parts of one whole : a graduated introduction to Christianity.
Part I : Protrepticus or Hortatory discourse to the Greeks is like the earlier apologies an exhortation to the Heathen and exposes the folly of beliefs, contrasts the purity and nobility of the teaching of the prophets and of Christ. Result is taken to be conversion.
Part II : Tutor proceeds to educate one as a Christian. In three books, it is a series of instructions in the detailed duties of Christian life - food, drink, feasts, amusements, etc. The first book discusses the educational purpose of the Logos and methods of education (love and mildness, with punitive justice).
Part III : the Stromata (Miscellanies or Tapestries of scientific commentaries according to the true philosophy) aims at presenting a scientific account of the revealed truths of Christianity. In Book I, he deals with philosophy, its importance and utility in defending Christianity; in II with the superiority of revelation; in III and IV he refers to two criteria that differentiate Christian and heretical Gnosis : (a) The striving for moral perfection visible in virginal and marital chastity ; (b) The love of God shown in martyrdom. Part V returns to the relations of true Gnosis and faith ; VI and VII portray the true Gnostic (the personification of all Christian perfection).
2) Sketches, or Outlines
It is a series of notes in eight books on passages of the Old and New Testament; exegesis was allegorical, interspersed with digressions into dogma and history.
3) Quis dives Salvetur ?
It is a homily on Mark X, 17-31, greatly appreciated in antiquity. He shows that wealth is not evil, but that attachment to it must be mortified.
Many lost works, of which fragments in quotation remain.
1) Moral and mystical teaching
Christians are divided into simple Christians and Gnostics - the difference being of degree. Three elements enter into the nature of perfection :
(a) Apatheia in consequence of divine union, holy indifference - passions mastered, yet not torpor but labour of the soul is implied and resistance to temptation and mortification of the senses are demanded.
(b) Charity is the summit of the Gnostic ascension, brings God with it, is the principle of union with God.
(c) Gnosis, perfect knowledge is the leading element, a elevated religious knowledge that transforms religious life and makes one God’s friend and familiar. The orthodox Alexandrian gnosis is distinguished from simple faith which it makes more perfect ; from theological speculation which of itself does not imply the mystical light ; and from contemplation proper which is infused and need imply no discursive activity. It is perfect meditative contemplation.
Though there were disadvantages in this system (charity e.g., not `gnosis', is `the greatest of these'), it made Alexandria the intellectual focus of the East, was an off-set to the heretical gnosis, and kept many cultured men, whom Neo-Platonism would have tempted, in the Church.
He undertook to combine with ecclesiastical tradition elements that are foreign to it. He borrowed from Greek philosophy, especially Plato, and held that, as the Jews were led to Christianity through the Old Testament, the Gentiles should come through philosophy. According to Clement, Philosophy is the science of divine things and the practise of Christian life (this was a comon way of thinking in the third century). Only by philosophy can faith advance to gnosis. Faith is a concise knowledge of what is necessary and science a demonstration of what has been accepted. Faith is always the foundation of the spiritual edifice.
Photius accused Clement of admitting two Logoi, erring in the Trinity, but possibly was wrong in accusing him. His doctrine on creation is generally exact. In his Christology he allowed a very attenuated form of Docetism to intrude.
His main glory is to have founded, with Origen, the Alexandrian School.
PART TWO : ORIGEN ( 185 - 254 )
Origen was born in Egypt, in Alexandria, of Christian parents. He received his early education from St Leonidas, his father (martyred, 202), frequented Clement’s school, and so impressed his contemporaries by his brilliance that at the age of eighteen, in 203 (or 205), he was chosen to succeed Clement as president of the Alexandrian School. His teaching-life falls into two periods : 203-231 (in Alexandria) , and 231-254 (in Caesarea in Palestine).
Into less than seventy years he crowded an amount of writing, teaching and instructing that passes comprehension, even when his staff of clerks (short-hand) and assistants is taken into account. He travelled to Rome and Caesarea. In 215 in the latter he preached before the bishop, and incurred the displeasure of his own bishop, Demetrius, for preaching as a layman.
He was a very ascetical man, having desired martyrdom since he was very young, he lead many of his students to martyrdom and went so far in his excessive zeal as self-mutilation. For this reason, he was blamed by Demetrius and refused to be ordained priest.
In 230 he went again to Caesarea on a mission for his bishop and was there ordained priest by Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem, and Theoctistus, bishop of Caesarea. Demetrius was very angry, removed him from headship of the school, degraded him from the priesthood.
Origen departed from Alexandria and made Caesarea the seat of a new school, the fame of which spread throughout the East. He journeyed from there to Africa and Arabia, was imprisoned and tortured during the Decian persecution (251), and died at Tyre, few years after being released.
He had been called the man of steel. He was the most extensive writer of all the early Fathers, about 2,000 titles being listed by Eusebius, about 800 by St. Jerome (St Epiphanius speaks of 6.000 volumes). We possess only a small remnant of his work, and only half of what remains is in Greek, the remainder in Latin versions. St Jerome and Rufinus translated him, while St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzus compiled an anthology (Philokalia Origenis). Whole classes of his writings perished as a result of Justianian’s edict (543), the adverse judgment of the Fifth General Council (553), and the attitude of the so-called Gelasian Decretal ‘De libris recipiendis et non recipiendis’ : Books to be admitted or otherwise.
Origen left works on biblical text-criticism, exegesis; commentaries on the greater part of the Scriptures; works on apologetic, polemical, dogmatic, ascetical questions; he outlined the entire field of theology. “He was the first to construct a philosophico-theological system at once uniform and comprehensive. All the theological movements and schools belonging to the patristic period of the Greek Church are grouped about Origen as about a common centre of union or divergence”.
1) Biblical Work
The Hexapla a “gigantic enterprise” now lost. He copied in parallel columns :
- the Hebrew text of the Old Testament in Hebrew letters
- the Hebrew text in Greek letters
- in four succeeding columns the Greek versions of (a) Aquila, (b) Symmachus, (c) the Septuagint, and (d) Theodotion. a, b, d, were private versions; c semi-official.
The title means the “six-fold writing”. Begun at Alexandria, it was finished probably at Tyre. Only fragments remain of the Greek, but the greater part of it has reached us in a Syriac version made in 616 or 617 .
2) Biblico-Exegetical Writings
They are divided into : (a) Scholia : brief notes on difficult points of Sacred Scripture
(b) Homilies : popular expositions
(c) Commentaries : exhaustive and learned notes
Neglecting almost entirely the historical sense, he dwells in these on the mystical sense, and employs the allegorical mode of interpretation in vogue in Alexandria. He felt there were many hard and repulsive things in the Scriptures taken literally and historically, and distinguished between a carnal and spiritual sense. His knowledge of Hebrew was modest, and the main ideal of the Hexapla is apologetic usefulness rather than textual criticism. He felt that the Septuagint was divinely inspired.
3) Apologetic Works
The chief one is Contra Celsum. Celsus's Alethes Logos was a violent attack on Christianity and a defence of the State religion. Origen refutes him point by point in this, the most perfect apologetic work of the early Church. Nowhere has he shown greater ability or learning. It was in eight books, and has been preserved in a thirteenth century Vatican codex, and portion of it (oneseventh) in the Philokalia. Other, anti-heretical, works have been lost.
4) Dogmatic Writings
The originals have been lost.
The most important was De Principiis, (Peri Archon). In four books, it treats of the fundamental principles of the Christian religion. We have fragments in the Philokalia and all of it in a paraphrase by Rufinus. (1) God and the world of spirits; (2) the world and man, redemption of man, his end; (3) human freedom and final triumph of the good; (4) Scriptural interpretation. Composed at Alexandria (230) it is the earliest attempt at a scientific exposition of Christianity. In several points it departed from ecclesiastical tradition, and aroused opposition as well as admiration.
Second work was Miscellanies - fragments remain.
5) Ascetic Works and Homilies
The main are : On Prayer ; On the Lord's Prayer ; Exhortation to Martyrdom and others.
Several volumes, but only two letters remain : one to Julius Africanus, and one to St Gregory Thaumaturgus.
To contrast false Gnosis with true Christian knowledge, and to win educated minds to the latter, Origen undertook to combine Hellenic philosophy with the faith. His doctrinal system was really tainted with Neo-Platonism and Gnosticism, and he unconsciously fell into error while seeking to defend truth.
He constructed the first summa of Theology.
His writings were read and used by different parties in the Trinitarian controversy. He influenced the leading men in the East and West down to the end of the fourth century. His weakness lay in reliance on philosophy rather than on the Gospel.
Three great doctrines in Origen’s system ( the eternal creation of the world, the preexistence of the soul, the final restoration of all intelligent creatures to God’s friendship ) are echoes of Platonic and Neo-Platonic philosophy in points fundamentally unchristian.
The supplanting of Platonic Idealism by Aristotelian Realism gave an impetus to an anti-Origenist movement which had arisen within a century of Origen’s death, and which was based partly on Origen's errors, partly on vague statements in his works, and partly on personal dispute, with which Origen had only accidental connection.
After he had nourished the greatest of the Eastern doctors, his name became a by-word throughout the Byzantine Middle Ages.
In the West, however, fate was more kind to him. His writings were read, St Bede and St Bernard respected him, and he continued to excite admiration.
In 543, the Synod of Constantinople condemned fifteen propositions from his works ; in 553, the Fifth General Council ranked him with “heretics”.
“Directly and indirectly, comprehended and misinterpreted, he is the founder of theology, and all things considered, the most influential of the Greek Fathers. We shall meet greater literary artists in our survey of the Greek Fathers, and men with a greater personal following in the West. We shall not meet a greater individual force”. (Campbell).
About the Origenist controversy (394-407)
Wanting to build on a Christian gnosis and using the Plato’s philosophy, Origen exposed two main errors :
- A form of Subordinationism, according to which the Son and the Holy Ghost are intermediary Persons inferior to the Father.
- His eschatology : According to him the spirits were born equally perfect, but not all remained faithful to God. Their fall is the reason for the actual state of the world, for some of these spirits became angels, others stars or men, and still others, demons. The world is a place of purification for spirits. And after a purification by fire, mater will revert to nothingness and the soul of the elects will return to God. And so the primordial unity will be restored (this is the apocatastasis).
and other ones as the eternal creation of the world or the pre-existence of the souls.
A) The Latin phase : St Jerome and Rufinus
In 394, St Jerome and Rufinus, friends since their youth, leaded a coenobitic life in Palestine. Monk Aterbius, a short-stay guest, probably imbued with the anthropomorphic errors , denounced the Origenism of the Palestinian monks to the bishop of Jerusalem. St Jerome strongly protested against this accusation but Rufinus declared to be faithful to the teachings of Origen. St Jerome and Rufinus will fight for three years until Eastern 397, when they resolved to forgive and forget.
But Rufinus, later, translated the Peri Archon, expurgated from the subordinationist errors. He justified his course of action arguing that Jerome himself had translated in such a way Origen’s homilies. St Jerome retorted by a complete translation of the Peri Archon. Rufinus wrote an Apologia with many accusations against St Jerome. St Jerome answered by an Apologia. St Augustine, because of the scandal raised by such an attitude, tried to reconcile them.
In 400, Pope Anastasius pronounced himself against Origen, his work and his translator. Rufinus retired to Aquileia, and then to Rome, and St Jerome resumed his scriptural studies at Bethlehem.
B) The Greek phase : St John Chrysostom and Theophilus
Theophilus of Alexandria, who fought against the Origenism of the Egyptian monks, took occasion of the condemnation of Pope Anastasius, to confiscate all the Origen’s books of the monks. They refused and Theophilus of Alexandria began a real persecution against them, specially four of them : “The Four Long Brothers”, heading a small army to give chase to them (!).
“The Four Long Brothers” fled to Constantinople, where they expected support from the Patriarch St John Chrysostom. St John received and housed them but prudently refused to admit them to the communion of faithful until explanations arrived from Alexandria.
Theophilus, with the help of Empress Eudoxia, took occasion of this facts to obtain the condemnation and the exile for St John Chrysostom where this latter died in 407.
 The anthropomorphism, giving a human form to God, hated the spiritualism of Origenism.