Alexandria, School of

views updated


The name for both the catechetical institution and the theological tradition characteristic of Alexandria during the patristic age. Alexandria was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world and the focal point for the mutual influence exercised in the conjunction of christianity and Hellenism. Before the introduction of Christianity, Alexandria possessed great libraries in its museum, the Serapeum, and the Sebasteon. It was also the center of Hellenistic Judaism; the Books of Ecclesiasticus and Wisdom were probably produced there before the Christian Era. philo judaeus, the great doctor of Hellenistic Judaism, worked there. Hence, it is not astonishing that Alexandria early became a Christian intellectual center.

Catechetical School. The origin of the Christian School of Alexandria is obscure. It is obvious that from the start the bishops of Alexandria used collaborators in preparing the catechumens for Baptism, although none of these is known. In the late second century pantaenus, a convert philosopher, is cited as the head of a Christian school in Alexandria (c. 150); and clement of alexandria has been considered his successor. These scholars conducted philosophical schools in which they taught the Christian faith as a philosophy (gnosis ) or way of life. They do not appear to have had anything to do with the catechetical school as such. This was conducted by the bishop; and the first certain information is supplied in relation to origen, whom Bishop Demetrius charged with the instruction of catechumens (c. 203). Origen enlisted the aid of Heraclas, who evidently gave basic instruction in the christian way of life while his master concentrated his attention on the formation of a superior school of sacred science (didascaleion ) that is generally designated as the School of Alexandria. gregory thaumaturgus, Origen's student in Caesarea, described the courses taught in the didascaleion logic, dialectic, and physics (including mathematics and astronomy)as a propaedeutic to Christian theology. This included the analysis of current philosophies, but principally the exegesis of the Scriptures.

Philip Sidetes, a fifth-century historian, records the names of the so-called heads of the school. He does not mention Pantaenus or Clement, but cites Athenagoras; Origen; Heraclas, who was bishop of Alexandria in 232; Dionysius, bishop in 248; Theognostus (247282); Pierius; and Peter, bishop from 300. Although it is known that many fourth-century Fathers of the Church, such as jerome, gregory of nazianzus, and basil of caesarea, studied for a time at Alexandria, the only fourth-century teacher of whom there is positive knowledge is Didymus the Blind.

Theological School. The current of Christian thought represented by a group of scholars and propagandists with similar intellectual interests and a more or less uniform procedure in exegesis of the Scriptures, formed what is generally referred to as the theological School of Alexandria. Its members did not necessarily belong to the catechetical school. The relationship between Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria and this school, for example, is not known; both Apollinaris and Eutyches represent Alexandrian Christological thought, although Apollinaris originated in Laodicea, near Antioch, and Eutyches was from Constantinople. The School of Alexandria is represented by two distinct phases: Clement and Origen were intent on presenting the Christian religion to the cultivated people of their epoch, Christians and non-Christians alike, and wanted to show them that Christ was the summit of all human knowledge; on the other hand, the authors of the fourth and fifth centuries, such as Athanasius and Cyril, had to defend the Christian truths concerning the Trinity and the divinity of Christ against heretical Christian theologians.

From the start, Alexandrian exegesis distinguished itself from that of Antioch. The latter was generally attached to the literal sense of the Bible. The Alexandrians recognized this sense, but their primary interest was concentrated on the mystery of divine revelation as revealed in the historical and literary details of the Old Testament. It was therefore a question of discovering Christ in the older revelation. With joyful sagacity, the Alexandrian authors sought out in the Old Testament symbols of the New. Their preference lay in the more profound, mystical, spiritual sense that is still termed typological or allegorical. Philo placed them on the path of this exegesis, which was, however, immediately inspired by a distinctly Christian principle, that of the unity of the two Testaments, such as Christ Himself expressed when He said that it was of Him that Moses and the Prophets had spoken.

In their Trinitarian doctrine, Clement and Origen were influenced by the Platonism of their epoch. They insisted on the divine transcendence. This at times forced them into expressing themselves as if the Son and the Holy Spirit were inferior to the Father. Origen emphasized the distinction of the divine Persons and spoke of three hypostases. Denis the Great did the same, and in so doing was accused of destroying the unity of the divine nature; but the Alexandrian tradition as presented by Athanasius went directly the other way: against Arius, who likewise lived in the Egyptian capital, Athanasius defended the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, and although he recognized the possible orthodoxy of the formula of the three hypostases, he personally held to the Nicene terminology of the single ousia, or substance, and of the single hypostasis.

In Christology, the Alexandrians were guided by the Fourth Gospel. For them, as for St. John, Christ was, above all, the Word. Their soteriology controlled this conception. For them, Redemption consists essentially in the divinization that Christians are to obtain in Christ. This insistence on the divinity of Christ left the aspect of His humanity somewhat obscure. The Alexandrians generally did not see, for example, the importance of attributing a human soul to Christ. However, this aspect was appreciated by Didymus the Blind who stressed the perfect human consubstantiality of Christ. Cyril defined Christ as one nature of the Word Incarnate. This formula was repeated literally by Eutyches and the monophysites, and tended to be interpreted by their adversaries as the negation of the human nature in Christ.

Bibliography: r. nelz, Die theologischen Schulen der morgenländischen Kirchen (Bonn 1916). g. bardy, Recherches de science religieuse (Paris 1910) 27 (1937) 6590; Catholicisme 1:310314; Vivre et penser 2 (1942) 80109. a. knauber, Trier theologische Zeitschrift 60 (1951) 243266. f. pericoli ridolfini, Revista degli studi orientali 37 (1962) 211230. o. bardenhewer, Geschichte der altkirchlichen Literatur (Freiburg 191332) 2:510. j. quasten, Patrology. (Westminster, Maryland 1950) 2:24. h. rahner, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 195765) 1:323325. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957) 35. j. daniÉlou, Origène (Paris 1948). h. de lubac, Origène: Homélies sur l'Exode (Sources Chretiennes 16; 1947); "'Typologie' et 'allégorisme,"' Recherches de science religieuse 34 (1947) 180226; 47 (1959) 543. j. guillet, ibid. 34 (1947) 257302. w. j. burghardt, Theological Studies 11 (1950) 78116. w. gruber, Die pneumatische Exegese bei den Alexandrinern (Graz 1957). e. molland, The Conception of the Gospel in the Alexandrian Theology (Oslo 1938). r. v. sellers, Two Ancient Christologies (London 1940).

[a. van roey]

About this article

Alexandria, School of

Updated About content Print Article Share Article