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Alexandria, School of
ALEXANDRIA, SCHOOL OF
Origin (§ 1).
Its Development from Hellenism and Judaism (§ 2).
Christian Modifications (§ 3).
Significance and Achievements (§ 4).
Organization (§ 5).
Later Developments (§ 6).
Representatives of the Later School (§ 7).
The term “School of Alexandria” is used in two different senses: (1) The catechetical school was an institution which grew up not later than the last half of the second century, and lasted to the end of the fourth, with a regular succession of teachers like the schools of philosophy. (2) By the same name is also understood a group of theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries, the most important of whom was Cyril of Alexandria. They were in general opposition to the school of Antioch, and were the progenitors of Monophysitism and of the anti-Nestorian interpretation of the decrees of Chalcedon, thus originating in the order of intellectual development the decisions of the third and fifth councils. It will be convenient to treat both meanings of the term together.
Nothing certain is known of the origin of Christianity in Alexandria, but it is noteworthy that tradition refers the first preaching of the Gospel there and the foundation of a group of ascetic philosophers to one and the same period, and practically to the same man, Mark the Evangelist—which indicates that the school dates from the earliest days of Alexandrian Christianity. At the end of the second century, it emerges into light as an established institution under the teacher Pantænus, thus confirming the observation, generally true, that Christianity adapted itself everywhere to local characteristics. The oldest Gnostic schools are met with in Egypt, and the oldest school found in direct relation to the Church (Justin, Tatian, and others had what might be called private schools) is that of Alexandria. If one may judge from the later period, in which the relations between the school and the Church, between the bishop and the teacher, were frequently strained, the school grew only gradually into close connection with the Church; but the Alexandrian Church itself shows, at the transition from the second to the third century, a freer, less rigidly orthodox habit of thought, which gave place to the settled Catholic forms only in the episcopate of Demetrius, under Caracalla and Elagabalus.
2. Its Development from Hellenism and Judaism.
The catechetical school had forerunners in the Hellenistic “Museum” on one side, and in the Jewish schools (batte midrashot) on the other. The development of Helleno-Judaic learning, as seen in Philo, is a direct step to the Christian, which took up its inheritance. The speculations of the Egyptian Gnostics, the schools of Basilides and Valentinus, and those of the Church theologians proceed from the same source. Its theology is the science of interpreting the written documents; it is extracted from the divine oracles by means of the exegetic-pneumatic method. But access to the highest secrets is possible only by passing through various anterooms, designated on one side by the different disciplines of Greek philosophy, and on the other by special divine revelations. This progressive enlightenment corresponds to the constitution of nature and the human organism, with their long course of progressive development. The path thus marked out leads, however, naturally to apologetics, just as the preparatory study, in metaphysics and ethics, in knowledge and in divine love, leads to the laying of a foundation for the theological gnosis. All this has appeared already in Philo; and so has the essentially Platonic attitude toward the whole world of thought, the energetic effort to surpass Plato’s idea by a hypernoeton (thus offering religion access in the form of the transcendental to a lofty region peculiarly its own), and the alchemistic process with the Bible by which it is made to yield not only the highest gnosis but also, when interpreted literally and morally, the theology of the preparatory stages.
3. Christian Modifications.
The Christian school made no radical change in this way of looking at things; but it modified the earlier views by giving the revelation of God in Christ precedence over the Old Testament law, which it placed practically on a level with Greek philosophy, and by accepting the Pauline-Johannean conception of the appearance of the Godhead (the Logos) on earth. The mystery of God coming down to his creature, or of the deification of the created spirit, now became the central thought of theology, and served to strengthen the long-existing conception of the essential affinity of the created spirit with its creator. The fundamental question whether the return of souls to God is only an apparent return (since really all the time they are in him), or a strictly necessary natural process, or the historical consequence of a historical event (the Incarnation), was never satisfactorily answered by the teachers of the catechetical school. The Alexandrian orthodox teachers are distinguished from the heretical by their serious attempt to save the freedom of the creature, and thus to place a boundary between God and man and to leave some scope for history; but the attitude of the Christian Gnostic, which Origen praises as the highest, leaves room neither for the historic Christ nor for the Logos, in fact for no mediator at all, but conceives everything as existing in calm immanence and blessedness—while this very teacher, as soon as he placed himself on one of the numerous steps which lie between man as a natural being and man as a blessed spirit, became the theologian of redemption, atonement, and mediation.
4. Significance and Achievements.
The catechetical school of Alexandria has a great significance as well for the internal history of the Church as for its relation to the world outside. It furnished the Church with a dogmatic theology; it 125 taught it scientific exegesis, in the sense then understood, and gave it a scientific consciousness; it overthrew the heretical school; it laid down the main problems of future theology; and it transformed the primitive spirit of enthusiastic asceticism into one of contemplative asceticism. In regard to the outer world, it forced the Hellenic mind to take account of the message of Christianity, it led the conflict with the last phase of Greek philosophy, Neoplatonism, and defeated its enemies with their own weapons.
The school had a settled organization under a single head. A knowledge of the course of study is obtained from the great tripartite work of Clement (the “Exhortation to the Heathen,” the “Instructor,” and the “Miscellanies”) and from accounts of Origen’s teaching. The main subjects of the older philosophy were taught, but the principal thing, to which the whole course led up, was the study of Scripture. The school seems to have had no fixed domicile, at least in Origen’s day, but to have met in the teacher’s house. There were no fixed payments; rich friends and voluntary offerings from such as could afford them provided for its needs. The list of heads is as follows: Pantænus, Clement, Origen, Heracles, Dionysius (the latter two afterward bishops), Pierius (Achillas), Theognostus, Serapion, Peter (afterward bishop), Macarius (?) . . . Didymus, Rhodon. The last-named, the teacher of Philippus Sidetes, migrated to Side in Pamphylia about 405, and the school, shaken already by the Arian controversy and by the unsuccessful struggle of Theophilus with the barbarous monastic orthodoxy, became extinct.
6. Later Developments.
The theology of the Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa, is a product of the influence of the Alexandrian school, and in so far as this theology, with its echoes of Origenistic teaching, has never wholly died out, the work of the school has remained effective. It lived on also in the learning of Jerome, Rufinus, and Ambrose, and was valuable to the Western Church. Athanasius has nothing directly to do with the catechetical school, but his teaching on the incarnation of the Logos and his conception of the relations of God and man were in touch with one side of Origenistic speculation. By carrying through the Homoousios he brought about at the same time a view of the person of Christ according to which the divine nature has so absorbed the human, has so made the latter its own, that a practically complete unity of nature exists. He did not work this consequence out thoroughly; there are many uncertainties both in him and in the Cappadocians, his and Origen’s disciples; but his teaching and his theological attitude led up to what was later called Monophysitism, in its strictest and most logical form. This attitude did not change when the Church felt obliged to repudiate the attempt of Apollinaris of Laodicea to represent Christ as a being in whom the Godhead took the place of the reasonable human soul. On the contrary, it was felt that the theoretical assertion of the complete and perfect human nature of Christ in opposition to Apollinaris was a sufficient protection against any dangers incurred in free speculation on the “one nature of the Word made flesh.” These speculations were based on the conception of the possibility of a real fusion of the divine and human natures. This conception might be regarded in a twofold aspect, either from the standpoint of historic realism (the divine plan of salvation has historically brought together the two separate natures), or from that of philosophic idealism (the divine plan of salvation declares and makes plain what lies already in the nature of things, in so far as the intellectual creature is in the last resort substantially one with the Godhead). The connection of this with the later teaching of the school is evident; this connection, rooted as it is in Platonism, comes out in the pneumatic exegesis, although Origen’s expositions, which seemed to offend against the rule of faith and Biblical realism, were rejected.
7. Representatives of the Later School.
The theologians who represented this line of thought, and who from the beginning of the fifth century are found in conflict with the school of Antioch, are called the Alexandrian school. After Macarius, the most important of them is Cyril, who is known by his numerous commentaries and polemical treatises, as well as by the victorious boldness of the position which he took in these controversies. While there may be two opinions about his character, there can be no doubt of the soteriological tendency of his theology. He succeeded in following up the partial victory which he won at the Council of Ephesus (431) and converting it into a complete one. His successor, Dioscurus, accomplished the entire defeat of the theology of Antioch, and at Ephesus in 449 the “one nature of the Word made flesh” was proclaimed to the East. At Chalcedon in 451 came the reaction, but it was brought about not so much by any opposition in the Eastern mind to the formula as by the despotic bearing of its champion. That which was adopted at Chalcedon roundly contradicted, indeed, the Alexandrian theology, but inasmuch as Cyril’s orthodoxy was expressly recognized there, the new Byzantine-Roman Church, in spite of its teaching on the two natures, found a place for the Alexandrian school. In the sixth century Leontius and Justinian showed (Second Council of Constantinople, 553) that its influence was not dead—that, on the contrary, the exposition of the decrees of Chalcedon must be determined in accordance with it. No fundamental difference appeared in the attitude of the sixth council (Constantinople, 680-681); and after the Adoptionist controversy the Western theology also became consciously Alexandrian. It has never been able to do more than theoretically to assert the real humanity of Christ, or to reduce it to very narrow limits; it is, after all, essentially Apollinarian and docetic. Consequently in all its phases it has left room for mystical speculations on the relation of the Godhead and humanity, in which the human factor tends to disappear and history to be forgotten.126
Bibliography: J. F. Baltus, Défense des saints pères accusez de Platonisme, Paris, 1711; H. E. F. Guericke, De schola quæ Alexandriæ floruit catechetica, Halle, 1824; C. F. W. Hasselbach, De schola quæ floruit catechetica, Stettin, 1824; E. R. Redepenning, Origenes, i, Bonn, 1841; J. Simon, Histoire critique de l’école d’Alexandrie, Paris, 1845; E. Vacherot, Histoire critique de l’école d’Alexandrie, 2 vols., Paris, 1846; C. Kingsley, Alexandria and her Schools, Cambridge, 1854; C. Bigg, Christian Platonists of Alexandria, Oxford, 1886; A. Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengschichte, i., ii., Freiberg, 1894, Eng. transl., 7 vols., London, 1895-1900.
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