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History of the Christian Church, Volume II: Ante-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 100-325.
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§ 185. The Alexandrian School of Theology.


J. G. Michaelis: De Scholae Alexandrinae prima origine, progressu, ac praecpuis doctoribus. Hal. 1739.

H. E. Fr. Guerike: De Schola quae Alexandriae floruit catechetica commentatio historica et theologica. Hal. 1824 and ’25. 2 Parts (pp. 119 and 456). The second Part is chiefly devoted to Clement and Origen.

C. F. W. Hasselbach: De Schola, quae Alex. floruit, catech. Stettin 1826. P. 1. (against Guerike), and De discipulorum ... s. De Catechumenorum ordinibus, Ibid. 1839.

J. Matter: L’Histoire de l’ École d’Alexandrie, second ed. Par. 1840. 3 vols.

J. Simon: Histoire de I’ École d’Alexandrie. Par. 1845.

E. Vacherot: Histoire critique de l’ École d’Alexandrie. Par. 1851. 3 vols.

Neander: I. 527–557 (Am. ed.); Gieseler I. 208–210 (Am. ed.)

Ritter: Gesch. der christl. Philos. I. 421 sqq.

Ueberweg: History of Philosophy, vol. I. p. 311–319 (Engl. transl. 1875).

Redepenning in his Origenes I. 57–83, and art. in Herzog2 I. 290–292. Comp. also two arts. on the Jewish, and the New-Platonic schools of Alexandria, by M. Nicolas in Lichtenberger’s "Encyclopédie" I. 159–170.

C. H. Bigg: The Christian Platonists of Alexandria. Lond. 1886.


Alexandria, founded by Alexander the Great three hundred and twenty-two years before Christ, on the mouth of the Nile, within a few hours’ sail from Asia and Europe, was the metropolis of Egypt, the flourishing seat of commerce, of Grecian and Jewish learning, and of the greatest library of the ancient world, and was destined to become one of the great centres of Christianity, the rival of Antioch and Rome. There the religious life of Palestine and the intellectual culture of Greece commingled and prepared the way for the first school of theology which aimed at a philosophic comprehension and vindication of the truths of revelation. Soon after the founding of the church which tradition traces to St. Mark, the Evangelist, there arose a "Catechetical school" under the supervision of the bishop.14501450    Eusebius (V. 10; VI. 3, 6) calls it τὸ τῆς κατηχήσεως διδασκαλεῖον and διδασκαλεῖ τῶν ἱερῶν λόγων". Sozomen (III. 15), τὸ ἱερὸν διδασκαλεῖον τῶν ἱερῶν μαθημάτων; Jerome (Catal. 38), and Rufinus (H. E. II. 7), ecclesiastica schola.450 It was originally designed only for the practical purpose of preparing willing heathens and Jews of all classes for baptism. But in that home of the Philonic theology, of Gnostic heresy, and of Neo-Platonic philosophy, it soon very naturally assumed a learned character, and became, at the same time, a sort of theological seminary, which exercised a powerful influence on the education of many bishops and church teachers, and on the development of Christian science. It had at first but a single teacher, afterwards two or more, but without fixed salary, or special buildings. The more wealthy pupils paid for tuition, but the offer was often declined. The teachers gave their instructions in their dwellings, generally after the style of the ancient philosophers.

The first superintendent of this school known to us was Pantaenus, a converted Stoic philosopher, about a.d. 180. He afterwards labored as a missionary in India, and left several commentaries, of which, however, nothing remains but some scanty fragments.14511451    Clemens calls him "the Sicilian bee" (σικελικὴ μέλιττα, perhaps with reference to his descent from Sicily). Jerome (Catal. 36) says of him: "Hujus multi quidem in S. Scripturam exstant commentarii sed magis viva voce ecclesiis profuit." Comp. on him Redepenning; Origenes I.63 sqq., and Möhler in Herzog2 XI. 182. The two brief relies of Pantaenus are collected and accompanied with learned notes by Routh, Rel. S. I. 375-383.451 He was followed by Clement, to a.d. 202 and Clement, by Origen, to 232, who raised the school to the summit of its prosperity, and founded a similar one at Caesarea in Palestine. The institution was afterwards conducted by Origen’s pupils, Heraclas (d. 248), and Dionysius (d. 265), and last by the blind but learned Didymus (d. 395), until, at the end of the fourth century, it sank for ever amidst the commotions and dissensions of the Alexandrian church, which at last prepared the way for the destructive conquest of the Arabs (640). The city itself gradually sank to a mere village, and Cairo took its place (since 969). In the present century it is fast rising again, under European auspices, to great commercial importance.

From this catechetical school proceeded a peculiar theology, the most learned and genial representatives of which were Clement and Origen. This theology is, on the one hand, a regenerated Christian form of the Alexandrian Jewish religious philosophy of Philo; on the other, a catholic counterpart, and a positive refutation of the heretical Gnosis, which reached its height also in Alexandria, but half a century earlier. The Alexandrian theology aims at a reconciliation of Christianity with philosophy, or, subjectively speaking, of pistis with gnosis; but it seeks this union upon the basis of the Bible, and the doctrine of the church. Its centre, therefore, is the Divine Logos, viewed as the sum of all reason and all truth, before and after the incarnation. Clement came from the Hellenic philosophy to the Christian faith; Origen, conversely, was led by faith to speculation. The former was an aphoristic thinker, the latter a systematic. The one borrowed ideas from various systems; the other followed more the track of Platonism. But both were Christian philosophers and churchly gnostics. As Philo, long before them, in the same city, had combined Judaism with Grecian culture, so now they carried the Grecian culture into Christianity. This, indeed, the apologists and controversialists of the second century had already done, as far back as Justin the "philosopher." But the Alexandrians were more learned, and made much freer use of the Greek philosophy. They saw in it not sheer error, but in one view a gift of God, and an intellectual schoolmaster for Christ, like the law in the moral and religious here. Clement compares it to a wild olive tree, which can be ennobled by faith; Origen (in the fragment of an epistle to Gregory Thaumaturgus), to the jewels, which the Israelites took with them out of Egypt, and turned into ornaments for their sanctuary, though they also wrought them into the golden calf. Philosophy is not necessarily an enemy to the truth, but may, and should be its handmaid, and neutralize the attacks against it. The elements of truth in the heathen philosophy they attributed partly to the secret operation of the Logos in the world of reason, partly to acquaintance with the writings of Moses and the prophets.

So with the Gnostic heresy. The Alexandrians did not sweepingly condemn it, but recognized the desire for deeper religious knowledge, which lay at its root, and sought to meet this desire with a wholesome supply from the Bible itself. Their maxim was, in the words of Clement: "No faith without knowledge, no knowledge without faith;" or: "Unless you believe, you will not understand."14521452    Is. 7: 9, according to the LXX: ἔαν μὴ πιστεύσητε, οὐδὲ μὴ συνῆτε.452 Faith and knowledge have the same substance, the saving truth of God, revealed in the Holy Scriptures, and faithfully handed down by the church; they differ only in form. Knowledge is our consciousness of the deeper ground and consistency of faith. The Christian knowledge, however, is also a gift of grace, and has its condition in a holy life. The ideal of a Christian gnostic includes perfect love as well as perfect knowledge, of God. Clement describes him as one "who, growing grey in the study of the Scriptures, and preserving the orthodoxy of the apostles and the church, lives strictly according to the gospel."

The Alexandrian theology is intellectual, profound, stirring and full of fruitful germs of thought, but rather unduly idealistic and spiritualistic, and, in exegesis, loses itself in arbitrary allegorical fancies. In its efforts to reconcile revelation and philosophy it took up, like Philo, many foreign elements, especially of the Platonic stamp, and wandered into speculative views which a later and more orthodox, but more narrow-minded and less productive age condemned as heresies, not appreciating the immortal service of this school to its own and after times.



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