The Characteristics

of

Alexandrian Theology

 

Besides the main Alexandrian views on allegorism, philosophy, and knowledge (gnosis), of which I prefer to speak in separate chapters, the School of Alexandria had the following characteristics.

 

I. Deification (The grace of renewal)

Many scholars see the core of Alexandrian theology as Deification or the grace of renewal. By deification the Alexandrians mean the renewal of human nature as a whole, to attain sharing in the characteristics of our Lord Jesus Christ in place of the corrupt human nature, or as the apostles state that the believer may enjoy "the partaking in the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4), or the new man in the image of His Creator (Col. 3:10). This theological mind draws the heart of the Alexandrians away from the arguments about the definitions of the theological terms to concentrate on attaining the divine grace as being an enjoyment of the unity with the Father, in His only-begotten Son, Jesus, by the work of His Holy Spirit, or attaining Christ Himself who renews our nature in Him.

 

for this He assumed human nature,

for this He willingly endured the sufferings of man,

that by being reduced to the measure of our weakness He might raise us to the measure of His power.

V The Word of God, became man just that you may learn from a Man how it may be that man should become god.

St. Clement of Alexandria

The Alexandrian Fathers, in all their theological views, concentrate on the grace of God as the grace of continuous or dynamic renewal of our nature by the Holy Spirit, who grants us close unity with the Father in the Son; that is communion with God. In Jesus Christ, we not only receive forgiveness of sins by the Holy Spirit, but we also attain a "new life" which is free from sin as a divine grace. St. Paul speaks of "putting off the old man" or "the old corruptible nature" and putting on "the inner man" or the renewed nature in the Spirit, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness (2 Cor. 5:21; Rom. 8:1). By divine grace, we become members in the Body of Christ, and children of the Father, having the power to practice saintly life, because we are sanctified in Christ and are consecrated to the Father. The believer as a whole, his soul, body, senses, emotions, mind, etc., is sanctified as a tool for righteousness (Rom. 6:13). The Risen Christ is present in the believer's life as a divine gift, granting him inner glorification, as a pledge of the eternal heavenly glories.

This conception of man's renewal in his nature is called "deification," because of his sharing in the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4) and receiving Christ for our righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Alexandrian theology can be summarized by these words: "God took our humanity, that man may share His life," or "God became man that men may become gods."

Joseph Sittler stated that the East and West have different ways of speaking about the work of Christ. In the West, that work is centered upon redemption from sin; in the East, it is centered upon the divinization of man. The doctrine of atonement is central to that work in the West. In contrast, in the East the central doctrine is participation, illumination, re-enactment, and transformation. In the West, the work is reunification. The Western Savior is the Eastern Pantocrator.

 

II. ONENESS OF LIFE

The School of Alexandria reveals to us the oneness of life in Christ. The dean and his students did not isolate the study of religion, philosophy and science from their church life nor from their daily life. They believed in one (integral) life in Christ. This was revealed in their study, worship, conduct, preaching and witnessing to Christ.

Rown A. Greer summarizes Origen's view of Christian life, by stating, "The Christian life is a response to (divine) revelation. We begin to know God and to move toward the face-to-face vision that perfects our fellowship with Him. The dimensions of this life are ethical, intellectual, and spiritual or mystical; and they involve us in the life of the church and in action in our world."

St. Athanasius who devoted all his life to defend the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not a Christian philosopher who concentrates on logical arguments separated from practical life, nor is he merely a dogmatic theologian. His main interest is pastoral. His only one desire is to forward the salvation of men. He offers a model of the close relationship between church dogma and piety. He says,

"For faith and godliness are allied to each other, and are sister.

He who believes in Him is godly, and he also who is godly, believes the more."

In all his discourses against the Arians, he reveals the sanctification, renewal and regeneration of our own nature by the Crucified Son of God:

 

If then for our sake He sanctified Himself (John 17:18, 19) and does this when He became man, it is very plain that the Spirit's descent on Him in Jordan was a descent upon us, because He bears our body.

 

When it is said that He is anointed, since also, when He is baptized, it is we who in Him are anointed, since also when He is baptized, we who are in Him are baptized.

The deans and students were mostly virgins who devoted their lives to Christ. They lived not only as scholars but as true worshippers, ascetics and preachers. They were eager to devote their lives, contemplating on God through their study of the Bible, without ignoring their role in witnessing to Christ and serving Him. It is no wonder that Origen who devoted his life to studying the Bible attracted many pagans who not only were converted to Christianity but also became martyrs. This oneness of life prepared many deans of the School to be elected as successful Popes.

 

 

III. SOTERIOLOGICAL THEOLOGY

Christianity started in Alexandria, Egypt, by a very simple yet deep action. Arianius, a cobbler, cried "O One God" as a needle pierced his hand while repairing St. Mark's shoe. St. Mark, the Apostle and Evangelist, healed his hand in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. He then witnessed to the One God whom Arianius believed in, but did not know. St. Mark told the cobbler about God who heals not only our bodies, but also our human nature through His incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. Arianius was converted to Christianity and was ordained by St. Mark as the first Bishop of Alexandria.

St. Mark who used the healing of Arianius' wound in the name of Jesus Christ as a starting point to preach the Gospel, did not reveal God as a mere idea he believed in, but as the Savior who redeems mankind. This is the basic principle of the Alexandrian theology until today. We know God, not through theoretical discussions, but through His redeeming deeds. God grants us new knowledge, new glorious life and immortality.

Thus, St. Mark truly sowed in our theological soil the seed that has produced fruit through the ages. One of these fruits is the close relationship between theological knowledge and salvation. God bestows knowledge which is not isolated from our salvation. This is clear in the theology of St. Clement of Alexandria who usually introduces Jesus Christ as the "Educator." He wrote a book called Paidagogos "The Educator." He speaks of this Divine Paidagogue as the "All-healing physician of mankind.'' In other words, divine knowledge, to St. Clement, cannot be separated from our salvation. He clearly believes "It is the will of God that we should attain the knowledge of God, which is the communication of immortality." "The Word ... became Man so that you might learn from Man how man may become god."

One of the main features of the School of Alexandria is its soteriological theology, that is, a system of theology based principally on the salvation of man. This approach is apostolic, for the apostles in preaching the Gospel witnessed our Lord Jesus as the "Messiah," of whom the prophets foretold as the Savior of mankind. They were not engaged in theological disputes, but were concerned with men's salvation. Their Christological theology depended on soteriological thought. Jaraslov Pelikan states that early Christians shared the conviction that salvation is the work of no being less than the Lord of heaven and earth. The oldest surviving sermon in the early church opens with the words: "Brethren, we ought so, to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of the Judge of living and dead. And we ought not to belittle our salvation, for when we belittle Him, we expect also to receive little."

Some examples follow:

1. Athenagoras in his Plea on Behalf of Christians, writes to the emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius (161-180) and his son Commodus, refuting the three charges against Christians, but he surpasses the defense by preaching. He sees it as a great opportunity to declare the truth to the emperors, and to anyone who reads this defense to witness evangelical life. His aim is not only to defend the Christian faith but also to attract everyone to the salvation of Christ.

2. The early church offers no better example of an intellectual Christian than St. Clement. He insists that the goal of Christian education is "practical, not theoretical and its aim is to improve the soul, not to teach, and to train it up to a virtuous, not an intellectual, life."

3. Origen's writings reveal that his primary interest lies in the salvation of our souls, or as Rown A. Greer states the drama of the soul's struggle to return to God. Origen's views of martyrdom, prayer and Scriptures merge into one vision of Christian life as a movement towards a perfect knowledge of God and perfect fellowship with Him through Christ.

Frances M. Young gives an account of Origen’s soteriology, saying:

Origen collects together in one place all the titles he can find in scripture which express the nature and work of Christ: Light of the World, Resurrection, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Door and the Shepherd, Christ and King, Teacher and Master, Son, True Vine and Bread, First and Last, Living and Dead, Sword, Servant, Lamb of God, Paraclete, Propitiation, Power, Wisdom, Sanctification, Redemption, Righteousness, Demiurge, Agent of the good God, High-Priest, Rod, Flower, Stone, Logos. These ideas he draws on at random as he discusses Christ's saving work, in Homilies and commentaries which wander unsystematically form point to point. The only work which is at all systematic is the De Principiis; even the Contra Celsum takes the form of a commentary on Celsus' anti-Christian arguments, and shows little logical sequence of thought. Yet it seems to the present writer that under this confusing array of ideas, there is a basic pattern to Origen's soteriology, a pattern of conflict between good and evil in which Christ achieves the victory...

Most expositors of Origen's thought have regarded his idea of Christ as Revealer, Educator and Enlightenment, that is, as the Logos of God, as his characteristic view of Christ's saving function. That this should be Origen's main account of Christ's work in the De Principiis is not surprising, since this was a work dominated by philosophical issues and ideas. It is also prominent in the Commentary on John. As the brightness of God's glory, Christ enlightens the whole creation, and, as the Word, he interprets and presents to the rational creation the secrets of wisdom and the mysteries of knowledge. The Only-Begotten is the Truth, because he embraces in himself, according to the Father’s will, the whole reason of all things, which he communicates to each creature in proportion to its worthiness...

Origen can maintain that Christ as Word conquers the opposing powers by reason, "by making war on his enemies by reason and righteousness, so that what is irrational and wicked is destroyed." Right doctrine is a means of conquering sin. The light shines not only on the darkness of men's souls, but has penetrated to where the rulers of this darkness carry on their struggle with the race of men; and shining in darkness the light is pursued by darkness, but not overtaken.

Connected with the idea of Christ as Educator, is another important theme of Origen's soteriology, the description of Him as the Example of obedience which Christians should follow, as the Way. This theme finds expression particularly in the call to martyrdom, which is the culmination of observance of "the entire pattern of living set out in the Gospel." This is closely linked with the idea of illumination which we have already considered, since by following Christ to heaven, especially through martyrdom, men will understand as never before, will learn all secrets and understand all mysteries, and will discover the nature of intelligibles and the beauty of Truth. But again this description of Christ's saving work is part of the picture of the struggle against the devil and his angels, for, above all, "martyrs in Christ despoil with him the principalities and powers and triumph with him, by partaking in his sufferings - among which is his triumphing over principalities and powers which you will soon see conquered and overcome with shame." Obedience, self-denial and humiliation, death to sin, the spiritualized martyrdom, is like-wise an imitation of Christ, part of the educative work of the Savior, and an incident in the drama of conquering evil and leading to virtue and participation in the divine nature. It was essentially Christ's work to restore what had been corrupted, and deal with the enemy that had caused the corruption...

Christ brings healing to the morally sick, and resurrection and life to the morally dead. He came into our deadness to deliver mankind from the bondage of corruption. This, too, is part of Christ's conquest of the tyranny of death, sin and the devil, for the devil has the power of death and is the enemy of Him who is the Life...

The context of soteriological thought is dualistic, and the work of salvation is, first the conquest of the powers of corruption, and then the exaltation of man by a process of healing and education. The conquest of the devil is in fact the most prominent theme of Origen's soteriology. The De Principiis spends a chapter on "How the devil and the opposing powers are, according to the scriptures, a war with the human race." The activity of the demons plays a large role in Origen's arguments with Celsus. The Homilies on Joshua are full of warfare against the devil, for Joshua's wars are allegorized as the wars of Christ and his followers against the devil and his angel. In the Commentary on Romans, Origen explains the Incarnation and Work of Christ by means of a parable which expresses this soteriological position: there was a just and noble king, who was waging a war against an unjust tyrant, but trying to avoid a violent and bloody conflict, because some of his own men were fighting on the tyrant's side, and he wanted to free them, not destroy them. He adopted the uniform of the tyrant's men, until he managed to persuade them to desert and return to their proper kingdom, and succeeded in binding the "strong man" in fetters, destroying his principalities and powers and carrying off those he held captive. This idea of soteriology appears throughout Origen's work, and cannot be treated "as belonging to a lower theological level," or as "a mere appendage to the philosophically inclined system in which we find the real Origen." It is basic to his whole understanding of salvation, and is the theory to which he turns to explain all soteriological problems.

4. The root of the Athanasian doctrine of the Logos is the idea of redemption. He claims fervently that only God can save the fallen race (Soteriological interest). The doctrine of sanctification was always present in the mind of the great Pope of Alexandria as the final purpose of his pastoral efforts, as well as the main goal of his theological dispute, especially in his fight against Arianism.

a. We would not have been redeemed if God Himself had not become man, for man was in need of the Creator to redeem his fallen nature to its origin, bestowing upon it the image of God, and restoring it from corruption to incorruption. In Him mankind overcame death and was regenerated or recreated.

b. Being the Son of God, one and equal with the Father in the same essence (ousia), He offered Himself as a self-sacrifice that can pay our debt of sins and achieve divine justice and mercy at the same time.

c. He is God who overcame Satan for our sake, granting us the power to tread on him and all his evil angels.

d. Being the true God, He restored our honor and bestowed upon us the adoption to the Father in Him by the Holy Spirit. St. Athanasius states,

 

He was made man that we might be gods...

For as, although there be one Son by nature, True and Only-Begotten, we too become sons, not as He in nature and truth, but according to the grace of Him that calls, and though we are men from the earth, are yet called gods."

e. The incarnation introduces us to God. The Incarnate Logos reveals the Father to us, and the Father attracts us to the Son (John 17: 26, 6:44 ).

5. St. Athanasius defends the divinity of the Holy Spirit in his reply to the Arians who believed that He was a creature and less than the Logos. He also writes about the Holy Spirit in four letters addressed to his friend Bishop Serapion. His theology concerning the Holy Spirit is the same concerning Christ. The Holy Spirit must be God, because if He were a creature, we could not participate in His divine nature. He states, "If by participation in the Spirit, we are made 'sharers in the divine nature' 2 Pet. 1:4. It should not to be doubted that His nature is of God."

 

 

IV. PENANCE AND REPENTANCE

As the Alexandrian theology is soteriological, it is important to explain the Alexandrian view concerning repentance.

In his second homily on Leviticus, Origen says that there are seven ways for sins to be forgiven:

1. baptism,

2. martyrdom,

3. almsgiving,

4. forgiving our brethren's sins,

5. restoring a sinner,

6. abundance of charity, and

7. "there is also a seventh way, a hard and painful one, and that is by penance, when the sinner drenches his pillow with his tears... and is not ashamed to confess his sin to one of the Lord's priests and ask him for a remedy." J. Daniélou believes that in this passage "the reference to sacramental confession is quite plain."

Origen seems to make a distinction among sins, some being graver than others and "one involving exclusion from the community, and the other not." What he terms "trifling sins" seem not to need the absolution of a priest or the doing of penance.

Origen does indeed share four views with St. Peter of Alexandria (and St. Cyprian):

1. There are different classes of sins;

2. penance is necessary for forgiveness, at least for major sins;

3. priestly absolution is necessary, at least for some sins;

4. lay persons are not to assume the powers of forgiveness, at least for major sins.

Dr. Vivian believes that it seems reasonable to conclude that the views Origen gives on penance are not merely personal but rather reflect the custom of the Alexandrian church of his day. This is the tradition handed down to St. Dionysius and St. Peter.

In a papyrus fragment on repentance, St. Dionysius argues against severity toward apostates: "Let us then not repel those who return, but gladly welcome them and number them with those who have not strayed, and thus supply that which is wanting in them." St. Dionysius here is arguing that sinners and saints are welcomed to the church, but he points out that those who have strayed are in need of the church's teaching.

 

 

V. THEOLOGICAL TERMS

Many modern scholars look to Origen as the first theologian. His work De Principiis ("On First Principles") is perhaps the greatest of Origen works and marks a long step towards the formation of Christian theology.

Concerning theological terms, the Alexandrian School uses Greek philosophical terms to explain Christian doctrines, because of the existing world-wide Greek culture, and in order to deal with the philosophers and heretics. But the Alexandrians were not enslaved to these terms. This is what St. Athanasius explains when he states that disputes merely about words must not be suffered to divide those who think alike.

When Dionysius of Rome misunderstood his namesake, Dionysius of Alexandria who had stated that there are three Hypostaseis, mistakenly thinking that this meant three essences, the latter sent an explanation to Rome, affirming his belief in one divine essence.

 

 

VI. DEFINITIONS OF THEOLOGICAL TERMINOLOGY

The Alexandrian Fathers did not give definitions to any theological terminology, because they were interested only in the practice of theology in their worship and daily life. Benjamin Drewery could not find a direct definition to the grace of God through the numerous works of Origen. He deduced it stating, "We may suggest that if Origen had been required to offer a formal definition of grace, he would have responded somewhat as follows: 'Grace is the power of God freely, but not unconditionally, placed at man's disposal, whereby He appropriates through the Holy Spirit the offer of salvation to a new and ultimate life, revealed and enacted in the Scriptures, by the Incarnate Jesus Christ, and made available by Him to the world.'"

 

 

VII. ECUMENICAL SPIRIT

Ecumenicism is a spirit that the School of Alexandria spread not by speaking about the unity of churches all over the world but by practicing it in many ways:

a. The School attracted many foreign students to study theology, especially the interpretation of the holy Scriptures. Those students later became leaders in their churches. This created a kind of inner unity based on the word of God.

b. The deans of the School were very active outside Egypt, because of their love towards the universal church; they were not looking for any personal prestige nor gaining any political power for their church. For example Origen traveled to Rome, Caesarea, Arabia, Tyre, etc.

c. The Alexandrian theologians were leaders and pioneers in the ecumenical councils.

d. The Coptic manuscripts witness that the Copts translated almost all the Christian literature existing in the world at that time.

Here I refer to H. G. Metropolitan Bishoy's comment on the footnote written by the Catholic publisher of the letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria, which states, "Letter 11 and this Memorandum sent to Rome indicate that in Cyril's day doctrinal matters were referred to Rome for decision." His Grace states that St. Celestine of Rome's response to St. Cyril's letter makes this footnote unacceptable. St. Celestine had in fact stated that the documents which St. Cyril had sent turned his sadness into joy, and his sorrow into happiness. He calls them a remedy from pestilential disease, and a pure spring that transmits to all a proper understanding of our faith. Moreover he says, "We rejoice seeing that such vigilance is in your piety that you have already surpassed the examples of your predecessors who always were themselves defenders of the orthodox teaching." This is the testimony of the bishop of Rome on the role of the Alexandrians in defending the orthodox faith on the ecumenical level.