Alexandrian Theology

Clement of Alexandria

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Clement of Alexandria, whose full name was Titus Flavius Clemens (150?-215?), was a Greek theologian and an early Father of the Church. He was probably born in Athens, Greece, and was educated at the catechetical school in Alexandria, where he studied under the Christian philosopher Pantaenus. Some time after Clement's conversion from paganism, he was ordained a presbyter. In about 190 he succeeded Pantaenus as head of the catechetical school, which became famous under his leadership. Origen, who later achieved distinction as a writer, teacher, and theologian, may have been one of Clement's pupils. During the persecution of the Christians in the reign of Septimius Severus, emperor of Rome, Clement moved from Alexandria to Caesarea (Mazaca) in Cappadocia. Little is known of his subsequent activities. At times, he was considered a saint; his name appeared in early Christian martyrologies.

Many scholars regard Clement as the founder of the Alexandrian school of theology, which emphasized the divine nature of Christ. It was Alexandrian theologians such as Saint Cyril and Saint Athanasius who took the lead in opposing Adoptionism and Nestorianism, both of which emphasized Christ's humanity at the expense of his divinity. According to Clement's system of logic, the thought and will of God exhorts, educates, and perfects the true Christian. This process is described in A Hortatory Address to the Greeks, The Tutor, and Miscellanies, Clement's major works. The first work is addressed to the educated public with an interest in Christianity; it is modeled on the Hortatory Address of Aristotle, a lost work in which Aristotle addressed the general reader with an interest in philosophy. The Tutor is designed to broaden and deepen the foundation of Christian faith imparted in baptismal instruction. Miscellanies is a discussion of various points of doctrinal theology, designed to guide the mature Christian to perfect knowledge. Clement was also the author of a number of tracts and treatises, including Slander, Fasting, Patience, and Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved?

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Clement of Alexandria

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(ca. 150-ca. 215)

Titus Flavius Clemens, Greek theologian and writer, was the first significant representative of the Alexandrian theological tradition. Born of pagan parents in Athens, Clement went to Alexandria, where he succeeded his teacher Pantaenus as head of the Catechetical School. In 202 persecution forced him to leave Alexandria, apparently never to return.

Of Clement's writings four are preserved complete: Protreptikos (an exhortation addressed to the Greeks urging their conversion); Paedagogos (a portrayal of Christ as tutor instructing the faithful in their conduct); Stromata (miscellaneous thoughts primarily concerning the relation of faith to philosophy); "Who Is the Rich Man That Is Saved?" (an exposition of Mark 10:17-31, arguing that wealth, if rightfully used, is not un-Christian). Of other writings only fragments remain, especially of the Hypotyposes, a commentary on the Scriptures.

Clement is important for his positive approach to philosophy which laid the foundations for Christian humanism and for the idea of philosophy as "handmaid" to theology. The idea of the Logos dominates his thinking. The divine Logos, creator of all things, guides all good men and causes all right thought. Greek philosophy was, therefore, a partial revelation and prepared the Greeks for Christ just as the law prepared the Hebrews. Christ is the Logos incarnate through whom man attains to perfection and true gnosis. Against the Gnostics who disparaged faith, Clement considers faith the necessary first principle and foundation for knowledge, which itself is the perfection of faith. Man becomes a "true Gnostic" by love and contemplation. Through self-control and love man rids himself of passions, reaching finally the state of impassibility wherein he attains to the likeness of God. With this idea Clement profoundly influenced Greek Christian spirituality.

W C Weinrich
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

E. F. Osborn, The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria; S. R. C. Lilla, Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism; R. B. Tollington, Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Liberalism, 2 vols.; E. Molland, The Conception of the Gospel in the Alexandrian Theology; J. Quasten, Patrology, II: The Ante-Nicene Literature after Irenaeus; W. H. Wagner, "The Paideia Motif in the Theology of Clement of Alexandria" (Diss., Drew University, 1968); W. E. G. Floyd, Clement of Alexandria's Treatment of the Problem of Evil; D. J. M. Bradley, "The Transfiguration of the Stoic Ethic in Clement of Alexandria," Aug 14:41-66; J. Ferguson, "The Achievement of Clement of Alexandria," RelS 12:59-80.

Alexandrian Theology

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It is probable that Christianity came to Alexandria in apostolic times, though the tradition that it was first brought by John Mark cannot be verified. The indications are that Christianity was well established in middle Egypt by A.D. 150 and that Alexandria was its port of entry and supporting base.

Clement of Alexandria became head of the Catechetical School about 190. A philosopher throughout his life, Clement saw Greek philosophy as a preparation for Christ, even as a witness to divine truth. Plato was a cherished guide. Sin is grounded in man's free will. Enlightement by the Logos brings man to knowledge. Knowledge results in right decisions. These draw a man toward God until he is assimilated to God (Stromata iv. 23). The Christian lives by love, free from passion. His life is a constant prayer. Clement set forth its pattern in minute detail in the Paedagogos. He took an optimistic view of the future of all men, but knowledge would be rewarded in the world to come. An allegorical exegesis of Scripture supported these views.

Around 202 Clement was succeeded in the Catechetical School by the much abler Origen. A biblical student and exegete of great ability, Origen produced the Hexapla text of the OT. He wrote commentaries, scholia, or homilies on all the biblical books; but they were based on three senses of Scripture, the literal, moral, and allegorical. The Bible was inspired, useful, true in every letter, but the literal interpretation was not necessarily the correct one. Indebted, like Clement, to the Greeks, Origen was not as admiringly dependent upon them.

His conception was of a great spiritual universe, presided over by a beneficent, wise, and personal being. Alexandrian Christology makes its beginnings with Origen. Through an eternal generation of the Son, the Logos, God communicates himself from all eternity. There is a moral, volitional unity between the Father and the Son, but an essential unity is questionable. The world of sense provides the theater of redemption for fallen creatures who range from angels through men to demons. By the incarnation the Logos is the mediator of redemption. He took to himself a human soul in a union that was a henosis.

It was, therefore, proper to say that the Son of God was born an infant, that he died (De princ. II. vi. 2-3). By teaching, by example, by offering himself a propitiatory victim to God, by paying the devil a ransom, Christ saves men. Men gradually free themselves from the earthy by meditation, by abstinence, by the vision of God. A purging fire may be needed in the process. Although this world is neither the first nor the last of a series, there will ultimately come the restoration of all things. Flesh, matter, will disappear, spirit only will remain, and God will be all in all. How long human freedom will retain the power of producing another catastrophe is not clear, but ultimately all will be confirmed in goodness by the power of God's love.

After Origen's departure from Alexandria his disciples diverged. One group tended to deny the eternal generation of the Logos. Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria (247-65), sympathized with this party and declared the Logos to be a creation of the Father, but the future in Alexandria belonged to the opposite wing, which emphasized the divine attributes of the Logos. The Sabellian party was strong in Cyrenaica and Libya, and this influence affected Alexandria. When the presbyter Arius began, perhaps about 317, to proclaim that the Logos was a creation in time, differing from the Father in being, he attracted disciples, but Bishop Alexander opposed Arius. As Emperor Constantine found it impossible to restore harmony by exhortation and influence, he called for a general meeting of bishops. The resulting Council of Nicaea in 325 was attended by an Alexandrian delegation which included the deacon Athanasius. For the remaining years of his life Athanasius was to champion the Nicene conclusion that the Son was homoousios with the Father. The adoption of this term in spite of its checkered Gnostic and Sabellian background was a work of providential genius.

In 328 Athanasius succeeded Alexander as the Alexandrian bishop. In spite of some dictatorial tendencies he possessed a superb combination of the talents of a successful administrator with great depths of theological insight. From this time on, Alexandria emphasized vigorously the identity in being of the Father and the Son. Athanasius presented, in his On the Incarnation of the Logos, the indispensability of the union of true God with true man for the Christian doctrine of salvation through the life and death of Christ. Wholly God and wholly man the Saviour must be. Through many false charges and five periods of exile Athanasius maintained his insistence upon one God, Father and Son of the same substance, the church the institute of salvation, not subject to the interference of the civil state. Athanasius also set forth the view that the Spirit is homoousios likewise with the Father and the Son, thus preparing the way for the formula miaousia, treis hypostaseis.

That Christ need not be wholly divine and wholly human was a view which Apollinaris of Laodicea did not succeed in fastening upon Alexandria in spite of his efforts in that direction. His view that the pneuma of the Logos replaced the human spirit was rejected. His emphasis upon the unity of the personality of Christ, however, became increasingly an Alexandrian emphasis and was strongly stressed by Cyril, who became bishop in 412. The Logos took a full human nature upon himself, but the result was henosis physike, and Cyril loved the formula miaphysis, one even though originally ek duo. The incarnation was to the end of salvation. God became man that we might become God.

Cyril supported this by allegorical exposition of the Scripture of both testaments, especially the Pentateuch. The phenomenal allegory of the facts is designed to yield the noumenal meaning. His most famous writing is his series of twelve anathemas against Nestorius, attacking what appeared to him to be denials of the unity and full deity of Christ and of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Word. In 433 Cyril accepted, with the Antioch leaders, a profession of faith which declared that a unity of the two natures of Christ had come into existence (henosis gegone) and used the term for which Cyril had so vigorously contended against Nestorius, Theotokos, as a description of the Virgin Mary.

Dioscurus continued the Cyrillian emphasis on unity in the person of Christ but pushed it to an extreme. At the Council of Chalcedon (451) the Alexandrian radicals suffered defeat with the adoption in the Chalcedonian Definition of the phrase en dyo physesin. The final Alexandrian tendencies produced schism after Chalcedon. The great bulk of Egyptian Christendom rejected Chalcedon and became monophysite. Monothelitism proved to be only a temporary enthusiasm in Alexandria. The arrival of Islamic rule ended it.

The Alexandrian school with its Platonic emphasis was the popular school of its time. In its more moderate form it set the Christological pattern for many centuries. The love of allegorical interpretation was characteristic. The intervention of the divine in the temporal was stressed, and the union of the natures of Christ with over-riding emphasis on the divine component was dangerously accented.

P Woolley
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

E. R. Hardy, Jr., Christian Egypt; E. Molland, The Conception of the Gospel in the Alexandrian Theology; E. F. Osborn, The Philosophy of Clement of Alexandria; R. B. Tollinton, Clement of Alexandria; J. Danielou, Origen; A. Robertson, Select Writings and Letters of Athanasius, NPNF 2nd series, IV; J.E.L. Oulton and H. Chadwick, eds., Alexandrian Christianity; E. R. Hardy, ed., Christology of the Later Fathers, LCC, III; R. V. Sellers, Two Ancient Christologies; C. Bigg, The Christian Platonists of Alexandria; R. B. Tollinton, Alexandrian Teaching on the Universe.

Also, see:
Council of Nicaea
Saint Athanasius
Nicene Creed
Council of Chalcedon

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