Essay / Culture

Keeping Athens at Bay: Historical Case Study

John Mark Reynolds, 2005.

How should a Christian relate to philosophy? Earlier, I tried to show that Christianity must account for philosophy, Athens. On the other hand, it cannot reduce divine revelation to human intellectual activity. There is nothing new in this idea. It was the path the church followed to discover some of the basic truths of the faith and to work out the doctrines contained in the Word of God.

The church was dominated in its early development by two great rival schools: Alexandria and Antioch. The Western Church, confronted on all sides with the collapse of the Roman Empire, did not reach a level of comparable theological sophistication. The West did, however, escape the difficult theological controversies that plagued much of the Eastern world. The bishop of Rome was often able to use such controversy to further his own claims to Church position. In the great struggle between the two schools, it was ultimately (and thankfully) Antioch that was to triumph with the Council of Chalcedon in 451. At the same time, many of the ideas and concepts of Alexandria prevailed. The cross-fertilization between the schools was beneficial. Particularly early on in their dispute, first Antioch and then Alexandria would become, through their chief spokesmen, the voice of Christian orthodoxy. As the Holy Spirit guided His people, theology developed in the context of this passionate debate.

The great school of Alexandria was one of the wonders of the Ancient World. By the time of the Early Church, the secular philosophic community in Alexandria had eclipsed even Athens as the leader in the marketplace of ideas. The Christian community in Alexandria was deeply impacted by this atmosphere. The Church had an on-going school of theology by at least the year 185 under Pantaenus. In general, when compared to the school of Antioch, the Egyptian school was more heavily influenced by Plato and by the neo-Platonism that was born in Alexandria. Antioch was more critical of philosophy without being anti-intellectual. When the Antioch did embrace a philosophical point of view, it tended toward the Aristotelian.

Not surprisingly, Alexandria embraced philosophy whole heartedly. Athens was the handmaiden of Jerusalem. The greatest Alexandrine philosopher, Origen (c. 182), developed the first great, systematic integration of Christian thought with the best of secular knowledge. As student of Clement of Alexandria, the father of a Christian Gnosticism, Origen used his massive knowledge of the Bible and ascetic discipline to compose works like the Hexapla and De Principiis. These relied on an allegorical method of understanding Sacred Scripture.

This allegorical method would eventually form a point of contrast with the school of Antioch. As developed by Origen (it was later enriched in the Medieval West with even more elaborate exegetical levels), this exegetical methodology found three levels of meaning in the Bible. There was an “obvious” sense, a moral sense, and a deeper spiritual or allegorical sense which was “the shadow of good things to come.” These levels of meaning matched both the parts of the Platonic psychology found first in Plato’s Timaeus and Republic and the epistemological development charted by Diotima in Plato’s Symposium. The reader of the Bible could, therefore, enrich his fleshly soul, his emotional soul, or his rational soul in the pursuit of religious knowledge.

An advantage of such a reading is that it comported well with the fully proper Eastern tendency to view salvation as a process of being made like God in all man’s inward parts. This methodology also was in line with the Christian gnosticism of Clement. Epistemological growth was achieved by religious knowledge. Origen thus developed a view that was on the surface mystical (with his allegories), but was in fact highly rationalistic. Allegory became the hall mark of the school of Alexandria. Origen’s teachings were eventually found heretical, but his example of the attempt to integrate philosophy and theology proved beneficial, both in how such a project might be done and how it should not be done.

All of these spectacular philosophic developments came with a theological price tag. Origen himself tended to denigrate the value and person of the Holy Spirit. The neo-Platonic tendency, reinforced by the Christians of Alexandria, to push the flesh and the soul apart tended to a theological lack of emphasis on the actual life of the human Jesus Christ. The Christ of history almost vanished in some of the discussions in Alexandria. On the other hand, in the later controversies with the heretic Nestorius, who tended to conflate the divine and human nature, the strong position of Alexandria helped keep the church from error.

Cyril, bishop of Alexandria (412-444), helped safe guard Christ as fully human and fully divine. The great rival to Alexandria, Antioch, was late in developing and got off to an inauspicious start. As some church historians note, an early and heretical brush with the Gnostic heresy made Antioch much more leery of philosophy. There was a deep respect for tradition and an early development of a strong Church structure in Antioch. All this, of course, is in strong contrast to Alexandria. Political and economic rivalries between the great city of Egypt and the great city of Syria did not aid the situation. The history of the school at Antioch may be divided into two phases. The first, following its founding by Lucian around 260, was marked by the controversy of the Church with Arius. Antioch was often found perilously close to the heretical side in the dialogue. Arius had been trained by Lucian, whose other great student Eusebius of Nicomedia also displayed Arian leanings or at the very least sympathies.

In any case, the less philosophical school at Antioch adopted a tradition of historical and grammatical study of Scripture which remained its distinguishing feature until the end. It adopted a simpler approach to both the text and doctrine. It was strongly humanistic in the classical sense and placed a heavy theological emphasis on the Christ of history. This logical and analytic approach to the text and the theology was far different from the neo-Platonic tradition of Alexandria. When it went astray, it was therefore in a more Aristotelian direction (though this can be over emphasized). The school was reformed in the same philosophical and theological basis, though on a more orthodox basis, after Nicaea.

Diodorus (c. 394) was the teacher of three pivotal figures in Church history: John Chrysostom, Theodore of Morsuestia, and Nestorius. In the case of the first two Church leaders, the reputation and position of Antioch would eventually be enhanced by their steadfast defense of Christian orthodoxy. Particularly John Chrysostom would become a major figure in Eastern thought, with his resolute defense of the church against any Imperial attempt to water down the standards of the church. Such positive developments for Antioch would be clear only later. At first the practice of some in the circle of Antioch, including Nestorius, to confuse the natures of Christ led to further theological humiliation for Antioch. It appeared that the school of Alexandria would at last triumph.

Alexandria over-played her hand, however. Her reach, both politically and theologically, went far beyond her grasp and both Rome and Constantinople reacted firmly.It became clear that if Alexandria, under Cyril and later Dioscurus, was not conflating the divine and human nature like Nestorius, it was very close to subsuming the human into the divine like the heretic Apollinarius. Pope Leo of Rome would eventually side with Antioch and defend the orthodox vision Christ’s two natures that would be enshrined in the creed of Chalcedon. Bishop John of Antioch who was instrumental in pushing the compromise early on secured for the Antiochian methodology a fixed place in Christian orthodoxy.

The battle between Antioch and Alexandria was healthy for the Church. Though each school often over-emphasized one particular truth, the clash between the two eventually revealed the truth. For Christianity to have gone all the way with Alexandria, would have been to run the risk of becoming just another Roman Gnostic or mystery religion. If Antioch had been allowed her way unchecked, the fully divine nature of Christ would have been weakened. Christianity might have become yet another cultus around a divine man, like that of Hercules. Antioch also preserved more sensible ways of reading and interacting with the Word of God. The traditional Christian can, therefore, see the hand of God at work in the imperfections of human intellectual struggle to safe guard the Faith. Such a struggle is messy, and one wishes it could be avoided, but it is a real part of theological and intellectual development.

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