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Alexandrian Theology

  • Gilbert Sanchez,
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The Alexandrian school of theology is best characterized by examining some of the teachings of its two best know representatives, Clement and Origen, and the overall shift in Biblical exegesis they practiced.

Clement of Alexandria

Clement is known in the history of the church as the first Christian scholar. He was well taught and knowledgeable in the areas of classical literature, Greek philosophy, and the Scriptures. This well-grounded education elevated his teaching above his contemporaries and added to his ability to communicate to his generation. Clement saw himself in a position to reach the Hellenistic intellectuals of his day; and he was comfortable using their expressions and language in describing the Christian religion. His knowledge of philosophy gave way to an overstated support of it. So much was this the case that Clement considered philosophy a preparation for Christianity. He said that as the law of God was a schoolmaster to lead the Jews to Christ; similarly, philosophy served as a schoolmaster for the Greeks. The Scriptures do not support this claim, nor is it demonstrated logically. In fact, the philosophical ideas taught led in a direction antithetical from the throne of God. The vain speculations of mankind can never serve as a replacement for the revelation of the Lord. In regard to the incarnation, Clement taught that the logos came down from heaven and clothed Himself with man. In other words, the logos, or Word of God, entered into and attached Himself to human flesh. Clement also accepted the idea that Christ was exempt from all desires. Instead, the logos would direct the God-man.

Although this description of the incarnation appears to be an incomplete one, it is difficult to judge Clement and other early church fathers too harshly. The development of doctrine took many turns as various questions were raised. The clarity of doctrine that we enjoy in our age was simply not available to Clement. His efforts at describing the incarnation are not necessarily dealing with all the various aspects of the doctrine that need to be stressed, or that we are accustomed to reading. The concept of Christ being exempt from all desires stems from Greek thought. This erroneous way of viewing the material world would only serve as a negative factor in the history of the church.

Origen of Alexandria

Origen was the brilliant student of Clement who, at the young age of eighteen, was put in a position so that he could take the reigns at the school at Alexandria. In addition to his great intelligence, Origen was a magnetic teacher and was a big draw for the masses. Some in his own day accused Origen of heresy, as did others throughout the later development of theological thought. Origen felt free to speculate where the teaching of the church and the Scriptures were not explicitly clear. This led Origen to many ideas that are totally unfounded and objectionable. This basic tenant in Origen's thought is an extremely dangerous one. He taught that there exists a world of spiritual beings, including souls, who pre-existed from all eternity. The souls of mankind are taken from this pool of souls, including the soul of the Christ. One of the pre-existent souls was that which was to be the soul of Jesus. This particular soul had a special attachment to the logos and never fell away from Him as all other souls had. Origen also taught that all creatures, including even the devil, would one day be reconciled with God. Origen's teachings and the freedom he took upon himself to speculate is difficult for the modern Christian to bear; it was also difficult for some of his contemporaries to bear. His exegetical route is dangerous and leads to speculation and error as his own teachings attest.

Biblical Exegesis

In the Alexandrian school of thought, allegory was taught and spread as an acceptable mode of Biblical exegesis. The argument for the use of allegory can be better understood within the context of that time period. Some of the Jewish apologists attempted to press the point that the Old Testament, if taken literally, would lead to contradiction with the New. This caused doubt for some regarding the unity and consistency of the entire Bible. Some of the early fathers, in an attempt to answer these charges, claimed that the solution was found in the allegoric interpretation. Some even rejected the Old Testament altogether, as well as some of the New. In defense of the Old Testament, it was said that the value of the Old Testament was not found in literal exegesis. Origen taught that there were three senses of Biblical interpretation could be found for every text in Scripture: the literal, the moral, and the spiritual, which contained the more "complete" meaning. This approach was considered necessary because it thought impossible to take the Bible literally if there were what seemed to be contradictions in it.

This allegorical exegesis of the Scriptures must be rejected. The argument in favor of the allegorical method cannot be substantiated. There is no need to allegorize the Scriptures to protect them from contradiction. There is a harmony throughout the entire Old and New Covenants that are easily reconciled without the use of allegory. The description of the three senses of interpretation is merely speculative and cannot be defended scripturally.