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     The Alexandrain School

The Alexandrian School

1. Founded by Alexander the Great himself in 322 BC, Alexandria was successively the capital of the Ptolemaic bureaucratic empire and the center of the Roman administration of Egypt. At the same time, it was one of the principal trading centers of the Mediterranean, from which the produce of the Nile valley flowed to other sections of the Roman world. Above all, it was the intellectual center, whose great library had made of it a focus of literary, scientific, and philosophical culture since the reign of the first Ptolemy. One consequence of these facts was that Alexandria provided an arena in which religious ideas and movements of varied origin encountered and influenced one another and in which all were subject to philosophical criticism and interpretation.

2. It is within this context that we understand the work of the first great Christian teacher of Alexandria, Clement (? - ca 215 AD). A professional intellectual, Clement came to Alexandria, after studying with a series of Christian teachers elsewhere, to hear the wisdom of a man whom he does not name, but whom Eusebius the church historian identifies as one Pantaenus, who had charge of the school of the faithful in Alexandria. (Eusebius 5.11.2) Clement settled in Alexandria and soon had a "school" of his own. He, on the one hand, regarded himself as a defender and interpreter of ordinary Christianity, while on the other, represented a sympathetic attitude toward "secular" learning and culture which most ordinary Christians distrusted. He took seriously the Gnosticism he repudiated and offered a defense of the teaching tradition that was calculated to suggest that Hellenistic philosophy was as much its ally as its foe.

3. The most important surviving works of Clement are three. There is first of all his "Exhortation to the Heathen", a critique of pagan religion which issues in a call to follow God's Logos. Second is the work titled "Instructor", which seeks to spell out the logic of a Christian way of life (and thus contains a wealth of information on the mores of Clement's age). Finally, he wrote a work called "Stromata" or "Miscellanies", a collection of his thoughts on the religious and theological issues of his time. Set out in seven books (a promised eighth book was never completed), the "Stromata" is deliberately unsystematic in form and allusive in style. It intimates rather than states a theological position, though it develops with great clarity Clement's position on certain issues: denigration of the flesh and of marriage, the relation of the Greek philosophical tradition to revelation, and the goal and character of the Christian life.

4. Clement left Alexandria in 202, in the face of persecution which occurred there in the reign of Septimus Severus. Nothing is known of his life thereafter. His work was continued in Alexandria, however, though in a vastly different style and spirit, by his pupil Origen, the greatest and most influential Christian thinker of his age, whose work won him the grudging respect even of such a radically anti-christian philosopher as the Neoplatonist Porphyry.

5. Born into a Christian family in Alexandria between 182 and 185, Origen gathered a group of inquirers and constituted a school with the approval of the bishop Demetrius, until 215 when the emperor Caracalla drove all teachers of philosophy from Alexandria. He was later imprisoned and tortured in the Decian persecution of 250 AD, and died in Caesarea or Tyre, probably in 251 as a consequence of his sufferings. Origen's general outlook was shaped by the eclectic Middle Platonism prevalent in Alexandria and the East. By conscious conviction Origen was certain that the only way to wisdom was through prayerful and exacting study of the divine revelation of Scriptures. It was to this task that he dedicated his life. The vast majority of his writings took the form of commentary on Scripture, and even his occasional "systematic" writings proceeded by a method which was largely exegetical. Perhaps Origen's most significant gift to the churches was the principle of Sola Scriptura. Origen's study of Scripture had a systematic textual work as its foundation. In an effort to assure a correct text for the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures, he complied over the years his monumental Hexapla, which in parallel columns gave the Hebrew, a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew, the Septuagint, and three other Greek versions.

6. Origen's theological cosmology is set out i the early treatise "On First Principles", and turns on three central ideas. First is simply the monotheistic axiom that there is one God, who is the sole ground and source of all being, material and immaterial. The second idea is the anti-Gnostic principle that evil is not a substantive thing or kind of thing (such as flesh or matter) but a disorder introduced by the free agency of created selves. Thirdly, Origen accepted an old tradition of interpretations, already exploited by Philo, which held that the two accounts of creation in the opening chapters of Genesis reflected two stages of divine creation, the first concerned the appearance of the immaterial, intelligible order and the second with the formation of the visible cosmos. Accordingly it was Origen's conviction that God's original creation was a society of immaterial "spirits", finite because created, self-determining because rational. Images or reflections of God's own image, the Logos, these spirits lived in the harmony of perfect equality, rejoicing in the knowledge of God which was the proper fulfillment of their nature. Evil intruded when these spirits, becoming satiated with the vision of God, chose to fall away from their own happiness into a self-willed state of separateness, variety, and multiplicity. Some became demons and others angels and yet others the souls of human beings, but all, to one degree or another, fell from their original focused identity into distraction and alienation. As a consequence of their altered state, God then brought into being the physical, visible cosmos, to be for the creatures a second-best world, a world in which harmony was imposed on disorder and in which the fallen spirits could be "schooled" back to their original glory.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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