The School of Alexandria*
Until the time of Constantine, Alexandria blossomed as the second city of the Roman Empire, after Rome itself. It took pride in its famous library and its reputation as the center for Greek philosophy and learning. We have seen that Philo strove to integrate Greek philosophy with Judaism; early Christians followed his lead, as they worked to integrate philosophy with Christianity.
Around A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria (a Church Father, c. 150-215) taught that just as God gave the Law to the Jews, so he gave philosophy to the Greeks--as an instrument to lead them to Christ. God’s eternal Word (Logos) was the source of both. Clement believed the truth was to be found in Scripture, but sometimes it was hidden, and could only be discovered throughallegorical interpretation. Clement did insist, however, that the Scriptures had a literal, historical sense--a primary meaning--that had to be respected. But allegorical reading could find further, "spiritual" meanings containing universal and eternal truths, an idea reflecting Plato.
Clement’s idea of God as transcendent, beyond all knowledge or definition, is also Platonic, although his Christian faith affirmed God’s Word (Logos), the source of all creation and all knowledge, especially the knowledge of God. The Logos was incarnate in Jesus, the Son of God. The Holy Spirit functioned to attract the believer to God, to seek true knowledge. Such knowledge was the true gnosis, characterized by faith, not to be confused with the false gnosis of the heretics, which was incomplete because it was not grounded in knowledge of the Scriptures.
Clement left Alexandria during the persecutions of Emperor Septimius Severus [left], and not much is known of him then except that he died about a dozen years later. His teaching and theological work was given to the young scholar Origen (185-254), who presided over the Alexandrian school for the next thirty years. Origen’s father was martyred under Severus, and his mother hid the youth’s clothes to keep him from joining the martyrs.
Origen’s writings were some of the most influential in the early church. He developed more fully Philo’s and Clement’s ideas of allegorical interpretation, understanding three levels of interpretation within a text that corresponded to three aspects of the human being. Literal, moral, and spiritual meanings corresponded to the body, soul, and spirit, in ascending order of importance. The literal meaning of the historical events was the least important for the Christian, just as the body was less important than the soul or spirit (two different things, psyche and pneuma, in Greek). More important were the underlying meanings which could only be perceived allegorically. Even Jesus was less important as a historical figure than as the mystery of Christ present to believers in the church and the sacraments.
Origen had an encyclopedic mind and wrote some 6,000 works, sometimes dictating to seven secretaries at a time. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, sermons, treatises, letters, and apologies. To get the most accurate translation of the Old Testament, he consulted extensively with Jewish scholars. In the process, he produced the Hexapla, an estimated 6,500-page parallel version of the Old Testament with two Hebrew versions and four Greek translations in columns side-by-side, including the Septuagint (SEP-too-a-jint). Many Christians of the time valued the Septuagint, which was 500 years old, as strongly as many 20th-century Christians value the King James Version. Origen used the Septuagint as the standard and marked changed, missing, or added texts he found in the other, more recent translations.
Christians prized interpretations of Old Testament texts that foreshadowed Jesus. Origen found foreshadowing types all through the Old Testament, not just in the more obvious messianic prophecies. He believed every story held spiritual significance if interpreted rightly. He also allegorized New Testament texts to symbolize the progress of the human soul, or of the whole church, moving toward salvation and the Kingdom of Heaven. Origen held that the Scriptures were the Word of God, not locked in the past but addressed to people of the current time as well through allegorical meanings. Scriptures were divinely inspired--they "were composed through the Spirit of God"--but in them "all has a spiritual meaning, but not everything has a literal meaning." The divinely-inspired meaning may not lie in the literal meaning and be recognizable to everyone, but instead will be perceived by "those gifted with the grace of the Holy Spirit in the word of wisdom and knowledge."
The Greek philosophy underlying Alexandrian thinking found the God of Judaism absurd and temperamental. Allegorical interpretation allowed Origen to use the Old Testament in an abstract way that disregarded the seeming absurdities of the Jewish God who walked in gardens and spoke on mountains. He could also skip over the embarrassing aspects of the New Testament (like instances of inferior grammar and syntax) by focusing on Christ, the divine Logos. Allegorical interpretation also helped Origen to affirm the Old Testament against Christians like the followers of Marcion, who rejected it completely. Rather than defending each story, he could insist that the other readers simply had not gone deeply enough into the meaning.
Origen’s thinking emphasizes the essential oneness of God the Father, in keeping with the apostolic church’s traditional Rule of Faith and emerging body of doctrine. Origen also sets forth essential ideas about the Son and the Holy Spirit, insisting they are fully divine and coeternal with the Father but not to be confused with the Father. The Father is creator and governor of all, but rational creatures manifest the work of the Son, the divine Logos; and the Holy Spirit is working in all rational creatures that are sanctified. Origen’s concept of the Holy Spirit is more fully developed than that of Clement. His understanding of the interrelationship among Spirit, Word, and Father was essential in the church’s expression of its teaching on the Trinity a century later.
It was Origen who coined the word "homoousios" meaning "of the same substance" (or "consubstantial"), which became a flashpoint in the Christological controversies of the next two centuries. Tensions Origen left unresolved concerning the exact relationship between Father and Son were picked up and used by opposing factions. Some insisted, for instance, that the Father was greater than the Son and existed before him. This view later gave rise to the Arian controversy, which lasted for several generations.
A drawback of Origen’s faith in allegorical interpretation is that it often led him into long speculative expositions of Scripture that get so far from the literal meaning as to seem to us fantastical and irrelevant. Many later Church Fathers and medieval scholars followed a similar path, writing long allegorical interpretations of brief Scripture texts. Origen did insist on certain principles of interpretation that reflect his essentially orthodox intentions. It was important to him that nothing be said about God that was unworthy of the divine, and that nothing be affirmed that was contrary to the Rule of Faith. Origen’s concept of allegorical interpretation was not an unlimited intellectual free-for-all, but a serious effort to discover the deepest truths about God, mysterious as God might be.
The church’s response to Origen through history has been mixed. He was never declared a saint, as were Saint Irenaeus,Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, and most of the other Fathers. Some of Origen’s teachings led to the doctrine of the Trinity, but others were condemned in church councils over the next few hundred years. Most of his work has been lost, except for quotations and fragments. But enough remains to show that he was one of the most brilliant, influential, and innovative thinkers of the early Church.