Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Church Fathers: The Third Century and the School of Alexandria

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 29, 2015 | In Fathers of the Church

The situation of Christianity in its third century was quite different from the second. The old paganism was in decline, not just because of the spread of Christian faith but because of other shifts in Greco-Roman culture.

A number of new cults appeared as a result of encounters with Eastern cultures. More than one Roman empress practiced a form of religious syncretism involving worship of the Sun god. Roman soldiers coming back from the East brought Mithraism with them and spread it throughout the Empire.

A significant new rival to Christianity, though destined to influence many of its greatest figures (Origen and Augustine in particular), was the religious philosophy of Neo-Platonism. It replaced the old pagan cults with something closer to monotheism, sometimes even a form of Trinitarianism. It is associated with school of Ammonius Saccas (d. 243), which was attended by the great Christian theologian Origen. The founder and greatest figure of Neo-Platonism was Saccas’s student Plotinus (d. 270), followed by Plotinus’s student Porphyry (c. 234-305). These figures sought to achieve enlightenment through asceticism and a kind of mystical intellectualism, rather than by grace.

A particularly dangerous new sect was Manichaeism. Like Gnosticism, it began as a pagan sect and then took on Christian elements and became a heresy. It was begun by Manes (b. 215), a false prophet who preached a fraudulent revelation in Asia Minor and was executed in 276. The Manicheans taught a dualism between the eternal kingdoms of God (spiritual) and Satan (material), and practiced extreme asceticism. This heresy spread in both East and West and lasted until the Middle Ages.

Debates within Christianity were Christological and Trinitarian. Christians struggled to keep the doctrine of the Trinity intact while emphasizing God’s unity against the Gnostics. Needless to say, various errors arose.

Modalism taught that God is one person and that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are God considered under different modes or aspects. It was also called Monarchianism or Patripassianism, the latter of which said that the Father and the Son are identical and suffered. Modalism was first preached by Praxeas, then by Noetus and Sabellius (from whom Sabellianism took its name). Another form of modalism, Unitarianism, denied the Trinity of persons and said that God was “called the Word as Creator, Father as Law-giver, Son as Redeemer, Holy Ghost as Sanctifier” (Hamell, Handbook of Patrology, p. 58), and that the Father ceased to be the Father and became the Son, who suffered.

Adoptianism went in the opposite direction, separating the divine Persons and denying Christ’s divinity, saying that He was not God but only adopted by God. This heresy was preached by Theodotus the leather-seller of Byzantium, Theodotus the Banker, and Artemas. A combination of Adoptianism and Monarchianism was preached by Paul of Samosata, who denied Christ’s divinity and the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit. He was bishop of Antioch from 260 to 268, at which time he was deposed by the Synods of Antioch. Supported by Queen Zenobia, he refused to give up occupancy of the bishop’s house until the Emperor Aurelian ruled against him in 272.

Disciplinary controversies also raged over penance and the baptism of heretics. These disagreements were not quickly resolved, and perhaps threatened to split the Church as much as any heresy.

The Church continued to suffer persecutions during the third century, such as those of Septimius Severus (starting in 202), Maximin the Thracian (235-238), Decius and Valerian (249-260), combined with efforts to renew the disappearing pagan cults. Nonetheless the Church enjoyed a total of about 75 peaceful years in this century, and while most theological writings in the past had been produced in response to threats from paganism and heresy, the time was now ripe for the scientific development of theology in a non-polemical context.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria

We have already seen that the apologists of the second century were familiar with classical learning: pagan poetry, mythology, and philosophy. There were two schools of thought among Christians regarding philosophy. One considered it to be useless or worse: as Tertullian famously wrote, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"

Others regarded philosophy as conducive to faith and as a suitable preparation for initiation in the Christian mysteries, and used it to develop a distinctly speculative approach to theology. This attitude was more prevalent in the East, particularly in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, which would become the intellectual center of Christianity.

A catechetical school of Alexandria had existed at least as early as 180 AD, perhaps from the beginning of the Christian community in that city (St. Jerome believed the school to have been founded by St. Mark himself). It probably began as a school for catechumens; its masters or deans were chosen by the bishop.

By the time Pantaenus, its first known master, came to the school around 180, it was a place where Greek learning was taught for the purpose of defending Christianity. It would soon become the first school of scientific theology in history, owing its reputation to two of its masters in particular: St. Clement (who had been a student of Pantaenus) and Origen. Other great theologians associated with the school include Dionysius, Pierius, Peter, Athanasius, Didymus and Cyril.

Other schools modeled after that of Alexandria soon sprang up in the East. St. Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem and former pupil of Pantaenus and Origen, founded a theological library there. Origen himself in 233 opened a school at Caesarea, the famous library of which was used to great profit by Eusebius and St. Jerome.

The Alexandrian Tradition

The scholars of the catechetical school may have made Alexandria the intellectual heart of the Christian world, but the city, founded in 331 by Alexander the Great, had already been a major intellectual center for centuries. It was the birthplace of Hellenism, formed out of the encounter between Oriental, Egyptian and Greek cultures.

It was also, significantly, a place where Hebrew and Greek culture mingled—the birthplace of Hellenistic Judaism. The Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) was composed there, a hugely important translation for Jews and Christians alike. It was also the home of Philo, the first Jewish philosopher (25 BC-50 AD). Writers like Philo paved the way for Christian attempts to synthesize revelation and Greek philosophy—indeed, Philo had a greater influence on Christian writers than he did on Rabbinic Judaism.

No surprise, then, that the Christians of Alexandria were friendlier to philosophy than their Western counterparts, and that the catechetical school there was distinguished by a speculative, metaphysical, somewhat abstract approach to theological problems and a sympathy for Plato. Perhaps the Alexandrians are most famous, though, for their fondness for allegorical interpretations of Scripture.

This, too, they inherited (if partly indirectly) from the Greeks. The more enlightened Greeks, philosophers like Xenophanes, Pythagoras and Plato, had realized that many of the stories told about the gods by Hesiod and Homer were offensive on a literal level, and so attempted to find a deeper meaning in the myths by an allegorical interpretation. By late antiquity, this distaste for bad behavior attributed to the gods was increasingly common among the Greeks, and so an allegorical interpretation of the myths was used by various philosophical schools such as the Stoics.

A Jewish version of this tradition began in the mid-second century B.C. with Aristobulus and Aristeas, both of whom applied allegorical exegesis to parts of the Old Testament, particularly the food laws. The allegorical approach was kicked off in earnest, however, by Philo, to whom “the literal sense of Holy Scripture is only as the shadow to the body” [Quasten, Patrology Vol. II, p. 3].

The Christians of the Alexandrian school took this type of exegesis and ran with it, particularly in dealing with the Old Testament. The importance of this development for both theology and scriptural interpretation cannot be overstated. It opened up a great deal of room for creativity and for contact with philosophy, and provided a solution to the pressing problem of how to interpret the Old Testament, particularly in its more challenging passages.

The 20th-century theologian Henri de Lubac pointed out an important difference between pagan and Christian allegory.* The pagan philosophers developed allegory as a way of denying the literal sense of distasteful or absurd myths, while still preserving their value by finding a deeper spiritual meaning. The Christian use of allegory does not deny the literal, historical meaning of Scripture (where it is intended to be such), even of the more difficult passages; but it does affirm a deeper spiritual or future-historical meaning without which the literal meaning would sometimes benefit us little.

This does not mean that the allegorical approach to Scripture is without its dangers; indeed, the Alexandrians occasionally went overboard in downplaying the literal meaning. Nonetheless, the practice has a solid basis in St. Paul (Gal. 4:24, 1 Cor. 9:9), and has born great fruit ever since.

*I owe this reference to Eric Jenislawski, professor of theology at Christendom College.

Previous in series: St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Part II
Next in series: Clement of Alexandria, Part I


Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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