What does Alexandria have to to with Antioch? “Word-flesh” vs. “Word-man” Christologies.

Alexandria – Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Apollinaris, Cyril.

Founded by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., Alexandria was both the center of Roman administration in Egypt as well as an intellectual center whose great library made it a focus of literary, scientific and philosophical culture. From early on Christianity in Alexandria had been divided between a learned and intellectual Christian Gnosticism and a community of traditionalist believers who saw in their counterpart a compromise with the current pagan religions and philosophies in their own formulations of Christian teaching. The first great Christian teacher there was Clement of Alexandria (? – c. 215), who repudiated Gnosticism even while taking it seriously, and freely used Hellenistic philosophy as a conceptual and hermeneutical tool. For Clement, philosophy was a schoolmaster to lead the Greeks to Christ, as the Law had been to the Jews.


His intellectual successor was Origen (185-254), the greatest and most influential Christian thinker of his age. Origen’s general outlook was shaped by the Middle Platonism prevalent in Alexandria and in the East, and as such his hermeneutical grid emphasized one God, the Monad, as the sole ground and source of all being, material and immaterial alike, and the eternal generation of the Logos, the mediator between God’s absolute unity and creation’s multiplicity, who himself is a “secondary God.”

For Origen, a pre-existent soul was united to the Logos and became inseparable with him as fire and hot iron, and this soul became the meeting point between the infinite Word and human nature (the body). In his exaltation, the Son of Man ceased to be other than the Logos and became identically one with Him.

Despite his great influence upon many of his contemporaries and succeeding theologians, many of Origen’s views were eventually repudiated by the Church. The philosophical flavor of his works, however, reflected a tendency present in Alexandria and in those who were influenced by its theologians, and that tendency, with its strengths and weaknesses, was to influence the theological discussions in the Church in centuries to come.

The Arian teaching that surfaced in Alexandria gave rise to the Trinitarian and Christological issues that the Church would have to debate and define. Especially in the issue of Christology, the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools had different emphases that needed to be balanced out, for their respective over-emphases would lead to conclusions that the Church eventually found unacceptable.

The central motif of the Alexandrian school was the emphasis on the deity of Christ, especially as the necessary ground and presupposition of redemption, viewed primarily as man’s participation in the divine nature and life through theosis.

Taking the Alexandrian emphasis on the deity of the Son, Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in Syria (d. ca. 390), a strong supporter of the Nicene faith and a friend of Athanasius, began to teach that the true ego, the very life principle in Jesus was simply the Logos himself, and therefore there was no real union of the divine Son with a complete, normal human being, for that would entail two wills, two minds, two selves, and thus two Sons. Rather, just as ordinary beings were composed of intellect, animal soul, and body, so Christ was divine in his intellect (his spirit), and human in his soul and body.

“Word-flesh” vs. “Word-man” Christologies.

This fits the general scheme of the “Word-flesh” type of Christology, more prevalent in the Alexandrian school, i.e., the teaching that the Word took the place of the humankind or soul in the structure of the God-man. Apollinaris’ teaching was unacceptable to Fathers of many quarters, but his main opponents were the representatives of the Antiochian school, which by contrast tended to a “Word-man” Christology, i.e., the teaching that the Word united Himself with a complete humanity, including a soul as well as a body (sometimes with overtones of a humanity independent from the Logos).

Antioch – Theophilus, Paul of Samosata, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Arius, Nestorius.

Theophilus of Antioch

The city of Antioch, by the end of the second century, was gaining reputation for its distinctive theological reflection. Among the most influential of early Antiochene expositors was Theophilus who became its bishop at about 170. For him, the Jewish scriptures were of supreme authority and an important source of wisdom for Christians. Theophilus offered the historical events of the Hebrew Scriptures as the source of truth, prefiguring what in the course of one of two more centuries would become recognizable as a distinct Antiochene school for exegesis and theology. The Antiochenes stood in a tradition which had stressed the role of Christ as the “second Adam,” whose human obedience had a central place in the work of salvation.

The concern especially for the full humanity of Jesus Christ as his being anointed by the Logos or Spirit can be seen in Paul of Samosata, a far more controversial bishop of Antioch who became the head of the church around the year 260. According to Eusebius, Paul refused to confess “that the Son of God descended from heaven.” Instead he asserted that “Jesus is from below;” at Jesus’ baptism the Spirit took up abode in him as a temple.

His teachings were eventually rejected as heretical, but the Antiochene emphasis upon the humanity of Jesus and the mode of divine indwelling that was conceived as the Logos descending upon him persisted. Such a Christology resonated more comfortably with the monotheistic concerns of Judaism, and Christians and Jews in Antioch generally enjoyed good relations. It is no accident that Arius, who later advanced his views while a priest in Alexandria, had actually been trained in Antioch.

The exegetical method and Christological commitments of Theophilus, and to lesser degree Paul of Samosata, continued to be elaborated in the work of others who followed in the Antiochene school – and noted among them was Theodore of Mopsuestia (392-428), whose biblical exegesis and theological reflections became the standards of orthodoxy of the churches in Persia in succeeding centuries.

The theologians associated with Antioch preferred more literal readings of the Bible. They sought to affirm both the humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, but wanted to do so in a way that did not mix or confuse the categories so as to lose sight especially of his humanity.

At the time of the Christological controversies concerning the natures of Christ, theologians following the general tendency of the school of Antioch were not afraid to use the terminology of two natures to describe Jesus Christ, a formula that brought them into direct conflict with the Alexandrian opponents. For Diodore, bishop of Tarsus (378-394), there had to be a clear division or distinction between “flesh” on the one hand and “Logos” on the other. His pupil Theodore of Mopsuestia argued that there were two natures and two hypostases in Christ (his views were eventually condemned in the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553).

The Antiochene monk Nestorius, who was elevated to the patriarchate of Constantinople in 428, objected to the term Theotokos as applied to the Virgin Mary on the basis that it was inappropriate to call that which was formed in the womb as God. His main opponent was Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, who argued that there was “one incarnate nature of the divine Logos” by which he meant that the humanity of Christ could not be separated from the Logos as “another” besides him.

Balancing Out Over-emphases

The Antiochian school and the Alexandrian school were not necessary mutually exclusive, nor did their respective positions, when taken in balance, lead to heterodox or heretical conclusions; but their respective over-emphases did.

Cyril of Alexandria

The differences between Cyril and Nestorius would eventually be carried out by Dioscorus (and Eutyches) and Flavian. Eutyches argued that there was only one nature after the union of the two natures in the Incarnation. His views were condemned in the 4th Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, which insisted that the two natures of Christ can neither be confused nor separated to the compromise of the unity of the Person.

Nonetheless, there were those who still preferred one or the other overemphasis (Monophysitism and Nestorianism). Of course, Monothelitism would arise later and also be rejected in favor of Duothelitism, taking into account both the integrity of the natures of Christ as well as the synergy between God and man (two unequal partners, but partners nonetheless – which, one thousand years in advance, ruled out monergistic ideas that would arise in the 16th century).

Those in both the Alexandrian and the Antiochene traditions of thought considered themselves to be fully Catholic, although their biblical and theological methods of reflections – and often the conclusions that they drew – diverged. The Antiochenes sought to emphasize historical and grammatical details of biblical interpretations, while the Alexandrians preferred to employ allegorical methods for understanding the Scriptures. The latter was also more comfortable using tools of philosophical reflection, especially those of neo-Platonism.

The Antiochenes were not averse to using categories of platonic thought but were also equally influenced by Jewish theological traditions. The Antiochenes were firmly committed to the doctrine of Jesus Christ having two natures, maintaining that he had a complete human nature and a complete divine nature. On the other hand, the Alexandrians were just as strongly committed to the doctrine that the Logos was joined to the flesh of Jesus Christ in a complete union in one divine-human person. Where the Antiochene theology emphasized the relationship between the Logos and humanity in Jesus Christ, the Alexandrians emphasized that of the Logos to the flesh.

The Church in its fulness, with the direction of the Holy Spirit, was able to retain and develop each orthodox emphasis and contribution, while at the same time rejecting the different kinds of over-emphases that distorted the apostolic Tradition. This has been the case with almost all doctrinal disputes that led to the convocation of Ecumenical Councils, which in turn considered the issues and affirmed with apostolic authority that which is in accord with the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints.


6 comments on “What does Alexandria have to to with Antioch? “Word-flesh” vs. “Word-man” Christologies.

  1. Canadian says:

    Dr (?) Souza,
    Interesting post.
    In your post, you said “the Alexandrians were just as strongly committed to the doctrine that the Logos was joined to the flesh of Jesus Christ in a complete union in one divine-human person.”

    This is similar to WCF 8:2 which says “which Person is very God and very man” Help me out here, don’t the Reformed Nestorianize there by saying the Person is also very man? Jesus is a divine Person with a human nature but not a human person. But of course, this Person Jesus is also man. Divine Person with human nature but saying the person is human and divine seems wrong.

    I take WCF 6:2 and 6:4 to be Mon-energistic/monothelite in trying to make nature totally depraved and inoperative in relation to God as this will destroy the incarnation, for we are consubstantial with him according to his humanity.

    Do you use Christology to show the Reformed their underlying assumptions? Do you use the WCF in this regard. I am an Orthodox catechumen and want to use Christology in this regard, but just not in an incorrect manner. Any suggestions?

  2. Canadian,

    The eternal Person is divine, but it also took human nature, and thereby it became a divine and human Person. A divine Person (hypostasis) is divine by virtue of existing in (or posessing) a divine nature (ousia). Therefore the Son is divine Person by virtue of his divine nature, and when he acquires a human nature he becomes a Person who is divine and human because his hypostasis now exists in two ousias. Technically, he is not a human person, but a divine-human person.

    By virtue of the hypostatic union, the Person is indeed “true God of true God,” who “became Man.” The incarnation, sufferings, crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension were not performed by a human nature (a concrete thing but an abstract concept), but by a Person, who is divine and became human as well. From this we have the communicatio idiomatum; God was crucified, died and was buried; Man was crucified, died and was buried (not just a human nature). The God-Man saves by uniting us (persons, not just human natures) to God. Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” is very helpful here.

    So the Son is, in fact, human and divine. Therefore I don’t think the WCF Nestorianizes at this point.

    As you correctly say, the WCF, and the 3FU, in my view, run into problems when they seem to take a monergistic and therefore monothelite view of fallen man and regeneration. Also, those confessions, in my view, do Nestorianize when it comes to the Eucharist (cf. Calvin’s “finitum non capax infiniti,” i;e; his mistaken view that the human nature is by definition finite and cannot be deified in the sense of being present in the Eucharist) as well as when it comes to their iconoclasm (since they fall into the same dichotomy St John of Damascus refuted, i.e., the false idea that one is representing either the divine nature or the human nature of Christ).

    Hope that helps.


  3. Canadian says:

    I need to look closer at the issues of the eternally begotten Son and procession of the Spirit. Is the Son divine because of the common nature, or because he Personally is generated from the Person of the Father?

    Doesn’t Christ unite all of humanity at the level of nature to God in the incarnation? (As both the damned and saved will be raised because of immortality applied to human nature in the incarnation.) Salvation, at the level of Person, is applied through faith, repentance and baptism, correct?
    Here is where the Reformed would confuse Person and Nature by seemingly making Christ consubstantial only with the elect, rather than tasting death for every man.

    Thanks for the interaction.
    Grace and peace.

  4. Canadian,

    The first question should definitely be answered as “both.” The Son is divine because of the common nature, AND because he Personally is generated from the Person of the Father. It is impossible that the Father could eternally generate anything other than another Person with the same nature. Therefore these two issues cannot be separated.

    Also, immortality and resurrection are not the same as deification. Many will be raised who are not deified (united to God by grace); their “raising” is not of a mere nature, but of their persons, which then exist as human beings with a restored body. There is a difference between an immortal soul which receives a raised body and will taste the second death after the Judgment, and the blessed souls who are reunited with their deified bodies to be forever suffused with the uncreated energies of God in eternal union and deification.

    I don’t think that the Reformed claim that Christ is only consubstantial with the elect. They affirm that He is consubstantial with all human beings, and all human persons are human beings.


  5. Kym Jones says:

    Nice to see someone who knows what they are talking about – so many misconceptions out there, which are based upon preconceived assumptions that are based upon personal bias. Objective scholarship then suffers.

    Lying at the bottom of the Arian crisis, was the assumption that God is immutable. And I mean that in the sense of how Greek philosophers applied this conception, which then influenced the formation of the Nicene and Chalcedonian Creeds via the influence of the Catechetical School of Alexandria. While both Athanasius and Alexander, his bishop, were both from Alexandria, I would not classify them as believing in the same gnostic heresies which Clement of Alexandria did, which related to his perception that `God is Eros’. His assumption that Agape transcends Eros by purifying it, was a leaf taken directly from Plato’s conception of a “Heavenly Eros.” Augustine was more of a mystic than these men, and heavily relied upon Plotinus of Lycopolus in formulating his theology – particularly in the areas of memory, reflection, and the `inward turning’ of intellect. (Again, I use that in the Greek perception of these terms.) His syncretism of Eros with Agape and then equating this to the love (Caritas) of God, resulted from him drawing upon Clement’s original formula, and refining it. (See Anders Nygren, `Agape and Eros’ to further reference this.) This resulted in Augustine giving us the equation of Eros (works) plus Agape (fatih) equates to salvation, with the Holy Spirit conveying the `caritas’ of God to us. Pope Benedict’s First Encyclical Letter, `Deus Caritas Est’ (God is Love) which he wrote in 2006 reflects this. All of these assumptions grew from the belief that God is immutable – in the Greek sense of the word. While we believe that the character of God is immutable, the Greeks believed that this applied to the divine ousia. This is the basis of thought that lay at the bottom of the theology of both Arius and Athanasius – while Arius applied it to the Father, Athanasius applied it to the Son.

    As the Greeks believed that God is already the best He can possibly be, then it is impossible for God to change from perfection, such as immaterial essence, to imperfect material substance – i.e, taking upon Himself a material body, which the Greeks believed to be evil, as matter was the last of the divine emanations which had lost all gnosis of its inherent divinity. For this reason, Celsus believed that it was scandalous to teach that God had manifested Himself in a material body, as the divine ousia is, according to the Greeks, immutable. This is reflected by the consubstantial and indivisible aspects of the Athanasian Creed. So one might say that while the focus of the Alexandrians was upon the divinity of Christ, the focus of the Antiochans was upon the divinity of the Father. Not a few scholars these days believe that Arius viewed Christ (especially in the aspect of the Logos of the Word) as the demiurge, Plato’s Artificer, who was made with the express purpose of creating the material world. When one reads the letter of Arius to Eubebius of Nicomedia, that is the only conclusion one can come to, as he states “We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning . . . And this we say, because He is neither part of God, nor of any essential Being.” (I have deliberately capitalized `being’, as this is terminology which is derived directly from Greek metaphysics; it gives the correct emphasis of the word. `Being’ was a term which the neo-Platonists of the day, such as Plotinus, commonly employed.)

    Although I am cautious in placing too much credibility upon what has been passed down to us via Athanasius, as the two men had a seething hatred for each other, and Athanasius may have overstated Arius’ position, in order to make him look more of a heretic than he actually was, I have instead used a statement by Alexander, Arius’ Bishop, who held the view that that the Arians held ` . . . to their blasphemous position that the Son knows not the Father perfectly’. (Alexander, `The Deposition of Arius. 4.’)

    This was most certainly in line with Greek Logic and supports the statement in Arius’ letter to Eusebius. Arius’ deployment of Greek metaphysics led him to believe that just as the Father cannot know the Son, the Son cannot perfectly know the Father. And when I say `know’, I should probably say `Gnosis’ instead, as this was certainly a Gnostic theology. What it breaks down to, is the Father cannot ‘know’ the Son, for gnosis of the Son would corrupt His divinity – which is why the demiurge – which Plato accounted with the Logos – was created in the first place; so that the Father would have nothing to do with the material world, and thus have His divinity quarantined from corruption. Arius’ perception of the Father, then, is that of Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” – a remote and forbidding God, whose apatheia determines that he can have nothing to do with humanity. By like manner, as the Son has been created by the Father, He is therefore a `lesser God’ (Athanasius quotes Arius as saying the Son is `Strong god, but not full god’), and cannot know the Father, much in the sense of Sophia of the Greeks being inaccessible to the One. As she was the last of the divine emanations that emanated from the One, and was therefore an imperfect reflection of the One, then she could not possibly `know’ the One, as the divinity of the One was inaccessible to her. (B.T.W – her son was Eros, the semi-divine Logos, and demiurge.) Thus we see Arius’ depicting Christ as blazing a trail for humanity so that we might be saved – not by His divine credentials, as they were insufficient to save us – but by His example, instead.

    Athanasius, on the other hand, faced a conundrum – although he rightly perceived that Christ is divine,Christ also had a human, and thus material body. How had He broached the barrier of immutability? According to Athanasius, this is how He did it. – Christ could not be `tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin’, as this implied that Christ would indeed be completely human; which (when one bears in mind the Greek perception of the material body), this then equated with sin. Augustine applied the same logic when formulating his doctrine of `original sin’. The only means by which Christ could therefore be tempted, are upon such innocent infirmities as thirst and hunger. Therefor Christ’s humanity must be that of Adam before He fell – sinless. To believe that Christ had the post-lapsarian human nature of Adam would (according to Greek logic) imply that He was a sinner.

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