Early Church Battle Royale: Alexandria vs. Antioch

4th Ecumenical Council

4th Ecumenical Council

Two distinct schools of theology developed in the ancient capital cities of Alexandria and Antioch. Both schools reflected their unique cultural influences in their approach to the Christian faith.

Some differences were fairly benign in terms of doctrinal cohesion and overall good relations between the two sees; however, there were some differences that became so severe that Ecumenical Councils were needed to settle the disputes.

The 3rd to the 5th centuries proved to be a formative period for both schools, and for Christianity in general, as this period would necessitate an articulation of Orthodox Christology. This article will take a brief look at the historical development of both schools, their leaders and methodologies, and finish with some Christological controversies which resulted in Ecumenical Councils.

The Alexandrian School

Early on, the catechetical school of Alexandria was under the leadership of Pantaenus (c. AD 185). Little is known of Pantaenus other than his status as a converted Stoic philosopher and the teacher of Clement of Alexandria. How much of the Stoic influence was passed from Pantaeus to Clement is a matter of speculation, but there is no doubt that both Stoicism and Platonism informed much of Clement’s theology. It has been said that Clement interpreted Christianity as Philo did Judaism, by philosophy, into scientific dogmatics (Walker, 73). Far from being a contradiction to the faith, philosophy was viewed as Christianity’s “handmaid.” According to Clement, philosophy was “a schoolmaster to bring the Hellenic mind, as the law the Hebrews, to Christ” (Stromata, 1:5). Indeed, the mixing of Christianity with Stoicism and Platonism in Alexandrian was performed to a degree not realized anywhere else in orthodox circles and, according to some, resulted in a Christian Gnosticism.



From Clement’s leadership arose one of the most influential thinkers to ever grace the theological stage, his pupil Origen. Origen is something of a tragic-hero story of the early Church. His intellectual deposits in the faith worked to buttress the towering achievement of orthodoxy, and at the same time worked to fuel many later heretical movements. Origen, like his forerunners in Alexandria, was heavily indebted to Stoicism and Platonism for his interpretation of Scripture and highly valued the allegorical method in his exegetical work. He believed that Scripture had a threefold meaning, similar to the threefold nature of man: it had a meaning for the flesh (or senses), a meaning for the soul, and a meaning for the spirit. The varying meanings were unveiled to the reader according to the reader’s depth of spiritual knowledge, which made it possible for Origen to interpret almost any Scripture as he desired—a trait his followers used to their advantage whenever the situation demanded.

Origen’s pupil, Dionysius (bishop of Alexandria, AD 247-264, and head of the catechetical school) wrote extensively and helped to extended Origen’s influence throughout the Church. By the end of his reign Origen’s thoughts had earned a dominant place in the East. Dionysius was a first-rate theologian and was instrumental in combating the tide of Eastern Sabellianism of his time.

The Antioch School

In Antioch, during this same period, reigned the school of Lucian. Little is known Lucian himself but from his influence came a more grammatical and historical method of interpreting Scripture and doctrine. Unlike the Alexandrian school, Lucian was not keen on the allegorizing method of exegesis and preferred a much more literal interpretation. An unfortunate credit to Lucian’s account was that two of his pupils would be among the foremost heretics in Early Church history—Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia. Also, during this period the Antiochene school suffered from the popular teaching of Paul of Samosata who represented a new movement called Dynamic Monarcianism. Paul of Samosata’s teaching was eventually routed by a competing school in Antioch, one of which Lucian was not associated.

The next great leader of the Antioch school was Diodorus (c. AD 378-394). By his time both extreme positions of Lucian and Paul of Samosata had been rejected and the Antiochene school rested firm on Nicene orthodoxy. Diodorus inherited the exegetical methods of his forerunners and tended to use excessive literalism to a similar fault as the Alexandrians used excessive allegorizing. As a result, Antioch laid more emphasis on the earthly life and human nature of Christ, while Alexandria gave little attention to either. This occasioned some of the greatest doctrinal disputes to ever face the Church, some of the most important ones revolving around the nature of Christ as both human and divine.

The Great Christological Controversies

By this point in Church history the Nicene Creed had been formalized at the first Ecumenical Council, which determined that Christ is fully God and was made man. What the Creed did not address at the time was the question over the proper relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity. Alexandria and Antioch had developed very different views on the matter: The Alexandrian school leaned towards Christ’s humanity and divinity being absorbed into each other while Antioch leaned towards maintaining the human and divine in Christ as two separate beings.

One of the first and most able theologians at the time, Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea in Syria, would attempt to answer this Christological challenge by posing that Jesus had the body and soul of a man, but his reasoning spirit was the divine Logos (sort of a 2/3 human, 1/3 divine equation). Diodorus, a fellow Antiochene presbyter, strongly opposed Apollinarius. Diodorus’ combated Apollinarius with the traditional Antiochene emphasis on preserving Christ’s human nature and taught that Christ possessed two natures—one human and one divine—in moral union, rather than essential union. This solution was not much better than that of Apollinarius in that it amounted to a mere reiteration of the kind of adoptionist Christology that Paul of Samosata made famous. This prevailing stream of thought in Antioch, as Williston Walker noted, demonstrates that “they were out of touch with the Greek conception of salvation—the making divine of the human” (Walker, 133). Apollinarianism, as it was later known, was anathematized at the Second Ecumenical Council in AD 381.

Cyril of Alexandria

Cyril of Alexandria

Apollinarius was soon followed by another Antiochene theologian, Nestorius (presbyter monk of Antioch and pupil of Diodorus), who taught in-line with the school of Antioch that the human and divine natures in Christ were distinct and remained distinct for all eternity, their union was to be found in the conjunction of their wills. Nestorius found the most bitter of opponents in Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril argued that the Logos “took flesh,” and clothed himself with humanity; Christ was composed of two natures—divine and human—unified into one person. However, for Cyril the human element in Christ had no center apart from the Logos, which reduced Christ’s true humanity to a degree that was unacceptable for the Nestorians. Much has been made of the controversy of the usage of physis, or “nature,” between Nestorius and Cyril, nevermind the total disunity of thought as to what was meant by hypostasis, but that is for another article. By all accounts, the two men used this word (and others) in vastly different ways, causing immense confusion throughout the debate. Cyril intended the word to mean a concrete existence of a living individual, whereas the Nestorius camp used it in a more abstract sense pointing to the aggregate of human and divine qualities (the same sense in which Chalcedon would use the term).

Leaving out many more details than we are including, eventually Nestorianism was condemned at the 3rd Ecumenical Council (AD 431), and the debate saw it’s final great day at the 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451). From this council issued the famous Definition of Chalcedon, which affirms Jesus Christ as the one and same Son of God, “of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the manhood… the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union… concurring in one person (prosopon) and one subsistence (hypostasis)…” This definition did not end the quarrels in the East (indeed, a portion of the Eastern Church opted out of Chalcedon, those today largely known as the “Oriental Orthodox”), but aided in doctrinal unification between the East and West as both regarded, and continue to regard, Chalcedon as the orthodox solution to the Christological problems so ardently debated in the East.

Closing Thought

Nothing brings out the differences in two competing theological parties like a discussion over Christology. Christendom has never ceased to divide itself over such issues, and in some quarters, particularly contemporary independent Evangelicalism, the schisms continue at mind-warping speed. One of the major benefits of Orthodoxy is the fact that many of these controversies, the type with the potential to cause major rifts, were dealt with during the Ecumenical Councils and have, for all intents and purposes ceased to be controversies.

Further Reading:

Jaroslav Pelikan’s series entitled: “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine,” volumes I. and II.

Williston Walker’s classic text: “A History of the Christian Church.”

10 thoughts on “Early Church Battle Royale: Alexandria vs. Antioch

  1. Pingback: Clement, Philosophy and Paganism | A Pastor's Thoughts

  2. “By all accounts, the two men used this word (and others) in vastly different ways, causing immense confusion throughout the debate.”

    I love this line too much to say.

    It’s amazing how far you can get in higher end theological discussion today simply by clearly defining terms. The essential differences between the positions are still there, but once people understand precisely how and why they’re different they can often at least come an amicable end (though still not usually agreement).

    More to the what I came to post about, I was wondering if you intended to make any implications on the historical-grammatical hermenutic method that came out of the reformation. It can’t have been an accident you uses specifically those words to describe Lucian’s school of thought, and by extention Arius’s.

    • Forgive me, Prariepolyguy. I know it’s nearly a year later but I am only just now seeing this comment for some reason. Actually, it was by coincidence that the language I used for the Lucian school is similar to that of the Reformation. The texts from which I studied for this article use the language of “historical-grammatical” probably just as an identifying method familiar to modern ears. However, there are definitely parallels to be made. 🙂

    • Not at all, Eric. Life is busy and my own blog maintained is beyond terrible.

      It’s almost a more interesting parallel in that it is accidental. It’s an interesting time for me to be reminded of this too. The best way to read and interpret scripture is not an easy topic.

  3. Greetings
    Am new to this particular point but what I have come across before was that antioch held closer to bible truths of the deciples and what most protestants follow and that Alexandria followed by the church of Rome ie, catholicism or the blending of worldly beliefs ( pagan, alogory, gnostic ) with Christianity’s.
    Is this what you have come across ? Hoping that I explained the above correctly.
    On the historical interpretation is what the protestant reformation used.
    Thank for your feedback,

    • Without a doubt Alexandria had more communication in customs, culture, and theology with Rome than Antioch but to what extent they were more “Roman” than Antioch I’m not sure. It’s an interesting subject, one that I haven’t visited for some time.

  4. A most interesting essay, Eric.

    Perhaps both schools were right and both also wrong in that their views were incomplete, and their incompleteness made for apparent contradiction. A wider perspective perceiving further facts and understandings might have reconciled the contrasting views and completed the greater picture.

    Such a difficult task for the early church, to define and describe the nature of Christ in flesh.

    • Would you believe its one of my top 3 most viewed posts? I think a Bible college picked it up and put it on a class reading plan or something.

  5. Readers,

    Thank you for publishing the article. For a couple of years, this particular subject matter has become of interest. As we discuss this topic, please be aware, I am no theologian, simply a believer in Christ. It appears, both churches, Alexandria and Antioch have reasonable contentions and plausible insights on how to approach or interpret the scriptures. However, there is more we must do to bring both approaches to the forefront of our present day churches. Why? Look around and listen to our Christian leaders and listen carefully as they bare to repeat the errors of the early churches.

  6. Pingback: Galatians 4:12-31, pt.1 – Ancient Anglican

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