Harmony and Peace Between Alexandria and Antioch

Harmony and Peace Between Alexandria and Antioch

In the Apostolic Church of the first century and even within the first four decades after the Church began on Pentecost, St Paul had to contend with personality factions devoted to various ecclesiastical leaders – “I am of Paul; I am of Apollos” (1 Cor 3:4). His constant epistolary admonitions to the people of God were to “preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3), and yet he himself recognized the need, in the providence of God, for factions (also divisions; or lit. Αἱρεσεις, haireseis. The context and Patristic commentary seem to see the concept here of schism, rather than doctrinal heresy.) in the Church “so that those who are approved may become evident among” them (1 Cor 11:19).

A fair reading of the history of Orthodox doctrine during the first five centuries of the Christian era shows many streams of thought within the Church’s Rule of Faith. Some of the dogmatic teachings of the episcopal and lay theologians were seen as consonant with the Canon handed down by the Apostles and so affirmed and elevated to ecumenical status at later Empire-wide council (e.g., St Athanasius and incarnation and theosis; St Cyril of Alexandria and the unity of Christ’s person; Pope St Leo and the distinction of Christ’s natures; St Maximos the Confessor and the two wills of Christ; St Photios the Great on the Holy Spirit; et al.). Others were perceived immediately as false and dangerous teachings that distorted either the person of Christ (Arius and a created Logos; Nestorius and his two-subject Christ) or the path of salvation (Pope Honorius and Patriarch Sergius and their monothelitism and monoenergism); certain ones took decades to be recognized and anathematized as such (e.g., Iconoclasm).

Among those teachings ultimately approved by the mind of the Church, many in the first five centuries of this era arose out of “schools” centered in two of the most significant cities of the Roman Empire: Alexandria and Antioch. While these were not formal schools, or “academies,” as we might today imagine, they yet represent a certain set of commonly held assumptions on, first, how to view the person of Christ, and second, how to interpret Scripture.

The Alexandrian “school,” possibly the older of the two (from the turn of the 4th century AD, around the time of Lucius/Arius), might be characterized as [1] emphasizing the divinity of the Logos and its initiative in the incarnation, and [2] a more allegorical interpretation of Scripture, whereas the Antiochene “school” might encompass teachings that [1] emphasize the humanity of Christ in the incarnation, and [2] adhere to a more historical and literal interpretation of the Scriptures

A brief chart (borrowed and summarized from Archimandrite Irinei’s helpful overview ‘Two Schools’: Alexandria and Antioch) of the distinct tendencies of the two “schools” might be helpful to outline their respective overall approaches to the Christological and hermeneutical controversies of the 4–5 centuries:

Alexandrian

Antiochene

Platonic metaphysical approach – What is real? Aristotelian emphasis on concrete realities – What is concrete?
Allegorical approach to understanding Scripture; this gives the “real” meaning of the text.  E.g., Origen Prefers a historical/factual reading of Scripture
Regarding Christ: focus on inner, metaphysical composition and activity Tendency to focus on factual/historical aspects of human life of Christ
Stress on ontological oneness of Christ – divinity and humanity form one being (Cf St Cyril of Alexandria) Stress on distinction between God and man in Christ, not only in discernible attributes, but also in substantive reality
Key weakness: persistent distinction of natures is threatened by single ontological reality of Christ’s person Key weakness: difficulty in expressing a genuine union of the two natures (or oneness or single subjectivity of the incarnate Christ)

 

Both Alexandrian and Antiochene schools have notable figures that contributed to the discussions around the Person of Christ; some of which are approved as saints, some of which are anathematized as heretics:

Alexandrian

  • Arius – Presbyter, heretic
  • Athanasius – Archbishop, Saint
  • Apollinaris – Bishop of Laodicea, heretic
  • Cyril – Archbishop, Saint, reconciled with John of Antioch
  • Origen – scholar; heavily favored allegorical hermeneutical approach to the Scriptures; condemned posthumously for his teaching on apokatastasis

Antiochene

  • Diodore – Bishop of Tarsus, heretic
  • Theodore – Bishop of Mopsuestia, heretic
  • John Chrysostom – Archbishop of Constantinople, Saint
  • John – Archbishop of Antioch, reconciled with Cyril of Alexandria
  • Nestorius – Archbishop of Constantinople, heretic

As one can see in the list of representative personages above, both schools produced luminaries of the brightest radiance, while also yielding some of the most dangerous heresiarchs that the Church had to combat. The vicissitudes of history show interesting chapters: The Arian heresy was fought by many bishops from around the Christian Empire, but its two combatants were both from the Alexandrian school, whereas the Nestorian heresy was fought by one of each of the two schools. Alexandrian/Cyrillian categories, texts, and phrases are ecumenically approved as the standard of Orthodoxy concerning the Person of Christ, yet Antiochene representatives such as St John “the Golden-Mouth” are treasured as the standard of biblical, homiletic, and pastoral preaching.

The Formula of Reunion in AD 433, written by the notable Alexandrian theologian St Cyril of Alexandria (to Archbishop John of Antioch), provides a wonderful mixture of theological concepts from both schools (Alexandrian/Antiochene):

We confess, therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, perfect God, and perfect Man of a reasonable soul and flesh consisting; … for there became a union of two natures. Wherefore we confess one Christ, one Son, one Lord.

[W]e confess the holy Virgin to be Mother of God; because God the Word was incarnate and became Man, and from this conception he united the temple taken from her with himself.

For we know the theologians make some things of the Evangelical and Apostolic teaching about the Lord common as pertaining to the one person, and other things they divide as to the two natures, and attribute the worthy ones to God on account of the Divinity of Christ, and the lowly ones on account of his humanity [to his humanity].

And despite the controversy evidenced by the sometimes-competing schools of Alexandria and Antioch, we can certainly join our voices with the blessed Cyril who once wrote to John of Antioch on the above occasion:

“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad” for the middle wall of partition has been taken away, and grief has been silenced, and all kind of difference of opinion has been removed; Christ the Saviour of us all having awarded peace to his churches, … and who by removing the offences scattered between us, would crown your Church and ours with harmony and peace.