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Antioch vs Alexandria - Rival Theologies

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Antiochene Theology is the name given to the characteristic theological and philosophical emphasis that developed in the catechetical school in Antioch.

Although Antioch was a Greek city, the greatest influence on their thinking came from Judaism. Also, the Christians in Antioch had always had a close association with Galilee and Jerusalem, the geographical and historical location of Jesus’ earthly life. Because of this, they tended to stress the historical and human nature of Jesus, strongly resisting any inclination towards Docetism, the teaching that Jesus only appeared to be human. Stressing the humanity of Jesus, they tended to place the Son in a position subordinate to the Father.

In contrast, the background in Alexandria was Greek thinking, particularly from Plato, which had been combined with Jewish thought by Philo. Because of this, they were preoccupied with philosophical questions, and therefore stressed the transcendence of God, the divine nature of Christ and the doctrine of the divine Logos. It was therefore almost inevitable that Alexandria developed a tendency towards Docetism.

Because Antioch stressed the human side of Jesus, their approach to the interpretation of Scripture was strictly literal and historical, strongly rejecting the allegorical approach, which had become characteristic of Alexandria, because it fitted their more philosophical approach to theology.

Antioch made great stress on the unity of God, which they taught had been revealed by Jesus as a ‘triad’, as first described by Bishop Theophilus. Because they were anxious to avoid describing the Trinity as three Gods, they tended to distinguish the three members of the Godhead only by their modes of operation. This opened them to the charge of teaching Sabellianism, or modalistic monarchianism. Their position became to be known as ‘Economic Trinitarian’.

They also tended to make such a great distinction between the divine and human elements in Jesus that some teachers began to say that there were two separate beings. This tendency eventually led to Nestorianism, the doctrine of two separate persons in Christ.

In contrast, the Alexandrians were keen to maintain the distinction between the three members of the Godhead, particularly to avoid the charge of Sabellianism. Because of this, they tended towards the belief in three Gods (tri-theism), stressing the multiple character of God. This position has come to be known as ‘Pluralistic Trinitarian’. Because they made such a great emphasis on the divine nature in Christ, they gradually moved towards Monophysitism, the doctrine of the single divine nature in Christ.

The gradual polarisation of the theological positions of Antioch and Alexandria eventually led to the Christological controversies of the fifth century.