16- THE PATRIARCHATE OF ALEXANDRIA

Go To the Beginning of this Booklet The Spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the First Millennium of the Undivided Early Church: An Overview of the Family Theology that Revolutionizes Bible Reading and its Implications Towards the Eventual Re-Establishment of the Undivided Early Church’s Unity in Diversity

Some Undivided Early Church First Millennium Highlights of the Pentarchy of the First Five Christian Patriarchates and their Contributions to the One Universal Church of Christ

THE PATRIARCHATE OF ALEXANDRIA

Center of the Egyptian Culture as Renewed in Jesus, the Alexandrian Rite of the Catholic (Universal) Christian Church

Recognized as a Patriarchate at the 1st Ecumenical Council 325 AD, Which Defined That Jesus Is God, One in Being with the Father, Against the Arian Christian Heretics

Since before Christ Alexandria in Egypt had been a major center of the Jewish diaspora.  The story is told that Alexander the Great (from whom the city gets its name) honored the Jewish High Priest and had the Jews run the famous library of Alexandria.  Seventy Jewish scholars there translated the Jewish Bible into Greek, the famous Greek Septuagint (LXX) version of the Old Testament Scriptures (named after the “seventy” – Latin LXX – scholars), which was the version of the Jewish Bible used all over the diaspora and by Christ’s Apostles who wrote the New Testament in Greek and quoted the Old Testament from the Septuagint.  The Apostle Apollos, mentioned ten times in the New Testament (in Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Titus), was a learned Alexandrian Jew who became a Christian (Acts 18:24-28) and did much to spread the Gospel.  With such a reputation for scholarship, it is not surprising that Alexandria was the site of the other of the two great theological schools of the Early Church, the School of Alexandria .  Saint Clement of Alexandria is one of the most famous very early Christian theologians of this school.  The School of Alexandria did much to develop the Early Church’s theological understanding of the Divinity of Jesus, and of the ‘spiritual senses’ of the Scriptures (built upon the literal sense but going beyond it thanks to the Divine Holy Spirit’s co-authorship of the Bible with the inspired human author – orthodox Christianity depends upon spiritual exegesis [exegesis means “to draw out” the meaning of the Bible], which is one reason why modern liberal Protestant scholarship’s over-emphasis on the literal sense has resulted in their loss of Christian orthodoxy – some liberal Protestant scholars even accuse Paul of abusing the Bible with his spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament in his New Testament letters.  Some conservative Protestants similarly accuse the Catholic Church of interpretational “excesses” because they do not understand the rules governing spiritual exegesis and they mistakenly think just any speculation on the meaning of the Bible can be called a “spiritual sense”).

Probably the single greatest contribution of the ancient Alexandrian Patriarchate to the whole Universal (Catholic) Christian Church was the Canon of the New Testament in the 4th Century after Christ .  While there were early heretical Christians who had some different books in their New Testament Scriptures (such as the heretical Gospel of Thomas which has become popular among liberal/unorthodox Protestant Christians today), the early orthodox Christians in different areas had a variety of different collections of the New Testament as well (though nothing in their collections was heretical).  Jesus did not write a book, and He did not tell His followers to wait for a book: Instead He founded a Living Faith Community He called the Church which He promised His Holy Spirit would guide into all the truth (John 16:13), a Church which the Apostle Paul in his letters said was united to Christ in such a “profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32) that the Church was the Body of Christ Himself and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).  This Living Faith Community and Body of Christ the Church wrote many books in the decades following Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven, many of which were eventually regarded as inspired Scripture on a par with the inspired Old Testament which was the original Bible of the Christian Faith Community, but the collections of such books varied from local community to local community of orthodox Christians.  The four Gospels and the letters of Paul were widely regarded as belonging to the New Testament Scriptures, but beyond this many New Testaments of the first centuries did not have books like Hebrews, Revelation, 2, 3 John, 2 Peter, James, Jude, and so on, and many orthodox New Testaments had books like the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didaché, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistles of Clement to the Corinthians, and so on. To settle controversies with Christian heretics, the Church, as the Living Body of Christ and “pillar and foundation of the truth,” held many local Councils of ordained Christian overseers (bishops or eparchs) and two Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils which dogmatically declared the foundational Christian beliefs in the Divinity of Jesus (325 AD) and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and true humanity as well as divinity of Jesus (381 AD) before the Church settled the question of just which books which were beloved Christian heirlooms from the 1st Century definitely belonged in the New Testament Scriptures.  It was Patriarch Saint Athanasius of Alexandria who was the first person to put together the traditional 27-book New Testament as all Christians know it today (except his list was in different order), in 367 AD.

Athanasius’ list was used as Scripture in the Alexandrian Patriarchate under his jurisdiction but not in the whole Universal (Catholic) Christian Church.  Two local Councils of ordained Christian overseers/bishops in the general vicinity of Alexandria met to discuss the issue of the New Testament Canon, in 393 AD at Hippo and in 397 AD at Carthage, and they both agreed with Patriarch Athanasius’ list, arranging it in the order we know today, but said that it had to be confirmed by “the Church across the sea” in Rome.  Pope Innocent I in Rome gave his confirmation of Athanasius’ Alexandrian collection of the New Testament in 405 AD, ending all dispute among Christians as to the Canon of the New Testament – until modern liberal Protestant Christians, who on the basis of the Protestant belief that “the Bible Alone has authority over a Christian’s faith,” do not accept the ancient Church’s authority as the Body of Christ to authoritatively settle disputes among Christians for all time, including Christian disputes over just which parts of the Catholic Church’s traditional New Testament really are inspired and therefore actually have the “sole authority” over a Christian’s faith.  Therefore such Protestant Christians have started questioning the Bible’s traditional Canon and sometimes promoting the heretical Gospel of Thomas and other works declared heretical by early Church’s authority which as Protestants they do not consider to be binding on their Christian faith.

The Alexandrian Patriarch Saint Athanasius himself must be considered one of the great contributions of the Alexandrian Patriarchate to the Christian Church entire, not only for being the first person to put together the Canon of the New Testament but also for being the greatest defender of the Divinity of Jesus against the Arian heresy (which denied the full Divinity of Jesus), which rocked the Church with controversy throughout the 4th Century.  Many consider Saint Athanasius the greatest of the “Doctors” (Latin, literally “teachers”) of the Early Church, that is, the theologians who did the most to help clarify and articulate the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity in clear and concise formulas, against many early Christian heresies.  Saint Athanasius wrote the Athanasian Creed, which is known as the “third” great Creed of Early Christianity (after the earlier Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed), which beautifully and thoroughly describes the true Divinity of Jesus Christ.

Though there were many heresies before and after, the Arian heresy of the 4th Century  stands out as the worst one, which took the longest for the Church to defeat, because the Arian Christians had a sophisticated and thorough interpretation of the Bible (though the full Canon of the Bible had not yet been confirmed, they knew all the books which were considered Scriptural) which denied the full Divinity of Jesus.  Since the Arian Christians, as the orthodox Christians of the time, spoke Biblical (Koine) Greek as a first language, they knew that their interpretation of the Bible was linguistically valid even though it was not the interpretation handed down in the Church’s largely implicit Apostolic Sacred Tradition of how to interpret the Scriptures.  Thus, even though the 1st Ecumenical Council of Nicea in 325 AD declared (on the basis of Sacred Tradition) that the Bible must be interpreted to mean, as was traditional, that Jesus was Divine, specifically “one in being with the Father,” the Arian heretics simply replied that they were not bound to follow the Council’s interpretation of the Bible, since the Bible (Alone) did not specifically say that Jesus and the Father were one in being.  It was linguistically valid to interpret that the Bible verse where Jesus says “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28) was an interpretive key for other Scriptures, so that when Jesus said “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) it meant oneness of purpose not of being, priority being given to “the Father is greater than I” instead of being given to “I and the Father are one” as in the orthodox (and Sacred Traditional) interpretation of the Bible, which interpreted “the Father is greater than I” to mean Jesus was speaking from His human nature (as He does when He says “I am thirsty”) and not from His Divine nature.  This controversy over Bible interpretation split the Church in half for most of the 4th Century, as most Christians became unsure of which interpretation was correct and whether or not an Ecumenical Council had the authority to settle the issue (these were called “Semi-Arians” by orthodox, that is, Catholic, Christians).  Saint Athanasius was exiled several times by Arian Christian rulers for championing the orthodox interpretation of the Divinity of Jesus (and was sheltered by the Pope in Rome).  At last the Semi-Arian majority was won over to the orthodox position confirmed by the 2nd Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 381 AD which re-affirmed the Divinity of Jesus as proclaimed at the 325 AD 1st Ecumenical Council the Arian heretics had rejected, and also formally affirmed the Divinity of the Holy Spirit (which confirmed the traditional Christian belief in the Trinity, another word not in the Bible (Alone) which had also been challenged by heretics).  This Council in Constantinople in the East was not in itself truly Ecumenical (worldwide), since no Western Christian overseers/bishops were present, but Pope Saint Damasus in the West in 382 AD confirmed the findings of the Eastern Council and declared the Council therefore had Ecumenical (worldwide) authority over the entire Universal (Catholic) Christian Church. The Early Church learned through the nearly one century-long Arian crisis that in order to preserve the true sense of the saving Christian faith of the original Apostolic Community through all eras of history with their ever-new challenges to Christian orthodoxy, the Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils of the gathered Christian overseers ordained in line from the original Apostles, who were charged with guarding the Apostolic faith which had been handed down (Latin tradere) to them in a Living Sacred Tradition (Latin traditio), as one generation of Christians introduced the next personally to Jesus, must be considered authoritative: the Church learned through the Arian crisis that the Ecumenical Councils which settled major Christian disputes, patterned after the Acts 15 Jerusalem Proto-Council, must be considered (like the Acts 15 Council) as the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church as the Living Body of Christ Himself and therefore as “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” as the Bible calls the Church (1 Timothy 3:15), guided into “all the truth” by the Holy Spirit as per Jesus’ promise, or else the very core of saving Christian faith itself could be lost.  The Arian Christians, who started off as good Christians reading the Bible as the inspired Word of God, seeking to defend monotheistic Christianity from the polytheistic pagans about them (who found the non-Biblical word “Trinity” sounded a lot like three gods), came up with a sophisticated and thorough Biblical interpretation which was against the interpretation which had been at least implicitly passed on in the Church’s Living Sacred Tradition since Apostolic times.  As a baby knows its mother but cannot intellectually articulate the experience yet, so the Church knew its Lord and Savior Jesus Christ but had not yet developed clear and concise intellectual articulations of all it knew.  It was the very fact of the Arians coming up with clear and concise statements against the more implicit Sacred Tradition which made firmly orthodox Christians know immediately something was wrong about the Arian interpretation, which forced them to figure out exactly what was wrong, and to make their implicit faith more explicit in clear and concise (non-Biblical) phrases like “Jesus is one in being with the Father,” which the 1st Ecumenical Council declared was the only orthodox way to interpret the Bible so that it matched the Church’s constant but implicit Sacred Tradition.  The Arian heretics temporarily confused the Church as a whole over the 4th Century by refusing to submit to the first Council’s declaration on the basis of the Arian theory that only the Bible text itself had authority over their Christianity and not the 1st Ecumenical Council of the Church.  Having learned through the Arian crisis the importance of recognizing the Ecumenical Councils as the mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church as Christ’s Body on Earth, the Second and later Ecumenical Councils of the Undivided Early Church were considered by all to have this definite authority of Christ the Head speaking through His Body the Church, led into “all the truth” by the Holy Spirit as per Jesus’ promise, and thus the later Ecumenical Councils much more quickly and effectively and finally settled the later major controversies among early Christians when they defined the rest of the fundamentals of traditional, orthodox Christianity (those who like the Arian heretics did not accept a Council’s judgements became breakaway heretical churches, most of which died out but a few of which survive to this day, like the Nestorian and Monophysite churches known as today’s “Lesser Eastern Churches”).

Since the Arian heresy thrived for many decades after the 1st Ecumenical Council declared the Arian Bible interpretation heretical, on the basis of people accepting or considering the Arian theory that the text of the Bible “Alone” and not the Ecumenical Councils of the Church had authority over Christian faith, it is no surprise that the great many Arian heretics today (or Semi-Arians, who are unsure of whether or not Jesus is God) are all Protestant Christians from the oldest and largest Protestant “mainline” denominations, those older churches most mature in their Protestantism, who follow Luther’s “Bible Alone” doctrine which is very similar to the argument the ancient Arian heretics used to justify their rejecting the 1st Ecumenical Council’s precise definition of the fundamental Christian doctrine that Jesus is Divine.

Since Saint Athanasius, as the Patriarch of the Alexandrian Rite of the Undivided Universal (Catholic) Church of the First Millennium, is the greatest “Doctor” or Teacher of the Early Church, who first put together the traditional Canon of the New Testament as all Christians know it today and who did the most to defend the Divinity of Jesus Christ against the Arian heretics who denied it and against the temporary majority of Semi-Arians who were unsure of it due to the strength of the Arian arguments (from “the Bible Alone”), the contribution of the Alexandrian Patriarchate to the Christian Church entire must be said to be incalculable, despite the misfortunes later suffered by the Patriarchate of Alexandria (discussed in the next section on the Patriarchate of Constantinople).

© 2008 Peter William John Baptiste SFO

Go To the Next Section Some Undivided Early Church First Millennium Highlights of the Pentarchy of the First Five Christian Patriarchates and their Contributions to the One Universal Church of Christ: THE PATRIARCHATE OF BYZANTIUM/CONSTANTINOPLE

Go To the Beginning of this Booklet The Spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the First Millennium of the Undivided Early Church: An Overview of the Family Theology that Revolutionizes Bible Reading and its Implications Towards the Eventual Re-Establishment of the Undivided Early Church’s Unity in Diversity