The Schools and the Prophets

The declining years of antique civilization saw an unparalleled boom in the education business. Everybody went to school, says St. Augustine, because it was the thing to do.1 Education in a sick world became a fetish, and leading educators enjoyed (and thoroughly enjoyed) unlimited authority and prestige. The curriculum was highly standardized everywhere, and nonconformists were quickly dealt with in a field in which nonconformists are rare enough at any time. Strictly speaking there were not schools, but only the school, the one authorized institution following the one official curriculum.2 One can easily imagine that this overwhelming predominance of an accepted institution of learning led from the very first to conflicts with the church. It was the schoolmen, the “scribes,” who furnished the earliest and steadiest opposition to the preaching of the Master and the Apostles. It was the young fellows from the school who started heckling Barnabas in the earliest description of a street meeting that we have after the New Testament, and the questions they shouted on that occasion were the questions which the schools continued to ask until the church itself came around to their way of thinking.

The early Christians were understandably suspicious of the schools, on which philosophy had put its intellectual stamp, for as we have often noted in these talks, the ancient saints were, to put it mildly, cool towards philosophy. Even so, it is surprising to learn that the Christians had no schools of their own until well into the third century. Justin introduced the first regular school earlier, but it was not carried on after him, and there is no evidence that it had any status among the Christians. Certainly the many schools that flourished in the second half of the second century all found themselves outside the general communion.3

But about the year 200 the schools start to take over everywhere in Christian society. In Asia Minor, Palestine, Edessa, and the West, important schools suddenly come into being and a strongly intellectual orientation becomes evident in the church. Incomparably the most important of these new schools was the catechetical school of Alexandria, the true home of conventional Christian theology, whose foundations were laid by the famous Clement of Alexandria and his more famous pupil, Origen. Both these men are typical schoolmen, brought up from infancy in the four walls of an institution from whose authority they can never free themselves.

It was Clement’s project to put the intellectual superiority of Greek philosophy at the disposal of the church. The knowledge of scientiae humaniores, he maintains, is indispensable to the correct understanding of the scriptures; “Why, then, should it not be necessary for one who desires to share the power of God to do so by the philosophical contemplation of intelligible objects?” 4 Clement generously offered to make Christianity intellectually respectable. For him, says Harnack (upon whom we shall lean heavily in this talk for the sake of safety), “Greek religious philosophy . . . was the means of achieving and explaining for the first time the highest and inmost meaning of Christianity.” 5 He was all for the church; he was going to give it a break by lending to it the advantages of his training and intellect. Very patronizing, one must admit, but one can imagine how that would have gone down with the Apostles. Such a point of view, really quite naive, was only possible, says Harnack, because Clement missed the whole point of what Christianity was all about, “because for him the heritage of the Church in its totality and in every particular—with the exception of some utterances in the Gospels—was something foreign.”6 The university was his world, and his offer of assistance to the church had dangerous strings attached to it: “He submitted to its authority,” writes Harnack, “but could only adapt himself to it after a specific and philosophic re-working (Bearbeitung).”7 He would embrace the teachings of the church, but only on his terms. He would take the literal Christianity and “spiritualize” it. Photius says Clement cannot possibly have believed in a real incarnation, for example. 8 As a member of the church in good standing and as one careful to quote the scriptures somewhere in all his arguments—a very easy thing to do—he saw no reason why he should not go all the way in giving the Christian message a new intellectual stature that would recommend it to the more educated classes. His slogan was “All truth belongs to the Gospel,”9 which he took as a franchise not to accept the gospel as the guide to his studies, but to use his studies to establish for the first time the really deep and inner meaning of the gospel. Firmly convinced that what he had learned in school was the truth, and that all knowledge is revelation (following Plato), he proceeded to re-edit the gospel to something nearer to his heart’s desire: “The total revamping (recoining, Umprägung) of the Christian heritage into a Hellenic religious philosophy on a historical foundation cannot be denied,” says our authority Harnack. And what remained of Christianity after that, aside from some of its practical and sentimental appeal? he asks, and gives an almost shocking answer: “Ein Phlegma—a sediment, a scum—that can under no possible circumstances be called Christian.” 10 Yet Clement was a moral and an earnest man, the first great teacher of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the school that was to have more influence on the making of Christian doctrine than all the rest put together.

Now Clement of Alexandria with his training and his eager project of helping the church out of its morass of old-fashioned ideas and childish literalism was not a new phenomenon in the church. It was just his kind that the Apostolic Fathers had opposed with all their energy. Paul had known them very well in his day—these over-clever men who wanted to “turn the truth of God into a fable,” who denied the literal resurrection, who claimed that they and they alone knew the real Christ (“lo, here is Christ, and lo there!”), and who falsely claimed to possess the gnosis. Clement was actually one of these: he emphatically does claim to have the true gnosis, and he defines the substance of that gnosis not as revelation but simply as Greek religious philosophy, which for him is revelation.11 All students of Clement have recognized strong Gnostic elements in his writings. In him Gnosticism wins half a victory. The doctrine which Clement thought an improved Christianity was, to use Harnack’s expression, at least half an enemy of the church. How, then, was it possible for him to “get away” with so much? We explained that in the last lecture: In the earlier days of the church he could not have gotten away with it because of the presence of the Apostles and their disciples in the church. These men actually had the fulness of the gospel, and everybody knew it. The church was their doing. To put forward a feeble imitation as the original teaching entrusted by the Lord to the Apostles while those Apostles were still alive was obviously out of the question. The same liberty that allowed the Gnostics so-called to come out openly with their monstrous pretentions “upon the death of the last Apostle” allowed men like Clement—semi-Gnostics at best—to operate with complete immunity. And so it is that the prosperity of the Gnostics is matched by the sudden blossoming of the schools everywhere, and especially that of Alexandria. “Alexandria,” wrote Baur, “the fatherland of the Gnosis, is also the birthplace of Christian theology, which in its earliest form was meant to be nothing but a Christian Gnosis.” 12

Clement is completely overshadowed by his pupil Origen, next to St. Augustine alone the most influential thinker of the Christian church. “Origen created the doctrinal theology of the Church,” writes Harnack.13 Not Christ, not the Apostles, but Origen. “Among the ancient Greek writers of the Church,” writes Delarue in the Patrologia, “there is possibly none who has left to posterity such a reputation for learning as Origen.” Jerome notes that his reputation was as great among the pagans as among the Christians.14 In his time, he was indisputably the foremost authority in the church on doctrine; the greatest bishops eagerly sought his counsel and instruction; his voice was the deciding one in grave disputes; requests for information poured in on him at such a rate that we are told he kept seven secretaries, shorthand experts, busy night and day taking down the answers he dictated to all parts of the world.15

Like his teacher, Origen betrays strong Neoplatonic and Gnostic leanings. Like Irenaeus he ends up using the arguments and language of those he attempts to refute, and like all the schoolmen of the time he is more than a little embarrassed and ashamed at the unsophisticated and unphilosophical nature of the faith of his simpler brethren. I think this embarrassment is best expressed by Origen’s contemporary Minucius Felix, whose Christian apologist, Octavius, goes to considerable pains to make clear to his educated pagan opponents that they have really misunderstood Christianity by judging it from the behavior and beliefs of the ordinary members and officers of the church. All Christians are not like that, he explains. Cultivated Christians really think just like cultivated heathens, so that “anyone would think either that present-day Christians are philosophers or that the philosophers of yore were Christians.” There is no real difference between them, and just as the ignorant pagan masses tell childish and superstitious tales and believe them, so do the common run of Christians. The real difference after all is not between Christian and pagan but between the educated and the uneducated.16 The story of Moses seeing God is for Origen simply “one of those old wives’ tales,” and if you take it seriously, he says, you “run into the absurdity of saying that God is corporeal,”17 a thing which any pagan philosopher could tell you is just too silly for words. Harnack has an interesting reflection on this “spiritualizing” of Christian teachings by Origen: “No one can deny,” he says, “that this kind of flight from the world and possessing of God contains in itself a specific secularization [Verweltlichung, lowering to worldly standards] of Christianity.”18 Most people have always been taught that the opposite is the case; that to move from realms of literalism to those of spiritual abstraction is a sign of higher thought and purer doctrine. But to those who know Christian and pagan thought as Harnack does, it is painfully clear that the spiritual abstractions were the daily bread of the pagan schools and had been for more than 500 years, while the real and the literal was the very thing that gave Christianity its peculiar stamp and its unique appeal. Spiritual abstractions were a dime a dozen in the world of late antiquity; the rolling of eyes, plucking of breasts, and heaving of sighs are pagan gestures of piety; and the incurable appetite for allegory, abstraction, and symbolism was a disease which by Origen’s time had seriously crippled pagan thought. The fact that these things were not Christian does not condemn them, but we cannot insist too emphatically that the early Christians had known all about these things and had firmly rejected them. We have the gospel, was their argument; all this other stuff is nothing to us. Then why did the church finally break down and accept it? And why did Origen go for it? The answer is clearly set forth in the prologue of his work significantly entitled On the First Principles.

This is not a work against the pagans but an attempt to find the right track for the Christians themselves to follow since, he says, “there are many who profess to believe in Christ who disagree among themselves not only in small and minor matters, but rather about the great and the greatest matters.” 19 It is the very first principles of the gospel, the foundations of the Christian faith, for which Origen seeks, as he says, to lay down a clear and definite rule on each point. On certain of these things, he notes, all Christians agree: that there is one God, that Jesus Christ was the first-born of the Father, and that the Holy Ghost comes next in honor. “But it is not stated clearly whether the Holy Ghost was begotten or not—that we must find out from the Scripture.” The scripture does not tell us in so many words, and so the answer must be carefully worked out “to the best of our ability by sagacious investigation [sagaci perquisitione].” Again, all Christians agree “that the devil and his angels exist, but why or how or what they are, the church has not made sufficiently clear—non satis clare exposuit.” All agree that the world was created, “but what came before or comes after it is not evident in the teachings of the Church.” Even the nature of God’s person “is not clearly set forth in our preaching.” We know that there are angels, but what, how, when, etc., “is not made adequately manifest and so must be worked out by us by the aid of reason following manifest and necessary conclusions.”20

Note well, it is the first principles of the gospel on which Origen seeks light, not trivial and minor matters. He says plainly and repeatedly that the church itself lacks satisfactory answers; he does not know the answers, and what is more he knows of no one else in the church who does know them. Now it should be plain enough why the Gnostic schoolmen met no serious rebuff—they could and they had to bring forth faked answers to the great questions of the gospel because there was no one left alive who knew the real answers. Origen’s solution of the great questions is enough in itself to prove that. He started out with confidence that his method and his learning, both acquired in the schools, would be equal to providing the missing answers. But he very soon discovered that they were not, and being both a good and an honest man, he is frank to admit it. Let us quote a few of his final conclusions. “I suppose the Spirit of God is the Holy Ghost, as far as I can understand, not historically or literally, but in the sense of spiritual intelligence.” 21 As to the possibility of bodies, resurrected or otherwise, being eternal, he concludes that if anyone can work out a better explanation of things from the scripture, he is welcome to do so.22 “There may be other worlds but what their nature and number may be I confess I do not know. If anyone can show me I would gladly learn. . . We have done our best: let every reader decide for himself what is right.”23 On the incarnation of Christ he says, “On this head we shall present our suspicions rather than any manifest affirmations.” And having done so he says, “If anyone can find out anything better, or confirm by more evident proofs the assertions he makes concerning the Holy Scriptures, let such conclusions be accepted in preference to these.”24 Regarding the nature of the souls he says, “The ideas put forth by us are not to be regarded as dogma, but more in the nature of speculation and inquiry.” And on the Spirit of God: “And if it is allowed us to dare to say any more on the subject, it is possible perhaps that the Spirit of God is to be understood as his only-begotten Son.” 25

On all these points and many more, Origen, the foremost doctrinal authority in the church, has no certitude and claims no authority—and this on themes which lie according to his own assertion at the very heart of doctrine, the first principles of the gospel. Origen does not know the answers and, what is far more significant, he knows of no one who does, though he has visited every important churchman in Christendom, including the bishops of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome. There never was, indeed it is hard to imagine how there could be, a more zealous, devout, single-minded student than Origen, nicknamed Adamantinos, “the unshakable.” Born and reared in a school, he was convinced that all knowledge of the gospel could be acquired by study alone and only ended up proving to the world that where there is no revelation there is no certitude.

1. Augustine, Confessions I, 10, in PL 32:668.

2. F. Schemmel, “Die Hochschule von Athen im IV. und V. Jahrhunderten,” Neue Jahrbücher für das klassische altertum Geschichte und deutsche Literatur und für Pädagogik (1908), 494—513; and “Die Hochschule von Alexandria in IV. und V. Jahrhunderten,” ibid. (1909): 438—57; Albertus Müller, “Studentenleben im 4. Jahrhundert nach Christus,” Philologus 69 (1910): 303ff.

3. Adolf Harnack, Lehrbuch der Dogmengeschichte, 3rd ed. (Freiburg: Mohr, 1894), 1:590.

4. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata I, 9, in PG 8:740—41; quote from 741.

5. Harnack, 601.

6. Ibid. The italics are Harnack’s.

7. Ibid., 602.

8. Photius, Bibliotheca cix, in PG 103:383.

9. A good discussion in Friedrich Überweg, Geschichte der Philosophie der patristischen und scholastischen Zeit (Berlin, 1877), 64—65.

10. Harnack, 607—11.

11. Ibid., 601.

12. Cited in Überweg, 63.

13. Harnack, 650: “Origenes hat die kirchliche Dogmatik geschaffen.”

14. Both authorities are cited in Carolus Delarue, Preface in PG 11:13.

15. The best life of Origen is in the Ante-Nicene Christian Library 23 (Origen, Vol. II), (Edinburgh: Clark, 1872), xiii—xxxviii.

16. Minucius Felix, Octavius 3, 16, 18, 19; quote is from 20, 34—36.

17. Origen, Peri Archon II, 4, 3, in PG 11:204.

18. Harnack, 612.

19. Origen, Peri Archon I, 2, in PG 11:115—16.

20. All these passages in the prologue of the Peri Archon I, 1—10, in PG 11:115—21.

21. Origen, I, 3, 3, in PG 11:148.

22. Ibid., II, 6, 2, in PG 11:210—11.

23. Ibid., II, 3, 4, 7, in PG 11:192—93, 197—98.

24. Ibid., II, 8, 4—5, in PG 11:224.

25. Ibid.