The Alexandrian Catechetical School
“In such a city as Alexandria--with its museum, its libraries, its lectures, its schools of philosophy, its splendid synagogue, its avowed atheists, its deep-thinking Oriental mystics--the Gospel would have been powerless if it had been unable to produce teachers who were capable of meeting Pagan philosophers and Jewish Philoists on their own ground. Such thinkers would refuse their attention to men who could not understand their reasonings, sympathize with their perplexities, refute their fundamental arguments, and meet them in the spirit of Christian courtesy." -- Matter's Hist. de l'Ecole d'Alexandrie; Kingsley's Alexandria and Her Schools.
"There can be no doubt that the wonderful advance of Christianity among the cultivated, during the First and Second Centuries, was made by the remarkable men who founded and maintained the Alexandrian school of Christian thought. While the common people heard gladly the simple story of the Gospel, the world's scholars were attracted and won by the consummate learning and genius of Clement and Origen, and their assistants." -- Max Muller, Theosophy or Psychological Religion, Lecture XIII.
“Different instruments are needed for different ends. Where Clement of Rome might have been useless, Clement of Alexandria became deeply influential. Where a Tertullian would only have aroused contempt and indignation, an Origen won leading Pagans to the faith of Christ. From Alexandria came the refutation of Celsus; from Alexandria the defeat of Arius. It was the cradle of Christian theology.” -- Farrar's Lives of the Fathers, I, pp. 262, 263.
In the years when the Didascalia had the greatest influence on the world, Alexandria, Egypt, was the intellectual and philosophical capitol of the spreading Christian faith.
Eusebius states in his Ecclesiastic History, that the Apostle Mark came to Egypt preaching the gospel somewhere between 41-44 A.D. He established the early church in Alexandria, and apparently created a center for the discipleship and education of the early Christians—the beginnings of what was to become the famed Catechetical school. He later visited Alexandria again, eventually being martyred in Alexandria on Easter 68 A.D.
Later, the breadth and depth of the school was greatly developed under the leadership of Pantaenus, the first dean. This Catechetical School of Alexandria, called the Didascalia, was the most important institution of religious learning at the time. The Didascalia was open to everyone who wanted to learn. Catechumens (followers of Christianity who had not yet been baptized) studied alongside members of the clergy and students of Greek philosophy. Lectures were open to pagan hearers, and advanced teaching to Christians separately. Under the leadership of the blind Didymus, even blind students were able to attend and learn, thanks to a raised-alphabet system using carved wood, fifteen centuries before Braille. In addition to Christian theology, the school also taught on subjects ranging from mathematics to medicine to music. From this school came some of the greatest thinkers and leaders of the early church, whose influence has been felt down through church history. Students came from others nations to attend the school.
Says Gregory: "We were permitted with entire freedom to compass the whole round world of knowledge and investigate it, to satisfy ourselves with every variety of teaching and to enjoy the sweets of intellect…To be under the intellectual charge of Origen was like living in a garden where fruits of the mind sprang up without toil to be happy with gladness by the happy occupants…he truly was a paradise to us, after the likeness of the paradise of God…and to leave him was to renascent the experience of Adam after the Fall.”
The school sought not to isolate academia from every day life, but rather to learn for the sake of knowing and glorifying God. Worship, prayer and fasting were practiced by teachers and students alike; and simplicity in food, drink and earthly possessions was encouraged. Celibacy was a recommended ideal, and was observed by many.
Philosophy was not so much esoteric thought, as it was practical wisdom for Christian living. Conversion, in this ancient world, meant forsaking the seeking of worldly glory to philosophy—putting the things of this world in a secondary place to matters of the soul. Philosophy was the tool by which the data given through Divine Revelation was to be transformed into a scientific theology.
The School of Alexandria was a great center of Christianity, for a span of five centuries, until the reign of Justinian (529 A.D.).
This school, with roots in the soil of the apostolic church of the first century, taught a Christ that was all-triumphant, with a plan of the ages to bring all things into His dominion and love. The theology presented in the Didascalia may sound strange to our modern ears that have been corrupted by two millenniums of a “Churchianity” that has been through the dark ages and back. Nevertheless, we hope that the modern reader will remember that when it comes to the New Testament writings, these teachers were native Greek speakers. They read these letters and gospels in their mother tongue, completely at ease with idioms and common word usage of the day. Additionally, some of them lived just one generation removed from the original Apostles. Christianity was not a mere intellectual game for these early scholars--some of them died as martyrs, and most worked tirelessly evangelizing and discipling new converts. What they taught and believed was the common doctrine of the day, as evidenced by their respect and leadership in the church universal in these early days of Christianity.
This is not to say that all of their doctrines or thoughts are one hundred percent accurate. We would not be able to make that statement of any Christian leader or movement, including ourselves! The student of church history knows that there have been many doctrines that seem strange to us today that were once commonly accepted as the norm by most Christians at various times in history.
While universalism seems to have been an accepted truth, many of the same teachers who believed in universalism had no problem with the unlearned masses coming to conversion to Christ based on their fear of Hell. Some of the same teachers who are quoted as advocating universal salvation, are also quoted advocating (in very strong language) the punishment of sinners, etc. These "fathers" did not believe in a Christ who was too kind to punish; nor did they believe in a grace that made it easy for sinners to enter Heaven with all their wickedness intact. They did believe, however, in the power of the Lord to cleanse and purify everything, and in so doing reconcile all things to Himself.
We are not advocating that the reader hold these leaders up as a perfect standard to which the church must return. However, we do ask that the reader will give these Fathers the respect they deserve by hearing and considering what they had to say, especially in regard to universalism.
"To those old Christians, a Being who was not seeking after every single creature, and trying to raise him, could not be a being of absolute righteousness, power, love; could not be a being worthy of respect or admiration, even of philosophic speculation. The Alexandrian Christians expounded and corroborated Christianity, and adapted it to all classes and conditions of men, and made the best, perhaps the only, attempt yet made by man to proclaim a true world-philosophy embracing the whole phenomena of humanity, capable of being understood and appreciated by every human being from the highest to the lowest….[These teachers] were enabled to produce, in the lives of millions, generation after generation, a more immense moral improvement than the world had ever seen before. Their disciples did actually become righteous and good men, just in proportion as they were true to the lessons they learnt. They did for centuries work a distinct and perceptible deliverance on the earth." -- Kingsley's Alexandria and Her Schools.