(The following comprises Part Two of the Saturday series on Secondary Illuminations of Scripture by Deborah J. Shore)
In the early centuries of the Church two of the most influential theological centers were Alexandria and Antioch in present-day Egypt and Turkey respectively. The way that theologians in these two cities approached scriptures was rather polarized. While key doctrines developed or articulated in their early forms by Alexandrian church fathers such as Clement, Origen, and Athanasius have been integral to the faithful Church of proceeding ages, Antiochene hermeneutics have come to rule the day in conservative evangelical churches.
Alexandria’s allegorical-spiritual method of hermeneutics was already established before Christ died on the cross and the Church and its thinkers emerged. The Jewish scholar Philo, greatly influenced by classical Greek thought, was at its helm, although he was by no means the first Jewish scholar to develop multi-layered mystical traditions surrounding the Torah. Those go back centuries.
To Philo, the literal interpretations and historical facts of the Scriptures were actually of least importance. He and Christian exegetes who followed in his steps thought that the texts had a “bodily” meaning, which is the literal historical-grammatical reference, a “soulish” meaning, which is the moral import (for instance, Jewish abstention from particular foods might hold a hidden moral principle regarding not eating with wrongdoers), and finally a spiritual meaning. To Christian exegetes like Origen this spiritual meaning would typically be a revelation about Christ or the Christian’s relationship with God. It was a mystical layer that the Alexandrian exegete should strive to uncover as of highest value (I am indebted here to Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology, pp. 106-7, 202-4, 294).
This didn’t mean Alexandrians were careless with the text. In fact, Origen’s greatest works included a systematic theology and a Bible in six columns that compared versions and pointed out variants, omissions, and additions. Although he made speculations that conservatives would consider incorrect today, he gave the tradition of the apostles and the church the right of way and was tortured to his grave for the orthodox faith (Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, 78-81). Another Alexandrian, Athanasius, is widely touted for almost single-handedly saving the church from a heretical doctrine of the Trinity.
We’ll discuss Alexandrians and Antiochenes a bit more next week.