Part of the theological world wars of the fourth and fifth centuries involved a kind of rivalry of two cities: Antioch and Alexandria. From what I’m learning, the consensus of scholarly opinion is that the Antiochenes were more wrong than right. They had Nestorious on their side, and he was not the only one condemned in the Christological debates. But they’re being spurned nowadays for their hermeneutical procedure, and that is not a bad way to go.

My own sense is that there is in the more philosophically sophisticated Alexandrine approach a proper acknowledging that the love of wisdom begins in wonder, which dictum the Antiochene disposition tends to ignore or despise. Both cities have heretics on their team, but it is the quality that one ought to look at. Athanasius vs Eusebius of Nicomedia the Arian after Arius is about the wonder of the incarnation vs a reductive logic chopping limitation of possibilities. John Chrysostom, bishop of Antioch and Constantinople, who none can call a heretic, still demonstrates a flatness of interpretation that stands out when you come to him after Origen or Cyril. It is more pronounced in the polemical Theodore of Mopsuestia and in Theodoret as well, and there’s Nestorius—though he’s for me to wonder about. There is a wariness about speculation that one thinks protests too much. A flattening to the literal that leaves a dwindling text, and a corresponding tendency toward moralism that ignores the wondrous supernaturalism, the wonder of it is buried in a world of frowning rigor that has the air of pious fraud. In Origen’s homilies one finds the moral sense, the psychic, usually comes after the pneumatic has been explained. One of the things mentioned in class is that the two cities are sometimes contrasted in terms of rhetoric vs philosophy. Rhetoric is about getting things done with words, philosophy is about pursuing ultimate questions. Rhetoric is a lesser means, while philosophy is near to being an end. It all adds up.

There is a moment in Scripture which I find defining. Gabriel, the man who stands in the presence of the Lord, speaks of his own volition, responding to a turn of the conversation he did not anticipate. And what does he say, this being that can describe his relationship to God as in some way standing before him? He asks the rhetorical question, in the context of the annunciation and the incarnation, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”

There is all my religion in a kernel: it is the logical outworking of that in doctrine, expectation and the story of my life. Alexandria had: Hellenic Philo, Stoic Clement, Origen the Platonist, and Athanasius contra mundi, the theologian of Wonder.


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