Persecution in the Roman Empire Under Severian
The third century began with a time of persecution under the emperor Septimius Severus (146-211 AD). Severus, who secured his rule with the defeat of Clodius Albinus in 197, was a professional soldier and cared very little for the politics of the day. With a short and strong build, his leadership was consistent with an aggressive and ruthless general.
Severus upheld the earlier rulings with regards to Christianity, thus it became illegal to convert to the new and expanding faith community. Although this has been disputed, it is certain that persecution erupted in Egypt under his rule. The strategy of the previous century was used - attack the leadership. Clement, the leader of the catechetical school in Alexandria, fled to avoid capture. He had discussed this line of thinking in his writing to oppose the emotional mentality of earlier martyrs who had freely offered themselves to the Romans to be imprisoned and executed.
We learn from Eusebius that one of those martyred was the father of a young man named Origen. Eusebius records that Origen's mother hid his clothing to prevent him from joining his father in death - many historians feel this is an exaggeration, but it is clear that Origen was a highly committed young man. He had been well-educated and soon after the persecution settled down he began holding classes for beginners in the faith, as well as philosophy classes.
Clement of Alexandria
The School of Alexandria
Alexandria was an established learning center for several centuries in the ancient world, housing one of the greatest libraries of all time. Philo the Jew had taught a unique blend of Judaism and Platonism. His biblical text was the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. For Philo, Moses represented the voice of God speaking to the Jews. He held up a lens of Plato to understand and to explain the meaning of the ancient Mosaic laws to his modern world.
The Writings of Clement
From his writings we learn that Titus Flavius Clemens came to faith after a personal search for philosophical truth that had led him on a good many travels. Clement led the catechetical school and many believe his writings were used in the training. It is clear that Clement followed in the philosophical mindset of Philo. He quotes or alludes to Philo and Plato hundreds of times. For Clement, Plato was the Moses of the Greek world, revealing the truth of God through his philsophical insights.
Several works of Clement survived, but he is most known for what some have called a triology, three major works (Protrepticus, Paidagogus, Stromateis
) that fit together in something of a wholistic presentation. While many disagree with this description, I believe Clement did exactly what he announced to be his plan,
Eagerly desiring, then, to perfect us by a gradation conducive to salvation, suited for efficacious discipline, a beautiful arrangement is observed by the all-benignant Word, who first exhorts, then trains, and finally teaches. Paidagogus I.1.1-3
In summary, Clement uses his three works to point the way for the spiritual journey: he "exhorts" the hearer to embrace the gospel; he "tutors" the young believer in foundational principles - his second work deals with sacraments and spiritual ethics; finally, he lays out teaching for the mature believer in the final work, "Miscellanies."
Clement's first major work is titled (Protrepticus) "Exhortation to the Greeks" and is a presentation of the gospel to the educated sector of Greco-Roman society. Many scholars say this is Clement's most graceful piece of writing. This "Exhortation" is filled with citations from the most popular Greek writers, each citation being used to prove Clement's underlying arguments. The document reads like an anthology of Greek literature, and it is clear that Clement is not new to this literature. He is an educated man and he writes in high quality Greek.
The second work in this trilogy is (Paidagogus) "The Tutor." Spiritual disciplines are set forth in this work to "train" the soul and bring it to perfect knowledge. A paidagogue was typically a slave in the Greek world that would walk a child to school and help him with his studies. This document was probably used in Alexandria for catechetical training. Clement consistently uses an allusion to the Pauline/Hebrews "milk...meat" analogy to contrast spiritual babes from the mature. He urges the reader to gain the "meat" while the weak eat only vegetables.
The third work in this series is (Stromateis) "Miscellanies," a strange work that covers a multitude of topics without any apparently clear outline. Clement says that his intention is to "hide" powerful teaching within a somewhat chaotic document - he will do this on purpose in order to keep the "untrained" from getting their hands on this important knowledge. Many have pointed to various philosophical points made in Stromateis, but others have observed that Clement's descriptions of the truly "spiritual" man is the important teaching being presented.
There is also evidence that spiritual prayer, contemplative prayer, is the "meat" Clement wants the mature believer to get from this document,
And his whole life is a holy festival. His sacrifices are prayers, and praises, and readings in the Scriptures before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers also again during night. By these he unites himself to the divine choir...engaged in contemplation which has everlasting remembrance. Strom VII.7.46,4; 49,4-5
His whole life is prayer and converse with God. And if he be pure from sins, he will by all means obtain what he wishes. For God says to the righteous man, "Ask, and I will give thee; think, and I will do." Strom. VII.12.73,1; 13.81,4
Clement's influence was eclipsed by his successor, Origen of Alexandria.
Origen of Alexandria
In the vacuum of leadership following the persecution under Severus, Origen became the head of the Alexandrian school. Origen was highly educated and became one of the greatest writers of the early church. Frustrated by the growth of Gnostic writings, especially commentaries on biblical text, Origen began producing commentaries and other writings. During the first half of the third century Christianity grew in numbers, but also gained a measure of intellectual and philosophical respect, bolstered largely by the writings of Origen which were numerous, dense in thought, and HUGE in size. He would sometimes dictate his biblical commentaries while stenographers jotted notes in shorthand to be later written out. It was said that several stenographers would work in shifts while Origen would go for hours every day.
He never mentions Clement, but follows in his tradition to some degree. Origen does not openly embrace Plato as Clement did, but his theological system is clearly marked by Platonism. It is Origen who truly develops the Alexandrian model of allegorical interpretation. Philo had done this with the Old Testament; now Origen applies the same methodology to Christian texts. For Origen each text had three meanings: a literal one, an ethical one, and finally a spiritual meaning. This system was developed to help explain what certain texts might mean when the immediately clear meaning cannot be correct (in the mind of Origen). The God of Israel could not have really decreed that His people kill every woman and child in some of the OT battle scenes. Origen would find a "spiritual" way to explain this. For Origen the spiritual meaning of the text was most important, thus sometimes he would minimize the literal meaning.
Origen could be seen as a prototype and a primary influence on the men who would commit themselves to celibacy in the monastic tradition. He never married, but gave himself completely to the service of Christ and His church. Eusebius reported that Origen castrated himself as a young man (a practice that most certainly happened in the Egyptian church), but this tradition regarding Origen is not completely reliable. What is certain is that Origen embraced a very spartan lifestyle, including all the Christian disciplines that would later become codified in monasticism.
The importance of Origin on the future of Christianity is difficult to overestimate. His writings were used by his contemporaries, but held in higher regard by the next few generations. Later generations would take sides regarding some of his controversial positions and come to blows. Referred to by historians as the "Origenist controversy," future leaders would part ways over the teachings of the second century writer.
On First Principles
Origen's major work, De Principii ("day prinCHEE pay" - On First Principles), contains many of these controversial topics. In the prologue of this work Origen warns the reader that this work is NOT for just any believer, but is designed to be read only by those who are solidly grounded in their faith and in philosophical training. He continues by saying that he will be speculating about things that are beyond human knowledge, but beneficial to be discussed. Various topics are addressed that would suggest Clement's emphasis: creation and how all things first began, the origin of evil, angelology, among many other topics. One topic that seems to emerge from time to time in church history is universalism. Origen speculates on how "all things" might eventually come under submission to God and in this context he states that "maybe after eons and eons Satan himself will repent." This kind of statement obviously caused concern, but it must be remembered that this appears in the one document Origen warns is NOT to be taken as orthodox theology. He does, however, defend his speculations publicly which shows that he takes his view seriously. Also important is how Origen gets himself into this situation - by trying to reconcile every disparate verse and force some kind of literal interpretation. The reader should also keep in mind that Origen is writing before formal orthodoxy had been completely established. Whatever the case, Origen's writings were at times condemned, and sometimes embraced. Interestingly, the "Origenist controversy" also had some influence in the divide between the Eastern and Western churches. Historically the Eastern fathers and churches have embraced Origen and the West has been much less sympathetic.