Antioch & Alexandria: What a Past Debate Shows Us About Today’s Debates

Photo courtesy of Naeem Ebrahimjee and Flickr.
Photo courtesy of Naeem Ebrahimjee and Flickr.

Historical Study:

As debates through the ages have raged, they often seem to morph from battles between ideologies to battles between people. This theory proves to be the case following the great Council of Constantinople. A division of theology became a division of cities and the people of those cities.
The legacy of Alexandria indicates a thriving city in which it was a center for culture, education, trade, religion, and philosophy. Antioch itself was also a thriving city, but in a very different way. Founded by Antiochus Ephiphanes it became a center for trade and commerce. In fact, Paul began his first mission there, suggesting its importance of the day. Despite what they were though, each city envied Constantinople. As it became a center of an empire in its own right, the power became centralized there, with the emperor and politicians making it their home. That also meant though, that whoever was bishop in the city had an audience and propensity for influence in the midst of all that power.
While the war was over christology, the battle was waged by both cities to have their men appointed as bishop of Constantinople so that their own theology could prevail. At issue were differing views on Christ with each of their own respective positions as follows:
  • Alexandria: Those in Alexandria emphasized the deity of Christ, which caused them to minimize the humanity. Asserting that if Christ was human, then He would have changed, but God is immutable. Their rationale was that the human rational soul could have caused Christ to sin.
  • Antioch: Those in Antioch though, minimized the deity in order to emphasize the humanity of Christ. According to their thoughts, Christ’s humanity was necessary otherwise he would not identify with man’s battle for sin and his will to obey.
Essentially the difference was this: Alexandrians indicated that not a full human nature was needed for true salvation while Antiochans understood a great need for the human nature.
For both the issue was immense. The very issue of salvation was at stake according to both sides. A right understanding to the deity and humanity of Christ impacted a right understanding of salvation. And it wouldn’t take long for the conflict to erupt to its full height after the preaching of Nestarius, who was from Antioch and the current leader in Constantinople.
Present Study:
As we look next week to the peak of that battle, we will see that primarily the battle stuck to the issues. However, this does not mean that secondary matters didn’t impact the debate, matters that we often have issues with today.
I have learned that many of the disagreements of today are not really about the disagreement at all, at least in terms of theological positions. Instead, they are about the people behind the disagreements. Unfortunately, so many of the theological wars of modernity find one or two fallacies committed. The first is that rather than rely on reading Scripture and the original positions presented, people rely on another person’s interpretation of the issue. The second is that people like someone more than the other, and so they trust that person’s position more than the other.
In both of these circumstances it denies two things:
1) It denies the authority of Scripture on a topic
2) It denies the real reasoning of the position.
In these disagreements, we have a duty to seek truth which cannot be separated from Scripture. That means we must look at all sides in light of what God himself has said. Furthermore, in seeking the truth, it is our responsibility to identify the primary positions put forth by the proponents. This means not merely relying on what someone else has told us about a person or their position.
As we look at the battle between Alexandria and Antioch, sometimes the desire for power, the need to be right, and the infatuation with certain people compel arguments then the rational arguments themselves. We must be careful to avoid these in our own lives, to capture the truth, and to maintain the integrity of God and His Word.

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