of the Eastern churches

The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Alexandria and All Africa

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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African Christianity has apostolic roots. St. Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to the Egyptian city of Alexandria — second only to Rome in the ancient world — and established a church there as early as A.D. 42.

Mark sowed the Christian seed on fertile ground, extending his evangelical reach beyond Alexandria’s prosperous Jewish community. He called for the city’s Greeks and Copts (a derivative of the Greek word “Aigyptios,” meaning Egyptian) to adopt “the way,” the early Christian description for discipleship in Jesus Christ.

Though sporadically persecuted by the Romans — Mark died a martyr’s death around A.D. 67 — the Alexandrian church blossomed. It provided the universal church with the philosophical foundation and theological vocabulary responsible for its explosive expansion, introduced the cenobitic and hermitic variants of monastic life and peopled the universal church with some of its greatest saints and scholars.

By the early third century, its reputation as the primary center of learning, biblical scholarship and theological exploration was unchallenged in the Christian world. Founded by Pantaenus around 180, the Catechetical School of Alexandria included studies in philosophy, science and mathematics. It was led by such influential thinkers as St. Clement (died 211), Origen (died 251), Didymus the Blind (whose life spanned most of the fourth century) and St. Jerome (died 420), who studied under Didymus.

The Alexandrian church was not confined to the cosmopolitan environment of Alexandria. Its bishops, who still hold the title of “pope and patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa,” had jurisdiction throughout the African continent. Many Alexandrian Christians, seeking solitary lives of prayer, fled to the desert and the hinterlands south of the Nile Delta. Some, such as St. Anthony the Great (251–356) and St. Macarius (300–390), inspired hundreds of followers who eagerly pursued lives of constant prayer. One such follower, St. Pachomius (died 345), grouped these hermits into communities, forming the first Christian monasteries. This Christian tradition later spread from the African continent to Asia Minor, the Middle East and Europe.

Christological controversies. The great debates of the early church, particularly those centered on the person and nature of Jesus, began long before Emperor Constantine I issued his edict of toleration in 313. As Christianity grew throughout the Mediterranean, it embraced converts from the Greek, Roman and Semitic cultures, each of which had its own history, language, philosophy, vocabulary and world view. Typically, the various understandings of Jesus — or Christologies — reflected the culture and language that shaped them.

The Alexandrian church, led by St. Athanasius (298–373), vehemently contested the teachings of one of its influential priests, Arius, who questioned whether Jesus was of the same substance as God the Father. Athanasius’ understanding of Jesus as both true God and true man became the basis for the creed formulated at the ecumenical councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381.

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