Alexandria was founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great and was the port of choice for Egypt’s extensive trade. The city had a number of similarities to modern cities. It was founded as a Greek-style polis with institutions of democratic self-government. It was a center of trade, government and culture, so it was no stranger to diversity. In fact its exposure to other languages, religions, and cultures rivaled all other Greek cities. Alexandria was also a headquarters of literary and textual criticism, philosophy, and mathematics. The famous library of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I, made the city the premier intellectual capital of the ancient world.
Given Alexandria’s cosmopolitan nature, the city’s theology has special relevance for our post-modern world. Out of Alexandria’s open port and open majestic library came its jewel: its open-minded mystical theology.
If we follow the Alexandrian archbishops from Demetrius (189-232) to Dionysius (247-65) to Athanasius (328-73) to Theophilus (385-412) to Cyril (412-44) to Dioscorus (445-51) we find the common thread in their thinking about the incarnation. This common thread was intentional; a theological lineage passed down through generations of monks and clerics.
Martin Luther (d. 1546) tended toward Alexandrian mysticism in his writings, meaning he stressed the Divinity of Jesus with a capital D and his humanity with a lower case h. Luther affirmed the unity of Christ’s two aspects. Yet Protestants haven’t taken sustained interest in digging through the archives of church history and uncovering the essence of Jesus as taught by The Early Mystics. It was unrealistic to expect Western teachers to quarry the mystery of God made human. The primary interest of the Protestant reformers was the practical every day affairs of burgeoning Protestant churches. Protestant leaders had limited time for silent prayer or the mystical insights and theology that followed.
The Alexandrians, on the other hand, valued monastic disciplines and cultivated mystics as no other city before or since. And the Alexandrians honored the mystical experience of monks above the hierarchy of clergy. In fact a prerequisite for Alexandrian archbishops, from the Apostle Mark to the present day archbishop in Cairo, has been monastic experience. The authority of monastic experience in silent prayer most informed Alexandrian theology. Eastern monastic tradition, especially Oriental Orthodoxy, still honors monastic experience above all other authorities. I refer to this as Monastic Authority. The Alexandrian Mystics’ emphasis on silent prayer gave their teachings interior depth missing from Western theology today.