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Bible Dictionaries

A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Alexander, of Alexandria

Alexander , St., archbp. of Alexandria, appears to have come to that see in 313, after the short episcopate of Achillas. He was an elderly man, of a kindly and attractive disposition; "gentle and quiet," as Rufinus says (i. 1), but also capable of acting with vigour and persistency. Accusations were laid against him by the malcontent Meletian faction, "before the emperor," Constantine (Athan. Apol. c. Ar. 11; ad Ep. Aeg. 23), but apparently without result. He was involved in a controversy with one Crescentius as to the proper time for keeping Easter (Epiph. Haer. 70, 9). But in 319 he was called upon to confront a far more formidable adversary. [See Arius.] Arius was the parish priest, as he may be described, of the church of Baukalis, the oldest and the most important of the churches of Alexandria, situated "in the head of the mercantile part of the city" (Neale, Hist. Alex. i. 116), a man whose personal abilities enhanced the influence of his official position; he had been a possible successor at the last vacancy of the "Evangelical Throne," and may have consequently entertained unfriendly feelings towards its actual occupant. But it would be unreasonable to ascribe his opinions to private resentment. Doubtless the habits of his mind (Bright, Hist. Ch. p. 11) prepared him to adopt and carry out to their consequences, with a peculiar boldness of logic, such views as he now began to disseminate in Alexandrian society: that the Son of God could not be co-eternal with His Father; that He must be regarded as external to the Divine essence, and only a creature. The bishop tried at first to check this heresy by remonstrance at an interview, but with no real success. Agitation increasing, Alexander summoned a conference of his clergy; free discussion was allowed; and, according to Sozomen, Alexander seemed to waver between the Arian and anti-Arian positions. Ultimately he asserted in strong terms the co-equality of the Son; whereupon Arius criticized his language as savouring of the Sabellian error [See Sabellius] which had "confounded the Persons." The movement increased, and Alexander himself was charged with irresolution or even with some inclination towards the new errors. It was then, apparently, that Colluthus, one of the city presbyters, went so far as to separate from his bishop's communion, and, on the plea of the necessities of the crisis, "ordained" some of his followers as clergy. (See Valesius on Theod, i. 4, and Neale, i. 116). Alexander's next step was to write to Arius and his supporters, including two bishops, five priests, and six deacons, exhorting them to renounce their "impiety"; and the majority of the clergy of Alexandria and the Mareotis, at his request, subscribed his letter. The exhortation failing, the archbishop brought the case formally before the synod of his suffragans, who numbered nearly 100. The Arians were summoned to appear: they stated their opinions; the Son, they held, was not eternal, but was created by the impersonal "Word," or Wisdom of the Father; foreign, therefore, to the Father's essence, imperfectly cognizant of Him, and, in fact, called into existence to be His instrument in the creation of man. "And can He then," asked one of the bishops, "change from good to evil, as Satan did?" They did not shrink from answering, "Since He is a creature, such a change is not impossible"; and the council instantly pronounced them to be "anathema." Such was the excommunication of Arius, apparently in 320. It was as far as possible from arresting the great movement of rationalistic thought (for this, in truth, was the character of Arianism) which had now so determinedly set in. The new opinions became extraordinarily popular; Alexandrian society was flooded with colloquial irreverence. But Arius ere long found that he could not maintain his position in the city when under the ban of the archbishop; it may be that Alexander had power actually to banish him; and he repaired to Palestine, where, as he expected, he found that his representations of the case made a favourable impression on several bishops, including Eusebius of Caesarea. Some wrote in his favour to Alexander, who, on his part, was most indefatigable in writing to various bishops in order to prevent them from being deceived by Arius; Epiphanius tells us that seventy such letters were preserved in his time ( Haer. 69. 4). Of these, some were sufficiently effectual in Palestine to constrain Arius to seek an abode at Nicomedia. He had secured the support of the bishop of the city, the able but unprincipled Eusebius (Theod. i. 5; Athan. de Syn. 17); and he now wrote (Athan. de Syn. 16) in the name of "the presbyters and deacons" who had been excommunicated, to Alexander, giving a statement of their views, and professing that they had been learned from Alexander himself; the fact being, probably, as Möhler thinks, that Alexander had formerly used vague language in an anti-Sabellian direction. Eusebius now repeatedly urged Alexander to readmit Arius to communion; and the other bishops of Bithynia, in synod (Soz. i. 15), authorized their chief to send circular letters in his favour to various prelates. A Cilician bishop, Athanasius of Anazarbus, wrote to Alexander, openly declaring that Christ was "one of the hundred sheep"; George, an Alexandrian presbyter, then staying at Antioch, had the boldness to write to his bishop to the effect that the Son once "was not," just as Isaiah "was not," before he was born to Amoz (Athan. de Syn. 17), for which he was deposed by Alexander from the priesthood. Arius now returned into Palestine, and three bishops of that country, one of whom was Eusebius of Caesarea, permitted him to hold religious assemblies within their dioceses. This permission naturally gave great offence to Alexander. He had hitherto written only to individual bishops, but he now drew up (perhaps with the help of his secretary and "archdeacon," Athanasius) his famous encyclic to all his fellow-ministers, i.e. to the whole Christian episcopate, giving an account of the opinions for which the Egyptian synod had excommunicated the original Arians, adducing Scriptural texts in refutation, and warning his brethren against the intrigues of Eusebius (Socr. i. 6). This letter, which he caused his clergy to sign, probably preceded the "Tome" or confession of faith which he referred to as having been signed by some bishops, when he wrote to Alexander, bp. of Byzantium, the long and elaborate letter preserved by Theod. i. 4; in which, while using some language which in strictness must be called inaccurate, he gives an exposition of texts which became watchwords of the orthodox in the struggle (A.D. 323).

Another correspondent now appears on the scene. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had a strong influence over the emperor Constantine, persuaded the latter to write, or to adopt and sign, a letter to Alexander and Arius, in which the controversy was treated as a logomachy (Eus. Vit. Con. ii. 64 seq.; Socr. i. 7). The imperial epistle was entrusted to a prelate of very high position, Hosius of Cordova, who can have had but little sympathy with the tone assumed by the Emperor. The council held at Alexandria on his arrival decided one point very unequivocally: the ordinations performed by Colluthus were pronounced absolutely null (Athan. Apol. 76). Peace was impossible on the basis of indifferentism, and Constantine summoned a general assembly of bishops to meet at Nicaea, in June 325. [ D. C. A. , art. NICAEA, COUNCIL OF.] The Arians were condemned, and the Nicene Creed, in its original form, was drawn up.

The story told by Epiphanius, of severities used by Alexander towards the Meletians [See Meletius], and of a consequent petition addressed by them to Constantine, appears to be one of several misstatements which he adopted from some Meletian sources. Athanasius tells us expressly that Alexander died within five months after the reception of the Meletians into church communion in the council of Nicaea (Apol. c. Ari. 59), and this, if strictly reckoned from the close of the council, would place his death in Jan. 326. It cannot be dated later than April 18 in that year. See further, Athanasius.

Athanasius mentions a circumstance of Alexander's local administration which furnished a precedent, on one occasion, for himself. Alexander was building the church of St. Theonas at Alexandria, on a larger scale than any of the existing churches, and used it, for convenience' sake, before it was completed (Ap. ad Const. 15). He is also said by tradition to have never read the Gospels in a sitting posture, and to have never eaten on fast days while the sun was in the sky (Bolland. Act. SS. , Feb. 26). Two short fragments of a letter addressed by him to a bishop named Aeglon, against the Arians, are quoted in the works of Maximus the Confessor (in the Monothelite controversy), vol. ii. p. 152. A trans. of his extant writings is in the Ante-Nicene Lib. (T. & T. Clark).


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Alexander, of Alexandria'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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