On February 14, twenty-one Egyptian Christians were brutally beheaded by Muslim radicals working for the Islamic State in Lybia. The Coptic Orthodox Church announced yesterday that the twenty-one victims will be inserted into the Coptic Synaxarium (the Oriental Church’s official list of martyrs) and commemorated in the church calendar as martyrs and saints. Christians of every denominational and doctrinal stripe have expressed outrage, sadness, and a sense of unity with their fallen brethren.
Which leads to an important question: how should we view the Coptic Orthodox Church?
This isn’t a bad question, provided we approach it in the right way. Let’s set aside the issue of what the twenty-one martyrs understood about monophysitism. That’s not unimportant, but as far as I know the information is unattainable. Besides, what is most needed at this point is prayer for the persecuted church and sympathy for the suffering. Thinking about these men who died because of their allegiance to Christ, men who belonged to one of the oldest church communions in the world, and men who called upon Jesus as they were murdered on the beach—trying to determine whether these men were actually Christians seems like remarkably poor form.
And yet, perhaps now is an appropriate time to consider more broadly and think more carefully about why some consider the Coptic Orthodox Church to be, well, unorthodox. While participating in a panel discussion at Ligonier last week, one of the first questions we were asked was about the twenty-one Coptic martyrs and the heresy of monophysitism (yes, it’s that kind of conference). So let’s step back and try to understand the history and theology behind what may be the oldest (formal) split in the church.
Two Natures, Without Division
To tell the story properly, we have to start with a man by the name of Nestorius. Nestorius was born sometime after 351 and died sometime before 451. He was the patriarch of Constantinople. His teaching was condemned by the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431. It’s unclear whether Nestorius was actually a Nestorian. What is clear is that Nestorius was not very careful in his theology and did not acquit himself very well when he was put on the spot to defend his views.
Nestorius, like most heretics, was intent on preserving the truth. Most ancient heretics did not set out to disrupt the church or teach false doctrine. They weren’t like Bart Ehrman with an ax to grind, or like Richard Dawkins with an anti-Christian agenda. Most heretics in the history of the church were trying to be biblical. They would have been professing Christians, with genuine concerns, who got key doctrines wrong and whose followers got things even more wrong.
Nestorius was concerned that people were calling Mary “the God-bearer” (theotokos). His concerns were probably not entirely unwarranted. God-bearer is an appropriate title for Mary, but only if the emphasis is on the Son and not Mary. It has happened since Nestorius, and most likely was happening in his day too, that people took the dangerous step from “Mary the bearer of God” to “Mary the divine Mother of God.” Theotokos is a proper term, but only with the proper qualifications.
Nestorius objected to this popular title. He could admit that Mary bore someone and that the someone was Jesus of Nazareth. But he reckoned that she gave birth to only the human nature of Christ. How could the divine nature be born? Divinity is eternal. It can’t be given birth. So, Mary, Nestorius reasoned, could be the mother of Jesus, but not the mother of God. If she was, then the Son of God was born, making him a creature with a beginning, and making us in our worship guilty of Arianism and of violating the second commandment.
Nestorius’ solution, or at least the theological solution that got attached to his name, was to argue for a dividing wall between the two natures. He knew the Son was God, and he knew the Son was a man. So Mary must be the mother of one half of Jesus, but not the other. She brought forth a man who was accompanied by the Logos. The two natures of Christ existed, not in hypostatic union, but in a kind of relational partnership.
Nestorius was opposed by Cyril of Alexandria (378-444), the brilliant apologist and implacable foe. He made two arguments against Nestorianism.
(1) If Mary is not theotokos, then instead of the incarnation of God himself, we have a human being born with the divine Logos. In other words, if Mary is not the God bearer, then we must understand the incarnation as something different than God becoming man. We have God coming alongside a man. No longer do we have the God-man Christ Jesus. We have Jesus Christ, a man with God in him. Thus, in Nestorianism, God is in Christ in nearly the same manner God is in us. The difference is not ontological; it is only a matter of degree. Nestorianism ends up making too little of Jesus and too much of us.
(2) If Mary is not theotokos, the relationship of Christ to humanity is changed. Only orthodox Christology allows for a real redemption of fallen man. Nestorianism’s problem was not with the two natures, but with the one person. Christ is fully God and fully man in Nestorianism, but he does not seem to be one person. Instead of two natures in a single self-conscious person, the two natures are next to each other with a moral and sympathetic union. The logic of Romans 5:19—that our salvation is accomplished through “the one man’s obedience”—will not hold. It’s only through the one man Jesus Christ, the union of humanity and deity, that we are made righteous.
Two Natures, Without Confusion
Which brings us to Eutychianism and Coptic Christians. Eutyches was a monk at a large monastery in Constantinople. He was born around 378 and died in 454. Again, it’s hard to determine what he actually taught. Eutyches himself was, to quote one author, “an aged and muddle-headed thinker.” So it’s unclear how much of Eutychianism came from Eutyches.
We do know that Eutyches had a strong anti-Nestorian bias. He was loathe to fall into the error of dividing Christ’s humanity from his divinity. So instead of division, we find in Eutychianism a confusion or mixture of the two persons. Eutyches taught that there was only one (mono) nature (physis) in Christ after the union of his divinity and humanity (hence, monophysitism).
Eutyches argued for the absorption of the human nature into the divine, the fusion of the two natures resulting in a tertium quid (third thing)–like mixing yellow and blue to get green. He said that Christ’s humanity was so united to his divinity that his humanity was not the same as ours (consubstantial). Christ was “of one substance with the Father” but not “of one substance with us.”
Eutyches was stubborn and not very careful in his theology. Yet, he was not without friends in high places. Eutyches was deposed in 448 by a Synod led by Archbishop Flavian. Eutyches complained to Pope Leo that he was treated unfairly. Leo, after some back and forth, wrote a letter to Flavian where he brilliantly surveyed all the Christological heresies and concluded that Eutyches was wrong. “In Christ Jesus,” he wrote, “neither Humanity without true Divinity, nor Divinity without true Humanity, may be believed to exist.”
But Eutyches was a friend to the Emperor, Theodosius II. In an effort to defend Eutyches, the emperor called a council in Ephesus in 449. The delegates were very pro-Eutyches and when legates from Pope Leo came to present their side, they weren’t even allowed to speak. Flavian was mauled and beat up, so badly in fact that he died a few days later. Eutychianism was vindicated, but the whole meeting was a sham. It’s now referred to as the “Robbers’ Synod.”
Later that year, Theodosius died in horse riding accident. His sister Pulcheria and her husband Marcian (not to be confused with the heretic Marcion) assumed the throne. Pulcheria agreed that the last synod was a travesty. So at the request of Pope Leo she convened a new synod at Chalcedon in 451, in what later would be considered the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The First Ecumenical Council in Nicea (325) rejected Arianism; the Second in Constantinople (381) rejected Docetism; the Third in Ephesus (431) rejected Nestorianism; and the Fourth in Chalcedon (451) rejected Eutychianism.
A Mess Worth Making?
Chalcedon didn’t settle everything. Some in the east still couldn’t swallow the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. Making things more confusing was the contested legacy of Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril was a legend already in his own age, the standard bearer for orthodoxy. He was the hero who led the charge against Nestorius, securing his condemnation at Ephesus in 431. If you agreed with Cyril, you were orthodox. If you didn’t, you probably weren’t. Unfortunately, Cyril had grown fond of an unhelpful anti-Nestorian phrase: “one incarnate nature of God the Word incarnate.” He thought this phrase came from Athanasius, but the phrase actually came from the heretic Apollinarius. Cyril used the phrase as a way to safeguard the unity of Christ against Nestorianism. In later years, Cyril was very clear that he still affirmed a full human nature and accepted the phrase “two natures” as long as it did not detract from the union of those two natures.
Many in the East, however, including in Cyril’s native Egypt, believed that embracing Chalcedon and its doctrine of the two natures of Christ was a repudiation of Cyril and his impeccable orthodoxy. This lead to a church split a millennium older than any Catholic-Protestant divisions. There are six churches known as the Old Oriental Orthodoxy (or Non-Chalcedonian Churches): Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrea, Malankara (Indian), and Armenian. These six churches have a completely different hierarchy and are not in communion with the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy (under the Patriarch of Constantinople) or with Rome (under the Bishop of Rome).
These churches have been called monophysite, but they reject the label, saying they too deny Eutychianism. They prefer to be called miaphysites because they want to emphasize the one (mia) nature, without rejecting the doctrine of the two natures of Christ.
So is the Coptic Orthodox Church actually orthodox? That depends on whom you ask, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some want to underline the fact that the church of the Old Oriental Orthodoxy still repudiate several ecumenical councils and have not formally embraced the Chalcedonian Definition. Others want to talk about the ecumenical dialogue of recent years in which leaders from the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox have agreed that they don’t disagree on the doctrine of the two natures, only on the way to say it. For my part, I’m unwilling to say the non-acceptance of Chalcedon is no big deal. And yet, it doesn’t seem in this insistence as if continued non-acceptance is the same as outright rejection or damnable heresy. There are historic and national reasons which may be obscuring a great deal of unity on Christological essentials.
No matter the confusion surrounding he Coptic Church, what is clear is that a half-way Christ cannot save. We need a Mediator who can lay a hand on us both. There is no room for a Nestorianism that threatens the unity of God’s work or a Eutychianism that threatens the fully human dimension of Christ’s work. At its best, all our doctrinal defining and theological wrangling is meant to preserve the simple, eminently biblical truth that Jesus Christ is both God and man, and as such, is uniquely and solely capable of saving the chosen ones of Adam’s helpless race.
In the comment thread and by personal correspondence, some have expressed other serious concerns with the Coptic Church besides their non-Chalcedonian Christology. My post was prompted by the question we received at the conference regarding the monophysite heresy. Hence, the focus of this post was on the history behind this Christological debate and the origination of the division between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox. I am not familiar enough with the inner workings (or out working) of Coptic Christianity to assess the church as a whole, nor was it my intention to do so.