THEOLOGY IN THE COPTIC CHURCH
It is hard to talk about a specifically Coptic theology, for the Coptic Church is part of the Eastern Christian Church. Thus, in order to define the development of Coptic theological thought, it is important to put it in the context of the historical development of the Coptic Church. Nothing is known about the beginning of the Coptic Church except that some pilgrims from Egypt heard the first preaching of St. Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2:10). Apollos is another witness. He was a Jew born in Alexandria and learned in the scriptures who met Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus (Acts 18:24). St. Mark is traditionally considered as the founder of the Coptic Church.
Some scholars, after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi manuscripts in 1945, developed the thesis of a heretical origin of Christianity in Egypt. It is possible that Gnostics were counted among the Christian groups of the time, but we do not have any information about their numbers or their activities, nor do we have any conclusive archaeological evidence relating to them. Other scholars have highlighted the role and activity of the Alexandrian Jews. However, archaeological material, such as the fragment of the Gospel of John discovered in Fayoum, shows clearly that Christianity was already widespread in Egypt by the beginning of the second century.
The second century is the age of the “Apostolic Fathers.” This name is given to a circle of authors who enjoyed direct contact with the Apostles themselves. None of them had an actual or alleged relation with Egypt, but their works were copied and translated into the Coptic language. After the Apostolic Fathers came the apologetical and the antiheretical authors who strove to defend Christianity against pagans and heretics.
None of their works survived in Coptic. By the end of the second and early in the third century, the School of Alexandria began its well-known activities. Among its key personalities were Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen. This school attained to its highest reputation under the direction of Origen. Many of the Church leaders during the three centuries that followed were either trained in it or even directed it.
This school adopted the allegorical method of exegesis of the Bible. In the third century, another important pastoral event took place when Bishop Demetrius consecrated three bishops; after that time, the number of bishops began to increase. By the end of the third century, Antony had withdrawn from the world to become the first monk and hermit. Next to nothing of the output of the first masters of the School of Alexandria has survived in Coptic, except for the work of those who occupied the episcopal throne, such as Athanasius and Cyril. Monastic literature was written in Coptic or translated into that language.
A new era for the Christian Church began with the advent of Constantine and the edict of Milan in 313, where Christians gained freedom of worship. This century is characterized by theological debates. The Coptic Church played an important role in the ecumenical movement. Athanasius of Alexandria was a key person in combating the Arian heresy and defending the Council of Nicaea. Monasticism and monastic communities were instrumental in combating Christian heresies as well as pagan religions, especially in Upper Egypt.
The theological literature of this century is characterized by the defense of the faith against heresies such as Arianism and Apollinarianism. In order to define the faith, the first ecumenical council was assembled in Nicaea to refute the Arian heresy, where Athanasius, the future patriarch of Alexandria, played a pivotal role. Apollinarianism was condemned in the second ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 380 a.d. We have also some exegetical works on the books of the Bible, in addition to homilies and collections of miracles related to the cult of martyrs (Coptic literature is rich of this area).
The fifth century is marked by Christological debates. These started with Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, and former student of the Theological School of Antioch, who preached that the Virgin Mary should not be called “Theotokos” (God-bearer) for she brought forth a man and should thus be called “Christotokos” (Christ-bearer).
The first reaction came from Alexandria, when Cyril refuted his assertion through several theological treatises on the nature of Christ. Emperor Theodosius II summoned a council in Ephesus. This council ended in chaos; however, an exchange of letters after the council between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch resulted in a sound theology of the nature of Christ that was accepted by both churches, the Alexandrian and the Antiochian.
The affair was reopened with a new definition by Eutyches, which required the assembly of a second council in Ephesus in 449 by the order of the Emperor Theodosius II. This council also ended in chaos. The emperor suddenly died shortly after this council, and the imperial authority (Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II) convoked another council in Chalcedon in 451.
This council promulgated a definition of faith that outlawed Nestorianism and Eutychianism, and exiled the Patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus. The council also recognized the Tome of Pope Leo I of Rome as orthodox, and in harmony with the views of the Church Fathers and Cyril of Alexandria. Only a few fragments related to these councils in the Coptic language survived in the biography of Dioscorus, and an apocryphal work by Dioscorus on Macarius of Tkow narrates the events of the Council of Chalcedon.
The definition of faith was problematical from the start because in the East it was seen as only an interpretation of the symbol or Creed of Nicaea. Also critical was the resolution of the council, later known as Canon 28, which gave to Constantinople (the “New Rome”) equal privileges to those of Old Rome in ecclesiastical matters, and decreed that the eastern capital should hold second place after Rome. As a result of this canon, the traditional influence of Alexandria, the second-largest city of the empire, was diminished.
The reaction of the Bishop of Rome to the canon was also unfavorable, and he was reluctant to accept it explicitly. The issues of the formula “in two natures” and Canon 28, as well as the ratification of the Tome (considered by many in the East to be Nestorian), were to cause unrest and resentment among Christians in both East and West in the century that followed, and a lasting division in the churches of the eastern Roman Empire. Christians were polarized into “Dyophysites” and “Monophysites.” With good reason, this could be called “the Great Schism” and contributed to the success of the Arab invasion.
In the 50 years after Chalcedon, there were repeated efforts by the imperial government in the East to restore ecclesiastical and political unity. The most famous example of this was the Henoticon of Emperor Zeno in 482, which emphasized the faith of Nicaea. Although it was a masterpiece of imperial diplomacy and nominally at least brought the eastern sees into communion, in the long run it was unsuccessful because for those opposed to the council, only an outright condemnation of the Tome of Leo and the Council of Chalcedon would suffice. However, Zeno left a lasting impression in the Coptic mentality; he is always mentioned as a God-fearing and pious emperor. His daughter Hilaria is considered one of the saints of the desert of Scetis.
The sixth century is marked by the continuous debate between “Monophysites” (or “Miaphysites”) and “Dyophistes.” After Emperor Zeno, emperors interfered in the elections of the patriarchs of Alexandria, imposing sometimes one of their followers who shared their faith. Miaphysite bishops and patriarchs were exiled. Among the great theologians of the sixth century, mention must be made of Severus of Antioch who wrote many theological treatises refuting the Dyophysite belief. Some of his works have survived in Coptic. Theodosius of Alexandria was also considered as one of the great figures of this century.
The sixth century saw the appearance of two new types of theological works. The first is the Catenae (chain of commentaries) on the Bible, arranging a collection of works of patristic exegesis verse by verse according to the book of the Bible. From this period we have a Coptic Catena on the four Gospels written in the Bohairic dialect, originally from the Monastery of St. Macarius and preserved now in the British Library. The second type are the florilegia, which are collections of patristic quotations on dogma drawn from the existing corpus, such as Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil, Gregory, and so on. We do not have a florilegium in the Coptic language; only an Arabic translation of the Book of the Philalethes survives. Rufus of Shotep, an author of the sixth century, is one of the last representatives of the theological School of Alexandria.
The Coptic Church rejected the monothelite doctrine imposed by Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century. It was seen as a new version of the Chalcedonian faith. We have some indirect attestations reflecting the Coptic mentality, such as the “Life” of St. Samuel of Kalamon, or fragments from Patriarch Benjamin of Alexandria. Egypt was the target of several invasions in this century, first by the Persians and then by the Arabs. However, we have some Coptic theological books of this century, such as the Questions of Theodore and the answers of John the patriarch, and a discussion between a Jew and a Christian.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, the Coptic Church did not take part in the iconoclastic crisis. During this time only a few theological works were produced, including the translation of some patristic homilies. Starting from the 10th century, scholars and ecclesiastical authorities of the Coptic Church started to write in Arabic for the governors first and then for their congregations. See also NICENE CREED.