THE COPTIC CHURCH
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
ALEXANDRIA AND CHRISTIAN DOGMAS1
Dogmas, to the Coptic Orthodox Church, are not merely
theological concepts concerning God, man, church, eternal
life, heavenly creatures, demon etc.., to be discussed among
clergymen, scholars and laymen, but are, in essence, daily
experiences each member of the church has to live. In other
words, dogmas representing our faith in God through
various aspects have one message, i.e. our communion with
God the Father in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God,
by His Holy Spirit. Thus, we conceive of our redemption,
and our membership of the church, a deep understanding of
the Holy Bible, an acceptance of the Kingdom of God within
our souls, a communion with the heavenly creatures and the
experience of eternal life.
DOGMAS AND INTEGRAL CHURCH LIFE
The Christian Church is not merely a school involved in
researches and teaching dogmas, but an institution which
worships God and serves mankind. It works for the
transformation and the renewal of this world, and hopefully
awaits the world to come. Truly, the Christian Church would
not be the church as we know it without Christian dogmas2.
Dogmas interpret our whole philosophy of the church through repeated practise of our faith through the holy tradition (the holy Scriptures, worship, behavior and preaching). All these elements represent different aspects of the one inseparable church life.
If we look at the relationship between the dogmas and the
holy Scripture, we observe that they are not only based on
the Scripture but that any dogmas which has no base in it is
invalid. Dogmas in fact are mirrors of the holy Scripture.
They explain the holy Scriptures and attract men to enjoy its
Similarly, we can say that dogmas are the way in which believers are guided to worship God in truth and in spirit. True worship reveals our dogmas in simplicity.
Dogmas correlate to our ascetic attitude. The early
Alexandrian theologians and clergymen were true ascetics,
and as a result asceticism still strongly affects our theology.
This is not by denying the needs of our bodies, as some
scholars charge, but by insisting on the soteriological aspect:
The early Coptic ascetics were involved in enjoying the
redeeming deeds of the Holy Trinity, i.e. in enjoying the
sanctification of the soul, mind, body, gifts etc.. through
communion with the Father in His Son through the Holy
Early Egyptian asceticism was biblical. It did not hate the
body, its senses and capacities nor did it deny the human free
will, or despise earthly life and all its properties. Coptic
asceticism in its essence was not an isolation from men, but
rather enjoying unity with God. This attitude affected our
theology and dogmas, through concentration on the
"deification," ie. the return of man to the original image of God by restoring his soul, mind, body etc.., in preparation for Paradise.
Concerning the relationship between dogmas and behaviour or practical faith, we have to distinguish between only believing (without practising) and a living belief, for as St. James says: "even demons believe" Jam. 2:19.
Concerning the relationship between dogmas or theology
as a whole and practical religious life, we can quote Alan
Richardson: "Religious people very often feel that theology
leaves a cold dead abstraction in the place of what was once
a warm and living faith. Theology, like any other study can
become dry and academic.. The fact is that religion without
theology is as unthinkable and incomplete as theology is
without religion: the two are as complementary to one
another as theory and practice4.
The close relationship between dogmas and preaching was well exercised through the ordination of the majority of the early deans of the School of Alexandria as Popes or Bishops of this See. Those men were well educated in theology, and dogmas and were highly capable of preaching and practising pastoral care.
In conclusion, the true theologian is not merely a man
who is involved in discussing or teaching dogmas, but also
one who accepts the dogmas of the church of which he is a
member. Therefore Origen calls him "a man of the church5."
He is not only a spokesman of the church but he practises its
Dogmas are what is believed, taught, confessed and practised.
DOGMAS AND KNOWLEDGE
One of the very important characteristics of the church of
Alexandria was her broad-mindedness and openness of heart
towards philosophers. While leaders of the church in other
countries looked at philosophy as an enemy of faith (like St.
Justin and Tertullian), our Fathers embraced philosophers
with love, treated them as children in need of the church to
help them grow through faith into manhood. Thus the Alex-
andrians saw faith not as opposite to the mind and
knowledge, but as a satisfaction of mind and an elevation of
thoughts through which one could enjoy Divine knowledge.
This knowledge was thus superior to philosophical
knowledge. God grants faith to men who are His rational
creatures, and He would not destroy the minds which He
During the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria, a
theologian of great piety, wide reading and classical
scholarship, believed that the spiritual believer was a
Gnostic, giving the word "gnosis" (knowledge) a Christian
meaning, instead of the common meaning-of that time which
signified "heresy." He says: "Gnosis is the principle and
author of every action conforming to the Logos6," the grace
of gnosis comes from the Father through the Son7.
Faith, in our concept, embraces all human nature, it
signifies not only our souls and hearts but also our minds and
THE "DOGMA" BASED ON "TRUTH" AND "LOVE"
Dogmas, as we have seen, are the interpretation of our
experience of God, in the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ.
This experience throughout the ages does not alter, for Jesus
Christ remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb.
13:18). The disciples and apostles (and bishops afterwards)
did not sit around a table and agree to teach new dogmas,
but rather they preached their Christian experience. As St.
John says, "That which we have seen and heard declare we
unto you" 1 John 1:3. Thus all Christian dogmas resulted
from Church's experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ,
"Truth and "Love" at the same time. We receive these
dogmas as the unchangeable truth that we must holdfast,
The Alexandrian Popes (bishops) as theologians and
pastors at the same time looked to dogmas as an expression
of evangelic truth integrated with love. They were very
zealous in defending the Orthodox faith and dogmas against
any heresy, not only in Egypt but in all Christendom, offering
their lives as sacrifices on behalf of the church. They were
very firm and strict concerning the faith they had once
received (2 Tim. 12,14), and some historians accuse them of
violence, but in fact they were truly loving and kind men. St.
Cyril wrote to Nestorius telling him that he would never find
a person who loved him like Cyril, but never would this love
be at the expense of his faith. He hated heresy and error but
loved the soul of the heretic and desired his salvation.
DOGMA AND THEOLOGICAL TERMS
The Alexandrian Fathers used theological terms to explain
the divine truths and their deep meanings, and to defend the
Orthodox faith against heresies, but they were not enslaved
to the terms themselves. St. Athanasius who devoted his life
to defending Christ's Godhead stated that disputes merely
about words must not be suffered to divide those who think
DOGMA AND RENEWAL
The Coptic Orthodox Church is well known as a
conservative church, especially in dogmas and doctrines. At
the same time, it progresses not by embracing new doctrines
or new "articles of faith," but by explaining the same faith
"once given to the saints"(Jude 3) in a contemporary lan-
1. Fr. T. Malaty: Alexandria & Christian Dogmas, Ottawa, 1986.
2. See Jaroslaw Pelikan: The Christian Tradition, vol. 1, 1973. p1.
3. Terms Physis & Hypostasis in the Early Church, p. 19.
4. Creeds in the Making, SCM, 1979, p. 8.
5. In Levit 1:1; In. Jos. 9:8.
6. Strom 6:69:2.
7. Ibid 5:71:5.
8. St. Athanasius: Tome of the people of Antioch. Fr. R. Malaty: The Terms Physis and Hypostasis in the Early Church, 1986, p. 4.
9. For more details see our booklet: Alexandria Christian Dogmas (reference 1 above).
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