THE COPTIC CHURCH AND THE ECUMENICAL COUNCIL1
FR. TADROS Y. MALATY
THE SCHOOL OF ALEXANDRIA AND THE ECUMENICAL COUNCILS
Scholars who study the first Ecumenical Councils, get to
know the Alexandrian theologians as leaders and pioneers of
the Christian faith and thought on an ecumenical level. Their
prominence was not based on any political power, because
Alexandria was under the Roman Empire and subsequently
was ruled by the Byzantines, until the Arab conquest of
Egypt. Their strength was based on their deep spiritual, pi-
ous, theological and biblical thought and studies.
The Alexandrian Fathers were not looking for leadership
for personal benefit, but it was the openness of their hearts
with divine love and their extensive studies that attracted
many people to the School of Alexandria and to the Egyptian
desert, where they learned the Alexandrine theology and
were introduced to the ascetic life of the Egyptian monks.
The Copts, by their adherence to the orthodox (true) faith
since early Christianity, played a positive role in solving
many theological problems in both East and West. They did
not interfere in other church's problems, but because of their
spirit of love and unity they were called upon and consulted
by other churches.
When the Emperors accepted the Christian faith and the
waves of persecution calmed down, the heretics found a
great opportunity to spread their adverse teachings,
especially Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches, Apollinarius etc.. It
became imperative for the Alexandrian Fathers to play their
positive role in trying to win back these heretics to the true
faith perseverance, but not at the expense of the evangelic
thought of church faith.
Now, I will confine my writing to the role played by certain Alexandrian Fathers in the Ecumenical Councils, setting aside a separate chapter to St. Dioscorus and the attitude of the Council of Chalcedon towards him because of its importance, regarding how the Chalcedonian Churches perceive us, and for those who do not understand the truth of our belief in the nature of Jesus Christ.
POPE ATHANASIUS THE APOSTOLIC AND THE COUNCIL OF NICEA
In our book: "The Coptic Orthodox Church as a Church
of Erudition and Theology," I dedicated a special chapter to
Pope Athanasius and Arianism. I will limit myself here to
what St. Gregory of Nazianzen said, "When I praise
Athanasius, virtue itself is my theme; for I name every virtue
as often as I mention him who possessed all virtues. He was
the true pillar of the Church. His life and conduct were an
example for bishops and his doctrine represents the
St. Athanasius was ordained Patriarch (Pope) of
Alexandria in A.D 328, and he presided over the church for
forty-six years, of which over seventeen were spent in exile
on account of his vigorous opposition to the spread of
Arianism, which had the support of certain emperors. He was exiled five times.
Due to the spread of Arianism, which denied the divinity
of Christ and considered Him a creature found before all
times, and an instrument for creation, who played the role of
a mediator between God and the world, in A.D 325 the First
Ecumenical Council was held in Nicea. Arianism also
maintained that the Holy Spirit is not God but is still an
inferior god to the Logos.
It was Emperor Constantine who invited the council, that
was attended by 118 bishops, among them Pope Alexanderus
of Alexandria, who was accompanied by St. Athanasius his
secretary at that time. St. Athanasius was a young man, and
as a deacon he was not allowed to participate in the
discussions. It was said that the Pope ordained him a priest
so that he can take part in the discussions. St. Athanasius
entered into a dialogue with Arius and his followers, and
completely defeated them with his zeal to defend faith,
strong theological knowledge and reasoning. He wrote the
Creed which all churches recite today. When the council was
over, he left, after winning the admiration of all the bishops
assembled there and the hatred of the party of heretics who
opposed him vigorously .
John Henry Newman wrote of Athanasius as that extraordinary man... a principal instrument after the Apostles by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and he believed in the Word2.
POPE TIMOTHY (TIMOTHIUS) AND THE
COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
The second Ecumenical Council was held in A.D 381 at
Constantinople, at the invitation of Emperor Theodosius the
Great. The Council was attended by 150 bishops, to try
Macedonius who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He
was a follower of Arius and managed to become the
Patriarch of Constantinople. Pope Timothy played a vital
role in the council, and according to Sozomen3 he chaired
The council dealt at first very effectively with theological
matters, then it discussed some administrative issues, and
here the temporal pride entered into church. The Council put
the Church of Alexandria after the churches of Rome and
Constantinople, as Rome was the capital and Constantinople
was the "new Rome." At this point the Pope and the bishops
of Alexandria withdrew from the Council. This withdrawal
from the Council did not in any way affect the Fathers of the
Council in their works world-wide. It did not affect our
appreciation for them. We remember them in every liturgy of
Eucharist. It did not affect the position of Alexandria, for we
find William Worrell writing about the ecumenical
movement, "The see [of Alexandria] was the most important
in the Church, as the city was the most important in the
whole East. To the prestige of ancient Egypt and Hellenistic
Alexandria, the reputation for Christian learning and the
power of leadership were added4."
POPE CYRIL THE GREAT AND NESTORIANISM
On the 22nd of June A.D. 431, the third Ecumenical
Council was held in Ephesus, at the order of Emperor
Theodosius the Lesser. It was attended by 200 bishops, and
St. Cyril the Great, Pope of Alexandria, chaired the council.
The Council convened to try Nestorius, the Patriarch of
Constantinople, for he divided Christ into two separate
persons: the Son of God and the son of man. St. Cyril
stressed on the unity of the Godhead and manhood without
mixing or mingling. He also stressed on the title
"Theotokos," i.e. "the mother of God" for St. Mary, in order
to clarify that who was born from her is truly God the
Incarnate Word and not an ordinary man on whom the
Godhead descended subsequently. I have already discussed
this subject in the book "Church of Erudition and theology."
1. Orations 21.
2. The Penguin Dict. of Saints, p.53.
3. Sozomen H.E. 7:7,9.
4. A Short Account of the Copts, Michigan, 1945, p.17.