Cairo – Egypt. April 18, 2010
Exclusive to Pravmir.com
Edited by Elizabeth J Iskander PhD
The Road to Chalcedon
In the beginning was Christ
When I was a child at primary school, I remember an important question that made me think deeply about who Christ is. I was sitting in the classroom when the teacher of History asked me,” What do you say about Issa (an Arabic name for Jesus)?” I replied, “He is the Son of God.” As could be expected of a pious Muslim woman, the answer perplexed her, so I said, “But he is a man.” Although it was me who answered the question, I was not less perplexed than her! I returned home and told my mother about what had happened while she was washing dishes and preparing dinner. I said, “I think Christ can’t be but a man. However, He is the Son of God because he was born miraculously and without a father.” She said, “Christ is a true God, you should learn to confess that whenever you are asked about Him. Christ says, “Whoever disowns me before others I will disown before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:33).” I felt the weight of the question and the importance of reaching an answer. Is He a God or a man or something else?
I was raised in a Coptic family. The word Copt comes originally from the Greek word for Egypt, Aigyptos, and the word Copt merely meant Egyptian. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century and the subsequent transformation of Egypt to a Muslim majority country, the term Copt came to apply only to the minority of Egyptians who remained Christian. My family was not greatly involved in the religious life of the Coptic Church, largely because we lived in an Arab Gulf country at the time rather than Egypt. After my father passed away, we moved back to Egypt where we experienced a new and different religious atmosphere, being surrounded by Coptic churches. Christ was my main concern but the question remained unanswered.
For historical and doctrinal reasons, the question, “who is Christ?” has a unique taste and impact in Egypt. It was from Egypt that the most controversial Christological debate emerged and led to convening three ecumenical councils. In fact, it is no exaggeration today that the schism among the Christians of the Church of Alexandria after the council of Chalcedon changed the whole map of the world forever.
Returning to the question. I felt it was time to address it definitively when I entered University because I then had the time, language and mental capability to start searching more deeply for an answer. I was studying engineering but I decided to join the Coptic seminary and attended evening classes. From the classes, I came to understand that the Coptic Church believes in a single Greek formula, which is called the “one incarnated nature”. Consequently it refused the formula of the council of Chalcedon and condemned Pope Leo of Rome for his confessional epistle called “The Tome”.
At the time, I had never seen a translation of The Tome in Arabic translation but had read about it in some books. One of them was the book of Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church. He wrote “the two natures became so apparent that it was said that Christ is two persons, a God and a human being; the one works miracles and the other accepts insults and humiliation.” I discovered later, when I managed to obtain the Tome in English for the first time that this translation was inaccurate. Pope Leo was clear in his distinction between Christ’s natures and in preserving the unity of His person.
My next question was why the Coptic Church held this doctrinal position. I found that the isolation of the Coptic Church resulting from political conflict between the Patriarch and the Byzantine Empire led to new theological developments taking place far from the orthodox ecumenical stream. This helps to explain the sociological, political and theological circumstances that led to the emergence of what was called later the Monophysite Christology, which the majority of Copts have held since the fifth century.
Monophysitism is the doctrine which states that Christ has only one nature. That is, the divine. The term was not generally used by the Monophysites themselves. Nevertheless, Pope Shenouda uses it saying, “The term ‘Monophysites’ used for the believers in the One Nature has been intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreted throughout certain periods of history.” In the same book, Shenouda says: “The Virgin did not give birth to a man and God.”
I was still seeking to answer my original question and I felt that this Monophysite doctrine of the Coptic Church failed to interpret the truth of Christ who is truly divine and truly human. Rather I began to feel that the writings of the holy fathers and the acts of the Ecumenical councils were better able to express the truth of how God himself became man.
The Road to Chalcedon
While most Copts rejected the council of Chalcedon’s definition and established their own patriarchate with the excommunicated patriarch Dioscorus, I could not. I started reading the orthodox writings on Christology; mainly, the series in Patrology of the prominent Russian scholar, Georges Florovsky.
Through this reading I came to understand the centrality of Christology in the life of the Orthodox Church and how it is this that made it full of life. I saw how the fathers of the church lived and witnessed to the truth of Christ’s divinity and humanity and how the Hypostatic union and formula of Chalcedon shaped the liturgy and worship of the Church. This helped me to finally find the answer to my question; Christ who is God became Man. One person with two natures united ineffably. It is the mystery of faith that was revealed in the New Testament, preserved by the fathers and lived by the Church. Christ is true the Son of God, the second person of Trinity.
In accepting the teachings of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church Christology I came to understand and experience with joy the God in Christianity as a real God who can communicate with the world. He is not a myth or some descriptions recorded and passed down through history. He came and spoke to us and became man so that we can understand him. He became man so man might become a god as Saint Athanasius the Great said. Salvation totally relies on this truth, Christ’s true humanity as much as His true Divinity. If man is mortal, he is immortal by partaking of His divine nature (2 Peter 1: 4) and it is true to say along with St. Gregory of Nazianzus “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.”