The growing civil unrest in Egypt has resulted in tension among the factions of the country’s Muslim population, but it has also resulted in increased threats and violence against the nation’s Christian minority, most of which is Coptic. When American Protestants hear about such violence, our natural and appropriate response is outrage, but it also leads to a question many Evangelicals are no doubt asking: What, exactly, is a Coptic Christian?
Understanding the origins of Coptic Christianity requires a dip into Church history. Christianity in Egypt is traditionally traced back to the Gospel writer Mark, and in the early centuries of the faith, the Egyptian city of Alexandria was one of the most important Christian centers. Some philosophical tensions were evident early, however. Alexandria was an outpost of “eastern” Christianity, which tended to emphasize Christ’s transcendent deity. “Western” Christian centers, on the other hand, stressed His humanity more heavily. These differences in theological emphasis — coupled with the late Roman Empire’s geographical politics — all came to a head in 451 A.D. at the Fourth Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon.
The details of Chalcedon are almost absurdly technical. While imperial politics played a major role in the proceedings and aftermath, the immediate theological issue the council tried to answer was just what happened when God the Son became incarnate as Jesus Christ. Did He exist (1) with two natures (human and divine) in radical distinction, (2) two natures commingling without losing their individual integrities, (3) a single divine nature, or (4) a composite of the human and the divine that formed a new type of nature?
Whatever Chalcedon’s complexities, the result was that the second position was upheld, leading to the famous “Chalcedonian Definition of Faith“. The Bishop of Alexandria, Dioscorus, was disgraced, in part for his role in attempting to defend Eutyches, a monk accused of holding the fourth position (“monophysitism“). Alexandria and its surrounding sites never accepted the Chalcedonian Definition. They rejected the label “monophysite,” but also opposed Chalcedonian Christology, arguing instead for a middle “miaphysite” position.
These events were the origins of the Coptic Church as distinct from broader catholic Christianity. Indeed, the divide represents one of the first major Church splits, predating the Great Schism with Eastern Orthodoxy by over 500 years and occurring more than a millennium before the Protestant Reformation. As a result, the Coptic Church developed on an almost parallel course to Catholicism, with its own succession of popes and its own distinctive liturgy. Also, similar to Eastern Orthodoxy, it contains a distinctly ethnic facet: Copts consider themselves the original Egyptians, rather than the country’s largely Arab Muslim population.
Islamic forces took Egypt decisively in the early 640s, but the Copts, weary of Roman and Byzantine Christianity’s periodic crackdowns against its Christology, were not entirely unwilling. During the last 1,400 years, Muslim majority rule of Egypt has at times entailed prejudice or persecution for the Copts, but at other times has allowed for a substantial degree of tolerance and coexistence. In the meantime, various attempts have been made to reconcile the Coptic Church with the churches from which it broke.
Attempts at rapprochement with the Catholic Church faltered during the Crusades and again at the Council of Florence in 1441. Recent developments, however, have been more positive. Forty years ago, Pope Paul VI met with Coptic Pope Shenouda III, leading to a clarifying of key Christological terminology. And earlier this year, the Coptic Pope Tawadros II met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, leading to further solidarity. Since the 1980s, meanwhile, relations between the Coptic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have also thawed, to the extent that the two groups will now accept one another’s sacraments. The Coptic Church’s relationship with Protestantism was initially strained: 19th century missionaries were regarded as rivals rather than allies. Given recent persecutions, however, the groups appear more willing to acknowledge each other’s faiths as legitimate.
Throughout their history, the Coptic Christians of Egypt and its neighbors have been no strangers to suffering, and we need to pray and work for their perseverance through these most recent trials.
Image via Lollylolly78.