Since its beginning, the Coptic Orthodox Church has played an important role in Christian Theology as a source of thousands of texts, and biblical and theological studies. The Holy Bible was translated into the Coptic language in the second century and hundreds of scribes made copies of the Bible and of other liturgical and theological books. In the monastery of Abba Pishoi alone, in the Natrun Valley of the Western desert of Egypt, there were about 400 scribes. Today, libraries, museums and universities throughout the whole world possess hundreds and thousands of Coptic manuscripts.
The School of Alexandria
Long before the establishment of Christianity in Egypt, Alexandria was famous for its various schools, among which was the `Museum’, the greatest philosophical school in the East containing up to half a million books and manuscripts in its library . It was a unique center of a brilliant intellectual life where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish cultures were taught.
As recorded by Saint Jerome, Saint Mark himself founded the School of Alexandria and established it for the teaching of Christianity as the only means of giving it a firm foundation in the city. The School became well-known; it was the oldest center for sacred sciences in the history of Christianity. Many prominent bishops from different parts of the world were instructed there and it introduced into the world many scholars and saints, such as Athenagoras, Clement, Saint Dionysius, Saint Peter the Seal of Martyrs, Saint Didymus the Blind, and the great Origen, who was considered the father of theology and was active in the field of commentary and the comparative study of the Bible.
The metaphorical way of commentary, with its deep spiritual meanings, began in Egypt. Origen composed over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla. In this context, the historian Rees states, “The most renowned intellectual institution in the early Christian world was undoubtedly the Catechetical School of Alexandria, and its primary concern was the study of the Bible. The preoccupation of this school was to discover everywhere the spiritual sense underlying the written word of the Scripture”. The School rivalled the `Museum’, and attracted and converted some of its philosophers who later became Church leaders. Many scholars such as Saint Jerome visited the School of Alexandria to communicate directly with its scholars. Saint Didymus the Blind was dean at the time. Of their meeting, Saint Jerome said that he learnt much from Saint Didymus and wished he could spend more time with him.
Athenaglcoras the Apologist was the head of the Alexandrian Academy and was determined to write against Christianity. After reading the Holy Scriptures, however, he became a defender of the Faith.
Pantaenus the Philosopher was one of the greatest deans of the Catechetical School of Alexandria; so much so that the historian Eusebius believed that he was its first dean. Saint Clement spoke of him as the greatest and most perfect teacher.
Saint Clement was born of pagan parents, a disciple of Pantanaeus and was converted to Christianity and ordained a priest in Alexandria. He succeeded Pantanaeus as dean of the School and among his disciples were Origen and Alexander, Bishop of Jerusalem.
Origen, due to his zeal in preaching and teaching Christianity, was appointed dean of the School when he was eighteen years of age by Saint Dimitrius, Pope of Alexandria. Not only did he devote his life to studying and teaching the Holy Scriptures, but his life was exemplary of the evangelic life. His disciple, Saint Gregory the `wonder-worker’ said of him, “He influenced us by his deeds more than by the doctrines he taught”. Origen prepared people not only for baptism, but all the more for martyrdom.
Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, also called the `Teacher of the Universal Church’, was a disciple of Origen. He was head of the School for about sixteen years, was ordained deacon by Pope Demetrius, and priest by Pope Hercules. In 247 AD, he was elected as Pope of Alexandria and had the difficult task of preserving the Church amidst persecution.
Saint Peter the Last Martyr, was ordained Pope of Alexandria during the Diocletian persecution in 302 AD. When he was imprisoned, he warned his disciples against Arius for he had seen our Lord in a vision with His garments torn, and when he asked Him about the cause, He answered that it was Arius. In 311 AD, when the crowds surrounded the prison to save their Pope Saint Peter, he sent secretly to the commander to plan for his martyrdom without killing his people, in order to avoid any bloodshed.
Saint Didymus the Blind, lost his eyesight at the age of four, but due to his ardent desire for learning, invented the method of engraved writing for reading with his fingers, fifteen centuries before Braille. By this method, he learnt by heart the Holy Bible and the Church doctrines. He became dean of the School of Alexandria, and among his disciples were Saint Gregory of Nazienza, Saint Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius. In his dispute with the Arians, he conquered them. Saint Anthony said to Saint Didymus: “Do not be sad that you have no eyesight with which the animals, and even the insects, share, but remember that you have divine insight with which you can see the light of divinity”.
Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, in defending the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, wrote his famous series of four books “Contra Arianus”. Saint Jerome said that at one time, the whole world would have fallen into Arianism, had it not been for Saint Athanasius. He was ordained Patriarch of Alexandria in 328 AD, and shepherded the Church for forty-six years, seventeen of which he spent in exile on account of his vigorous opposition to the spreading of Arianism, which had the support of certain emperors. He was exiled five times, during which he went from country to country, continent to continent, forming holy synods, maintaining the Faith, and explaining the Divinity of our Lord.
The Christian School began as a catechetical school where candidates were admitted to learn the Christian Faith, along with some Biblical studies to qualify for baptism. Admittance was open to everyone, regardless of their culture, age or background. By the second century, the School had become quite influential in the life of the Church as can be seen in the following:
• It was able to quench the thirst of the Alexandrian Christians for religious knowledge, encourage higher studies, and create research fields in various areas.
• It gave rise to numerous spiritual leaders over the years, many of whom were to sit on the throne of Saint Mark.
• Through its missionary zeal, it was able to win souls to Christianity from within Egypt and abroad.
• It attracted students from other nations, many of whom became spiritual leaders and bishops in their Churches.
• It used philosophy as a weapon against pagan philosophers.
At the time of Saint Clement of Alexandria, three courses were taught:
1. A special course for non-Christians, introducing the candidate to the principles of Christianity.
2. A course on Christian morals.
3. An advanced course on Divine wisdom, and sufficient knowledge for the spiritual Christian.
The subjects of the School of Alexandria were not limited to theology, but science, mathematics and the humanities were also taught. Worship went alongside study. Teachers and their students practised prayer, fasting and various forms of asceticism. In purity and integrity their lives were exemplary. Celibacy was a recommended example, followed by many.
The Ecumenical Councils
In the first ecumenical councils, the Alexandrian theologians were leaders and pioneers of the Christian Faith, their strength lying in their deep, spiritual, pious, theological and Biblical thought and studies. Due to their adherence to the Orthodox Faith since early Christianity, the Copts played a positive role in solving many theological problems in both East and West. They did not interfere in other Churches’ problems, but because of their spirit of love and unity, were consulted by them.
While Christianity and the monastic movement were spreading in Egypt, heresies within the Church began to arise, threatening to undermine the very essence of Orthodox Christianity and destroy the basic fibre of the Church. Battles for the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Faith were being waged in Alexandria and in ecclesiastic centres throughout the Christian world. Peace from the persecutions had not only brought growth and expansion within the Church, but had also provided an ideal climate for fostering dissension and heresy. As a result of heresies, the Christian Church saw the need to define its doctrines more clearly and to formulate its creeds of Faith.
The Coptic Orthodox Church played an important part in the first three Ecumenical Councils, which convened to put a stop to heresies, to formulate the Orthodox and Apostolic creeds and doctrines, and to document the Apostolic canons of the Church.
The First Ecumenical Council
This council was convened in Nicea, in AD 325, because of the heretical teaching of Arius, a priest from Libya, who denied the Divinity of Christ and taught that Christ had been created within time. It was attended by 318 bishops, including Pope Alexandros, the 19th Patriarch of the See of Alexandria, twenty Coptic bishops and Saint Athanasius, at the time a deacon twenty years of age. Saint Athanasius skilfully defended the Orthodox Faith, and the Council refuted Arius’ heresy, affirmed the Divinity of Christ and formulated the Nicene, or Athanasian, Creed of Faith, which is still faithfully adhered to by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and used in part or in whole by most of the Churches of the East and West, till this day. The Creed was worded by Pope Alexandros, deacon Athanasius, and Leontius, Bishop of Caeserea in Cappadocia, and was approved and signed by the members of the Council.
Other issues, such as the date of the celebration of Easter, the question of re-baptism of apostates, the question of celibacy or non-celibacy of the clergy, as well as a number of other questions, were considered. The Patriarch of Alexandria was given the responsibility of writing a Paschal letter to all the other patriarchs and bishops, advising them of the date of Easter. The outcome of all these issues and debates was the formulation of twenty canons regulating Church matters.
The Second Ecumenical Council
Held in Constantinople in 381 AD, and attended by 150 bishops, this Council convened to refute a new heresy being proclaimed by Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, who denied the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Council, including the Alexandrian delegation led by Pope Timotheus, the 22nd Patriarch, affirmed the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and added the last clause to the Nicene creed, concerning the Holy Spirit, affirming faith in the Universal Church, the oneness of Baptism, and the awaiting of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life.
The Third Ecumenical Council
In Ephesus, in 431 AD, this Council convened to refute the heresy of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who stated that Christ had two separate natures, and that the Human Christ alone suffered and died on the Cross, apart from the Divine Christ. He also denied the title of `Theotokos’ or `Mother/Birthgiver of God’ given to the Virgin Saint Mary.
The Council was attended by 200 bishops, among whom was Pope Cyril I, also known as `Pillar of the Faith’, the 24th’ Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria, who had previously convened two local councils of the bishops and heads of the See of Alexandria, and circulated many letters concerning the Nestorian heresy. It was Saint Cyril who worded the Introduction to the Creed, which was affirmed and accepted by the first Council of Alexandria, and which is still recited in the Coptic Church as a prefix to the Athanasian, or Nicene, Creed. Among the Egyptian delegation to the Council also were Saint Shenouda of Akhmim and Saint Dioscorus. Under the presidency of Pope Cyril I, the council condemned the teaching of Nestorius, excommunicated him, reaffirmed the perfect union of Christ’s Divinity with His Humanity, and acknowledged the Virgin Saint Mary as the `Theotokos’ or ‘Mother / Birthgiver of God’.