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A History of Christianity in Egypt - A Church in Upheaval - The Council of Chalcedon


A History of Christianity in Egypt
A Church in Upheaval - The Council of Chalcedon

No sooner had the Nestorian Heresy been dealt with at the First Council of Ephesus (431), the third such council to be held in a little over a century, than a new problem arose. Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, had preached that Jesus was not one being comprising the human and the divine, but two beings, one human, one divine, that shared the same body. Such belief was found to be contrary to Christian dogma, a statement echoed and reinforced by the Council of Ephesus. Furthermore, the Council of Ephesus, which had been held under Saint Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, affirmed that the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos, the "God-Bearer," or "Mother of God," titles that Nestorius and his followers had reservations about. They said that Mary only bore the human part of Jesus, and that the divine was imparted by Heaven after the birth. By calling Mary Theotokos was to believe that both human and divine were born in one being, which is the belief of much of Christianity still today. Such questions over small aspects of belief may seem academic to those of us living in the modern world, but it is these very arguments that created what modern Christians take for granted. The Council of Ephesus condemned and excommunicated Nestorius and labeled the belief as heretical, which indirectly led to the schism between the established Christian Church and the Christians in East Syria and Mesopotamia, and are now called the Syrian Orthodox, or Jacobite (after the sixth-century bishop Jacob Baradaeus), Church. The new problem was that the opposite belief had started, that of Jesus Christ as a single being in which human and divine were united, but that the human was subsumed and absorbed by the divine, instead of being in equal parts. This belief was labeled the Monophysitic Error (Mone Physis; one nature).


This "error", whose chief proponent was Eutychius, was first detected by the Patriarch of Antioch, Domnus. A formal accusation of heresy was given by Eusebius, bishop of Phrygia, at a synod in Constantinople. Eutychius, despite brilliant oration on his belief in a single-nature Christ, was deposed and excommunicated. He appealed to Pope Leo I, to other bishops and also to Emperor Theodosius II (from whom he won great sympathy). The Second Council of Ephesus was held in August 449. By this time, Saint Cyril had been succeeded by his nephew Dioscurus I. Dioscurus ignored the Roman delegates and refused to allow the reading of the letters from Pope Leo explaining the Incarnation with special reference to Eutychius' beliefs. Dioscurus declared Eutychius orthodox and reinstated in his offices, while deposing Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople and Eusebius, Bishop of Phrygia. Because of these highly unusual and violent events, the Second Council of Ephesus has been called the Latrocinium, the "Robber Council."

Emperor Theodosius II approved of the acts of the Second Council of Ephesus; Pope Leo I, once he found out what had happened, condemned via letters and a Roman synod, everything the Council had done. He requested a new council in Italy to right the wrongs of Ephesus, citing the (nonexistent) appeal of the deposed Flavian. Theodosius refused the request, but his sudden death (an event that raises more than a few eyebrows at this point) less than a year later in 450 changed the imperial attitude towards Rome. Theodosius was succeeded by his sister Pulcheria, who soon after married and co-ruled with the general Marcian. Both Marcian and Pulcheria were opposed to Dioscurus and Eutychius, and informed Pope Leo of their wish to call a new council. Interestingly enough, by this time, Anatolius of Constantinople (who had succeeded Flavian) and many other bishops who had supported Eutychius now condemned him. The new council, originally to be held at Nicaea, was moved to Chalcedon, as the emperor was unable to travel to Nicaea at that time.

Chalcedon was, to say the least, impressive. There were between sixteen and twenty-one separate meeting sessions held in the Church of Saint Euphemia, Martyr, just outside the city. In a letter to Pope Leo, the number of bishops attending is given as 520; Pope Leo in his writings says 600; and according to the general estimate, there were 630, including the representatives sent by bishops unable to attend. No council before Chalcedon had such a large attendance, and few councils since then have surpassed that number until recent times. There were representatives from all over Christendom: from Rome, from Africa, and from the Illyricum (Egypt, Palestine, Asia, Dacia, Macedonia, and others). Paschasinus, Bishop of Lilybaeum, presided over the council, as per the request of Pope Leo to Emperor Marcian. Even Dioscurus of Alexandria was present, a fact that did not please many there, and open protests were made. Eusebius of Phrygia, reinstated in his office, leveled accusations of heresy and criminal acts at the Second Council of Ephesus against him. This controversy coupled with the suggestions of the imperial commissioners to prompt the removal of Dioscurus from his seat and deprive him of his vote.

Among the documents (testimonia) brought forward were the creeds of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381), two letters of Saint Cyril of Alexandria (his letter to Nestorius and his letter to the Antiochene bishops written after his reconciliation with them in 433), and the epistle of Pope Leo I. All the documents were approved as being of sound Christian theology. In its third session the Council decreed that Dioscurus was to be deposed and excommunicated for his previous acts, a fact communicated not only to Dioscurus but also to the imperial throne. In a further session, the partisans of Dioscurus at the Second Council of Ephesus were pardoned and allowed to attend the sessions, while many more bishops, monks, and archimandrites were accused of Eutychianism. The fifth session was the publishing of the creed of Chalcedon that affirmed the equal parts of the human and divine Christ in one body, one being.

However, the ruling of the Council of Chalcedon regarding the dual nature of Christ in one being did not end the controversy. Rather, it boiled over rapidly. Furthermore, the relationships between the Egyptian churches and Constantinople were strained as the Egyptian Christians refused to acknowledge the authority of Alexandrian popes appointed by the Byzantine state. Egypt's churches and Constantinople had rarely been on excellent terms, beginning when Dioscurus, while Pope of Alexandria, openly stated to Marcian "You have nothing to do with the Church." It is this stance in favor of a separation of Church and State that may have led to Marcian finally allowing the calling of Chalcedon in the hopes of exiling the "renegades" who he may have seen as a threat to his authority (at the time the popes and the Emperor were seen as equals). It is certainly true that the Egyptian Christians at least, did not truly believe in monophysitism as it was portrayed at Chalcedon. Rather, they too followed the idea of the two natures, equal in the one person of Jesus. After looking under the surface, it would seem that the schism that resulted from Chalcedon, like the others that would follow centuries later in the Reformation, was largely political in nature, and not the result of true religious differences.

Perhaps the Egyptian Christians were misunderstood at Chalcedon. Perhaps they were misrepresented by the council, or perhaps everyone was duped by Emperor Marcian and his followers. Perhaps Pope Dioscurus didn't work hard enough to convince the rest of the council, as he certainly had the support of many who saw the misunderstanding. Or perhaps the council understood the position but wanted to remove the power of the Egyptian Pope who said that Church and State should be separated. Both the Egyptian Christians and their Western counterparts believed in a Jesus Christ both human and divine, and it is tragic to think that a major schism resulted from what was most likely a combination of miscommunication and political interference. In the end, the Council of Chalcedon led, as the First Council of Ephesus did before it, to a lasting separation.

The non-Chalcedonian Christians of Egypt eventually formed what is known today as the Coptic Orthodox Church, currently with over nine million members in Egypt alone, and many more all over the world, including the United States, Europe, and Asia. The current Pope of the Coptic Church, Shenouda III, is the 117th successor to Saint Mark, showing the endurance of the Coptic Church through hardship and persecution, some of it even at the hands of their fellow Christians. The Catechetical School of Alexandria, founded as the Didascalia in the late second century, still educates the Coptic clergy and stands as a monument to theological studies. The Coptic Church prays daily for Egypt and its people, as well as for world peace and the continued prosperity of the whole human race.

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