Sunday 23 September 2012

The significance, or non-significance, of theological heresy: the Coptic example


Disputes over theological heresies have plagued Christianity since early times.

Sometimes heresies are lethal, sometimes they seem trivial, sometimes they are very significant in terms of what theology implies about the underlying motivations.

For example, my interpretation of the Filioque dispute which divided the Western and Eastern Churches, is that the Eastern objection was to the act of revising the creed (on whatever grounds - even when, as the Western Church believed was happening, they were simply making it more accurate), rather than to the true theological implications of the Filioque (which are incomprehensible to all but very few).


Because theology is almost wholly obscure to almost everybody. C.S Lewis tried never to write anything about theology, and tried not to discuss it, because he considered it too high a matter; and except among the most learned and holy disputants, that such discussions led to arguments led to schisms and weakened the Church.


At what I regard as the height of Christian society, within the Byzantine Empire, there were several major theological disputes. One was the 'Monophysite' dispute starting in the AD 400s, an outcome of which was the separation of several North African Orthodox churches including the Coptic church in Egypt. This separation remains.

The point at issue was how to describe the nature of Christ in terms of God and Man - for example, whether He was God and Man separate, or fused, or the one absorbing the other.

Now, although I can read and use the words of this dispute; this is a matter far beyond my real comprehension. I am happy to accept the teaching I have been brought up on; but if I had had another kind of teaching or emphasis or form of words - no doubt the same would apply.

And one and a half thousand years of history have, I think, shown that this was a theologically trivial dispute - since the separated Orthodox Churches (such as the Coptic) have certainly remained Christian by any sane definition; have indeed survived extraordinary persecutions.

(Although this situation has now successfully been destabilized, and it seems possible that we may soon see the end of the Coptic church in Egypt).


Presumably there is a correct answer to the Monophysite dispute, but it seems (from what we can perceive) that it doesn't (so far as we can tell) really matter to the business of living a Christian life; which in turn means it was an evil and damaging dispute: that the dispute itself was far more damaging than the heresy (whichever side was heretical: and of course, both sides may have been in error).

This - if true - would not be at all surprising. If salvation hinged upon our correct understanding and precise expression of advanced philosophical, or linguistic, concepts - then this would run counter to what what we read in the Gospels, and counter to the teachings that the poor and ignorant are most likely to attain salvation (due to their humility and love of God).


Of course, theology is necessary; yet once there is a theology there will be questions, and these questions will seem to require answers, and these answers will satisfy some and lead to further questions among others...

When Christianity focuses on theology, then trouble is in the offing, unless there is already great faith, humility, inner discipline and love of God within which theological exploration may occur.

But even then, the corruptions of the world, the limits of knowledge and the feebleness of reason will tend to lead us astray.


Intellectuals are the worst culprits. Intellectuals love to evaluate others using theological criteria: these are heretical because they believe this - we know they believe it because it is written in their versions of scripture.

Thus intellectuals reason from statements of belief, to the (supposed) implications of belief - which is insecure already; and ignore the actual outcomes in terms of Christian life


Surveying the history of the Christian Church it can be seen that some supposed 'heresies' certainly do not look like they are fatal to salvation; while others certainly do look like they are real and fatal heresies.

This distinction between significant and insignificant heresy is not immediately obvious, since a person who adopts what will turn out to be a fatal heresy retains much from their previous state, and their behaviour may not change much immediately - the implications of a heresy will typically become clearly apparent only across the timespan of one or two generations.

For instance, Calvinism in New England was rejected by the heresy of Unitarianism; but Unitarianism only lasted about a generation before it collapsed into Emersonian subjectivist Transcendentalism, which then swiftly (in less than a generation) collapsed into politics (abolition, feminism etc).


What I find dismaying is that people so seldom do what I am doing here: look back to see if what actually happened helps us to understand what is essential, and what inessential, to Christianity; and then to learn from this about how to proceed in future.

Why, for example, has the Eastern Orthodox Church not re-united to undo the separation from Monophysite controversy? Why do not Liberal Christians (if such exist) perceive that the fruits of Liberalism in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Lutheran (and other) denominations has been the destruction of Christianity?

That these things do not happen shows that the damage from theological schism is usually irreparable - that, in fact, theological schism leads to an even greater, and more damaging, focus on theology: such that after a while nothing else seems to matter.


And the one thing that cannot be perceived is that some apparent theological differences (such as the Monophysite dispute) are not valid grounds for considerations of heresy; and which side was taken made no real difference to real Christians.

It was the taking of sides that was the main problem. 




dearieme said...

The history of the Kirk is replete with schisms ("disruption", "secession" ...) but also with reunifications.

A lesson to you all, I suggest.

P.S. I assume you are joking in asserting that the Roman flounce-out from the rest of Christianity was about anything other than power and money?

Bruce Charlton said...

At the time of the Great Schism the churches were serious about Christianity in a way which we cannot really understand - so I don't think it was primarily about worldly things.

ajb said...

I agree with much of this, but wonder about something that seems to be accepted in it - need schisms be bad things? Is 1 Church necessarily better than 2? Does having multiple Churches give some sort of redundancy and variability that long-term can be a strength?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - I wrote my views about this a while back:

James A. Donald said...

> For instance, Calvinism in New England was rejected by the heresy of Unitarianism; but Unitarianism only lasted about a generation before it collapsed into Emersonian subjectivist Transcendentalism, which then swiftly (in less than a generation) collapsed into politics (abolition, feminism etc).

If we look at the New Testament position on slavery it is of course passivist and pacifist. Christians are encouraged, but not required, to free their slaves. Slaves are discouraged from rebelling and running away. Masters are required to be benevolent.

What happened when many Christian Churches adopted an activist position on slavery, a clearly heretical position on slavery?

An activist position on slavery requires war. War requires dreadful means, requires lies, terror, murder, and artificial famine - all in an undeniably good cause, of course.

Lo and behold, those churches that adopted an activist position against slavery ceased to be Christian. So that heresy, quite predictably, turned deadly.

And now, pretty much all Churches, have adopted the modern marriage vows, implying a clearly heretical position on marriage, which vows undermine and disrupt marriage, which in turn results in preaching that is fundamentally hostile to marriage as a binding contract.

Looks to me that the modern position on wedding vows is leading to pretty much the same consequences as the activist position on slavery.

Being against slavery is obviously the right thing to be. And being even more against slavery is therefore the the more correct thing to be - except that, in practice, it was not.

And similarly, equality within marriage is obviously right - except that in practice equality requires fences, i.e. requires the dissolution of marriage.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JAD - you are making rather a meal of abolition!

The question of slavery is properly subordinated to other principles. Slavery is properly thus neither good nor bad in itself - but must be judged in specific instances.

For example being the well cared for slave of a kind master is - in terms of a pleasure-pain calculus - obviously better than being freed into conditions of starvation, disease and violence (which is what often happened).

The error of abolition is to make slavery always unacceptable under any circumstances - which means that the abolition of slavery is always to be preferred regardless of the consequences.

Which is an insane attitude - whether you are a Christian or merely a utilitarian.

Yet this insanity was precisely the attitude which gripped many abolitionists for many decades: slavery was to be abolished *at any cost* and *whatever the consequences*.

Thus slavery is neither good nor bad as such. Probably it is usually bad; but that doesn't mean that slavery always the worst of possible arrangements.

The point is that any particular instance of slavery requires to be evaluated by higher principles.

So, a Christian might evaluate particular instance or system of slavery from a salvific perspective (e.g. whether slaves were free to practice Christianity).

A secular utilitarian (of such exist) might evaluate a particular instance of slavery in terms of different criteria.

But always it must be evaluated by some higher criteria; or else we get the nonsense of 'single issue' abolitionism.

FHL said...

post 1 of 2

Note: This is continued from my previous comment about Chalcedon, which I accidentally posted on the wrong post. My apologies for any confusion.

Another note: I'm not angry nor am I upset with Dr. Charlton. I thank for him for this wonderful post, of which I agree with almost 100 percent. I just want to make my views clear on a certain subject that concerns my family personally.

But I really must comment on this:

“(Although this situation has now successfully been destabilized, and it seems possible that we may soon see the end of the Coptic church in Egypt).”

You know, I worry about so much about the West. What will happen, how it will happen, whether or not we will survive, and so forth. I almost never worry about Egypt. I never worry about my family (most of whom still live in Egypt) nor the fate of the Copts in general.

Why should I?

“The situation has destabilized” - as if this hasn't happened before. This happens almost every time there is a switch of leadership in Egypt. Everyone is saying “Copts are trying to get out of Egypt,” failing to realize that the modern world is only world that has existed which has provided Copts with the opportunity to do so, through emigration to Western countries (of which my family and myself are eternally grateful and thankful for), [i]but[/i] it is the not the world that has existed which Copts would have wanted out from.

St. Mark the Evangelist was dragged to the crown of martyrdom along the Egyptian streets behind a pagan commandeered chariot and it hasn't gotten much better since. From the start, we have been persecuted. If it wasn't Emperor Diocletian, it was the Arians driving St. Athanasius into exile. If not the Arians, then the Byzantines, who persecuted us with such cruelty that Muslim rule was a relief, infidel tax and all.

From the beginning up to modern times, we* have been put to the sword and prevailed. We are not referred to as “the Church of Martyrs” for nothing. Every Orthodox church has a significant color for which they use generously within their decorations- ours is not blood red for no good reason!

FHL said...

post 2 of 2

When St. Athanasius was told “the whole world is against you” did St. Athanasius perchance reply “Well then I suppose that's the end, is it not?” No! Of course not! We do not refer to “St. Athanasius Against the World” for merely poetic reasons! When the Muslim sultan planned to exterminate the Copts unless we proved a miracle to him, a poor blind Copt (of whom we have not his name) prayed to the Lord and moved a Church from desert ground to the top the mountain! In case you did not catch that, he physically moved a church- with his prayers! When later generations of Muslims forgot this event, and decided once again to exterminate us, St. Mary the Theotokos herself appeared on top of our churches! So real was she that Muslims who were disabled had their families force their way into the church to ask for healing, much like the friends of the cripple who lowered their good friend through the roof to the Lord in the Gospel story. And this happened in the 1900s!

And so now I keep hearing “The Copts will be massacred” (and maybe we will) and “The Copts will be tortured” (and it is likely) but why do I also keep hearing “The Copts will cease to exist”?

Pope John Paul II of the Catholic Church once spoke of our church dismissively, saying that we were a “dying church” and that we'd be gone within a couple of years**. Well more than a couple of years have since passed, as well as yet another false prophecy of our extinction.

It's all very basic- the Copts pray and fast and go to church and live Christian lives. How then could they be eliminated? When you were reading the story of Esther in the Old Testament, did you ever think to yourself “Fasting will never work- they're all doomed”? Did you? Of course not! We haven't survived so long because we are charming, or overwhelmingly creative, or intelligent, or any other worldly advantage. We have survived for one reason and one reason only: because we are beloved by the Lord and we love Him in return. And no situation can destabilize that, and that is why I never fear for the Copts.

*I use the word “we” loosely; although I am racially and ecclesiastically a Copt, I have never suffered for Christ, and I personally am much too weak and would probably break and deny Christ in my weakness...

**I am not completely certain of the veracity of this alleged comment by the Catholic Pontiff. Please forgive me if it is untrue, it was just something I heard.

Bruce Charlton said...


Ooooohhh... Chalcedon...

Lord, forgive me if it is inappropriate to say so, but I hate this council. As one bishop of the ancient church pleaded to the Roman Emperor (I forgot his name): “Please reverse this council that has turned the world upside down!”

If there is one thing I wish to see before I die, it is for the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox to reunite as One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church under God. I would be so happy to see this, I cannot describe. In a state of ecstasy! -that is how you will find me if this event comes to pass in my lifetime.

I used to post on a Orthodox Christian message board several years ago. Chalcedon was always a hot topic, both in terms of popularity as a discussion point as well as its ability to raise tempers. Especially with converts from Protestantism, where it could often produce tears and anguish as well. One commenter placed it best when he stated (paraphrased from memory): “I swear, Chalcedon is like the venus fly trap of Orthodox converts. Everything will be going fine in their journey to Orthodoxy, they're joyful and full of hope, but then they inevitably come across Chalcedon and they just get stuck!”

And why would it be otherwise? When a man first decides to join the Orthodox church, he tries to find out as much as he can about the various traditions- it is like finding long lost brothers! What could be more joyous?

But here we have a case where a man finds his long lost brother and in great cheer runs to embrace him and OOPS! -he slams face-first full-force into an invisible glass barrier! What the hell?! What is this? A force field of sorts? What is this doing here? And why?

I hate schism. I really, really, [i]really[/i] hate schism. I hate all schism, including those that separate us from the Catholics and the Protestants. I do not hate the people of these of churches, no, not at all. I hate schism because I love the people of these various churches. I hate schism because it should not be this way. Noah had one ark for his whole family, not a different ship for each of his sons! If he did, he would have been constantly worried- “Did they make it? Will they be alright? Will their ship hold?”

I would rather have 10 different people who hold to sketchy theology within one church rather than have 10 different churches. At least that way there is a hope things will get fixed. All couples argue, but when they sign those divorce papers the arguments may cease but a tear has been created that echoes throughout their offspring, tormenting them.

If salvation consists of being absolutely correct to the most accurate degree on every statement phrased with the most precise terminology concerning every piece of knowledge one could have about God, then Lord have mercy- we are all doomed.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FHL - Thank you for your comments/ teaching - I was hoping you'd contribute to this topic.

JRRT Reader said...

FHL-thanks for your input here.

What were the problematic issues about Chalcedon for those converts from Protestantism that you mention? My understanding had been that even most Protestant groups accept the teachings of the councils up to and including Chalcedon. Is the point of contention here that some converts or potential converts feel a need to choose between Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy?

Is there any books anyone might recommend regarding Coptic history, traditions, etc? I've a great admiration for the Copts, especially when considering their status as one of the oldest Christian communities, and the various hardships that they have endured. One might also consider that they are the last inheritors of one of the worlds oldest cultures. (We could make comparable statements about the various Middle Eastern Christians, e.g. the Assyrian people.)Despite all of that, I've yet to make a more in depth study of Copts, and feel that I ought to do so.

FHL said...

@JRRT Reader

Thank you for the kind words!

Sorry if I wasn't clear, but yes, the problem for converts was that they were forced to choose between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, but no one could ever really effectively tell them where the difference between the two lies. Yet if they join the EO, they will not be able to receive the sacraments at any OO church, and vice-versa. So while there doesn't seem to be any theological difference (whether there used to be or not is a controversial issue, but in recent days, no can identify it), there is still an effective schism, and no one seems to really know what to make of it.

This doesn't seem to bother people born into either church as much as those who are converting, because those who are converting end up having to choose.

As for books concerning the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church, I haven't found anything spectacular, but then again, the Copts have never really been in a position of leadership for the past 1500 years so any history will probably seem a lot less exciting than that of the Western church, where the church and political power seemed to mix.

But here is a decent book, in PDF format:

(I think it is either a translation or English is the author's second language... it is a bit disorganized at parts)

However, since the church was not so divided in the early days, early Coptic Church history is the same as any early Church history. When you read about Saints such as Athanasius and Anthony, both Copts, and issues such as the Nicene council and the Arian dilemma, you are reading about Coptic Church history.