twenty-one Egyptian Christians were brutally beheaded by Muslim radicals working for the Islamic State in Lybia. The Coptic Orthodox Church announced yesterday that the twenty-one victims will be inserted into the Coptic Synaxarium (the Oriental Church’s official list of martyrs) and commemorated in the church calendar as martyrs and saints. Christians of every denominational and doctrinal stripe have expressed outrage, sadness, and a sense of unity with their fallen brethren.
Which leads to an important question: how should we view the Coptic Orthodox Church?
This isn’t a bad question, provided we approach it in the right way. Let’s set aside the issue of what the twenty-one martyrs understood about monophysitism. That’s not unimportant, but as far as I know the information is unattainable. Besides, what is most needed at this point is prayer for the persecuted church and sympathy for the suffering. Thinking about these men who died because of their allegiance to Christ, men who belonged to one of the oldest church communions in the world, and men who called upon Jesus as they were murdered on the beach—trying to determine whether these men were actually Christians seems like remarkably poor form.
And yet, perhaps now is an appropriate time to consider more broadly and think more carefully about why some consider the Coptic Orthodox Church to be, well, unorthodox. While participating in a panel discussion at Ligonier last week, one of the first questions we were asked was about the twenty-one Coptic martyrs and the heresy of monophysitism (yes, it’s that kind of conference). So let’s step back and try to understand the history and theology behind what may be the oldest (formal) split in the church.
Two Natures, Without Division
To tell the story properly, we have to start with a man by the name of Nestorius. Nestorius was born sometime after 351 and died sometime before 451. He was the patriarch of Constantinople. His teaching was condemned by the third ecumenical council at Ephesus in 431. It’s unclear whether Nestorius was actually a Nestorian. What is clear is that Nestorius was not very careful in his theology and did not acquit himself very well when he was put on the spot to defend his views. Continue reading