Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 24. Christological debates.
  • First, I would like to give a disclaimer about this episode before we start.
  • There is going to be a lot of difficult theological concepts in first 1/3 of this episode. I try to avoid theology when I can, but it is absolutely necessary to go through it to fully appreciate the next 100 years or so of the history of the Copts
  • To avoid any misunderstanding, I have posted the transcript of this episode on the website. If you are confused, reading it may help.
  • As a reminder, last time we stopped with the introduction of Pope Cyril as a theologian and the controversial events of his early reign
  • If you remember, the first serious theological debate we encountered in our story was the struggle between St. Athanasius and Arius/Eusebius of Nicomedia
  • The issue back then was the relationship between the members of the Trinity, especially what is the Son relationship with the Father 
  • Eventually, the universal church sided for the most part on St. Athanasius’ views that the Son is of the same essence of the Father with the Council of Constantinople also settling the issue of the where the Holy Spirit fits
  • Now, by the time of Pope Cyril, Arianism was in a unique position
  • Alive and well within the Gothic population and other Germanic tribes who were living within the empire in a geographic sense but not really a part of the empire culturally
  • As well as Arians here and there who identified as being culturally part of the empire, but those Arians were mostly divided and unable to offer a unified theological message
  • Thus, there was a need to continue elaborating on theological issues and the debated continued and evolved into other issues
  • Between 415 AD and 428 AD, the purpose of Pope Cyril’s writings was concentrated on countering Arian thoughts and to refute Jewish beliefs and their traditional view of old testaments texts
  • His attacks on Judaism fit with a wider geopolitical campaign that took place throughout the empire and were not necessarily isolated
  • In 416 AD, imperial edicts stopped referring to Judaism as a religion and used the word superstition instead
  • By 423 AD, a decree was issues that prohibited the destruction of Synagogues but crucially also prohibited the building of new ones or repairing existing ones
  • Thus, the consistent thread in Pope Cyril’s writings are how the old testament laws and stories is a foreshadow and a symbol of Christ’s incarnation and how all these old testament symbols and shadows lead to the figure of Jesus as the divine Word of God
  • Which serves as refutation to both the Jews and the Arians
  • For example, In his earliest work, a book called the “Adoration in Spirit and in Truth” he answers one of the faithful who wonders about the meanings of the two verses “I have come not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfil them” from Mathew 5, and “true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth” from John 4
  • There, he clearly delineates his position that the ‘types and shadows’ of the Old Testament find their fulfilment in the realities of the New Testament. Which means practically that only the Orthodox Christians, can explain the bible as it is meant to be explained as opposed to Jews and Arians
  • Using the allegorical methods of Origin, the Salvation views of Athanasius, and the logical flow of Aristotle, he develops a very refined theological ideas that became the standard of which all other are measured by – if not in his own time, then definitely after his death
  • To quote Cyril himself on how he thinks theologically “First we shall set out the historical events in a helpful fashion and explain these matters in a suitable way. Then lifting this same narrative out of type and shadow we shall refashion it and give it an explanation which takes account of the mystery of Christ, having him as the goal”
  • In his theological thought, how Christians are saved via the incarnation of Jesus Christ is the most important concern, which then shapes his views of Christ, I.E Christology
  • Which brings us to the conflicting views about Christ that will shape the History of the Copts, arguably to this day
  • Christology is the field of study about the nature, the role, and person of Jesus Christ
  • Almost everyone agreed back then, and now, that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God
  • But, unlike today where this statement is basically good enough for almost everyone, in the 5th century and up until Islam in the 7th century due to the heightened theological debate, almost everyone felt the need to go beyond the simple statement that Jesus Christ was fully man and fully God
  • Was
  • To add the complexity, the theological debate would carry one using both Latin and Greek, which would make it even more confusing
  • And the debate wasn’t academic in nature either, you know, like two modern physicists debating string theory verus big bang models of the formation of the universe
  • The debates were carried with personal rivalries, political considerations, and above all, a belief that only one view can be correct, and all other must be wrong and heretical and must be suppressed
  • The differentiation between what is speculative and what is a fundamental truth wasn’t a part of that discussion – At least, as far as I can tell
  • Anyway, when Pope Cyril was writing, it was before the breakout of the Christological debates, and thus, his use of certain terms was fluid, which made his writings to be one of the most abused and cited theological writings of all time
  • Once he died, everybody claimed that Pope Cyril supported their Christological view by quoting a passage of his writings
  • His commentaries on the bible were copied and preserved as the standard to which other are measured by, and new commentaries were written commenting on his commentaries – A practice still done, even to this day
  • I am going to introduce some these fluid terms now, and how Pope Cyril did treated them. They would be useful to the narrative for the next few episodes, so bear with me.
  • Also, I am afraid I will have to use the Greek terms, which means, I will probably mess up their pronunciation, so my advance apologies
  • First, there was the term Ousia – Meaning nature. Pope Cyril, uses this term to refer to the reality common to all members of the trinity
  • Then, the term Hypostasis: which means, an underlying reality – Pope Cyril uses this term to refer to the individual existence proper to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit
  • Also, there is Physis, which he uses in a way equivalent to Ousia
  • And there is also Prospon, or person,  equivalent to Pope Cyril’s usage of Hypostasis
  • So a statement he would approve of would be, The trinity is one Ousia with three hypostasis, or One Physis with three Prospons
  • I hope you are not confused yet, because this next part is when it gets all confusing
  • When Pope Cyril talks about the trinity, the above definition hold – I.E Ousia or Physis is different than Hypostasis –
  • But Crucially, when he talks about Christology Physis and Hypostasis are used interchangeably
  • And Prosopon and Hypostasis mean different things – Prosopon there equals to an actual person, while Hypostasis is used as the nature of this person
  • This 5 minute introduction on Christology is needed to understand the fundamental theological conflict between Alexandria and Constantinople that will dominate our narrative for the next few episodes
  • Now that we set the ground for Pope Cyril’s theological legacy, let’s go back to the narrative
  • In 427 AD, while Pope Cyril was well-established as the leading theological voice of the East, the Bishop of Constantinople have died, leaving the seat vacant
  • Unlike Pope Theophilus and Pope Peter the 2nd before him, Pope Cyril didn’t seem to intervene in the selection process
  • Constantinople at this point was full of competing factions, and they all tried to advance their own candidate
  • It also had its own unique flavor of Monasticism. Urban monks living in the monasteries inside the city
  • Those monks were highly influential and many of them formed connections within the Palace and their voices usually reached the emperor
  • To avoid alienating any factions, and to try to get a candidate where everyone is open to working with, The emperor decided to look for someone outside of Constantinople
  • His choice lay on a Syrian monk from Antioch, named Nestorius
  • On paper, the plan was reasonable, however, Constantinople was full of intrigue and Nestorius, as we will see was way out of his league to be able to handle the politics of the Capital
  • First, was his zeal to eliminate all whom he considered heretics
  • In his speech accepting the office, he proclaimed “Give me, O Emperor, the earth purged of heretics, and I will give you heaven in return. Assist me in destroying heretics, and I will assist you in vanquishing the Persians”
  • Within 5 days of his start, he started eliminating all unorthodox elements in the Capital –
  • Not in any sort of subtle divide and conquer way or a careful mix of carrots and sticks –
  • Nope, Nestorius went all fire and brimstone, which earned him some powerful enemies and the nickname, Nestorius the incendiary
  • I suspect though, like Pope Cyril early actions, he would have been okay, have he not alienated two very powerful elements in the Capital’s political scene and only concentrated on the heretics
  • The two elements were, the urban monks of Constantinople and The Augusta, Pulcharia. The emperor older sister, and the power behind the throne
  • The urban monks were something new that Nesorius haven’t dealt with in Syria. Like Egypt, the Syrian monks were supposed to be locked away from Society, in the deep desert or at least the outskirts of towns
  • Not in Constantinople though, the monks there were inside the city and went back and forth between the Palace, the City itself, and the Monastery
  • Uncomfortable at the sight of monks walking about in the city, and perhaps wishing to consolidate his power and jealous of their influence and independence –
  • He decreed that Monks should stay inside their monasteries and not go to the city – When some monks ignored his orders, he immediately excommunicated them – which turned the vast majority of the monastic community against him
  • His worse mistake though came with his dealing with the Augusta
  • The Augusta Pulcheria was a religious women – Living a life of a nun, or more accurately, a consecrated virgin in the Palace
  • She was a powerful woman in civil and the religious sphere of the empire and ruled in her own right while her brother didn’t reach adulthood yet, and even after he did
  • When Nestorius became the bishop, he was offended of how much power she has in the Church as a woman
  • Thus, one of the first thing he did when he arrived, was to remove her portrait from the Church of the Apostles
  • Then, just to make sure that the message is well-received, a special robe that Pulcharia have donated for liturgical use was also removed, a new one was to be used
  • The worse offence though, is that at the next Easter, when Pulcheria attempted to enter the sanctuary to receive communion
  • Nestorius closed the door and didn’t allow her to go inside the Sanctuary – He maintained that only Clergy and the emperor were allowed inside and no women were allowed in
  • Pulcheria, have been entering and taking communion this way since she can remember, was furious and asked the logical questions of why she can’t go in as a woman, Have not a woman gave birth to God after all?
  • Nestorius, dismissing her, told her that she has given birth to Satan and stuck to his grounds
  • Now that Nestroius have pissed off everyone who mattered, it wouldn’t be much longer until his demise
  • Within a year of his elevation, two competing factions in Constantinople came to Nestorius and asked, a seemingly innocent question
  • Should the blessed Mary be called Theotokos, ‘she who gave birth to God’, or Anthropotokos, ‘she who gave birth to man”
  • Remember, almost everyone at this point fully believed the Jesus was fully man, and fully God – So, the question was reasonable
  • Nestorius, picking a middle ground, answered that neither was wrong, but the title Christotokos. She who gave birth to Christ is the best title
  • A couple of weeks later, his position became more extreme when a priest closely linked to Nestorius preached a fiery sermon the Church of the Apostles proclaiming that “Let no one call Mary Theotokos, for Mary was only a human being, and it is impossible that God should be born of a human being”
  • The average men and women attending, used to hearing and saying the word Theotokos, didn’t appreciate the change, and according to the ancient sources, the change troubled many of the clergy and the laymen
  • By Christmas of 428 AD, a priest who was close to Pulcharia, in front of Nestorius gave a sermon denouncing all of who didn’t wish to give St. Mary, the title Theotokos
  • When he finished, the crowd responded with a huge applause and Nestorius was visibly uncomfortable
  • Not to be undone thought, his systemically began to dedicate all his sermon against the title and the Christology behind it, to quote one of his sermons “That God passed through from the Virgin Christotokos I am taught by the divine Scriptures, but that God was born from her I have not been taught anywhere.’ Those who call Mary Theotokos are heretics “
  • Opposition in the Capital reached the average citizen, and even posters and pamphlets were circulated accusing Nestorius of heresy
  • Now, as the leading theologian of the East, Pope Cyril naturally gave his opinion. But aware of the controversial legacy of his uncle when he publicly opposed John Chrysostom, he proceeds carefully, and only sticking to Theology and addressing his opinion to the Egyptian monks in a well-circulated letter
  • He insists on the title Theotokos – Anything other than this title calls into questions the divinity of Christ
  • He also calls the legacy of St. Athanasius and his use of his term.
  • Finally, he addresses why the title of St. Mary affects the basic foundation of Salvation according to Athanasian views
  • To quote Russell Norman Cyril of Alexandria book “The title safeguards the true union of God and man in Christ because it excludes the idea that Christ is either merely a God-bearing man or else a God who simply uses the body as an instrument”
  • When the letter was brought to Constantinople, Nestorius wasn’t happy and he let Pope Cyril know that instead of writing a public letter, he should have reached out privately to him first
  • Pope Cyril responded that his letter was in response to the issue reaching Egypt and it was his duty to correct wrong beliefs that enters Egypt, not to mention, he adds, the Pope in Rome was also planning to write something
  • Now, Pope Cyril throughout his reign have managed to cultivate an excellent relationship with Rome, cemented by the restoration of John Chrysostom as discussed last week
  • While Nestorius, as it was typical for him, managed to anger Rome by receiving a group that the Roman bishop considered heretical and listening to what they have to say
  • Anyway, doubling down on the his antagonistic behavior, Nestoriusvgot some Alexandrians who had a grudge against Pope Cyril and proceeds to elevate their complaints to the emperor
  • With this developments, Pope Cyril took the issue seriously and started an international campaign against Nestorius
  • And as his theology and writing were vastly superior, that became the cornerstone of his campaign
  • Letters systemically refuting Nestorius’ views were sent to various bishops throughout the empire as well as to the imperial families
  • Pope Cyril realizing the influence of Pulcharia and the emperor wife, he sent them a different letter addressed to them personally, than the one sent to Theodosius
  • Which alienated the Emperor as he felt that Cyril is trying to enlist the Pulcharia to his cause independent of him
  • Their relationship would be tense, and if Theodosius wasn’t a weak emperor dominated by his court, things would have been vastly different
  • As a result of that Campaign, by August 430 AD, a Synod of Italian bishops excommunicated Nestorius and communicated to Pope Cyril to enforce the decision in the East
  • Pressure was building up from monks in Constantinople as well, who nagged the emperor to call a universal council
  • At this point, in an act of pure political stupidity, Nestorius decides to go ahead and support a universal council as well
  • Perhaps he thought his theological arguments would win the day, or maybe he thought that Theodosius would finally assert himself and support him
  • He failed to see the clear obvious facts that he had too many enemies and that Pope Cyril was a formidable theological opponent
  • He could have worked out something though, have the council been planned in Constantinople or another friendly place, like Antioch, his home city
  • Alas, it was Pulcharia turn to take part, and through her influence, the city of Ephesus was picked for the Council’s location
  • A city whose bishops was hostile to Nestorius and its main church, undoubtedly where the Council will take place was dedicated to none other than, St. Mary ---- The Theotokos
  • Before I end this week episode, I would like to briefly go over the Christological consequences of the title of St. Mary and what exactly was Pope Cyril concern and what was Nestorius saying
  • A word of disclaimer though, what exactly was the nuances of Nestorius teachings is debated among academics
  • At one extreme, there are some who assert that he was Orthodox and was completely misunderstood
  • At the other extreme, there are some who assert that he clearly didn’t held the figure of Jesus as fully divine and thus, he was just a different flavor of Arian thought
  • What I am presenting here is based on Russell Norman book Cyril of Alexandria, which I think is the a middle ground, and a fair representation
  • According to Russell Norman, both sides here agreed to the Nicene creed, that is Christ was truly God and truly man
  • Their disagreement was basically about the nature of Christ masquerading in the title of St. Mary
  • Cyril, rooted in the Salvation thoughts of St. Athanasius, didn’t accept that a Christ who was the result of an extrinsic union or in the words of Nestorius, a conjunction between the two natures of divinity and humanity, was capable of achieving salvation
  • Thus was his insistence, at the title, Mother of God and the associated one divine and human nature of Jesus Christ
  • Nestorius, for his part, was concerned that a Christ that has one nature, as Cyril seemed to be preaching, wouldn’t be fully man.. Thus, his refusal of the Theotokos title.
  • Now, for the careful listener, notice how the word nature slipped in there? Well, that would come back to haunt this Podcast for a while.
  • Next week, the events of the Council of Ephesus will unfold, and despite the odds, Nestorius would be partially successful – I mean, Nestorian Christians would survive and do extremely well for a long time – Arguably, they still around to this day
  • Thank you for listening, and farewell, and until next week

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu by" John, Bishop of Nikiu
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
  • Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories by" Philip Schaff (Author), Henry Wace (Editor)
  • Cyril of Alexandria. Norman Russell by" Norman Russell
  • Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: The making of a Saint and of a Heretic by" Susan Wessel
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