PART I - The Road to Chalcedon


In the beginning was Christ

When I was a child at primary school, I remember an important question that made me think deeply  about who Christ is. I was sitting in the classroom when the teacher of History asked me," What do you say about Issa (an Arabic name for Jesus)?" I replied, "He is the Son of God." As could be expected of a pious Muslim woman, the answer perplexed her, so I said, "But he is a man." Although it was me who answered the question, I was not less perplexed than her! I returned home and told my mother about what had happened while she was washing dishes and preparing dinner. I said, "I think Christ can't be but a man. However, He is the Son of God because he was born miraculously and without a father." She said, "Christ is a true God, you should learn to confess that whenever you are asked about Him. Christ says, “Whoever disowns me before others I will disown before my Father in heaven (Matt 10:33)." I felt the weight of the question and the importance of reaching an answer. Is He a God or a man or something else?

I was raised in a Coptic family. The word Copt comes originally from the Greek word for Egypt, Aigyptos, and the word Copt merely meant Egyptian. After the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the 7th century and the subsequent transformation of Egypt to a Muslim majority country, the term Copt came to apply only to the minority of Egyptians who remained Christian.   My family was not greatly involved in the religious life of the Coptic Church, largely because we lived in an Arab Gulf country at the time rather than Egypt. After my father passed away, we moved back to Egypt where we experienced a new and different religious atmosphere, being surrounded by Coptic churches. Christ was my main concern but the question remained unanswered.


For historical and doctrinal reasons, the question, “who is Christ?” has a unique taste and impact in Egypt. It was from Egypt that the most controversial Christological debate emerged and led to convening three ecumenical councils. In fact, it is no exaggeration today that the schism among the Christians of the Church of Alexandria after the council of Chalcedon changed the whole map of the world forever.


Returning to the question. I felt it was time to address it definitively when I entered University because I then had the time, language and mental capability to start searching more deeply for an answer. I was studying engineering but I decided to join the Coptic seminary and attended evening classes. From the classes, I came to understand that the Coptic Church believes in a single Greek formula, which is called the "one incarnated nature". Consequently it refused the formula of the council of Chalcedon and condemned Pope Leo of Rome for his confessional epistle called "The Tome".


At the time, I had never seen a translation of The Tome in Arabic translation but had read about it in some books. One of them was the book of Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church. He wrote "the two natures became so apparent that it was said that Christ is two persons, a God and a human being; the one works miracles and the other accepts insults and humiliation."[1] I discovered later, when I managed to obtain the Tome in English for the first time that this translation was inaccurate. Pope Leo was clear in his distinction between Christ's natures and in preserving the unity of His person.


My next question was why the Coptic Church held this doctrinal position.  I found that the isolation of the Coptic Church resulting from political conflict between the Patriarch and the Byzantine Empire led to new theological developments taking place far from the orthodox ecumenical stream. This helps to explain the sociological, political and theological circumstances that led to the emergence of what was called later the Monophysite Christology, which the majority of Copts have held since the fifth century.


Monophysitism is the doctrine which states that Christ has only one nature. That is, the divine. The term was not generally used by the Monophysites themselves. Nevertheless, Pope Shenouda uses it saying, "The term 'Monophysites' used for the believers in the One Nature has been intentionally or unintentionally misinterpreted throughout certain periods of history."[2] In the same book, Shenouda says: "The Virgin did not give birth to a man and God."[3]


I was still seeking to answer my original question and I felt that this Monophysite doctrine of the Coptic Church failed to interpret the truth of Christ who is truly divine and truly human. Rather I began to feel that the writings of the holy fathers and the acts of the Ecumenical councils were better able to express the truth of how God himself became man.


The Road to Chalcedon


While most Copts rejected the council of Chalcedon's definition and established their own patriarchate with the excommunicated patriarch Dioscorus, I could not.  I started reading the orthodox writings on Christology; mainly, the series in Patrology of the prominent Russian scholar, Georges Florovsky.


Through this reading I came to understand the centrality of Christology in the life of the Orthodox Church and how it is this that made it full of life.  I saw how the fathers of the church lived and witnessed to the truth of Christ's divinity and humanity and how the Hypostatic union and formula of Chalcedon shaped the liturgy and worship of the Church.  This helped me to finally find the answer to my question; Christ who is God became Man. One person with two natures united ineffably. It is the mystery of faith that was revealed in the New Testament, preserved by the fathers and lived by the Church. Christ is true the Son of God, the second person of Trinity.


In accepting the teachings of the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church Christology I came to understand and experience with joy the God in Christianity as a real God who can communicate with the world. He is not a myth or some descriptions recorded and passed down through history. He came and spoke to us and became man so that we can understand him. He became man so man might become a god as Saint Athanasius the Great said.[4] Salvation totally relies on this truth, Christ's true humanity as much as His true Divinity. If man is mortal, he is immortal by partaking of His divine nature (2 Peter 1: 4) and it is true to say along with St. Gregory of Nazianzus "that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved."[5]



PART II -  "It's Time for Change"



Theological significance

After my realization that the Christology of the Church Fathers is the cornerstone of Christian Theology, I began to immerse myself in the creeds and minutes of the Ecumenical Councils. I was especially intrigued by the Council of Chalcedon. I remember when I bought the three volume set of the acts of the Council of Chalcedon published by Liverpool University and I began to pore over the details that led to its decisions and to the confession of faith. There may be disagreements about some of the events that took place at the Councils but an examination of the Council of Chalcedon's sessions and the creed that emerged from them, gives us a deep insight into the thinking of those who put the Christian creed into words. It illustrates and how they understood Christ.

As I had personally experienced, any unbalance in understanding who Christ is will inevitably shake the whole Christian belief.  That's why the Fathers of the Church were carefully using unique and specific terminology for the creed. They did not imitate or invent a myth but they crafted the template with which we describe the truth of the revelation recorded in the Scripture. The work of the Holy Spirit was obvious in their witness to the one truth. This ensured that terminology didn't take over meaning, but rather it illuminated it.


The Fathers were not merely debating irrelevant or other-worldly concepts and so they were mindful of their responsibility to defend the faith carried to us by the Apostles. This endeavor was the crux of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. This time, the question was not one of loyalty to the preferred terminology of a certain person but of loyalty to the faith. This was the core of St. Leo the Great’s famous letter best known as the Tome.


In my opinion, the most important passage in the Tome is number IV. This passage of the Tome summarizes the meaning of the scriptures and echoes Paul’s two famous poetic passages in Philippians 2: 6 and Galatians 4:4-6, which describe how God became man and gathered weakness with almightiness in His very own Person. St. Leo ends with the conclusion "…Therefore in consequence of this unity of person which is to be understood in both natures , we read of the Son of Man also descending from heaven, when the Son of God took flesh from the Virgin who bore Him. And again the Son of God is said to have been crucified and buried, although it was not actually in His Divinity whereby the Only-begotten is co-eternal and con-substantial with the Father, but in His weak human nature that He suffered these things. And so it is that in the Creed also we all confess that the Only-begotten Son of God was crucified and buried, according to that saying of the Apostle: "for if they had known, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.(1 Corinthians 2:8).


The Chalcedonian creed grew meaningfully in this spirit. Despite the use of classic patristic terms like "Theotokos" and "hypostasis", it was not limited by terminology. It managed to be, as Karl Rahner says, “both; a point of end and beginning. As much as it managed to explain a doctrine and put an end to nearly two hundred years of controversy, it managed to be the base for a deeper Christian anthropology in the light of Divine love.”



The "Theanthropic”[6] Essence


Having answered my initial question of who is Christ and grounded my understanding of what that practically means through studying the Council of Chalcedon, I began to take steps in deepening my concept of faith and spirituality. I found that there are two kinds of spirituality; a real and a fake one. Real spirituality is based on Christ as the reality and the cornerstone of the Church. He is Truth (Jn 14:6) and real spirituality is abiding in Him (1 Jn 2: 28). In contrast, fake spirituality often emanates from shifting emotional needs. Some people enact a superficial spirituality out of fear of hell or judgment, while others seek good deeds to satisfy something inside them or wear a mask like the Pharisees (Mark 12:40). This appearance of spirituality cannot carry on permanently and can never be as beautiful or solid as a spirituality based on the image of the God Man i.e. Theanthropos. When spirituality is deeply rooted in the knowledge of Christology, we are better equipped to recognize the beauty and meaningfulness of Christian life.


Here came the crucial point. I knew that believing in Christ should be based on two important concepts; firstly, we should understand that incarnation is not only that the Son assumed flesh in the womb of the Mother of God. That was only the beginning. Incarnation found its fulfillment when God the Son lived the whole human experience with all its limitations. Jesus poured from His divine light into the human experience and delivered it to God as Paul says, Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrew 2:17-18). This makes the human form complete and enables it to be deified. In this way, Christ becomes the Archetype of man and the goal of a deified humanity. He is Alpha and Omega.


Secondly, we need to see the divine person. So, the second Hypostasis of the Holy Trinity, that  is the Son, took human form. Consequently, our nature is inside his hypostasis and in this way we meet God, not merely a prophet, because Jesus is the expression of God's essence (Hebrews 1: 3). That's why when we see Jesus, we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord” ( 2 Cor 3:18).  St. Leontius of Byzantium used the term enhypostaton , which means Christ's human nature had never been in a human person or different person from God, but became personalized in His Divine hypostasis/person.


It's Time for Change


Salvation is crossing to the "other" nature. I remember a beautiful definition of redemption in the recent book of Pope Benedict XVI, which says, "the disciple who walks with Jesus is thus caught up with him into communion with God. And that is what redemption means: this stepping beyond the limits of human nature, which had been there as a possibility and an expectation in man, God's image and likeness, since the moment of creation."[7]


This is the difference that an understanding of Christology made in my life. To believe in the God-Man is to know how much God loves his creation and especially mankind. Because He Himself became man living the experience of human nature and leading it to the divine mode of being even though humans killed him. It's almost impossible to understand this ultimate self-giving as described by St. Paul in Philippians 2: 4-6 and continue to treat people with disrespect.


At the heart of Salvation is the divine enhumanation, whereby God the Father sees His own Beloved Son's face in human form. Through Jesus' being one among us,[8] God the Father sees us in His Son. He pours His Spirit in us through his Son, so we partake of His Sonship (Galatians 4: 4-8). At the same time, in Jesus we see the divine nature, the Divine prosopon.[9]


The real meaning of this was beautifully expressed by an interesting story that Henri Boulad, a Jesuit monk, told us during the first Theological-Ecumenical Conference in our Church in Egypt. When the Jesuit order in Egypt was preparing the next issue of its annual magazine, Boulad was asked to choose a picture of Jesus for the cover. He saw icons and images from here and there but then he chose a picture of a homeless child he saw in the street. He said when we can see the divine image in that child and move towards it with love as God did with us through his incarnation, then we become saved.


So, we truly accept salvation when we see the divine image of the Son within the humanity of every human being we meet. Then we can see Christ in them and pour our love on them, even God pours his divine light through us – His Eucharistic community - so we become His priests for the new glorified world exactly as Paul said in Romans 8: 19 - 20.


It is these concepts that were put into words in the Chalcedonian creed and these same concepts are exactly those that were rejected by the Non-Chalcedonians, such as the Coptic Church in which I had been raised. Consequently, they reject the whole orthodox teaching of salvation as I have come to understand it.[10] In September 2006, having concluded all of this, I said to myself, "It’s time for change!" and I was received into communion with the Orthodox Church where I'm now celebrating and living the fullness of the divine economy and its 2000 years of  life and prayers.


Now, if the same history teacher asked me the question “Who is Jesus?” again, I would reply with the same answer; Jesus is God and Man. I won’t be perplexed this time, not because I could reveal the mystery of incarnation but because now I understand it and accept it by faith. However, I don't think that she will be less perplexed.


[2] Ibid. p.4

[3] Ibid. p.9

[4] Athanasius of Alexandria, Treatise on Incarnation, 53.

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 51

[6] This term is derived from Theanthropos; a Greek patristic word that means "The God Man", who is Christ.

[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p.8. Rome 2006

[8] while we are ontologically rooted in Him through Eucharist (partaking of His own life)

[9] Prosopon means person, in Christ we meet God personally because Christ is not different to the divine son or even united with him. Christ is the divine person Himself.

[10] That led to a series of condemnations inside the Coptic Church against scholars who accepted deification and salvation as mentioned before. The most famous case is the excommunication of the prominent scholar George H. Bebawi who serves now under the Russian Orthodox Church.