Earlier I wrote about what I call the “Eastern blind spot in Protestant Apologetics.” Many Protestant Evangelicals tend to have a “blind spot” when it comes to Church history, especially with regards to the Eastern Church. For many Evangelicals, Church history jumps from the book of Acts to Martin Luther in 1517 AD.
This “blind spot” often becomes real apparent when Evangelicals discuss historical theology and only mention Catholic writers from the West. For example, traditional Evangelical Protestant apologetics countering the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist most likely will focus on medieval Catholic writers and the Catholic council that defined Transubstantiation. Byzantine, Syrian, and Coptic Christian writers from the Early Church on the Real Presence are routinely ignored. The average Evangelical believes that the idea of Real Presence dates from the thirteenth century and was one of those “Catholic inventions.” This same list of “inventions,” popularized by Protestant theologian Loraine Boettner, puts the idea of seven sacraments as late as 1439. The fact that the belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a universal belief of the Ancient Church is lost on most Evangelicals, often because many of them don’t even know about the Eastern Christian Churches. Many Evangelicals confuse Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, let alone Coptic, Syrian or Armenian Orthodoxy.
For example, the predominant Christian Church in Egypt is the Coptic Orthodox Church, numbering over 15 million members. Most Evangelicals are unaware that this ancient Church is not in communion with either the Eastern Orthodox Churches or the Catholic Church. What is significant for the discussion here is the date of the separation between the Coptic Church and the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches — 451 AD, at the Council of Chalcedon. This is fully 600 years before the more well known schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches.
Even though I had been visiting Eastern Christian Churches for a few years, I myself didn’t know about the Coptic Church’s history until I visited a parish in Arizona for Liturgy. At the time, I was Eastern Catholic and I would visit various Orthodox parishes with an Eastern Orthodox friend. We both decided to visit a Coptic parish and the priest, noticing two English-speaking visitors, decided to do most of the Liturgy in English for our benefit. At a certain point, a commemoration was made for “St. Dioscorus,” who I remembered was the Patriarch of Alexandria condemned at the Council of Chalcedon. I turned to my Eastern Orthodox friend and asked: “So these people are not in communion with the Eastern Orthodox?” “No,” he replied, “we’re working on it, however.” Neither one of us could receive Communion that day. The realization hit me, from a liturgical perspective, that the Liturgy I was observing was historically quite significant. The separation between the Coptic Orthodox and the Western and Eastern Orthodox Churches was bitter and complete. What the Coptic Orthodox preserved in their liturgical tradition would give evidence of what was a “lowest common denominator” of belief when compared with the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches. What was the shared belief of the Ancient Christian Churches about 450 AD? What did they believe about the Eucharist, the Real Presence, the nature of Baptism, the seven sacraments, etc.?
One can read online Coptic sources for liturgical texts, about the spirituality of its Liturgy, or their view of the Sacraments (which they number as 7), but the historical reality of the ancient nature of their liturgical theology (most of which is shared by the Eastern Orthodox and by Catholics) is more apparent if one witnesses their Liturgy.
Getting Protestants to understand this angle of historical theology has been difficult as most would never consider visiting a Coptic parish. But, recently, the entire Coptic Liturgy in English (filmed in Egypt in September, 2009 and aired on Egyptian TV) has been posted to You Tube in 10 parts. The first part is up at:
(The remaining 9 parts can be viewed by going to the You Tube site for this video and clicking above the video next to “mauritius29.” The Eucharistic Prayer is in sections 7-10.) The entire service can be viewed here:
Much of Protestant apologetics against liturgical and sacramental theology has traditionally focused on a historical approach against “Catholic inventions,” which is manifestly flawed. More recent Protestant responses to Eastern Orthodoxy often assumes that by the year 1054 AD (the year traditionally given for the East-West Schism) the Eastern Church had had plenty of time to fall into apostasy. The Coptic Church demonstrates that a liturgical and sacramental theology permeated the Christian Church 600 years before the East-West Schism. At the very least, we can say that at the time of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), a Protestant theological approach is light years away. Did it exist before then? Were there Christians in the Early Church who looked like the Evangelicals of today? If so, they left no mark in either the Ancient Churches nor in the writings of the Church Fathers in East or West.
Note (8/24/2010): I’ve responded to one criticism and expanded on the above at: