A Coptic Orthodox icon of Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper
Awhile back I wrote about what I’ve come to refer to as Protestantism’s Eastern “blind spot.” When Evangelical Protestant apologists usually discuss the development of historical Christian theology they often characterize sacramental theology (Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Confirmation or Chrismation, Confession and Absolution, etc.) as “Roman inventions.” In that blog post I cited the specific example of the Coptic Orthodox Church as demonstrating the falsity of that view. In 451 AD, the Coptic Church was separated from the bulk of Christendom — from what is now known as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church but maintains to this day a strong sacramental theology. (The Coptic Church belongs to what are known as the Non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox Churches.) The reality is that a full sacramental theology can be traced back to Christian antiquity — to the Early Church Fathers. I concluded:
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.
One Protestant blogger said that I had
overstate[d] the separation of the “Coptic Orthodox” both from the Eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics. His idea is to suggest that when Coptics, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholics agree on something, it proves it goes back to 450 A.D. This kind of idea is naive at best, for it ignores the very real interaction and cross-pollination that exists amongst those three groups, as well as between those groups and other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East or the Ethiopian Orthodox.
First, I want to point out that to speak of “real interaction and cross-pollination” between the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in this context makes little sense. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was administered by the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959. They are essentially the same Church but now have separate Patriarchs. But, then, even many Eastern Orthodox are not that knowledgeable about these Churches.
There’s no denying that traditions grow and develop or that influences can be discerned at times. However, if there’s any naivety here, it’s the assumption that the liturgical and sacramental theology in all these various Eastern Churches (Coptic and other Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian, Eastern Orthodox, etc.) can be accounted for by “real interaction and cross-pollination” instead of just admitting that they pre-date the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. Besides hurling anathemas against each other throughout history these Churches were often persecuted (sometimes violently) by the other. To assume the common sacramental theology can be accounted for because they somehow learned these things from each other is ludicrous. More on that in a moment. My Protestant friend then changed the subject from sacramental and liturgical theology to trying to find sola scriptura arguments in the Church Fathers. I’m going to stay with the subject of a common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches and not go down that rabbit trail. For those interested, this article by Joe Gallegos gives a balanced view of the Church Fathers on that subject, though I would not agree with Joe’s final conclusion.
Back to the idea of “real interaction and cross-pollination.” How did the Coptic Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox get along after the Council of Chalcedon in the Byzantine Empire? This Wikipedia entry describes the situation accurately:
Copts suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite [Greek Eastern Orthodox] Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as both spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population whom they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and to the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.
Does it make sense much “cross pollination” occurred between the Chalcedonian Orthodox and the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox during the time the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox were under such repression? What sources is this Reformed blog writer relying on to establish that the liturgical and sacramental theology that developed in these disparate Eastern Churches who were not in communion with each other was due to some sort of “cross-pollination”? Rather, doesn’t the fact these bitterly separated Churches maintained very similar beliefs on the sacraments show a parallel development, one that comes from a common root before their separation at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD?
Details of the poor relations between these Churches after their separation can be read in the book Muslim-Christian Relations and Inter-Christian Rivalries in the Middle East by John Joseph on pages 10-11 (see link for the reading). What is even more interesting is the fact that the author explains that these persecuted non-Chalcedonian Orthodox welcomed the Muslim Arab conquerors because it offered them relief. Again, there is little indication that these separated Churches enjoyed interaction and that this allowed a cross-pollination between them which would explain common sacramental theological beliefs.
As an aside, let’s consider the relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the different Eastern Churches during this period of history. Could this common sacramental theology in these various Eastern Churches be a result of Catholic influence? Hardly. During the era of the Crusades Latin Catholic missionaries encountered the various Eastern Churches (Oriental and Eastern Orthodox and the Assyrian Church) and their interaction was primarily one of debate.
Debates characterized meetings between Western & Eastern Christians during the Crusades.
However, later Latin Catholic missionaries amongst Eastern Christians did meet with some success. This can be seen in the formation of various Eastern Catholic Churches (in full communion with Rome) in the centuries that followed. One historian explains:
During periods of Moslem persecution, the autonomous Christian sects of the east obtained support from the Church of Rome, but often at the price of obedience to Rome. Agreements were made whereby in return for recognition of the Pope as head of the community, local usages in doctrine and ritual were permitted to continue. Hence a number of eastern Christians broke away from sects such as the Jacobites [Oriental Orthodox] or Nestorians [Assyrian Church of the East], and formed what are known as the Uniate Churches–i.e. Communities with practices that differ widely from those of the main Roman Church, but which nevertheless accept the supremacy of the Pope. There have thus come into existence the Armenian Catholic, the Greek Catholic, the Syrian Catholic, the Coptic Catholic, and the Chaldean (Nestorian) Catholic Churches. (The Middle East: a Physical, Social, and Regional Geography by William Bayne Fisher.)
The formation of these Eastern Catholic Churches (dating from the 1500s to the 1800s) were, for the most part, accompanied by bitter reactions from their mother churches in the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox from which they broke away with, each considering the other as heretical. As a result, the view of most Eastern Churches towards Roman Catholicism became embittered. Just as there was no “cross-pollination” between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox with regards to their sacramental theology, there would be even less here.
This chart shows the timeline of the separation of the Ancient Christian Churches. Click for better view.
But, back to this common sacramental theology in these Eastern Churches. Let’s take another look at the Coptic Orthodox Church which was separated from Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism in 451 AD. I cite them as in the past thirty years there has been a great migration of Coptic Orthodox from Egypt throughout the world and they are often easily found throughout most Western countries nowadays. Thus if someone doubts the presentation here, it would be quite easy for them to visit a local Coptic Orthodox parish to verify it.
Fr. Tadros Malaty’s Introduction to the Coptic Orthodox Church is probably the best place to start. On pages 316-317, he enumerates the Coptic Orthodox view of the sacraments:
SACRAMENTS AND CHURCH LIFE
I am delighted to write here about church sacraments, for in fact practising church sacraments gives us enjoyment through the exceeding love of God and the free divine grace. Such are the practical gospels in the actual church life, that through them believers discover the mystery of the Gospel.
In brief I can say that the sacraments grant us the following blessings:
1. Practical divine grace: If teaching the divine grace is the heart and center of the Gospel, we attain this grace through the sacraments, as it is written in the Holy Bible:
In the sacrament of Baptism, we attain the rebirth, not of our own merit nor by a human hand but by the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-5; Tit. 3:5). We also receive God’s adoption (Gal. 3:26, 27), attain the remission of sins (Acts 2:38) and sanctification (Eph. 5:25-26).
Through “Chrism” (Mayroun) we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who teaches us, guides us and sanctifies us, so that we may attain the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Acts 8:17; 19:5,6).
Through penance and confession, the Holy Spirit grants us the remission of sins (Matt. 16:19).
In the Eucharist, the church is lifted up as if to heaven so that she meets her heavenly Savior, participates with the heavenly host in their hymns, and partakes of the Body and the Blood of the Lord to be united with Him, established in Him and to live forever with Him
(John 2:3 5,55; Matt. 26:27,28; 1 Cor. 10: 17).
Through the Sacrament of holy unction, the sick who accepts to be united with Christ in His sufferings attains the remission of sins (by repentance). and the healing of his body (James 4:14; Mark 6:13).
Through the Sacrament of marriage, the couple are united together, and the Holy spirit sets their home as the holy church of God…
Through the Sacrament of priesthood, Jesus Christ, the Unique Chief-Priest acts in those whom the Holy Spirit grants the grace of priesthood (Matt. 28:19-20; Eph. 4:11; Acts 20:28; 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1: 16).
These exceeding divine acts are the free grace of God offered to believers through His Church.
Do these sound familiar? Now, if you were counting as you read the above, you could count seven sacraments. In the East, that’s usually (but not always) the conventional numbering given. What is essential here is not the numbering of the sacraments but how they are understood theologically. Their theological understanding comes from how their liturgical books present these “mysteries.”
But let’s just concentrate on one of the sacraments or mysteries that the Churches of the East (both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox) interpret similarly, the Eucharist:
Coptic Christians believe the eucharistic bread and wine is changed into Christ's Body and Blood during the Divine Liturgy.
Coptic Orthodox Bishop Mettaous, Bishop and Abbot of St. Mary Monastery, El-Sorian in Egypt discusses the Coptic view of the Eucharistic Real Presence here:
Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Christians agree that the bread and wine truly and actually become
the body and blood of Christ. They have in general refrained from philosophical speculation, and usually
rely on the status of the doctrine as a “Mystery,” something known by divine revelation that could not
have been arrived at by reason without revelation. Accordingly, they prefer not to elaborate upon the
details and remain firmly within Holy Tradition, than to say too much and possibly deviate from the
truth. However, they do speak clearly of a “change” (in Greek μεταβολή) or “metousiosis” (μετουσίωσις)
of the bread and wine. Met-ousi-osis is the Greek form of the word Tran-substantia-tion.
After discussing theological and logical considerations, the article then gives historical reasons for believing in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. This Coptic Orthodox Bishop makes the very same point I am making about the historical significance of the universality of the view of the Eucharist in the various Ancient Churches:
1. All apostolic Churches universally agree about the real presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of the
Eucharist in spite of their disagreements on many other issues.
2. All Eastern and Western Church Fathers have agreed, without exception, that the words of the Lord
about this Holy Sacrament are to be understood literally.
3. Martin Luther himself could not dare to deny the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist (although his view was still heretical) and it wasn’t until later that Zwingli came up with the heresy of real absence which
most of the Protestants believe today.
Remember, when we say “Ancient Churches” we are not just talking Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. We are also including the Oriental Orthodox (who were separated from the rest of Christendom in 451 AD) and also the Assyrian Church of the East. A quick look at the Assyrian Church’s view on the Eucharist further shows the antiquity of Christian belief in the Real Presence.
Liturgy at an Assyrian Church of the East parish in India.
The Assyrian Church of the East is the church which descends from those Christians who did not accept the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD. It only accepts the first two ecumenical councils: the First Council of Nicea and the First Council of Constantinople. To suggest there was “cross-pollination and real interaction” between the Assyrian Church and the other Eastern Churches (either Oriental Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox) is also ludicrous. They also were persecuted by the other Christian groups. It wasn’t until 1997 that the Assyrian Church of the East decided to remove anathemas towards other Christian groups from their liturgy.
The Assyrian Church of the East describes their belief regarding Sacraments and the Eucharist:
The Church of the East has a sacramental system which resembles the sacramental systems of the Greek and Latin traditions. The Sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are primary, and the Sacrament of Holy Orders effects the other Sacraments. Confirmation is administered with Baptism, and Absolution is a benefit of the Eucharist, though Absolution is also administered separately during a common service of Absolution, and is also administered to individuals, with penance, in the case of serious sin. The Sign of the Cross, Unction, and “Holy Leaven” are defined as additional Sacraments. The central feature of the worship life of the Church of the East is the Eucharist, known in the Syriac language of the Church as the “Qurbana Qaddisha”, or “Holy Offering”. The liturgy of the Eucharist is attributed to “the Apostles, Addai and Mari, who discipled the East”. The liturgy consists of a service for the catechumens and a service for the faithful. The Host is a leavened loaf, and the cup is an equal mixture of wine and water. The baptized faithful receive the body and blood of Christ under both species of bread and wine, and the “real presence” of Christ is understood in the elements. A priest ordained by a bishop in the apostolic succession is required for the Consecration, and a deacon is required to assist the celebrant. A community of worshipping believers must be present at the celebration.
As noted above, the Assyrian Church (whose liturgical language is Syriac — a form of Aramaic, the language many believe was Christ’s native tongue) has a mystery related to the Eucharist known as Holy Leaven. This is explained in a few places but this explanation given in a Vatican document describing the differences between Catholic and Assyrian practices is probably the most lucid:
The Assyrian Church of the East also practices the so called sacrament or mystery (Rasà) of Holy Leaven. From times immemorial, the Assyrian tradition relates that from the bread Jesus took in his hands, which He blessed, broke and gave to his disciples, He gave two pieces to St. John. Jesus asked St. John to eat one piece and to carefully keep the other one. After Jesus’ death, St. John dipped that piece of bread into the blood that proceeded from Jesus’ side. Hence the name of “Holy Leaven”, given to this consecrated bread, dipped into the blood of Jesus. Until this day, Holy Leaven has been kept and renewed annually in the Assyrian Church of the East. The local bishop renews it every year on Holy Thursday, mixing a remainder of the old Leaven within the new one. This is distributed to all parishes of his diocese, to be used during one year in each bread, specially prepared by the priest before the Eucharist. No priest is allowed to celebrate Eucharist using eucharistic bread without Holy Leaven. This tradition of the sacrament or mystery of Holy Leaven, which precedes the actual Eucharistic celebration, is certainly to be seen as a visible sign of historic and symbolic continuity between the present Eucharistic celebration and the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus.
Thus, not only does the Assyrian Church of the East share the high view of Real Presence with the other Eastern Churches, in a very graphic and literal way the Assyrian Church of the East believes their Eucharist is connected to the first Eucharist in the Upper Room and also to the Blood Christ shed on the cross.
A look at one of the prayers from the Assyrian liturgy called The Order of the Hallowing of the Apostles shows their highly developed eucharistic theology. After the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest prays:
Let us all with awe and reverence approach the Mystery of the precious body and blood of our Savior. With a pure heart and true faith let us recall his passion and consider his resurrection. For on our behalf the Only-begotten of God took from men a mortal body and a rational, sentient, and immortal soul, and by his life-giving laws and holy commandments brought us from error to the knowledge of the truth. And after all his dispensation for us, the First-fruits of our nature was tested by the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. And he committed to us his holy Mysteries, that by them we might recall all his grace toward us. Let us, then, with overflowing love and a lowly will, receive the gift of eternal life, and with pure prayer and manifold sorrow, partake of the Mysteries of the church in the hope of repentance, turning from our offenses and sorrowing for our sins, and asking for mercy and forgiveness from God, the Lord of all. And the priest speaks softly in his heart, saying: You are blessed, O Lord God of our fathers, and exalted and glorious is your name for ever, for you have not acted toward us according to our sins, but in the multitude of your mercies you have delivered us from the dominion of darkness, and have summoned us to the kingdom of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Through him you have loosed and destroyed the dominion of death, and have given us eternal life which is indestructible. And now that you have made us worthy to stand before your pure and holy altar, and to offer to you this living, holy, and unbloody sacrifice, make us worthy in your mercifulness to receive this, your gift, in all purity and holiness. And may it not be to us for judgment and vengeance, but for mercy and the forgiveness of sins, for resurrection from the dead, and for eternal life. And may we all serve your glory, and be made pure sanctuaries and holy temples for your dwelling, that when we have been united to the body and blood of your Christ we may appear with all your saints at his great and glorious manifestation, for to you, and to him, and to the Holy Spirit belong glory, honor, confession, and worship, now, always, and for ever and ever.)
In conclusion, instead of attributing this common sacramental theology in these separate and distinct Eastern Churches (Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Assyrian Church) to some sort of cross-pollination and interaction (which was practically non-existent because of viewing each other as heretical), their common witness to sacramental theology and a high view of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist testifies to a common root dating back before the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 AD. This is something many Evangelical Protestants usually have not taken into account when discussing the historical development of Christian theology, a veritable “blind spot” in Protestant apologetics.
Further examples from Ancient Churches which were separated from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century:
Part 1 of the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy in English, televised from Egypt. The Eucharistic prayer is in parts 7, 8, 9, 10. The text of the liturgies used in the Coptic Church can be read here. A Coptic liturgy in English from a parish in California can be seen here:
The dedication of an Assyrian Church of the East parish in California, showing its liturgical character. The language chanted is Aramaic which many think was the language Jesus spoke. An explanation with pictures of the Assyrian Mass or Liturgy can be found here. The liturgical text can be read here.
Liturgy in Aramaic by a Syriac Orthodox (Oriental Orthodox) Bishop in Jerusalem. The Syriac Liturgy or Mass is explained in English here. Liturgy texts for the Syriac Orthodox Church can be read in English here.