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Is there a theological difference between the Greek Orthodox church and the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox church?

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The correct answer to this question is by @Samn, not gmoothart. –  Matthew Moisen Mar 15 '14 at 8:15

5 Answers 5

The basic between the two is over the Christological definition accepted at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, where Christ was recognized as being worshiped both 'in' two natures that exist 'inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably'. The Copts and other miaphysites believed that this definition was ambiguous and could be understood in a Nestorian manner. They preferred to speak of Christ being worshiped in one human-divine nature 'out of' two natures. Much of the difficulty here arises from the ambiguity of the term 'nature'-- is it a particular, in the manner the Nestorians used it (equivalent to hypostasis) or a universal (equivalent to 'ousia', essence)? If it is the former, then the story of the Incarnation is the story of the Word of God uniting to a particular human being named Jesus at the moment of his conception, which is in fact how Nestorius and his followers understood the incarnation. If 'nature' is a universal, however, then the Incarnation is the story of the Word of God uniting with human nature and becoming Jesus. That is, in this theology, the person of Jesus is identical to the person of the Word of God who has taken on humanity, not a person who is somehow united to the Word. In any case, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553 affirms the latter narrative as the understanding of the Incarnation accepted by the Greeks as well.

So, at this point, the differences between Coptic and Greek theology become a very subtle game of parsing technical language. However, the Copts do not officially accept any of the ecumenical councils accepted by the Greeks, from Chalcedon on. This leads to the often-overlooked theological difference of Copts speaking of one will in Christ while Greeks, following the Third Council of Council of Constantinople of 680-681, speak of two wills in Christ, human and divine in perfect harmony.

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The Coptics have a non-Chalcedonian christology, and are technically Nestorian heretics. From Wikipedia:

The Chalcedonians' understanding is that Christ is in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Just as humans are of their mothers and fathers and not in their mothers and fathers, so too is the nature of Christ according to Oriental Orthodoxy. If Christ is in full humanity and in full divinity, then He is separate in two persons as the Nestorians teach.[8] This is the doctrinal perception that makes the apparent difference which separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.

Although it's a common opinion that Nestorius got shafted and was more misunderstood than heretical.

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I think modern Copts will tend to deny that they are Nestorians anyway. I remember reading something like that on the website of a Coptic Church in the US recently. Possibly the rejection of Chalcedon, in this view, was more of a political issue than a theological one. –  Ben Dunlap Dec 24 '11 at 16:24
No, they are not nestorians. Nestorians believed that Christ was formed of two distinct persons. Monophysitism is very strictly antinestorian –  zefciu May 8 '12 at 12:30
Both the Copts and the Greeks accept the Council of Ephesus of 431 that condemned Nestorius. The great theological hero of the Copts is St Cyrill, Nestorius' arch-enemy. For a recent, very detailed discussion of why Nestorius' theology is heretical from an Orthodox Christian perspective and not simply 'misunderstood', see John Behr's book The Case against Diodore and Theodore. –  Samn Sep 12 '12 at 18:47
Copts are Mono/Miaphysites which are the total opposite of Nestorians. The Oriental Church accepted the Council at Ephesus, only breaking on the Council at Chalcedonia. The former council condemned Nestorians, and the Oriental church agrees with this. The latter council condemned Mono/miaphysites (in addition to condemning Nestorius again), and this is why the OOC broke off. –  Matthew Moisen Oct 15 '13 at 22:06

Christology basically,

The Coptic Church (Also known as the Alexandrian Church) is part of a larger "[Old] Oriental Orthodox" group encompassing Orthodox Churches of Syria, Armenia, Malankara-Indian, Eritrea and Ethiopia - which are in full communion with one another. These do not accept the Christologies of the Arians, Apolinarians, Nestorians, Eutychians as well as Chalcedonians among others. In fact, they accept only the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus. They reject Chalcedonian council (AD451) which proclaimed that Jesus has 'two natures in one person'. The Oriental Orthodox Churches are more conveniently known as "Miaphysites" - a direct reference to their Christology based on the Cyrilian formula or simply "Non-chalcedonians".

The Alexandrian (Coptic) stand in Chalcedon was that the use of the term 'two natures' by the council is an acute opposition to the Christology of earlier Fathers as stated in the latest manifestations in the previous council (1st Ephesus in AD431) with no significant changes to the Nestorian theology. These wordings are also against the famous formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria (adopted later by the Council of Ephesus AD431 as being the orthodox Christology) which says μία φύσις τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμένη -- "mía phýsis toû theoû lógou sesarkōménē" -- "The One Nature of The Word of God Incarnate" -- (Please, refer to the 12 anathemas of St. Cyril the Great). For this reason the Oriental Orthodox are called "Miaphysites". 'One-Naturists' if one may.

The Greek Orthodox Christology on the other hand (also called as 'Chalcedonian Confession' or 'Creed of Chalcedon') is based on the famous Tome of Leo (A letter by Leo the great, bishop of Rome sent to the second council of Ephesus in AD449) which speaks of the union in Christ as 'acknowledged in two natures', αναγνώρισε σε δύο φύσεις which 'come together into one person and one hypostasis'. The formula was adopted in AD451 by the council of Chalcedon as beeing the orthodox creed. (Please, refer to the letter of Leo of Rome.) For this reason the Chalcedonian churches are also named as "Dyophysitic". and that is to mean 'Two Natures'.

(Note: however, that designating the Oriental churches including Copts as 'Monophysite' is a severe misconception of their Christology which is clearly distinct from the Christologies of Arius, Apolinarios, Nestorios, and importantly from Eutyches).

The difference between 'Monophysitism' [naturally a Eutychian theology] and 'Miaphysitism' [a Cyrilian formula] is that the former refers to a "Simple One Nature" where Christ's humanity is sucked by his divinity or a distinct set of premieses leading to only one of the perfect natures of Christ preserved after union. In such a case, Jesus is not consubstantial either with us or with the Father. Where in the later (Miaphysitism), Jesus has two perfect natures - fully Divine and fully Human. And these two natures are perfectly united into a "Composite One Nature" where a different third substance is not created, neither did the two composing natures lose their substance. In other words, Christ is consubstantial with us as much as He is with God the father. Consequently, the difference between 'Monophysitism' and 'Miaphysitism' entails a great separation of 'Single Nature' - which is a simple one, and 'One Nature' - which is a composite one, respectively.

Technically speaking, when we say the Oriental Orthodox hold the union not to be into a 'simple one' or a 'single one' as alleged by Eutychians (monophysites) is to avoid saying that either of the natures banished after the union. And 'composite one' is found favorable to express the two perfect natures - divine and human mysteriously united with no lesser or greater proportion than 100% into "'One Nature' of God the Word Incarnate" - (more famously described as without changing, mingling, alteration, interpenetration, confusion, addition or mixing).

Such a Christology is drastically opposite to 'monophysitism' and thus the Orientals are plainly against all the ideals of 'monophysitism'. The Oriental Orthodox have been vocal in that it is wrong to label them as such which is a caricature (misrepresentation of Alexandrine Christology) made for the first time by the council of Chalcedon; a council which met to excommunicate Eutyches of a monophysitic creed but ended up excommunicating St. Dioscorus of Alexandria who was a persistent objector of 'monophysitism' and 'Eutychianism'. Many argue and it is clear from records that St. Dioscorus held a Cyrilian Christology and was excommunicated simply for predominantly ethical allegations.

Some of the prominent Coptic Apologists include St. Dioscorus of Alexandria (Champion of Orthodoxy - AD444), St. Cyril of Alexandria (Pillar of Faith - AD412), St. Timothy of Alexandria (The Great - AD378), St. Athanasius of Alexandria (The Apostolic - AD328), St. Alexander of Alexandria (The Great - AD313), St. Peter of Alexandria (Seal of Martyrs - AD300), St. Dionisius of Alexandria (AD265), St. Demetrius of Alexandria (AD188), St. Mark the Apostle (the Evangelist - AD48),... For the Coptic Church please visit http://www.coptic.net/EncyclopediaCoptica/ and for Christology particularly http://www.coptic.net/articles/monophysitismreconsidered.txt.

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Good answer and welcome to the site! –  curiousdannii Apr 27 at 14:29

As a Copt that attended Eastern Orthodox churches, i can tell you that no, there's not a major theological difference between the two churches. Yes, Copts are Oriental Orthodox and non-chacedonian, but that's a long story of historical matter. Today, we're pretty much the same :-)

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Why do you think the Chalcedonian debate doesn't matter? –  curiousdannii Apr 27 at 14:35

I think the problem of the Chalcedon Council was solved because it wasn't a theological problem but a misunderstanding problem, especially a translation problem, actually maybe there are not serious theological differences anymore, just some small differences like the sign of the cross ......

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Welcome to the site! I'd invite you to read the help page, as well as these posts: What makes a good, supported answer? This reads more like a comment than an answer. –  David Aug 19 '13 at 4:05
Whether Christ is of one nature or two is a significant theological difference. If it was merely a matter of vocabulary and translation, the two groups would have reconciled over the 1500 years this has taken place. –  Matthew Moisen Mar 15 '14 at 8:19

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