St. Athanasius the Apostolic. Author of the Orthodox Creed and 20th Pope of Alexandria
- We believe in one God, God the Father the Pantocrator who created heaven and earth, and all things seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages; Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not created, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became Man.
- And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And on the third day, He rose from the dead, according to the scriptures, ascended to the heavens; He sits at the right hand of his Father, and He is coming again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end. Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-Giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets.
- And in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. We confess one baptism for the remission of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the coming age. Amen.
The Holy Trinity
As the Apostolic Creed states, “We believe in one God: God the Father the Pantocrator (Almighty) who created Heaven and earth and all things seen and unseen;
We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin Mary and became man; and He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and on the third day He arose from the dead according to the Scriptures, ascended into the heavens, sat at the right hand of the Father, and He shall come again in His glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom shall be no end.
Yes, we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Life-Giver, who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified. And in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Thus, the Orthodox Church believes in the Holy Trinity, that the three are One.
The Christian Church is based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, Who came into the world as a man. This is the foundational belief of every Christian.
The Holy Scipture
We also believe that the Holy Scripture is the divinely inspired Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16). It is the story in which God reveals His love for man throughout the history of mankind.
The Old Testament tells of the history of that revelation from Creation through the Age of the Prophets. It contains 39 books which are divided into five sections: the books of History, book of the Law, the books of poetry and Wisdom, and the books of prophesy).
The New Testament records the birth and life of Jesus Christ, sets forth the writings and works of His Apostles, and documents the history of the early Church. The New Testament books contain 27 main books, which were written from about 50 to 95 A.D.
The Coptic Orthodox Church prefers the Septuagint (LXX) for the Old Testament and a literal translation of the Greek Textus Receptus, such as the New King James Version, for the New Testament.
The earliest writings of all the New Testament books as we know them today is found in the 33rd Canon of a local council held at the city of Carthage in 318 AD. and in the Paschal Letter of St. Athanasius of Alexandria in 367 AD. A local council, probably held in Rome at 382, set forth a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old and New Testaments.
The Scriptures are at the very heart of Orthodox worship and devotion. Its verses are declared in each of its sacraments, memorized and inscribed on the hearts of its people.
The Holy Tradition
In today’s evangelism, there has developed a general trend and practice against the word and use of any “tradition.” This opinion has its historical roots in the Protestant Reformation, in which Luther and Calvin disdained that which came under the heading of “tradition” from the Roman Catholic Church. The arguments of the Reformation centers clearly on the polarity of the “Bible verses tradition.”
There are two separate meanings and interpretations for tradition mentioned in the Bible: one refers to the tradition of men—which is condemned by Our Lord Himself repeatedly. In one passage, Christ boldly denounces the Pharisees over their appeal to tradition. (See Matthew 15:3-9). This tradition taught hypocrisy and vain worship.
However, there is a second tradition—the Tradition of God (capital T)—which the Church embraces, accepts and depends upon. This is the Tradition which St. Paul refers to in the when declaring, “Therefore brethren, stand fast to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or by epistle.” (2 Thess. 2:15); and “But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us.” (2 Thess. 3:15)
Thus, this Tradition, is the apostles doctrine, mentioned in Acts 2:42, which Paul and the other apostles taught and preached. It is the Tradition revealed by our Lord to the disciples during the fifty days after His Resurrection, which St. John refers to “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they should be written every one, is suppose even the world could not contain the books that should be written.” (John 21:20)
Without such tradition, one would be compelled to ask, how did the Bible come to be? How can we accurately and consistently interpret the Bible for coming generations? A church without Tradition, is a church without roots, a church doomed to face relentless confusion and inevitable division.
The Scriptures are true—holy, just and good. But there were not meant to stand alone. Their enforcer, their interpreter—and indeed their writer—is the Church through the Apostolic tradition.
The Ever-Virgin, Holy Theotokos, St.Mary
No woman in history is more misunderstood than the Holy Virgin Mary. The Reverend Billy Graham once said, “We evangelical Christians do not give Mary her proper due.” However, Saint Mary receives her “proper due” within the Orthodox faith.
St. Mary is the greatest woman that ever lived. She was chosen by the Father to bear His Only-Begotten Son, gave birth to the Savior of the world, and was the first person in history to receive Christ as her Savior. Consequently, she is our model of obedience and submission; of purity and holiness; of humility and royalty.
In the fourth century, when a heretic named Nestorious claimed that Jesus was a man but not God, the Church defended the divinity of Christ and insisted that Mary be referred to as the “Theotokos” (Greek for God-bearer) to safeguard the full deity of Christ.
We also believe that the Virgin Mary is the Ever-Virgin. The Church Fathers repeatedly refer to the prophecy of this: “The gate will be shut and it will not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” (Ezekiel 44:1-2). The interpretation of the Church fathers generally that Mary is the Temple, Christ is the Prince of Peace, and the gate is Mary’s womb through which Christ entered into the world. This interpretation is shared by the great majority of the Church fathers, as well as the Reformation Leaders such as Martin Luther.
“The gate will be shut and it will not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, because the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut.” (Ezekiel 44:1-2).
The Coptic Church venerates the Virgin Mary, though worship belongs to God alone. God, the angels, and mankind all venerated Saint Mary. God, through Archangel Gabriel; and St. Elizabeth, declared to her “Blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:28, 42). St. Mary herself declared, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed.” (Luke 1:48). Thus, our church fulfills this commandment and example by offering the voice of sweet praises and hymns to our Lady, the Virgin Mary.
When Christians depart this life, they remain a vital part of the Church, the body of Christ. They are alive in the Lord, are “registered in heaven.” (Revelation 4:10), and inhabit His heavenly dwelling places (John 14:2). They are the “great cloud of witnesses” which surrounds us; we seek to imitate them in running the “race set before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).
The Heavenly Hosts
When Calvin spoke about “angels,” he said, “It is also our duty cheerfully to remain in ignorance of what is not for our advantage to know”; and Barth began his discussion of angels with so much hesitation. The western theologians are inclined to avoid talking about the heavenly creatures, looking to modern man even though he has no objection to the existence of angels theologically or logically but he does not like to describe them on psychological bases, looking to this speech as a kind of myth and imagination. As for the Coptic Church, we find that the heavenly creatures have had their own strong print on the writings of the Fathers of Alexandria, especially Origen, as well as on her hymns, feasts, icons, church buildings etc.
Concerning the patristic writings, there was a clear line of thought as regards to the heavenly creatures in the early church, especially the writings of the School of Alexandrian which adopted the biblical thoughts. For the Holy Bible refers to them throughout all its books, from Genesis to the Revelation. These references throughout the two testaments is not meaningless or without aim.
As to Church hymns, believers who receive the pledge of the heavenly life waiting for being in the likeness of angels chant hymns with the angels, blessing them, requesting their prayers, setting feasts in their names, especially the Archangel Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the four Living creatures, the twenty-four incorporeal priests etc.
The Coptic Church was interested in icons of the heavenly creatures, either portraying them alone, or in the icons presenting events of the life of Christ, or in the icons of saints as they appear holding crowns on top of the saints’ heads. These indicate the accessibility of heaven to the believers, and that believers struggle to attain resemblance to angels.
Angels are highly considered, when we speak about the Church as an icon of heaven. In the “Doxology of Morning” we sing: “Hail to the church, the house of the angels.” The Church as defined by an ancient Coptic homily is “a place of consolation, a place of meetings of angels and a place of the Cherubim and the Seraphim.”
The Church and the Ministry Of Angels
St. Paul the Apostle speaks about the angels as “ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation” Heb. 1: 14. This does not mean that they are less in rank or glory than believers, but means that they love them and serve them for their salvation. What is their ministry to the believers?
1. The suffering church finds a kind of heavenly joy through her feeling that she is accompanied by angels, her heart is involved in the eternal glory and the communion with the heavenly creatures,
Therefore Origen says “do not waver at the solitude of the desert; it is during your sojourn in the tents that you will receive the manna from heaven and eat the bread of angels. 11
2. Stephen the Deacon, and Paul the Apostle spoke about the active role of angels in receiving the Law (Acts 7:35; Gal. 3:19; Heb. 2:2-3). Origen states that angels are friends of the Groom who prepare the Church – people of God – during the time of her espousal to meet the Groom personally. He says “When I was preparing myself for my marriage with the Son of the King and the Firstborn of every creature, the holy angels followed me and ministered to me, bringing me to Law as a wedding presented”. [These are the angels who are called the guardians of children and who always see the face of the Father in heavenly].
St. Clement of Alexandria refers to Daniel (10:13-21) when he says: “The presiding powers of the angels have been distributed according to the nations and the cities.
3 . The coming of the Groom, our Lord Jesus Christ, does not stop the work of the angels nor their acting love on behalf of the Kingdom of Christ within us. The New Testament declares the appearance of angels throughout the life of Christ on earth from the announcement of His incarnation till His Ascension. Origen states: “When the angels saw the Prince of the heavenly host touring the places of earth, followed the way He had opened, following their Lord and obeyed the Will of Him who put those who believe in Him under their guardianship. The angels are in the service of your salvation… They say among themselves, “If He has put on mortal flesh, how can we remain doing nothing? Come, angels, let us all descend from heaven.” That is why there was a multitude of the heavenly host praising and glorifying God when Christ was born. Everything is filled with angels71.
St. Athanasius states that angels who descended from heaven to announce the coming of Christ, ascended to heaven on His ascension to announce to the heavenly creatures that they might open their doors to the King of Glory.
4. Origen clarifies the communion of the Church with the heavenly creatures, for he says: [If the angel of the Lord encompass those who fear God and brings them deliverance (Ps. 33:8), it would seem that when a number of people duly meet together for the glory of Christ, each will have his own angel, encompassing him, since they all fear the Lord. Each angel will be with the man he has been commissioned to guard and to direct. Thus when the saints assemble, there exist two churches one of men and the other of angels].
St. Clement of Alexandria sees that angels have their own role in helping clergymen in the ministry of the children of God, and Origen speaks of their role in the ministry of the church sacraments and in the repentance of souls 11, and in helping believers in their prayers.
St. Clement speaks about angels’ assistance to souls in their spiritual progress, and Origen speaks about their grief over man’s fall in sin -3.
5. Origen correlates between angels and our entrance to paradise, especially the martyrs. He comments on the Apostle’s words that we became a spectacle to angels and men (I Cor. 4:9), saying that angels look to the martyrs in wonder, and that they rejoice with us in heaven.
The Saints are dear brothers who have struggled like us and have departed to Paradise. They are not dead, but are sleeping, as our Lord said (John 11: 11), and as St. Paul called them (I Thess. 4:13).
Our early Fathers spoke clearly and in detail about our relationship with Saints. The Saints in Paradise are the triumphant members of the same one church in which we are militant members. We, the triumphant and militants, are members of the Church, which is the one Body of Jesus Christ. The triumphant become invisible members because of the death of their bodies, and then militants ire the visible ones. This is man’s point of view, but in God’s sight, we are all a visible holy family.
They departed from earth, but did not leave the church; their love toward their brothers did not cease by their departure and dwelling in Paradise. The death of their bodies does not sever the bond of mutual love between them and us; on the contrary it increases in depth and strength. Their prayers for the salvation of all the world never cease. They pray for us, and we venerate them as they are our holy and dear friends.
Icons of Saints
We venerate the icons of saints and put them on the iconstasis (icon-stand). Church walls and doors are hung with icons, also our homes etc., as a sign of our communion with them in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Coptic Icons have their own characteristics as we have mentioned in the book : “Church, House of God.”
The Intercessions of the Saints
We all – the triumphant and militants – as one Body, have love that never fails (I Cor. 13:8), for our interaction is unceasing. Those who preceded us pray for us, and we through love – pray for those who departed, and God in His Fatherhood appreciates this mutual love.
Our belief in intercession is biblical, as it appears from the following points:
1. Saints who departed are still alive, for it is said, “When he called the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob for He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all are alive in Him” Luke 20:37,38; Matt. 22:32; Mark 12:26. Moses and Elijah appeared on Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:28-33), and many bodies of the saints were raised on Jesus’ transfiguration (Matt. 27:52,53).
2. God disclosed many secrets which concern the future of His men in both the Old and the New Testaments (Acts 20:22, 23, 29, 30; 2 Pet. 1: 14), no wonder that He reveals our conditions to the saints who are in Paradise. Their knowledge about us is a gift from God to them. Therefore Abraham knew that Moses and other prophets had come (Luke 16; 29-3 1), and those who are in heaven rejoice for the repentance of a sinner (Luke 15:7-10).
3. The believers who departed have a kind of privilege before God, therefore the Lord blessed Isaac for the sake of Abraham his father (Gen. 26:5), and He was gracious to Israel and had compassion on them because of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (2 kings 13:23). He did not tear down the kingdom in the days of Solomon for the sake of his father David (I kings 11: 11- 13). God raised a dead man when his corpse touched the bones of Elisha the prophet, revealing the great position of this prophet in God’s sight (2 Kings 13:20,21).
4. We, the militants ask for the intercessions of the saints, as Jacob did when he asked for the intercessions of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac (Gen. 32:9). Moses asked for the intercession of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Exod. 32:13)… For God honors those who honor Him (1 Sam. 2:30). He attributes Himself to them (Gen. 26:24; 28:13), and hears their supplications… Therefore the rich man appealed to Abraham (Luke 16:27,28).
Origen says: “It is not against truth, that we ask saints and seek for their intercessions… but that they might help us.” St. Athanasius says: “O lady and queen, the mother of God (Theotokos) intercede for us.”