Sunday, February 22, 2015

"Coptic Christians not Christians"

Do Southern Baptist leaders and other evangelicals really not know what a Christian is or how you become one? Is it being born into an ethnic group that denies the dual-nature of Christ in his full deity and humanity? Is it embracing a meritorious, works-based salvation nearly identical to that of the Roman Catholic church? Is it in aggressively denying salvation by a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ? We ask because that’s what Coptic ‘Christians’ believe. This really isn’t new, and we have to wonder why our leaders don’t know what Coptics believe and if they do, what on Earth makes them think they should be categorized as Christians.

Several issues:

i) The interpretation of Oriental Christology is very intricate. I wonder if JD Hall has actually bothered to inform himself on the permutations of that debate:

ii) Many evangelical laymen have technically heretical views of the Trinity and the person of Christ. Does Hall think only theologians have saving faith?

iii) In addition, the classific of heresy is often a traditional definition, based on Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic paradigms. For instance, Reformed theologians like Paul Helm and B. B. Warfield would be classified as heretics because they deny eternal generation and Nicene subordinationism. 

The Eastern Orthodox would classify Protestants in general, including JD Hall in particular, as heretics. So let's avoid a self-incriminating standard of comparison. 

iv) Obviously there are lots of nominal Christians. However, I generally respect Middle Eastern Christians because they've retained their identity over the centuries despite enormous pressure to cave. It would be so easy for them to convert to Islam. 

v) I don't know if ISIS gave the Copts a choice between martyrdom and conversion to Islam. If so, the fact that they chose imminent martyrdom is a further testament to their faith.

vi) In addition, some ways of dying are far more fearsome than others. To have your head sawed off must be one of the most agonizing and terrifying forms of execution. It would be understandable if a true believer lost his nerve in the face of that prospect. Consider how Peter lost his nerve.

vii) I make allowance for the opportunities that people have. Middle Eastern Christian laymen don't have the same opportunity to revise their theology as American evangelicals have. 

To take a comparison, you couldn't have a Calvin without a Luther, and you couldn't have a Luther without a Valla or Biel. Were there no true believers between the death of St. John and Luther? 

viii) One doesn't have to vouch for the personal piety of each Coptic victim to exercise a general judgment of charity. When Muslims murder professing Christians in Africa and Asia, must we presume they weren't true believers? Is our standing policy to assume the worst?  

ix) There's a difference between faith in Christ alone and faith in faith alone. Faith in Christ alone may be theologically unreflective. It is not, in the first instance, what we believe about faith but what we believe about ourselves in relation to what we believe about our Savior. Sola fide is theologically self-reflective. There's a necessary place for that in orthodox theology. But it's not the essence of saving faith. Faith is not its own object. 


  1. There are many Copts that are part of Evangelical Churches. Copt just means Eygptian, it does not mean Copic Oriental Orthodox Church. So it is possible many of those beheaded where all evangelicals.

    1. Not really. Even among themselves, when they call themselves Copts, they're referring to the old church; it's also a separate word in Arabic than "Egyptian". The Protestant ones differentiate themselves by referring to the denomination they belong to. But I should emphasize that they all call themselves Christian by default and not by denomination, as do all ME Christians.

  2. You see, Obama will be highly pleased by this P&P post. This couldn't be a case of Muslim-on-Christian violence, since ISIS isn't Muslim and Coptic Christians aren't Christian.

  3. I thought the original article made a number of valid points.

    1. By their own criteria all SBC'ers who eschew monergism aren't Christians due to their belief in works-righteousness. I have personally known a number of devout Copts and conclude that they are errant brethren; ie Christians. The original article was sectarian hooey.

    2. Can Roman Catholics also be called errant brethren Kirk? Or are they the exception?

    3. On my reading I think the author is primarily concerned with the gospel witness in this matter, and the seeming lack of discernment demonstrated by the various leaders mentioned who appear to have gotten caught up in the raw emotion of the cause du jour. Herd mentality is rarely reflective.

      I'm not sure what those 21 men knew of the Christ of Scripture, but it's pretty well known that vast swaths of ME Christendom represent an ancient hodgepodge of apostasy, heresy, and falsehood.

      I certainly hope you're not suggesting that holding to a belief in works-righteousness is a valid expression of Biblical Christian soteriology. The Apostle Paul had much to say on this very important subject, as did the Reformers.

      I've personally known (and know) a number of devout Romanists, and conclude that they're going to hell lest by God's grace they repent and believe in the Christ of Scripture instead of the false-christ of Romanism.

      Theology matters.

    4. I'm not sure what those 21 men knew of the Christ of Scripture, but it's pretty well known that vast swaths of ME Christendom represent an ancient hodgepodge of apostasy, heresy, and falsehood.

      This reminds me of how Catholics characterize virtually all Christians throughout the early and medieval church based on some doctrinal statements and the beliefs of some bishops. Lay followers of any ideology or belief system don't usually spend a great deal of time thinking about the intricacies of their worldview, and most probably don't have the resources (material or temporal) to navigate those issues in any detail. These people may have been raised in imperfect systems, but it's hard to know the extent to which they internalized these beliefs. However, their (apparent) refusal to convert to Islam under pain of death signals a serious devotion to Jesus Christ.

      If we are to believe a strict articulation of justification by faith alone is necessary to be saved, we run into problems given that such an articulation did not exist until justification became a major issue in important theological circles, right around the Protestant Reformation. The fact that inaccurate or incomplete views on justification existed before the Reformation does not mean these Christians did not trust Christ completely for their salvation, or at least the direction of their lives was moving ever more toward trust in God.

      How perfect must one's faith be in order to be saved?

    5. Lutherans recognize the reality of "felicitous inconsistency;" ie members of false churches like the RCC and the Coptic Orethodox Church can still be Christians. The judgment of charity will have me believe the 21 Copts to be martyrs, given their testimony and death for believing that Christ is who he cliamed to be.

    6. What is Felicitous inconsistency?

    7. @MS - I share many of your concerns and I think you make many valid points. Sectarianism can be ugly.

      I mentioned the Reformers, yet I also mentioned the Apostolic foundation which they labored to uncover from centuries of Romanist accretions.

      Paul clearly meant something by his numerous teachings on justification, as well as by his anathemas against false teachers.

      Clearly men are saved by the grace of God in Christ, and He grants faith to His people. I don't know how that plays out on the individual level, but we can evaluate systems of teaching against Scripture on the macro level. I think that's what the original author was trying to do in the linked article.

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  5. Several issues:

    i) Hall accuses Copts of believing what they do because that's the ethnic community they were born into. However:

    a) That cuts both ways. Many Calvinists are Calvinistic because that's how they were raised. That's their ethnic group (or the functional equivalent).

    b) Given the amount of persecution they've suffered over the centuries at the hands of their Muslim overlords, I find it less likely to say they are Coptic simply out of ethnic loyalty. Consider European Jews who formally converted to Christianity to avoid discrimination. Surely ME Christians are tempted to convert to Islam.

    c) On top of that, these particular Copts were facing martyrdom. Assuming they were given a choice between martyrdom or conversion to Islam, I find it implausible that they chose martyrdom merely out of deference to their ethnicity.

    ii) There's a difference between willfully disbelieving revealed truths and not believing revealed truths out of ignorance. I cut ME Christians some slack. "To whom much is given, much is required."

    From what I can tell, many ME Christian minorities in Muslim countries are living in a theological timewarp. They haven't caught up with the Protestant Reformation.

    It's like Aquinas. His theology is seriously flawed. But unless God had no remnant, no elect, during the Middle Ages, surely there were some true believers despite the theological baggage. Sovereign grace is sovereign to save men and women with flawed theology.

    1. ...and without needing any help from self-appointed bouncers at Heaven's gate.

  6. @steve - reasonable points. Love thinks what's best. On my reading Hall seems particularly concerned with various SBC and evangelical leaders sending mixed messages on a gospel issue, to wit:

    Is the Coptic church representative of an unreached people group, or does it represent a denomination of brothers and sisters in Christ like the OPC folks down the street? Hall claims the SBC IMB website has flip-flopped on this question literally overnight.

    Maybe it's the beginning of ECT redux - "Evangelicals and Coptics Together".

    this is not about copts but the comments section is outrageous.