The Orthodox Church and the Non-Chalcedonians: Part 2 Deification Pope Shenuda and Matthew the Poor

PART 2 Deification: Pope Shenuda vs. Matthew the Poor

There is one more issue to consider which is central to the Orthodox concept of salvation, and that is deification. I will relate what I have learned from an Orthodox priest who is a university professor. This father is fluent in Arabic and has studied the Chalcedonian/Non-Chalcedonian positions.

The Copts are presently divided over deification. On the one hand, there is Fr. Matta al-Miskeen (“Matthew the Poor”, 1919-2006) — the late spiritual father of the monastery of St. Macarius in Scetis, who emphatically taught deification (and that Communion is of the WHOLE Christ, divinity and humanity). On the other hand, you have the late Pope Shenouda (1923-2012, pope 1971-2012), who denied deification, called it a heresy, and even denied that the Church Fathers ever taught such a doctrine (he also denied that in Communion we partake of the whole Christ, and argued instead that we partake of His humanity alone)! The controversy between Pope Shenouda and Fr. Matta was very public.

From what I understand, Fr. Matta’s views are quite popular today among many Coptic monastics, clergy, and educated laymen, while others follow the late Pope Shenouda’s view. The present Pope Thawadros has not really taken a stance in this controversy, and there has been no conciliar decision on the subject.

For their stances on deification and related issues, Pope Shenouda and Fr. Matta drew on divergent sources. Pope Shenouda drew on the Coptic medieval tradition, in Arabic, which to a large degree suppressed deification. Fr. Matta drew directly on Greek Patristic sources available to him in translations into European languages and on modern Patristic scholarship, in which deification is, of course, prominently present.

This is certainly one significant difference between the Copts (at least those who follow Pope Shenouda) on the one hand and us, Chalcedonian Orthodox, on the other. There are other differences as well. For example, one of the consequences of “monophysitism” (or, to use the more “politically correct” term, “miaphysitism”) is that anti-Chalcedonian Christians (such as the Copts) also believe in ONE WILL in Christ (what we call “monotheletism”), a view rejected by St. Maximos the Confessor and the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

These issues brought up by the Father university professor should be given serious consideration by our Orthodox Church.

I would like to add a bit about Fr. Matthew the Poor since he has acquired a reputation in the English speaking world. He was renowned mentor for monastics and has written a book on prayer which has been translated into English and published in 2003 by St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary Press: Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way. John Watson, in his article, “Abouna Matta El Meskeen Contemporary Desert Mystic” (see:, speaks of the success of this book. “In Arabic it was certainly a key text for Coptic monastic spirituality….It is perhaps not too much to say that his book on Orthodox Prayer has defined the prayer life of thousands of English language readers at the beginning of this century.” Watson continues to tell us of the foundation of Orthodox Prayer Life The interior Way:

The primary source of Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way was a typed English-language text. Abouna Matta had packed the modest manuscript of only one hundred and twenty-two, doubled spaced, and typewritten pages into his bag. He did not open the English document because he was in a hurry to embark on the solitary life, which began for him in 1948:

“When I finally opened the manuscript of the English pilgrim and found that it contained sayings on prayer, my heart leap for joy. A wave of happiness and exhilaration overwhelmed me. How did God bring this treasure into my hand?”…

The typewritten text was the creation of a British pilgrim who had visited Jerusalem. For the rest of his life, Abouna Matta acknowledged the influence of the English-language writer and the central value of the small booklet, which he had received so long ago.

The Author of the text was Archimandrite Lazarus Moore. Again Watson continues to speak of the additional sources of Fr. Matthew the Poor’s book:

For the next fifty plus years Abouna Matta El Meskeen lived with the much-loved little text, translated and typed by Achimandrite Lazarus Moore. But in each decade of his monastic and ascetic life, the Coptic father of the Western desert expanded the primary Russian sources into a major commentary on classical Eastern Orthodox spirituality. Father Matthew had carefully classified and spiritually reshaped an extraordinary series of inspired texts from early Middle Eastern Christianity to nineteenth century Orthodox Russia.

I hope the point I am trying to emphasize is clear: The influence of the teachings of the Orthodox Church on the Coptic monk, Matthew the Poor. It is impossible to have such a thorough study of the Orthodox ascetic tradition such as he shows, and not be introduced to the Orthodox concept of deification. Abouna Matta El Meskeen was “a main” if not “the main” propagator of deification among the Coptic Christians—and as was mentioned earlier, his conflict with Pope Shenuda over this issue was quite public. And it seems clear that in order to take hold of the concept of deification he had to come to the Orthodox Church.

So then, what can we now conclude? Although from the Orthodox perspective, there are serious flaws over all, on the part of the Coptic Christians, specifically in reference to Christology/Soteriology they have been coming closer to us. But their coming closer to us, was a result of what they have learned from the Orthodox Church—they did not theologize on their own. So is it right to say: “We have believed the same thing all along” or that , “They are already Orthodox”?

All Saints

All Saints
I am taking a detour for one post before getting back to the continuation of the article concerning the Orthodox and the Coptic Christians. What follows is a sermon for the Sunday of “All Saints”.

On this Sunday which follows the feast of Pentecost we celebrate and venerate all the saints. This is because sainthood is the result of the grace of the Holy Spirit given on that day and which continues to be given in the Sacraments of the Church. So today we venerate all those who have reached a state of holiness. Sometimes, however, we may run into Christians who misunderstand our veneration of the saints and say that according to the Apostle Paul we are all saints. We are indeed all given grace and we are all called to be saints. When the Apostle Paul in his letters addresses the Christians in the various cities to which he writes he either calls them saints, or sometimes he says they are called to be saints. So let us take a brief look at this.

When he addresses the Christians as those called to be saints he reminds them of the gift that has been deposited within them, that is, the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the responsibility to nurture it. When he calls all the faithful saints he makes a distinction between those who have accepted the Christian faith and have been baptized and those of this world who have not received this grace. In this way he shows reverence for this grace given in Holy Baptism. This grace puts one in another class of people who are no longer “of this world”. (John 8:23)
So today I will talk a little about this one aspect of sainthood and that is to be “not of this world”. I will primarily refer to St. Ignatius Brianchaninov who has a chapter (Chapter 41) in his book “The Arena” on the meaning of the term “the world”.
St. Ignatius begins:

The word world has two special meanings in Holy Scripture. (1) It signifies all mankind in the following and similar passages of Scripture: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.” (John 3:16-7) (“ The Arena” p. 166)

And concerning the second meaning he states:

(2) By the term world is meant those people who lead a sinful life opposed to the will of God, who live for time and not for eternity. Thus we must understand the word world in the following and similar passages: “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” (John 15:18-9) (p. 166)

St. Ignatius goes on to quote St. Theophylact of Bulgaria who thus defines world:

It is usual for Scripture to call the world the life of sinful people of carnal outlook living in it. That is why Christ said to His disciples: “Ye are not of the world”. They formed a part of the people living in the world, but as they did not live in sin, they did not belong to the world. (pp. 166-7)

In moving on, this now leads us to St. John the Theologian, who introduces us to yet another facet of the meaning of the term world. He writes: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” (I John 2:15-7)

For a more detailed explanation let us turn to St. Isaac of Syria as he is quoted by St. Ignatius in the same chapter I have already mentioned:

The world is the general term for all the passions. If a man has not first learned what the world is, he cannot understand by how many members he is detached from it and by how many he is tied to it. There are many who think themselves free from the world in their life because in two or three respects they refrain from it and have renounced contact with it. This is because they have not understood or perceived with discernment that they are dead to the world only in one or two members, while the rest of their members are living within the carnal mind and belong to the world. Therefore they are not even aware of their passions; and since they are not aware of them, they are not anxious to be cured of them. According to the research in spiritual science, the term world is used as a common name that embraces separate passions. When we wish to call the passions by a common name, we call them the world. But when we want to distinguish them by their separate names, we call them passions. Each passion is particular activity of the “elemental spirits of the world.” (Col. 2:8) Where the passions have ceased to act, there the elemental spirits of the world are inactive. The passions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honor which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is the source of rancor and resentment, and physical fear. Where these passions cease to be active, there the world is dead. In so far as some of these passions are forsaken, just so far does the ascetic live outside the world which to that extent is destroyed through being deprived of its parts. Someone has said of the saints that while alive they were dead; for though living in the flesh, they did not life for the flesh. See for which of these passions you are alive. Then you will know how far you are alive to the world, and how far you are dead to it. When you understand what the world is, then you will understand these distinctions, and how far you are tied to the world, and how far you are detached from it. In brief, the world is the carnal life and the carnal mind. (pp. 169-170)

The saints are those who have been victorious over the world as it has just been described. They overcame the world and shone with the grace of the Holy Spirit—this is our Orthodox understanding of who the saints are. So let me repeat that very first sentence with which I began: On this Sunday which follows the feast of Pentecost we celebrate and venerate all the saints. Through their prayers may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon us. Amen.