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Foundational Considerations for Theological Education in the Coptic Orthodox Church: Part One — The Experience of the Early Church

His Grace Bishop Suriel

Bishop of Melbourne, Australia and Professor at Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary, New Jersey, United States


The Coptic Church that first began to lay down roots in the lands of immigration approximately 50 years ago is now quite established in the West, no longer seen as a “diaspora” but rather a fully established Church with numerous dioceses and patriarchal jurisdictions throughout the western world. We as Coptic Christians are now members of truly “national” churches in each of the countries where Copts have settled. In light of this rapid international expansion, our call to ministry in the 21st century Coptic Church, particularly in the formative field of theological education, poses novel, nuanced, and critical challenges — challenges that are significantly amplified today when compared either to education as it was carried out in the Church historically, whether the Coptic Church specifically or the Christian Church more generally until the middle of the twentieth century, or to when the first Coptic churches were established in the West. These challenges raise serious and pertinent questions regarding theological education and the formation of future clergy, servants, and Church leaders, which formation is essential to the integrity and propriety of the spirit and method by which those who comprise these categories of servants carry out and administer the service of the Church, and to the preservation and transmission of sound doctrine in the pedagogical aspects of the Church’s service and mission. The Coptic Church in her rich history and heritage is certainly not alien to challenges, having faced and overcome a myriad of obstacles and wholly unfavorable odds if only to survive until the present day. In each period she has faced unique challenges, such as those which she must now traverse, and reflecting on how the Church has dealt with these challenges historically and methodologically can supply us with many important and instructive lessons to guide us in addressing today’s concerns. To this end, I wish to focus in this series on two historical periods: one ancient — the School of Alexandria — and one modern — the work of St. Habib Girgis in theological education — in order to draw from these some thoughts, reflections, and a proposed path forward for Coptic Orthodox Christian theological education in the 21st century in the West.


In books five and six of his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea tells of the didaskalion of Alexandria — what we like to think of today as the School of Alexandria — and enumerates its heads Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen. He presents what at first glance seems like a uniform succession of leaders in an ecclesiastical institution, and his readers are tempted to ponder the size of its supposed campus. The historical evidence, however, does not add up. A more careful analysis of the sources leads us to a rather different picture of this formidable entity: there are no buildings, classrooms, or desks; instead there are learned teachers and avid students eager to hear the word of God. The matter may perhaps upset some people, yet an honest assessment of our sources leads us to a much deeper appreciation of the beauty of the ancient Christian heritage. 


Ronald Heine, who published an extensive study on Origen through Oxford University Press titled Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church, presents the most plausible picture of the state of affairs in the milieu of Christianity in Alexandria. He speaks of “schools” instead of one singular school, at once acknowledging both the diversity and rich complexity of Christian teaching in that cosmopolitan city. There were likely five famous Christian teachers in second- and third-century Alexandria: Basilides, Valentinus, Pantaenus (who is designated by Origen as “the Hebrew”), Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, who was a disciple and student of Clement of Alexandria and who would himself emerge as a teacher early in the third century and ultimately become the most formidable scholar of the Christian East. Two of the five teachers mentioned above, Basilides and Valentinus, propagated teachings incompatible with proto-orthodoxy; the remainder, however, deserve our full attention. We know a little about Pantaenus from the writings of Clement, but we do not have any of his writings. Clement and Origen on the other hand have bequeathed us enough material for a lifetime of reading and decades of study. Pantaenus, Clement, and Origen, like their contemporaneous teachers, spent their efforts tutoring students in what would have looked like an ancient philosophical school. Schools of this sort were not necessarily academic in the modern sense of the term. They could be as small as a teacher and a single student and could perish with the death of the teacher or otherwise survive under a successor. Indeed, it was the character of the teacher that attracted potential students. Teachers would become spiritual guides to their students, who would gather around their teacher for years on end. 


The schools of antiquity were fundamentally oriented to texts — they could be described as textual communities — and their teachers interacted with important texts in three ways: one, “text functions as teacher;” two, “text and teacher act in concert or together;” and three, “teacher as text.”[1] St. Gregory the Wonder-Worker’s Panegyric is full of high praise for Origen, Gregory’s teacher, and Gregory makes clear that for him, his teacher became his text.[2] Clement and Origen’s works themselves fit within the second category, though they write in a rather different style. Clement often structures his works topically and makes use of texts that serve his literary efforts. Origen employs a similar arrangement in some of his works, yet in others, especially his exegetical works, he arranges his teaching by the structure of the text under examination. Origen had himself been a grammatikos, that is, one who taught children in the second level of their schooling after they had learned the basics of reading. The grammatikos would treat a text in four stages: one, “criticism to determine what the ancient author had written;” two, “reading and recitation, which included memorizing the text for recitation;” three, “explanation of the text, which included the meaning of unusual words, grammatical forms, etymology, as well as the content or story of the text;” and four, “judgment, or the moral teaching of the text.”[3]


Origen would soon make use of his rhetorical training and devote his efforts exclusively to the study of Christian texts when persecution broke out under Septimius Severus (from 193 to 211 A.D.). As Eusebius recounts in Book Six of his Ecclesiastical History, there was not a single teacher remaining to preach the word of God.[4] Two brothers, Plutarch and Heracles, we are told, sought out Origen to teach them about Christ, and they became his first two students.[5] Eusebius names nine of Origen’s students who soon after baptism went to their martyrdom: these were Plutarch, who was one of the first two to seek Origen out for instruction, Serenus, Heraclides, Hero, a second named Serenus, a woman named Herais, Basilides, a woman named Potamiaena, and her mother Marcella.[6]


What, then, was the goal of the school of Origen? Heine summarizes this for us beautifully: “Origen’s school, like Clement’s before him, was not intended to form specialists in texts or ideas, whether secular or sacred, but to form a Christian person. The real subject was the virtues, practical wisdom, self-control, justice, and courage.”[7] In Origen’s school, Gregory Thaumaturgus says, students were incited to virtue more by his works than by his words.[8] His example caused his students to love the virtues. Gregory judged the ultimate goal of Origen’s school to be that a person should progress through all the virtues, and having been made like God with a pure mind, approach Him and remain in Him.[9] Clement and Origen were concerned with the formation not merely of learned people, but, more centrally, of spiritual servants of God. 


What are the implications of this short discussion on the “schools” of Alexandria for theological education in the Coptic Church today? First, the question on the hearts of many: must our theological schools be accredited? If we are honest with ourselves, the issue touches our deepest vulnerabilities as a Christian minority emerging into the daylight of freedom of religious expression. Surrendering to any process of accreditation necessarily forces us to put into words and in writing to what we claim we are committed and provides an opportunity for others to hold us accountable to our expressed cause. Accreditation is not a matter to be taken lightly or approached hastily, but is undoubtedly a necessary step if we as a Church are serious about our commitment to bringing the message of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.[10]


How can we return to the former glory of Alexandrine Christian education in carrying out the important service of theological education in the Church today, particularly in the West? First, we must recognize that the primary function of theological schooling and religious education in the Church at all levels is to discipline our people in the Christian life, just as it was in the theological schools of second- and third-century Alexandria, and we must make use of the ancient Christian texts bequeathed to us in order to achieve this purpose, so as to abide by and deliver the very spirit and doctrine that so wonderfully characterized the Orthodox authors of those texts, whose descendants we are. Second, we must return to the Alexandrine text of the Holy Scriptures, which is carefully preserved in the Coptic textual witnesses. Translation of these works, or adoption of the English language versions of the Holy Bible most faithful to the Alexandrine text, is undoubtedly necessary across Coptic Churches in the West. Third, we must allow the faithful writers of antiquity to speak to us today, both by consulting accurate translations of the ancient sources and through the mouths of their modern readers. We must oblige our responsibility of academic honesty and have the courage to be accurate, precise, and exacting in our research efforts. Just as it is incorrect to say, in broad strokes and general terms, that the School of Alexandria taught this or that, since it has been shown that Origen and Clement conducted their own “schools,” so to speak, so too is it erroneous to assert in general terms that the Coptic Church teaches this or that, except in those instances where the ancient liturgical prayers of the Coptic Orthodox Church reflect a certain teaching or the Church has publicly and consistently adopted a specific stance on any given matter. In the case of modern teachers and scholars, it is preferable to acknowledge that “Bishop X taught this,” or “Father Y taught that.” Every modern scholar in the field of Coptic Studies, in any of its areas, must bear the responsibility of academic honesty and measure himself or herself against the Alexandrine tradition that extends almost 2,000 years. Each of us as Coptic Orthodox Christians, and particularly those among us who are tasked with the responsibility of educating in the Church at any level, must recognize that to justify one’s knowledge and teaching of Christian faith and doctrine without recourse to the ancient writings, and especially, for our purposes, those that emerged in Alexandria, is precisely to preach ourselves and not authentic Orthodoxy.


[1] H. Gregory Snyder. Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews, and Christians. Religion in the First Christian Centuries. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. 224-27. 

[2] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen.

[3] Ronald E. Heine. Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. P. 61.

[4] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.3.1.

[5] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.3.2.

[6] Eusebius of Caesarea, Ecclesiastical History VI.4.1 — VI.5.1. 

[7] Ronald E. Heine. Origen: Scholarship in the Service of the Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. P. 64.

[8] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 9. 

[9] See Gregory Thaumaturgus, Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, 12. 

[10] I will address accreditation further in the third entry of this series. 


His Grace Bishop Suriel presently serves as a Professor at the Pope Shenouda III Coptic Orthodox Theological Seminary in New Jersey, United States. We are honored to announce that Season Two of His Grace Bishop Suriel’s podcast, Coffee with Bishop Suriel, is also coming soon! Subscribe to Coffee with Bishop Suriel to receive the latest news.

Cover Image: Andrei Mironov, Sermon on the Mount. 2022. Image Original.


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