DOGMAS AND INTEGRAL CHURCH LIFE
The Christian Church is not merely a school involved in researches and teaching dogmas, but an institution which worships God and serves mankind. It works for the transformation and the renewal of this world, and hopefully awaits the world to come. Truly, the Christian Church would not be the church as we know it without Christian dogmas. Dogmas interpret our whole philosophy of the church through repeated practise of our faith through the holy tradition (the holy Scriptures, worship, behavior and preaching). All these elements represent different aspects of the one inseparable church life.
If we look at the relationship between the dogmas and the holy Scripture, we observe that they are not only based on the Scripture but that any dogmas which has no base in it is invalid. Dogmas in fact are mirrors of the holy Scripture. They explain the holy Scriptures and attract men to enjoy its spirit.
Similarly, we can say that dogmas are the way in which believers are guided to worship God in truth and in spirit. True worship reveals our dogmas in simplicity.
Dogmas correlate to our ascetic attitude. The early Alexandrian theologians and clergymen were true ascetics, and as a result asceticism still strongly affects our theology. This is not by denying the needs of our bodies, as some scholars charge, but by insisting on the esoteriological aspect: The early Coptic ascetics were involved in enjoying the redeeming deeds of the Holy Trinity, i.e. in enjoying the sanctification of the soul, mind, body, gifts etc.. through communion with the Father in His Son through the Holy Spirit.
Early Egyptian asceticism was biblical. It did not hate the body, its senses and capacities nor did it deny the human free will, or despise earthly -life and all its properties. Coptic asceticism in its essence was not an isolation from men, but rather enjoying unity with God. This attitude affected our theology and dogmas, through concentration on the “deification,” i.e. the return of man to the original image of God by restoring his soul, mind, body etc.., in preparation for Paradise.
Concerning the relationship between dogmas and behavior or practical faith’. we have to distinguish between only believing (without practicing) and a living belief, for as St. James says: “even demons believe” Jam. 2:19.
Concerning the relationship between dogmas or theology as a whole and practical religious life, we can quote Alan Richardson: “Religious people very often feel that theology leaves a cold dead
abstraction in the place of what was once a warm and living faith. Theology, like any other study can become dry and academic.. The fact is that religion without theology is as unthinkable and incomplete as theology is without religion: the two are as complementary to one another as theory and practices.
The close relationship between dogmas and preaching was well exercised through the ordination of the majority of the early deans of the School of Alexandria as Popes or Bishops of this See. Those men were well educated in theology, and dogmas and were highly capable of preaching and practicing pastoral care.
In conclusion, the true theologian is not merely a man who is involved in discussing or teaching dogmas, but also one who accepts the dogmas of the church of which he is a member. Therefore Origen calls him “a man of the church. ” He is not only a spokesman of the church but he practices its life.
Dogmas are what is believed, taught, confessed and practiced.
DOGMAS AND KNOWLEDGE
One of the very important characteristics of the church of Alexandria was her broad-mindedness and openness of heart towards philosophers. While leaders of the church in other countries looked at philosophy as an enemy of faith (like St. Justin and Tertullian), our Fathers embraced philosophers with love, treated them as children in need of the, church to help them grow through faith into manhood. Thus the Alexandrians saw faith not as opposite to the mind and knowledge, but as a satisfaction of mind and an elevation of thoughts through which one could enjoy Divine knowledge. This knowledge was thus superior to philosophical knowledge. God grants faith to men who are His rational creatures, and He would not destroy the minds which He created.
During the second century, St. Clement of Alexandria, a theologian of great piety, wide reading and classical scholarship, believed that the spiritual believer was a Gnostic, giving the word “gnosis” (knowledge) a Christian meaning, instead of the common meaningof that time which signified “heresy.” He says: “Gnosis is the principle and author of every action conforming to the Logos,” the grace of gnosis comes from the Father through the Son.
Faith, in our concept, embraces all human nature, it signifies not only our souls and hearts but also our minds and thoughts.
THE “DOGMA” BASED ON “TRUTH” AND “LOVE”
Dogmas, as we have seen, are the interpretation of our experience of God, in the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ. This experience throughout the ages does not alter, for Jesus Christ remains the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb. 13:18). The disciples and apostles (and bishops afterwards) did not sit around a table and agree to teach new dogmas, but rather they preached their Christian experience. As St. John says, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you” I John 1:3. Thus all Christian dogmas resulted from Church’s experience of the Crucified and Risen Christ, “Truth and “Love” at the same time. We receive these dogmas as the unchangeable truth that we must holdfast, with “love.”
The Alexandrian Popes (bishops) as theologians and pastors at the same time looked to dogmas as an expression of evangelic truth integrated with love. They were very zealous in defending the Orthodox faith and dogmas against any heresy, not only in Egypt but in all Christendom, offering their lives as sacrifices on behalf of the church. They were very firm and strict concerning the faith they had once received (2 Tim. 12,14), and some historians accuse them of violence, but in fact they were truly loving and kind men. St. Cyril wrote to Nestorius telling him that he would never find a person who loved him like Cyril, but never would this love be at the expense of his faith. He hated heresy and error but loved the soul of the heretic and desired his salvation.
DOGMA AND THEOLOGICAL TERMS
The Alexandrian Fathers used theological terms to explain the divine truths and their deep meanings, and to defend the Orthodox faith against heresies, but they were not enslaved to the terms themselves. St. Athanasius who devoted his life to defending Christ’s Godhead stated that disputes merely about words must not be suffered to divide those who think alike.
DOGMA AND RENEWAL
The Coptic Orthodox Church is well known as a conservative church, especially in dogmas and doctrines. At the same time, it progresses not by embracing new doctrines or new “articles of faith,” but by explaining the same faith “once given to the saints” (Jude 3) in a contemporary language.