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COPTIC DEATH AND AFTERLIFE 7: PREDESTINATION IN COPTIC MIND

March 7, 2013

pantocrator Figure 1: Christ the Pantocrator, Coptic wall painting from Saint Antony’s Monastery at the Red Sea, 13th century art.

The “predestination doctrine”[1] is part of the Pauline theology. The Apostle St. Paul speaks about those “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”[2] That the doctrine is Biblical is accepted universally,[3] but what people differ in is its exact meaning. Roughly, predestination has been defined as “the Divine the divine foreordaining or foreknowledge of all that will happen; with regard to the salvation of some and not others.”[4] This reflects the two different concepts of predestination:

  • The first, the “foreordaining predestination”, which is only believed by the Calvinists, teaches that God has determined from eternity whom he will save and whom he will damn, regardless of their merit or lack thereof.[5] Eternal life and eternal damnation are determined by God who is sovereign over all things; and man has no free will to determine his eternal destiny.
  • The second, the “foreknowledge predestination”, which is believed by all other Christian Churches, teaches that God predestined to salvation those whose future faith and merits he foreknew.[6] According to this view, man’s free will is maintained and works through prevenient grace.

So what did the Copts of the old times thought on this matter? Not much has been passed on to us it seems from early Church of Alexandria on predestination apart from the beautiful passages in Greek by Clement of Alexandria (153 – 217 AD)[7] and Origen (185 – 255 AD)[8], but this little, it seems, has established in the Coptic mind a strong belief in the free will (the power of choice and avoidance of evil or good); that evil is not involuntary; that God is not the author of evil; that punishments on the sinful are rightly inflicted.  It is a delight to find a manuscript in Coptic Sahidic in the Edfû Codices that echoes this belief: The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin,[9] which we have come across in a previous article, includes a beautiful passage in which John, as he is having a free heavenly tour on the Cherubim’s wing of light on the command of Christ, asks the Cherubim[10]:

‘My Lord, is it God Who ordaineth the life of a man from the time when he was in his mother’s womb, or not? And the Cherubim said unto me, ‘Know thou that [one] man is wont to perform very many superfluous works, [and another] very many acts of goodness, from the time when he is born to the end of his life. God, however, setteth a sign on the righteous man before He fashioneth him, for it is impossible to cause anything to happen without God. But sin is an alien thing (or, stranger) to God, for He Who created man was without sin. It is man who himself committeth sin, according to his wish, and according to the desire of the Devil.’

And I said unto the Cherubim, ‘Man hath been born to suffering, according to what Job said, “My mother brought me forth for suffering.”’ And the Cherubim said unto me, ‘God is a compassionate Being, and He doth not forsake man utterly, but He sheweth mercy upon him, for he is His own form, and His own image, and is the work of His own hands. And now, O John, He will not forsake him that doeth the will of God, and he who doeth good things shall receive them doubled many times over in the House of God.’

And I said unto the Cherubim, ‘My Lord, at the moment when God is about to create man, doth He give him the name ”righteous” or “sinner”, or not?’ And the Cherubim said unto me, ‘Hearken, and I will shew thee. At the moment when God is about to create a man, before He placeth him in the womb of his mother, He calleth all the angels, and they come and stand round about. If the Father blesseth the soul, the angels make answer “Amen “. If there come from His mouth the words, “This soul shall give Me rest,” the angels make answer “Amen”. If the Father saith, “This soul shall commit iniquity,” the angels make answer “Amen”. Whatsoever cometh forth from the mouth of the Father, that cometh to pass.’[11]

This is “foreknowledge predestination” which respects man’s free will and recognises grace. In Coptic thinking God does not randomly and arbitrarily decide whom He will save and whom He will condemn.  “It is man who himself committeth sin, according to his wish, and according to the desire of the Devil.” This is a refreshing finding: Ephnuti (God)[12] of the Copts is not an oppressive god, who does as he wishes, playing with his creatures’ destinies, but, as the Cherubim stresses, a compassionate Being.  God, being omniscient, knows what the future holds both for individuals and for nations but sin is alien to Him – sin is not ordained by Him.

 

 

 

 

 


[1] In Arabic, ‘predestination’ can be translated into ‘سبق التعيين’ and not ‘إجبار’, or in my opinion, even ‘إختيار’.

[2] Romans 8:29-30 (KJV).

[3] See also: Romans 9:14-16; John 3:16-18.

[4] See: The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005); Predestination.

[5] See: Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of World Religions by Merriam-Webster, Inc. (1999); Predestination.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “So in no respect is God the author of evil. But since free choice and inclination originate sins…punishments are rightly inflicted” (Stromata 1:17); “This was the law from the first, that virtue should be the object of voluntary choice” (Stromata 7:2); “A man by himself working and toiling at freedom from sinful desires achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself to be very eager and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. God works together with willing souls. But if the person abandons his eagerness, the spirit from God is also restrained. To save the unwilling is the act of one using compulsion; but to save the willing, that of one showing grace” (Salvation of the Rich Man: Chapter 21); “Neither praise nor condemnation, neither rewards nor punishments, are right if the soul does not have the power of choice and avoidance, if evil is involuntary” (Miscellanies, Book 1, chapter 17).

[8] In response to a claim that “whatever happens in the universe, whether it be the work of God, of angels [or] of other demons…is regulated by the law of the Most High God,” Origen says, “This is…incorrect; for we cannot say that transgressors follow the law of God when they transgress; and Scripture declares that it is not only wicked men who are transgressors, but also wicked demons and wicked angels…When we say that ‘the providence of God regulates all things,’ we utter a great truth if we attribute to that providence nothing but what is just and right. But if we ascribe to the providence of God all things whatsoever, however unjust they may be, then it is no longer true that the providence of God regulates all things.” (Against Celsus 7:68).

“He makes Himself known to those who, after doing all that their powers will allow, confess that they need help from Him.” (Against Celsus 7:42).

[9]  The Mysteries of Saint John the Apostle and Holy Virgin in Coptic Apocrypha in the Dialect of Upper Egypt by Wallis Budge (London, 1913). For more, click here.

[10] It should be Cherub rather than Cherubim, but I will stick to the manuscript.

[11] The Mysteries of Saint John; pp. 255-256.

[12] On Ephnuti, click here.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. mindthehat permalink
    April 5, 2013 8:48 am

    Very good piece. Informative, educational and instructive, is God capable of sin?

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      April 5, 2013 6:53 pm

      Thank you, Mindthehat. What I read in ancient Coptic manuscripts is that God id incapable of sin. That is what I could say in answer to your question!

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