What Is Oriental Orthodoxy?
The Oriental Orthodox communion is composed of six autocephalous churches: the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Collectively, they consider themselves to be the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church founded by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission, and that its bishops are the successors of Christ’s apostles. Most member churches are part of the World Council of Churches. All member churches share a virtually identical theology, with the distinguishing feature being Miaphysitism. Three very different rites are practiced in the communion: the western-influenced Armenian Rite, the West Syrian Rite of the two Syriac churches, and the Alexandrian Rite of the Copts, Ethiopians and Eritreans.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, the Oriental Orthodox churches separated from the Imperial Roman Church, primarily over differences in Christology. Oriental Orthodoxy developed distinctively under the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt, originally part of the Pentarchy, and the only episcopal see besides the Holy See to maintain the title “Pope”. The majority of Oriental Orthodox Christians live in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Armenia, with smaller Syriac communities living in the Middle East — decreasing due to persecution — and India. There are also many in other parts of the world, formed through diaspora, conversions, and missionary activity.
The Oriental Orthodox churches are distinguished by their recognition of only the first three ecumenical councils during the period of the State church of the Roman Empire — the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Ephesus in 431. Oriental Orthodoxy shares much theology and many ecclesiastical traditions with the Eastern Orthodox Church; these include a similar doctrine of salvation and a tradition of collegiality between bishops, as well as reverence of the Theotokos and use of the Nicene Creed.
The primary theological difference between the two communions is the differing Christology. Oriental Orthodoxy rejects the Chalcedonian Definition, and instead adopts the Miaphysite formula, believing that the human and divine natures of Christ are united. Historically, the early prelates of the Oriental Orthodox churches thought that the Chalcedonian Definition implied a possible repudiation of the Trinity or a concession to Nestorianism.
Other differences include minor deviations in social teaching and different views on ecumenism. Oriental Orthodox churches are generally considered to be more conservative with regard to social issues as well more enthusiastic about ecumenical relations with non-Orthodox churches.
The break in communion between the Imperial Roman and Oriental Orthodox churches did not occur suddenly, but rather gradually over 2-3 centuries following the Council of Chalcedon. Eventually the two communions developed separate institutions, and the Oriental Orthodox did not participate in any of the later ecumenical councils.
The Oriental Orthodox churches maintain their own ancient apostolic succession. The various churches are governed by holy synods, with a primus inter pares bishop serving as primate. The primates hold titles like patriarch, catholicos, and pope. Among these patriarchs, the Pope of Alexandria takes precedence, and is sometimes considered the “face” of Oriental Orthodoxy. The Alexandrian Patriarchate, along with Rome and Antioch, was one of the most prominent sees of the early Christian Church, and contains a majority population of Coptic Christians, and unlike Antioch is still a major population center.
That said, the Pope of Alexandria has no governing powers with respect to the non-Coptic churches. Oriental Orthodoxy does not have a magisterial leader like the Roman Catholic Church, nor does the communion have a leader who can convene ecumenical synods like the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The schism between Oriental Orthodoxy and the adherents of Chalcedonian Christianity was based on differences in Christology. The First Council of Nicaea, in 325, declared that Jesus Christ is God, that is to say, “consubstantial” with the Father. Later, the third ecumenical council, the Council of Ephesus, declared that Jesus Christ, though divine as well as human, is only one being, or person (hypostasis). Thus, the Council of Ephesus explicitly rejected Nestorianism, the Christological doctrine that Christ was two distinct beings, one divine (the Logos) and one human (Jesus), who happened to inhabit the same body. The churches that later became Oriental Orthodoxy were firmly anti-Nestorian, and therefore strongly supported the decisions made at Ephesus.
Twenty years after Ephesus, the Council of Chalcedon reaffirmed the view that Jesus Christ was a single person, but at the same time declared that this one person existed “in two complete natures”, one human and one divine. Those who opposed Chalcedon saw this as a concession to Nestorianism, or even as a conspiracy to convert the Church to Nestorianism by stealth. As a result, over the following decades, they gradually separated from communion with those who accepted the Council of Chalcedon, and formed the body that is today called Oriental Orthodoxy.
At times, Chalcedonian Christians have referred to the Oriental Orthodox as being Monophysites–that is to say, accusing them of following the teachings of Eutyches (c. 380 – c. 456), who argued that Jesus Christ was not human at all, but only divine. Monophysitism was condemned as heretical alongside Nestorianism, and to accuse a church of being Monophysite is to accuse it of falling into the opposite extreme from Nestorianism. However, the Oriental Orthodox themselves reject this description as inaccurate, having officially condemned the teachings of both Nestorius and Eutyches. They define themselves as Miaphysite instead, holding that Christ has one nature, but this nature is both human and divine.
Today, the Oriental Orthodox churches are in full communion with each other, but not with the Eastern Orthodox Church or any other churches. Slow dialogue towards restoring communion between the two Orthodox groups began in the mid-20th century, and dialogue is also underway between Oriental Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church and others. In 2017, the mutual recognition of baptism was restored between the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria and the Catholic Church. Also baptism is mutually recognized between the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Catholic Church.
Post Council of Chalcedon (451 AD)
The schism between the Oriental Orthodox and the rest of Christendom occurred in the 5th century. The separation resulted in part from the refusal of Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria and the other thirteen Egyptian bishops to accept the Christological dogmas promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon, which held that Jesus is in two natures: one divine and one human. They would accept only “of or from two natures” but not “in two natures”.
To the hierarchs who would lead the Oriental Orthodox, the latter phrase was tantamount to accepting Nestorianism, which expressed itself in a terminology incompatible with their understanding of Christology. Nestorianism was understood as seeing Christ in two separate natures, human and divine, each with different actions and experiences; in contrast Cyril of Alexandria advocated the formula “One Nature of God the Incarnate Logos” (or as others translate, “One Incarnate Nature of the Word”), stressing the unity of the incarnation over all other considerations. It is not entirely clear that Nestorius himself was a Nestorian.
The Oriental Orthodox churches were therefore often called “Monophysite”, although they reject this label, as it is associated with Eutychian Monophysitism; they prefer the term “Miaphysite”. Oriental Orthodox churches reject what they consider to be the heretical Monophysite teachings of Apollinaris of Laodicea and Eutyches, the Dyophysite definition of the Council of Chalcedon and the Antiochene christology of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, Theodoret, and Ibas of Edessa.
Christology, although important, was not the only reason for the Alexandrian Church’s refusal to accept the declarations of the Council of Chalcedon; political, ecclesiastical and imperial issues were hotly debated during that period.
In the years following Chalcedon the patriarchs of Constantinople intermittently remained in communion with the non-Chalcedonian Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch (see Henotikon), while Rome remained out of communion with the latter and in unstable communion with Constantinople. It was not until 518 that the new Byzantine Emperor, Justin I (who accepted Chalcedon), demanded that the Church in the Roman Empire accept the Council’s decisions.
Justin ordered the replacement of all non-Chalcedonian bishops, including the patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria. The extent of the influence of the Bishop of Rome in this demand has been a matter of debate. Justinian I also attempted to bring those monks who still rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon into communion with the greater church. The exact time of this event is unknown, but it is believed to have been between 535 and 548.
St Abraham of Farshut was summoned to Constantinople and he chose to bring with him four monks. Upon arrival, Justinian summoned them and informed them that they would either accept the decision of the Council or lose their positions. Abraham refused to entertain the idea. Theodora tried to persuade Justinian to change his mind, seemingly to no avail. Abraham himself stated in a letter to his monks that he preferred to remain in exile rather than subscribe to a faith which he believed to be contrary to that of Athanasius of Alexandria.
By the 20th century the Chalcedonian schism was not seen with the same importance, and from several meetings between the authorities of the Holy See and the Oriental Orthodoxy, reconciling declarations emerged in the common statement of Syriac Patriarch Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas and the Roman Pope John Paul II in 1984:
The confusions and schisms that occurred between their Churches in the later centuries, they realize today, in no way affect or touch the substance of their faith, since these arose only because of differences in terminology and culture and in the various formulae adopted by different theological schools to express the same matter. Accordingly, we find today no real basis for the sad divisions and schisms that subsequently arose between us concerning the doctrine of Incarnation. In words and life we confess the true doctrine concerning Christ our Lord, notwithstanding the differences in interpretation of such a doctrine which arose at the time of the Council of Chalcedon.
According to the canons of the Oriental Orthodox churches, the four bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch were all given status as patriarchs; in other words, the ancient apostolic centres of Christianity, by the First Council of Nicaea (predating the schism)—each of the four patriarchs was responsible for those bishops and churches within his own area of the Church. Thus, the Bishop of Rome has always been held by the others to be fully sovereign within his own area, as well as “first-among-equals”, due to the traditional belief that the Apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul were martyred in Rome.
The technical reason for the schism was that the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated the non-Chalcedonian bishops in 451 for refusing to accept the “in two natures” teaching, thus declaring them to be out of communion.
The highest office in Oriental Orthodoxy is that of patriarch. There are patriarchs within the local Oriental Orthodox communities of the Coptic, Armenian, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Syriac, and Indian (Malankara) Orthodox churches. The title of pope, as used by the leading bishop of the Coptic Church, has the meaning of “Father” and is not a jurisdictional title.
According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, Oriental Orthodoxy is the Christian tradition “most important in terms of the number of faithful living in the Middle East”, which, along with other Eastern Christian communions, represent an autochthonous Christian presence whose origins date further back than the birth and spread of Islam in the Middle East. It is the dominant religion in Armenia (94%), the ethnically Armenian unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic(95%) and in Ethiopia (43%, the total Christian population being 62%), especially in two regions in Ethiopia: Amhara (82%) and Tigray (96%), as well as the capital city of Addis Ababa (75%). It is also one of two dominant religions in Eritrea (50%).
It is a minority in Egypt (<20%), Sudan (3–5%), Syria (2–3% out of the 10% of total Christians), Lebanon (10% of the 40% of Christians in Lebanon or 200,000 Armenians and members of the Church of the East) and Kerala, India (7% out of the 20% of total Christians in Kerala). In terms of total number of members, the Ethiopian Church is the largest of all Oriental Orthodox churches, and is second among all Orthodox churches among Eastern and OrientalcChurches (exceeded in number only by the Russian Orthodox Church).
Also of particular importance are the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey and the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran. These Oriental Orthodox churches represent the largest Christian minority in both of these predominantly Muslim countries, Turkey and Iran.
- Armenian Apostolic Church
- Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin
- Holy See of Cilicia
- Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople
- Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem
- Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
- French Coptic Orthodox Church
- Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch
- Jacobite Syrian Christian Church
There are a number of churches considered non-canonical, but whose members and clergy may or may not be in communion with the greater Oriental Orthodox communion. Examples include the Celtic Orthodox Church, the Ancient British Church, and lately the British Orthodox Church. These organizations have passed in and out of official recognition, but members rarely face excommunication when recognition is ended. The primates of these churches are typically referred to as episcopi vagantes or vagantes in short.
There are numerous ongoing internal disputes within the Oriental Orthodox churches. These disputes result in lesser or greater degrees of impaired communion.
The least divisive of these disputes is within the Armenian Apostolic Church, between the Catholicosate of Etchmiadzin and the Catholicosate of the Great House of Cilicia. The division of the two Catholicosates stemmed from frequent relocations of church headquarters due to political and military upheavals.
The division between the two sees intensified during the Soviet period. By some Western bishops and clergy the Holy See of Etchmiadzin was seen as a captive Communist puppet. Sympathizers of this established congregations independent of Etchmiadzin, declaring loyalty instead to the See based in Antelias in Lebanon. The division was formalized in 1956 when the Antelias (Cilician) See broke away from the Etchmiadzin See. Though recognising the supremacy of the Catholicos of All Armenians, the Catholicos of Cilicia administers the clergy and dioceses independently. The dispute, however, has not at all caused a breach in communion between the two churches.
In 1992, following the abdication of Abune Merkorios and election of Abune Paulos, some Ethiopian Orthodox bishops in the United States maintained that the new election was invalid, and declared their independence from the Addis Ababa administration forming separate synod. On 27 July 2018 representatives from both synods reached an agreement. According to the terms of the agreement, Abune Merkorios was reinstated as Patriarch alongside Abune Mathias (successor of Abune Paulos), who will continue to be responsible for administrative duties, and the two synods were merged into one synod, with any excommunications between them lifted.
Indians who follow the Oriental Orthodox faith belong to the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church. The church split in two churches were united before 1912 and again from 1958 after reconciliation efforts but again separated in 1975. The Malankara Orthodox also known as Indian Orthodox Church is an autocephalous church. It is headed by the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan. The Jacobite Syrian Christian Church is an autonomous body of the Syriac Orthodox Church in India. It is headed by regional head Catholicos of India.
The Malabar Independent Syrian Church also follows the Oriental Orthodox tradition but is not in communion with other Oriental Orthodox churches.
The Assyrian Church of the East is sometimes incorrectly described as an Oriental Orthodox church, though its origins lie in disputes that predated the Council of Chalcedon and it follows a different Christology from Oriental Orthodoxy. The historical Church of the East was the church of Greater Iran and declared itself separate from the state church of the Roman Empire in 424–27, years before Chalcedon. Theologically, the Church of the East was affiliated with the doctrine of Nestorianism, and thus rejected the Council of Ephesus, which declared Nestorianism heretical in 431. The Christology of the Oriental Orthodox churches in fact developed as a reaction against Nestorian Christology, which emphasizes the distinctness of the human and divine natures of Christ.
There are many overlapping ecclesiastical jurisdictions in India, mostly with a Syriac liturgical heritage centered in the state of Kerala. The autonomous Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, which comes under the Syriac Orthodox Church, is quite often confused with the autocephalous Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church as the similarity in their names.
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