Oriental Orthodoxy is the communion of churches in Eastern Christianity which recognizes only the first three ecumenical councils – the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Ephesus in 431. This communion is composed of six autocephalous churches: the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Oriental Orthodoxy has approximately 84 million adherents worldwide.
The proto-Oriental Orthodox churches rejected the Chalcedonian Definition of the Council of Chalcedon held in 451, and over the following century and a half they discontinued their communion with the churches that accepted the decisions made at the council, gradually developing separate institutions and a separate identity from the rest of Christianity. They did not participate in any of the later councils that other Christian bodies recognize as ecumenical. The Oriental Orthodox churches are thus also called "Old Oriental" churches, "Miaphysite" churches, or "Non-Chalcedonian" churches. These churches are in full communion with each other, but not with the Eastern Orthodox Church, which represents a different branch of Christianity despite the similar name. Slow dialogue towards restoring communion between the two Orthodox groups began in the mid-20th century.
While being in communion with one another, the Oriental Orthodox churches are hierarchically independent, and they each have their own unique rites and practices, which show significant differences from one another. Some recognize the Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria as "first among equals" of the Oriental Orthodox bishops. Unlike the Roman Pope who, in the context of Catholicism, is supreme to all other bishops, the Coptic Pope is given the title only because he is leader of the Oriental Orthodox Council. He is called father, and the title "Pope" indicates affection and respect, but does not carry any special authority. It is also significant to note that Pope Dionysius of Rome (in office 259-268) referred to Heraclas of Alexandria (in office 232-246) as "pope" in a letter written to Philemon. The leaders of the other five Oriental Orthodox churches also carry specific honorary titles (such as the Abuna of the Orthodox Tewahedo or the Catholicos of All Armenians).
The Oriental Orthodox churches and the rest of the Christian Church split over differences in Christology. The First Council of Nicaea (325) declared that Jesus Christ is God, that is to say, "consubstantial" with the Father; and 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 the Nestorian heresy, which held that Christ was two distinct beings, one divine (the Logos) and one human (Jesus), who happened to inhabit the same body. The churches that would later be called Oriental Orthodox were intensely anti-Nestorian, and therefore strongly supported the decisions made at Ephesus.
Twenty years later, the Council of Chalcedon reaffirmed the view upheld at Ephesus (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 became separated from Chalcedonian Christianity, and formed the body that is today called Oriental Orthodoxy, which identifies as Miaphysite.
Centuries later, Chalcedonian Christianity itself would split in two (formally accomplished in 1054), giving rise to the bodies that are today known as the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Eastern Orthodox maintain numerous theological and ecclesiological similarities with the Oriental Orthodox, but continue to disagree over the Chalcedonian definition.
At times, Chalcedonian Christians have referred to the Oriental Orthodox churches as being Monophysite – 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.
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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 Universal 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 Armenian, Coptic, 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. However, the Coptic Pope holds the honor of being "first among equals", as the Ecumenical Patriarch does among the Eastern Orthodox, and as such he functions as the president of pan-jurisdictional gatherings of the Oriental Orthodox.
According to the Encyclopedia of Religion, Oriental Orthodoxy is "the 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%) internationally viewed as part of Azerbaijan, 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 chartered city of Addis Ababa (75%). It is also one of two dominant religions in Eritrea (50%).
It is a minority in Egypt (<10%), Sudan (3–5% out of the 15% of total Christians), 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 Oriental Churches (exceeded in number only by the Russian Orthodox Church).
Also of particular importance of Oriental orthodoxy churches are the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey and the Armenian Apostolic Church of Iran. These oriental Orthodoxy churches represent the largest Christian minority in both of these predominantly Muslim countries, Turkey and Iran.
In recent years, several hundred thousand former Protestants have converted and joined the Syriac Orthodox Church in Guatemala and to a lesser degree in Brazil and Venezuela.
Oriental Orthodox communion
The Oriental Orthodox communion is a group of churches within Oriental Orthodoxy which are all in full communion with each other. The communion comprises:
- Armenian Apostolic Church
- British Orthodox Church
- Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria
- Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
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.
Indians who follow the Oriental Orthodox faith belong to two factions, the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. These two factions are a division of the Syriac Orthodox Church, but a hierarchical dispute spanning just over 100 years has divided the church. The former is the legal name of the autonomous body of the Syriac Orthodox Church in India. It is also known as the Bava Kakshi (Patriarch's faction) or the Syriac Orthodox Church of Malankara. The local Episcopal synod is led by the Catholicos of India. This Catholicos is ordained by and accountable to the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church. The Patriarch holds both temporal and spiritual control where the Catholicate has jurisdiction, however restricts exercising temporal power due to the nature of affairs and independent history of the church.
The latter, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, also known as the Metran Kakshi (bishop's faction) or the Indian Orthodox faction, maintains that it is autocephalous; however, it accepts the Patriarch of Antioch as its spiritual head with no temporal powers. It is headed by the Catholicos of the East and Malankara Metropolitan.
The two churches were united before 1912 and again from 1958 after reconciliation efforts but again separated in 1975.
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 dyophysite 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 (Malankara) Jacobite Syrian Christian Church, which comes under the Syriac Orthodox Church, is quite often confused with the autocephalous Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church as the latter uses a similar name.
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