History of Oriental Orthodoxy

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Oriental Orthodoxy is the communion of Eastern Christian Churches that recognize only three ecumenical councils—the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the Council of Ephesus. They reject the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon. Hence, these Churches are also called Old Oriental Churches or Non-Chalcedonian Churches.



The history of Oriental Orthodoxy goes back to the beginnings of Christianity. [1]

Missionary role

The Oriental Orthodox Churches had a great missionary role during the early stages of Christianity and played a great role in the history of Egypt. [2]

Chalcedonian Schism

Coptic icon of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul Coptic anthony and paul.jpg
Coptic icon of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul

According to the canons of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the four bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus (later transferred to Constantinople) and Antioch were all given status as Patriarchs, the ancient apostolic centers of Christianity by the First Council of Nicaea (predating the schism). Each patriarch was responsible for the bishops and churches within his own area of the universal catholic Church (with the exception of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was independent of the rest) with the Bishop of Rome as "first among equals" as the successor to Peter and seat of the Petrine Ministry of unity and authority.

The schism between Oriental Orthodoxy and the rest of the Church occurred in the 5th century. The separation resulted in part from the refusal of Dioscorus, the Patriarch of Alexandria, to accept the Christological dogmas promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon on Jesus's two natures (divine and human). The Oriental churches accepted that Christ had two natures, but insisted that those two natures are inseparable and united. Dioscorus would accept only "of or from two natures" but not "in two natures." To the hierarchs who would lead the Oriental Orthodox, the Chalcedoian proclamation was tantamount to Nestorianism, which they rejected. Arising in the Alexandrian School of Theology, Miaphysitism advocated a formula stressing the unity of the Incarnation over all other considerations.

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 "non-Chalcedonian" or "Miaphysite" churches. Oriental Orthodox churches reject what they consider to be the heretical Monophysite teachings of Eutyches and of Nestorius as well as the Dyophysite definition of the Council of Chalcedon. As a result, the Oriental patriarchs were excommunicated by the bishops of Rome and Constantinople in 451, formalizing the schism.

Christology, although important, was not the only reason for the Coptic and Syriac rejection of the Council of Chalcedon; political, ecclesiastical and imperial issues were hotly debated during that period. [3]

Failed attempts towards reconciliation

Severus of Antioch Sevarios of Antioch.jpg
Severus of Antioch

In 482, Byzantine emperor Zeno made an attempt to reconcile christological differences between the supporters and opponents of the Chalcedonian Definition by issuing an imperial decree known as the Henotikon, but those efforts were mainly politically motivated and ultimately proved to be unsuccessful in reaching a true and substantial reconciliation. [4]

In the years following the Henotikon, the patriarch of Constantinople remained in formal communion with the non-Chalcedonian patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, while Rome remained out of communion with them and in unstable communion with Constantinople (see: Acacian schism). It was not until 518 that the new Byzantine Emperor, Justin I (who accepted Chalcedon), demanded that the entire 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. [3]

During the reign of emperor Justinian I (527–565), new attempts were made towards reconciliation. One of the most prominent Oriental Orthodox theologians of that era was Severus of Antioch. In spite of several, imperially sponsored meetings between heads of Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox communities, no final agreement was reached. The split proved to be final, and by that time parallel ecclesiastical structures were formed throughout the Middle East. The most prominent Oriental Orthodox leader in the middle of the 6th century was Jacob Baradaeus, who was considered the theological leader, known from that time as "Jacobite" Christians. [3]

Between Byzantine and Persian empires

During the 6th and 7th centuries, frequent wars between the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire (Persia) throughout the Middle East greatly affected all Christians in the region including the Oriental Orthodox, especially in Armenia, Byzantine Syria and Byzantine Egypt. Temporary Persian conquest of all those regions during the great Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 resulted in further estrangement between Oriental Orthodox communities of the region and the Byzantine imperial government in Constantinople. Those relations did not improve after the Byzantine reconquest, despite efforts by emperor Heraclius to strengthen political control of the region by achieving religious reunification of divided Christian communities. In order to reach a christological compromise between Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox, he supported monoenergism and monothelitism, but with no success. [3]

Arab conquest and its aftermath

Challenges of Islamization

Following the Muslim conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century, a process of gradual Islamization was initiated, affecting all Christians in the region, including the Oriental Orthodox. The Oriental Orthodox communities, mainly Syriac and Coptic, were gradually displaced by Muslims, but a minority endured, preserving their Christian faith and culture. [5]

Ottoman conquest and the Millet system

During the first half of the 16th century, the entire Middle East fell under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Syria and Egypt were conquered during the Ottoman–Mamluk War (1516–17), and Oriental Orthodox communities in the region faced a new political reality that would determine their history until the beginning of the 20th century. Ottoman government introduced the Millet system that granted a certain degree of autonomy to non-Islamic religious communities, including Oriental Orthodox Christians.

Persecution of Oriental Orthodoxy

One of the most salient features of the history of Oriental Orthodoxy has been the ceaseless persecution and massacres suffered under Byzantine, Persian, Muslim and Ottoman powers. [6] Anti-Oriental Orthodox sentiments in the Byzantine Empire were motivated by religious divisions within Christianity after the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Persecutions occurred mainly in Egypt and some other eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire during the reigns of emperors Marcian (450–457) and Leo I (457–474). [7] There also was persecution under the Adal Sultanate and the Kingdom of Semien.

The Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in AD 639, during the Byzantine Empire. Despite the political upheaval, Egypt remained a mainly Christian, but Copts lost their majority status after the 14th century, [8] as a result of the intermittent persecution and the destruction of the Christian churches there, [9] accompanied by heavy taxes for those who refused to convert. [10] From the Muslim conquest of Egypt onwards, the Coptic Christians were persecuted by different Muslims regimes, [11] such as the Umayyad Caliphate, [12] Abbasid Caliphate, [13] [14] [15] Fatimid Caliphate, [16] [17] [18] Mamluk Sultanate, [19] [20] and Ottoman Empire; the persecution of Coptic Christians included closing and demolishing churches and forced conversion to Islam. [21] [22] [23]

In modern times, persecutions of Oriental Orthodox Christians culminated in Ottoman systematic persecutions of Armenian Christians and Assyrian Christians that led to the Armenian genocide and Assyrian genocide during the first World War. [24] [25] Also, Coptic Christians in Egypt have been victims of persecution by Muslim extremists into the modern times.

On April 23, 2015, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonized all the victims of the Armenian genocide; this service is believed to be the largest canonization service in history. [26] [27] [28] 1.5 million is the most frequently published number of victims, however, estimates vary from 700,000 to 1,800,000. It was the first canonization by the Armenian Apostolic Church in four hundred years. [29]

Modern day

The Oriental Orthodox communion comprises six groups: Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) and Armenian Apostolic churches. [30] These six churches, while being in communion with each other are completely independent hierarchically and have no shared patriarch. [31]

By the 20th century the Chalcedonian Schism was not seen with the same relevance, and several meetings between Catholicism and Oriental Orthodoxy yielded reconciliation statements signed by the Oriental Patriarch (Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas) and the 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. [32]

Ecumenical relations

After the historical Conference of Addis Ababa in 1965, major Oriental Orthodox Churches have developed the practice of mutual theological consultations and joint approach to ecumenical relations with other Christian churches and denominations, particularly with Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion. Renewed discussions between Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox theologians were mainly focused on christological questions regarding various differences between monophysitism and miaphysitism. [33] [34] On the other hand, dialogue between Oriental Orthodox and Anglican theologians was also focused on some additional pneumatological questions. In 2001, the joint "Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission" was created. [35] In the following years, the Commission produced several important theological statements. Finally in 2017, Oriental Orthodox and Anglican theologians met in Dublin and signed an agreement on various theological questions regarding the Holy Spirit. The statement of agreement has confirmed the Anglican readiness to omit the Filioque interpolation from the Creed. [36]

See also

Related Research Articles

Coptic Orthodox Church Oriental Orthodox Christian church

The Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, is an Oriental Orthodox Christian church based in Egypt, servicing Africa and the Middle East. The head of the church and the See of Alexandria is the Pope of Alexandria on the Holy Apostolic See of Saint Mark, who also carries the title of Father of fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Ecumenical Judge and the thirteenth among the Apostles. The See of Alexandria is titular, and today the Coptic Pope presides from Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District in Cairo. The church follows the Coptic Rite for its liturgy, prayer and devotional patrimony. With approximately 25 million members worldwide, it is the country's largest Christian denomination.

Eastern Orthodox Church Second-largest Christian church

The Eastern Orthodox Church, also called the Orthodox Church, is the second-largest Christian church, with approximately 260 million baptized members. It operates as a communion of autocephalous churches, each governed by its bishops via local synods. The church has no central doctrinal or governmental authority analogous to the head of the Roman Catholic Church—the Pope—but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized by them as primus inter pares and regarded as the spiritual leader of many of the eastern Christian parishes. As one of the oldest surviving religious institutions in the world, the Eastern Orthodox Church has played a prominent role in the history and culture of Eastern and Southeastern Europe, the Caucasus, and the Near East. The Eastern Orthodox Church officially calls itself the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Nestorianism is a term used in Christian theology and Church history to refer to several mutually related but doctrinarily distinct sets of teachings. The first meaning of the term is related to the original teachings of Christian theologian Nestorius, who promoted specific doctrines in the fields of Christology and Mariology. The second meaning of the term is much wider, and relates to a set of later theological teachings, that were traditionally labeled as Nestorian, but differ from the teachings of Nestorius in origin, scope and terminology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Nestorianism as "The doctrine of Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, by which Christ is asserted to have had distinct human and divine persons."

Eastern Christianity Christian traditions originating from Greek- and Syriac-speaking populations

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Monothelitism Christian theological doctrine

Monothelitism, or monotheletism, is a theological doctrine in Christianity, that holds Christ as having only one will. The doctrine is thus contrary to dyothelitism, a Christological doctrine that holds Christ as having two wills. Historically, monothelitism was closely related to monoenergism, a theological doctrine that holds Jesus Christ as having only one energy. Both doctrines were at the center of Christological disputes during the 7th century.

Chalcedonian Christianity Christian demoninations that accept the Fourth Ecumenical Council

Chalcedonian Christianity is the branch of Christianity that accepts and upholds theological and ecclesiological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in 451. Chalcedonian Christianity accepts the Christological Definition of Chalcedon, a Christian doctrine concerning the union of two natures in one hypostasis of Jesus Christ, who is thus acknowledged as a single person (prosopon). Chalcedonian Christianity also accepts the Chalcedonian confirmation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, thus acknowledging the commitment of Chalcedonism to Nicene Christianity.

Eutyches was a presbyter and archimandrite at Constantinople. He first came to notice in 431 at the First Council of Ephesus, for his vehement opposition to the teachings of Nestorius; his condemnation of Nestorianism as heresy led him to an equally extreme, although opposite view, which precipitated his being denounced as a heretic himself.

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The Henotikon was a christological document issued by Byzantine emperor Zeno in 482, in an unsuccessful attempt to reconcile the differences between the supporters of the Council of Chalcedon and the council's opponents. It was followed by the Acacian schism.

Melkite Christian churches of the Byzantine Rite

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Miaphysitism is the Christological doctrine upheld by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which include the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

Pope Peter III of Alexandria also known as Peter Mongus was the 27th Pope of Alexandria & Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.

Non-Chalcedonian Christianity comprises the branches of Christianity that do not accept theological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in 451. Non-Chalcedonian denominations reject the Christological Definition of Chalcedon, for varying reasons. Non-Chalcedonian Christianity thus stands in contrast to Chalcedonian Christianity.

Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church based in Africa; one of the original Churches of the Pentarchy

The Greek OrthodoxPatriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa, also known as the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, is an autocephalous patriarchate that is part of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Its seat is in Alexandria and it has canonical responsibility for the entire African continent.

History of Eastern Christianity

Christianity has been, historically, a Middle Eastern religion with its origin in Judaism. Eastern Christianity refers collectively to the Christian traditions and churches which developed in the Middle East, Egypt, Asia Minor, the Far East, Balkans, Eastern Europe, Northeastern Africa and southern India over several centuries of religious antiquity. It is contrasted with Western Christianity, which developed in Western Europe. As a historical definition the term relates to the earliest Christian communities and their long-standing traditions that still exist.

Coptic history Aspect of the history of Egypt focusing on the history of the Copts

Coptic history is the part of the history of Egypt that begins with the introduction of Christianity in Egypt in the 1st century AD during the Roman period, and covers the history of the Copts to the present day. Many of the historic items related to Coptic Christianity are on display in many museums around the world and a large number is in the Coptic Museum in Coptic Cairo.

Oriental Orthodox Churches Branch of Eastern Christianity

The Oriental Orthodox Churches are a group of Eastern Christian churches adhering to Miaphysite Christology, with a total of approximately 60 million members worldwide. The Oriental Orthodox Churches are broadly part of the trinitarian Nicene Christian tradition shared by today’s mainstream churches, and represent one of its oldest branches.

Christianity in the 5th century Christianity-related events during the 5th century

In the 5th century in Christianity, there were many developments which led to further fracturing of the State church of the Roman Empire. Emperor Theodosius II called two synods in Ephesus, one in 431 and one in 449, that addressed the teachings of Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius and similar teachings. Nestorius had taught that Christ's divine and human nature were distinct persons, and hence Mary was the mother of Christ but not the mother of God. The Council rejected Nestorius' view causing many churches, centered on the School of Edessa, to a Nestorian break with the imperial church. Persecuted within the Roman Empire, many Nestorians fled to Persia and joined the Sassanid Church thereby making it a center of Nestorianism. By the end of the 5th century, the global Christian population was estimated at 10-11 million. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon was held to clarify the issue further. The council ultimately stated that Christ's divine and human nature were separate but both part of a single entity, a viewpoint rejected by many churches who called themselves miaphysites. The resulting schism created a communion of churches, including the Armenian, Syrian, and Egyptian churches, that is today known as Oriental Orthodoxy. In spite of these schisms, however, the imperial church still came to represent the majority of Christians within the Roman Empire.

State church of the Roman Empire Roman Empires state religion after 380 AD

The state church of the Roman Empire refers to the church approved by the Roman emperors after Theodosius I issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, which recognized the catholic orthodoxy of Nicene Christians in the Great Church as the Roman Empire's state religion. Most historians refer to the Nicene church associated with emperors in a variety of ways: as the catholic church, the orthodox church, the imperial church, the imperial Roman church, or the Byzantine church although some of those terms are also used for wider communions extending outside the Roman Empire. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church all claim to stand in continuity from the Nicene church to which Theodosius granted recognition, but do not consider it to be a creation of the Roman Empire.


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