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] They were founded by the apostles or by their earliest disciples and their theology did not undergo any significant change in the course of their history. [ citation needed ]

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 the rejected. Arising in the Alexandrian School of Theology, Nestorianism 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

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

Modern days

The Oriental Orthodox communion comprises six groups: Coptic Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) and Armenian Apostolic churches. [8] These six churches, while being in communion with each other are completely independent hierarchically and have no shared patriarch. [9]

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. [10]

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. [11] [12] 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. [13] 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. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria major transnational Oriental Orthodox church led by the Patriarch of Alexandria on the Holy See of St. Mark

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is an Oriental Orthodox Christian church based in Egypt, Africa and the Middle East. The head of the Church and the See of Alexandria is the Patriarch of Alexandria on the Holy See of Saint Mark, who also carries the title of Coptic Pope. 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 Alexandrian Rite for its liturgy, prayer and devotional patrimony. With approximately 10 million members worldwide, it is the country's largest Christian church.

Nestorianism is a Christian theological doctrine that upholds several distinctive teachings in the fields of Christology and Mariology. It opposes the concept of hypostatic union and emphasizes that the two natures of Jesus Christ were joined by will rather than personhood. This Christological position is defined as radical dyophysitism. Nestorianism was named after Christian theologian Nestorius (386–450), Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, who was influenced by Christological teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia at the School of Antioch.

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

Eastern Christianity comprises church families that developed - outside the Occident - from the original cradle of Christianity in Asia, with major bodies including the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox churches, the Eastern Catholic churches, Protestant Eastern Christian Churches who are Protestant in theology but Eastern Christian in cultural practice, and the denominations descended from the historic Church of the East.

Monothelitism Doctrine in Christian theology

Monothelitism or monotheletism is the view that Jesus Christ has two natures but only one will. It is contrary to dyothelitism, the christological doctrine that Jesus Christ has two wills that correspond to his two natures.

Chalcedonian Christianity Christian demoninations that accept the Fourth Ecumenical Council

Chalcedonian Christianity refers to the Christian denominations adhering to the christological definitions and ecclesiological resolutions of the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in 451. Chalcedonian Christians follow the Definition of Chalcedon, a religious doctrine concerning the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. The great majority of Christian communions and confessions in the 21st century are Chalcedonian, but from the 5th to the 8th centuries the ascendancy of Chalcedonian Christology was not always certain.

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.

Monoenergism was a notion in early medieval Christian theology, representing the belief that Christ had only one "energy" (energeia). The teaching of one energy was propagated during the first half of the seventh century by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople but opposition to Dyoenergism would persist until Dyoenergism was espoused as Orthodoxy at the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Ultimately, monoenergism was rejected as heresy, in favour of dyoenergism.

Patriarch of Antioch is a traditional title held by the bishop of Antioch. As the traditional "overseer" of the first gentile Christian community, the position has been of prime importance in Pauline Christianity from its earliest period. This diocese is one of the few for which the names of its bishops from the apostolic beginnings have been preserved. Today five churches use the title of patriarch of Antioch: the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, and the Maronite Church. Historically, there has also been a Latin patriarch of Antioch.

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.

Miaphysitism is the Christological doctrine upheld by the Oriental Orthodox Churches, who include the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Rather than using the wording established at the Council of Chalcedon (451) that Jesus is one "person" in two "natures", a divine nature and a human nature, they hold that Jesus, the "Incarnate Word, is fully divine and fully human, in one physis." In modern times, these differences are considered to be in word rather than in belief.

Non-Chalcedonianism is a religious doctrine of those Christian churches that do not accept the Confession of Chalcedon as defined at the ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. The doctrine contrasts with Chalcedonian Christianity, which accepts the doctrines of the first seven Ecumenical Councils. Some Christian denominations do not accept the Confession of Chalcedon, for varying reasons, but accept the doctrines of the previous council at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria

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History of the Eastern Orthodox Church

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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 part of 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 Christian churches adhering to miaphysite Christology and theology, and together have about 62 million members worldwide.

The Third Council of Ephesus was held in the Anatolian city of Ephesus in 475. It was presided over by Pope Timothy II of Alexandria, and also attended by Peter the Fuller, then Patriarch of Antioch, and Paul the Exarch of Ephesus. It ratified a recent Encyclical of Emperor Basiliscus, reportedly signed by 500-700 bishops throughout the Empire, which condemned the Council of Chalcedon and particularly the Tome of Leo. This council thus constitutes one of the most significant synodical condemnations of Chalcedon for the Oriental Orthodox. In response to the accusations of certain Chalcedonians that they, the Non-Chalcedonians, had adopted the erroneous teachings of Eutyches, the attendees of Ephesus III summarily anathematized all teachings which compromised the humanity of Christ, but without any explicit mention of Eutyches. Additionally, the council restored the complete autonomy of the Ecclesiastical Exarchate of Ephesus, which had been compromised at Chalcedon by ascribing authority to the Patriarch of Constantinople over Thrace, Pontus, and Asia.

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 a form of Christianity in the Roman Empire

With the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, Emperor Theodosius I made Nicene Christianity the Empire's state religion. The Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church each claim to stand in continuity with the church to which Theodosius granted recognition, but do not look on it as specific to the Roman Empire.

History of Eastern Orthodox theology

The history of Eastern Orthodox Christian theology begins with the life of Jesus and the forming of the Christian Church. Major events include the Chalcedonian schism with the Oriental Orthodox miaphysites, the Iconoclast controversy, the Photian schism, the Great Schism between East and West, and the Hesychast controversy. The period after the Second World War saw a re-engagement with the Greek, and more recently Syriac, Fathers that included a rediscovery of the theological works of St. Gregory Palamas, which has resulted in a renewal of Orthodox theology in the 20th and 21st centuries.


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