Oriental Orthodoxy

Oriental Orthodoxy is the faith of those Eastern Christian Churches that recognize only three ecumenical councils — the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the First Council of Ephesus. They rejected the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Hence, these Oriental Orthodox Churches are also called Old Oriental Churches or Non-Chalcedonian Churches. These churches are generally not in communion with Eastern Orthodox Churches but they are in dialogue for a return to unity.[1]

Despite the potentially confusing nomenclature (Oriental meaning Eastern), Oriental Orthodox churches are distinct from those that are collectively referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Oriental Orthodox communion comprises six groups: Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Eritrean Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) and Armenian Apostolic churches.[2] These six churches, while being in communion with one another, are hierarchically independent.[3]

The Oriental Orthodox Church and the rest of the Church split over differences in Christological terminology. The First Council of Nicaea (325) declared that Jesus Christ is God, "consubstantial" with the Father; and the First Council of Ephesus (431) that Jesus, though divine as well as human, is only one being (hypostasis). Twenty years after Ephesus, the Council of Chalcedon declared that Jesus is one person in two complete natures, one human and one divine. Those who opposed Chalcedon likened its doctrine to the Nestorian heresy, condemned at Ephesus, that Christ was two distinct beings, one divine (the Logos) and one human (Jesus).

Contents

History

Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great

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, Patriarch of Alexandria and the other 13 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 the Incarnate Word of God," 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" churches. 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 of Constantinople, Theodoret of Cyrus, 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, Antioch, Jerusalem, (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.[4] 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 contrary to that of Athanasius.

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 the Syriac 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.[5]

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; 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, (with the exception of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who was independent of the rest). 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. Recent declarations indicate that the Holy See now regards itself as being in a state of partial communion with the other patriarchates.

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, Indian, and Syrian Orthodox Churches. The title of Pope, which is used by His Holiness Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria (Pope of the Coptic Orthodox 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.

Geographical distribution

Distribution of Orthodox Christianity in the world by country
Eastern Orthodoxy
  Main religion (more than 75%)
  Main religion (50% - 75%)
  Important minority religion (20% - 50%)
  Important minority religion (5% - 20%)
  Minority religion (1% - 5%)
Oriental Orthodoxy
  Main religion (more than 75%)
  Main religion (50% - 75%)
  Important minority religion (20% - 50%)
  Important minority religion (5% - 20%)
  Minority religion (1% - 5%)

Oriental Orthodoxy is a dominant religion in Armenia (94%), the ethnically Armenian 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 chartered city of Addis Ababa (75%).[6] It is also one of two dominant religions in Eritrea (50%). It is a minority in Egypt (9%),[7] 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) and Kerala, India (8%[8] out of all the 2.3% of total Christians in India). 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).

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 includes:

Internal disputes

There are numerous ongoing internal disputes within the Oriental Orthodox Churches. These disputes result in lesser or greater degrees of impaired communion.

Armenian Apostolic

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 Echmiadzin 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.

Oriental Orthodox Indians

The next least divisive dispute is among Indians who are Oriental Orthodox. This dispute is between two jurisdictional bodies among Oriental Orthodox Indians: the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. The former is an archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church. It experiences a certain degree of autonomy, but is ultimately responsible to the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch. The latter, on the other hand, is entirely independent of the Syriac Orthodox Church. Though the church was united for a brief period from 1958 to 1975, disputes again surfaced and resulted in separation of the Churches once again.[citation needed]

Occasional confusions

Kottayam St.Mary's Orthodox Church
Indo-Persian Architecture of a Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. It is a mix of Hindu and Persian Christian religious architecture

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 Persia, 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 First Council of Ephesus, which declared Nestorianism heretical in 431. The Christology of the Oriental Orthodox churches in fact developed as a reaction to 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. Two of these, the autonomous Malankara Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church, which comes under the Syriac orthodox church, and the autocephalous Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, are Oriental Orthodox.


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