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Oriental Orthodoxy


Oriental Orthodoxy

Christ feeding the multitude, a Coptic icon.

Oriental Orthodoxy is the faith of those Orthodox Eastern Christian churches which recognize only the first three ecumenical councils—the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the First Council of Ephesus. They rejected the definitions of the Council of Chalcedon held in AD 451 in Chalcedon. Hence, these Oriental Orthodox churches are also called Old Oriental churches, Miaphysite churches, or the Non-Chalcedonian churches, known to Western Christianity and much of Eastern Orthodoxy as Monophysite churches (although the Oriental Orthodox themselves reject this description as inaccurate, having rejected the teachings of both Nestorius and Eutyches).[1] These churches are in full communion with each other but not with the Eastern Orthodox churches. Slow dialogue towards restoring communion began in the mid-20th century.[2]

Despite the potentially confusing nomenclature (the word "Oriental" being synonymous with "Eastern"), Oriental Orthodox churches are distinct from those that are collectively referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Oriental Orthodox communion comprises six churches: Coptic, Ethiopian, Eritrean, Syriac, Malankara Syrian (Indian Orthodox Church) and Armenian Apostolic churches.[3] These churches, while being in communion with one another, are hierarchically independent.[4]

The Oriental Orthodox Churches and the rest of the 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 First Council of Ephesus (431) that Jesus, though divine as well as human, is only one being, or person (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).


  • History 1
    • Post Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) 1.1
    • 20th century 1.2
  • Geographical distribution 2
  • Oriental Orthodox communion 3
  • Internal disputes 4
    • Armenian Apostolic 4.1
    • India 4.2
  • Occasional confusions 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • Bibliography 8
  • External links 9


Coptic icon of St. Anthony the Great

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, 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 God the Incarnate Logos"[5] (or as others translate,[6] "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" 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.[7]

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.

20th century

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 Roman Pope (John Paul II) in 1984.

According to the canons of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the four bishops of Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus 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, and Syrian Orthodox Churches. The title of Pope, as used by Pope Theodoros II of Alexandria (current 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 Oriental Orthodox Christians in the world by country:
  Main religion (more than 75%)
  Main religion (50–75%)
  Important minority religion (20–50%)
  Important minority religion (5–20%)
  Minority religion (1–5%)
  Tiny minority religion (below 1%), but has local autocephaly

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%).[9] It is also one of two dominant religions in Eritrea (50%).

It is a minority in Egypt (9%),[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) and Kerala, India (7% out of the 20% of total Christians in Kerala).[11] 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[12][13] and Iran.[14]

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:

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.


Indians who follow the Oriental Orthodox faith belong to two factions, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church and the Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

These two factions share the same faith of the Syriac Orthodox Church, but a hierarchical dispute spanning well over 100 years has divided the church. Both factions were declared a single church under the Syriac Orthodox Church by the Supreme Court of India in 1995. Regardless, the Malankara Orthodox Syrian faction maintains that it is autocephalous. This group is under excommunication by the Syriac Orthodox Church.

The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church is, in a de facto sense, now an independent church under the spiritual and secular jurisdiction of the Catholicos of the East on the ostensible "Throne of St. Thomas" with an ambiguous subordination to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

The latter is an autonomous body of the Syriac Orthodox Church in India. 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 does not exercise temporal control where the Catholicate has jurisdiction, but remains the supreme spiritual head of the Church worldwide. When the Patriarchate is vacant it is this Catholicos that presides over the Universal Synod and leads the ordination of the new Patriarch.

The first group is called the Metran Kakshi (bishop's faction) and the latter is called the Bava Kakshi (Patriarch's faction). The former is also referred to as the Indian Orthodox church to signify its nationalist sentiments and independence. The two churches were united before 1912 and for a brief period from 1958 to 1975.

Occasional confusions

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 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. 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.

See also


  1. ^ Davis,  
  2. ^ Syrian Orthodox Resources – Middle Eastern Oriental Orthodox Common Declaration
  3. ^ Oriental Orthodox Churches
  4. ^ An Introduction to the Oriental Orthodox Churches
  5. ^  
  6. ^ CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA; Pusey, P. E. (Trans.). "FROM HIS SECOND BOOK AGAINST THE WORDS OF THEODORE". The Tertullian Project. Retrieved 30 November 2014. 
  7. ^ CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Pope St. Hormisdas
  8. ^ From the common declaration of Pope John Paul II and HH Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, June 23, 1984
  9. ^ Ethiopia: 2007 Census
  10. ^ "The World Factbook: Egypt".  
  11. ^ "Church in India - Syrian Orthodox Church of India - Roman Catholic Church - Protestant Churches in India". Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ "Foreign Ministry: 89,000 minorities live in Turkey". Today's Zaman. 15 December 2008. Retrieved 16 May 2011. 
  14. ^ Ahmadinejad: Religious minorities live freely in Iran (PressTV, 24 Sep 2009)
  15. ^ "أنباء البطريركية - الموقع الرسمي لبطريركية أنطاكية وسائر المشرق للسريان الأرثوذكس". Retrieved 14 October 2013. 


  • Betts, Robert B., Christians in the Arab East, Lycabbetus Press (Athens, 1978)
  • Charles, R. H. The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, 1916. Reprinted 2007. Evolution Publishing, ISBN 978-1-889758-87-9

External links

  • Orthodox Unity
  • Second Agreed Statement (1990) between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches
  • Common Declaration of Pope John Paul II and HH Mar Ignatius Zakka I Iwas
  • Joint Declarations Between the Syriac Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches
  • Dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox Churches on the Anglican Communion Website
  • Dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox Churches on the Vatican Website
  • The Rejection of the Term Theotokos by Nestorius Constantinople
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