- The Assyrian Church of the East
- The Oriental Orthodox Churches
- The Armenian Apostolic Church
- The Ethiopian Orthodox Church
- The Syrian orthodox Church
- The Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
- The Eritrean Orthodox Church
Many Christians are baffled by the complexity of the Christian East, which
can appear to be a bewildering array of national Churches and ethnic jurisdictions.
I will try to give a survey about all the Eastern Churches.
This approach yields four distinct and separate Eastern Christian communions:
- The Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in communion with any other
- The six Oriental Orthodox Churches, which, even though each is independent,
are in full communion with one another.
- The Orthodox Church, which is a communion of national or regional churches,
all of which recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople
as a point of unity enjoying
certain rights and privileges.
- The Eastern Catholic Churches, all of which are in communion with the Church
of Rome and its bishop.
The Assyrian Church of the East
It is not known exactly when Christianity first took root in upper Mesopotamia,
but a Christian presence had certainly been established there by the mid-2nd
century. In the 3rd century, the area was conquered by the Persians.
Around the year 300, the bishops were first organized into an ecclesiastical
structure under the leadership of a Catholicos, the bishop of the Persian royal
capital at Seleucia-Ctesiphon.
In the 5th century, the Church of the East gravitated towards
the radical Antiochene form of Christology that had been articulated by Theodore
of Mopsuestia and Nestorious, and fell out of communion with the Church in the Roman
Empire. This was due in part to the significant influx of Nestorian Christology
by the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the expulsion of Nestorians from the Empire
by Emperor Zeno (474-491). In addition, the Persian Christians needed to distance
themselves from the official church of the Roman Empire, with which Persia was frequently
at war. In this way they were able to maintain their Christian faith while avoiding
suspicions that they were collaborating with the Roman enemy.
The Church of the East was always a minority in largely Zoroastrian Persia,
but nevertheless it flourished for many centuries, with its rich scholarly activity
centered on the famous school of Nisibis. The Church expanded through missionary
activity into areas as far away as India, Tibet, China, and Mongolia.
The patriarchate was moved to the new city of Baghdad after it became the
capital in 766.
The East Syrian rite of the Assyrian Church appears to have
been an independent development from the ancient Syriac liturgy of Edessa. It may
also preserve elements of an ancient Persian rite that has been lost. Services are
still held in Syriac.
The Oriental Orthodox Churches
The term Oriental Orthodox Churches is now generally used
to describe a group of six ancient eastern churches. Although they are in communion
with one another, each is fully independent and possesses many distinctive traditions.
The common element among these Churches is their rejection of the Christological
definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which asserted that Christ is one
person in two natures, undivided and unconfused. For them, to say that Christ has
two natures was to overemphasize the duality in Christ and to compromise the unity
of his person. Yet they reject the classical Monophysite position of Eutyches, who
held that Christ’s humanity was absorbed into his single divine nature. They prefer
the formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who spoke of the One incarnate nature of
the Word of God.
Because they denied Chalcedons definition of two natures in Christ, these
Christians have often erroneously been called monophysites, from the Greek word
meaning one nature. The group has also been referred to as The Lesser Eastern
Churches, The Ancient Oriental Churches, The Non-Chalcedonian Churches, or
The Pre-Chalcedonian Churches. Today it is widely recognized by theologians
and Church leaders on both sides that the Christological differences between the
Oriental Orthodox and those who accepted Chalcedon were only verbal, and that in
fact both parties profess the same faith in Christ using different formulas.
The Armenian Apostolic Church
Ancient Armenia was located in present-day eastern Turkey and in bordering
areas of the former Soviet Union and Iran. Armenia became the first country to adopt
Christianity as its state religion when king Tiridates III was converted to the
Christian faith by St. Gregory the Illuminator at the beginning of the 4th
century (301). A cathedral was soon built at Etchmiadzin which to this day remains
the center of the Armenian Apostolic Church. The monk St. Mesrob Mashtots invented
the Armenian alphabet around the year 406, making it possible for the Bible to be
translated into that language.
In 506 an Armenian Synod rejected the Christological teachings of the Council
of Chalcedon. At that time the Armenian Church was more concerned with fighting
against the Persians who wanted to impose their religion on the Armenians. (Battle
Long a vulnerable buffer state between the hostile Roman and Persian empires,
the ancient Armenian kingdom was destroyed in the 11th century. Many
Armenians then fled to Cilicia (south central Asia Minor), where a new Armenian
kingdom was established. Here the Armenians had extensive contacts with the Latin
Crusaders. Although this new kingdom ceased to exist by the 14th century
and the Armenian people were dispersed, they survived in spite of foreign domination.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Armenians
in the Ottoman Empire suffered a series of massacres and expulsions which led to
the death of large numbers of them. It is widely believed that altogether 1.5 million
Armenians died in the tragedy organized by the Turkish government in 1915.
The Armenian liturgy reflects the Jerusalem, Syriac, and Byzantine
traditions. While a distinctive Armenian liturgical tradition was being formed in
the 5th and the 7th centuries, there was strong liturgical
influence from Jerusalem and Syria. Later there was a period of Byzantinization,
and finally, during the Middle Ages, many Latin usages were adopted.
Although the Armenian Catholicos in Etchmiadzin is recognized by all Armenian
Apostolics as the spiritual head of the Armenian Church, three other Armenian jurisdictions
have emerged over the centuries: the Catholicosate of Sis, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem,
and the Patriarchate of Costantinople.
The Coptic Orthodox Church
The foundation of the Church in Egypt is associated with St. Mark the Evangelist
who, according to tradition, was martyred in Alexandria in 63 AD. Eventually Egypt
became a Christian nation and Alexandria an extremely important center of theological
reflection. Moreover, monks in the Egyptian desert provided the first models for
the Christian monastic tradition, having been nourished by the spiritual insights
of the early desert fathers.
The christological teachings of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were rejected
by much of the Egyptian hierarchy and faithful. Persecutions intended to force acceptance
only reinforced the resistance. Eventually a separate Coptic Church emerged with
a distinct theological and liturgical tradition. From the 5th to the
9th centuries the Greek Patriarchs lived in the city of Alexandria, while
the Coptic Patriarchs lived in the desert monastery of St. Macarius.
After the Arab invasion in 641, the Copts slowly diminished in numbers, becoming
a minority in Egypt around the year 850. Arabic replaced Coptic as the official
language of the country in the 8th century.
The Coptic liturgy grew from the original Greek rite of Alexandria, developing
by the 4th century its own native characteristics.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church
According to the ancient tradition, the first great evangelizer of the Ethiopians
was St. Frumentius, a Roman citizen from Tyre who had been shipwrecked along the
African coast of the Red Sea. He gained the confidence of the emperor at Aksum and
eventually brought about the conversion of his son, who later became Emperor Ezana.
Ezana later introduced Christianity as the state religion around the year 330. Frumentius
was ordained a bishop by St. Athanasius of Alexandria and returned to Ethiopia to
help with the continued evangelization of the country.
This Church is unique in retaining several Jewish practices such as circumcision
and the observance of dietary laws and Saturday Sabbath as well as Sunday.
This is probably due to the fact that the earliest presence of Christianity in Ethiopia
had come directly from Palestine through southern Arabia.
Geez, the ancient Ethiopian language, has traditionally been used in the
liturgy, which is of Alexandrian (Coptic) origin and influenced by the Syriac tradition.
Today a translation of the liturgy into modern Amharic is being used increasingly
in the parishes.
From ancient times, all bishops in Ethiopia were Egyptian Copts appointed
by the Coptic Patriarchate. Indeed, for many centuries the only bishop in Ethiopia
was the Coptic Metroploitan. By popular demand, in 1929 four native Ethiopian bishops
were elected to assist the ethnic Egyptian Metropolitan. In 1951 for the first time
an ethnic Ethiopian Metropolitan was chosen by the Ethiopian clergy and laity. In
1959 the Coptic Patriarchate confirmed the independence of the Ethiopian Church,
raising the rank of its head to Patriarch.
The Syrian Orthodox Church
The Syrian Church traces its origins back to the early community at Antioch,
which is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. The Antiochene Church became one
of the great centers of Christianity in the early centuries. But the Council of
Chalcedon in 451 provoked a split in the community. The Councils teachings were
enforced by the Byzantine imperial authorities in the cities, but they were largely
rejected in the countryside.
In the 6th century, the bishop of Edessa, Jacob Baradai, ordained
many bishops and priests to carry on the faith of those who rejected Chalcedon in
the face of imperial opposition. Consequently, this church became known as Jacobite,
with its own liturgy (West Syrian or Antiochene) and other traditions using the
Syriac language spoken by the common people.
The conquest of the area by the Persians and later by the Arabs ended Byzantine
persecution, and created conditions favoring further development of the Syrian Church. There
was a great revival of Syrian Orthodox scholarship in the Middle Ages, when the
community possessed flourishing schools of theology, philosophy, history, and science.
At its height, the church included twenty metropolitan sees and 103 dioceses extending
as far to the east as Afghanistan.
But the Mongol invasions under Tamerlane in the late 14th century,
during which most Syrian churches and monasteries were destroyed, marked the beginning
of a long decline. Terrible losses were suffered again during and after World War
I because of persecutions and massacres in eastern Turkey. This led to a widespread
dispersion of the community.
Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church
In the mid-17th century, increasingly upset with the latinization
of their church by the Portuguese, most of the Thomas Christians in India broke
away from the Catholic Church. This led thousands of faithful to gather at the Coonan
Cross in Mattancherry on January 16, 1653, and take an oath to submit no longer
to the authority of Rome.
In 1665 the Syrian Patriarch agreed to send a bishop to head the community
on the condition that its leader and his followers agree to accept Syrian Christology
and follow the West Syrian rite. This group was administered as an autonomous church
within the Syrian Patriarchate.
However, in 1912 there was a split in the community when a significant section
declared itself an autocephalous church and announced the re-establishment of the
ancient Catholicossate of the East in India. This was not accepted by those who
remained loyal to the Syrian Patriarchate. The two sides were reconciled in 1958
when the Indian Supreme Court declared that only the autocephalous Catholicosate
and bishops in communion with him had legal standing.
The precise size of
these two communities is extremely difficult to determine and is hotly disputed
by the two sides.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church
Eritrea, located along the southwest coast of the Red Sea, was the site of
the ancient Christian kingdom of Aksum. It began to decline in the 7th
century in the wake of the Muslim invasions, and a new Ethiopian kingdom was subsequently
established in the interior.
Eritrea was an Italian colony from 1890 to 1941, when it was captured by
the British. It entered a federation with Ethiopia in 1952, and was annexed as an
Ethiopian province in 1962. A lengthy struggle for self-rule culminated with the
country’s declaration of independence on May 24, 1993.
In July 1993, the bishops of the country appealed to Pope Shenouda III of
the Coptic Church to obtain separation from the Ethiopian Church and autocephalous
status. On September 28, 1993, the Coptic Holy Synod responded favorably to this
request and authorized the training of ten Eritrean bishops in Coptic monasteries.
The process of the establishment of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church has
taken place in accord with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
In February 1994 an agreement was signed in Adis Ababa that reaffirmed the
autocephalous status of both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox Churches,
and recognized a primacy of honor of the Coptic Church among the Oriental Orthodox
Churches in Africa.