Oriental Orthodox Churches

Oriental Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodox Churches

The cluster of ancient churches that were not in agreement with the councils of the Greek Church and the Latin Church are often referred to corporately as the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

These churches include the Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Malankara, Eritrean, and Syrian churches, because these do not accept the Chalcedonian formula that Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth has two natures in one person. As a result they fell out of communion with the rest of the Christian world and did not participate with the church councils after 451 c.e.

These churches often were not understood and were disparaged by Greek and Latin theologians. They were wrongly labeled in ancient times as Monophysites ("'one-nature' believers"), but in reality they affirm that Jesus was an inseparable union of divinity and humanity, a position not much different from the Chalcedonian formula.

The word Copt is a derivation of the word for Egyptian. Copts considered themselves descendants of the pharaohs and believed that King Solomon had ties to their land. Their biblically rich legends say that they were converted and organized by the gospel writer and disciple of Jesus, Mark.

Their Christianization is hinted at in the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles), and Diocletian's severe persecution of Egyptian Christians (c. 300 c.e.) proves that Christianity had made great strides there.

It was in Alexandria that a wellspring of creative thinking emerged. Two of its most notable teachers were Christian, Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Their predecessor, Philo, was Jewish. All three were known for their religious accommodations to the Greek conceptual world.

Origen's pupils were Heraclas (first to be called "pope" in Coptic annals) and Gregory Thaumatourgos; other Egyptians influenced by him were the Christian authorities Anthony and Athanasius, as well as non-Egyptians such as Jerome, Ephrem, and the Cappadocians.

The atmosphere of Alexandria was open and experimental, and many new ideas of the faith were tried out there. Alexandria was every bit the equal of such other early Christian centers as Rome, Antioch, and, later, Constantinople.

It was with the council of 451, convened by a pro-Roman emperor, Marcion, that Alexandria and Coptic Christianity began to part company with the Greek and Latin Churches.

Egypt was the main center for theology outside Constantinople and Rome, and because of its infl uence throughout the Near Eastern world, the other Oriental Orthodox Churches were gradually persuaded to take sympathetic positions. They ultimately decided to reject Chalcedon as unwarranted invention.

Egyptian Christians who held to the Chalcedon position were called Melkites and found fellowship with the Greek and Latin Churches, while the majority of the Egyptian people held to the older formulation and became known simply as the Copts.

The civil authorities vainly tried to force change upon the bishops and the people. To this day the Copts and their Oriental Orthodox confreres bitterly remember the cleavage caused by Chalcedon.

Monasticism took the lead in the stability of the Coptic Christian Church, and through the Copts, monasticism played a key role in all of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. The pioneer in the movement was Anthony, who fled from the world’s attractions to follow Christ in the spiritual warfare of the desert.

Eventually, Anthony’s story was told throughout the Christian world—especially in the next century by Athanasius—and scores of devotees headed for the deserts of Egypt, the Holy Land, and Syria. The ensuing monastic movement had a direct impact on Syriac Christianity and other Oriental churches. Eventually, the movement took hold in the Greek and Latin Churches as well.

As for missionary activities, the Coptic Church is known for its efforts to reach Nubia and Libya. Although Ethiopia is an autonomous Oriental church, it was converted by the influence of two Syrian Christians and connected at first to the Coptic Church.

Egyptian monastics are known to have spread their ideas in Mesopotamia, and the oldest continuous monastery in the world, Mar Gabriel, at Turabdin has archaeological evidence for Coptic residents there.

Popular stories circulate concerning the "Theban Legion" of Egyptian monks who brought monasticism to Europe long before Benedict’s monastery in Italy. Europeans flocked to the Egyptian monasteries in the fifth and sixth centuries, along with their pilgrimages to Syria’s Simeon the Stylite.

Because of their extensive contacts with the imperial Roman and Byzantine world, Copts incorporate a fair number of Greek words in their theology and liturgy. Even their alphabet utilizes Greek characters. However, their vocabulary is from their native Coptic language.

By the reign of Justinian (565) they had a completely separate ecclesial hierarchy, spirituality, and even architecture, reflecting their native character. The Coptic faith is intensely biblical and monastic, like many of the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Its early literature centered on the Bible, the interpretations of the Bible, and the writings of Coptic holy men and women. Valuable manuscripts of holy writings go back to the second and third centuries. Thousands of papyri survive in the Egyptian desert, making it easy to detail the Coptic culture from the fifth century onward.

The writings give the sense that Egypt’s upper classes were well educated and piously Christian by the early sixth century. Eventually, Coptic speech and writing gave way to Arabic as the language of the conqueror. The Copts themselves became dhimmis ("protected people" of the state) strictly restricted and monitored by the Muslims.