St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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On Oriental Orthodoxy

As we hear more and more of terrorist attacks against Coptic Christians and occasionally against Armenians once again, it behooves us who are called Eastern Orthodox to understand our brothers and sisters in the so-called Oriental Churches.
There are six “Oriental Orthodox” churches: The Coptic Church (Egypt), the Armenian Apostolic Church, The Ethiopian Tewahedo Church (members number 45 -50 million, making it the largest African church), the Eritrean Church, the Syriac Orthodox, and the Syrian Church of India (also known as the Malankara Church). Tewahedo is Ge’ez and it means “being made one,” and thus refers to unity of God and our union with God. Primarily, however, the word refers to the belief that Christ is unified; the Ethiopian Church, in concert with the other Orientals, does not hold that Christ is “in two natures,” although their belief about Christ is virtually the same as ours in Orthodoxy.
These ancient churches have a rich heritage back to early centuries. Most of this history is totally unknown in the west. Many Christians of both East and West love and venerate St Isaac the Syrian, Evagrius of Pontus and Gregory the Illuminator of Armenia – all of whom are Orientals.
The Ethiopian Church traces its early history back to the Ethiopian Vizier baptized by the Evangelist Philip (one of the 7 original deacons) according to Acts 8, who in turn brought Queen Candace into the faith along with many others. St. Frumentius, the first Bishop of Axum (+ 383), is credited with bringing the faith to the Axumite Kingdom, the Northern part of Ethiopia. They have their own history of persecution, harassment, and attempted takeover by various rulers and by the Roman hierarchy. The Coptic Church administered the Ethiopian Church until 1959, when it was granted autocephaly.
While all of these churches are in the Orthodox family, that is to say part of the ancient undivided Christian church that descends from the Apostles and early evangelists, they are not in full communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches because of the break that occurred in the 5th century. During the time when the church was hammering out its beliefs, when it was essential to make definitions about certain aspects of the faith because they were under attack by heretics and schismatics, a statement of belief called the Formula of Chalcedon was passed at the 4th ecumenical council in 451. Chalcedon was a port city directly across the Bosporus from Byzantium, and it is now part of the modern city of Istanbul. This statement says that Christ has two natures, human and divine, but united in one person. The Orientals rejected this terminology; as a result churches that accepted the decree of Chalcedon called them monophysites (“one-nature”). While the term may be technically correct from an Eastern perspective, the Orientals took it as an insult because they accept Christ as fully human and fully divine, but their terminology is different.
The so-called Orientals accept the teachings of the first three Ecumenical Councils but not the other four, because of the split. They use icons, e.g., with the understanding all Orthodox hold regarding icons, but because of the break they never accepted the Canons of the 7th Ecumenical Council (787), which dealt specifically with iconoclasm and its overthrow. The first two Ecumenical Councils resulted in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, which all Orthodox, Eastern and Oriental, accept as a basic statement of the faith.
Many, but not all, Orthodox leaders now believe this break occurred primarily because of language problems, because the Oriental churches lacked comprehension of Greek, and the Greek and Latin-speaking churches failed to translate their meaning in such a way as to overcome the Orientals’ objections. Indeed, St. Vladimir’s Seminary is now working with St. Nersess, the Armenian seminary, on joint education; and Syrian students also attend St. Vlad’s these days.
Many Orthodox churches distinguish between pastoral and theological approaches to the problem. The theological issues need to be worked out yet to the satisfaction of both sides (If interested, ask to see the pamphlet Communion and Intercommunion); on the pastoral level, we are called to minister to those who live where there is no parish of their jurisdiction, and this includes the so-called non-Chalcedonian churches.

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