Armenian Church History and Doctrine

by Fr. Shenork Souin.

The Christological Controversies/Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches

The Armenian Apostolic Church is an ancient Church of apostolic origin and thus comprises a fibre of the fabric that makes up the one holy apostolic and catholic church. It did in its history however reject the Fourth Ecumenical Council of AD 451 which is known as the Council of Chalcedon (modern Kadikoy in Turkey near Constantinople). This council was summoned by the bishops not to define Christology, but to fine tune it and to examine the extreme "monophysite" heresy of the Alexandrian Eutyches who took the Christology of St. Cyril to an extreme seeing in Christ a humanity which was lost, swallowed up in a see of divinity.

The Armenian Church along with the Syrian, Ethiopian, Coptic (See of Alexandria) and the Indian-Malabar Church or Church of the Apostle St. Thomas, comprise the 5 churches that rejected not only Eutyches, but also the definitions and acts of Chalcedon due primarily to the Tome of Leo, which "separated' the pactivities of Christ according to human or divine, thus tending strongly toward the dangers and errors of Nestorius.

These 5 churches maintain, until today, the linguistic heritage of the Third Ecumenical Council, known as the Council of Ephesus, (even today, the ancient town of Ephesus, one of the 7 churches of the Book of Revelation, known as Efes (Turkish) remains a sacred site of pilgrimmage, as the home of the Virgin Mother of God who lived with John the Apostle, according to the command of the Lord who in John 19:26 , "When he saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved (John) standing by, said to his mother,"Woman, behold your son," and there took her Dormition from whence her body was Assumed into heaven, celebrated by the Armenian Church on the Third Sunday of August, the Feast of the Assumption of the Most Holy Asdvadsadzin).which condemned the arch-heretic Nestorius who denied that St. Mary was Theotokos, or Mother of God, saying rather that she was only Christotokos or Mother of Christ, since in his thought she gave birth not to God, but only to the human nature of Jesus. He denied that in Christ dwelt bodily all the fullness of God. He spoke of two natures, one human and one divine, joined not personally but by "good pleasure" so as seeing in the Incarnation both the Son of God and the Son of Mary, a horrible confusion of the divine person hood of the Incarnate Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity.

The council declared that after the conception of Christ in the womb of Mary, by the "Gospel" spoken to her at the Annunciation of the Arch-angel Gabriel and the "overshadowing" of the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever, is bothe perfect God and perfect Man in one Divine Person, the Son of God, equal to the Father in His divinity which has no beginning, and equal to us in everything except for sin according to His humanity, which after the Incarnation has NO end.

The Armenians, who in 451AD were fighting a battle in defence of Christianity against the Persians who outnumbered them and desired to bring the Armenians to political submission and also strip them of the Christian faith and with it the HOPE of eternal life, were not present at the council and thus never bowed to the political pressure of the West who abandoned them while they were being persecuted for the very faith about which the West speculated in a war of words. To them, the controversy was settled by confessing in concord with the Ephesian formula that there is in Jesus Christ "One Nature of the Incarnate Word."

This ideological, political, linguistic and theological difference has kept the 5 Oriental Orthodox Churches separate from the rest of Christendom for many centuries since, although the Armenians have had a history of emminent ecuminists, such as St. Nerses the Graceful, St. Nerses of lambron, who while being doctors and confessors of Armenian Orthodoxy, struggled for the unity of the church with a sense of humility and great love for the sister churches of the Chalcedonian Council, even acknowledging the validity and the orthodoxy of the Greek Orthodox in their day.

The Eastern Orthodox condemn the errors of Nestorius and interpret the acts of Chalcedon from the perspective of St. Cyril's Christology (St. Cyril was the holy father that spearheaded the deposition and defeat of Nestorius and his vile heresy) seeing a personal union of two natures, a sharing of natural attributes in the person of Christ and that in the Incarnation, St. Mary is and always will be the All-Holy Mother of God Theotokos (the Armenian word for Theotokos is Asdvadsadzin). The Oriental Orthodox on the other hand reject the Eutychian heresy that sees the in Christ's Incarnation, the humanity of Jesus swallowed up like a "drop of vineger in a sea" of divinity. In the One Nature, both completely and fully human and divine, the properties of both continue to operate in the person of Jesus Christ. Both errors are avoided and rejected, serving as a balance for Orthodox Christology.

The 5 so-called Oriental Orthodox Churches other wise known as the Non-Chalcedonian or Lesser Orthodox Churches, have always acknowledged the "orthodoxy" of not only the 3 preceding Councils, but the 3 Councils that succeded Chalcedon. Happily, in recent years, there has been a rapprochment among the 2 families of Orthodox Churches over the divisions caused by the Fourth Council. There have been numerable dialogues and symposia that have included theologians and fathers of the various orthodox churches that have brought the two churches so close as to declare that in essence, the two families share the one Orthodox faith, with very little but maybe the administrative and jurisdictional issues that still separate us. Today we even see many Non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox gentlemen studying in Orthodox Seminaries, ie. the joint curriculum of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary and St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.

Also, church school curriculums can be shared amongst the two branches of Orthodox Churches without fear of "contamination". Today, it is believed that in principle, the Orientals acknowledge the orthodoxy of the Eastern Orthodox, while the Eastern Orthodox acknowledge the orthodoxy of the Oriental Orthodox, paving the way for a joyful return to a reunified Church. We ought all pray that the anathemas of the past one against another be dropped so that an age of one undivided holy and apostolic Orthodox Church can become once again to a world divided, the eschatalogical sign of the witness of Christ's life and resurrection to the world.


Rev. Fr. Shenork Souin

For a greater understanding and clarification regarding the relationship of the Armenian Church with the Church of Rome, in view of the dialogue between the Pope and the Catholicos, see my Press Release.

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