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Ecumenical Trends in the Armenian Church.

From its very origins in the early centuries of the Christian era, the Armenian church conceived of itself as an integral and inseparable part of the body of Christ. Those familiar with the early stages of the Armenian church know that, as Christianity spread in Armenia, the church remained in close association with the Christian communities of neighbouring countries, particularly the Syriac, Greek, Georgian and Persian churches. Centres of Christian thought and missionary expansion -- such as Caesarea in Cappadocia, Antioch, Nisibis, Edessa, Melitene, Alexandria, and later Constantinople -- were closely associated with, and made an impact on, the formation of the Armenian tradition, particularly in religious, theological and cultural aspects. This relationship continued to the end of the fifth century, known as the "golden age" of Armenian history.

After the start of the 6th century, the Armenians decided not to adhere to the council of Chalcedon, which adopted the Tome of Leo as the fundamental document of Christological dogma, together with the formulation known as the "Chalcedonian definition". The dispute begun at the council of Chalcedon (AD 451) marked the first shock of division in the Christian church, which deepened in the course of the 5th and 6th centuries. Even so, the witness of the Armenian church was not carded on in isolation from the rest of Eastern Christendom, and its trend of openness to communication continued. Despite times of bitter controversy and confrontation, relations were pursued with the Greek and Georgian churches, with the Byzantine patriarchate of Constantinople and with Syriac communities. Later still, in the wake of the Crusades, the relationship extended to the Latin church in Rome. Certainly, some geographical regions in Armenia lived under the Greek Orthodox (Chalcedonian) influence, which was exercised by the Byzantine emperors, sometimes by force. There were also theological trends in Syrian Christianity -- namely the "Severian" (after Severus of Antioch; a kind of moderate monophysitism) and "Julianist" (after Julian of Halicarnassus; also known as Aphthartodocetic) Christological schools -- which were echoed in parts of Armenia.(1) But on the whole, the Armenian church maintained its anti-Chalecedonian orientation unaltered, and its independence and integrity were unshaken.

Presented below are several illustrations of the inter-ecclesiastical, ecumenical trend in the Armenian tradition.

* At the beginning of the 7th century, authoritative quotations supporting the Armenian Orthodox stand against Chalcedonian Christology -- culled from almost fifty church fathers of both the universal and the Armenian churches -- were collected in a florilegium of patristic texts entitled Gnik Havatoy ("The Seal of Faith"). Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, the great German-educated Armenian scholar, who discovered and edited the manuscript in the early part of our century, remarked on the theological richness of this document and its significance in the early ecumenical dialogue:
 The Seal of Faith florilegium is a monument for the dogmatic position of
 the Armenian church, which reached its ultimate degree of development at
 the beginning of the 7th century, and which was afterwards maintained and
 reconfirmed, after long struggles and waverings, at the beginning of the
 8th century.(2)

The entire volume eloquently bears witness to an ongoing ecumenical trend in Armenian theology.(3)

* A rich theological inheritance has come to us from the 8th-century figure St Stephen of Siunik (Stepanos Siunetsi), in the form of his translations of and commentaries on the writings of pseudo-Dionysius.(4) Through Siunetsi, the corpus ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite -- including such works as "The Divine Names", "Mystical Theology" and "The Celestial and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy" -- made an impact in the post-Chalcedonian theological debates. Interestingly, both sides of the debate, the so-called "dyophysites" and the "monophysites", recognized these texts as authoritative and supportive of their respective positions.(5)

* Even after the 8th century, relations with the Syrian church went on without interruption. The two churches often faced similar challenges and endured similar internal conflicts. The reconciling role played by the Armenian catholicos John of Odzoun (Hovhannes Otsnestzi) during the council of Manzikert in the 8th century was an important landmark in the ecumenical relationship between the two churches. Later, in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the Armenian church entered an intense and decisive period in its relationship with the Byzantine church, the Syrians joined the discussions alongside the Armenians, as partners sharing the same christological position. Indeed, the two churches were closely associated throughout the 12th and 13th centuries, not only on matters of doctrine but also and more importantly on the cultural level. The great figures of the Syriac church, such as Michael the Syrian (Michael the Great) and Gregory Bar Hebraeus, exchanged correspondence and ideas with their counterparts in the Armenian church, such as Catholicos Nerses IV Bahlavouni (Nerses the Gracious) and Krikor Tegha.

Levon Ter-Petrossian, an Armenian scholar of the Syriac language, history and culture, has written a revealing study on this very subject in which he concludes:
 In the history of Armenian-Syrian relations, the 12th and 13th centuries
 were a period of direct contacts and close cooperation between the two
 peoples. This was due first of all to the geographical situation of the
 Armenian kingdom of Cilicia and to the cohabitation of the Armenian and
 Syrian populations both in Cilicia and in the neighbouring provinces. The
 long official and religious contacts as well as the everyday relations
 between the Armenians and the Syrians left their imprint on the cultural
 life of the era.(6)

* In the latter half of the 12th century, a deep theological dialogue occurred between the Armenian and Byzantine churches, which proved to have a significant impact on later events. It began in 1165, when one of the most talented and erudite theologians of the Armenian church had a serious conversation with Duke Alexis, a representative of the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus (1143-80). Surprised to find the exposition of Bishop Nerses the Gracious so lucid and convincing, Alexis felt that the Byzantine authorities had somehow misrepresented the Armenian christological position. He asked Bishop Nerses to set down his discourse in writing, which the latter gladly did, in what came to be known as the Pontifical Letter of St Nerses the Gracious.

In Byzantium, both the emperor and Patriarch Michael were deeply impressed by the clarity and soundness of the doctrinal formulation provided by Bishop Nerses. A substantial correspondence between the two churches ensued between 1165 and 1179, with three successive Armenian primates being involved in the discussions. All three -- Gregory III Bahlavouni (1113-66), Nerses the Gracious (1166-73) and Krikor Tegha (1173-93) -- shared the same spirit of theological and ecumenical openness. A tacit consensus was actually reached that when the Armenians spoke of "one nature" of Christ, citing a formulation of Cyril of Alexandria,(7) they were neither confusing the two natures nor accepting one and rejecting the other, but were professing the divine and human natures to be united unconfusedly and inseparably. Conversely, when the Byzantines spoke of "two natures", they were not separating Christ into two entities. As Nerses the Gracious had written in his original doctrinal exposition:
 If one says "one nature" in the sense of unmixable and indivisible union
 and not in the sense of confusion, and if one says "two natures" as being
 without confusion and without alteration and not meaning "division", [then]
 both are within the orbit of orthodoxy ["true faith"].(8)

After negotiations conducted through correspondence and delegations, the Armenian side expressed a willingness to recognize the orthodoxy of the Byzantine church, provided the latter (1) would consider the Armenian position as fully orthodox, and (2) would not insist on the acceptance of the council of Chalcedon and other Byzantine formulations as the condition for such recognition. This conclusion was reached at the Armenian bishops' council of 1179, called by Catholicos Krikor Tegha ("the Young") in Hromkla, where the Catholicate of All the Armenians had settled at the time. But the emperor died before he could receive the official Armenian response. Thereafter, political events in Byzantium took a turn for the worse, and unity between the two churches, pursued so intensively from 1165 through 1179, never materialized.(9)

* In later centuries, as successive waves of Crusaders passed through the kingdom of Cilicia, the Armenian church developed various relationships with the Latin church. Among the leading ranks of the Crusaders were papal envoys and emissaries, who established ties with the Armenian ecclesiastical authorities. As is commonly known, these relations were frequently motivated by political considerations: the kings and political authorities of Cilician Armenia, for example, encouraged an ecclesiastical rapprochement with the West, in the hope and expectation that Western principalities would thereby extend assistance to support the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. The popes also actively pursued this relationship, with the intention of bringing the Armenian church into line with the dogmatic and liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church and its hierarchy under papal authority.(10)

This relationship was often characterized by futile controversies over doctrinal and liturgical matters. But it had a positive value as well. The exchange with Western culture became a source of enrichment to the Armenians, especially with regard to science and such arts as literature and manuscript illumination, but also in certain aspects of social life.

Scholarly cooperation with Germany

After this overview of the historical posture of the Armenian church towards ecumenism, let me focus more particularly on its relationships with Germany, underscoring especially the aspect of scholarly cooperation, which has been exemplary and has generated a tangible outcome.

Towards the end of the 19th century the Armenian church, through its spiritual centre in Holy Etchmiadzin, opened up ecumenically to academic centres of theological scholarship in Germany. The last three decades of the century of course marked a significant turning point in German Protestant theological thought. Historical studies into the early centuries of Christianity gave way to a new interpretation of the essence of the Christian faith.

One of the outstanding figures of this period, the internationally known scholar-theologian Adolf yon Harnack, made an impact on the direction of Christian theological thinking in Germany when he advocated the liberation of Christian faith from its dogmatic entanglements. Through his extensive biblical and patristic studies -- particularly his magisterial seven-volume History of Dogma(11) -- von Harnack showed that the simplicity of Christ's teaching as depicted in the gospels had been blurred and even distorted by being interpreted through the lens of Greek metaphysical thinking. Although the core content of the gospel, Harnack maintained, was ethical in nature, abstract interpretation had carried the Christian faith through a process of dogmatic formulation which had damaged the existential nature of Christian religion. The living and life-giving force of the Christian faith -- which by its very nature appeals directly to the human person, human life and experience -- had lost its power by being expressed in sterile dogma, formulated and proclaimed by church authorities and deeply influenced by rationalistic philosophical thought-patterns.

Into this scholarly climate arrived young Armenian students from the Kevorkian seminary of Holy Etchmiadzin. These students, most of them ordained deacons, were sent to pursue their studies at such centres of theological learning and research as Berlin, Leipzig, Halle and Tubingen. This exposure left a profound mark on theological research, patristic study and Christian preaching in Armenia. By way of illustration, I would like here to single out two figures who had a special influence on me: Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian and Karekin Hovsepian.

The former had a decisive effect on my own theological studies. Not only did Ter-Mkrtchian's books and articles build up my scientific knowledge, but more importantly his theological orientation, his objective methodology of research and his over-all attitude of integrity nurtured my mind and my aspirations. Karekin Hovsepian made a different kind of impact on my spiritual and intellectual formation, because I came to know him personally when I was a very young seminary student in Antelias, Lebanon, and he was the Catholicos of Cilicia. I had ample occasion to see him and listen to him in the classroom, in his private study, in the pulpit and in such places as the printing press and library, where he could be found during the preparation and printing of his own literary works, including his monumental study, The Colophons of the Manuscripts.

Without going into a long description of the work of these two prolific scholars, let me simply affirm that their intellectual formation in Germany contributed immensely to their respective ministries to the Armenian church and their services to Armenian culture.

Upon returning to Armenia in 1894 and in 1897 respectively, Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian and Karekin Hovsepian devoted themselves to four primary areas of service:

a) Theological education: Both men assumed administrative and faculty responsibilities at the Etchmiadzin seminary, to train new students in the modern methodology.

b) Preaching: Both were prolific writers, who provided sermons and articles for adult laypeople and often contributed to Ararat, the official monthly review of the Catholicate of All Armenians.

c) Administrative work: Both rose through the ranks of the church hierarchy to become bishops, and in that capacity served the holy see and various diocesan as well as patriarchal jurisdictions.

d) Scholarly research: Both were responsible for important advances in the fields of patristic literature, Armenian art and the history of the Armenian church and nation.

It was in the domain of scholarship that their most valuable and enduring accomplishments took place. Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian made a number of substantial contributions to Christian patristic knowledge, with his discoveries of an Armenian version of the Demonstrations of Apostolic Preaching by St Irenaeus of Lyons -- a work whose original Greek version was lost -- as well as fragments of the Adversus Omnes Haereses of St Irenaeus, the Refutation of the Council of Chalcedon of Timothy Aelurus, and The Seal of Faith.(12) Karekin Hovsepian's discovery of the christological homilies of the 8th-century Armenian church father Khosrovik Tarkmanitch, along with his articles and books on the history of Armenian art, manuscript miniatures and colophons, constitute an unrivalled service to the advancement of Armenological studies.(13)

Together with their other colleagues, these two men introduced a new line of theological enquiry and interpretation to the Armenian church in eastern Armenia. They used the benefits they had received during their education in Germany; and as a result of their solid scholarship, the scientific approach gradually came to replace the narrow traditional approach to writing and preaching. This inaugurated a new epoch of reformatory work in Armenia -- without, however, jeopardizing the authentic and distinctive character of the tradition of its native church. Just as Komitas Vardapet, a roughly contemporary figure, purified Armenian music of distorting influences and deformations and restored its true character, Ter-Mkrtchian and Hovsepian attempted to rediscover the original, dynamic features of the Armenian church's theological, spiritual, intellectual and cultural tradition.

The late Roman Catholic theologian Yves Congar used to sum up the theological work of the Second Vatican Council in the single French word resourcement, literally a "return to the sources", in this case the sources of the Christian faith. For Congar, three factors would bring about such a return: renewal of biblical studies, renewal of liturgical texts and living traditions, and renewal of patristic studies. In an almost identical way, the German-educated Armenian scholars applied the methods of historical enquiry to the whole tradition of the Armenian church, to purify it of late acquisitions and stagnant formalism, thereby clarifying and rediscovering its original self-understanding. They wanted to see the living and life-giving Spirit of the gospel and the insights of the church fathers revived in the concrete life of their church. At the same time, they had to take into serious consideration the new scientific, secularistic trends in human life and culture. Indeed, while they pursued their studies in Germany, they found a healthy challenge in the ideas not only of Harnack but also of many other professors.

In a series of nine articles written for Ararat between 1901 and 1903, Ter-Mkrtchian borrowed the title "The Essence of Christianity", which his eminent teacher Harnack had used for sixteen lectures given in 1899-1900, which had made a great impact not only in Germany but throughout Europe and America. Harnack, said Ter-Mkrtchian,
 addressed himself to a generation of young people who stood at the highest
 level of contemporary civilization and are entirely imbued with the ideas
 of their century. The purpose of Harnack's historical investigation, as he
 indicates in his preface, is to enable people "to capture the essential and
 the permanent in the [changeable outward] appearances", and to see that
 Christianity, whatever directions and confessions it has been divided into,
 inwardly is one and the same source of life for all Christians.

 Without necessarily following [Harnack] step by step, without always
 borrowing his ideas, but only by dealing with the same issues that he
 raises and relating them to the understanding of my readers, I also will
 try to show in this series of articles what is the essential and the
 permanent in Christianity. Afterwards, if time permits, I will show in what
 aspects and in what way the "essential and permanent" is expressed in our
 present-day ecclesiastical life, and what new aspects have to come forth
 and how they should be given shape, so that the essential and permanent may
 be truly expressed.(14)

Ter-Mkrtchian went on to write about how the fundamental principles of Christian faith related to the various aspects of human life as seen in the Armenian context. The titles of his articles attest eloquently to the scope of his effort: "The Gospel and the World", "The Gospel and Poverty", "The Gospel and Authority", "The Gospel and Civilization" and the like.

In 1947 Karekin Hovsepian published a collection of his theological and hermeneutical writings, homilies and public utterances in a volume entitled Towards Light and Life. The selections taken from the early years of his ministry (between 1897 and 1916) address similar issues, using a similar scientific approach. Again, the titles are revealing: "Christianity: The Way to Perfection", "The Key to Life", "Science and Church", "The Ideal for the Christian", "The Calling of the Church under the Light of History".

It is interesting that scholars studying the lives and works of these two eminent figures have generally focused on their more secular fields of enquiry, such as historiography and philology, scarcely ever addressing the religious, theological and ethical aspects of their literary legacy. Yet I believe it is warranted to say that the German-educated Armenian clergy, among whom Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian and Karekin Hovsepian were the two most outstanding, inaugurated a new kind of spiritual reawakening in their church, what we would today call a theological and ecclesiastical renewal movement. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. Its pioneers (to use the words of Psalm 23) walked neither "in green pastures" nor "beside still waters"; father, they encountered opposition and indifference, especially from the traditionalist sectors. They were generally accused of having been so deeply influenced by German Protestant theological thinking that they had betrayed their own fathers' legacy and the orthodox Armenian tradition.

Nevertheless, their impact was lasting. Today, in these years of freedom for Armenia and at this crucial moment of recovery for the Armenian church, their work has become a source of inspiration to the new generation of clergy being trained at Holy Etchmiadzin.

The challenge of secularism

World Christianity today faces a new situation, whose effects can also be seen in Armenia. New trends of theological thinking and spiritual life have arisen. Innovations in science and technology have affected not only the material but also the spiritual, ethical and social realms. Under an orientation of extreme secularism, novel codes of moral behaviour and quests of the spirit have emerged, setting a new agenda before us, both in our own churches and in our ecumenical encounters. The churches are once more being challenged to look afresh at their own self-understanding, not only in the context of various contemporary cultural trends, but also (and more importantly) in light of the gospel and the authentic tradition of the church.

The ecumenical movement is also passing through some challenging and difficult times. But in spite of the inherent difficulties, we have been commissioned by our Lord to pursue fellowship: not merely to exchange ideas, but to share our respective traditions and experiences. After more than forty years of personal involvement, I can testify to the beneficial effects of realizing a common calling among the churches, cultivating a sense of openness to one another and converging our efforts to meet the challenges of the day. For me as for many others, the ecumenical movement has been a source of theological and spiritual enrichment. The realities at the close of this second millennium -- the collapse of the Soviet Union, the revival throughout Eastern Europe of the freedom to pursue the spiritual life, the challenge posed by the encounter with other living religions -- have only served to underscore the need to strengthen and deepen our ecumenical commitment. The time for polemics is over; the new imperative is the call to sincere and committed dialogue.

I have lived for the last three years in Armenia, where the Armenian church, in its new context as a free and independent republic, has regained the freedom to preach and serve in its native land. Having been called to the highest and heaviest spiritual responsibility of my church, I see the great need to re-energize its apostolic witness at every level. My people are just emerging from a seventy-year period under an aggressively atheistic regime, which made every effort to eliminate religion from the texture of life. This could not help leaving a strong impression on our people, as it has on others who have undergone similar ordeals. But today, in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabagh, and also in the worldwide Armenian diaspora, we are called to a new task. It consists in reviving "the essential and the permanent" dimension of the faith of Christ, as it was taught by our church fathers and as it was lived by generations of our ancestors who responded to trial and tribulation with saintliness and faith.

A very serious challenge comes to us from the prevailing cultural currents of the "post-modern" movement -- an extreme form of secularism, one might say -- which has an influence even in a country like Armenia. Still, a popular aspiration to spiritual values is clearly evident. Indeed, the people are in dire need of such guidance. We can draw inspiration -- and wisdom -- from the gospel's depiction of a similar situation: "Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, `The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest'" (Matt. 9:35-39).

This situation is as real today as in the time of our Lord. If we fail to respond to it properly and adequately, we will have missed a God-given opportunity. And the vacuum thus created will surely be filled by elements alien or even opposed to the Christian faith.

In this urgent, paramount task, the Armenian people need the solidarity of their Christian brothers and sisters in other countries. We are presently engaged in preparing the next generation of servants -- clergy and laypeople, men and women alike -- who will carry on the Christ-given mandate of the Armenian church and make it accessible to the people. In short, we need to nurture the formation of a generation that can revive the intellectual spirit and moral stature of such figures as Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian and Karekin Havsopian. What better way to initiate this than to renew that productive relationship of a century ago between our church in Armenia and the German churches, both Catholic and Protestant? The global revolution in communications technology can certainly aid us in promoting such cooperation.

But in a larger sense, all this will depend on our own willingness, and the sincerity and perseverance of our ecumenical commitment. Our past experiences should not be reduced to mere remembrances of things done. Rather, they must be enlarged into inspirations for things to be done -- to be done with a common determination in the present and with a vision for the future, to be done for the benefit of our respective churches, and for the cause of unity with the church of Christ.


(1) See Erant Ter-Minassiantz, "Die armenische Kirche in ihren Beziehungen zu den syrischen Kirchen bis zum Ende des 13. Jahrhunderts", in Texte und Untersuchungen, vol. 26, Leipzig, 1904.

(2) Introduction to The Seal of Faith, ed. Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, Etchmiadzin, 1914, p.vii.

(3) For the patristic, theological and ecumenical importance of The Seal of Faith, see J. Lebon, "Les citations patristiques grecques du Seau de la Foi", Revue d'histoire ecclesiastique, vol. 25, 1929, pp.5-32.

(4) Acts 17:34 mentions a 1st-century convert to Christianity named Dionysius the Areopagite. Some time after the 5th century, an unknown author composed various patristic works under this name; he is known to modern scholarship as pseudo-Dionysius.

(5) See Robert W. Thomson, The Armenian Version of the Works Attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, Louvain, 1987, CSCO 488,489, Scriptores Armeniaci 17, 18.

(6) Levon Ter-Petrossian, The Role of the Syrians in the Culture of Cilician Armenia in the, 12th and 13th Centuries, Venice, 1989, p.86.

(7) "One is the incarnated nature of God."

(8) St Nerses Shnorhali, Enthanrakan Toukht ["Pontifical Letter"], Jerusalem, 1871, p.97; cf. pp.124-26, 246.

(9) See Sirarpie Der Nersessian, Armenia and the Byzantine Empire, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 1945, esp. her chapter on ecclesiastical relations.

(10) For a more detailed examination of this relationship see my article "L'Armenie oecumenique", in Claude Moutafian, ed., Le Royaume Armenien de Cilicie XIIe-XIV siecles, Paris, Centre national de recherches scientifiques, 1993, pp.148-51.

(11) A single volume summary was also published as Outlines of the History of Dogma.

(12) For details see Sabine Stepan, Karapet Episkopos Ter-Mkrtchian, Halle, 1983.

(13) See the monthly review of the Catholicate of Cilicia, Hask, Antelias, Lebanon, June 1952.

(14) Karapet Ter-Mkrtchian, The Essence of Christianity, Antelias, 1993, p.28.

Karekin I, catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church (Etchmiadzin), was vice-moderator of the WCC central committee from 1975 to 1983. This essay is taken from an anthology of his writings entitled And the Boat Moves on the Waters, published by St Vartan Press, New York, to whom we are grateful for permission to print it here. It is adapted from an address given by the catholicos at the University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. Readers wishing information on ordering copies of the book should contact the St Vartan Bookstore, 630 Second Avenue, New York NY 10016, USA (telefax +1-212-686-0245).
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Publication:The Ecumenical Review
Geographic Code:4EXAR
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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