Christian TraditionsChurch History

A Short Introduction to the Syrian Orthodox Church

Over the last few years, numerous reports have reached the West of Syrian Christians suffering at the hands of ISIS militants. While the overwhelming majority of American Christians correctly recognizes members of the Syrian church as fellow brothers and sisters in the faith, most would probably be hard-pressed to explain the unique richness of the Syrian Orthodox Christian tradition.

The Syrian Orthodox Church is deeply rooted in early Christian history, and can readily trace the origins of its patriarchate back to A.D. 37. As Acts 11:26 recounts, “it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” Accordingly, the Syrian church is a vital part of the Christian patristic heritage. As historian George Kiraz writes, “Syriac presents us with the oldest and the earliest translation of the Bible into any language. This makes Syriac crucial for inferring the earliest forms of the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew.” Notably, the Syrian Church’s New Testament canon looks slightly different from the Western Bible: it excludes 2 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude, and Revelation.

Historically speaking, Syrian Orthodoxy counts within its tradition the ascetic monk St. Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pillar for over thirty years; the itinerant cleric Jacob Baradæus, who played an instrumental role in securing the Syrian Church’s institutional independence; and the theologian Ephrem the Syrian, to whom is attributed this ancient Lenten prayer:

O Lord and Master of my life! Take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power, and idle talk.  But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King! Grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother; For Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.”

Today, the church presides over four million adherents, and still uses Aramaic—the language Jesus Himself spoke—in its worship rites. A “strong monastic tradition” continues to persist today.

With a heritage this significant, why do so few Westerners know about the Syrian Church’s institutional distinctives, and its contributions to historical theology? The answer likely rests in an ancient historical schism. Like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (profiled here by Matthew Bryan), the Syrian Orthodox Church holds to a non-Chalcedonian Christology. The Chalcedonian Definition—adopted in A.D. 451 by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (and, later, adopted implicitly by most Protestant denominations)—describes Jesus as “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.” At the Council of Chalcedon the Oriental Orthodox churches (an umbrella term encompassing the Armenian Orthodox, Ethopian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and several others) rejected this definition. Though initially accused of espousing the Monophysite heresy (Christ has only one nature, and it is solely divine), the Oriental Orthodox instead hold the Miaphysite position (Christ has one nature that is both human and divine).

Initial schism notwithstanding, multiple Western Christian branches have since deemed Miaphysitism a theologically permissible variation. Inter-patriarchate disputes within Oriental Orthodoxy, however, do pose challenges for continued efforts towards unity. For instance, as a result of jurisdictional clashes with the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Antiochene Church did not participate in the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church on Crete.

Tragically, Western Christian writers have occasionally failed to recognize the common faith that connects them to the Oriental Orthodox churches, both Syrian and otherwise. One might hope that with greater knowledge, Chalcedonian Christians across the West might adopt a more conciliar spirit toward their increasingly persecuted Eastern counterparts.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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