Meet the Oriental Orthodox Christians and Their Controversial Christology

These 70 Million Christians Have a Valid Eucharist but a Controversy over Christ…

On planet earth there are about 70 million Orthodox Christians that are not in full communion with the Catholic Church (centered at Rome) or with the Eastern Orthodox (centered at Constantinople). These are the Oriental Orthodox Christians. They have all seven sacraments, revere the Mother of God and the saints, have a valid Eucharist, pray for the faithful departed, and have preserved a valid line of apostolic succession.

armenian orthodox

Armenian Christians in the Miaphysite Tradition

These Oriental Orthodox Christians do not accept the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 which dogmatically defined that Christ is one divine Person with two natures (divine and human).

Meet the Miaphysites

The Non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox Christians rejected this Council because Saint Cyril of Alexandria spoke of one nature (Greek: mia physis) in the incarnate Christ. These Non-Chalcedonian Christians rejected the Council of Chalcedon on grounds that a great saint and doctor of the Church, Saint Cyril, spoke of “one nature” or “mia physis.” According to them, how then could the Council teach “two natures”?

coptic orthodox liturgy

Coptic Orthodox celebrating their Divine Liturgy of Saint James


The Six Oriental Orthodox Churches


An Ethiopian Orthodox monk at prayer

The Non-Chalcedonian “Miaphysite” Christian Churches are the:

  1. Armenian Apostolic Church
  2. Syriac Orthodox Church
  3. Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India
  4. Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt
  5. Ethiopian Orthodox Church
  6. Eritrean Orthodox Church

The Oriental Orthodox Communion of Churches

This communion of Oriental Orthodox Churches are called by the following terms:

  • Oriental Orthodox (to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox)
  • Non-Chalcedonian (since they do not receive the Council of Chalcedon as do Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox)
  • Jacobites (after Jacob Baradaeus, the Miaphysite Bishop of Edessa who died in AD 578)
  • Miaphysites (in honor of the term used by Saint Cyril: mia physis or “one nature”)
  • Monophysites (a pejorative term rejected by the Oriental Orthodox Church – they prefer the term Miaphysite)

The Big Debate Over Ek or En “Two Natures”

The big debate between Non-Chalcedonian Miaphysites on one hand, and Chalcedonian Catholics and Eastern Orthodox on the other, centers on the use of terms in Greek:

  • The Non-Chalcedonians insist on Saint Cyril’s phrase “mia physis” (one nature) and the formulation that the incarnate Christ is “ek duo physeon” (out of two natures).
  • The Chalcedonians (Rome and Constantinople) allow for Saint Cyril’s phrase “mia physis” (we must accept it, because it comes from a sainted champion of orthodoxy!) but prefer the formulation that the incarnate Christ is “en duo physesin” (in two natures).

It is important to note that Non-Chalcedonians reject the heretic Eutyches and also rightly believe that Christ is consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with humanity. It seems that the heretic Eutyches condemned by the Council of Chalcedon did not profess that Christ was consubstantial with the rest of humanity. This is bad, bad theology because if Christ does not share our nature, He cannot save us or lift us up.

Saint John Paul II Forges a Way Toward Union

Pope Saint John Paul II signed accords with the Coptic Orthodox and the Syriac Orthodox (both miaphysite) recognizing that their Christology is currently sound and orthodox – fully in accord with Roman Catholic Christology. The Catholic Church recognizes that the debate was essentially linguistic and political and it’s worth noting that ALL the miaphysite churches belong to the Eastern Provinces of Byzantium and were non-Greek speaking nations. Hence, there is little separating the Oriental Orthodox from joining into full communion with the Successor of Saint Peter in Rome.

With the recent martyrdom of the 21 Coptic Martyrs and persecution of Syrian Christians, let’s pray for a reunion of all followers of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

I put together a free worksheet about Coptic Christians which you can download here:

Click Here to Download the 1 page Coptic Report pdf

Note: Saint Cyril of Alexandria wrote against the Nestorians saying: “one (mia) nature of the Word of God incarnate” (μία φύσις τοῦ θεοῦ λόγου σεσαρκωμένη mía phýsis toû theoû lógou sesarkōménē). Although Chalcedon taught “two natures” there must always be a way to preserve Saint Cyril’s “one nature” formulation. See John McGuckin (2004), Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy, ISBN 0-88141-259-7 p. 140.

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  • Metro

    Hi – did you mean “worth noting” instead of “worth nothing” in the sentence: ” The Catholic Church recognizes that the debate was essentially linguistic and political and it’s worth nothing that ALL the miaphysite churches belong to the Eastern Provinces of Byzantium and were non-Greek speaking nations. “

  • Camila

    How could St. Cyril say ‘one nature’ but then Chalcedon say ‘two natures’?
    Nestorius rejected the communication of idioms and would not accept Theotokos, his Christology was necessarily a 2 persons (not 1 person) Christology, right? Eutyches claimed a mingling of natures, where human and Divine became a kind of ‘third’ new nature (heresy).

    • Camila,

      The heretic Nestorius wrongly taught “two natures and two person” (2n and 2p) of Christ.

      Saint Cyril, who fought so hard against the heretic Nestorius taught “one nature and one person” (1n and 1p) of Christ.

      Chalcedon, after the death of Saint Cyril, then taught “two nature and one person” (2n and 1p) with the help of Pope Saint Leo the Great’s Tome.

      It’s all pretty confusing. The Mipahysite Oriental Orthodox protest Chalcedon because:

      1) Saint Cyril said “one nature” or “mia physis”
      2) They believe the whole thing was cooked up by Constantinople to reduce the prestige of the Churches in Egypt, Armenia, and Syria.

      My *opinion* is that the proper response to this debate is “Chalcedon + Cyril.”

      • Camila


        It is interesting that the Miaphysite Oriental Orthodox protest Chalcedon because of St. Cyril’s “one nature” when Chalcedon does not say the same as St. Cyril, and in fact says “two natures.”

        Also, I find this fascinating because I am in the middle of preparing for a Christology exam…and I looked back at my papers and here’s a paragraph I wrote. I hope this adds to the conversation.

        The eastern school of Alexandria, founded in the mid second century in Alexandria, Egypt inherited a Platonic philosophy. Their strength consisted precisely in understanding Jesus’ ontological unity of nature. Both natures were united at the level of being. For the Alexandrians, the Logos became flesh, and they refer to this union as the Logos-sarx (flesh) union. In the Platonic view, the person is a soul that animates an instrumental body. Unlike the Antiochenes, the Alexandrian school does not hold Christ’s humanity to play an important part. It is the Word that performs the work of salvation. In Plato’s idealism the soul is the essence of the person. The problem, of course, is that in stating “the one incarnate ‘physis’ (nature) of the Word of God” without any explanation as to how this nature is kept both human and divine, results in the suspicion, at best, of God and man’s nature being fused into a third new nature. A view adopted later by the heresiarch, Eutyches. The patriarch of Alexandria St. Cyril, however, exceptionally considered Jesus being both man and God, containing both natures without merging into a third nature. He clearly states, in the second anathema issued to Nestorius that, “the Word who is from God the Father has been united to the flesh according to the hypostasis and that Christ is one with his own flesh, that is to say that the same is at once God and man” — namely, the hypostatic union. He referred to the Word taking on flesh, and by this he meant it took on the whole of human nature, including a rational soul. This was the hypostatic union of natures at the ontological level of being in the person of Christ.

  • Timothy Black

    Worth nothing or worth noting?

  • MDK66

    I’m confused. The Oriental Orthodox don’t believe in the two natures of Christ, yet “their Christology is currently sound and orthodox – fully in accord with Roman Catholic Christology. The Catholic Church recognizes that the debate was essentially linguistic”? So do they believe in the two natures of Christ or not? Forget Greek, they can explain in their own language. Do they believe or not? If not, there’s still a problem.

    • The monophysite heresy of Eutyches condemned at Chalcedon falsely taught the following heresies:

      *the human nature of Christ was dissolved like a “drop of honey in the ocean.” (heresy)
      *Christ was did not share human nature with us and that He was not consubstantial with all humanity (heresy)

      The miaphysite Churches listed above deny and anathematize these teachings of Eutyches. They believe that Christ is consubstantial with us and that His humanity did not dissolve into the ocean of His divinity.

      From what I can see, the Miaphysites are just insistent on this point: “You can’t condemn the phrase “one nature” since it was used by the Catholic theological hero Saint Cyril against the heretic Nestorius. Period.”

      We Catholics rightly speak of the Christ’s human nature as “deified” or “divinized.” I think this is the mystery that Miaphysites are stressing so hard.

  • maddoxhightower

    Don’t forget the recognition of Armenia’s St. Gregory of Narek as Doctor of the Church.

    • Good point. We not officially have someone from a Miaphysite jurisdiction named as a Doctor of the Church – which re-emphasizes that there is not a fundamental Christological heresy with the miaphysites.

      • Demmerson

        So one can be a doctor of the Church although outside of the Church? I don’t care if Pope Francis believes it, According to magisterial teaching we profess one visible Church.The Council of Florence makes it impossible for Gregory of Narek to be a saint, much less scandalously, a doctor of the Church he was out of communion with. Even if it was a linguistic difference, they still rejected the Pope’s authority and the Council’s to settle the matter. And to this day still do. So there you see the difference between a schismatic sectarian church and the one true Church. It’s as if in the last fifty years everyone seeks to water down EENS. That’s modernism. St. Thomas Aquinas would scold the Pope for attempting to recognize a non-Catholic as a saint or doctor.

  • ADAM

    (Cairo) – EGYPTIAN CATHOLICS are also called COPTS (not “Coptics”), i.e. not only the Orthodox. They call themselves COPTIC CATHOLICS.

  • greggraham

    About 20 years ago, I saw an exhibit of Ethiopian Orthodox art at Fair Park. At the time I was an Evangelical, Reformed Christian that knew nothing about the sacraments, liturgy, or icons. I had been taught that the Oriental Orthodox churches were heretics because they rejected Chalcedon, but when I looked at that art, I had a feeling of God’s presence and that these works came from true believers in Jesus. That encounter was one of the seeds that eventually bore fruit in my conversion to the Catholic Church.

  • Lisa Ann Homic

    So, my friends who are JW could possibly convert to the Oriental Orthodox ?

    • JWs don’t believe in the Trinity or the Incarnation of God so I don’t see how they relate to the Oriental Orthodox?

    • Howard

      Sure, they could, but it would be one heck of a conversion! If they’re going to change that much, let’s pray they come all the way into the Catholic Church.

  • Paradox

    Dear Dr. Marshall,
    Having read your responses to the previous comments, I’m hoping to make sure I have this right:
    – The Miaphysite churches agree in condemning Nestorius’s errors, that:
    * the Lord is not consubstantial with all humanity
    * Christ’s divinity (to rephrase this) negates His humanity in a sense

    – This is what is important, and we can set aside the disagreements between St. Cyril and the Council of Chalcedon because the Miaphysite position stays in line with dogma.

    I’m not sure how to square one of your points:
    “2) They believe the whole thing was cooked up by Constantinople to reduce the prestige of the Churches in Egypt, Armenia, and Syria.”
    That implies that they just never believed the Church possesses infallible teaching authority in any sense. I suspect I am over-looking something?

    • Paradox,

      The Byzantine Emperor demoted the Patriarch of Alexandria (Coptic) and promoted in his place the Patriarch of Constantinople in AD 531. This was Byzantine caesaropapist politics at it’s best – using the Catholic Church to serve the Byzantine Empire.

      The Copts saw the the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) as a power grab by Justinian and Constantinople to condemn their hero Saint Cyril of Alexandria (mia physis) and promote instead their own capital city.

      The Council of Chalcedon even inserted a canon stating “Constantinople is second in eminence and power to the Bishop of Rome.”

      By the way, Rome scratched out this canon!!!

      So the miaphysite Churches felt that they were being called “heretical” for political reasons and not theological reasons.

      I’m not saying it’s right, but you can kind of see their point if you read the historical sequence of events.

  • Dhaniele

    The next time you write on this topic it would be useful to spend a little more time on the problem that theologians faced in trying to find suitable words to use in explaining the doctrines. Our theological use of the words “person” and “nature” were attempts to find suitable words. The fact that St. Cyril had already used the word we translate as “nature” in a different way certainly complicated matters in trying to elaborate the doctrine in a way acceptable to all. Anyway, it is worth noting that Pope Paul VI and the Coptic Patriarch at the time had already clarified that the the doctrine is the same in spite of different traditions of terminology.

  • Tim Feist

    Hi, Taylor. I wonder if the assessment of JPII’s overtures isn’t a bit optimistic. Barring local politics (that perennial wild card), it seems that the most stubborn obstacle to union between East and West is not doctrine but praxis. I’m referencing Geoffrey Hull’s analysis in “Banished Heart.” Eastern Christianity (both Orthodox and Miaphysite) is famously liturgy-centric – in experience as well as theory ‘we believe as we pray’ – ‘the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.’ In contrast, the Roman Rite, especially since the Counter-Reformation, has treated the liturgy as a product of legislation, a means to the ends of personal holiness and/or ecclesial unity, and (crucially) a mark of ecclesial fidelity. Pope Pius XII summarized this outlook in Mediator Dei when he asserted that “it is perfectly correct to say, “Lex credendi legem statuat supplicandi” – let the rule of belief determine the rule of prayer.” Such an inversion is scandalous to Eastern Christians, as is the heteropraxis that now typifies Roman liturgy.

  • cestusdei

    I am praying for these persecuted Christians.

  • Hello I’m Coptic Orthodox and I just wanted to make a few clarifications. First, regarding the picture that says we celebrate the liturgy of St. James, unfortunately we don’t have his liturgy in our church, instead we celebrate the liturgies of St. Basil (often), St. Gregory nazianzen (occasionally), and St. Cyril (occasionally), which was a translation from Greek to coptic of the liturgy that St. Mark brought with him to Egypt (according to tradition). Second of all, thank you for this article as it fairly represents our Christology, however I wanted to comment on why we rejected Chalcedon and the christogical controversy of the 5th-7th centuries. First of all, we must know that the use of certain words such as, nature, hypostasis, prosopon, ousia had different meanings for the parties involved in these controversies, this made things much more difficult than they had to be. We as Copts, and the Oriental Orthodox as a whole, do believe in the two natures of Christ, we have never denied the two natures, and we have never been monophysites. St. Cyril did use the one nature formula and his formula was “one incarnate nature of the Word”. This formula did not mean it was one single nature of either humanity or divinity but it was the incarnate nature, a composite nature, that consisted of his full humanity and full divinity. Cyril always used the example of the body and the soul that composite the one human being and he likened it to Christ. Cyril used this language in order to make sure that when we talked about the Word of God, we talked about the one subject center, or one concrete reality of Christ. Thus Cyril was inclined, as were his followers, to use another formula; “of two natures”, or “from two natures”. Cyril never used the phrase “in two natures” which Nestorius, and the extreme antiochians of the time, were in the habit of using. This phrase “in two natures” was used by Chalcedon and it is what prompted us to reject it, on suspicion of being a Nestorian council. Cyril wanted to make sure that in his one nature formula, that the flesh that the Word of God took was truly his and it wasn’t formed apart from the Word not did it belong to anyone else. This is also why Cyril coined the phrase “hypostatic union” and “natural union” as opposed to Nestorius’s “prosopon union”. To believe in anything but a perfect humanity in Christ is a Hersey which we have always refused. St. Gregory himself said “that which is not assumed is not healed”. Chalcedon choose to accept the “in two natures” of Nestorius but it can be argued that it gave it a different meaning and thus it wasn’t a Nestorian council. The problem with Chalcedon is that it could appear Nestorian, especially when Ibas of Edessa (a clear Nestorian) and Theodoret of Cyrus, were brought back in communion after having being excommunicated by Dioscorus. We also didn’t accepted the council because it accepted the tome of Leo, which we at the time understood as a Nestorian document. While the tome does its best in explaining a proper Christology, there are some parts in it that leave us wanting further clarity because of suspected nestorianism. Overall, Chalcedon was rejected from our end, because of perceived nestorianism, and it went against the established tradition of the Alexandrian church and its fathers. Chalcedon must be viewed in light of 2nd Constantinople which accepted the one nature formula of Cyril, that which was absent from Chalcedon. Another thing that was absent from Chalcedon was “of” or “from two natures” that the party of Cyril was accustomed to using. 2nd Constantinople also condemned the writings of Ibas of Edessa as heretical (which unfortunately Chalcedon accepted as orthodox. But to be fair, it def slipped through the cracks.), and the writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, and Theodore of mopsuistia as heretical. Something that the council of 449 under Dioscorus did 100 years earlier. Forgive me for this long post. God bless you all.