Armenian Apostolic Church

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The Armenian Apostolic Church has a long and ancient history. Its received tradition remembers the apostolic preaching of Saint Bartholomew and Saint Thaddeus among the Armenians of Edessa and surrounding territories. It is likely that there were Armenian Christians from early times, such that Saint Gregory the Illuminator, in the fourth century, who worked among people who had previous contact with Christianity. The Armenian Church celebrates the year 301 as the time when Gregory converted King Trdat. The king, in turn, made Christianity the state religion. There is disagreement among scholars about this date. It should also be remembered that the idea of Christianity as state religion was an innovation at that time.

Events of the fifth century were critical to the making of a distinctively Armenian Christian culture and identity. The foremost of these was the invention of the Armenian alphabet by the monk Mesrob Mashtots and his community. Translations of scripture, commentaries, liturgy, theology, and histories were made. Greek and Syriac literature were important sources. In addition, the fifth century witnessed the first flowering of original Armenian literature. An example is Eznik Koghbatsi's doctrinal work, Refutation of the Sects. The Battle of Avarayr in 451 against Persia, although a defeat for the Armenians under Vartan, has been remembered as critical for winning the Armenians the right to practice their Christian belief.

The fact that the Armenians eventually rejected the Christology of the Council of Chalcedon (451) has defined their communion with the Oriental Orthodox churches and their schism from the Orthodox churches that grew out of Constantinople (that is, the Orthodox churches of the Greeks, Georgians, and Russians, among others). The dispute concerned the way in which the natures of Christ were properly described. The Armenian Church believed that the language of Chalcedon, defining the person of Jesus Christ as "in two natures," destroyed the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ.

Throughout much of its history, the Armenian Orthodox Church has been an instrument of the Armenian nation's survival. The head of the church, called catholicos, has been located in various Armenian cities, often in the center of political power. In the early twenty-first century the supreme catholicos is located in the city of Echmiadzin, near the Armenian capital, Yerevan. Another catholicos, descended from the leaders of Sis in Cilicia, is located in Lebanon. During the existence of Cilician Armenia (from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries), when Crusaders were present in the Middle East, the Armenian Church had close ties with Rome. Nerses Shnorhali, known as "the Graceful" (11021173), was an important catholicos of this period.

The Armenian Church played a significant role in the succession of Muslim empires in which its faithful were located. Because some of these were divided according to religious affiliation, the leaders of the Armenian were, in fact, also politically responsible for their communities. The Armenian Church was greatly affected by two phenomenon in the twentieth century: the genocide in Turkey, in which 1.5 million died, and the Sovietization of eastern Armenia, which ushered in seven decades of official atheism. The genocide essentially destroyed the church in Turkey, where only a remnant remains. It has also profoundly affected the way in which the Armenian Church approaches the idea of suffering in this world.

The church thrived in many parts of the Armenian diaspora, and is regaining its strength in newly independent Armenia. In the post-Soviet period, the church has struggled to define itself in society, having to overcome the decades of persecution and neglect, as well as making adjustments in a political culture in which it is favored but must still coexist in an officially pluralistic society.

The liturgy of the Armenian Church (the eucharistic service is called patarag ) with Syriac and Greek roots, has been vastly enriched by the hymnody of Armenian writers. Contact with Rome has also been important in this context. Armenians, preserving an ancient Eastern tradition, celebrate Christmas and Epiphany together on January 6.

See also: armenia and armenians; orthodoxy; religion; russian orthodox church


Maksoudian, Krikor (1995). Chosen of God: The Election of the Catholicos of All Armenians. New York: St. Vartan's Press.

Ormanian, Malachia. (1988). The Church of Armenia: Her History, Doctrine, Rule, Discipline, Liturgy, Literature, and Existing Conditions. New York: St. Vartan's Press.

Paul Crego

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Armenian Apostolic Church

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