History of the Antiochian Church
THE PATRIARCHATE OF ANTIOCH
The Patriarchate of Antioch has been one of the great centres of Christianity since the times of the New Testament. The origin of the Christian community within the city itself dates from the time of the Apostles, and the importance of the city as a center of the Christian community of the East dates from shortly thereafter. The civilized world of the Roman Empire was centred in cities, and it was quite natural that the Church, arising within the context of the Roman political structure, should assume that same external pattern. The fact that Antioch was the “Queen City” and capital of the Roman Diocese of the East went far in extending her ecclesiastical jurisdiction and influence throughout the Middle and Far East.
In the development of Church order, five great urban centres stood out after the fifth century: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Each of these five Ancient Patriarchates was centred in a particular city, but the Church designated and/or controlled by their names extended far beyond urban boundaries. This pentarchy of Sees comprised the universal Church before the sad schism which separated Rome from her sisters in the eleventh century.
THE APOSTOLIC ERA
Throughout the Apostolic Era, Antioch remained the most prominent in wealth and leadership among the five Sees. Her history is part and parcel of larger ecclesiastical history and a good part of the events and beliefs which constitute this history originated either within the See of Antioch or with Antiochian personalities. The theological turmoil which stirred Antioch during these early centuries is indicative of the dynamic nature of that Christian community.
The most famous scriptural reference concerning Antioch relates that it was in this city that the followers of Christ were first mockingly referred to as “Christ-ians” (Acts 11:26). In the Book of Acts, which offers an account of the first years of the Church, we discover that Antioch is the second most frequently mentioned city. Nicholas, one of the original seven deacons was a convert from Antioch and perhaps the first Christian from that city (Acts 6:5). During the persecution which occasioned the death of Saint Stephen the First Martyr, members of the fledgling Christian community in Jerusalem fled to Antioch for refuge.
Church tradition maintains that the See of Antioch was founded by Saint Peter the Apostle in A.D. 34 (Acts 2:26). Peter was either followed or joined by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas who preached there to both Gentiles and to Jews, who seem to have been numerous in the city. It was in Antioch that one of the first conflicts within the Church developed between Peter and Paul. This conflict regarded the necessity of circumcision for male Gentile converts to Christianity. It was the resolution of this conflict at the Council of Jerusalem under Saint James the Apostle that determined the direction of the Antiochian mission to the Gentiles, and the dynamic nature of that Christian community in its missionary outreach. It was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas departed for their great missionary journeys to the Gentile lands (Acts 13:1).
The Apostles directed a truly universal ministry. After spending some seven years in Antioch, Peter left for Rome. To succeed him as bishop of Antioch he appointed Euodius, who is thus counted in early episcopal lists as the first successor to the Antiochian Throne of Peter. The multiple Apostolic foundation of the See of Antioch, the early missions centred there, and the active nature of the community as recorded in the New Testament, has been a unique source of pride to all who trace their spiritual and ecclesiastical roots to the Antiochian Patriarchate.
The See of Antioch continued its glorious contributions to the universal Church by the numerous outstanding personalities it nurtured. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, for example, is revered as both a victorious martyr during the reign of Emperor Trajan (early second century) and as a reliable historical source for the structure of Church life. Ignatius was the second successor to Peter and may actually have been consecrated by that Apostle or Saint Paul. Ignatius’ chief gift to the Church historian is his several epistles, the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, which were written en route to his martyrdom in Rome. These letters bear abundant testimony to the nature of the early hierarchical structure of the Church and to general Church order. The contemporary Orthodox Church takes pride in the fact that these epistles bear witness to the unbroken continuity of Orthodox belief in Apostolic Succession, the Eucharist, and other essential facets of the Christian Faith.
In addition to Ignatius, mention must be made of the works of Saint Theophilus, the sixth successor to Peter, who defended Christian doctrine in his writings against heretics and pagans.
THE PATRISTIC AGE
No less a sophisticated thinker than either Ignatius or Theophilus and other Antiochian theologians, but certainly more well known, is the universally recognized Father of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, the brilliant preacher and pastor of Antioch during the late fourth century. For John, called the “Golden-mouthed” for his power in oratory, Christianity was a practical affair. His deeply religious mind, his sensitive knowledge of the human soul and psychology, his scriptural learning, and his passionate devotion to the ethical and moral implications of the Faith, have made him universally known and loved. Eschewing speculative theology, John preached a truly pastoral theology. After serving as a priest in Antioch, he was elected and consecrated to the Patriarchal Throne of the See of Constantinople, where he continued to preach moral purity, social mutuality, and self-denial amidst the wealth and pleasure of the capital of the Empire and richest city in the world. He ended his life as a martyr to his social and moral concerns. It is Saint John Chrysostom who is credited with having edited the Divine Liturgy as it is most commonly celebrated throughout the Orthodox world today. To this list of outstanding personalities must be added the famous eighth century Antiochian scholastic theologian, Saint John of Damascus.
The See of Antioch also revealed its Christian vitality in another respect, that is in the harvest of martyrs who through Roman, Persian, Ottoman and other violent persecutions bore witness to the life that was theirs only in Jesus Christ.
ANTIOCH AND THE ECUMENICAL COUNCILS
At the beginning of the fifth century the Patriarchate of Antioch held ecclesiastical hegemony over a large area including Cyprus, Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Mesopotamia. Though still under some Antiochian influence, the Churches of Georgia and Persia were granted ecclesiastical independence by their Mother Church of Antioch. Antioch could not, however, long hold on to this prestigious position and would lose much to the doctrinal conflicts which either originated there or had as their authors men from the Patriarchate of Antioch. In the fifth century the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, who was from Antioch, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431) for his heretical teachings. Although the Throne of Antioch concurred in this conciliar condemnation, many of the faithful in Persia and the East refused to accept it and broke from Orthodoxy by establishing the Nestorian or Assyrian Church.
Later in that same century the Monophysite heresy, whose leading opponent was Saint Cyril of Alexandria, gained a foothold in Syria from where many of its leading and most respected proponents came. The monophysite heresy was condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. However, as in the case of Nestorianism, many Christians including a number of the Antiochian faithful refused to accept this condemnation. The subsequent establishment of a permanent Monophysite hierarchy (Jacobite) in the sixth century again weakened the See of Antioch.
At this same time the geographical extent of the Patriarchate was reduced by decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. In 431 the Church of Cyprus was granted independence from Antioch, and in 451 the Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established and given jurisdiction of Palestine and Arabia.
In the early seventh century the Byzantine Empire was threatened with attack by the Persians in the East. In an attempt to reconcile the Orthodox and the Jacobite Monophysites to provide a united front against the invaders, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius proposed the compromise doctrine of Monothelitism. However the Orthodox would accept no political compromise when it came to matters of the Faith and at the Council of Constantinople in 680 Monothelitism was rejected as heresy. Very quickly thereafter Monothelitism died out, except at the Antiochian monastery of Beit-Maroon on the Orontes River- The supporters of this heresy rallied around the monastery and became known as Maronites. These three schisms – Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite – combined with the geographical reduction of the Patriarchate of Antioch by decision of the Ecumenical Councils, greatly reduced the See from its former prestige. In spite of the negative affect that the heresies had on the life of the Church, their tendencies attest to the vitality of the Patriarchate of Antioch and its ability to produce theological thinkers and to remain loyal to the Apostolic Faith despite all odds. In this context it should be noted that the Christian Faith, as we possess it today, was largely shaped, either directly or indirectly, by the theological “School of Antioch”. In discussing this school of thought it is common to contrast it with the School of Alexandria, with which it often entered into doctrinal dispute.
The Antiochian School represented an historical and concrete exegesis of the Scripture and understanding of Christ. The Alexandrian School, on the other hand, represented a more symbolical and allegorical interpretation. Ultimately it was the balance that was struck between these two tendencies in early Christian thought which produced the refined expression which we today designate as Christian doctrine, the fundamental tenets of the Faith, i.e., the nature of Christ, the nature of the Holy Trinity, the nature of Man. It was the famous School of Antioch which provided the necessary practical, concrete, and human balance to the more mystical approach of the Alexandrians.
ANTIOCH IN CAPTIVITY
The city of Antioch, and the Patriarchate which was centred there, continued its unhappy decline as the administrative centre of Eastern Christianity when it suffered a series of earthquakes, attacks and occupations by hostile cultural and religious elements. The city was captured and ravaged by the Persians in 538-540 and again in 611. After the Byzantine recovery of the area and the defeat of the Persians under Emperor Heraclius, Islam arose as a long range religiously motivated threat to the Christian Byzantine Empire. Antioch was one of the first victories of the advancing wave of Islam, falling in 638. Other famous Christian cities soon followed – Jerusalem, Gaza and Alexandria. The Moslem advance, and the various heresies precipitated a drastic decrease in the number of Orthodox faithful in the Patriarchate of Antioch, and impoverished the See materially. In 742, the occupying Caliphate made an attempt to further weaken Byzantine influence among its Christian subjects, when, it was forbidden to either speak or celebrate the liturgical services in any language other than Arabic; up until that time the Greek linguistic influence had been predominant as the common language of the Byzantine Empire.
With the capture of three of the four Eastern Patriarchates – Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – the ecclesiastical role of the Patriarchate of Constantinople increased. This was quite understandable since it was, in a sense, the only free Orthodox See, existing as it did in the remnant of the Byzantine Empire. Many Antiochian patriarchs were appointed from Constantinople and even attempted to rule the See as absentees, resident in the Imperial Capital. The local Christian population of the Antiochian Patriarchate often remained virtually leaderless. After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, this tendency became more pronounced as the Turks recognized the Patriarch of Constantinople as the head of all Christians within the Ottoman Empire. This fact combined with the greatly reduced number of Orthodox in the Ancient Sees of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria reduced them to a position of virtual idleness and total dependence.
In the tenth century Antioch was recovered by the Byzantines under the Emperor Nicephorus Phocas and some semblance of religious normality returned. The Turks captured the city in 1086, but their occupation was cut short by the invading armies from the West, the Crusades, which occupied the area in 1099. For the next 150 years the See of Antioch was reduced to imposed Roman Catholic submission. Under the guise of saving the Holy Land and its Christian inhabitants from the Turks, the Latin Crusaders forcefully replaced the Orthodox patriarch and hierarchy with those subject to the Roman Church. In 1154 Antioch was retaken from its Western occupiers by the Byzantine Emperor Emmanuel Comnenus who, allowing Latin occupation to continue under his overlordship, insisted that an Orthodox patriarch be returned to the Throne. This agreement to have the Antiochian Patriarch appointed from Constantinople did not last long and many subsequent Orthodox patriarchs of Antioch, such as the famous twelfth century canonist Theodore IV, (Balsamon), were unable to live under the hostile Latin occupation and remained either in Constantinople or in some other congenial location. Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries the patriarchs of Antioch were again elected and consecrated by the Antiochian Synod of local Syrian hierarchs.
When the Mameluk Sultans of Egypt came to power circa 1260-1269, the Orthodox hierarchs were reinstated to the See of Antioch, but they were refused permission to return to the city of Antioch itself, and the centre of the ecclesiastical administration was permanently transferred in the sixteenth century to the civil capital of Syria, Damascus. By this move the Patriarchate of Antioch became more and more specifically indentified with the Christian Arab population, while maintaining its Byzantine Orthodox traditions and rites. The city of Antioch was greatly reduced in size by both natural disasters and foreign occupations, and its Christian population was reduced to only a slight fraction of its former size.
ANTIOCH AND THE WESTERN EUROPEAN POWERS
At the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth centuries the Patriarchate of Antioch was disturbed by upheavals and factional feuding. These divisive circumstances gave papal propagandists opportunity to make inroads throughout Ottoman Syria. The Jesuits played on the anti-Green attitudes of some of the Syrian hierarchs, and several of them accepted union with Rome. In 1720 Athanasios IV was elected to the Antiochian Throne and stifled these unionist attempts. Following his death in 1724 the monk Sylvester was elected as his successor, however a rebellious faction rejected this canonical decision and elected Seraphim Tanas, a nephew of a former uniate bishop. When Sylvester was enthroned as the legitimate Patriarch, Seraphim, (who had taken the name of Cyril VI), was deposed and fled to the Lebanese mountains. The Western European powers were anxious to develop commercial opportunities in the Middle East and thus gave their support to the Melkites, the schismatic uniate party.
With the finalization of this Melkite schism, the Patriarchate of Antioch was again weakened, having lost churches, monasteries and many of its richest members to the Unia which offered them financial and commercial opportunities with the West. Further inroads and threats to the ancient Orthodox Faith of Antioch continued with the arrival of numerous Protestant “missionaries.” Throughout the nineteenth century the Antiochian Orthodox had to struggle against the well financed campaigns of both the Roman Catholic and Protestants propagandists.
The Orthodox, however, also found a defender; not in the Western European powers as did the Catholics and Protestants, but in the Russian Empire and her sister Orthodox Church of Russia. Russian influence began to increase in the Middle East for both political and religious reasons. In 1848 the Russian Holy Synod gave the Church of the Ascension near the Moscow Kremlin to the Patriarchate of Antioch with the intention that the income from that church would go towards the education of the clergy and laity of the Patriarchate. Scores of men were sent from the Patriarchate to Russia for theological education, and several of these obtained prominent positions in the Russian Church as in the case of (Saint) Raphael Hawaweeny (later elected as Bishop of Brooklyn, New York) who was a professor at the Kazan Theological Academy. In the Middle East the Russian Church continued to assist its Arab Orthodox brothers through the Imperial Palestine Society which refurbished churches and monasteries, and established and maintained countless hospitals and parochial schools throughout the Antiochian Patriarchate up until the time of the Bolshevik Revolution.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY ANTIOCHIAN RENAISSANCE
In 1899 the faithful and clergy of the Antiochian Patriarchate were successful in freeing themselves from the imposed Greek Hierarchy which had ruled Antioch since the eighteenth century. MELETIOS II (Doumani), a devout and learned Arab Orthodox, was elected to the Antiochian Throne. He was followed by the saintly GREGORY IV (Haddad) whose reign lasted from 1906 until his death in 1928. With the administration and initiative returned to the capable hands of its own people, the Antiochian Patriarchate experienced a reawakening from the dark hours of schism, political intrigue and foreign occupation. Patriarch ALEXANDER III (Tahan), who occupied the Antiochian Throne from 1930 until his death in 1958, enthusiastically set about to revitalize the parishes, monasteries and the theological seminary at Balamand. Perhaps the most important factor to consider in this spiritual renaissance is the Orthodox Youth Movement which was founded in 1942 by a group of dedicated laymen. The stated goal of the Movement is a renewal of the Patriarchate of Antioch through the study of Holy Scripture and increased participation in the sacramental life of the Church. To foster this renewal, they sought to encourage education among both the clergy and the laity. The founders were fully conscious of the fact that in spite of the hardships visited upon the See of Antioch, the Patriarchate had a great and glorious past and had made tremendous contributions to Christian theology, liturgy and spirituality. The Orthodox Youth Movement has proven to be in the best tradition of the See of Antioch and has given to the Church many highly educated monks and nuns (residing in monasteries established by the Movement itself), hierarchs, clergy and laymen.
The successor of ALEXANDER III, Patriarch THEODOSIOS VI, (Abourjaily), led the Patriarchate from 1958 until 1970. In that same year the Antiochian Patriarch, His Beatitude ELIAS IV (Muawad) was elected and enthroned. He continued to oversee the renaissance and brought distinction to the Antiochian Throne by his own fiery faith, power of oratory and active pastoral and administrative ministry.
The previous Patriarch of Antioch, (from 2 July 1979 to 5th December 2012), His Beatitude Ignatios IV (Hazim), was born in 1921 in the village of Mhardey near Hama in Syria. He is the son of a pious Arab Orthodox family and from an early age was attracted to service within the Church. Whilst studying in Beirut, Lebanon, for a literature degree, he entered the service of the local Orthodox diocese, first by becoming an altar server, then a deacon. In 1945 he went to Paris where he graduated from the St. Sergius Theological Institute. From his time in France onwards he has been moved not only by a desire to pass on the deposit of the Faith, but also to take Orthodoxy out of its unhistorical ghetto by discovering in its Holy Tradition living answers to the problems of modern life. On his return to the Middle East, he founded the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Balamand, Lebanon which he then served for many years as Dean. As Dean he sought to provide the Patriarchate with responsible leaders who had received a good spiritual and intellectual training and who were witnesses to an awakened and deeply personal faith.
Whilst his native language was, of course, Arabic, he also spoke fluent English and French. He was one of the founders of the very active Orthodox Youth Movement of Lebanon and Syria in 1942, through which he helped to organise and lead a renewal of Church life in the Patriarchate of Antioch. The movement worked at the heart of the Church helping ordinary believers to rediscover the personal and communal meaning of the Eucharist through a practice of frequent Communion which had become extremely rare. Following on from this in 1953 he helped to found SYNDESMOS, the world fellowship of Orthodox Youth and Theological Schools.
He became bishop in 1961 and Metropolitan of Lattaquiey in Syria in 1970. The new Metropolitan was a reserved and friendly man, who manifested a deep and courageous straightforwardness; he was simple, direct and down to earth. His style broke with the former tradition of episcopal grandeur and he inaugurated an authentic practice of frequent Communion. On 2 July 1979, under the name of Ignatios lV, he became the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, the third ranking hierarch of the Orthodox Church after the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria. After his election as Patriarch he said:
“I know that I will be judged if I do not carry the Church and each one of you in my heart. It is not possible for me to address you as if I were different from you. No difference separates us. I am an integral part of you; I am in you and I ask you to be in me. For the Lord comes, and the Spirit descends on the brothers gathered, united in communion, as they manifest a diversity of charisms in the unity of the Spirit.”
As Patriarch he gave a new dynamism to the Holy Synod and this named Bishops who were close to the people and motivated to develop the Church’s ecclesial and spiritual life, detached from political factions. Above all, the Patriarch Ignatios sought pastors who were as dedicated to their spiritual calling as he was himself. In his won words:-
“The Orthodox Church is not only for one nation, one civilisation, one continent. It is like God Himself, for all and for every place.”
SYRIA IN CRISIS – A NEW ERA
The current Bishop/Patriarch of Antioch is His Beatitude John X (Yazigi), was enthroned on Sunday, February 10, 2013 following the repose of His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV on December 5, 2012. His Beatitude John X has a deep and prayerful foundation in the monastic life while at the same time being committed in strengthening the practical service of God among all her members. In June 2014 he held the first International Global Antiochian Conference in Balamand which has begun a process of renewal in Church life.
Much of his time with the Holy Synod has also been spent in working for peace and reconstruction in the beloved and war torn Syria, the cradle of Eastern Christian civilisation. This has a special and tragic poignancy for himself personal as his own brother, Paul, Metropolitan of Aleppo together with his partner Syriac Archbishop John were abducted by terrorists while on a mercy mission near the Turkish border. These men remain missing. Through both its suffering and its living hope in the Risen Christ, Antioch has still much to offer, not only the suffering peoples of the Near East but also in the rest of the world where God has planted her as a witness to the nations.