The History of the Armenian Church

(A Brief Historical Outline)

apostles According to tradition, the Apostles St. Thaddeous and St. Bartholomew in the middle of the First Century introduced Christianity into Armenia. The Apostles were martyred in Armenia, and their graves were venerated in the ancient churches of Artaze and Albac. Other preachers of the gospel who also came to Armenia left deep traces of Christian living, which were too strong to be obliterated.

There are many historical records indicating the existence in Armenia of a large body of Christians during the three centuries preceding the official and mass conversion of the nation to the Christian faith at the beginning of the Fourth Century. Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous ecclesiastical historian, mentions a letter written by the Patriarch of Alexandria to Mehroujan, Bishop of Armenia in the year 254. This letter shows that Christianity had not only spread in Armenia, but also had taken organized form with Bishops who were well known outside of Armenia. These and many other historical evidences attest the apostolic origin of the Armenian Church.

EtchmiadzinArmenia was the first country in the world to have adopted Christianity as the state religion. The date of conversion is generally accepted to be the year 301. (However, recent chronological researches by some scholars place the event in the year 287.) It is significant that this took place twelve years before the Edict of Milan, by which Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor, proclaimed Christianity to be a religion on the same footing with Paganism. It was twelve years later, in '324, that the same emperor depicted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. The great change in Armenia took place through the efforts and extraordinary courage and wisdom of St. Gregory, an Armenian nobleman, known afterwards as the "Enlightener of Armenia." St. Gregory entered into the service of King Tiridates of Armenia and later suffered heavily for his Christian faith by the orders of the King, whom however eventually, together with the entire royal court, converted to his Faith. King Tiridates, in turn, helped him to convert the whole country. St. Gregory strengthened and reorganized the triumphant Christian church in the country. With him began the new line of Patriarch Catholicoses ( supreme heads of the Church), which continues to this day. The present Catholicos, His Holiness Vazgen I, is 130th in succession. St. Gregory built the first mother church Etchmiadzin in the capital of the country near Mount Ararat, following the instructions given him by our Lord in a vision.

Beginning with the year 301, the religious life of the country underwent a complete change; heathen gods disappeared and the profession of the Faith of Christianity became general. St. Gregory administered the Church of Armenia for about a quarter of a century. He was also instrumental in the conversion of the neighboring Caucasian countries of Georgia and Caspian Albania (present Azerbaijan). St. Gregory is venerated as a saint by almost all the Eastern churches as well as by the Roman and Greek Churches.

mesrob mashtotsIn the Fourth Century the Armenian Church was well organized, but it lacked an element of the utmost importance-there was no alphabet, consequently the rituals were not translated into Armenian, but were read in Greek or Syriac languages. Through the efforts of a learned and holy monk named Mesrob and with the assistance of King Vramshabouh and the Catholicos St. Sahag', this difficulty was surmounted. After some years of research he invented an alphabet, 36 letters in number. This took place in the year 404. Finally the Bible was translated into Armenian. The Armenia translation of the Bible for its perfection and beauty in style is by some western scholars of the Bible called "The Queen of Translations." This period immediately following the invention of the alphabet is the GOLDEN AGE OF ARMENIAN CLASSICAL LITERATURE.

Up to the close of the Fifth Century the Church of Armenia was naturally in communion with the rest of Christendom, as there were no divisions among the Christian churches at that time. But in the course of time, happy relations between churches gradually altered. The reason was mainly those religious quarrels with which Christianity in the Byzantine Empire was infected. The Armenian Church first took no part in those controversies. She stood aloof from the whole quarrel, and accepted the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils, which were held, to decide and to proclaim the orthodox doctrine and to reject the heretical ones. These quarrels, however, took a very acute form in the first half of the Fifth Century. To settle these controversies, an important meeting of Christian Bishops took place in Chalcedon on the Eastern bank of the Bosphorus in 4-51. As we all know, it was the year when Armenia was in a life-and-death struggle with mighty Persia in defense of Christianity. After the war the country was in a confused condition. It was obvious that under the circumstances, the Armenian" had neither the heart nor the time to wrangle about theological questions. So it is not surprising that they began to take interest in this Council of Chalcedon after more than fifty years from its Convocation when the country was given its religious freedom and was in a quieter shape. When the Church of Armenia heard about it, Christianity was already divided about the validity of the Council's decisions. Even some of the Emperors had openly rejected it by official decrees.

Besides, to the Armenians as well as to the many other Eastern churches, the decision of this council seemed contradictory to those of the first three Ecumenical Councils. These and many other reasons persuaded the Armenians to reject it. So, beginning with the Sixth Century, Armenia took her part with those who were anti-Chalcedonian, and she has remained on the same ground ever since.

The Church of Armenia believes that the only possible way of Christian reunion is to hold fast to the fundamental principles and beliefs of the church; to be one in fundamental principles and to leave the rest to the liberty of the individual or to communal judgment. Any church accepting the first three Ecumenical Councils, with accompanying indispensable doctrines, such as the belief in sacraments, in the divine authority of the church, in the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, etc., is in the One, Catholic (universal) 1 and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

Rev. Levon Arakelian

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