Characteristics of Oriental Theology

Characteristics of Oriental Theology


Dr Joy Karukaparampil



Vatican II and even some of the pre-Vatican writings and declarations of the church encouraged the study of Oriental Theology. Among them Orientale Dignitas,[1] Orientalae Lumen,[2] Orientalium Ecclesiarum[3] and the resourcement theory of Vatican II deserve special mention.[4]

I. General Characteristics

I.1. Oriental Theology

Oriental Theology is born and developed in the East and in the Far East. It includes the venerable theological traditions of Alexandria, Antioch, Armenia, Persia and Constantinople. The theologies of these churches have some common features and some specific characteristics. These churches preserve with love, respect and with theological interest the teachings of the Fathers of the church.

These Churches make no sharp distinction between theology and spirituality and they commonly accept mysticism as the common heritage of Christian life. They also preserve a deep spirituality based on the scripture and Fathers of the Churches.

I.2. Process of Theology

Christian Theology, especially the Oriental Theology, is commonly characterized by:

  1. Monotheistic Trinitarianism
  2. Belief in the incarnation of the Son of God from Mary, the mother of God the Son
  3. Primary importance to the Sacred Scripture and Divine Tradition
  4. Importance given to apophatism
  5. The salvation of mankind as the re-entry and healing

The object and conclusions of Oriental Theology are not different from other theological traditions, but the difference is in the process of theologization.

In the West, theology is a sublime act of the intellect of man – a faith seeking understanding. The oriental theology gives importance not to the process of knowing the Divinity by the intellect but to the process of experiencing the Divinity by the inner man. The Oriental Traditions reasonably follow this method because of the inaccessible nature of the Divinity-the Triune God. Divinity is a mystery and remains as a mystery. He reveals Himself and at the same time remains hidden in and through the types and symbols in the Scripture and in the Nature. This self revelation of the Godhead reaches its fullness in the incarnation of the second Person of the Divine Trinity. When this experience of the self revelation of the Divine Trinity in Christ, substantiated in the Word of God and put into the categories of symbols and imageries, forms theology. So oriental theology can be defined as the scientific explanation of the Christian experience of the Divine Mystery of the Triune God fulfilled in Christ, continuing in the church, based on faith. Though it is fully revealed, the human intellect cannot fully comprehend it but the inner man can experience it.[5] So, Oriental Theology is not fides quaerens intellectum but fides adorans Mysterium. In this process, theology is not an effort to know God but to experience Him. It is a gazing at the mystery of the Trinity and the sacramental understanding of the salvific activity of God in faith.

1.3.   The Object of Theology

Since God is mystery and remains as mystery, He cannot be the object of theology. But the object includes:

  1. The self revelation of the Divinity. This is the salvific action of the Triune God realized in Christ and its continuation in the church.
  2. Man experiences this revelation and responds to it in faith. So the experience of the revelation of God is the main object of theology.

These two factors, the salvific activity of God and man’s response are not the ‘material objects’of theology. It is a call from God and man responds to it. This is a dynamic process of revelation of the descending God and ascending man to be in the glory of God.

1.4.   Concept of God

When Oriental Theology speaks of God, it is Godhead – the Triune God – Father, Son and the Spirit of Holiness who are one in essence and undivided. The Triune God is three unconfused and distinct divine persons who share the same divine essence which is uncreated, immaterial and eternal. In the Triune God, the Father is the eternal source of the Godhead. From this Father, the Son is eternally begotten and the Spirit of Holiness proceeds eternally.

Accepting the Christological doctrine of Babai the Great, the Easterners follow the syriac way of explaining the Trinity.[6] In the Holy Trinity there is one kyānā, three qnōme and three parsōpe. It is the same parsōpe of a qnōma that makes it known as Father not as Son and the Spirit of the Holiness. These three parsōpe are paternity, Filiation and procession. They are not accidents as in the creatures. So he makes a concrete explanation that when it is said Father is a qnōma, the parsōpe of paternity is included in this qnōma.

The persons in the Trinity have the same kyānā of Divinity and at the same time three persons having three parsōpe. One person in the Trinity is related and fully present in the other two persons. This mutual relation among the three persons is explained by the theory of Perechoreis[7]. For the Easterners this unity of the Triune God is the conclusion; but for the Westerners it is the starting point[8]. In the West the theology of the unity of the Godhead is a presupposition and in the East it starts from an experience of the three persons and moves to affirm the divinity and unity[9]. Based on the relation between the three persons the cappadocians taught on the triplicity of equal hypostases (persons) and the identity of the divine ousia (substance) comes second in the order of their minds[10]. St Ephrem explains this in the Hymns on Faith through the symbol of sun, rays and heat. The experience of the Spirit leads to Christ and in Christ man experiences the Father[11].

1.5. Double Source Theory

Tradition and Sacred Scripture complement each other with equal weight and authority and they stand as the equivalent sources of Dogma and of supernatural life.

Even before the teachings of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) on the two sources of theology,[12] S. Scripture and the Divine Tradition, the Oriental Theology accepted these two are equal sources of theology. There are some churches which assert that there is only one source and continues to say that in the beginning there was only an oral tradition and in turn it took the written form. They conclude that the S. Scripture is simply a part of the Divine Tradition[13].

The oriental Churches agree that they are two different sources of theology and they are the legitimate expressions of the ultimate authority – the disclosure of God. They complement each other[14] with equal weight and authority and they stand as the equivalent sources of Dogma and of supernatural life[15]. The Eastern churches do not accept the theory of the origin of one from the other, but they do not deny their mutual influence in their formation. They are pure and unadulterated truth established by Christ for the salvation of man[16]. The Sacred Scripture is the written form of the reality of the self revelation of the Triune God. It does not mean that it contains the whole Truth of revelation. So it is not proper to believe that the written form is the perfect and full experience of the revelation. The same conclusion can be applicable to the Divine Tradition also. It is the interpretation and explanation of the experience of Revelation. By divine protection this experience of the revelation is protected in the oral and written form and in the exhortations and teachings of the church. This can be Apostolic and Ecclesial and it is transmitted in the church through the teachings and liturgy of the church. The Tradition after the apostolic period is an active process of Tradition that which formed the church, in which the whole church is in process. So the Divine Tradition of/in the church is not an object which we posses but a reality by which we are possessed[17]. So the content of the Scripture and the Tradition is the same, Christ the incarnate Son. The Tradition transfers not Christ from one to another but the one who transfers the church to his glory through his life death and Resurrection.

1.6.   Two Approaches

The approach in the Oriental Theology is different from the methods in other theological traditions. In the West the theological pattern is creation-fall-redemption while in the Oriental approach is creation-theosis or deification; the former one is legal and the latter is mystical in approach.

This approach in the Western theology is based on St Augustine’s interpretation of Saint Paul and insisted on a legal relationship of man with God. In turn, this approach resulted in the doctrine of justification. The influence of this is clear in the Western Ecclesiology, Canon Law and in the theology of Ministry[18] whereas the Oriental Theology follows the mystical approach on the basis of apophatism, theosis, eschatology, etc.

1.7.   The created world

The material world is the free and loving act of the Triune God ex nihilo[19]. God alone has the self existence and everything has existence through him and in the words of Athanasius the creature exists by “grace of His grace, His will and his word… so that they even cease to exist if the creator so wishes”[20]. The creation does not in any way limit the essence and the Being of God. At the same time, the creation is distinct from God, and it is worthy of God’s love and concern and fundamentally is very good. So Meyendorff writes “Because God is what he is, He is not determined or in any way limited in what he does, not even by His own essence and being”[21] and he continues to say that “the proper movement of nature, however, can be fully itself only if (it) follows its proper goal (skopos) which consists in striving for God entering into the communion with Him, and thus fulfilling the logos or divine purpose through which and for which it is created”[22].

            1.7.1   The Sacramental Character of the Nature

The created world depends always in its relationship with the Creator. The creation, together with that of the Scripture, acts as the two witnesses of God. They are not evidence of the existence of God but they are full of types and symbols[23] which points towards Christ and hence to God[24]. So the created nature is not to be considered as objects but they are invitations to experience God. Man has to experience, through the ‘luminous eye’, the sacramental character of the natural world to contemplate on the mystery of God.

Jacob of Serugh explains the revelation through the created nature as the continued divine act of creation[25] and in them the divine force inhabits. St Ephrem explains the natural world as the witness of God together with the S. Scripture. They are two harps in the hands of God filled with the hidden power[27]. The aim of this natural world is to be always thankful to the Creator and to praise him[28]. This is to experience the presence of God and to raise the mind and heart to the high and to experience the loving and continuing act of God in and through the natural world. The duty of man is to discern the aim of God in creation, to experience him and to be a mystic in the normal life. Man has to develop this thought through his own response to the Divinity in faith. This changes the thoughts of man to see and experience this sacramental character of the material world.

            1.7.2 Creation of Man

Man is a special creation of God[29]. He is created with freedom and in complete union and harmony with the Creator, universe and also with his fellow being. In order to show the perfect harmony in God, the Oriental Theology agrees with St Ephrem that he is created in glory, and that his tripological nature- body, soul and the spirit – relates to the three persons in the Triune God[30]. The creation of man was only a timely act in history. Before his creation and of the material world, man was conceived in God; so he was old in conception and young in creation[31]. Creation of man in glory in the intermediary state of earthly Paradise shows his potential to enter into the eschatological paradise. The personal rejection of this invitation deprived him of the garment of glory and he was forced to wear the cloth of shame and hence he was expelled from paradise. The Son of Man puts on humanity to help the first Adam to re-enter into the most glorious eschatological paradise. This picture of the creation and re-entry of man point to the fact that man is created to be the partaker of the glory of God in and through the incarnate Son of God – Christ himself [32]. This is at the same time a growth in his journey from the image to the likeness to be the full participant in the divine life – in eschaton.

            1.7. 3. Salvation

The quality of man is that he is created as a young child endowed with the potential for perfection[34] – to be the partaker of the glory of God. In order to lead back to the lost glory, man needed the Son of God and in the words of Athanasius his incarnation was to divinize him. Based on this, Oriental Theology explains salvation in terms of re-entry, healing and deification etc.

The second Adam, the Son of Man came, and opened the door and allowed man to re-enter into the paradise – i.e., into the Church to eat the fruit of the tree of life as a foretaste to enter into the more glorious paradise than that of the earthly paradise to which he was originally created for. This partaking of the glory of God is understood in terms of the mystical union-theosis or divinization, which is the goal of theology.

Eastern Theology is faithful and clear in explaining the mystical union. The Holy Trinity is the communion of three divine persons. The created nature of man cannot have a union with the essence of the H. Trinity[35].   In order to explain this, Oriental Orthodox Theology speaks of two modes of divine existence: in His essence and outside His essence. The uncreated divine energies represent the mode of existence of God outside His inaccessible essence[36]. They proceed from His very nature and are inseparable, just as the rays of sun would shine out from the solar disk, whether or not there were any beings capable of receiving its light[37]. In salvation man becomes a partaker of this uncreated energies[38] and not of the essence of the Triune God.

Salvation is again explained in terms of incarnation. Incarnation is the core and cause of salvation of man. Man can reach this participation in two ways: through his own effort and through the sacraments of the church[39]. The aim of incarnation is man’s deification. In the economy of salvation, God the Father has given man his own life (Jn 10, 10) in and through his only begotten Son which cures and transforms the human life. This new life is shared with us through the Death and Resurrection of the Son. The Cross is the new tree of life in the new garden – the Church. The fruit of this tree is the Eucharist – the medicine of life/coal of fire[40]. The medicine cures and enlivens man to be a partaker of the divine life. So Oriental Theology gives importance to the orthopraxis – the right praxis – of the liturgical life especially, the celebration of the Eucharist where through the body and blood, the risen Christ himself provides immortality to the human being. In each liturgical celebration, the sacraments are the continued salvific work of the Triune God through the Son in the Spirit. So each sacrament is both incarnation and Pentecost at the same time. The participation in the life of Christ in the sacraments in the church is the beginning of the divinization. The Christian life, life in the Spirit – is a style of the experience of the Risen Christ in the Spirit and it is the starting point of the full participation in the glory of the Triune God.


After having gone through the general features in brief, now we deal with the specific characteristics of Oriental Theology.

2.1. Trinitarian

The source and the basic theme of the Oriental Theology is the Triune God[41]. This does not mean that the Triune God is the object of theology but it is the self revelation of the Holy Trinity in history and its continuation in the church and in her activities. The Holy Trinity is the beginning, model, mission and aim of the church. The pilgrim church is modeled after the Trinity and moving towards the glory of the Trinity. So the beginning, the way and the aim of theology is also the Holy Trinity[42]. The Triune God is the basis of Christianity and the church and it is the source and model of the Christian life. Hence the basic theology is Trinitarian and all the other theological disciplines are derived from this.

2.2. Pneumatological

Oriental Churches give due importance to the Spirit of Holiness (rūhā d’ qudsā) in theology and in the life of the Church. Christ is the agent and fulfillment of the self revelation of God. At the same time the Spirit concretizes and makes present Christ in the church more concretely in the liturgy. The earthly life and the whole salvific actions of Christ were always with the Spirit and even the resurrection of Christ was in the Spirit and after the resurrection he became the life giving spirit (1Cor 15, 45).

Oriental Theology defines Christian life as a life based on the personal experience of the Risen Lord in the Spirit of Holiness. In terms of the Spirit of Holiness this theology defines also the church, the salvation and the activities of the church. In the liturgy, the Orientals give more importance to the Epiclesis, the invocation and the hovering of the Spirit. This is based on the emphasis given to the sending of the Spirit as the fruit and fulfilling of the Christ event. Oriental Theology makes a subtle difference in the works of Christ and that of the Spirit. In the salvific actions of Christ it is related to the human nature as a whole, whereas the action of the Spirit concerns person – applied to each one in the singular. And again Christ is the icon of the Father and his image is common to the whole human nature but at the same time the Spirit grants his grace to each person.

The Spirit of Holiness is understood in relation with Christ and Christ is fully understood in the spirit of Holiness. The Spirit sanctifies the faithful and the whole church to the glory of Christ. So the Spirit is also the agent of the eschatological nature of the church. Though pneumatology is considered as a separate theological discipline, it is always understood with Christology. Christology is fully understood when it is explained in the pneumatological language. This is called the pneumatological Christology[43].

2.3. Scriptural

Sacred Scripture is one of the two main sources of theology and it is the written form of the self revelation of the Trinitarian God in history. It is the written form of Tradition and it remains as the unchangeable criterion in the life of the Church and theology. The interpretation and meditation of the Scripture is Theology. In this way the Oriental Theology can be called scriptural[44]. But the interpretation of the S. Scripture should not be an exposition of one’s own opinion (2 Pt 1, 20). It should be based on the commentaries and homilies of the Fathers. Their biblical commentaries are the interpretation of the scripture in the proper cultural background and in the original language. This does not mean that Oriental Theology denies new scriptural interpretations. But it teaches that any scriptural commentary based on new researches in scriptural texts cannot be at total variance with the patristic understanding of the texts.

In Oriental Theology for the interpretative study the Syrian churches follow the peshitta version of the scripture. It is formulated and written in the Semitic – Mesopotamian cultures where Christ was born and Christianity grew in the early centuries. This version of the scripture throws light on the meaning of the symbols and types used in the Scripture.

The Gospel in written form is considered as the icon of Christ. Generally this Holy Text is put on the right side of the Holy Altar during the Eucharistic celebration symbolising Christ’s position on the right side of the Father. Scripture represents the living word of God and through it Christ speaks directly to the hearers. So traditionally Holy Scripture is covered in the fine and decorated cloth or kept in golden caskets.

2.4. Typological and Paradoxical

Symbolic theology using the types and symbols in Sacred Scripture and in the Nature is a characteristic of Oriental Theology. The human intellect is incapable of comprehending the full theological meaning of the mystery of God[45]. So God reveals himself in and through the types and symbols in Nature and in the Scripture. They are not signs of what is absent but symbols of what is present. The typological exegesis of the Sacred Scripture is special to the Syriac Theology. Ephremian theology is characterized by this method. This method helps:

  1. to go deep and experience the theological meaning of the scripture,
  2. to provide a relation between the two Testaments, and
  3. to develop a mystical theology where less importance is given to the rational categories.

Most of the theological concepts in the oriental theology are based on and derived from the typological method[46]. The following examples substantiate it.

2.4.1. Christ the Divine Physician

Christ is presented as the healer or physician in the context of salvation where it is explained in terms of healing the sickness of sin[47].

Saint Ephrem explains this theme in the context of the fall of the first Adam and Eve and their return to the Paradise. After hearing the words of the Satan and eating the prohibited food they became sick and the earth produced thorns and bushes. The incarnate Son assumed humanity and preached the good news and gave the food of life in contrast to the poisonous word and food of death. Here the salvific works of Christ and its continuation in the church represent thes process of curing. Christ is the healer who distributes the life giving Word and Eucharist which is the medicine of life.

2.4.2. Adam’s side and Christ’s side

The first Eve came out from the side of the first Adam (Gen 2, 21-22). She was a type of the Church and she gave birth to death and pain in the world. Christ, the second Adam, allowed Himself to be opened on his side and from there came blood and water (Jn 19, 34)[48]. It is the type of baptism and Eucharist, referring to the church. In baptism one enters into the community of the faithful and is nourished by the Eucharist. The cross of Christ is the antitype of the sword of the Cherubim who closed and guarded the gates of the Earthly paradise[49]. The cross opened the closed paradise and allowed the faithful to enter into the eschatological paradise. At the same time, the Church has to wait for her full glorification in the eschaton.

2.4.3. Crossing the River of Jordan

This is the type of the baptism in the NT. This is a theological explanation of understanding the sacrament of baptism as a re-entry into the community of Christ. It is the preparation for the eschatological paradise, rather than only a preparation for the remission of sin.

In this way of symbolic and paradoxical interpretation of the types and symbols in the scripture, Nature and in the church moves from the literal and moral meaning to the theological understanding of the Scripture. The symbols are helpful in explaining the mysteries of God. Through the symbolic actions and languages, the scripture explains the mysterious manner in which God made himself present through the historical person, events and actions of Jesus Christ.

The paradoxes like the shepherd becoming sheep, the farmer becoming wheat, rich becoming poor, great becoming small etc. lead to the theological depth of the scriptural passages. The use of these symbols and paradoxes from the scripture, Tradition and Nature explain also the goal of man – salvation – theosis.

2.5. Ecclesial

The ecclesial character of the Oriental Theology is related to the aim of theology and the person of theologian. The theologian is one of the members in the community of the faithful – the church. He does not stand alone and above the faithful. But he has to follow and foster the faith of the church and the Tradition of the church. His task is to deepen the faith and build up the church. So in teaching he has to follow the paths of the Fathers, to teach from faith to the faith (min hymānūsā al hymānūsā). The Oriental Theology follows this method and teaches that theology is not simply an intellectual exercise but it is an experience of the Divine and it is for the faithful[50].

2.6. Liturgical

In the theological tradition of the oriental churches they well practiced and illustrated the theological dictum ‘lex orandi, lex credendi’. The Oriental Theology affirms and teaches that the faith and dogma come second to prayer. Prayer and hence, the liturgy, is the celebration of the salvation history realized in Christ. These doxological prayers of the Church are found in the writings of the Fathers and in the early Church documents. So the Oriental Theology considers the liturgy of the church as the source of theology second to Sacred Scripture[51].

2.7. Patristic

The patristic character of theology is common to the theologies of the West and the East. In Oriental Theology, the teachings and writings of the Fathers and the early documents have a special importance in the formulation of theology and its development through the centuries. The content of the writings of the fathers are the first interpretations of the scriptures and their backgrounds are the prevalent liturgical practices of the early Church. They are also the official and authentic teachings and exhortations given to the Christian communities. The orthodox teachings of the Fathers were the background of all the seven ecumenical councils which formulated the foundations for the fundamentals of faith declarations of the Church. So this theology is patristic in content and nature.

2.8. Apophatic

Oriental Theology in her doctrine on God maintains both the transcendent and immanent nature of God; God is both revealed and hidden at the same time. This mystery character of the Godhead cannot be defined by the human intellect and in human language[52]. So in the faith life and in the liturgical prayers, Oriental Theology always maintains the awesome and transcendental nature of God. Based on this special thought, Oriental Theology follows the apophatic method – the way of negation in theology[53]. The Capadocians and Saint Clement of Alexandria teach that man can experience and relate to God more by saying what God is not rather than saying what God is. This method in theology explains the way man can experience the Divinity now, the fulfillment of which is in future[54].

God is totally and wholly another existence. He is inconceivable and beyond human comprehension[55]. Any positive word to denote the qualities of God is in vain, but the way of negating the positive aspects will help to experience the absolute mystery of God and to comprehend it. This is the way of knowing God through unknowing. Based on this, Oriental Theology tries to explain the mystical union of man – theosis – with God as a process. So Gregory of Nyssa and pseudo – Dionysius explain the goal of this method and compare it to the ascent of Moses on Mount Sinai[56]. This method of experiencing God through the method of negation safeguards the transcendental and immanent nature of God and the potential of man to attain his mystical union with God.

2.8. mystical and Eschatological

Theological knowledge is basically a mystical rather than a rational reflection. Gregory of Nyssa explains this mystical experience thus: ‘the blessed are not those who know something about God but having God in life’. Evagrius of Pontius says that ‘the theologian is the one who prays and the one who prays is a theologian’. So theology and theological thoughts are above human language and the empirical level. Emphasizing this aspect, Isaac of Niniveh opines that ‘the faithful theologian teaches always the language of the world to come’. Theology is to be practiced in the Christian life and its goal is to attain the mystical union with God. Here the salvation is not understood in terms of justification but as a mystical union with God, and Incarnation is the cause and basis of this mystical union[57]. This special character points to the eschatological nature of Christian life.

2.9. Monastic and Spiritual

The Oriental Theology finds no distinction between spiritual theology and monasticism. Monasticism originated first in the East and later it was transferred to the West. For the Easterners, monasticism is the very soul of Church. A monk’s life is personally related to the word of God, through which he is called and with the Eucharist with which he is nourished. The life of a monk is compared to the pre-fallen state of life of Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise which was marked by the companionship with God. The Monk shines in the world as a sign of the world to come, a radical witness to the eschatological life and an icon of the glorified Christ.

2.10. Icon Theology

Iconography and icon theology originated in the Byzantine church. The artistic character of Oriental Theology is depicted in and through the science of iconography.

Icon theology originated and developed in the Incarnation theology. In the Incarnation, Christ became the true and visible Icon of the Father. So icons are holy pictures which represent the Incarnation and serve as symbols of Truth. These holy pictures are painted either by priests or monks or by a baptized person after intense preparation through fasting and prayer. Hence the icons become visual theology which expresse the experience of the spiritual man. They are painted on the basis of the teachings of the Fathers and the Divine Tradition of the Church. The purpose of the icons is to teach the faith and to hand down it to the following generation. In theology, icons serve symbolic, catechetical, liturgical and aesthetic purposes.

Icons are venerated and this devotion is directed to the one whom it represents. This is described as “the manifestations of man’s spiritual power to redeem creation through beauty and art… part of the transfigured cosmos[58].

In the oriental orthodox theology, icono-grapher is equated with a theologian. Both serve the same purpose of the propagation and deepening of faith in Christ. Both theology and icons have the same source of thought, the self revelation of God in the Incarnation of the Son.

Icons are sacramental symbols and they are compared to the sacraments. Icons, like the sacraments, are external and efficacious signs through which the grace of the Lord is conferred and the person of Christ, B. V. Mary, saints and the angels are personally experienced.

Oriental Churches find a close similarity between the gospel and the message of the icons; icons are said to be ‘the scripture of the poor’. In the Sacred Scripture the revelation of God is expressed in words and icons are ‘visual aids’ and serves the same purpose in an artistic manner though colors[59].

Another important feature of the icon is that it proclaims the eschatological character of the church and the future glory of the faithful. Icons praise God as Creator and Redeemer. Icons of Mary, saints etc. points to the future glory of man and the universe and they invite the faithful to have the anticipated experience of the future glory in the earthly life itself. Icons are pictures in a unique style which seek to convey the heavenly and open the door to eternity.

2.11. Ecological

The Oriental Theology recognizes the spiritual significance of the created world. Nature is one of the witnesses of God and this theology evaluates the nature of the material world in its sacramental character. The types and symbols in nature serve as efficacious and external symbols which lead to the Creator. The hidden power behind the created Nature helps him to grow in faith and to see the world with a luminous eye. The created world is a gift from God and man has to be responsible in using it[60]. This creates in man a spiritual outlook to experience the spiritual value of the material world. This revolutionary way of seeing Nature will create a sense of wonder, praise, gratefulness and prayer, and eventually lead to a mystical outlook [61]. This ecological vision in Oriental Theology is an answer to the ecological challenges and problems in the contemporary world.

2.12. Mariology

The Mariology of the Eastern Church is based on the teachings of the Fathers of the church, especially of saint Ephrem, and saint John Damascene. In the early liturgical prayers, the church believed and affirmed the faith in Blessed Virgin Mary[62]. Almost all the Marian dogmas defined in the church through the centuries have their basis in the prayers of the Eastern Churches.

Mary is understood only in relation to Christ and Mariology in relation to Christology. The East Syrian Church does not directly call Mary the mother of God; she is called ‘the mother of the Son of God the Father’ or ‘the Mother of God the Son’. This is the same as Theotokos. See Elias of Jerusalem (and Damascus) of the 9th century[63] and the profession of faith of Iso-yahb, the Archbishop of Nisibis.[64]

The Oriental Churches and their theology affirm the perpetual virginity and sinlessness of Mary. This belief went deep through recitation of the liturgical prayers[65]. Through the definition of the feast of sūnāyā by Pius XII in 1950, the faith in the corporal Assumption of our Lady, the church defined what the Fathers taught and what the faithful prayed in the liturgy of the hours[66].

The theological study on the Eve-Mary typology is a valuable theological contribution of the Oriental Churches. This typological study imitated by Justin the Martyr and Iranaeus and an elaborated by Saint Ephrem.[67]

The Mariology of the oriental churches originated and developed through the writings of the Fathers and through the liturgical prayers of the church and remains as the basis for the Marian theology of the whole Church.


The Oriental theological tradition stand as a distinct branch of theology and serves as one of the sources for the other theological traditions. Oriental Theology remains unique in her theological speculations, process of theologization and in presentations. It is basically Trinitarian and hence it is mystical and its goal is theosis. Here theology is not simply an intellectual act but a mystical experience of God and a life style of the faithful in the church.


  1. Apostolic Letter of Pope Leo XIII, Acta 14, 1894, 358-370. In this letter Pope recalls the esteem and concrete help which the Holy See has given to the Eastern Churches and its willingness to safeguard their specific qualities.
  2. Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II promulgated on May 2, Acta 87, 1995, 745ff; Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Decree on the Eastern Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rites, Orientalium Ecclesiarum, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on 21 November 1964.
  3. Orientale Lumen, 1.
  4. Lossky. V, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, NY 1997.
  5. Babai Magni Liber de Unione, Parisiis, J. Gabaldi, “Bibliotheca Scriptorum Syrorum, series secunda”, T. LXI Rue Bomaparte 9, 1925; Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium (CSCO), 79, 80 (Louvain) 1915 (Text and Translation). Quoted in Placid J. Podipara, Mariology of the East, OIRSI 91, Kottayam 1980.
  6. This Greek word means, ‘move around’, ‘sit around’ etc. Saint John Damascene is the one who first used this term to explain the unity and mutual indwelling of the three divine persons in the Trinity. Later this theory was accepted in theology and defined by the church in the council of Florence in 1442. “On account of this unity the Father is wholly in the Son and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Son wholly in the Father and wholly in the Holy Spirit; the Holy Spirit wholly in the Father and wholly in the Son” DS 1331.
  7. Boniface, H, “The Filioque Question”, 78; also A. Walker, “Andrei Rubylov’s Icon of the Trinity”, Diakonia 11, 1976, 116. Quoted in Kallarangattu Joseph, The Holy Spirit, Bond of Communion of the Churches. A Comparative Study of the Ecclesiology of Yves Congar and Nikos Nissiots (Roma 1989) 27. cfr. Archbishop Michael, “Orthodox Teology”, The Greek Theological Review, 3, Summer 1957.
  8. Kallarangattu. J, ibid, 26-27.
  9. Parker. T, “The Political Meaning of the Doctrine of the Trinity” Journal of Religion, 60, 1983,3.
  10. Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Faith, 40, 1; 73, 1; 72, 2-3. For further study cfr. Beck. E, Ephräms Trnitätslehre im Bild von Sonne/Feuer, Licht und Wärme, CSCO 425; sub 65, Louvain 1981.
  11. Philip Schaff, ed. The Creeds of Christendom, Vol 2 Grand Rapids 1985, 13.
  12. “The agreed statement adapted by the Anglican-Orthodox joint Doctrinal Commission at Moscow, 26 July to August 1976” in Anglican – Orthodox Dialogue. K. Ware and C. Davey, eds., London SPCK 1977, 84. K. Ware, “The Exercise of Authority in the Orthodox Church” Ecclesia kai Theologia, 1981, 946-947.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Konstantinidis. C, “The Significance of Eastern and Western Traditions within Christendom” in The Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement, ed. C. Patalos (Geneva WCC, 1978) 222.
  15. Archbishop Michael, “Orthodox Theology” The Greek Theological Review 3, Summer 1957, 13; 1962 Almanac, New York: Greek Diocese of North and South America 1962, 195.
  16. Kallarangattu. J, and Sr. Sophy Rose CMC, Deivasastrathinu Oru Amugham OIRSI 188, Kottayam 1996, 22-24.
  17. This approach in theology is seen also in some of the protestant churches. In this juridical understanding Christ fulfills the law in place of sinners and taking upon himself it’s just penalty in their behalf. See, Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith – A Matter of Death and Life, Philadelphia 1982, 43
  18. Hymns on Virginity, 20, 12. Jacob of Serugh is more clear in explaining this theme: “The Father made the sign, and the Son created and the spirit perfected And the world came up in a Trinitarian way from nothing” cfr. Homilae selectae Mar Jacobi Sarugensis, Vol III ed. P. Bedjan, Paris Leipzig 1905, 13, 15-16.
  19. Athanasius, Contra Arianos, I, 20; PG 26, 55A.
  20. Meyendorff J, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes, New York 1983, 130.
  21. Ibid, 138.
  22. Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Virginity, 20, 12; 9, 2; Hymns on Paradise, 5, 2.
  23. Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Paradise, 5, 2; Hymns on Faith 4, 9; 35, 1; 45, 1; Hymns on Virginity, 1, 3-5; 8, 3. Brock S, The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, Michigan 1992, 53-60.
  24. Homilae selectae Mar Jacobi Sarugensis, Vol III, ed. P. Bedjan, Paris Leipzig 1905, 52, 6-11; V, 369, 2 .
  25. Ibid, IV. 553, 20.
  26. Saint Ephrem, Hymns on Virginity, 29, 1-2; Hymns on Paradise, 5, 2.
  27. Saint Ephrem explains further: “While I live I will praise, and not as if I had no existence; I will give praise during my life time, and will not be as someone dead among the living. For the man who stands idle is doubly dead, The earth that fails to produce defrauds him who tills it” (Nisibian Hymns. 50, 1).
  28. Nissibian Hymns, 28, 8; 69, 1-2; Hymns on Faith, 67, 19; 80, 3. A detailed study of this theme is in Bou Mansour. T, “La liberté chez saint Ephrem le syrien”, Parole de l’Orient, 11, 1983, 89-156; 12, 1984, 3-89. Cfr. Paikkatt Mathew, Life Glory and Salvation in the Writings of Mar Aprem of Nisibis, OIRSI 245, Kottayam 200,1 29-33.
  29. Paikkatt Mathew, ibid, 24-35.
  30. Saint Ephrem, Nisibian Hymns, 38, 8-9; Hymns on Church 47, 9-11. Aphrahat also refers to this theme; Demonstrations 22, 7; cfr. Patrologia Syriaca I, 797; Pierre. M. J, Aphraate le Sage Persan, II, P. 736. no. 15.
  31. “The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once and for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image (of God)” St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54
  32. John of Damascus taught: “the expression according to the image indicates rationality and freedom, while the expression according to the likeness indicates assimilation to God through virtue”, On the Orthodox Faith, II, 12 (PG 94, 920b). T. Ware argues that the image means that “we are God’s ‘offspring’ (Acts 17, 28), His kin; it means that between us and Him there is point of contact, an essential similarity”, He continues that the image, then, refers to that aspect God placed in people from the beginning. Likeness, on the other hand, is a goal toward which they must aim. He concludes, “However sinful a man may be, he never loses the image; but the likeness depends upon our moral choice, upon our ‘virtue’. And so it is destroyed by sin”. The Orthodox Church, England 1963, 224.
  33. The Orthodox Church follows this teaching of Iranaeus who believed that “Adam was a child, not yet having his understanding perfected. It was necessary that he should grow and so come to his perfection”. Iranaeus, Demonstrations of the Apostolic Preaching, 12 quoted in J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 4th ed., London 1968, 171.
  34. Lossky V, Mystical Theology, 69-70.
  35. Lossky. V, Mystical Theology, 73.
  36. Vladmir Lossky uses this imagery to explain the possibility and nature of mystical union of man with the Triune God. ibid, 74.
  37. The Orthodox Oriental theology call this ‘synergism’ – joining of two energies. Cfr. T. Ware, ibid, 251. Orthodox theology reject any doctrine of grace that might infringe on man’s freedom. Man cannot achieve full fellowship with God without God’s help; yet he must also play his part. The path to deification includes asceticism, prayer, contemplation and good works. In this process they also believe in the help of B. V. Mary, saints, relics, icons etc. Cfr. Negrut Paul, “Searching for the True Apostolic Church: What Evangelicals should know about Eastern Orthodoxy”, Christian Research Journal, 20, 3, 1998.
  38. Tsirpanlis. C, The Mystical Theology of Eastern Church, London 1973, 69-70. The Orthodox stresses the importance of sacraments and teaches that they are the means of deification. A. Coniaris says: “He who was visible as our Redeemer has now passed into the sacraments… The sacraments are the way to Theosis”. Cfr. Coniaris. A, Introducing the Orthodox Church: Its Faith and Life, Minneapolis 1982, 123. So they come to the conclusion that the salvation is possible only in the church and Meyendorff concludes that “the Church and the sacraments are the way to God, for the Church is in absolute reality the Body of Christ” Meyendorff. J, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, Crestwood, N Y 1974, 140.
  39. cfr. Brock. S, Luminous Eye, 85-108. “The Mysteries Hidden in the Side of Christ” Sobornost 11 (1978) 464-472 (Reprinted in Syrian Churches Series XIII, ed. J. Vellian, Kottayam 1972, 62-72.
  40. Cfr. Lossky V., Mystical Theology, 158. Quoted in Kallarangattu J & Sr Sophy Rose CMC, ibid, 267.
  41. Kallarangattu. J & Sr Sophy Rose CMC, ibid, 76-78.
  42. Kallarangattu. J & Sr Sophy Rose CMC, ibid, 83-84; 279-284,
  43. Kallarangattu. J & Sr Sophy Rose CMC,   ibid, 260, 276; A. Thottakkara CMI, ed., East Syrian Spirituality, Bangalore 1990, 83-88,
  44. Murray. R, “Recent Studies in Early Symbolic Theology”, The Heythrop Journal, 6.4, 1965, 412-433. Brock. S, Ibid 53-59.
  45. Brock. S, Luminous Eye, 53-59.
  46. Cfr. Aho Shemunkasho, Healing in the Theology of Saint Ephrem, NJ 2004.
  47. Brock. S, “The Mysteries Hidden in the Side of Christ”, Sobornost, 11, 1978, 464-472 (Reprinted in Syrian Churches Series XIII, ed. J. Vellian, Kottayam 1972, 62-72.
  48. cfr. Murray. R, “The Lance which Re-opened Paradise: a Mysterious Reading in the Early Syrian Fathers”, OCP 39,1973, 224-234.
  49. cfr. Kallarangattu. J & & Sr Sophy Rose CMC, Ibid, 65-66; 280-281.
  50. Kallarangattu. J & & Sr Sophy Rose CMC, ibid, 67, 280-282.
  51. Ware. T., The Orthodox Church, England 1963, 9-16.
  52. Lossky. V, In the Image and Likeness of God, ed. J.H. Erickson (Crestwood, NY 1985) 13. “The negative way of the knowledge of God is an ascendant undertaking of the mind that progressively eliminates all positive attributes of the object it wishes to attain, in order to culminate finally in a kind of apprehension by supreme ignorance of Him who cannot be an object of Knowledge”.
  53. Bishop Maximus Aghiorgoussis, “East Meets West: Gifts of the Eastern Tradition to the Whole Church”, St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37, 1993, 4.
  54. ibid; cfr, Lossky. V, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, NY 1997.
  55. Pseudo-Dionysius is said to be the father of the Apophatism which pointing to Moses’ ascent on the Mount in order to meet God. Pseudo-Dionysius, The Mystical Theology, 13 1000C-1001A In the Complete Works. Tr. C. Luibheid, London 1987, 136-137.
  56. So Athanasius makes a statement on Incarnation: “God became man that we might be made God”, Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54.
  57. N. Zernov, The Russian and their Church, London 1972, 112.
  58. Gordon S. Wakefield, ed. A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, Bungay 1989, 204-205
  59. Saint Ephrem, Commentary on Genesis, II, 4
  60. Saint Ephrem, Nisibian Hymns, 50, 1
  61. Podipara J. Podipara. CMI, Mariology of the East, Kottayam 1980, 19-20; 22-27.
  62. Quoting the Marian theological concepts of the Nestorian church Fr Placid. J. Podipara explains this. See ibid 21, cited by Jugie M., Theologia Dogmatica Cristianorum Orientalium ab Ecclesia catholica Dissidentium, V, Paris 1935, 68-69.
  63. Podipara J. Podipara, ibid, 21-22. Quoted from Giamil S, Genuinae Relationes inter Sedem Apostolicam et Assyriorum Orientalium seu Chaldaeorum Ecclesiam, Roma 1902, Documentum II.
  64. Placid J. Podipara, ibid, 23-24.
  65. Placid J. Podipara, ibid, 25-27
  66. Naluparayil. J., ed. Mathrutheerthangalil, Cochin 2003, 285.

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