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"Distinguishing Evangelicals from Paulicians"

By Rev. Barkev Darakjian

[from June 2002 issue of Forum]

The main thesis of this article is that "Armenian Protestantism"1 has no connection whatsoever with the Paulician sect of the Middle Ages, nor does it have any ties with the Tondrakian and New Tondrakian movements (presumably the continuation of the Paulicians) which appeared in the 10th–19th centuries.

It seems that the article on the Paulician movement2 written by my dear friend and colleague Rev. Dr. Krikor Haleblian gives the impression that we Armenian Evangelicals retain all those negative views that the Paulicians held towards the traditional practices of the Armenian Apostolic Church. A careful reader of Rev. Haleblian’s article will notice that the similarities between the Paulician and Armenian Evangelical practices are all in the negatives. Logically, it is not admissible to see similarities between two movements based only on the similarities of the negatives. While the Paulicians were dangerously aggressive in their iconoclastic3 views and activities, Armenian Evangelicals strove to place the true icon of Christ in the hearts of their adherents through preaching and Bible study, thus turning the material pictures into superfluous objects.

Another argument against accepting the Paulicians as our predecessors is that we know almost nothing about their spiritual accomplishments and background, nor the circumstances under which they adhered to their faith. The history of this movement4 tells us about an Armenian named Constantine Mananalis who was a mule-driver. One day, in the year 653 A.D., he took into his home an Assyrian deacon who had just gained his freedom from a Persian prison. After staying some time with Constantine, the deacon gave his host a New Testament to express his gratitude for the warm hospitality he had received. Constantine was a pious person by nature and an eager and honest seeker of truth. He almost devoured this book and was inspired by its life-giving message. Being a muleteer, he preached the word of salvation and the principles of the gospel in the villages he visited. Constantine became the founder of the Paulician movement and its devoted leader for 27 years before he was assassinated. This is all we know about him. His successors were called apostles who established churches (which they called prayer-houses) and won over to their cause hundreds of thousands of people.

We know very little about Paulician theology and beliefs but what we know should be enough for us not to be associated or identified with them. The Paulicians were adoptionist in their Christology, following the teachings of Paul of Samosata, the 3rd century bishop of Antioch who was deposed because he did not believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. He believed that Christ was a creature and not the Creator and was adopted by God the Father at His baptism. Besides being the Son of God, Jesus was for the Paulicians a great teacher, a prophet, and their only mediator towards God the Father. The believers were asked to follow the rules set by Jesus, repent of their sins, be baptized at maturity, and share the Lord’s Table, believing also that the bread and the wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. There is no word in their beliefs about Christ’s atoning death on the cross and expiation for sins.

The Paulicians seem to have been syncretistic in their religion and in the ways they practiced it, having borrowed many aspects of Marcionism, Gnosticisim, Nestorianism, and even of Islam. We must not forget the fact that in the environment where the Paulician movement arose and spread, Christian heretical communities abounded. The Paulicians associated themselves very closely with the Muslims when Armenia and the bordering lands were under Muslim rule. Being themselves iconoclastic, they even waged wars against Christian Byzantium on the side of the Muslims who had their own political and territorial ambitions in the area. The Paulicians proved to be very fierce fighters and during one of the battles, the Emperor was forced to sue for peace but was rejected. They paid a very high price for this, because the next ruler (Empress Regent Theodora) massacred 100,000 of them, thus causing their demise. Beginning in 753, several thousands of them were transferred to the Balkan Peninsula where they continued their missionary work despite the heavy persecutions they incurred at the hands of the Patriarchs in Byzantium.

In the view of a number of historians, including Edward Gibbon, these Paulicians who were transplanted from Armenia became the precursors of the Protestant Reformation in Germany. This view might be plausible if we compare the external appearance of the two, with both of them being iconoclastic and anti-hierarchical. However, if we study the inner motives and the Christocentric emphases of the Protestant reformers, the similarities cease. The reformers’ emphases were the spiritual renovation of the person and the church. Paulicianism, in the view of this writer, is a classic phenomenon of a cult with all its negative implications.

There has been an unfortunate misconception that the intended plan of the pioneers of the Armenian Evangelical movement was to completely eliminate the Armenian Church liturgy and her sacred traditions and make it look like a western Protestant church. The emergence of the Armenian church reform movement happened within the Armenian Apostolic Church and through a number of very devoted members who had no other motives except its renewal from within. Our Evangelical forefathers were not against the Armenian Apostolic Church, the "Mother Church" as they used to call her; neither were they iconoclasts like the Paulicians. Almost all of the reformers were brought up in the Mother Church and were students at the Patriarchal Seminary in Istanbul. The Dean of the Seminary was Krikor Pashtimaljian, a Biblical theologian, historian, and linguist. The Dean and his students used to hold Bible studies regularly after classes to be enlightened and revived spiritually. It was during these long hours with the Bible that the seminarians realized that their Mother Church had been greatly influenced by the liturgical excesses and theological aberrations of the Latin and Byzantine churches.

However, those scholars were more concerned with the spiritual life of the Armenian people at large than the religious and traditional practices of their beloved church. Later, the seminarians were accused of blasphemy and religious opportunism, eventually to be anathematized by the Patriarch of the day. Even then they thought they would be cleared of these charges when a more enlightened Patriarch was elected. Time and again the reformers pledged with their public statements their love and loyalty to the Mother Church and the Armenian nation. Despite all this they were branded as Protestants and were cast out from the church and the Armenian community.

Was there any Protestant influence in this reform movement? Of course, but it was not of a cultic nature. The American missionaries, who acted as midwives5 among the Armenian reformers, had come from New England, having been called to carry the gospel of salvation all over the world. They were well educated and highly motivated by the love of Jesus Christ whom they recognized not as the adopted Son of God, as the Paulicians believed, but the very God, the Lord of Lords, and the only Savior of mankind. Their gospel was not tainted by any cultic views or practices. They were the products and the first generation of the Great Awakening and successive spiritual revivals that had erupted on the American continent.

We can see the great differences in the environments, circumstances, and motives under which the Paulician and Armenian Evangelical movements came into being. National pride has nothing to do with the spiritual needs and orientation of a people. Just as I do not care about the country of origin of a medicine which heals me physically, it is irrelevant to question the country from where the means of my spiritual healing has come. Even though Jesus Christ was Jewish by birth, I do not thank God any less that my Savior was not born an Armenian. No, the Paulicians are not the progenitors of Armenian Evangelicals.

Leon Arpee quotes a former Paulician who recants and confesses during his inquisition by Armenian Church authorities, "Last of all he [a Paulician teacher] told me that Christ is not God, and then I understood the falsity of their faith."6 Another contemporary writer, Professor Levon Khacherian, Ph.D., has this to say about any attempt to associate Paulicianism with the Armenian Evangelical movement or Protestant Reformation in Germany: "Mildly put, such statements are a mere vulgarization of the Reformation and Protestantism and of their basic ideology. Of course, it would have been more praiseworthy if such statements, which uplift our national spirit, had been factual and established by corresponding proofs, source materials, and testimonies."7 n



1 Incidentally, our churches are not Protestant either. Historically, our name is Armenian Evangelical Church—Hayasdanyaytz Avedaranagan Yegeghetzi. The name "Protestant" was imposed by the Sultan on the Society of the Pious, the precursor of the Armenian Evangelical movement, when the members of the Society were denied by the Mother Church their spiritual and civic needs and privileges. Due to the millet system in the Ottoman Empire, there could not be two Armenian millets, and since the Patriarch was the sole representative of the Armenian subjects, the spiritual dissenters had no other choice but to accept the name Protestant milleti. It is unfortunate that even today there are many who call us Poghokagan (Protestant), while our opponents in particular retain the anachronistic view that the Protestants are second-class Armenians because they do not belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church!

2 "The Origins of Armenian Protestantism," Forum 26, no. 1 (March 2002): 7-9.

3 iconoclast = lit., "image breaker", someone hostile to the veneration of icons.

4 Arsen A. Goergizian, Bavghigian-Tondragetzineroo Sharzhoomu Hayasdanyaytz Arakelagan Yegeghetzo Mech (The Paulician-Tondrakian Movement in the Armenian Apostolic Church) (Beirut: Doniguian & Sons, 1970), 37.

5 A term coined by the late Rev. Antranig Bedikian, a patriarch of Armenian Evangelicals and a long-time pastor of the Armenian Evangelical Church of New York.

6 Leon Arpee, A History of Armenian Christianity (New York: Armenian Missionary Association of America, 1946), 119.

7 L. K. Khacherian, Krikor Bahlavuni Magisdros (985-1058) (Los Angeles: 1987), 258.


Rev. Darakjian received his theological education at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut and Loyola University in Chicago. He is an avid reader and student of the history of theology.




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