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"The Origins of Armenian Protestantism"

By Rev. Dr. Krikor Haleblian

[from the March 2002 issue of Forum]


Many Armenians (including Evangelicals) seem to wrongly assume that Armenian Protestantism began some 150 years ago in Constantinople through the help of foreign missionaries. In what follows I want to bring to the attention of the reader that Protestantism among Armenians is very old, and in fact so old that it antedates the 16th century Protestant Reformation in Europe. All of the information that I will quote comes to us from Armenian Apostolic fathers who considered religious ideas outside the teaching of the Apostolic Church heretical. Thus we have to accept their opinion with a grain of salt. These so-called "heretical groups" who espoused Protestant ideas were known by their enemies by the name of Mtsghne, Paulicians, Tondrakians, and New Tondrakians.

We know very little about these religious groups except through the writings of their opponents. The earliest mention of the name "Mtsghne" comes to us from the Canons of the Council of Shahapivan held in 447. The canons essentially warn the Armenian believers to avoid these people and prescribe the punishment for those who harbor them. We have no further reference and scholars are left to speculate about the origin and nature of the group in question.

We know a little more about the sect of the Paulicians, for we have a number of tracts written against them. Evidently this group flourished in the 8th century, and the name of the group, scholars speculate, is derived from a certain man named Paul. The Tondrakians, however, were either a continuation of the Paulicians or a new movement, but we know that they were named after the village of Tondrak, and the earliest mention of the name comes to us from the 10th century. The so-called "New Tondrakians" appeared early in the 19th century, just before the Armenian Evangelical Movement in 1846. We do not know for sure if they were indeed the followers of the 10th century Tondrakians. Because many of their tenets are similar to the teachings of the Protestant Reformation, some have argued that they were influenced by the Baptists or some other western denomination.

Here are some of the statements made about these groups by the Armenian church fathers. In his tract entitled Against the Paulicians, Hovhannes Otsnetsi (ca. 650-728) gives the following details about the Paulician sect:

1. They dare to despise us and our orthodox "God-revealed" religion.

2. They consider our worship of the holy sign (the cross) to be idolatry.

3. They consider the worship of holy pictures abominable.

4. They do not accept our form of worship but pretend before others that there is no difference between them and us.

5. They lead astray the simple in faith and try to win them over.

6. They were reprimanded by Catholicos Nerses (5th century) and eventually withdrew into hiding and joined the iconoclasts of Albania.

Krikor Naregatsi (ca. 945-1003) gives us a summary of the doctrines of the Tondraketsis in his Letter to the Abbot of Kchaw Concerning the Refutation of the Accursed Tondrakians. Among other accusations he lists the following:

1. They deny our ordination, which the apostles received from Christ.

2. They deny the Holy Communion as the true body and blood of Christ.

3. They deny our Baptism as being mere bath water.

4. They consider Sunday as on a level with other days.

5. They refuse genuflection.

6. They deny the veneration of the cross.

7. They ordain each other and thus follow self-conferred priesthood.

8. They do not accept marriage as a sacrament.

9. They reject the madagh (ceremonial slaughter of an animal followed by a memorial meal which is shared with the poor)as being a Jewish practice.

10. They are sexually promiscuous. (This is a standard accusation to demonize them and discourage others from joining the sect.)

In another work of Krikor Naregatsi entitled Discourse Concerning the Church Against the Manichaeans Who Are Paulicians, we find a forceful defense of the "visible church" which the Tondrankians had rejected saying that the church is merely the gathering of the faithful. Furthermore, we also have Paul of Taron's testimony that the Tondrakians had "declared cross and church to be alien to the Godhead, nor permitted the sacrifice [badarak] to be offered for those who slept in Christ."

In the late 19th century, an important manuscript was discovered at the Etchmiadzin library by F. C. Conybeare, bearing the title The Key of Truth. Many scholars, having carefully studied this text, concluded that this was a very ancient religious manual belonging to the Paulicians of the 8th century. This manual was evidently confiscated by Armenian Church authorities in 1837 from a group of Armenians who evidently were followers of the Tondrakian sect. Some of the essential points with strong Protestant leanings found in The Key of Truth are:

1. The moral law, as given to Moses in the Decalogue, should be obeyed, but no trust should be reposed in external rites and observances.

2. Making the sign of the cross and genuflection is superfluous.

3. Pilgrimage to Etchmiadzin and Jerusalem and the keeping of fasts are human inventions and unnecessary.

4. The worship of crosses and pictures of saints is idolatry.

5. The sacrifice of the mass is a lie, and the elements of the communion are not the body and blood of Christ, but ordinary bread and wine.

6. The baptism and muron or holy ointment of the orthodox churches are false and only the mark of the Beast on the forehead; a handful of water is all that is necessary for the administration of Christian baptism.

7. A priest should not be called "Lord, Lord," but only a clergyman (literally "a man of orders"), for God alone is Lord.

8. Confession to a priest is of no profit for the forgiveness of sins; the penitent should confess his sins to God alone; saints cannot intercede for us.

These examples should suffice to show that Protestant ideas are very old among Armenians. These "heretical" ideas originating in Armenia were transported to many European countries by the followers of the above named sects who were fiercely persecuted by Armenian Apostolic leaders. As Conybeare has observed in his introduction to The Key of Truth, "The idea of a church without priests and sacraments, of a mysticism wherein the individual soul communes directly with God without such supports, was assuredly alien to the dark ages in which the Paulicians flourished, and was barely to be found in any age before our own."

This thesis, indeed, has far reaching implications. It means that the European Protestant Reformation of the 16th century was perhaps precipitated by the Armenians, a point defended by Charles Vertanes in his article entitled, "The Rise of the Paulician Movement in Armenia and its Impact on Medieval Europe" (Journal of Armenian Studies, Vol. 2, 1985-1986, pp. 3-26). Furthermore, this means that many Armenians, far from the notion that they changed their faith in the mid-19th century, were Protestants all along.

For a more detailed study of Armenian heretical sects, see Nina G. Garsoian, The Paulician Heresy: A Study of the Origin and Development of Paulicianism in Armenia and the Eastern Provinces of the Byzantine Empire (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1967).

 

Rev. Krikor Haleblian, Ph.D., is the founding pastor of St. Nareg Armenian Church in Montebello, Calif. He is also an adjunct professor offering courses on the Armenian Church at Fuller Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

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