Theology and Doctrine Scripture and Tradition

Converging trends may also be detected in the fields of theology and doctrine. Here church leaders search for a common Christian, common Orthodox and common Syriac identity. Like the ethnic discussions, the theological dialogues were stimulated by the diaspora situation, where circumstances forced the faithful to cooperate with other churches. As early as 1971, the Syrian Orthodox Church signed a Common Christo-logical Declaration with the Pope, which was reiterated in 1984. The Assyrian Church of the East reached a similar agreement in 1994, a high point in a dialogue that had started in 1984. These Christological declarations, apart from their general ecumenical significance, also allowed the faithful to take part in the other churches' celebrations of the Eucharist on special occasions. In 1994 the Pro Oriente dialogue was initiated, the 'Non-Official Consultation on Dialogue within the Syriac Tradition', building upon the earlier Vienna dialogue between the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Roman Catholic theologians, but now also including the Church of the East. In a series of six meetings up until March 2003, important themes, starting with the Christological debates of the fifth and sixth centuries, followed by the history of the Antiochene exegetical tradition in general, as well as the sacraments in the Syriac churches, were discussed with theologians and clergy of the churches of the Syriac tradition, together with a number of Roman Catholic scholars. These meetings not only added considerably to the mutual understanding within the Syriac tradition, but also fuelled a renewed interest in the theological heritage of these churches both among their own theologians and scholars from outside.

On 20 July 2001, the Chaldean Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East signed a far-reaching agreement on mutual cooperation, not only on the level of the patriarchates, but also on the level of local dioceses and parishes. The leading clergy of both churches expressed the hope that their churches would increasingly work together, not least in the context of Iraq in the early twenty-first century. The Syrian Orthodox Church, like many other Orthodox churches, has been a member of the World Council of Churches since 1960, and in the context of its Faith and Order meetings the relationship between the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches was also reconsidered. A number of theological consultations (between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches in general) in 1991 led to agreements on mutual cooperation between the Eastern Orthodox Church of Antioch and the Syrian Orthodox Church.

The Church of the East participates in the WCC, despite opposition from some of the other Oriental Orthodox churches. This opposition, mainly from Coptic circles, has been particularly painful in the context of the Middle Eastern Council of Churches, which after long negotiations and debates in 1998 yielded to Oriental Orthodox opposition and declined membership to the Assyrian Church of the East. The Syrian Orthodox, the Syrian Catholic and the Chaldean Churches are full members of the MECC.

In the churches of the Syriac tradition, as in other Orthodox churches, women are not admitted to the priesthood. So far, no strong advocacy for such admittance is found within the churches themselves. However, the Syriac traditions have a long tradition of female involvement, especially through the office of the deaconesses. Although the position of deaconess almost disappeared during the second millennium, it has been mainly the Syrian Orthodox Church that has revived this office and encourages women, especially nuns and deaconesses, to be involved in teaching and missionary outreach. Deaconesses also play a liturgical role in the baptism of adult women. Women also often form part of the boards of local parishes, both in the diaspora and the Middle East. An interesting custom in the churches of the Syriac tradition is that of girls' alongside boys' choirs, giving young girls a visible role in the Sunday liturgy.

The Syriac churches are the proud possessors of a rich body of Christian literature, which has been faithfully transmitted through the centuries. Although scholarly research and chance discoveries have added to the traditional body of texts that was cherished within the Syriac churches, in general the scholarly view of Syriac literature through the ages is largely determined by the choices made by successive generations of church scribes and readers. Pending further research into the transmission of Syriac literature in the respective Syriac traditions, the most influential authors and texts within the Syriac churches are largely the same as the important authors that feature in the scholarly histories of Syriac literature.

Although the literary heritage of these churches is divided along denominational lines, some authors and texts are cherished in both traditions. The best example of an author dear to both churches is the fourth-century St Ephrem (d. 373; called Aprem in the Church of the East). To this day his hymns count as the standard for Syriac liturgical poetry, but they have also profoundly influenced the theological concepts of both churches. In various translations, Ephrem's hymns (including hymns later ascribed to him) have also had a lasting effect on Byzantine Orthodox traditions. In the late twentieth century his prose commentaries were rediscovered by Syriac theologians. Other early texts that have strongly influenced popular Christian imagination in all Syriac traditions are the many versions of saints' lives, some of which go back to the earliest days of Syriac Christianity.

Another important element of the common heritage of all Syriac traditions is the early Syriac Bible translation, the Peshitta. In all likelihood, the Old Testament Peshitta dates from the second and early third centuries, whereas most of the New Testament translation is supposed to have originated in the fourth and early fifth centuries. Before the 'separated' Gospel version of the New Testament Peshitta, Tatian's Diatesseron in Syriac was in common use, whereas an older Syriac translation of the separated Gospels is also known. From the earliest centuries, the study of scripture formed a characteristic element of the theological tradition of the Syriac churches, building upon the historically oriented exegetical methods of the Antiochene tradition, but also taking in elements of the Alexandrine allegorical readings. These range from works by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Cyril of Alexandria, translated from Greek in the period of the Christo-logical debate, to thirteenth-century compound works such as the Gannat Bussame, 'Garden of Delights', in the Church of the East, and the work of Gregory Bar cEbroyo in the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East. These later collections are still used in the Syriac churches, in addition to texts by some of the earlier authors such as Jacob of Edessa (d. 708) and Dionysius bar Salibi (d. 1171) in the Syrian Orthodox Church, and Ishocdad of Merw (ninth century) in the Church of the East. Today it is mainly within the context of the liturgy that scripture reading and reflection are part of the larger Syriac spirituality. Regular reading of the Bible (through the lectionaries of the Old Testament and the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostolic Letters, and the Gospels, respectively) make up an important part of the Sunday liturgies, as does the Psalter in the weekday services. In addition, homilies and hymns introduce the faithful to the possible interpretations of the text. As in most other Christian traditions, biblical stories play an important role in children's education.

One of the most interesting and so far underestimated sources for Syriac theology is the hymns. Ephrem and Narsai (d. 502/3), later authors such as Jacob of Sarug (d. 521) of the Syrian Orthodox Church and Giwargis Warda of Arbela and Khamis bar Qardahe (both thirteenth century) of the Church of the East, have enriched Syriac theology by their large variety of hymns, many of which were included in the liturgy. In the Ottoman period, when theological reflection was at a low ebb, East Syrian authors such as cAttaya bar Athli (sixteenth century), Sulaqa's successor patriarch cAbdishoc of Gazarta (d. 1571), and the priests Israel of Alqosh and Yosep of Telkepe (seventeenth century) continued to write hymns, thus transmitting the classical heritage to future generations. Today, too, many theologians (including patriarchs and bishops) find hymns the most appropriate way of expressing and elucidating the mysteries of the faith.

Of the authors who continue to influence Syrian Orthodox theology, the names of Severus of Antioch (d. 538), Philoxenus of Mabbug (d. 523), Moses bar Kepha (d. 903), and Michael the Great (d. 1199) should be mentioned, alongside the already mentioned Jacob of Sarug, Jacob of Edessa, and Gregory Bar cEbroyo. In the Church of the East, a similar list would include the works of Bawai the Great (d. 628), Eliya of Anbar (tenth century), Yohannan bar Zocbi (thirteenth century), and the already mentioned Ishocdad of Merw and cAwdishoc bar Brikha of Nisibis. cAwdishoc's extensive works summarized the East Syrian theology and canonical history of his day and have not been surpassed. The early works by Theodore of Mopsuestia have also been rediscovered by theologians of the Church of the East. Within the Chaldean Church the heritage of authors writing in Arabic has been better preserved. This applies not only to the works of the Chaldean patriarch Yosep II of Telkepe (d. 1712), perhaps the first 'modern' theologian of the Syriac churches, but also to earlier works such as those of Eliya bar Sinnaya of Nisibis (975-1094) and Abu al-Faraj ibn al-Tayyib (d. 1043). The Syrian Orthodox philosopher Yahya ibn 'AdI (d. 9 74), remains o ne of the most popular Arabic Christian authors. At several places in the Middle East, the Arabic and Syriac theological heritage is given serious attention in series and journals, such as Al-Turath alArabi al-Masihi in Aleppo, the Journal of the Syriac Academy in Baghdad, and in the work published by the Centre for Arab-Christian Documentation and Research in Beirut.

Theological education and training takes place in a number of institutions in the Middle East, for instance in the Syrian Orthodox Seminary in Macarat Saydnaya (Syria) and the Chaldean Patriarchal Seminary in Baghdad. In addition, unive rsities and seminaries in Lebanon cater for students of different Syriac denominations. Many students go to the West for advanced training. Rome is one of the most popular destinations, but Syriac students can be found at most institutions that have a specialist in Syriac or Christian Arabic studies, for example, in Washington DC and Oxford as well as several universities in Germany and the Netherlands.

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