ETHIOPIAN HERESIES AND THEOLOGICAL CONTROVERSIES
Although isolated from the Christian world until the twentieth century, Ethiopia has had knowledge, and even followers, of the major heresies that caused schism and created ecclesiastical minorities in the early history of the Christian church. A letter from the emperor Constantius II (337-361) (Athanasius,1857, cols. 636-37) shows a reasonable line of communication between Ethiopia and the outside world. The Arian emperor wrote to the rulers of Ethiopia to demand that Frumentius, or Abuna Salama I (cf. ETHIOPIAN PRELATES), the first metropolitan bishop of Ethiopia, be sent to Egypt to be instructed in the Arian faith by Gregory, who was made patriarch of Alexandria when Saint ATHANASIUS (326-373), the legitimate patriarch, was in forced exile because of his refusal to embrace Arianism. Constantius thought that Athanasius himself was hiding in Ethiopia.
Church history during the reign of the Zagwe dynasty (1137-1270) and the period preceding it is too sketchy to include the controversies, since the parties involved destroyed each other’s evidence. A scholar, Giyorgis of Sagla, who died around 1420, has left a voluminous work, Masehafa Mestir (The Book of the Mystery), refuting heresies such as those of ORIGEN, ARIUS, EUTYCHES, Bitu (a local theologian), and NESTORIUS, and even the religion of Islam. The heresies refuted must have had relevance to Ethiopia. Indications are that practices by Christians, such as celebrating certain religious holy days in the form of orgy, taking advice from sorcerers, or praying with magic words, created conflict in the church. However, this treatise deals with conflicts of Christological or theological importance.
The earliest recorded heresy of the Ethiopian church stemmed from the extreme reverence accorded the icon of the Madonna and Child and the cross by the established church. Sources do not name leaders or state whether the objection was related to the ICONOCLASM of the eighth and ninth centuries in the Mediterranean world. In Ethiopia it started during the reign of Yagbe’a Seyon (1285-1294), when a group of clergy maintained that the icon was mere slate and the cross a mere piece of wood from Golgotha. These dissidents created great schism in the church.
Since Ethiopian leaders suppressed dissidence, another such movement did not appear in the records until the fifteenth century. At this time a monk named Estifanos (Stephen) from the Monastery of Qwayyasa in Tigre questioned the worship of icons, crosses, and worldly rulers, especially the monarch. It is not clear whether the movement was a continuation of the earlier one or not. At first Estifanos’ criticism was directed against lax ascetic rules in monasteries. His defiance of established monastic life and his decision to establish his own monastery attracted many who preferred strict asceticism and was a threat to the church. Failing to dissuade Estifanos from his views, the authorities brought him before the royal court with accusations of disobedience.
His experience at court strengthened his position, since the king expected his subjects to prostrate themselves whenever they saw him or heard his name mentioned, even in his absence. Estifanos and his followers held that Christians should prostrate themselves only before God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
It was during the reign of Zara Ya‘qob (1434-1468) that the Blessed Virgin was worshiped through her icon. Many miracles that she worked in Spain, France, Italy, Syria, and Egypt were translated into Ge‘ez, the church language of Ethiopia. At that time, the rule from Mu‘allaqa, Masehafa ser‘at, ordaining thirty-three holidays in honor of the Virgin, was brought to Ethiopia. The Estifanosites honored her as the Mother of God, but they considered the reverence the king demanded for the icon, the cross, and himself excessive.
They suffered severe persecution, including mass arrest, execution, amputation (especially of hands and tongues), and isolation. Metropolitans Mika’el III (Michael) and Gabre’el (Gabriel), both of whom lived near the middle of the fifteenth century, were sympathetic, but the political leaders were concerned with unity of the nation through conformity. Little more is known about the Estifanosites before the war with Grann (1527-1543), but their center, the Monastery of Dabra Garzen, in Tigre, is still an important holy place of Ethiopia. Although its monks still revere their founding father, the monastery has been under the church of Ethiopia since the middle of the sixteenth century.
Probably since its beginning, the Ethiopian church has observed Saturday as the first Sabbath and Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. As one of the Ten Commandments, the observance of Saturday Sabbath should be practiced by any people whose book is the Bible, they believed. Furthermore, the Synodicon, one of the canonical works of the Ethiopian church, states that Peter and Paul directed that these two days be observed as holy days. During the reign of ‘Amda Seyon (1314-1344) a controversy arose on the question of observing the Jewish Sabbath. The Coptic church in Egypt had objected to Jewish customs practiced by Ethiopian Christians and decreed the abolition of Saturday observance. Abolishing an ages- old religious custom was, however, difficult, although the decree had come from spiritual and political authorities. The choice in the monasteries was to obey temporal authorities or to follow the Scriptures.
Ewostatewos (Eustathius), a highly revered monk, led the opposition. His appeal in person to the patriarch in Cairo did not bring results. His followers at home withdrew from the church to live in organizations strictly controlled by the leadership. Some attempted to convert the Falasha, who are called Jews and who are an Ethiopian community, and who, judging from their literature, confuse Judaism and Christianity. When Zar’a Ya‘qob ascended the throne, he decided to end the controversy. Before that time, he himself did not keep the Sabbath, but he saw no harm in allowing Christians to observe Saturday if that could unify his kingdom.
At the famous Council of Dabra Metmaq (1450), or Dayr al-Maghtas, the king questioned metropolitans Michael and Gabriel about the grounds for abolishing the first Sabbath: they were not found in the Scriptures, in the Octateuch, in the books of the Prophets, in the Gospels, or in the writings of the apostles. He reminded them that Peter and Paul, the head of the apostles, handed down their reckoning in the Synodicon, that being to work for five days and not to perform any work on Saturday and Sunday. The metropolitans reversed the decree of their predecessors Salama II (1348-1388) and Bartalomewos (1398-1436), and abandoned the position decreed by the church in Egypt. In the Ethiopian church, observance of the two Sabbaths starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Sunday.
The writings of the emperor Zar’a Ya‘qob (1434-1468) refer to scholars who objected to his religious views. The most serious controversy dealt with the unity and trinity of God. Since Dawit (1382-1413), or even before, the church had taught that each Person in the Trinity has an image resembling man, who was created according to the image of God (Gn. 1:27). Sources maintain that when the Son was incarnated, he appeared as before the Incarnation and that after his Resurrection he sat on the right side of his Father in the same image. For the Last Judgment the Son will join the Father and the Holy Spirit, each one appearing to all nations in his human-divine image. Zar’a Ya‘qob compared the unity and trinity of God with three suns whose lights are united when they appear side by side, three suns (persons) with one light (divinity).
The opponents of this view, the Zamika’elites, so called after Zamika’el, an articulate monastic leader, proposed instead, as Fre Makhebar did, one sun with a disk (God the Father), light (God the Son), and heat (God the Holy Spirit). Furthermore, the Zamika’elites rejected the view that the Father and the Holy Spirit will appear with the Son at his second coming. They opposed the emperor’s promotion of translated and newly composed versions of the miracles of the Blessed Virgin and opposed the dedication of so many days to her. They also disagreed with the constitution of the canonical books of the church.
Controversy Concerning the Preexistence of Souls
During the reign of Galawdewos (1540-1559), after the war with Grann, there arose a group who taught that there is a store for the supply of souls. According to its views, when a child is conceived, a soul is infused into the embryo; only the body descends from parents to child. The controversy may have been related to the teachings of Origen, but sources make no mention of other groups espousing this variety of Neoplatonism before this time. It does not seem to have made a lasting impression in Ethiopia.
The Jesuits and the Controversy Concerning the Unction of
This was a more lasting controversy, also started during the reign of Galawdewos. When Islamic pressure threatened the extinction of Christianity in Ethiopia, the rulers of Ethiopia turned to Portugal for help. The Portuguese responded favorably, believing that the Ethiopian church would come under the sway of the Roman Catholic church when the war ended. Emperor Galawdewos, seeing no other way to save his country, favored such a religious alliance. The Portuguese, who fought the enemies of his country and the church, proved the importance of such an alliance. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian clergy was firmly committed to Alexandria. The Portuguese were finally either dismissed from the country or settled in a non-Christian region.
The desire of the Catholic church to have the Ethiopian church submit to the authority of the Roman pope has a long history, beginning with Pope Julius III (1487-1555), or even before. Jesuit missionaries finally succeeded in converting Emperor Zadengel (1603-1604). The impact of royal conversion was greater when Emperor Suseneyos (1607-1632) officially embraced Catholicism and issued a decree that his subjects follow. The arrival of Alfonso Mendez, the Catholic patriarch, in Ethiopia and his decree that the people abandon their religious culture and adopt the Latin rite caused social unrest and disruption. Metropolitan Se‘mon (Simon or Simeon) was among thousands martyred in witness to the Alexandrian faith.
Stiff resistance and the fact that the king had suffered a stroke caused him to abdicate in favor of his son Fasiladas (1632-1667). Thereafter, the Catholics left, leaving behind a theological controversy that gave a local color to Catholicism in Ethiopia and to the teaching of the two natures in Christ. This expresses itself in the theological meaning of qeb’at, or unction (Acts 10:38), and bakwr, or first-born (Rom. 8:29), when applied to Jesus, the Christ, or Messiah (masih) who is the only Son of God. Raising these questions was meant to show to the Monophysites the inferior human nature of Christ compared to his divine nature.
The controversy divided the local church into three sects: (1) the Unionists, or Tawahedo; (2) the Unctionists, or Qebatocc; and (3) the Adoptionists, or Saggocc or Ya-Sagga Lejocc. The Tawahedo taught that “by the union [of the two natures, Christ] became the Only Son of God and, by the anointment, he became King, Messiah, Prophet, and Priest.” The Qebatocc believe that God the Father is the anointer; God the Son, the anointed; and God the Holy Spirit, the ointment. For a time they interpreted “He made himself poor” (2 Cor. 8:9) to mean that Christ at a given time was solely human. Through unction or the anointing of the Holy Spirit, he became a natural Son, this time in his humanity as well. The Saggocc, claiming to be successors of the Tawahedo (as did all these schools) of the Monastery of Dabra Libanos, accept “the only Son by union” of the Tawahedo.
In interpreting this formula and in an effort to explain the place of the human flesh of the Word Incarnate in his Sonship, they teach a third birth for Christ—after the eternal birth from the Father and the temporal birth from the Blessed Virgin—at which time, in his humanity, he was adopted as the Son of God by the unction of the Holy Spirit. In opposition to this pro-Nestorian heresy or crypto-Catholicism, the Tawahedo (later called Karrocc after Karra, the leader of the movement) developed their formula of faith, which recognized Christ as the natural son of God by the union of his humanity and divinity. In answer to the inferior role they thought the other schools gave to the Son in the process of unction, they developed the formula wald qeb’ (the Son is the ointment). In this, Christ actually becomes “the anointer, the anointed, and the ointment.” Together with the Qebatocc, the Karrocc reject the Saggocc’s idea of speaking about Christ’s divinity and humanity separately, because after the union of the two natures there is only one Christ of one nature.
The Qebatocc, who occasionally held the political upper hand during the Gonderite dynasty, are now disappearing. The Saggocc were influential in Shewa until the late nineteenth century, but lost ground at the Council of Boru Meda (Wallo), which was summoned by Emperor Yohannes IV (1872-1889), a Tawahedo zealot, to decide the number of births of Christ. The decision against the Saggocc was made after a letter from the Coptic patriarch CYRIL V (1874-1927) was read, although the translation of the Arabic into Ge‘ez was questioned. Another important theological decision made by this council was that the sentence “Worship and prostration are meet to her [Mary] together with her Son” be changed to “Worship and prostration are meet to her Son.”
The Karrocc and the Saggocc have both contributed something toward widening their differences, the Karrocc accusing the Saggocc of Nestorianism and the Saggocc accusing the Karrocc of Eutychianism. Today the number of the Qebatocc and Saggocc is insignificant.
- Athanasius. Ad imperatorem Constantium apologia. In PG 25, cols. 595-642. Paris, 1857.
- Cerulli, E. Il libro etiopico dei miracoli di Maria e le sue fonti nelle letterature del Medio Evo latino. Rome, 1943.
- ___. Scritti teologici etiopici dei secoli XVI-XVII. Studi e testi 198. Rome, 1958.
- Crummey, D. Priests and Politicians: Protestant and Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia, 1830-1868. Oxford, 1972. Dillmann, A. Über die Regierung, insbesondere die Kirchenordnung des Königs Zar’a-Jacob. Abhandlungen der Königlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Philosophisch- historische Klasse 2. Berlin, 1885.
- Getatchew Haile. “The Letter of Archbishops Mika’el and Gäbr’el Concerning the Observance of Saturday.” Journal of Semitic Studies 16, ser. 1 (1981):73-78.
- . “Religious Controversies and the Growth of Ethiopic Literature in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries.” Oriens Christianus 65 (1981):102-136.
- ___. “The Homily of Ase Zär’a Ya‘qob of Ethiopia in Honour of Saturday.” Orientalia Lovaniensia Periodica 13 (1982):185-231.
- ___. “The Homily of Zär’a Ya‘qob in Honour of St. John the Evangelist.” Oriens Christianus 67 (1983):144-66.
- ___. “The Cause of the Estifanosites: A Fundamentalist Sect in the Church of Ethiopia.” Paideuma 19 (1983):93-119.
- Giyorgis of Sagla. Masehafa Mestir. Unedited; see, for example, Eth. MS 113, H. Zotenberg, Catalogue des manuscrits ethiopiens (Gheez et Amharique de la Bibliothèque Nationale), pp. 127-31. Paris, 1877.
- Guidi, I. “Di due frammenti relativi alla storia di Abissinia.” Rendiconti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Classe di scienze morali 2 (1893):579-605.
- Hammerschmidt, E. Stellung und Bedeutung des Sabbats in Äthiopien. Stuttgart, 1963.
- Heyer, F. Die Kirche Äthiopiens: Eine Bestandsaufnahme. Berlin and New York, 1971.
- Murad Kamil. “Letters to Ethiopia from the Coptic Patriarchs Yo’annas XVIII (1770-1796) and Morqos VIII (1796-1809).” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 8 (1942):89-143.
- Rossini, C. and L. Ricci. Il libro della luce del Negus Zar’a Yaqob (Mashafa Berhan). In CSCO 250-51, 261-62, Scriptores Aethiopici 47-48, 51-52. Louvain, 1964-1965.
- Taddesse Tamrat. “Some Notes on the Fifteenth-Century Stephanite ‘Heresy’ in the Ethiopian Church.” Rassegna di studie etiopici 22 (1966):103-115.
- Ullendorff, E. “Hebraic-Jewish Elements in Abyssinian (Monophysite) Christianity.” Journal of Semitic Studies 1 (1956):216-56.
- Wendt, K. “Die theologischen Auseinandersetzungen in der äthiopischen Kirche zur Zeit der Reformen des XV. Jahrhunderts.” Atti del Convegno Internazionale di Studi Etiopici, pp. 137-46. Rome, 1960.
- . Das Mashafa Milad (Liber Nativitatis) und Mashafa Sellase (Liber Trinitatis) des Kaisers Zar’a Ya‘qob. In CSCO 221-222, 235-236, Scriptores Aethiopici 41-44. Louvain, 1962-1963.
- . “Der Kampf um den Kanon Heiliger Schriften in der äthiopischen Kirche der Reformen des XV. Jahrhunderts.” Journal of Semitic Studies 9 (1964):107-113.
- Yacob Beyene. L’unzione di Cristo nella teologia etiopica. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 215. Rome, 1981.