The term “Oriental Orthodox churches” is now generally used to describe a group of six ancient eastern churches. Although they are in communion with one another, each is fully independent and possesses many distinctive traditions.
The common element among these churches is their rejection of the christological definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451), which asserted that Christ is one person in two natures, undivided and unconfused. For them, to say that Christ has two natures was to overemphasize the duality in Christ and to compromise the unity of his person. Yet they reject the classical monophysite position of Eutyches, who held that Christ’s humanity was absorbed into his single divine nature. They prefer the formula of St. Cyril of Alexandria, who spoke of “the one incarnate nature of the Word of God”
During the period following Chalcedon, those who rejected the council’s teaching made up a significant portion of the Christians in the Byzantine Empire. Today, however, they are greatly reduced in number. Some of these churches have existed for centuries in areas where there is a non-Christian majority, and more recently others have suffered from many decades of persecution by communist governments.
Because they denied Chalcedon’s definition of two natures in Christ, these Christians have often erroneously been called “monophysites,” from the Greek word meaning “one nature.” The group has also been referred to as “the Lesser Eastern churches,” “the Ancient Oriental churches,” “the Non-Chalcedonian churches,” or “the Pre-Chalcedonian churches.” Today it is widely recognized by theologians and church leaders on both sides that the christological differences between the Oriental Orthodox and those who accepted Chalcedon were only verbal, and that in fact both parties profess the same faith in Christ using different formulas.