Christians needed to maintain the highest intellectual standards because of the constant competition they faced from other faiths. From the seventh century, Merv (today Turkmenistan) was under Muslim rule, but Christians coexisted with Buddhists, Zoroastrains, and Manichaeans. The city was notorious for producing idiosyncratic blends of different faiths, old and new. Eighth-century Merv was the home of “al-Muqanna”, the Veiled Prophet, who claimed to be God incarnate.
Althought well known to specialists, Merv’s story fits poorly with conventional assumptions about the development of Christianity. In a sense, the tale is both too ancient for our expectations, and too modern. It is too “ancient” in that it involves the survival of a Semitic Christianity into the second millennium. It is too “modern” in its portrayal of Christians living not as the intimate allies of a Christian king but as tolerated minorities; of a church in a multifaith society; and above all, of Asian Christians in a wholly non-European context.
-Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity
I read Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom a very long time ago, so this time I decided to get his book about a “lost Christianity” which was quite prominent for centuries before it sunk into obscurity in the 14th. This is particularly pertinent in the light of contemporary churches going extinct in the Middle East
I am a few dozen pages into this book and I simply can’t put it down. Contrary to the popular narrative that before the Reformation there was but two main churches, i.e. the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox, there was actually a third major church power, the Church of the East, which stretched from the Middle East to India to Central Asia all the way to China itself.
The Church of the East
To get a sense of its prominence, one can consider the year 780 AD when Timothy ascended as the Patriarch of the East (not Eastern Orthodox). Western Europe was collapsing, the Holy Roman Empire was in decline, Vikings and other pagans were ravaging the lands and peoples of Western Christendom.
Meanwhile Timothy was overseeing the missionary efforts and conversion of central Asia and China. He was having frequent discussions with his Muslim Caliph, under whose rule he was under, on the Christian faith in comparison to Islam. Later on he would move his seat from Seleucia to present day Bagdad. From there he presided over the faith of over a quarter of all Christendom, comparable to that of the Roman Pope whose opinions he little regarded or cared for. While Western Christians were fighting off the barbarians, the Church of the East was translating the Bible into Chinese and debating with Buddhist missionaries in India and China.
What is of particular interest to me is firstly, the Church of the East wasn’t allied to any particular civil power. While Rome was, theoretically at least, allied to the Western kings and the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Eastern Orthodox had the Emperor in Constantinople, for most of the life of the Church of the East they were under the Muslim caliphate. The reason is that the Church of the East were Nestorian (they deny that there is a substantial union between the divine and human nature of Christ) having rejected Chalcedon and lost the support of the Eastern Emperor. Thus this is naturally of interest to my ultra low church Christianity as here is a form of Christianity which not only survived and thrived, but had even expanded and evangelised without the sword and mass conversion via temporal rulers and had lived under a non-Christian civil power.
Secondly, the Church of the East also lived in a “multifaith” environment very much like ours. Without secular power or civil favours, they could evangelise only by the pure preaching of the Gospel and their ability to communicate and adapt the Gospel in competition with other faiths. Thus the very fascinating name for Jesus as the “Veiled Prophet”, an attempt to appeal to the Islamic respect for Prophets while communicating in non-offensive terms the incarnation or being “veiled in flesh”. Needless to say, this has a particular relevance to our contemporary multifaith scenario where we find ourselves increasing deprived of the usual support and resources of civil and secular power.
The Church of the East in China and the Reformed East Asians Today
So prominent was the Nestorian Church in China’s intellectual field that when Indian Buddhist monks came to China, they sought out the Nestorian scholars to help translate the Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. Although I sort of wished that they hadn’t, but the Nestorian Christians were too polite and ecumenical, and no doubt also curious, about the Buddhist scriptures and helped them out. One can only imagine the sort of dialogue which went on between them as they went about their task.
I will write a more thorough review when I finish the book, but for now, maybe there is a reason why I have such “Nestorian” instincts, haha… reaching back to the roots of my own race’s encounter with the Christian faith a long time ago when the Nestorians first reached China. If indeed I was inclined to believe in the unity of faith and culture and tradition, then I would rather be Nestorian than Eastern Orthodox, for the Nestorians got to China first.
After all, what indeed are the Calvinist churches of the Far East, but the ghost of the old deceased Nestorian Church of the East, sitting crowned upon the corpse thereof? (Many apologies to Hobbes for mangling his quote!)
Just as the Nestorians of old emphasised the transcendence of God to the exclusion of a substantial unity between the human and divine nature of Christ, likewise do the contemporary East Asian Reformed church today emphasise the transcendence and sovereignty of God in their Extra Calvinisticum, which declares outright that the divine nature of Christ exceeds his human nature, to the very point of a predestinarian fatalism, so congrous to the cultural fatalism of East Asian culture.
One might almost be tempted to say that the dominance of the Reformed Church in the Far East is 天意啊! That indeed the Nestorian Church cannot truly be killed, and no sooner is it suppressed than does God send another body for its spirit to dwell…
The Evils of Constantinianism
However, one also cannot help but note some of the the Evils of Constantinianism and Christendom, to quote Jenkins again:
When Christians traveled beyond the Roman frontier, they had to leave the protection of the empire, but the very fact of imperial power could be a mixed blessing. Already by the third century, Persia had a substantial Christian presence, concentrated in the south of the country, along the Gulf. Once Rome became Christian, the link with that froeign government made life difficult for Christians living under the rule of the rival superpower of the time. (From the third century through the seventh, Persia was ruled by the powerful Sassanian dynasty.) The Persians responded by executing hundreds of bishops and clergy in a persecution at least as murderous as anything ever inflicted by pagan Rome: in the fourth century, the Persians killed sixteen thousand Christian belivers in a forty-year period.
By “establishing” Christianity with a certain particular political or civic power, the Kingdom which is not of this world becomes bogged down with the disputes of this world. Constantinian establishment of Christianity may have meant comforts for Roman Christians, but it meant the destruction and entropy of Christians who did not live under the Roman Empire who suddenly found their faith caught up in worldly politics. It also threatened to narrow the scope of Christianity to that which exists only within the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
Fortunately the Church of the East managed to find a way to detach the Christian faith from Constantinianism and survive under the Islamic Caliphate for centuries.
5 thought on “Christianity in the Far East and the Ancient Church of the East; Some General Thoughts on Christendom”
I do affirm Chalcedon myself, but I always have been interested in the Chinese Nestorians. Unfortunately, I know next to nothing about them.
Philip Jenkins’ book is certainly a good place to start!
Buy for me can or not? 😛
But yeah, I can try to find it.
[…] European. So in that sense, the question of Christendom is intrinsically bound to its history. (The Nestorian Church of the East is an exception to this rule which we shall come back […]
[…] from the Eastern Orthodox Church). I have discussed the Church of the East at some lengths in this post, however I will bring up and explain the salient points in the context of this […]