Lately I have been reading The Church of the East: A Concise History and have learned a lot from it. I would like to jot down some random notes and observations on this book.
A Christendom Greater than Europe; The Height of the Assyrian Church of the East
During the 43-year catholicate of Timotheos I, the Church of the East claimed tens of millions of adherents in 230 dioceses with twenty-seven metropolitans. In a letter to the monks of the monastery of Mar Maron, the patriarch affirmed the Church of the East’s understanding of “orthodoxy”: “For us the word of orthodoxy has remained correct and unchanged, and we would never have contradicted our creed by embellishing or diminishing the pearl of truth which the holy apostle preserved in this region of the East. Where you are, however, Christian heretics reign. Whether Christians or heretics, those who enjoyed the sympathies of the rulers of the time induced the priests and the faithful to conform. Because of this, there have been additions to and excisions from the creed in your area. That which Constantine the Great confirmed, his successors have cast off and rejected.” Statements such as this make clear that the development of Christianity proceeded from more than one center and cannot be understood as a “top-down” movement of the“imperial church.”
If you consider the fact that the Assyrian Church of the East did not have the civic supports of Christian emperors and rulers, and that they were always under constant danger of random Islamic suppression, that they managed to build a church stretching from Egypt to China of over tens of millions is an incredible feat.
To get some sense of context, when Timotheos I reigned in the 9th century, the Roman Empire was collapsing from the weight of various barbarian invasions, the numbers of the Latin Church were smaller than the Nestorians, confined mostly to Europe. Timotheos on the other hand was overseeing the missionary efforts of his own church in China.
However, as tempted as I might be to romanticise the Assyrian Church, they were not Proto-Protestants who have learned to lived underground and under the radar of the civil authorities. They played a very dangerous game of manipulating their non-Christian civil rulers, whether it is the Islamic caliphate or the Chinese emperor, whether with their superior academic knowledge, skills in medicine or administration and sometimes even with money, in order to secure their church’s wellbeing and sometimes even very survival. Eventually when the Assyrian Christians lost the game, they collapsed and were brutally suppressed, today their church is but a shell of their former glory.
If European Christendom lasted longer, that’s only because the Church managed to hold on to political power longer there. However without the political power, European Christians tend not to fare better as could be seen in the collapse of Christianity in China and Japan. And even today in many parts of the Americas and Europe, where the Church has lost political power, Christendom likewise collapses.
However it does put things into perspective, if even mighty and numerous churches could in a couple of centuries collapse, dare we boast of our numbers today which tomorrow might vanish in a blink? A vital lesson in the perilous dependence of any particular church on divine grace indeed.
The Church of the East and the Mohammedans
The relationship between Islam and the Church of the East varied according to the political situation. Muhammad is said to have had an East Syriac teacher named Sergius Bahira. While this may be merely legend, the Prophet of Islam was nonetheless influenced by the Christian missionaries with whom he became acquainted in Yemen and along the trade route to Iraq. Thus his view of resurrection, for example, may have been colored by the East Syrians he had known in his youth. The earliest suras of the Qur’an suggest apocalyptic influences. In the tenth century the Arab author Abu l-Farag al-Isbahani († 967) reported that Muhammad had heard the eschatological preaching of the East Syriac bishop (?) Quss b. Saida while in Ukaz, and this shaped his thinking. In any case, Muhammad had a positive impression of the Church of the East.
However, Christians soon had to pay a poll tax and wear distinctive clothing. It is nevertheless presumed that Muhammad concluded a treaty with Sayyid, king of Najran, and the East Syriac bishop Abu l-Harith of Nadjran, which guaranteed the Christians certain privileges for payment of the poll tax, and priests and monks were exempted from this payment. It is clear that a similar treaty was established under the second caliph, Umar. Treaties of this type were later also forged, in order to legitimate earlier treaties which had been lost. As previously noted, such a thing was reported by Patriarch Ishoyahb II of Gdala, who claimed he knew Muhammad and had received from him privileges for the Church of the East. Caliph Umar confirmed this, and Ali extended it because the Christians had fed his troops.
The Political Difficulties of Admitting the Primacy of Rome for the Church of the East
(It is important to realise that the “Nestorian” Church of the East lived outside of the pale of the Roman Empire and under the Persian authorities. Because of Constantine’s patronage of the Church in Rome and Constantinople, the Persians regarded the Christians in their midst as Roman sympathisers and persecuted them. To survive, it became increasingly politically expedient for the Church of the East to distinguish themselves from Rome.)
The persecution of Christians which had begun anew toward the end of the reign of Yazdgird I († 421) continued under Bahram V (421–38). The reasons for this lay in doubts about the loyalty of Christians during the war with the Roman empire and in conflicts with Zoroastrianism. Christianity was no longer limited to the Syriac-Aramaic-speaking population and could point to conversions particularly in the Persian upper class. At this time there were internal disputes in the church over the see of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Bishop Dadisho was slandered as a Roman sympathizer and placed in prison. Around 422 a peace treaty was concluded between Emperor Theodosius II (408–50) and Bahram V. Bishop Dadisho was released and returned to his monastery, and wanted to resign. At the Synod of Markabta the bishops – all six metropolitans as well as thirty-one bishops participated – persuaded him to resume his office in order to reorganize the church after the persecutions. This time no “Western” bishop from the Roman empire was present to direct or influence the fate of the synod, as had happened in 410 and 420.
The synod of 424 is widely regarded as the occasion on which the Church of the East stated its claim to autocephaly through the rejection of the “right of appeal” to the West. It has been assumed that in this year the Church of the East declared itself independent of the patriarch of Antioch. One must realize, however, that such a declaration of independence from the patriarch of Antioch need not have taken place, as this presupposes an earlier dependence. The Church of the East can be considered to have been autocephalous since the Synod of Isaac in Seleucia-Ctesiphon (410).
The acts of the Synod of Dadisho in Markabta (424) show that the resolutions of the Synod of Isaac (410) could not be entirely carried out. That is why the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon deserves special emphasis. After the introductory speech of Dadisho, that of Metropolitan Agapet of Beth Lapat has been preserved in the Synodicon Orientale. In this address, the metropolitan established that while in the past the Western fathers had been “supporters and helpers in a shared fatherhood” with the Church of the East, now “persecution and afflictions [prevent] them from caring for us as they did before.” Consequently, the primacy of the bishop of Seleucia-Ctesiphon again came to the fore, as it had in 410. This time, however, it was undergirded by stronger arguments: the head of the Church of the East is head in the same sense that Peter was head of the apostles. It was thereby expressed that no further Peter – the patriarchal thrones of Rome and Antioch each serve as a cathedra Petri – was necessary. Since the head of the Church of the East occupies the same level as Peter, there can be no other earthly authority over him. It follows that the outrage of supervision or intervention by bishops of the Roman Empire should cease. In the past – Agapet continues – it was always conceded that the head of the Church of the East is right and that any who turned against the patriarch and appealed to a patriarch in the West acknowledged his own guilt and was punished for his transgression. Thus an appeal to the Western patriarchs against the catholicos of the Church of the East is neither necessary nor allowed.
The synod stressed the unity of the Church of the East under its own single head, who was subsequently called “Catholicos”; the title Patriarch is, for this time, still anachronistic, though it was added before the end of the fifth century. According to the synod of 424, disputes internal to the church, especially those concerning its head, should not be settled by calling upon other patriarchs from outside but rather solved within their own sphere. None of the earlier documents included in the Synodicon Orientale mentions a “right of appeal.” One cannot absolutely rule out the possibility of such a right to call upon ecclesiastical heads of the Roman empire. However, it is at least interesting that the possibility of such a canonically significant appeal is not mentioned in the Greek and Latin sources.
The autonomy of the Church of the East was without doubt established by 410. The Synod of Markabta reiterated this explicitly. The political necessity of such a clear formulation is evident in the historical context, especially in the fact that a Western appropriation of influence would have been viewed with anger by Persian authorities. A definitive statement that bishops of the Roman empire should not interfere in the affairs of the Church of the East could have only positive results and is entirely understandable.
Mohammedans makes Better friends for Christian “Heretics”?
As a result of the victories of the Byzantine emperor Leo IV, Calip al-Mahdi had many churches destroyed. The Christians were accused by the caliph of praying day and night for the triumph of the Byzantine. The East Syriac (the Assyrian Christian) physician Isa defended his fellow believers before al-Mahdi and explained that the Greeks hated the East Syrians even more than the Jews. The caliph questioned a Byzantine captive about this, and the prisoner replied that the “Nestorians” ought hardly to be considered Christians and stood nearer the Arabs than the Byzantine.
Because of his good relations with the court, Timotheos I (the Catholicos, or Pope, of the Church of the East) succeeded in having several churches rebuilt. He was held in high regard by the caliphs al-Mahdi and Harun ar-Rashid; he worked under a total of five different caliphates and promoted missionary activity in India, China, Turkestan, Yemen, and around the Caspian Sea.
Several works of Timotheos [the Catholicos or Pope of the Assyrian Church of the East], such as the “Treatise against the Council of Chalcedon”, have been lost. He saw in the Islamic rulers a purifying strength for Christianity. His disputation with Calip al-Mahdi, translated from the original Syriac into Arabic and reproduced in several editions, offers insight into the Christology of the catholicos. The discussion between Timotheos and the caliph, who was well-disposed toward him, is said to have taken place at court over the course of two days; it is possible, however, that this is a literary fiction.
One cannot help but see the parallels between the difficulties which the Assyrian Christians faced in trying to evangelise in an environment opposed to “Christendom” and the present day Chinese difficulty in trying to evangelise in China without the baggage of Christendom as being associated with the West. One cannot help but wonder whether Christendom was more of a burden than a facilitator of the Gospel.
I feel an odd spiritual kinship for the Nestorians. Of course Reformed Christology has often been more on the Nestorian end, but add to that their rejection of Christendom, their “Aramaic” priority over the Greek philosophical tradition, their evangelism to China, and now, their positive view of the Mohammedans in providential history.
If I ever wanted to go “high church”, I would totally go for the Nestorians. >:) Christotokos ftw!
Church of the East Apologetics Against Islam:
Among the theologians of the Apostolic Church of the East, there were trends which resisted the pressures of Islam. Besides Timotheos I and his secretary, these theologians of controversy included above all Abd al-Masib b. Ishaq al-Kindi (ninth century)… In correspondence with a Muslim, al-Kindi sharply criticized Muhammad and the inconsistency of Muslim ethics. This work, first made known by al-Biruni, is an apology for Christianity, and nowhere else was the dark side of Islam so clearly and unambiguously presented. Al-Kindi displayed his knowledge of Muhammad’s biography and the Qur’an and criticized the superstition of the lower classes and the indifference of the elite. Because of his historical knowledge and familiarity with dialectic, it was not difficult for him to drive his opponents into a corner. Al-Kindi’s correspondence partner, who came from the Hashemite family, knew the canon of the Church of the East and the differences between it, the Jacobites, and the Melkites, and he also stated that he had already had religious discussions with Timotheos I. In addition, he mentioned that the Prophet Muhammad had looked favorably upon the Church of the East and had assured it protective privileges. He was familiar with the liturgy and the fasting regulations and referred to his conversations with bishops. The Trinity and the good news of the cross were, however, entirely mystifying to him. He tempted his opponent with the Islamic marriage regulations and visions of paradise and hell. However, his claim that Abraham was the first Muslim was rejected by al-Kindi, who characterized the wars of Islam as raids, like those of the Bedouins. Al-Kindi criticized Muhammad’s murderous plans, vindictiveness, and polygamous marriages to fifteen wives. “Muhammad preached nothing that we did not already know and that our children learn in school.” The military successes of the Muslims are divine punishment for sinful peoples. Muhammad’s teachings were deliberately distorted by later leaders. In the area of ethics, al-Kindi compared the law of retaliation to the teachings of reason and the Christian doctrines of forgiveness and mercy. He maintained that the internal contradictions of the Qur’an may be explained by its varied transmission. The affected rhyming language of the Qur’an offers no proof of its divine origin. The promise of sensual pleasure reflects only the luxurious life which Muhammad had come to know at the Persian court. Circumcision as a religious act was rejected; the pilgrimage to Mecca was traced back to the ceremonies of sun worshipers. The demand for “holy war” was contrasted with the Christian law of love, the death in war of Muslims with the martyrdom of many Christians. Al-Kindi contemptuously rejected the plea to convert to Islam for the allure of sensual pleasures or the material advantages it offered. In conclusion, he put forth the good news of Jesus and invited his (discourse partner) to compare the two religions and then reach a judgment.
These apologetic arguments are remarkable for their similarity to contemporary apologetics, and furthermore, they are given additional weight in that they were made by the Nestorians who were under the political dominion of the Mohammedans, and as such, found it much easier to take the moral high ground against the them. Nobody could after all accuse them of the Crusades or the wars of Eastern Orthodox Christendom.
Nestorianism Biblicism contra the Platonic Monophysites?
Two theological approaches competed: the Antiochene and the Alexandrian. For the Antiochene theology, which tended in its exegesis toward literary, literal, and historical interpretations, the precise differentiation of the divine and human natures (Diphysitism or two-nature doctrine) was important. The divinity of the Word as well as the integrity of Christ’s humanity had to be preserved. Because of this, the Antiochene theologians opposed above all the teachings of Apollonarius of Laodicea, who de-emphasized the humanity of Christ because he believed that the Logos occupied the place of human reason (Gr. nous). The fundamental Antiochene concern is soteriological: salvation is attainable for humanity only by Christ’s taking on a perfect human nature. If complete humanity is a soteriological prerequisite, then it is also necessary to emphasize its distinction from the incomprehensible Godhead. This differen- tiation between divinity and humanity aroused the suspicion that the Antiochenes (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius of Constantinople, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodoret of Cyrus) saw in Christ two subjects, two persons, or two Sons (classical Nestorianism).
The Alexandrian school with its allegorical exegesis and under the influence of Platonism began theological reflection with the Logos; in this view, emphasis on the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ, the “one nature (mia physis) of the Word incarnate” is central. From an Antiochene perspective this concept of unity gave the impression that divinity and humanity are mingled and that the divinity absorbs the humanity (classical Monophysitism).
Perhaps this is why Reformed Christians tends towards Nestorianism, more Biblical. >:)
Were the Nestorians Nestorian?
The officially recognized synod of 486… produced the first preserved Christological creed of the Church of the East after the imperial synods of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451):
Further, let our faith in the dispensation of Christ be in the confession of the two natures, of the divinity and of the humanity, while none of us shall dare to introduce mixture, mingling or confusion into the differences of these two natures; rather, while the divinity remains preserved in what belongs to it, and humanity in what belongs to it, it is to a single Lordship and to a single (object of) worship that we gather together the exemplars of these two natures, because of the perfect and inseparable conjunction that has occurred for the divinity with respect to the humanity. And if someone considers, or teaches others, that suffering and change have attached to the divinity of our Lord, and (if) he does not preserve, with respect to the union of the prosopon of our Saviour, a confession of perfect God and perfect Man, let such a person be anathema.
(Trans. S. P. Brock)
Until the present day, this profession was unjustly condemned as heretical. Here, in Diphysite terms, the necessity of the existence-in-itself of each complete nature, without mixing or change, is set forth. Nevertheless, there is an inseparable bond between divinity and humanity, a union of the person. As with Narsai, here the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the position of the Antiochenes, each of which excludes Theopaschism (the suffering of the divinity), is determinative. This Christology respects the integrity of divinity and humanity and admits no hint of “Nestorianism.”
The creed of the Church of the East of 612 speaks of the inseparable unity of the God-Logos and the human nature, recognized in Jesus Christ as one person (prosopon). It is further expressed in Babai’s terminology that “Christ is two kyane (natures) and two qnome.” In the past, the Syriac term qnoma had been equated with the Greek hypostasis or even translated as “person.” Thus the misconception developed that the Church of the East believed in two natures and two persons in Christ. However, for neither Babai nor the creed of 612 did qnoma denote a self-existent hypostasis. Kyana refers to the general, abstract nature, that is, the human being and the God being, while qnoma describes the concretization and individualization of this nature. Babai thus usually employed the formulation “the two natures and their qnome” which are united from the moment of conception. Both Babai’s most important treatment of the matter, the Book of Union and the document of 612 clearly express that each nature needs a qnoma in order to exist concretely. Were one to equate qnoma with hypostasis, one would reach a faulty understanding of the statement; a translation of “person” is incorrect. Because of this terminology, the East Syriacs were also unable to comprehend the definition of the Council of Chalcedon, which speaks of two natures in one person and hypostasis. This finds clear expression in the Christological letter of the future catholicos Ishoyahb II of Gdala, which was written in 620 and used Babai’s terminology.
The Assyrian Church as “Ancient” Protestants?
The Anglican and Presbyterian Smith and Davies, who traveled to Urmiyah in 1830, were impressed by the aversion to the pope, the cross without corpus, and the unadorned churches of the Assyrians, whose veneration of the Virgin Mary reminded them of their own. In the Romantic era, they saw in the “mountain Nestorians” the authentic “ancient” Protestants. They were not particularly concerned with the splitting up of the church, nor with proselytism; they sought to help them by building schools and social facilities. In 1836 American Protestants succeeded in persuading the East Syriac Christians to write not only in the ancient classical Syriac script but also in the “Modern Syriac” dialect. In 1840 the first printing press was put into operation and used to print a Syriac edition of the Psalter. Following the first published work in Modern Syriac, an edition of the New Testament appeared in 1846 and of the Old Testament in 1852. In 1849 the monthly magazine Zahire d-Bahra (Rays of Light) began publication, which continued until 1915. In these ways a Modern Assyrian literature was successfully created.
The systematic study of the situation of the Church of the East began in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. After 1825 the Basel missionary Karl Gottlieb Pfander worked in Mesopotamia; he gave the catholicos books in Syriac and Persian. German Protestants also showed an interest in the Church of the East. In 1875 the northern German Protestant institute opened a missionary post in Urmiyah, which operated until 1939. In 1840 the English geologist William Ainsworth traveled with the Chaldean Christian Isa Rassam by order of the British Geographical Society and the Society for Christian Knowledge to the Hakkari region, where Catholicos Shimun explained his fears about the Roman missionary efforts. In 1842 he published his book Travels and Researches in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, Chaldea and Armeni in London with the support of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.
2 thought on “Some Quotes from and Notes on “The Church of the East: A Concise History””
[…] lands once rivalled both Latin and Orthodox Christianity in size and influence (see my notes here). However the Nestorian Church, which was under the protection and patronage of the Muslim […]
The Assyrian Church of the East has much, much more in common with the other ancient Christian churches — Catholic, Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox — than Protestantism. Consider the Eucharist, for example, or the priesthood.