Nestorian Christianity

From New World Encyclopedia
Nestorian priests in a procession, wall painting from the caves of Bezeklik

Nestorianism is the Christian doctrine that Jesus existed as two persons, the man Jesus and the divine Son of God, or Logos, rather than as a unified person. This doctrine is identified with Nestorius (386–451), patriarch of Constantinople. This view of Christ was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, and the conflict over this view led to the Nestorian schism, separating the Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church.

The Assyrian Church of the East refused to drop support for Nestorius and denounce him as a heretic, and it has continued to be called "Nestorian" in the West, to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches. However, the Church of the East does not regard its doctrine as truly Nestorian, but rather teaches the view of Babai the Great, that Christ has two qnome (essences) which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). According to some interpretations, the origin of this confusion is mostly historical and linguistic: for example, the Greeks had two words for “person,” which translated poorly into Syriac, and the meanings of these terms were not even quite settled during Nestorius' lifetime.

Missionaries of the Assyrian Church of the East spread Nestorianism throughout Persia and Central and East Asia. "Nestorian" Christianity reached China by 635, and penetrated Mongolia and Korea. Its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi'an.

Origins of Nestorianism

Nestorianism originated in the church during the fifth century as an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the man Jesus Christ. Nestorianism taught that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two persons, the man Jesus Christ and the divine Logos, which dwelt in the man. In consequence, Nestorians rejected such terminology as "God suffered" or "God was crucified," because the human aspect of Jesus Christ which suffered was separate from his divinity. They rejected the term Theotokos (“Giver of birth to God/Mother of God”) for the Virgin Mary, suggesting instead the title Christotokos (“Giver of birth to Christ/Mother of Christ”), because in their opinion Mary gave birth to only the human person of Jesus and not the divine.


Nestorius was a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in Antioch, Syria, and became Patriarch of Constantinople in 428. In 428 he began to preach against the use of the title “Mother of God” (Theotokos) for the Virgin Mary, suggesting that she should instead be called “Mother of Christ” (Christotokos). He distinguished between the human aspect and the divine aspect (Logos) of Christ, and argued that God could not suffer on the cross, because he is omnipotent. Therefore, the human aspect of Christ died on the cross, but not the divine. Political rivals of Nestorius, including Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, seized on the opportunity and accused him of implying that Christ was two separate persons with separate experiences. Nestorius responded that he believed that Christ was indeed one person (Greek: prosopon).

Cyril of Alexandria recommended that Pope Celestine I condemn Nestorius, and had him deposed and declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The council affirmed that Christ was one person, and that the Virgin Mary was the mother of God. In 435 Emperor Theodosius II issued an edict exiling Nestorius to a monastery in the Great Oasis of Hibis (al-Khargah), in Egypt, securely within the diocese of Cyril, and condemning all of his writings to be burned.

The condemnation of the Council of Ephesus resulted in the Nestorian schism and the separation of the Assyrian Church of the East from the Byzantine Church. The Assyrian Church of the East refused to drop support for Nestorius and denounce him as a heretic, and it has continued to be called "Nestorian" in the West, to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches. The Byzantine Church was soon divided again over the question of whether Christ had one or two natures, leading to the Council of Chalcedon and the Chalcedonian schism.

Christological Implications

From the point of view of the Chalcedonian theology which is held by most Western and Orthodox churches, the teaching of Nestorius has important consequences relating to soteriology and the theology of the Eucharist.

During the Protestant Reformation, some groups were accused of reviving the schism of Nestorius when they denied the “Real Presence.” The “Real Presence” is the term various Christian traditions use to express their belief that, in the Eucharist, Jesus the Christ is really (and not merely symbolically, figuratively or by his power) present in what was previously just bread and wine.

The Involvement of the Assyrian Church

After the Council of Ephesus, a strong Nestorian party developed in eastern Syria centering on the School of Edessa. In 433 a theological reconciliation took place between Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch, and a number of dissenting bishops affiliated themselves with the Syrian Church of Persia, which held the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia in high esteem. The Sassanid Persian kings, who were at constant war with Byzantium, saw the opportunity to assure the loyalty of their Christian subjects and supported the Nestorian schism. They granted protection to Nestorians in 462, and executed the pro-Byzantine Catholicos Babowai who was then replaced by the Nestorian bishop of Nisibis Bar Sauma (484). Nestorianism was officially adopted at the Synod of Seleucia in 486. The Nestorians were expelled from Edessa in 489 by the Emperor Zeno and immigrated to Persia. The Persians allowed the transfer of the school of Edessa, to the Persian city Nisibis, where it became even more famous than at Edessa.

The main theological authorities of the school had always been Theodore of Mopsuestia and his teacher Diodorus of Tarsus. Unfortunately, few of their writings have survived. The writings of Nestorius himself were only added to the curriculum of the school of Edessa-Nisibis in 530, shortly before the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 condemned Theodore as Nestorius's predecessor.

At the end of the sixth century. the school went through a theological crisis when its director Henana of Adiabene tried to replace the teachings of Theodore with his own doctrine, which followed Origen. Babai the Great (551–628), the unofficial head of the church at that time who revived the Assyrian monastic movement, refuted him and wrote the normative Christology of the Assyrian Church, based on Theodore of Mopsuestia.

The Book of Union is Babai’s principal surviving work on Christology. In it he explains that Christ has two qnome (essences), which are unmingled and eternally united in one parsopa (personality). This, and not strict Nestorianism, is the teaching of the Assyrian Church. However, the Assyrian Church has continued to be called "Nestorian" in the West to distinguish it from other ancient Eastern churches, despite the fact that Babai's Christology is basically the same as that of Catholicism and Orthodoxy; the Baltimore Catechism teaches that Christ is one "person" (like Babai's parsopa) but has two "natures" (Babai's qnome).

The Spread of Assyrian "Nestorianism"

The Assyrian Church produced many zealous missionaries, who traveled and preached throughout the Persian Empire and Central and East Asia during the seventh and eighth centuries. During the same period many Nestorian scholars, having escaped the Byzantines, settled in Gundishapur, Persia and Muharraq in Bahrain, bringing with them many ancient Greco-Roman philosophical, scientific, and literary texts. Nestorian Christianity reached China by 635, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi'an. Around this same time, Nestorian Christianity penetrated into Mongolia, eventually reaching as far as Korea. The Nestorian Stele, set up on January 7, 781, at the then-capital of Chang'an, describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Tang Taizong.

The legacy of the missionaries remains in the Assyrian churches still to be found in Iraq, Iran, and India.

There is evidence from within the hadith that Muhammad had contact with Nestorian Christians. Particularly of interest are the similarities between Muslim raka'ah (ritual prayer) and the genuflections performed by Nestorians during Lent.

Nestorianism in China

Christianity was first introduced into China through representatives of the Church if the East, popularly known as the Nestorians, during the Tang Dynasty (it has also been suggested that the Patriarch of Seleucia-Ctesiphon created a metropolitan see in China in 411). In China, the religion was known as Jingjiao (景教). The Nestorians initially entered China as traders rather than as official missionaries, and were largely of Hebrew extraction, tracing their lineage to those who did not return to Palestine following the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities.

During the early centuries of Christian expansion, they considered the message of Jesus a fulfillment of their Jewish faith. Eventually, the Nestorians intermarried with other Syriac-speaking peoples east of the Euphrates and spread their faith throughout Turkestan, Mongolia, China and Japan. Some records indicate that Jacobite Christians also visited China during this period, but their impact was minimal. A stone stele erected at the Tang capital of Chang’an in 781 and rediscovered in the seventeenth century describes flourishing communities of Christians throughout China, but beyond this and few other fragmentary records relatively little is known of their history.

What is known, however, is significant. The Nestorians faced the world's vastest empire at the zenith of its cultural, intellectual and administrative attainment. Tang China possessed a most sophisticated religious and ethical system; its people had long lived in an environment of religious syncretism. When Tang forces conquered Turkestan (630) and reopened the ancient trade route to the West, Alopen, the Persian bishop, felt the time had come to evangelize this mighty empire. He was welcomed by the authorities, in line with their policy of toleration and interest in fostering foreign religions.

When Alopen arrived at Chang-an (635), he was almost immediately commissioned to translate the Nestorian Sutras into Chinese. Scholars were assigned to assist him. In 638, the first Christian book was published, The Sutra of Jesus the Messiah. It sought to introduce the Chinese to the Christian faith and specifically pointed out that the gospel contained nothing subversive to China's ancient traditions, because loyalty to the state and filial piety were the essence of the law of Christ. This pleased the emperor, and by decree he proclaimed the virtue of the Nestorian religion, gave Alopen the title of “Great Spiritual Lord, Protector of the Empire” (metropolitan Chang’an), and opened China's doors to the gospel: “Let it be preached freely in our empire.”

The Nestorians established monasteries in China's key cities and proclaimed their faith aggressively, phrasing the Christian message in the philosophical language of the Confucian court in order to make it intellectually acceptable to the Chinese scholars.

Although the ancient stele says, “The religion spread throughout the ten provinces....monasteries abound in a hundred cities,” the Nestorians experienced a series of setbacks as a result of court intrigues, the jealousy of Daoist and Buddhist leaders, and the upheavals of civil war. Their medical knowledge and surgical skills gave the Nestorians a good name, but Nestorian Christianity was classed with Buddhism and Zoroastrianism as another “foreign religion.” Although their monasteries were self-supporting, self-governing, and self-propagating, Chinese clergy were only permitted to fill the lowest ranks, which suggests that their priority was serving the foreign trading community.

The vitality of this church diminished with the passage of time and with increased isolation from religious centers in Mesopotamia. In 745 Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (reigned 840–846) issued an edict stating that the temples popularly known as "Persian temples" should be thenceforth known as Da Qin (Roman) temples. By the middle of the ninth century, government hostility toward Buddhism was extended to other foreign religions, and the emperor decreed that Christianity also be proscribed:

As for the Da-chin (Nestorian) and Muhu (Zoroastrianism) temples, these heretical religions must not alone be left when the Buddhists have been suppressed; they must all be compelled to return to lay life and resume their original callings and pay taxes, or if they are foreign they shall be sent back to their native places (Johnson 2008, 25).

The opposition to Buddhist excesses, which had first arisen among Confucian officials, was continued by a pro-Daoist emperor. Christian monks and nuns were evicted from their monasteries and forced to seek a secular living, and their properties were confiscated. Books and artifacts were destroyed and leading figures, especially those of foreign extraction, were forced to hide and hold underground services or to flee. Missions from Persia and Bactria in the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries strengthened the churches in some provinces, but evidence of their condition or survival throughout Tang provinces is fragmentary.

In 986 a Syrian monk reported to the Patriarch:

Christianity is extinct in China; the native Christians have perished in one way or another; the church has been destroyed and there is only one Christian left in the land (Lee 2010, 65).

Nestorianism was particularly active in Asia during the twelfth century, being a state religion of Kidans in the times of Elyui Dashi. It was also one of the widespread religions in the empire of Genghis Khan.

Under the emperors of the Yuan Dynasty, Nestorian Christianity once again gained a foothold in China. Marco Polo in the 1200s and other medieval Western writers testify that many Nestorian communities remained in China and Mongolia; however, they clearly were not as vibrant as they had been during Tang times. The policies of the Ming emperors, which centralized Chinese government, again proscribed all foreign influences, and Christianity was forced to go underground once more. The last known monument of Nestorian Christianity in China seems to be one dating to c. 1365 and found near Zhoukoudian in the Fangshan District of Beijing.

The Nestorian church continued to flourish throughout Central Asia well into the fourteenth century among the northern tribes, such as the Uigurs, Turks, and Mongols. However, the record of the closing years of the Nestorians in China is replete with references to necrology, a Chinese-influenced practice not found in classical Christianity.

In 1625 the discovery of the Nestorian Stele in Xian—on which the story of the Nestorian missionaries coming to China was written in both Chinese and Syriac—was significant for Christians in China at the time. It proved that Christianity was part of China's past and not a recent foreign incursion, giving support to Christians against those who called for the religion to be banned.

Dozens of Jingjiao texts have survived. Some of them are translations of the Scriptures, including the Pentateuch (牟世法王经).

Modern Nestorianism

The Assyrian Church of the East and the "Nestorian" Church of the East & Abroad represent a historical continuity with the Nestorian Christianity, though it is debated whether their doctrine is actually Nestorian.

Some Protestant and Reformed church organizations have been accused at times of Nestorianism. However, it should be noted that Protestants join Roman Catholics and the Eastern Church in affirming the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, which repudiate both Nestorian theology and monophysite theology.

The New Age metaphysical system of theosophy teaches a Nestorian doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Armstrong, Karen. 1993. A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Reprint edition, 1994. New York: Ballantine Books. ISBN 0345384563
  • Baum, Wilhelm and Dietmar W. Winkler. 2003. The Church of the East: A Concise History. London: Routledge. ISBN 0415297702
  • Couling, Charlotte Eliza. 1925. The Luminous Religion: A Study of Nestorian Christianity in China. Carey Press, 1925. ASIN B000870EX8
  • Gumilev, Lev N. 2003. Poiski vymyshlennogo tsarstva (in Russian, "Looking for the mythical kingdom"). Moscow: Onyx Publishers. ISBN 5950300416
  • Johnson, Dale A. 2008. Jesus on the Silk Road. Lulu. ISBN 978-1435739864
  • Lee, Samuel. 2010. Rediscovering Japan, Reintroducing Christendom: Two Thousand Years of Christian History in Japan. Hamilton Books. ISBN 978-0761849490
  • Lossky, Vladimir. 1968. The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. New edition, 1997. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 0913836311
  • Moreland, J. P. and William Lane Craig. 2003. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press. ISBN 0830826947
  • Ware, Timothy. 1963. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. Second edition, 1993. London: Penguin (Non-Classics). ISBN 0140146563

External Links

All links retrieved November 11, 2022.

General Philosophy Sources


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