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Dec 16, 2008


philip jenkins on assyrian (er nestorian) christians
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The Assyrian Church of the East.  That church is wrongly still called in Western discourse "Nestorian".   (More on that in a sec).

Jenkins writes:

Yet the reality is that Christianity has from its earliest days been an intercontinental faith, as firmly established in Asia and Africa as in Europe itself. When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten.

Jenkins first raised this point, as I recall, in his now semi-famous text The Next Christendom, covering the question of new forms of Christianity in the Third Millenium and the mass migration of Chrsitianity to the poor in the so-called Global South (Latin America, Africa, and Asia).  This eventually lead to his most recent publication–The Lost History of Christianity:  The Thousand Year Golden Age of Christianity in The Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How it Died

Jenkins is on to a really important point I think.  With the rise of Islam through The Middle East, North Africa, and into Central Asia starting in the 7th centuries that the masses instantly converted to Islam and that was that.  The rest of the story is (if you’re Roman Catholic or Protestant) the Middle Ages/The Reformation and the fights over the Western Church.  If Eastern Orthodox, the Byzantine Empire and its fall, the history of often oppressed minority Orthodox Christians under the Ottoman Empire and/or the Russian Empire and the history of the Orthodox Church there.  Jenkins shows however that in many cases what happened was the ruling classes throughout that period (800-1400) throughout The Middle East, Asia, North Africa were Muslims but often the masses did not convert.  Buddhism and Christianity were both quite strong prior to the Mongolian invasions in places like Afghanistan (remember those Buddha statues The Taliban blew up?), Iran, even into China. 

Jenkins is right there was this entire other wing of Christianity that flourished for a time under the Persian Empire and had strong missionary component that spread far and wide through Afghanistan, into China, and so on.  So when I hear evangelicals, Pentecostals, or whoever talk about "Christianizing" Asia and The Middle East I have to say I’m particularly impressed.  There’s a real arrogance in forgetting these places have had Christianity for over a thousand years.  Forms of Christianity that dealt with the questions of how to relate to cultures ("inculturation" in the scholarly parlance) with regard to the Gospel.  Cultures, who like the Greek/Roman tradition that Christianity picked up in the Orthodox/Catholic churches, had religious elements intrinsic to them (Jenkins’ point with regard to Phan). Might the Asian Church simply ground their theology in a non-Hellenistic form of philosophy and culture? 

The forms of Christianity that are growing throughout that part of the world (particularly think Korea, China, Taiwan as well as sub-Saharan Africa) are not going to be returns to the ancient Assyrian Christian tradition of The East.  Generally they tend to be in a sense almost non-cultures, as they can be too often more about consumption than production and further the process of globalized secularization.  They aren’t alone in this, it’s a problem all the churches (and all religions for that matter) are facing.  Still if and when we think of World Christianity or Global Christianity in the 21st century, it’s really important to remember that Christianity has been a very global religion for over a thousand years.  i.e. It didn’t just become global when conquistadors went to Latin America or Protestants went to Asia in the 19th century.  It’s not like Christianity started in Europe and then spread from there around the world.  Missionary waves go in multiple directions and currents.  The Christianity of Western Europe, what’s left of it anyway, is now almost entirely of immigrant (African, Caribbean, etc.) persuasion. 

For all the churches struggling with this culture/gospel question, these earlier churches (Assyrian Churches of the East) and their history have I think a great deal to teach us.  So I’m glad Jenkins is helping retrieve this lost Christianity which is a good thing whether or not one happens to agree with Jenkins’ exact interpretation of what lessons to be learned for today from that particular past.  It’s also in a sense of work of mourning–one of the other key (and controversial in some ways) points Jenkins makes is sociologically Christians in The Middle East are in endangered status going forward (see Iraqi Chaldean Christians as an example).  

And I should say, the Assyrian Church of the East is not extinct.  It still lives today though in much reduced numbers.  One possibility that could grow out of this book I hope is the potential for increased discussions within the remaining Assyrian Christians and overcome some of the long outstanding differences over Christology.  These Churches in the West are known as Nestorian because they refused to recognize the condemnation of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus in 431 where Cyril of Alexandria in some ways engineered a condemnation of Nestorius.  Nestorius however is not the normative Christological understanding of this Church.  That belongs to man named Babai the Great (6th c.) who described two qnome in one parsopa.  The Council of Chalcedon has two natures in one person (hypostasis).  The Oriential Orthodox Churches–who did not accept the Council of Chalcedon for fear of crypto-Nestorianism–have in recent history come to a common Christological agreement with the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and Roman Catholic, churches.  A similar model I think should be followed with the Assyrian Churches, so we can finally get over what I think were some rather unfortunate misunderstandings 1500 years or so ago. 

The only joint Christological declaration along these lines (re: Assyrian Church) was this one between the Roman Catholic-Assyrian Church (1994).  Related to the point about whether it was one nature (composite human-divine) or one person/two natures came the argument over whether Mary was the Mother of God (one nature of the Incarnate Word…incarnate hear implying the humanity) or whether a la Nestorius Mary was "Mother of Christ" (bearer of the human nature of Jesus Christ, in order to protect the Divine Nature from being confused with human).  The dialogue I think wisely allows for diversity while recognizing the unity on this point:

The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself. That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour". In the light of this same faith the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as "the Mother of God" and also as "the Mother of Christ". We both recognize the legitimacy and rightness of these expressions of the same faith and we both respect the preference of each Church in her liturgical life and piety.

All three of those churches (Chalcedonian, Oriential Orthodox, and Assyrian) believe that Jesus Christ is one person/hypostatis union/prosopa united in a human-divine being.   The union being both real and yet the human/divine not being confused or mixed.  Nestorius was held (I think wrongly) to have held that there were two different persons, like two different personalities in Jesus (one human, one divine–a split psyche or so).  What he was probably doing, in rather extreme language, was trying to make sure that the two natures were clearly distinct.  But whatever the case with Nestorius, with Babai, a reconciliation doctrinally on this point is obviously available.  The Oriental Orthodox tradition in the opposite direction tended to want to emphasize so much that the union was real that it can sometimes seem as if it is almost headed to the Divine Person swallowing up the human nature.  (That is called the later heresy of Monophysitism, mono + physis, "one nature").  The Oriental Orthodox tradition is simply putting the stress on the union whereas the Assyrian tradition is putting the stress on how the natures are not mingled ("confused") similarly the Chalcedonian tradition (Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, malinine Protestant).

As the Catholic-Coptic dialogue has it:

"When the Orthodox confess that Divinity and humanity of Our Lord are united in one nature, they take nature", not as a purely simple nature, but rather as one composite nature, wherein the Divinity and humanity are united inseparatedly and unconfusedly. And when the Catholics confess Jesus Christ as one in two natures, they do not separate the Divinity from the humanity, not even for the twinkling of an eye, but they rather try to avoid mingling, commixtion, confusion or alteration.

For those of raised in more Western Churches, particularly Protestant, the dominant doctrinal issue has tended to be the Cross (Atonement), but it’s important to remember that prior to The Middle Ages (and only in the West did this change, it always stayed this way in The East) the primary dogmatic/spiritual question was that of the Word, i.e. The Incarnation.  The Nicene Creed develops out of the question of whether The Word of God was fully God (yes said Nicea, no said Arianism).  The argument there being that unless God’s Word was fully God, then salvation had not come.  The later Councils of Ephesus-Chalcedon and the splits among the pro-Nicene but non-Chalcedonian churches (either on the Oriental Orthodox side or The Assyrian Side) was simply a further discussion of thiis point.  If The Word of God is God indeed–of the same substance and yet a different hypostasis (or person) as Nicea says–then what about Jesus Christ in whom The Word became flesh.  How did this en-fleshing work?  If Christ is not fully God throughout, not fully the Word fully residing in his humanity than again (the argument goes) no salvation.  But if is not really united to humanity then the salvation has not truly reached to us, has not truly connected to our lives, not truly be spoken into our existence.  Hence we are not redeemed/liberated.  So while this might all seem like some theological logorrhea concerning angels dancing on pinheads, this actually makes a huge difference.  The two tendencies in Christianity are always in various forms to deny the humanity (Gnosticism in one variant or another) or to deny the divinity (Jesus as Wise Philosopher, good guy, moralist).  When Christianity has its understanding of its Savior wrong, then problems follow all the way down the line:  The Church, Sacraments, Spirituality, Prayer, Ethics, and on and on. 

Tags: Assyrian Church of the East, Babai the Great, Council of Chalcedon, Council of Nicea, Eastern Orthodox Church, Nestorius, Oriental Orthodox Church, Philip Jenkins