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400 - Nestorian

In the fifth century the churches of the Parthian Empire separated themselves from the Byzantine State Church and became the East Syrian Church. Founded by Syrians and intimately connected by language and civilization with the intellectually active Church of West Syria, to which belonged Ephrem Syrus, Diodorus of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, this church adopted Nestorius' doctrine of the Two Natures, thus separating itself from the homogeneous and united Catholic Church. This schism must be attributed to political rather than to dogmatic motives. Throughout the rule of the Parthian Arsazides and Sassanides, the Parthian Empire was in constant conflict with the Byzantine.

The scene of the Nestorian controversy was of wide extent, embracing Syria, Cilicia, Bithynia, Mcesia, Isauria, and Cappadocia. Of all the Christological heresies none was advanced with more energy and skill, was more violently assailed, more profoundly affected the emotional life of the Church, or possessed such marvelous vitality. Like Apollinarism, it also was a product of restless, speculative, and inventive Antioch. Nestorius, at first monk, and then a presbyter of that city, by the force of his energy and ambition and fervid eloquence, became, in the year 428, Patriarch of Constantinople. He saw the danger of Arianism, and arrayed himself, with all the power of his genius and position, against its adherents. He was attracted toward the Pelagians because of the honorable place which the free will occupied in their theology.

The term "Mother of God" (faoroicos), which had been frequently applied to the Virgin Mary by the Alexandrian school, and by such teachers as Origen, Athanasius, Basil, and others, was offensive to him, on the ground that Mary could give birth only to Christ, but not to deity, and he opposed it with great vigor. The controversy now became bitter, and, as was the case generally with the theological strifes of this period, it turned upon a single expression, theotokos. It became the watchword of the times.

The general opinions of Nestorius were : There are three persons in the Godhead, and one divine essence, as stated by the Nicene formulas ; Christ possessed two natures, the divine and Opinions Of human ; yet, there are not two independent persons, two Sons, two Lords - but only one ; there was a sympathetic cooperation or union between God and man, which is expressed by the term connection; God and man, humanity and divinity, the two natures, substances, hypostases, were united, but not the two persons ; there was no cessation of the properties of the two natures, though the union was inseparable; the union commenced with the conception of Christ in the womb of his mother ; there was a communion or intercourse of the two natures, and yet each has its personal properties; while there is a union of the two natures, one is kept distinct from the other ; while the Scriptures attribute to Christ both divine and human attributes and acts, these are different in character - one class being the sublime and God-befitting, which must be referred to the divine nature, and the inferior to the human nature; the term mother of Christ was better than mother of God, because the former expressed the complex person of the Son of God.

Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, saw in the views of Nestorius a dangerous heresy. He remonstrated with their author, though without effect. He then invoked the aid of the court by writing to the emperor, the empress Eudoria, and the emperor's sister, Pulcheria. He finally appealed to the Roman bishop, Celestine, who condemned Nestorius and his doctrines at a Roman council, and deposed Nestorius from the patriarchate unless he should retract within ten days. But Nestorius stood fast. Then Cyril, at a synod of Alexandria (A. D. 430), presented twelve condemnatory articles against Nestorius and his views. Nestorius replied by an equal number of counter anathemas, and charged his opponents with Apollinarism.

It was now a controversy of the two powerful patriarchates of Alexandria and Constantinople. The deepest passions of the East were aroused to a degree not surpassed in the entire history of religious discussion. The emperor, Theodosius II, who was in sympathy with Nestorius, summoned the third general council, that of Ephesus, in 431, for the settlement of the questions at issue. Cyril, determined on victory, brought with him a great number of attendants. He was supported by the populace and the monks. Nestorius not making his appearance, Cyril commenced the council without him, with two hundred bishops in attendance. Nestorius was three times summoned to appear, but refused to do so until the arrival of the Antiochian bishops. He was accordingly deposed and excommunicated. He immediately appealed to the emperor, who, by his commissioner, declared the decrees invalid, owing to the presence of only a portion of the delegates.

John of Antioch, who was in sympathy with Nestorius, now reached Ephesus, and immediately convened a rival council, with forty-two bishops. Here Cyril, with Memnon of Ephesus, was excommunicated. Delegates from Rome arriving. Cyril held a second session, and six canons were adopted against the opinions of both Nestorius and Pelagius. The emperor was now appealed to by both parties, and he finally accepted a compromising confession, in 432, prepared by Theodoret. This was acceded to by Cyril; and John of Antioch, now joining the strong party of the latter, subscribed it, and in doing so joined in the condemnation of Nestorius and his opinions. Nestorius, now forsaken by his chief supporter, the representative of the Antiochian school, was helpless. He was banished, and died in obscurity. All traces of his opinions disappeared from the Roman empire by the dissolution of the theological school of Edessa by the emperor Zeno in 489.

Nestorianism, with a singular power of endurance, took refuge in the mountains of Armenia, and in the Persian plains watered by the Tigris and Euphrates refugee teachers from Edessa were cordially welcomed. The Persian kings, animated by jealousy of Constantinople, nourished the heresy, and its devotees took the name of Chaldaic or Assyrian Christians. They had a patriarch who resided in the doublecity of Seleucia Ctesiphon after 496, and after 762 in Bagdad. It spread through Tartary, Arabia, and eastward as far as India and China. Its zeal in extending its influence was always very great, and with the dissemination of its opinions it united rare skill in establishing hospitals and schools.

It was one of the wondrous arrangements of the system of things that the Christian sect of the Nestorians, which has exerted a very important influence on the geographical extension of knowledge, was of service even to the Arabians before the latter found their way to learned and disputatious Alexandria ; that Christian Nestorianism, in fact, under the protection of the arms of Islam, was able to penetrate far into eastern Asia.

In the midst of this ruinous strife an ecclesiastical barrier against the Byzantine Church was in some sense a political safeguard. Thus the Nestorian Church was incited to develop its peculiarities of practice and doctrine and to engage in extensive missionary work. In spite of great resistance and fierce persecution on the part of the rulers of the Sassanian dynasty, who did their utmost to make the fire-worship of Zoroaster a national religion, Christianity spread throughout Persia and far beyond into India and the heart of China.

Even under Muhammadan rule these Nestorians of the East for centuries carried on a vast missionary work, of which, however, but scanty information has come down to us. Those times are gone. Mohammedan persecutions of the Nestorians were rare, especially as Mohammed was traditionally said to have received his knowledge of Christian doctrines from a Nestorian monk named Sergius; and the Nestorians claim to have received letters of protection from the prophet, Omar AH, and others. They held high posts as governors of cities and districts, secretaries of califs and emirs, and physicians in ordinary; while they were also distinguished translators into Syriac and Arabic. Such was their influence that Qa'im bi'amr Allah and Muqtadir Billah subjected the Catholic Christians, the Melchites, and the Jacobites to the jurisdiction of the patriarchs. Except for a brief persecution by Harun al-Rashid, only two occurred during the entire period-one by Mutawakkil, and the other by Hakim bi'amr Allah, the latter including all Christians and the Jews, but restricted to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. After the foundation of Bagdad, the patriarchs were chosen and had their residence there, though consecrated in Seleucia.

Under the Mongols, in like manner, the conditions of the Nestorians were generally peaceful. Hulagu Khan, who took Bagdad in 1268, and most of his successors favored the Nestorians not only because they were opposed to the Mohammedans, the political foes of the Mongols, but also on account of the superficial similarities between Nestorian Christianity and the Mongol type of Buddhism and through the Christian wives of some of the khans. Certain Mongol rulers, indeed, became converts to Christianity, particularly in the district of the Karaites south of the Lake of Baikal; and the dynastic title of these latter khans, Unk-khan or Owang-khan, corrupted to Joan or Johannes, seems to have given rise to the legend of Prester John (q.v.), which was later transferred to the hitherto unknown Christian king in Ethiopia (i.e., Abyssinia). In 1292 the Minorite Johannes de Monte Corvino converted a descendant of Unk-khan and several of his court from Nestorianism to Catholicism; but the Roman Catholic community thus founded proved of short duration, the converts returning to Nestorianism in 1299.

The first direct persecution of the Nestorians, after their centuries of peace under Arabs and Mongols, was by Timur, who oppressed Christian and Mohammedan alike. The Nestorian connections with the Far East now came to an end and the churches there fell into decay. The advance of Islam opwith pressed or destroyed the Christians in Tartary and India, and a like course was pursued by the Shiites in Persia and by the Mohammedan dynasties in Hither Asia.

Of this Church that formerly extended over half Asia, there were by around 1900 about 100,000 members. They lived in a district whose borders may be defined by Mosul in the southwest, the Lake of Van in the northwest, and the Lake of Urmia in the east. They are exposed to the merciless attacks of the Kurds, between whom and themselves there has been for centuries unending feud.

The ecclesiastical and political head of this small but brave Church was a patriarch who always had the hereditary name of Shimon, and who resided in Kotcbhannes in the district of Julamerk on the middle Zab. The separation of the Nestorians in Turkish territory from those in Persia hindered the ecclesiastical development. These Eastern Syrians of the Nestorian Church are correctly named Syrians, for they retained through all the centuries of their isolation the Syrian language, not only as the dead language of an obsolete liturgy, but as the living language of daily common life. This language is the sole remaining branch of the once important group of Syrian languages possessing a considerable ecclesiastical literature. It was interesting information that the American missionaries brought to the learned world of the Occident in 1835, when they discovered this modern Syrian language. Missionaries and scholars ever since vied with one another in studying the language scientifically, in preparing grammars and dictionaries and, above all, in creating a popular literature in the newly discovered tongue.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:01:49 ZULU