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Short History of the Church of the East

This is a very short History


In the 4th century ACE there were five major focal points of Christianity in the Roman Empire. These were the regions centred on the provincial capitals i.e. Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem. Each had a governing bishop called a "Patriarch" (family head) and his area of influence was called a "see".


Antioch was associated with the apostle Paul’s early ministry. Being the gateway to Persia, India and China, its members enthusiastically set out to make disciples in the East. They spoke a variant of Aramaic called "Syriac".


The Church from Antioch towards the East was only partially inside the Roman Empire. In 424 ACE the Church in the Persian Empire declared its independence from Antioch and the West. The bishop of the capital (Seleucia-Ctesiphon) became the Patriarch of the East.


A dispute arose between Cyril (Patriarch of Alexandria) and Nestorius (Patriarch of Constantinople). Nestorius came from the school of Antioch. He disliked people calling Mary the "mother of God" because it could give the impression that she was the mother of His Divinity, i.e that God did not exist before the birth of Christ. He said "I do not say that God is two or three months old." This was not to deny that a child three months old could be called God. However his saying was taken, by Cyril and others, to mean that Nestorius did not believe that Christ was truely God.


Nestorius did not understand that people thought he was undercutting Christ’s divinity, and he went on to emphasise the true humanity of Christ. He said that both Christ’s humanity and His Divinity possessed hypostasis (substance).


Cyril understood the word hypostasis to mean "person" in the sense of an independent objective reality. Accordingly, Cyril said that there was only one hypostasis in Christ. To say that Christ was two hypostases (God and man) seemed to imply that He was two independant beings.


When Cyril asserted that Christ had only one hypostasis , Nestorius took this as a rejection of the true humanity of Christ. It was to say that Christ (who is God) only assumed the pose of humanity, that He did not take up the essential being (ousia) of humanity. Therefore mankind was not redeemed!


The substance of Nestorius’ doctrine was definitively accepted as the Christian faith at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. It is ironic that Nestorius who propounded it at Ephesus in 431 was deposed and declared heretical, by Cyril who was a "monophysite" (i.e. one divine-human nature) and didn’t subscribe to the Chalcedon definition.


What the Church of the East believes about the person of Christ


He is one person (syr: parsopa, gr: prosopon) who combined in himself the two distinct things (i.e. substances, syr: q'nome, gr: hupostaseis) Godhead and manhood, with their characteristics (i.e. natures, syr: k'yane gr: fuseis) complete and intact though united in Him.

The Church of the East is called "Nestorian" in solidarity with Nestorius, to assert that Christ’s humanity was as real as His Divinity. The rejection of Nestorius by the West was proof to the East that the break with Rome was the right choice.


With the coming of the Islamic invasion in the seventh century, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria were removed from the Christian sphere. The Church from Rome became known as the Latin "Catholic" Church and the Church from Constantinople was called the Greek "Orthodox" Church. (The Russian Church arose from the missionary endeavours of another Cyril, from Constantinople).


The Syriac speaking Christians were recognised by the Muslims as being not friendly towards the Roman Empire. They were thus accepted as a millet or an allowed minority group. Their influence grew and spread thoughout India, Mongolia, and China. It has been said that by the year 1000 ACE it was larger than the combined Latin and Greek Churches.

The Christian Academy at Edessa in modern Turkey was founded by Ephraem in 363, and probably modelled on the Jewish Academy at Nisibis. Edessa became a centre of knowledge in the East as it declined in the West. The scholars at Edessa had translated the Greek science and knowledge into Syriac and so the Syriac speaking Christians became the physicians and teachers of the Courts of Islam. These Christians started the first teaching hospital in the world at Jundi-shapur.

The Arabs learnt of the Greek Sciences first from their Syriac teachers. Then the Arabs developed Medicine, Alchemy, Algebra, Astronomy etc, but this momentum declined when Islamic fundamentalism asserted that the only worthwhile knowledge was the Qur’an which is co-eternal with God.

In the thirteenth century, under Genghis Khan, the Mongols came to power and conquered the lands to their West. They followed a policy of ruthless and systematic extermination. The process was finalised by Timur the Lame (Tamberlaine) in 1369. At the end the Eastern Church was virtually destroyed. It barely survived as an entity in Syria - Kurdistan and the Malabar coast (in India).

In spite of this, remnants were still found in China in the mid 1800s where some shared a building with Jews so that it was Synagogue on Saturday and Church on Sunday. (At this time Western Merchants deliberately tried to open up trade by destroying Chinese society with drugs; so the ships that brought the first Bibles also brought the Opium trade.)


The Liturgy

In common with other Eastern liturgies, the liturgy of Addai and Mari has as its kernel, the idea that "church" is the joining of the living with the Eternal worship which is even now going on in Heaven, just beyond the veil of our senses. In Hebrews 12:22 the Church is represented as the gathering of the Redeemed about Christ in the heavenly Mount Zion. Christian belief is that Christians are, in a real sense, always gathered about Christ; and this is expressed in tangible form when assembled together

Things to notice:

• There are no "words of institution", i.e. "this is my body..." is absent.

• There is no "invocation" over the elements. The invocation is for the Spirit to come upon the congregation.

• There is an emphasis on the Resurrection.

  (i) The dipping of the bread into the wine represents the uniting of Christ’s body and blood in the real physical body He displayed after He rose from the dead.

  (ii) The signing of the elements with the cross reminds of the cost He paid.

  (iii) The joining in a wheel with the wine infused shows that Christ is risen.

  (iv) The fragment that is broken off can be placed in the wine to show the uniting of body and blood as a reciprocal to the dipping of the bread.


The version of the Nicene Creed originally did not contain the "filioque" clause. The Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father" and not "proceeds from the Father and Son". It has been recently amended to conform to the Western creed.




Contact: Peter Eyland