China: Its Dyophysite Heritage

Friday, June 3, 2011

A brief explanation regarding Nestorianism: It is the Christological heresy advanced by Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, holding the view that the divine nature and human nature of Christ are loosely separate. It was condemned at the First Council of Ephesus and the Council of Chalcedon. The patriarch was banished to the east.

The Nestorian Cross in China(?)
A rather fascinating fact is that it actually reached the far-east; through the Silk Road, unto Central Asia—in what we know today as China—thus establishing the first [dyophysite] Christian Churches in the region.

The Nestorian Stele, erected in Chang'an
(781 CE).
Dyophisite Christianity in China was known as Jingjiao (景教), which means “the luminous religion.”  A Sassanid[1] named Ishoyahb II gave encouragement to who were interested in bringing Christianity to China.[2] Ishoyahb sent a delegation to the Chinese Tang emperor, led by a bishop known to the Chinese as Alopen. Now Alopen was well received when he reached China in 635 CE, in the then imperial capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an).[3] Part of the monastery back then was the library pagoda found on the site in Zhouzhi, forty-five miles southwest of modern-day Xi’an. More on this later.

The Christian Church was said to have fallen following the end of the Tang dynasty. A monk reported to the Patriarch of the Church of the East[4] in 986 CE:
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.[5]
Tablet attributed
to dyophysite Christianity
Nevertheless, dyophysite Christianity continued to spread all over Central Asia and reached as far as Mongolia. It had finally returned during the Mongol invasion, under the Yuan dynasty. This conquest by the esteemed Genghis Khan promoted Dyophysite Christianity throughout Asia from the Black Sea to the China Sea.[6] By Genghis Khan’s alliance with Christian Kerait Mongols, a series of Great Khans (including Kublai Khan) had Christian mothers.

Priests, in procession during
Palm Sunday
(wall painting, 7th century CE)
However, the Yuans were beginning to return to the rich and ancient cultures of pre-Christian China, and successive Yuan monarchs proved themselves as incompetent.[7] The xenophobic nature of the following Ming dynasty in 1368 proved to be a fatal blow to the dyophysite Churches in the region. Furthermore, emissaries from Rome had penetrated the region, giving Christians the view that Nestorianism had been condemned and is heretical. The rise of Mohammedanism in the Middle-East made matters worse for the Chinese Christians.[8]

It disappeared for good in the 14th century, as it were more likely that the Christians in China had been expelled by the Ming rulers. Christianity in China would not flourish again, until the 16th and 17th century, after the Roman Catholic missions.

Centuries later, the aforementioned monastery was used by Taoists and Buddhists after the fall of Christianity in the far-east, but still retained its name, Ta Qin. The survival of the Ta Qin monastery pagoda is evidence of the possibility that Christian tradition has been kept. It was a link between China’s Christian past and its Taoist-Buddhist present.

Ta Qin pagoda
The small area in the former imperial capital of Xi’an (where the Ta Qin pagoda is located) became the seat of Chinese rural Catholicism, and has remained that way even until today. A lot of parish churches were built, and the possibility that Chinese Christians welcomed (in secret) Western missionaries has been considered.[9]

It is worth noting that dozens of Christian texts have survived. These include the Pentateuch (牟世法王), Psalms (多惠圣王), the Gospels (阿思翟利容), Acts of the Apostles () and the Pauline epistles (宝路法王).

There are still a lot of things, however, that historians do not know about the Christian heritage in Central Asia. Possibilities of their theories are still to be investigated thoroughly, but one could grasp a clear view of how rich the ecclesiastical heritage of the Church established by Jesus Christ is.[10]

Maybe God planned it all along, allowing Nestorianism to thrive and dissolve in China to be replaced by orthodox Catholicism, allowing Chinese Christians to accept the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon. After all, Nestorianism is a heresy which had been condemned by the universal Church.

Today, oppression of orthodox Christians looms over modern-day China. Catholics are not free to worship, unless of course, they join the state-controlled “Catholic Church,” which is quite different. The years of persecution that the Christians in China has experienced (and is still experiencing) goes back to the Ming dynasty. But let us remind the Chinese Christians the words of our Lord, Jesus Christ:
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my Church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18, RSV)
Finem. +

By Jared Dale T. Combista

[1] The Sassanid Empire ruled Iran during the beginning of the fall of pagan Rome
[2] Christianity: The First Three-Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch, p. 252
[3] Although it is worth noting that silkworm eggs had reached Constantinople, brought by Nestorian monks as early as 551 CE (West Goes East: Nestorianism in China)
[4] The Church of the East is also referred to as the Nestorian Church, the Church of Persia, the Sassanid Church, or, in modern times, the Assyrian Church of the East.
[5] Keung. Ching Feng. pp. 235.
[6] Ibid. pp. 270 – 271
[7] Ibid.
[8] The Chinese repository, Volume 13, pp. 474 - 475
[9] Ibid. p. 272
[10] Although one has to consider that dyophysitism is a heretical belief.


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