Eastern Christianity On The Eve Of Islam
The Early Differences
In the fourth and fifth centuries opposition to Christian thought, as
represented by Byzantium and Antioch, resulted in schisms, "heresies"
from the "orthodox" viewpoint. These schisms as well as the rejection of
Greek language and culture were expressions of national awakening.
The Syrian spirit was asserting itself against the dominance of Greek
culture. The Syrians as a people were no more hellenized at this time
than they were to be romanized later. They were alienated from their
Byzantine masters because of ideological as well as economic and
political motives. The Christian Byzantines were autocratic in their
rule and oppressed the population with heavy taxation. According to
Hitti they disarmed the natives and had but little regard for their
Even in religious matters they displayed less tolerance than their pagan
predecessors. In the fourth and fifth centuries theological controversy
was a major preoccupation for the man of the street as well as among the
intelligentia. It centered around the nature of Christ and related
topics. The result was numerous religious schisms and heresies, some of
which used the tools of Aristotelian logic and applied Neo-Platonic
principles. The protagonists of these heresies were of Syrian nativity
Arius and Apollinaris
Chief among them was Arius (d. ca. 335), whose system was condemned in
the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. As a reaction against Arianism, with
its emphasis on the humanity of Christ, Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicesa
(d. ca. 390), affirmed that while Christ has a true human body and a
true human soul (that part of man common to him and the animal), the
Logos or Word occupied in him the place of the spirit, which is the
highest part of man. Historian Duchesne states somewhat excessively that
Apollinarism links Arianism and Nestorianism by opposing the one and
paving the way for the other.
Nestorianism believed in the two natures of Christ. Though it reacted
against Arianism and Apollinarism, it failed to reflect the doctrine of
Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Nestorianism refused to attribute to the divine
nature the human acts and sufferings of Jesus and refused to call Mary
the Theotokos—mother of God; for it the right word was Christotokos
Mother of Christ. Nestorians distinguished the two natures in Christ and
affirmed their union. However, they did not conceive this union to be of
a metaphysical nature, but rather of a psycho-logical or moral order. In
other words, Nestorians held that in Jesus a divine person (the Logos)
and a human person were joined in perfect harmony of action but not in
the unity of a single "hypostasis": i.e., "uqnum". As far as
Chalcedonian orthodoxy was concerned, the theological inadequacy of
Nestorian doctrine consisted in its view of the hypostatic union
(hypostatic means the perfect union of the human nature end divine
nature in the one person of Christ). For the Nestorians, the union was
not a personal, but a moral union. Justly or not, Nestorian Christology
was condemned by the council of Ephesus in 431.
The differences over the One Nature of Christ (Monophysitism).
Next to Nestorianism, Monophysitism produced the greatest schism that
the Eastern Church had suffered. Strictly speaking, the Monophysites
were those who did not accept the doctrine of the two natures (divine
and human) in the one person of Jesus as it was formulated by the
council of Chalcedon (451). They took for their watchword "the one
nature of the incarnate Word of God", because the Monophysites believed
that this terminology was the most natural and proper way to guard
against Nestorian formulations. The question of the terminology is of
vital importance in this matter, because there was no clearly defined
theological language and terminology at the time. Thus, it seems that
the dispute between monophysites and Chalcedonian orthodoxy was mainly
one of the terms: to Monophysites, terms "nature" and "person"
synonymous, and to those maintained the two natures of Christ, the terms
"nature" and "essence."
This does not mean, that there was no difference in ideas or that both
parties stressed equally certain ideas; the case was that some stressed
the unity and majesty of Christ, other stressed his two natures. In the
fifth and early sixth centuries, Monophysitism won to its doctrine the
major part north Syria and also fell heir to Apollinarism in the South.
Its success was due largely to the missionary seal of Syrian monk
Barsauma, bishop of Nisibis (ca. 484-96), and to the personality of
Severus, Patriarch of Antioch.
The Ghassanids and other Syrian tribes espoused the same doctrine. The
Monophysite Church in Syria was organized by Jacob Bardaeus, ordained
bishop of Edessa about 541 and died in 578. Consequently, the Syrian
Monophysites came to be called Jacobites. The western part of the Syrian
(Monophysite) Church became entirely separated from the eastern (later
Nestorian) Church. From Syria the Monophysite doctrine spread into
Armenia to the north and Egypt to the south. Armenians and Copts to this
day adhere to Monophysite doctrine. In Syria and Mesopotamia the number
of its adherents has been on the decrease ever since Islam became the
dominant power in those lands.
Eastern Churches on the Eve of Islam
This is briefly the situation of the Eastern Christianity just before
the rise of Islam. By this time the Syrian Christian Church had split
into several communities. As mentioned earlier there was first the East
Syrian Church or the Church of the East which was later called
Nestorian. In the year 484 Nestorian theology was declared by the Synod
of Beth Papat in Persia as the official theology of the East Syrian
Church. From this date on, one can accurately designate the East Syrian
Church as "Nestorian." However, the term "Nestorian" was applied to it
only at a later date (19th Century), by Roman Catholics, to convey the
stigma of differences in contradistinction to those who joined the
Catholic Church as Uniats and received the name Chaldeans.
With its God-and-man doctrine of Christology (in contrast to the
orthodox doctrine which held that while in Christ two natures existed,
these were moulded into one person), its protest against the deification
of the Virgin Mary and its unusual vitality and missionary zeal, this
Church at the rise of Islam was the most potent factor in Syrian culture
which had impressed itself upon the Near East from Egypt to Persia.
Members of this community from the fourth century onward had studied and
translated Greek philosophical works and spread them throughout Syria
and Mesopotamia. From Edessa the Church extended eastward into Persia.
Even under Islam this Church had an unparalleled record of missionary
activity. And there was, on the other hand, the western branch of the
Syrian Church with its God-man Christology and its exaltation of the
Virgin to the celestial rank, and which was comparatively lacking in
missionary endeavour. Its theology was monophysite, giving prominence to
the unity of Christ at the expense of the human element. In Syria the
Monophysite communion was called by hostile Greeks "Jacobites" after
Jacob Baradacus, bishop of Edessa in the mid-sixth century.
The Ghassanids and other Syrian Arabs adopted this creed before the
advent of Islam. The so-called Jacobite Church thus became preponderant
in Syria, as the Nestorian Church had done in Persia. Syriac was and has
remained the language of both churches; but Greek was also taught in the
cloisters, and the Jacobites seconded the efforts made by the Nestorians
in transmitting Greek thought to Syria and then to Islam. Qinnasrin was
a great center in North Syria for disseminating Monophysite doctrine and
Greek knowledge. Jacobite scholars were depositories of whatever
sciences were cultivated or transmitted in those days.
Armenian, Coptic-Ethiopic, Maronite, and Melkite Churches
Besides the Jacobite Church of Syria, the Armenian Church and the
Coptic-Ethiopic Church are independent descendants of the Monophysite
rite. With all their interest in Greek learning the two estranged sister
Syrian Churches of the East and the West arose and developed largely as
a reaction of the Syrian society against the Hellenising influences of
Byzantium and Rome. Jacobitism and Nestorianism, while they professed
different Christologies, were alike protests against foreign intrusion
and the process of syncretism that was turning Christianity,
historically a Syrian religion, into a Greco-Roman institution.
Another shoot of the ancient Church of Syria is the Maronite, which owes
its origin to its patron Saint Maron (d. Ca. 410), an ascetic monk about
whose life not much is known. He is probably that "Maron, the monk
priest" to whom John Chrysostom, on his way into exile, addressed an
epistle soliciting prayers and news. The Maronite Church has been
charged with espousing the Monothelite cause (one will in Christ). But
later Maronite apologists, beginning with alDuwayhi (d. 1704) and
ibn-Namrun (d. 1711) have claimed continued Chalcedonian orthodoxy for
their Church throughout the ages. The East and the West Syrian Churches
with their ramifications did not comprise all Syrian Churches. There
remained a small body which under the impact of Greek theology from
Antioch and Constantinople succumbed and accepted the decrees of the
Council of Chalcedon (451). Thereby this community secured imperial
orthodoxy not only escaped excommunication, but obtained protection,
even patronage from the state church and the imperial city. By way of
reproach their opponents—centuries later—nicknamed them "Melkitesites,"
royalists (from Syriac malka, king). Gradually, Greek replaced Syriac
Melkite language of ritual and the liturgy gave place to the Byzantines.
Al-Bushra (from Arabic, means good news) is created by Rev. Labib
Kobti from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (The Roman Catholic
Archdiocese of Jerusalem).
January 22, 1997