Missions History of the East– Can These Bones Live?

Nestorian cross of the Yuan dynasty

Occasionally I get to teach Missions History, and one time I was able to teach Church History. As I reflect on these topics, I am struck again by the shocking lack of respect given to the missions movement(s) of the Eastern Church in the first millennium (primarily) and to a lesser extent in the second millennium. Why is that? A few guesses:

  • Popularized Missiology tends to come in two major varieties– Roman Catholic and Protestant. Both come out of the Western Church not the Eastern Church(es). Hardly surprising that they would focus on the missional stream they grew out of.
  • Related to the first, the Church(es) of the East are often seen as schismatic or even heretical by the Western Churches. The term “Nestorian” used by many in the West for the first millennium missionaries in the East is a term of heresy– although it is doubtful that the term really applied (and now where most Christians can’t even understand the difference between the modalism of the “United Pentecostal Church” and orthodox Trinitarianism, it is doubtful that many would consider actual Nestorians or Monophysites heretical anyway)
  • Related to the second, the Western churches have tended to seek to minimize or squelch missions of the Eastern churches. In the Crusades, the Western church tended to attack churches of the East.  Excommunications (such as the bizarre last straw of the Great Schism in 1054AD), competition (such as “Latin Rite” churches set up in Eastern lands), book burnings (such as in the Thomasite churches of India by the Portuguese), and general uncooperativeness (such as in dealing with the Mongol Empire) were the norm. With Protestant missions today, there is often a general belief that Eastern churches lack “saving faith” (strange since there’s is a faith that has survived 2000 years of minority status and considerable periodic persecution).
  • Much of the missionary gains of the Eastern Church disappeared in the 11th through 13th centuries. There is a tendency (especially among Protestants, but perhaps with all people to some extent) to see the “Body of Christ” as existing only in the NOW. We are tied to the church that exists now… not to the church of the past or the future. Why? I honestly don’t know. In the end, there seems to be a feeling that the Church of the East ultimately was a missional dead-end. A failed experiment dead and gone.

Since I teach in the Philippines, I feel there is a real need to teach missions that has flowed through Asia in the first millennium and into the second millenium. While the church may not have reached the Philippines until the 1500s (although some believe traders brought it far earlier on a small-scale) the church has been alive and well in Asia for two thousand years. But here are a few reasons that I think that all Christians should study Missions of the Eastern Church.

  1. Three of the most successful missionary movements in Christian history involved Asian/Eastern Churches. One of these is the so-called Nestorian missionary movement that swept from modern-day Syria and Iraq across the Silk Road(s) to China and beyond in the first millennium. This was an amazing accomplishment during a period that missions in the West was almost non-existent (except with the Celtic missions). Less immediately impresseive, but ultimately more enduring was the mission movement of the Orthodox church into Slavic lands inthe first millenium. The third great missionary movement was the Russian Orthodox movement that swept across Northern Asia and into parts of North America in the 1700s. While this may have been tied to expansion of the Russian Empire, that is often true in mission movements anyway. And in the case of the Russian Orthodox movement, it has also endured. To study missions history while ignoring these three major movements is,  I feel, inconceivable.
  2. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots as part of its present mission. Christianity, although founded in Asia, and having most of its early centers in modern-day, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, has become thought of by many as a European religion (or a religion of Europe and the Americas). Frankly, such a view is woefully out of date. However, it is also historically flawed. The largest continent with the largest population with the largest number unreached is Asia. Christianity needs to embrace its Asian roots and its Asian history. The growth of the Chinese church in recent years has been helped with the understanding that Christianity is a “Chinese Religion” dating back at least to 635AD — only three years after the death of Islam’s founder, and only 34 years after the first major Western missionary work in Great Britain. Christianity was well established in India within the first two centuries of the church age. It has been argued that the “bhakti” devotion found in the Bhagavad Gita, was influenced by Christians in India. The first “Christian kingdoms” were in Asia (Osrhoene and Armenia) not Rome.
  3. The missionary movements of the church of the east are far from gone. There are millions of Christians in Asia today who are the product of the outreach of the Eastern churches. Churches survive throughout the Middle East and India. Some, like the Armenian church are quite strong. They are not just part of our past, but part of our present. The Orthodox Church has, in the last century, woken up to missions, and has again become an effective missionary force.
  4. We can learn from them. The missionary movements of the East were wildly successful… and disastrous. What can we learn from them both positively and negatively? What can we gain from them in terms of contextualization and strategy? We can learn about how to do Inter-religious Dialogue from the Nestorians (Consider the Apology of Timothy I). The Eastern churches were interacting peacefully with the Asian great religions when the Western church only knew interaction through the sword. The  Eastern church were converting people from those same great religions centuries before the Western church recognized generally that they can be brought to Christ.

This is not a call to switch from the Western church to the Eastern. Rather it is a call to recognize that we all are part of the Global Church and can learn from the Global Church.

Ultimately, I would like to add the thought that the past can come alive again. The church in China is thriving in part due to mission work centuries earlier that appeared to have died. The church in India and Syria and more have deep, deep roots that perhaps can be watered and tended to bear new fruit. I would like to apply a passage of Scripture (somewhat out of context) to God’s work in the East. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel,

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me down in the middle of the valley; and it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them round about, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord GOD, You know.”  -Exekiel 17:2-3

Quote from Philip Jenkins and Timothy of Seleucia

This is an extended quote from Philip Jenkins book, “The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Goden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia– and How it Died” (HarperOne, 2008).  I suppose it may be a longer quote than normal copyrights approve. But I do heartily recommend getting the book for those who are interested in Christian history… even more so since Asian and African Christianity are gaining in importance. Interfaith dialogue and interaction are also gaining in import, so there is much to be gained from this book.  This section speaks of Bishop Timothy living in the 8th and 9th centuries AD in Selucia. I am quoting from pages 16-19.

“Timothy’s church also had critical interactions with Islam, inevitably because for the past century and a half most Eastern Christians had lived under Muslim political power. Christians largely flourished under that authority, although subject to legal disadvantages. Timothy lived in a universe that was culturally and spiritually Christian but politically Muslim, and he coped quite comfortably with that situation. As faithful subjects, the patriarch and his clergy prayed for the caliph and his family. The catholicos was a key figure at the court of the Muslim caliph, and when the city of Seleucia itself went the way of ancient Babylon, fading into ruin in its turn, the caliphate moved its capital to Baghdad; and Timothy naturally followed. Most of his patriarchate coincided with the legendary caliphate of Haran al-Rashid, the era of the Arabian Nights.

As in the case of Buddhism, Christians had to engage intellectually with Islam, and the interactions were impressive, even moving. Timothy’s famous dialogue with the caliph al-Mahdi survives as a precious monument of civilized, intelligent religious exchange. …. He asked the king to imagine that

we are all of us as in a dark house in the middle of the night. If at night and in a dark house, a precious pearl happens to fall in the midst of people, and all become aware of its existence, every one would strive to pick up the pearl, which will not fall to the lot of all but to the lot of one only, while one will get hold of the pearl itself, another one of a piece of glass, a third one a stone or a bit of earth, but every one will be happy and proud that he is the real possessor of the pearl. When, however, night and darkness disappear, and light and day arise, then every one of those people who had believed that they had the pearl, would extend and stretch their hand towards the light, which alone can show what everyone has in hand. The one who possesses the pearl will rejoice and be happy and pleased with it, while those who had in hand pieces of glass and bits of stone only will weep and be sad, and will sigh and shed tears.

In the same way, Timothy said, the pearl of true faith had fallen into the transient mortal world, and each faith naively believed that it alone possessed it. All he could claim– and all the caliph could assert in response– was that some faiths could see enough evidence that theirs was the real pearl, although the final truth would not be known in this world.

Timothy could speak so freely because Eastern Christians played such a critical role of building Muslim politics and culture, and they still had a near stranglehold over the ranks of administration. Their wide linguistic background made the Eastern churches invaluable resources for rising empires in search of diplomats, advisers, and scholars. Eastern Christians dominated the cultural and intellectual life of what was only slowly becoming the “Muslim world,” and this cultural strength starkly challenges standard assumptions about the relationship between the two faiths. It is common knowledge that medieval Arab societies were far ahead of those of Europe in terms of science, philosophy, and medicine, and that Europeans derived much of their scholarship from the Arab world; yet in the early centuries, this cultural achievement was usually Christian and Jewish rather than Muslim. … Timothy himself translated Aristotle’s Topics from Syriac into Arabic, at the behest of the caliph. …

It was during Timothy’s time that Baghdad became a legendary intellectual center, and the caliph’s creation of the famous House of Wisdom, the fountainhead of later Islamic scholarship. But this was the direct successor of the Christian “university” of Jundishapur, and it borrowed many Nestorian scholars. One early head of the House of Wisdom was the Christian Arab Hunayn, who began the massive project of translating the Greek classics into Arabic: the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, as well as medical authorities like Hippocrates and Galen.”

It is sad that the congenial relations were not mirrored in Western Christianity. It is also sad that the usually peaceful relations in “Muslim” territories between Muslims and Eastern Christians ended starting in the 13th century continuing until today. However, as more and more Christians live in countries whose government is not aligned with Christian beliefs (be they Muslim, Buddhist, Secularist, or otherwise) we may find better models from the 1st Millennium Eastern Christianity in how to relate in their societies.