Most of us are familiar with the story of the gospel traveling west into Europe, as this begins in the New Testament itself. However, historians like Andrew Walls and Samuel Moffett have done great work in tracking the spread of the Gospel east into Asia.
We now know that this began as early as the first century through the work of the Syriac church. It is a very exciting story and Wall’s CD series Six Continent Christianity; The Worldwide Sweep of Christian History (available from Regent College in Vancouver), and Moffett’s two volume A History of Christianity in Asia, both document it well. (Walls says there is much more to discover and encourages anyone who wants to break new ground in church history to learn Syriac and ancient Chinese!)
Philip Jenkins, writing in the journal Books and Culture (March/April 2007) tells one story that illustrates the dynamism and geographic spread of the movement.
The Chinese-born Rabban Bar Sauma, appeared in European courts around 1290 as the ambassador of the Mongol emperor. European kings and bishops were amazed to find that this strange creature was a Christian bishop, who owed his loyalty not to a Roman Pope or a Byzantine Patriarch but to a Nestorian Katholikos residing in Baghdad. Europeans were shocked to discover that the Christian world stretched much further than they had ever dreamed, to the shores of the Pacific [going east, not west!]. Bar Sauma told them how “many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians.” He, in turn, was surprised to find that Christianity was so well established in Europe, and was not just an Asian affair, as he had assumed. The Nestorian church, perhaps the greatest Christian missionary body in all history, operated equally comfortably in Syriac, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese.
Jenkins, speaking of the spread of the gospel in the developing world comments that “Christianity is a religion born in Africa and Asia, and in our lifetimes, it is going home.”
The Nestorians, long regarded as mildly heretical, are being reinstated as orthodox Christians by contemporary scholars.
Nestorius, the great bishop of Constantinople, was excommunicated by the council of Ephesus in 431. But the grounds for his excommunication are dubious. The theological terms used in the debates were in three languages: Latin, Greek, and Syriac; this created great confusion. The translation and interpretation of technical words caused the discussions to bog down.
Perhaps more fundamental to Nestorius being deposed as bishop was the struggle for political power between the church authorities of the declining Roman world. The council was rife with backstage political maneuvering.
Nestorius had wholeheartedly affirmed the foundational decisions of the council of Nicea in 325— in fact, one of his first acts as bishop of Constantinople was to pull down a heretical Arian chapel!
Mark Dickens succinctly sums up the doctrinal position of the Nestorian churches:
From his exile, Nestorius condemned the heresy falsely attributed to him, that the human Jesus and the divine Christ were two different persons, and asserted that Jesus Christ was one Lord, indivisible in his person (prosopon), but containing two natures (ousiai), the divine and the human.
The Nestorian bishops, in a statement drawn up in 612, stated: “There is a wonderful connection and indissoluble union between [Christ’s] human nature, which was assumed, and God the Word who assumed it, a union existing from the first moment of conception. This teaches us to recognize only one Person (parsopa), our Saviour Jesus Christ, Son of God, begotten in the nature of his Godhead by the Father before all ages, without beginning, and born finally in the nature of his Manhood of the holy Virgin, the daughter of David.