Eastern Christianity on the Eve of Islam

Author: Dr. George Khoury


Dr. George Khoury

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 feelings.

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 or education.

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. LabibKobti from the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem (The Roman CatholicArchdiocese of Jerusalem).

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January 22, 1997