George Alexander –
OCP News Service- (Dept. of Church Research and Studies – Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE) – 26/1/18
To be frank, any kind of Orthodox – Assyrian Church alliance seems to be a distant dream. However, it is always good to keep our hopes high and keep praying for the distant dream. The Christian world is dominated by ecumenism and persecution and Orthodox Christian Churches (EO and OO) churches struggle hard keep their own families in order. Irrespective of all good things, the Orthodox world is dominated by schisms and separations. The Eastern and Oriental Orthodox unity itself remains a distant dream. Both Eastern and Oriental families struggle and find it hard to resolve schism and stabilize unity within their own families. In such conditions, it would be very hard to converse on Assyrian-Orthodox unity. Few thoughts are worth considering. My aim is not an in-depth analysis of Assyrian Theology or Christology. I have presented various arguments and the urgent need for Orthodox-Assyrian dialogue for cooperation and unity.
A Brief History of the Church of the East
As we know, the Assyrian churches are descendants of the Church of the East that has East Syriac Orthodox Christian origins using East Syriac Liturgy. St. Thomas the Apostle is the founder of this church according to traditions. Some experts believe that after founding Church of the East, St. Thomas left for India from Basra port in Iraq, and established Church in Malankara/Malabar (Kerala). The ancient Christians of Malankara are called St. Thomas Christians, who had close relations with the Church of the East. Church of East is wrongly called the Nestorian Church, because it is erroneously associated with his teachings. Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches has condemned the teachings of Nestorius.
The Church of East was ruled by Patriarch the East (Patriarch of Babylon, also called Catholicos) ruling from the Patriarchal See of Seleucia-Ctesiphon. Patriarch Timothy I was one of the most famous and extraordinary Primates of the Church of the East. He was well educated, author, outstanding leader and a great diplomat, even though he had to face a lot of incidents and problems during his reign; many of them were marked with controversies. One of the famous events is the debate on the Christian and Muslim faiths between Timothy I and Caliph Mahdi in 781 AD. It was Patriarch Timothy I, who organized an Ecclesiastical Province of India for the St. Thomas Christians in Malabar.
Unfortunately, the advent of Portuguese Roman Catholic Missionaries and the infamous actions of the ruthless imperialist Archbishop Aleixo de Menezes, destroyed and divided St. Thomas Christians. Moreover, Archbishop Aleixo destroyed the ancient Malabar Liturgical textbooks and many valuable documents, which totally erased the history, worship and indigenous liturgy of the ancient Orthodox St. Thomas Christians and their historical relations with the Church of the East .
Church of the East was one of the most powerful and biggest Eastern Christian Churches in the world. Church of the East was first Christian Church to take up large-scale evangelizing process of foreign lands. It had presence in several parts of the world including China, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Gulf region, Arabia, long before the arrival of Roman Catholic and other Western missionaries. Long before the arrival of Roman Western and Protestant missions, the Eastern Syriac Orthodox Church (Church of the East) evangelized several parts of the world. Several Persian crosses discovered in several parts of the world, underline their global missionary zeal and wider outreach.
The Church of East separated from rest of the Orthodox world by Council of Ephesus in 431. Later, the Schism of 1552 divided the Church of the East into Assyrian Church of the East and Chaldean Catholic Church when a part of the Church of East entered in full communion with Rome. One of the major reasons was that patriarchal succession was hereditary in Church of the East from the middle of the 15th century. Another schism in 1968 resulted in the formation of Ancient Church of the East.
A Genocide Photo. http://www.aina.org
Persecution and Decline
The decline of the Church of the East began with the attack on Assyrian population in Mesopotamia (Iraq), by Amir Timur, who was a Turkish-Mongolian conqueror. His attacks resulted in complete eradication of Christians in several parts of Mesopotamia. Assyrian Christians have undergone severe persecution in modern times in Iraq, Turkey, and elsewhere. During Sefyo the Turkish Ottoman, rulers slaughtered countless Assyrian Christians alongside Armenians and Greeks. In recent times, the severe persecution from ISIS and other Islamic terrorist organizations in Syria and Iraq has seriously affected Assyrian Christians. Large numbers of Assyrians were replaced; many were kidnapped tortured, raped, and murdered. Some of them escaped and others were released upon paying ransom. The persecution, atrocities, and collateral damage suffered by Assyrian Christians cannot be expressed in words. Like Armenian, Serbian, other Orthodox, and Eastern Churches, they are living martyrs of Jesus Christ.
Church of the East Today
•Assyrian Church of the East – led by Catholicos-Patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East seated in Erbil.
•Ancient Church of the East – led by Catholicos Patriarch of the Ancient Church of the East seated in Bagdad.
•Ancient Church of the East of the Old Calendarists – led by Archbishop of Old Calendar Church seated in Germany.
•Uniate Chaldean Syrian Catholic Church (in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church) led by Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans seated in Bagdad.
“The Christology of the Church of the East, as well as the Nestorius himself, is not far from the Chalcedonian formula. Though the words are different the teachings is very much the same. The Christology of Chalcedon is Anthiochene in emphasis. In other words, the Chalcedonian formula was the triumph of Nestorian Christology.” – His Beatitude Aphrem – Metropolitan of Malabar and India.
Nestorius was the Orthodox Archbishop of Constantinople. Some experts believe that Nestorius tried to find a balance between Divine and Human nature of Christ. Anyhow he was strongly condemned by St. Cyril of Alexandria, who is the common father for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches, Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran denominations. Many theological experts have stated that Nestorius is wrongly associated with Church of the East. The late lamented Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV once stated “Nestorius has nothing to do with us; he was a Greek.” Although Nestorius is venerated as a saint by the Assyrian Church, Nestorius was not their founder nor did Church of the East was familiar with his language. Nestorius was Greek and had no connection with Syriac or the East Syriac Churches.
“The Christology of Nestorius, if Orthodox, should be reconcilable, not withstanding angry denials on both sides, with Cyril’s. In truth, it must be admitted, the line which separates them to this, as on all other issues, is either very thin or nonexistent.” – M.V Anastos – Greek Orthodox theologian.
Theological arguments, theological conceptual aspects proposed by Nestorius have been a great influence in forming the theology and doctrines of the Church of the East, but they are not a Nestorian church. Church of the East or Assyrian Churches shares many theological concerns raised by Nestorius. Dr Sebastian Brock states that, the writers of Church of the East spoke high of Greek theologian Theodore of Mopsuestia, during the period of Christological controversies. The theology of Theodore had high influence on the formation of the theology of the Church of East. However, the Church of the East venerates three Greek theologians – Theodore, Nestorius and Diodore.
“The association between the Church of the East and Nestorius is of a very tenuous nature, and to continue to call that Church ‘Nestorian’ is, from a historical point of view, totally misleading and incorrect- quite apart from being highly offensive and a breach of ecumenical good manner.” – Dr Sebastian Brock.
Fr. John S. Romanides the famous Orthodox theologian remains critical of Theodoret and Nestorius. He states, “Thus, when Theodoret says that He who was born of the Virgin is consubstantial with God the Father, he does not mean that He who is consubstantial with the Father was born of Mary in the flesh. The name Christ seems to be the only one Theodoret allows to be predicated of the Logos in the flesh, and by means of this he avoids saying with Nestorius that Christ is the Son of David and Son of God united in His (Christ’s) One Person. Yet he clearly follows Nestorius by distinguishing the Only-begotten Son and Christ in the Creed by insisting that the name Jesus Christ, and not the title of Only-begotten Son, is the recipient of the things human such as birth, suffering, death, burial and resurrection. His attempt to explain why only the name Christ of all things human should be predicated of the Logos in the flesh is a Nestorian failure.”
Fr Dr V C Samuel the great Orthodox theologian in his article Christological Controversy and vision of the Church states that St Cyril of Alexandria had made it clear that his concerns were of Christology and not of Mariology. According to Cyril of Alexandria, questioning of Theotokos with reference to Mary would imply that the Child in the womb was not really God incarnate, hence Nestorius contradicted the faith of Nicea and so he should be condemned. This argument is valid form the viewpoint of Cyril and his supporters, but not in the light of tradition maintained in the Anthochiene School. This basic truth was not raised in ancient times and Nestorius was condemned and thrown out of the Church.