The Lost History of Christianity, by Philip Jenkins

I’ve got this big ol’ stack of books I’ve read over the last few months that I keep meaning to post something about.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died
is a truly fascinating book. Jenkins covers the history of Christianity in Asia, showing that the church made it all the way to Japan by 1000 AD, only to be pushed back and nearly destroyed by Islam. And he points out many of the mistakes that the Asian church made that led to its near demise.

The truly interesting part of the book is its coverage of a part of Christianity that’s been largely ignored by historians. We tend to think of Christianity as a purely Mediterranean phenomenon until the Age of Exploration, but it’s not true. I’m a pretty good student of history, and yet I had no idea until this book that the church had had such great success in Asia for over 1,000 years.

Unfortunately, the book is not without its flaws. Jenkins does a poor job of explaining the dynamics of the doctrinal disputes that led to the Western churches treating the Asiatic churches as heretical. Many of the Asian churches were Nestorian. As explained by the Wikipedia,

Nestorianism is the doctrine that the two individual natures of Christ, the human and the divine, are joined in conjunction (“synapheia”) rather than in hypostatic union. The doctrine is identified with Nestorius (c. 386–c. 451), Archbishop of Constantinople. This view of Christ was condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431, and the conflict over this view led to the Nestorian schism, separating the Assyrian Church of the East from the churches adherent to the First Council of Ephesus, among them being the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and the Oriental Orthodox Church.

Nestorianism originated in the Church in the 5th century out of an attempt to rationally explain and understand the incarnation of the divine Logos, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity as Jesus Christ. Nestorianism taught that the human and divine essences of Christ are separate and that there are two natures, the man Jesus and the divine Logos, united in Christ. In consequence, Nestorians rejected such terminology as “God suffered” or “God was crucified”, because the humanity of Christ which suffered is separate from his divinity. Likewise, they rejected the term Theotokos (Giver of birth to God/Mother of God) as a title of the Virgin Mary, suggesting instead the title Christotokos (Giver of birth to Christ/Mother of Christ), because in their view he took only his human nature from his mother, while the divine Logos was pre-existent and external, so calling Mary “Mother of God” was misleading and potentially wrong.

Well, on reflection, it’s not that hard to see the problem. I suspect that many evangelicals would be Nestorian, as we aren’t comfortable calling Mary the “Mother of God” or saying that “God was crucified,” although we’d accept that Jesus is “God the Son.” And, frankly, most Western evangelicals have never given much thought to these kinds of questions. Jenkins clearly isn’t interested in the question — but while nearly trivial to our minds, these distinctions led to the separation of the European and Asian churches from each other — an important lesson in itself.

The Wikipedia gives a brief summary of the Nestorian church, consistent with what Jenkins explains in greater detail —

“Nestorian” Christianity reached China by 635, and its relics can still be seen in Chinese cities such as Xi’an. The Nestorian Stele, set up on 7 January 781 at the then-capital of Chang’an (modern Xi’an), describes the introduction of Christianity into China from Persia in the reign of Taizong of Tang, and documents found at the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang further elucidate the religion. About the same time Nestorian Christianity penetrated into Mongolia, eventually reaching as far as Korea. Some historians even suggest that they made it to the shores of Japan. In AD 797 , a Japanese history, Shoku Nihongi was published. It states that in AD 736 an envoy returned to Japan from China. He brought with him a Persian physician by the name of Limitsi (or Rimitsui, 李密医), and Kohfu (皇甫), a “dignitary of the church of the Luminous Religion”. The “Luminous religion” is (Nestorian) Christianity – because Christ is “the Light of the World”. The Syrian Christians of Kerala, India may have been converted by Nestorian missionaries in the 7th century AD according to one of the two dominant theories about their origin (the other, more traditional theory is that they were converted in 52AD by St Thomas or his delegates )

The Christian community later faced persecution from Emperor Wuzong of Tang (reigned 840–846). He suppressed all foreign religions, including Buddhism and Christianity, which then declined sharply in China. A Syrian monk visiting China a few decades later described many churches in rubble.

Nestorianism was particularly active in the 12th century, being a state religion of Khitans in the times of Yelü Dashi. It was also one of the widespread religions in the empire of Genghis Khan, and numerous Nestorian gravestones written in Syriac survive in what is today Kyrgyzstan.[6]

The Church experienced a significant revival during the Yuan dynasty. Marco Polo in the 1200s and other medieval Western writers indicate many Nestorian communities remaining in the Middle East, Central Asia, China and Mongolia. Rabban Bar Sauma, a Nestorian traveler from Shang-du (the “Xanadu” of Coleridge’s poem, in present-day inner Mongolia), became a diplomat for the Mongol Il-Khanate of Persia to the courts of Constantinople and Rome for talks of a Franco-Mongol alliance against the Muslims at this time. However, the Nestorians clearly were not as vibrant as they had been during Tang times. The communities seem to have petered out during the Ming dynasty from lack of popular support. The legacy of the missionaries remains in the Assyrian churches still to be found in Iraq, Iran, and India.

The remainder of the Asian churches were largely Jacobite or Monophysite. These churches preferred to express the idea of the Trinity in terms inconsistent with the Nicene Creed, but even today, the Catholic Church is unsure whether these believers should be considered heretics, believing in three Gods, or simply schismatics, not yielding to the councils of the church.

Now, if you try to read through the arguments that divided these churches from each other, you quickly get a headache and wonder why anyone cared about such n — until you realize that the church was in a battle to the death with the gods of paganism, and couldn’t afford any hint of polytheism. Nonetheless, in retrospect, it’s hard to see how the Western church managed to completely forget the many millions who were converted in Asia over such a long period.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of the book is Jenkins’ effort to explain how the Asian church collapsed. In part, it was due to Islam, of course, but the church remained strong for centuries after Islam gained political control. Rather, the biggest problem was the insistence of the church on seeking independence through alliances with neighboring Christian nations. And when those nations became threats, the Islamic rulers persecuted and killed the Christians, to eliminate disloyal subjects.

As Americans and , our natural sympathies are with the efforts of the Asian Christians to gain independence from Islamic rulers, But had the Christians followed the counsel of Paul to honor the king and not rebel, there might still be a potent Christian presence in Asia — and imagine how the world would be different if that were true!

As I said, it’s a fascinating read, filled with information about our Christian forebears that we never imagined. It’s not the best written book I’ve read lately. Jenkins is not a great story teller. But nonetheless, it’s a fascinating book.

Advertisements

3 Responses

  1. Indeed, it was a highly fascinating read, and I second your recommendation. Much of the practical meta-narrative that shapes Western Christianity today depends highly on the myth of the Mediterranean phenomenon — and since our own churches exist in sort of the same uncomfortable state of flux as existed between Roman, Orthodox, and Nestorian, I think our own editor-bishops could learn a great deal from the mistakes of the Asian leaders.

    As Galadriel says in the intro to the movie The Fellowship of the Ring, “Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”

  2. I’ve read other recommendations of this book recently and have been intrigued. Your explanation helps me understand a bit more. Am I wrong in seeing further support for Christians staying out of political affairs? That’s the impression I get, but it could just be that I want to see that.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Tim,

    I think the author is pretty clearly making a case against the church being aligned with the state — or with a neighboring “Christian” state. He points out that when the Christians get too close to their own country, they sell out. Teriq Azziz (wild guessing at spelling), Iraqi ambassador under Saddam Hussein, was a Christian. Many Iraqi Christians sold out to avoid persecution and to prosper. When the Christians supported foreign Christian kings, they were killed to prevent rebellion. When the Christians rebelled, they were killed. Christians who honored the king without selling out and who avoided foreign entanglements did best, often having very effective missionary activities despite being under non-Christian rule. Of course, there are some brands of Islam that won’t tolerate Christians in any event, but the author argues that to some extent that attitude arose due to persistent rebellion by the Christians. He’s no apologist for Islam, and likely not a conservative Christian. Very interesting stuff …

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: