EASTERN CHRISTIANITY ON THE EVE OFISLAM

By Dr. George Khoury

The Early Differences:

In the fourth and fifth centuries oppositionto Christian thought, as represented by Byzantium and Antioch, resultedin schisms, "heresies" from the "orthodox" viewpoint.These schisms as well as the rejection of Greek language and culture wereexpressions of national awakening.

The Syrian spirit was asserting itselfagainst the dominance of Greek culture. TheSyrians as a people were no more hellenized at this time than they wereto be romanized later. They were alienated from their Byzantine mastersbecause of ideological as well as economic and political motives. The ChristianByzantines were autocratic in their rule and oppressed the population withheavy taxation. According to Hitti they disarmed the natives and had butlittle regard for their feelings.

Even in religiuos matters they displayed less tolerance than their paganpredecessors. In the fourth and fifth centuries theological controversywas a major preoccupation for the man of the street as well as among theintelligentia. It centered around the nature of Christ and related topics.The result was numerous religious schisms and heresies, some of which usedthe tools of Aristotelian logic and applied NeoPlatonic principles. Theprotagonsits of these heresies were of Syrian nativity or education.

Arius and Apollinaris

Chief among them was Arius (d. ca. 335), whose system was condemnedin the council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. As areaction against Arianism, with its emphasis on the humanity of Christ,Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicesa (d. ca. 390), affirmed that while Christhas a true human body and a true human soul (that part of man common tohim and the animal), the Iogos or Word occupied in him the place of thespirit, which is the highest part of man. Historian Duchesne states somewhatexcessively that Apollinarism links Arianism and Nestorianism by opposingthe one and paving the way for the other. Nestorianism

Nestorianism believed in the two naturesof Christ. Though it reacted against Arianism and Apollinarism, it failedto reflect the doctrine of Chalcedonian orthodoxy. Nestorianism refusedto attribute to the divine nature the human acts and sufferings of Jesusand refused to call Mary the Theotokos-mother of God; for it the rightword was Christotokos Mother of Christ. Nestorians distinguished the twonatures in Christ and affirmed their union. However, they did not conceivethis union to be of a metaphysical nature, but rather of a psycho-logicalor moral order. In other words, Nestorians held that in Jesus a divineperson (the Logos) and a human person were joined in perfect harmony ofaction but not in the unity of a single "hypostasis": i.e., "uqnum".As far as Chlacedonian orthodoxy was concerned, the theological inadequacyof Nestorian doctrine consisted in its view of the hypostatic union (hypostaticmeans the perfect union of the human nature end divine nature in the oneperson of Christ). For the Nestorians, the union was not a personal, buta moral union. Justly or not, Nestorian Christology was condemned by thecouncil of Ephesus in 431.

The differences over the One Nature of Christ(Monophysitism).

Next to Nestorianism, Monophysitism produced the greatest schism thatthe Eastern Church had suffered. Strictly speaking, the Monophysites werethose 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 councilof Chalcedon (451). They took for their watchword "the onenature of the incarnate Word of God", because the Monophysites believedthat this terminology was the most natural and proper way to guard againstNestorian formulations. The question of the terminology is of vital importancein this matter, because there was no clearly defined theological languageand terminology at the time. Thus, it seems that the dispute between monophysitesand ChIacedonian orthodoxy was mainly one of the terms: to Monophysites,terms "nature" and "person" synonymous, and to thosemaintained the two natures of Christ, the terms "nature" and"essence."

This does not mean, that there was no difference in ideas or that bothparties stressed equally certain ideas; the case was that some stressedthe unity and majesty of Christ, other stressed his two natures. In theftfth and early sixth centuries, Monophysitism won to its doctine the majorpart north Syria and also fell heir to Apollinarism in the South. Its successwas dur largly to the missionary seal of Syrian monk Barsauma, bishop ofNisibis (ca. 484-96), and to the personality of Severus, Patriarch of Antioch.

The Ghassanids and other Syrian tribes espoused the same doctrine. TheMonophysite Church in Syria was organized by Jacob Bardaeus, ordained bishopof Edessa about 541 and died in 578. Consequently, the Syrian Monophysitescame 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 andEgypt to the south. Armenians and Copts to this day adhere to Monophysitedoctrine. In Syria and Mesopotamia the number of its adherents has beenon 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 Eastem Christianity just beforethe rise of Islam. By this time the Syrian Christian Church had split intoseveral communities. As mentioned earlier there was first the East SyrianChurch or the Church of the East which was later called Nestorian. In theyear 484 Nestorian theology was declared by the Synod of Beth Papat inPersia as the official theology of the East Syrian Church. From this dateon, one can accurately designate the East Syrian Church as "Nestorian."However, the term "Nestorian" was applied to it only at a laterdate (19th Century), by Roman Catholics, to convey the stigma of differencesin contradistinction to those who joined the Catholic Church as Uniatsand received the name Chaldeans.

With its God-and-man doctrine of Christology (in contrast to the orthodoxdoctrine which held that while in Christ two natures existed, these weremoulded into one person), its protest against the deification of the VirginMary and its unusual vitality and missionary zeal, this Church at the riseof Islam was the most potent factor in Syrian culture which had impresseditself upon the Near East from Egypt to Persia. Members of this communityfrom the fourth century onward had studied and translated Greek philosophicalworks and spread them throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. From Edessa theChurch extended eastward into Persia. Even under Islam this Church hadan unparalleled record of missionary activity. And there was, on the otherhand, the western branch of the Syrian Church with its God-man Christologyand its exaltation of the Virgin to the celestial rank, and which was comparativelylacking in missionary endeavour. Its theology was monophysite, giving prominenceto the unity of Christ at the expense of the human element. In Syria theMonophysite 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 theadvent of Islam. The so-called Jacobite Church thus became preponderantin Syria, as the Nestorian Church had done in Persia. Syriac was and hasremained the language of both churches; but Greek was also taught in thecloisters, and the Jacobites seconded the efforts made by the Nestoriansin transmitting Greek thought to Syria and then to Islam. Qinnasrin wasa great center in North Syria for disseminating Monophysite doctrine andGreek knowledge. Jacobite scholars were depositories of whatever scienceswere cultivated or transmitted in those days.

Armenian, Coptic-Ethiopic, Maronite, and MelkiteChurches

Besides the Jacobite Church of Syria, the Armenian Church and the Coptic-EthiopicChurch are independent descendants of the Monophysite rite. With all theirinterest in Greek learning the two estranged sister Syrian Churches ofthe East and the West arose and developed largely as a reaction of theSyrian 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 syncretismthat was turning Christianity, historically a Syrian religion, into a GrecoRoman institution.

Another shoot of the ancient Church of Syria is the Maronite, whichowes its origin to its patron Saint Maron (d. Ca. 410), an ascetic monkabout whose life not much is known. He is probably that "Maron, themonk priest" to whom John Chrysostom, on his way into exile, addressedan epistle solicitng prayers and news. The Maronite Church has been chargedwith espousing the Monothelite cause (one will in Christ). But later Maroniteapologists, beginning with alDuwayhi (d. 1704) and ibn-Namrun (d. 1711)have claimed continued Chalcedonian orthodoxy for their Church throughoutthe ages. The East and the West Syrian Churches with their ramificationsdid not comprise all Syrian Churches. There remained a small body whichunder the impact of Greek theology from Antioch and Constantinople succumbedand accepted the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451). Thereby thiscommunity secured imperial orthodoxy not only escaped excommunication,but obtained protection, even patronage from the state church and the imperialcity. 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 placeto the Byzantines.