The Assyrian Church of the East was established in Edessa in the first century of the Christian era. It is from Edessa that the message of the Gospels spread.Edessa was a small kingdom, a buffer state between Roman and Parthean Empires. Mar Mary was sent to Persia by his fellow workers in Edessa. In the second century this church began to be organized. The church in Edessa had four Gospels in Aramaic. The teaching was spread to the Persian Empire. In the third century, the church in the Persian Empire had to take refugees from the Roman Empire where Christians were not welcomed. Streams of refugees turned toward Persia to escape persecution in the Eastern Roman Empire. A great multitude of Christians in all Roman provinces were put off by various punishments, torture professed to renounce Christianity.
From about 280 A.D. Mar Papa organized this church, thus Metropolitan seat of Seleucia became the headquarters. Now the city is in ruins, known as SalmanPark, 30 miles from Baghdad.
Mar Aprim the Assyrian, the representative of the Church in the first ecumenical council at Nicea in 325A.D., played a great role in the literary and religious life of all Christians until today. That is the reason he is recognized by the Roman Catholic Church which declared Saint Aprim as the doctor of the UniversalChurch.
In the fifth century, the Nestorian controversy concerning the unity of the divine and human nature in Christ had far reaching consequences. At this time, the Church of the East was not involved in this controversy. It was a theological dispute within the Roman Empire.
John Nestorius was not an Assyrian nor did he know Syriac language. He was a native of Antioch and Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431 A.D. His rival Cyril was Patriarch of Alexandria. Therefore, the members of the Church say that they do not have anything to do with the Nestorian controversy. It was several years later and even after the death of Nestorius in 451 A.D. that the Christians of the Persian Empire heard about the controversy. They decreed that the stand taken by Nestorius was in agreement with the view always maintained by the Church of the East.
As a result of the persecution of the followers of Nestorius, many Christians had to flee from the now Christian Roman Empire and found refuge among the followers of this Church.
The headquarters of the Church, Selucia-Ctesphon, was at a strategic place—on both banks of the River Tigris, the center of travel between Europe and Asia. By the middle of the sixth century, the Church had spread into Egypt, Syria, Arabia, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, Ceylon, China, and Mongolia.
Professor P.Y. Saeki stated that the leaven of Nestorianism has penetrated the whole of Chinese literature. This church had great missionaries. They expanded rapidly. Asia was widely covered by the missionaries. They had no fund to support their mission stations financially; there were no mission boards to direct their activities like Western missionaries of those days who followed the colonial Empires. It is time to hear from our long-forgotten past the thrilling story of our missionary enterprise during the early centuries of the Christian era. These Christians did not have great material means nor were they able to engage in planning great missionary strategies, computerized and perfected in world conferences, to win the world in our time. Yet they carried the torch of the Gospel all across the vast Asian continent, at the cost of great personal suffering and often martyrdom, for untold numbers of laymen and clergy alike were led by the Holy Spirit to push the frontiers of the Kingdom of God far and wide.
Wherever they went, it was to preach, to teach and cure. At the end of the eleventh century, this church was the single largest Christian denomination at that time. John Stewart writes:
Whole peoples with their rulers had become Christians and it seems certain that there were few places in the whole Asia that were not reached at some time or other as the outcome of the marvelous activity of that wonderful church which extended from China to Jerusalem and Cyprus, and in the eleventh century is said to have outnumbered the Greek and Roman churches combined.
From the Pacific Ocean in the East to the Mediterranean in the West; from the Black Sea and Siberia to the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea, Assyrian missions were working. Asia Minor, Cyprus, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, China, Japan, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Turkistan—all hand missions where the gospel was taught by zealous workers of the Assyrian Church of the East.
The AssyrianChurch missionaries included bishops, priests, monks, deacons. It is said about these men—the messengers of the King of kings—that they were as gently as lambs and unassuming, but courageous and fearless with the hearts of lions. They sacrificed life and health in the unknown land and did their work among the heathen with faith and trust in God.
They went out from Mesopotamia, the birthplace of Abraham, the father of all the believers.
The missionaries traveled on foot; they had sandals on their feet, and a staff in their hands, and carried a basket on their backs, and in the basket were the Holy Writ and the Cross.
They took the road over deep rivers and high mountains, thousands of miles. On their way they met many heathen nations and preached to them gospel of Christ. The heathen who worshipped idols were told about the Savior, who would take their sins upon himself and save them. They sowed the good seed in the field, worked zealously and won many souls among the heathen nations.
The work of the mission became a blessing to the nations, and the missionaries influenced greatly those among whom they worked; they brought many from sin and idol worship to God; they went to the palaces of the kings and to the cottages of the poor. Kings and princes heard the words about the love of Christ, and they believed; the subjects followed their princes, and with their own hands they destroyed the temples of their idols; those that they heretofore had worshipped and hoped to get help and comfort from. Great gifts were given to the missionaries, but they distributed everything given them in the best way to serve the spreading of the words of Christ, and many souls were won.
Around the fourteenth century, this missionary enterprise started to decline. There was persecution, deception, extermination by Mongols. The remnant which escaped the persecution of Tamerlane finally found refuge in the mountains of Kurdistan. The split caused by Sulaqa who took refuge with the Roman Catholic Church, persecuted by the Kurds and Turks, and during the First World War further weakened this church.
THE ASSYRIAN CHURCH AT PRESENT TIME
At the turn of the century, and during the outbreak of the world war, Assyrians entered an era of new hostilities. Villages were burned, churches plundered. Hundreds of precious old Christological books, looted, and destroyed with few reaching the worlds famous museums.
The act of heroism that these few fierce fighters the Assyrian mountaineers exhibited is seldom seen in history, fighting their way through savages and fanatics. The shocking horror stories of mass murders are still remembered by every Assyrian family.
The impact of twentieth century fell heavy upon these Christians, depriving them from their ancestral land and leaving them now scattered more than ever before. Wherever they went they clustered to each other, and found communities still adhering to their old faith, in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Greece, Italy, Sweden, Russia, U.S.A., Canada and Australia.
This general decadence of the Church made her forget its past missionary heritage. The decline of the monastic movement also contributed to the total annihilation of the missionary movement in this “most missionary church the world has ever seen,” the church that almost converted Mongols to Christianity. Still signs to hope are becoming visible recently among the young men who feel in their blood the call for work. The church continues to have a new expansion with goals to teach Assyrian rising generations the messianic teaching on the customs and traditions of our fore-fathers and to keep alive Aramaic (Syriac) a language which our Lord Jesus Christ offered his first sacrifice of Eucharist.
It is certain that these people comprise the world’s most ancient churches and maintained many of their old traditions. They remained isolated throughout the centuries thus preserving the once famous Aramaic language, and lived as if in Biblical times in their picturesque villages, they worship very much the same way as was done two thousand years ago. The ceremonies in churches and monasteries are exceedingly impressive.
The Church of the East received the scriptures from the hands of the blessed Apostles themselves in Aramaic original the language of Palestine at the time of our Lord Jesus Christ and that Aramaic Bible “Peshitta” is the text of the church of the East which has come from Biblical times without any change or revision. We hope that the imperishable memory of the innumerable company of martyrs of the Church of the East who lived and died in the light of eternity will provide an incentive to all churches today and to the members of this ancient church, the heirs of this great tradition.
FAITH AND DOCTINE
The Theology of the Church of the East is strictly based on the Bible and has remained unchanged throughout the centuries of the messianic faith. Christ said, “Examine the scriptures; in them you trust that you have eternal life; it is they that testify concerning me.” (St. John 5:39).
Doctrinally, it is Apostolic and Catholic and holds firmly to the Apostolic Succession. Its priesthood is based upon the petrine promise. “To thee I will give the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Its completion and perfection in the commission given by our Lord to His Apostles; “He breathed upon them and said, receive ye the Holy Spirit, if you forgive a man his sins they shall be forgiven and if you hold a man his sins they shall be held.” Its attribute is therefore intermediary between God and man without authority to forgive and hold sins.
Upon this foundation the ApostolicCatholicAssyrianChurch of the East has based its nine orders of the church, as it received them from the hands of the Holy Apostolic (St. Thomas); Mar Addai (St. Thaddeus); Mar Bar-Tulmai (St. Bartholomew) and Mar Man of the seventy.
It holds that, without the Apostolic Succession, there are no sacraments of the church and without the sacraments there is no church, and therefore, no operation of the Holy Spirit. To quote Chapter 8, Verses 14-17 of the Acts of the Apostles: “Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that the Samaritan people had accepted the word of God, they sent to them Simon, Peter and John. Who, when they went down, prayed over them that only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.”
The Church of the East faithful to the command of our Lord, and the teaching and practice of the early church, has maintained this Apostolic Succession throughout the trials and tribulations of its nearly twenty centuries-long history.
Its theology is Apostolic and Catholic, and has remained unchanged throughout its history. Its doctrine of the Holy Trinity is in conformity with that of the Council of Nicea, at which it was represented.
As regards the mystery of the dispensation of Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, it professes Him in two natures; namely, divine and human in two Qnume; namely, hypostasis, or underlying substances, in one person of the Son of God. One will, one authority. These two natures are united eternally and inseparably. It rejects the term “theotokos” or “Mother of God” used for the Blessed Virgin. It holds that the term has no Scriptural authority, is liable to misunderstanding, and therefore can lead to error. It maintains that while the One Holy Apostolic and Catholic Church is the guardian of the Faith, and has full authority granted it by its Lord and Master through the power of the Holy Spirit, to preach the gospel to all mankind and to interpret the meaning of the Scriptures to the faithful; yet has no right to teach any doctrine that has no Scriptural authority.
In words of St. Paul the Apostle, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any gospel to you than that which we have preached to you, let him be ‘khrim’ (anathema).”
The theology of the Church of the East has been stated briefly and clearly in the following hymn of praise, written by Mar-Babai the great, a noted theologian of the Church, and which is:
“One is Christ, the Son of God,
Worshipped by all in two natures;
In His Godhead begotten of the Father,
Without beginning, before all time;
In his Humanity born of Mary
In the fullness of time, in a body united
Neither His Godhead, is of the nature of the Mother,
Nor His Humanity of the nature of the Father;
The natures are preserved in their Qnumas
In one person of one Sonship.
And as the Godhead is three substances in one nature,
Likewise the Sonship of the Son is in two natures, one person.
So the HolyChurch has taught.”
The Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, however, to this day is commonly known to our Western Christian Brethrens as the “Nestorian” Church. This misnomer has led them generally to think that this Church has established by Saint Nestorius, and that it received its teaching from his followers. The so-called Nestorian doctrine has been erroneously or deliberately interpreted by its opponents to mean the belief of two persons in Christ. These allegations, of course, have their origin in the Council of Ephesus. This issue, however, has since been much clarified by various Protestant and also some Roman Catholic scholars.
The Encyclopedia Britannica says: “So far as Nestorius himself is concerned, however, it is certain that he never formulated such doctrine, nor does any recorded utterance of his, however casual, come so near the heresy called by his name.
As to the Assyrian Church of the East, however, because they would not change their true faith, but kept it as they received it from the Apostles, they were unjustly styled “Nestorians,” since Nestorius was not their Patriarch, neither did they understand his language; but when they heard that he taught the doctrine of the two Natures and two Qnume, one will, one Son of God, one Christ, and that he confessed the orthodox faith, they bore witness to him, because they themselves held the same faith. Nestorius, then, followed them, and not they him, and that more especially in the matter of the appelation “Mother of Christ.” Therefore when called upon to excommunicate him, they refused, maintaining that their excommunication of Nestorius would be equivalent to their excommunication of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Apostles, from which they received what they professed, and for which we are censured together with Nestorius.