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The Church of the East isn’t Nestorian

The Church of the East isn’t Nestorian

Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako

A paper  given by H.B. Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako during the symposium on: Christologie-Kirchen Ostens-ökumenische Dialoge. Frankfurt Germany 22 September 2017

I. Introduction

We must read and understand matters according to the context of their time and not according to our today’s mindset. Each matter should be placed in its historical, intellectual, cultural, social, ecclesiastical, and political contexts. We should also distinguish between content and form-words. Old expressions are tiring!

The current Christological terminology comes from old Greek philosophical terms or is a result of theological controversies, or abstract expressions. Today our people cannot understand them; therefore, we need to look for new understandable words to abide by.

Nestorius was not born in Mesopotamia, in Beth-Garmay (now Kirkuk) as some have claimed, and he was never the patriarch of the Church of the East(1).  Instead, Nestorius was the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, and was not a “Nestorian” in the dogmatic-heretical sense. Almost all his works have been destroyed. His attackers said about him what he did not claim or intend, for there is no such thing in his major surviving work Liber Heraclidis(2).  Neither Nestorius nor the Church of the East ever recognized the existence of two persons in Christ. I believe that Nestorianism is an imaginary heresy. The rivals mainly promoted these allegations! The same thing applies to Syrians Orthodox.
The Church of the East had kept silent about the Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 because it did not participate in any of them, and did not know much about them. Such participation was lacking because of the political and military permanent conflicts between the Roman and Persian empires. Plus, in the fifth century, there was no Internet or social media to get the news instantaneously.

The Church of the East was born in a Semitic environment among Jewish communities in Mesopotamia because of their cultural and religious backgrounds. The best evidence is its liturgy and the architecture of its ancient churches. It is an image of the Temple of Jerusalem or the Synagogue. The Church of the East, despite the difficulties, persecutions, and challenges it faced, deemed itself part of the universal Church. However, being outside the Roman Empire and subject to the rule of the Persians, the Church of the East was not allowed to establish relations with the Western Church, and did not participate in the so-called Ecumenical Councils of the Roman Ecumene (Orbis Romanus)(3).  

Those Ecumenical Councils were the outcome of the overlapping between the political and religious aspects, and they lacked the sincere and open dialogue in order to reach the truth. In general, there was an atmosphere of debate and dispute in those Ecumenical Councils like what is happening between conservatives and modernists today. As such, the Church of the East, as well, framed its positions through its own synods held in 410, 420, 424, and 486(4).  In these synods, the Church of the East showed itself perfectly organized. What is said about the interference of the “Western Fathers” (the Church of Antioch) in the administrative affairs of the Church of the East lacks academic evidence. The message of the “Western Fathers” to the people of the East is all about the laws that Marutas, the Bishop of Martiropolis (Mayaparqine) in 410, brought with him and the Council of Isaac adopted them in the same year(5).
The Church of the East remained outside the borders, because of its geographical isolation, political conditions and language. The “Greco-Western” influence on its thought was limited and only happened later when the works of the great fathers of the Antiochian school were translated into Syriac by the Nisibis School , especially the works of Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, the greatest theologian. The Church of the East became influenced by Theodore, and not by Nestorius.

II. The theology of the Church of the East

Theology is a human effort that seeks to understand faith and expresses it in a language understandable by people in the context of time, place and culture. This language varies from age to age and from a civilization to another. Since the beginning of Christianity, The Church has found different trends in theological expression between churches, both in the East and the West, as we find liturgical rites and practices stemming from the needs of the people and the questions posed by faith to their conscience. Theological pluralism is, therefore, a legitimate right and a cultural phenomenon. From this point, we conclude that faith is firm & absolute, but theology is relative & updatable. As a science, theology benefits from the intellectual schools, whose expressions and approaches differ according to local, historical, cultural, and social framework

The Church of the East has no systematic theology as the case is in the Western Church. Its theology is spiritual, living theology and not theoretical- speculative. It is expressed through its liturgy and the teachings of the Fathers. This theology starts from a historical perspective related to people & events, ultimately developing to help the faithful answer God’s calling in their daily living conditions, stressing the human side without neglecting the divine, and starting from its motto: resurrection, life and renewal. The Christians of the East were usually farmers, shepherds, or monks, and rarely held positions of power, so their theology was full of faith, spontaneity, enthusiasm, and passion.

The Features of its theology(6)
i. Biblical. It focuses on the Divine Revelation and constructs a systematic interpretation based on an ancient rabbinic lineage, using the literary arts with the aim of presenting doctrinal teaching grounded in scriptural texts, drawing a moral-practical presentation in the ‘Halagha’ approach. It uses typology and allegory widely, through the creation of images and symbols in the ‘Agada’ style and

ii. Patristic. It means that those who established the basic theological theses of this tradition and its framework and spirituality are the Fathers of the first seven centuries. The later periods is merely a revision or clarification.

iii. Liturgical. This theology flows from the Church’s prayers and rites, because the liturgy of the Church is the incarnation of its faith that is present in the reality and existence of the believers, thus the basis of the rule: lex orandi lex credendi (what is prayed is what is believed).

iv. Catechetical- karikmatic . This theology is concerned with making the person understand and not theorizing. Therefore, its theses came in the form of sermons to establish people on faith and daily experience according to the requirements of the Gospel. Its types vary according to the ecclesiastical conditions and situations. We rarely find a systematic approach in this feature.

v. Providential (Economia). It stems from the economy of salvation ‘Oikonomia,’ which is the cornerstone of Oriental theology. Providence in the theological terms means the whole divine intervention in human history, from creation to the end of times, including man in his inner core. Providence is a historical process of faith, embodies the fullness of the mystery of God and His presence in Jesus Christ, who is called the “Parsopa d’Mdabranutha” (the Person of Providence).

vi. Mystic. Perhaps because most of its authors were monks. It calls for a mystical spirituality whereby the life of the believer becomes a continuous “exodus” in search of the knowledge of God’s mystery, his love, and the union with him. It emphasizes the human heart because, according to the mystical literature, the heart is the site of understanding and the basic fortress of man.

vii. Apophatic. It adopts the apophatic method to demonstrate the attributes of God, and manifestly tends to sanctification. God is invisible, unattainable, immortal, etc. It reduces the mention of the name of God as is the case with Jews and later Muslims: “He who has blessed us; thanks be to the Good One…”. This method is a profound expression of man’s inability to understand the entity of the incomprehensible God “But we have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

viii. Apologetic. It is characterized by apologetics and refuting the objections of others. Instead of presenting faith in a smooth language, it uses logic and argumentation. It is limited in the heritage of the Church of the East.

III Christology of the Church of the East(7):

Christology is linked to the heart of faith in Christ “the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” (Revelation 22:13). When we say Christ, we mean his complete Person in which the unity of humanity and divinity is achieved, a unity that leads to fulfillment and to salvation.
Christology of the Church of the East is an expression of faith and can easily be understood without any excessiveness. It encourages the believer to attain it so much that it can become contemporary and understandable to our today’s faithful, if some arrangements were made and some appropriate terms were added to it. It is the Christology of the Synoptic Gospels adopting the ascending example of the historical Jesus: from man to God in contrast to the Alexandrian descending example: from God to man as stated in the Prolog of the Gospel of John. This Christology was adopted since Aphrahat (+345) & Ephraim (+373) & during the Synods of Beth Lapat (484) and of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (486).
It is incorrect to describe the “Church of the East” being the “Nestorian Church” because the Church of the East existed long before Nestorius himself, and because its doctrine was not based on his thoughts and writings. The Church of the East does not divide or separate divinity and humanity in the Person of Christ, as some people claim. The Church of the East (also Nestorius) believes in one Person in Christ, who is the Only-Begotten Son of God; and she does not believe in two separate persons. In fact, the doctrine of duality of person that has been applied to the Church of the East is false and ridiculous! The mention of “two natures” (and “two qnome”) of the divine and human in Christ is always completed through, the mention of “One Person” of Chris. For the Church of the East, Jesus Christ is one and the same, the subject of a single eternal worship and adoration.
The difference lies in the language and terminology which have been translated as synonyms of the Greek and Latin. This is an obvious mistake!

The Oriental Fathers look upon Christ, the Son of God, as His salvation, stemming from their own personal experience rather than from a philosophical view. This salvation is fundamental and is of the design of God economy- mdabranoutha, and the point of departure and concentration is the Christ, to the extent of His Highness (the person of the economy –parsopa da mdabranutha as Babai the Great described.

Aphrahat the Persian Sage370-34, said, “We worship Christ because we believe that God is present in Him” (Demonstration 17, #6). “The Incarnation does not mean reincarnation, but it means that God becomes man so man may be brought up to God” (Demonstration 23, #50).

Ephrem 306-373 based on his commentary on the letter to the Philippians 1:15, he says, “He is a true image of the Father, equal to Him and born of Him, and He has no will but the will of the Father” (Church 27: 9). “He put on flesh to guarantee that we will reach what is his.” (Nativity 21: 12).

Babai the Great (550-628) presented the official Christology of the Church of the East in his famous work, The Book of the Union(8).  He says: “there are two divine and human natures united in Christ; Therefore there is only one son and one union person” “God the Word is consubstantial with the Father, and because of the union the blessed Mary is called Mother of God and Mother of Man—Mother of Man according to her own nature, but Mother of God because of the union which he had with his humanity, which was his temple at the beginning of its fashioning and was begotten in union. Because the name ‘Christ’ is indi¬cative of both natures in the hypostatic state of his [i.e., God the Word’s] Godhead and his humanity, the Scriptures say that the blessed Mary bore ‘Christ’—not simply God in a disunited way, and not simply man untaken by God the Word(9).”

In fact, the disagreement is in the exchange of Communicatio idiomatum or the attributes – qualities of which is related to any nature: that it is said that “God suffered and crucified”. Crucifixion and pain are not only empirically compatible with divine nature, but only to human nature, and the title of Théotokos (the mother of God) Because she is the mother of man Jesus Christ the Son of God ( Christotokus)

Two orthodox theologians:

Ali ibn Dawud al-Arfadi, an 11th century Syriac Orthodox author, states “When I found this difference about the union of the divinity of Christ, our master, with his humanity, which was a point of dispute among the Nestorians, the Jacobites, and the Melkites… I looked at the matter without fancy or nervousness. I did not find any difference between them in any case. For [each of them] had the same viewpoint on the theology of Christ our master and [each] acknowledged his union, stating that there is no separation between divinity and humanity(10).”
designations of union” but “That they also thought well of the Trinity and the unmixed preservation of the natures of which Christ is composed.”
(11) There are about twenty treaties saying the same thing.(12)

Bar-Hebraeus, the Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of the thirteenth century, said “Nestorians, Jacobites, and Chalcedonians fight only for the official pronouncements”.11
Official Pronouncements:

The Synod of Isaac in 410: “We believe in one God Almighty Father … and in one Lord Jesus Christ unique Son of God”(13)

The synod of Acacius in 486: “That our faith also ought, as regards the Incarnation of Christ, to be in the confession of two natures of divinity and humanity. No one of us should venture to introduce the mixture … if he does not preserve the confession of a perfect God and a perfect man in relation to the unity of our Savior. Let him be anathema.”(14)

The Synod of Joseph 554: “We confess One True Son. Who thinks or says that there are two Christs or Sons, and, for some reason or in some way Introduced a quaternary – in the trinity – we anathematized it.”(15)

In the assembly of 612: “That is why we believe in our heart and we confess on our lips one Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, whose divinity is not dissimilated nor humanity abducted, but who is perfect God and perfect man”(16)

Catholicos Yeshu’yhab II “of Gdala” (d.646) explains the basis of Communicatio idiomatum) and describes the works attributed to the divine and which are attributed to the human, but the Ego is one: “Since the conception of Jesus, his divinity has united in his humanity. The humanity received the divinity without transfer. The two natures have been closely united in the one person. From then on and forever, the one nature appears in the other nature without transformation. Whenever we see the human being of our Lord, whether in the womb or in the cave, in the Jordan River or in the wilderness, in the city or in the Calvary, in the tomb or risen among the disciples, we understand that he is one and that his divinity is with him. Likewise, when we talk about his divinity saying that he was in the bosom of the Father, came to the world, sat at the right hand of the Almighty in the kingdom, raised the dead, or secretly condemns or rules his power, we find his humanity with him… All the passions and weaknesses suffered by mankind according to nature are referred to the divinity according to the person”.(17)

There is a long hymn of Nativity of Christ, in the Breviary that fully explains the exchange of attributes: “Who was from the beginning in the bosom of the Father, is a true God who came to us at the end of time and embodies and our horseman is a real man”.(18)
Modern ecumenical dialogue has shown that all Oriental Fathers share, from a salvific viewpoint, the same perspective on Christ, the Only-Begotten Son of God, derived from their own personal life experience and
not from a speculative, philosophical viewpoint. This salvation is foundational and is intended by God (Dispensation). The Person of Christ is both the cornerstone and the starting point of this Providence (Babai the Great’s Parsopa d’Mdabranutha).

From the viewpoint of this providential theology, Christ becomes for the believer of the Church of the East an example in the path of pain, death, and resurrection in an atmosphere of glory, light and joy. Such historical theology helped the Roman Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East to make the historic “Common Christological Declaration” on Christology on November 11, 1994, signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV in Rome.

The Word of God, second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit in assuming from the holy Virgin Mary a body animated by a rational soul, with which he was indissolubly united from the moment of his conception. Therefore, our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true man, perfect in his divinity and perfect in his humanity, consubstantial with the Father and consubstantial with us in all things but sin. His divinity and his humanity are united in one person, without confusion or change, without division or separation. In him has been preserved the difference of the natures of divinity and humanity, with all their properties, faculties and operations. But far from constituting “one and another”, the divinity and humanity are united in the person of the same and unique Son of God and Lord Jesus Christ, who is the object of a single adoration. Christ therefore is not an “ordinary man” whom God adopted in order to reside in him and inspire him, as in the righteous ones and the prophets. But the same God the Word, begotten of his Father before all worlds without beginning according to his divinity, was born of a mother without a father in the last times according to his humanity. The humanity to which the Blessed Virgin Mary gave birth always was that of the Son of God himself.

That is the reason why the Assyrian Church of the East is praying the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of Christ our God and Saviour”. In the light of this same faith, the Catholic tradition addresses the Virgin Mary as “the Mother of God” and also as “the Mother of Christ”.(19)

One thousand and five hundred years later, the Catholic Church in the person of her Pope acknowledged that the term “Christotokos” is correct and can be used while centuries before the Council of Ephesus had rejected it!

IV. Towards A Definition of Theological Terms(20)

The concerns of the Church Fathers were to explain the faith both, (i) through the complete union between the divine and the human, i.e., between the Logos and the “Man” Jesus, and (ii) with the distinction between them. For this reason, concerning Christology, they devised new technical, philosophical terminology that would preserved both the unity of the two Natures with their proprties.
1. Kyana (Nature); it is an abstract idea, like nature is, that is, the common attributes with which we characterize a being such as humanity. Humanity is common between “Peter and Paul”, and therefore it is called Ousia thst means general essence!

2. Qnoma (Substance); numerically individuated or exemplar of a given species. Qnoma is a particular Ousia (or Nature) designation of an entity in its individual existence, that is, in its deep being. It is fixed in its natural

state and has a singular nature which stands by itself, alone in number, one and distinct from the other many. It is not in such a case rendered unique ex¬cept when it receives its particular accidents, whether excellence or evil or concerning knowledge or ignorance. For example, Paul’s Qnoma is different from Peter’s Qnoma. In the Oriental Christian context, the Qnoma is closer to nature than it is to the person, completely opposite to the Western context which deems that the hypostasis corresponds particularly to the Person. And, since the person of God the Word was the Bearer of both natures, this did not, for him, mean compromising the integrity of either specific nature.
In this regard the Patriarch Ishoayab III (d. 659) says in his letter to Sahdona: “How do you try to mix the word” person “with the word” qnoma “? It is the person who crystallizes the qnoma. And that the qnoma does not contain any meaning other than nature- Kyana”

3. Prosopa (Person or Parsopon); it is a Syriac-Greek word meaning the mask worn by a play actor to show the special signs of the person that he represents. The person or the face characterizes, not only the visible appearance but also, the basic qualities of “the invisible essence” to which all actions are attributed (ego). The church of the East uses the word “Parsopa” and Appe – Wajih in Arabic face or the outward appearance that distinguishes a person from another.
Concerning the Holy Trinity, the Church of the East Fathers used the term ‘qnoma” to represent the term ‘Prosopon’.

Concerning the Incarnation, Christ has two natures, two Qnome. In the Oriental Christian context, the Qnoma is closer to nature than it is to the pe (i.e., individuated natures), in One Person (the Person of the Son of God) through which the properties of both natures, the human and the divine, coexist and are preserved and exchanged.
The union is not “confederal” or “moral”, but it is real and substantial, yet without being mixed or confused. Each hypostasis (individual nature) retains its natural properties as exchanged through the One Person, i.e., the Son of God.
According to this approach, Christ has two natures, two hypostases (i.e., individuated natures), in One Person (the Person of the Son of God) through which the properties of both natures, human and divine, coexist and are preserved and exchanged. The union is not “confederal” or“moral”, but it is real and substantial. Each hypostasis (individual nature) retains its natural properties as exchanged through the One Person, i.e., the Son of God. The Syriac Orthodox theologians used the term nature and hypostasis in the same sense, while Western Catholics used hypostasis and Prosopon as synonyms.

V. Conclusion
The Oriental Spirituality
(23) is based on the economy of salvation ‘Oikonomia’, whose head is Jesus Christ. It is realized in the Church (the community of the believers) and then in the believer himself. This correspondence is especially made during the liturgical year, where the various stages of salvation history, from the annunciation to the sanctification of the Church, are realistically and practically shown. It is gradually culminated in the sanctification of the Church (the eschatological dimension). Through continuous reflection, both personally and collectively, in the mystery of Christ, the East believer seeks to take something from Christ and put it on him so that he can become a part of Savior. It is a program of reflection on the basic and momentous issues of the Christian community, its awareness of the mystery of God, and the orientation of its prayer and path. A Christianity without mystical-spiritual is a tasteless experience. Every Christian must have some sort of mystic experience that is not exceptional. Everyone should try it. From this perspective, our Oriental ritual places a burning lamp in the middle of the sanctuary to illuminate the tables of the Eucharist and the Bible, that is, the Christ so that we may honor Him as our example.


1  Audisho of Nisibis, the Book of the Pearl. Arabic translation by Louis Sako, 2 edition, Baghdad 2013, p. 43. The term “Nestorian”: It is not common that the term “Nestorian” is officially used by valid Church of the East authorities.  It first appears with the Catholicos-Patriarch Mar Aba the Great (525-533) travels to Constantinople and brings with him an anaphora named after Nestorius, which means that this anaphora was still used there! See Albert Abouna, Adab Al-Lugha Al-Aramia, 2e edition, Dar Al Mashriq (Beirut) 1996, pp. 132-140.     Later, the term “Nestorian” appears during a debate that took place between two theological groups in 612.

2  Nestorius, Le livre d’Héraclide de Damas, intro. et trad. F. Nau, Paris 1910, p. 2. Also see Luise Abramowski, The History of Research into Nestorius, in : Syriac Dialogue I, Pro Oriente 1994, p. 54-68 ; Niklòs Maroth, La Philosophie comme moyen d’interprétation de l’Écriture (Nestorios était-il nestorien ?), in Studia Arabica XXVI, dirigée par Marie-Thérèse Urvoy, Edition de Paris, 2016, 55-79.

3  CAMELOT, Th., Éphèse et Chalcédoine, histoire des conciles, Paris 1962.  See also, Brock, Sebastian, The Church of the East in the Sasanian Empire up to the Sixth Century and its Absence from the Councils in the Roman Empire, Syriac Dialogue I, Pro Oriente 1994, p. 69-86.

4  CHABOT, J.B., Synodicon Orientale ou le recueil des synodes nestoriens, Paris 1902, pp. 254-307.

5  See my study in Arabic about “The Letter of the Western Fathers to the Easterners,” published in Beth-Nahrain Magazine, No. 36 (1981) p. 341-356.

6  Sako, Louis; Our Syriac Fathers, Dar Al Mashriq (Beirut) 2012, p. 29-34.

7  Sako, Louis, Lettre christologique du Patriarche syro-oriental Īšō‘yahb II de Gdālā (628-646). Étude, traduction et édition critique, Rome 1983, pp. 101-134.

8  Babai the Great, Liber de Unione, ed. Vaschalde, A., CSCO 79/80, Louvain 1915.

9  ibid., pp. 105,  264-265.
Troupeau, Gérard, Le livre de l’unanimité de la foi de ʿAlī ibn Dāwud al-Arfādī, Melto 5 (1969), p. 211; Ammar Al Basri, Apologie et Controverses, ed. Michel Hayek, Beyrouth Dar al-Machriq, 1977, pp. 179-180.

11  Quoted by François Nau in the introduction of Liber Heraclidis, p. XXIII.

12  ee in Samir Khalil, “Introduction to the Old Christian Arab Heritage”, Massara 67 (March 1981), Nos. 663-664, 178-179.

13 SO, p. 262.

14 SO, p. 302.

15 SO, p. 355

16 SO, p. 583

17  Sako, “Isoyahb”, No 104-107,111,pp.153

18 Chaldean Breviary, 3 edition Rome 2002, p.

19 The “Common Christological Declaration Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East” no. 3-5. (www.vatican.va/roman…/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_11111994_assyrian-church_en.html).

20 Sako, Louis, “Isoyahb II de Gdala, la terminologie et sa signification”, pp. 101-109.  See also Soro, Bawai & Birnie, MJ, “Is the theology of the Church of the East Nestorian?”, in Syriac Dialogue I, Pro Oriente 1994, p. 116-134.

21 Isoyahb III, liber Epistolarum, (éd è tr0 Duval,R. (CSCO 11/12) Louvain 1904-1905,   epistle 6 p. 97.

22  Sako, Syrian orthodox are  indeed orthodox ,Al fikr al Massihi magazine no 226, year 1987, pp. 218-222

23 Concerning the [Eastern] Spirituality refer to the work of the Carmelite Father Robert Beulay, L’enseignement spirituel de Jean de Dalyatha, mystique Syro-Oriental du VIII siècle, Paris 1990 (Théologie Historique 83)

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