At the outset, we should note Moffett’s the fluent, almost racy, style that makes the book hard to put down, even if you are trying to limit your reading to the Chinese sections. Open its pages at your own risk!
Like others in the past few decades, Moffett concludes that Nestorius did not, as he was falsely charged, deny the deity of Christ, nor did he teach the existence of two “persons” in Christ, as charged by his arch-enemy, Cyril of Alexandria. He fell victim to political jealousy, his own theological vagueness, and popular outrage against his attempt to discourage the use of the term “Mother of God” to refer to Mary.
Nevertheless, his later followers, angry at the unfair treatment meted out to them by the victors in Constantinople, probably were “Nestorians” in the usual sense, emphasizing the full humanity of Christ without denying his deity. They would also have followed the practice of the Antiochene school of biblical interpretation, focusing on the plain, literal, and historical sense of the text rather than the allegorical approach favored by Origen and those who followed him in the West.
Moffett traces the sad history of the separation of the church in Persia (later to be called Nestorian) from that in the West and the unremitting internal theological wrangling and nepotism that split its ranks. What surprises us most, therefore, is that this church became such a potent missionary force in Asia.
Moffett describes for us what contributed to the later success of Nestorian mission among the Chinese:
Its glad acceptance of hardships for the cause of Christ, its full-rounded bled of spiritual and practical missionary methods – evangelism, education, and agriculture – and its compassion for captives combined with evangelistic concern for captors does much to explain the almost unbelievable successes of Nestorian expansion across Asia in the next two centuries” (209).
To these successes we now turn.
The First Christian Mission to China
The “Nestorian Monument,” dated 781 discovered only in 1623, alerted the world to the arrival of missionaries in china from Persia in 635. The great Alopen was received warmly by the Tang Emperor T’ai-tsung, who practiced religious toleration throughout his reign. A man of learning and the arts, he was happy to learn that Alopen’s was a religion of the book. He introduced him to the vast imperial library and ordered him to begin the translation of Christian scriptures into Chinese.
The emperor ordered the construction of a Christian church in the capital from his own treasury, as he had done for Buddhist and Taoist temples. His son, at first also favorable to the Nestorians, began to favor Buddhism under the influence of his wife, who was later known as the infamous Empress Wu. This thoroughly evil woman later encouraged a Buddhist-led persecution of Christians, the first of many to come in the following centuries.
The Arab conquest of Persia did not at first hinder the growth of Christianity in China, for the caliphs tolerated Nestorians, even using some of them as emissaries and interpreters. Many more traveled on the Silk Road to and from China, and Nestorianism flourished with imperial favor – or at least the protection of powerful patrons. Moffett introduces us to fascinating and noble persons, like Issu the Nestorian priest and high-ranking general and Adam, “ a bishop and missionary-scholar so famed for his knowledge of Chinese language and literature that even Buddhist missionaries came to him for help in translating their own sacred books.”
Indeed, Adam may have “seeded Christian ideas into the variations of northern Buddhist belief as it developed in Japan” by assisting Japanese translators of Buddhist sutras. Among Adam’s own translations were some parts of the Bible: “the Gospels and portions of the book of Acts, Paul’s Epistles, the Psalter, and [perhaps], parts of the Pentateuch and Isaiah” (301).
Nestorian Christianity virtually disappeared from China by 980. The question is, Why? Moffett adduces several possible causes:
- Persecution: Nestorians were caught in the wave of officially-inspired persecution of all “foreign” religions, especially Buddhism, that resulted from “a rising tide of xenophobia and sectarian strife” that began in 840 and re-occurred intermittently thereafter (303)
- Syncretism, or “watering down the faith”: Examining all available evidence, he finds that there is no real “Nestorian” heresy in the documents which were translated into Chinese. Further, all the major tenets of orthodox Christian faith are included in these same documents. Still, Moffett finds that “some weight must be given to the charges of syncretism leveled against T’ang Christianity.”
To allow readers to decide for themselves, he includes the introduction to the Nestorian Monument as an appendix, noting in italics terms that seem to come from Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian writing. At the very least, we can see that some important Christian ideas are left out, and many words and phrases are used to communicate Christian ideas.
In other words, Moffet believes that the Nestorians neither compromised the faith as much as they have been criticized, nor communicated it with as much Biblical clarity and precision as perhaps they could have.
- Foreignness. The Nestorian churches seem to have been composed mostly of people with Syriac names or of tribes from the outlying borderlands, and almost all their priests were Persian, not Chinese.
- Furthermore, “the social and cultural level of the church was inferior to that of China’s intellectual and political leadership and therefore failed to promise effective improvement for the life of the masses” (435).
- Reliance on the emperor. Moffett thinks that “the decisive factor… was the fall of an imperial house on which the church had too long relied for its patronage and protection. Dependence on government is a dangerous and uncertain foundation for Christian survival” (313)
The Mongols and the Recovery of Asian Christianity
In a truly remarkable turn of events, Ghenghis Khan, who founded an empire that conquered much of the known world, including China, married one of three Christian sisters from a tribe that had been evangelized by the Nestorians (1). The other sisters married two of his sons, and one of those sisters became “the Christian mother of three imperial sons, an emperor (Great Khan) of the Mongols, an emperor of China,” and an emperor of Persia.
The Mongol conquest produced a 140-year Pax Mongolica over a huge empire that enabled free travel from Europe to Korea. This had huge consequences for Christianity in China. During this time, the first Franciscan missionaries came to China.
Reeling from the shock of the horrible slaughters inflicted by the Mongols on Easter Europe, Pope Innocent IV sent Franciscan monks on a twofold assignment: To dissuade the Golden Horde from attacking the rest of Europe, and to preach the Gospel. He had hopes of an alliance with the Mongols that would outflank the Muslims.
After a tortuous journey, the pope’s emissary finally reached the camp of the Great Khan and were able to present the Pope’s letter. While there, he was “ astounded to see himself surrounded by Nestorian Christians.” The Khan’s chilling reply “shocked the pope but it did not stop the missionaries” (409). For the next hundred years, they continued to brave the dangerous and arduous journey. William of Rubrick arrived in 1253 to find that a Nestorian Christian Kerait princess, Sorhaktani, was the mother of the fourth Great Khan, and that other Nestorians held high positions in the court and the army.
William did not think much of the spirituality of the Nestorians whom he met, though those at the court were more biblically literature than the ones he had seen among the Uighurs. Still, they were superstitious, practiced sorcery and other non-Christian practices, and were guilty of widespread and gross debauchery and immorality. His debate with Buddhist and Muslims produced as little fruit as his extraordinary interview with the Great Khan, but he was able to baptize six Christian captives in the Mongol camp.
Moffett cites much evidence to support the claim of “the existence of a fairly widespread presence at the Mongol court and irregularly throughout the empire, most notably in the northwest and east” (445). In the dynastic rivalries that roiled the Mongol realms, however, the Christians always lost out, and. their connection with defeated rebels did not strengthen their hand with the victors.
Christianity during the rule of Kublai Khan
The two Polo brothers, with son and nephew Marco along, were the first Europeans to reach China proper. Kublai Khan, already ruler of much of the former Sung territories, received them kindly and sent them back to Rome with a letter asking the pope to send one hundred missionaries. None returned with the Polos, and the first Catholic mission arrived in 1294, after the death of Kublai. The Yuan dynasty was already waning.
Like others before them, the Italians found Nestorian communities in various parts of China. Even more amazing to them was the discovery of a Christian “kingdom” just north of the Great Wall. In fact, it was only a province, but the ruler was Prince George, an Ongut with the highest connections with the Khans by marriage. A Nestorian, he became a Roman Catholic after meeting missionaries sent by Rome.
Kublai Khan himself inclined towards Tibetan Buddhism, but tolerated Islam, Christianity, and Confucianism. Suspicious of Chinese, he governed through intermediaries, including powerful Nestorian Christian advisors (2).
The combination of a rebellion by a Christian prince and the influence of Kublai’s Buddhist wife and a Buddhist advisor and teacher led his strong support of Buddhism and its rapid spread of that religion in China. For the first time, it began no longer to be perceived as a foreign import. Moffett speculates about what victory by the Christian prince might have done for the faith, noting that political defeat sometimes closes the door irrevocably.
John of Montecorvino and the Roman Catholics
The first Roman Catholic missionary to reach China (1294), John enjoyed the favor of Prince George, though he had to endure the fierce opposition of Nestorians. He was later joined by others sent out by the pope, and together they baptized and educated many. (A church was given to them by an Armenian Orthodox woman in Beijing, sign of the presence of Christians other than the Nestorians in China.) Alas, those baptized usually did walk in the way of Christ, according to the missionaries’ reports.
The Second Disappearance of the Church in China
When the Mongol dynasty fell in China, all Chinese churches – Nestorian, Catholic, Armenian orthodox, Jacobite – disappeared. Missionaries stopped coming. Mongol Christians assimilated to Chinese ways.
As the Mongol rule weakened, Chinese rose in rebellion and regained mastery of their country. “China as it has so often done, turned away from the world and turned in upon itself. The new China was to be isolationist, nationalist, and orthodox Confucian… To the Chinese, Christianity appeared as a foreign religion protected and supported by a foreign [Mongol] government. Catholic missions gave the impression of being even more foreign than the Nestorians,… for they received far more visible support from outside China…” (474).
The result: “Without foreign support a church that had become dependent upon it withered away” without even a memory of its existence (475).
Finally, the fierce Tamerlane (1336-1405) exterminated Christians (indiscriminately with others) by the hundreds of thousands as he cut a swath of blood and fire through much of Asia in a grand attempt to establish his empire. When his empire, too, collapsed, “All Asia north of the Himalayas was once more either Muslim or Chinese. If there were any Christian left, here and there, no one noticed them” (488).
Moffett’s lively style, clear presentation, grasp of the grand sweep of both secular and Christian history, depth of research, and colorful details make this a history well worth reading.
Notes1. For a fascinating account of how the Nestorians had influenced these border tribes, and thus eventually the Mongols, see Steppe By Step, by Hugh Kemp.
2. Moffett takes at face value Marco Polo’s claim that he was also privy to the Khan, despite the skepticism of other scholars such as Jonathan Spence. See Chapter One in The Chan’s Great Continent.