The history of the Nestorians and of their connection with Theodore of Mopsuestia is less known than it should be. In like manner, the history of their connection with the destinies of humanity through the Arabians is less understood than their merits require. Indeed, there is not a more interesting and important chapter in the development of human destiny than this.

Followers of Theodore.

We have exhibited in contrast the principles of Origen and of Theodore of Mopsuestia. We have seen that, although they agreed in the doctrine of the final restoration of all beings to holiness, yet their systems were based on very different fundamental principles. It should now be added that the range of their influence was very different. The followers of Origen were chiefly in the Greek and Latin Churches. Those of Theodore in Central and Eastern Asia. They are commonly known as the Nestorians, and are by the so-called Catholic Church reckoned among the heretical sects. 

The Church – What?

But, in order to understand the relations of the Nestorians to Christianity and the Church, it is of special moment to know what the Church was by which they were condemned, and by which Theodore was anathematized. In our history before Christ, the geographical scene of our investigations was limited. It was mainly confined to Palestine, and to the scenes of the captivities in Egypt and Babylon. After the coming of Christ, it was enlarged until it included large portions of Asia, Europe, and Africa.

Triple Division.

Beginning in Palestine, Christianity extended its conquests until, in the sixth century, there were three great geographical divisions of the Christian body, two of which were sometimes called churches. The Western Church included Italy, Gaul, Spain, England, and the western part of Northern Africa. Its centre was Rome, and it was called sometimes the Latin Church. The Greek Church included the rest of the Roman Empire to the east of the Western Church, to the Euphrates. This was also called the Greek Church, whose centre was Constantinople. East of this, and without the bounds of the Roman Empire, there was a large body of Christians, not united around one centre. They were, to a great extent, Christians who had been driven out by the other two churches because they did not agree with the Ecumenical Councils, so called, in their decisions as to the person of Christ. Those thus driven out were organized as separate, independent, dissenting churches, not centralized by one government, but called heretical sects by those from whom they dissented. Prominent among these independent bodies were the Jacobites and the Nestorians, called sometimes the Chaldean Christians.

It is a matter of indispensable necessity to form a clear idea of the condition and extent of all these churches at the sixth century, in order to obtain a vivid conception of the early history of the Church, for that history lies to us in a kind of world beyond the flood.

The Flood.

By the flood, I mean the great Mohammedan invasion and conquests. Of Christendom, as it then was, the greater part came under Mohammedan control, and to this day Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch – in short, all the great centres of the Christian world as it then was, except one, Rome – are under Islamic sway. Moreover, every one of the great ancient centres of theological study is at this hour in the hands of Islam. This is true of Alexandria and Carthage, in Africa, of Asia Minor, and of Cesarea, Antioch, Edessa, and Nisibis, in Asia. To understand the history of those six centuries, we must go back beyond that Mohammedan flood, and think of Christendom as it then was, and not of Christendom as it now is, for what is now the most powerful part of Christendom was not then included in it at all, but was under the sway of German barbarism and idolatry.

The Church Outnumbered.

It is of more importance to do this, inasmuch as statements are often made of the Church, collectively, that will fall asunder at once when tested by an accurate and comprehensive view of geography and of history.

Although, according to common parlance, The Church, had condemned these independent churches as heretical sects, yet two of them, the Nestorians and the Jacobites, soon became so numerous in Central and Eastern Asia that they outnumbered both the Greek and Latin Churches united. Of this fact Gibbon gives a statement, based on authorities, in his great history (chapter xlvii., vol. iii., p. 272, Harper’s edition). Dr. Draper, in his “History of the Intellectual Development of Europe,” makes the same statement (p. 291). To give some idea of the extent of the Nestorian Church, it is sufficient to say that, at the time of the capture of Bagdad by Hulaku Chan, the Nestorian Patriarch was recognized by twenty-five metropolitan bishops as the head of the Eastern Church. A list of these is given by Layard (“Nineveh,” vol. i., p. 214). Of them, he says: “This list will show the success of the Chaldean (Nestorian) missions, and the influence which they possessed at this time in Asia. The sees of these metropolitans were scattered over the continent, from the shores of the Caspian to the Chinese Seas, and from the most northern boundaries of Scythia to the southern extremity of the Indian Peninsula.” When to the Jacobites and Nestorians we add the Armenians and the other independent bodies, we see how entirely they outnumbered what was called the Church of which the Roman emperor was the head, and the doctrines of which were dictated by his authority. Indeed, these Oriental churches did not hesitate to charge on the Church that excommunicated them, and truly, that it was not a free Church, but he slave of the emperor. This idea they expressed in the word Melchites (“King’s men”), by which they designated them.

Nestorian Church and Theodore.

We shall at this time consider only the Nestorian churches, inasmuch as they stand in a peculiar relation to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the father of Nestorian views as to the person of Christ. As we have seen, Theodore and Diodore of Tarsus held and taught universal restoration. We have given an outline of the views of Theodore. To what extent these views were positively adopted by the clergy of the Nestorian churches, it is impossible to say. Certain great facts only are sure. These views were introduced by Theodore into the liturgy which he drew up for the Nestorian Churches. Of this Renaudot says that it was generally used in the Nestorian Church, and is found in all the manuscripts, and that it was translated for the use of the churches of India. Moreover, there was no protest against these views ever issued by any of the Nestorian churches or clergy. On the other hand, Theodore is spoken of at all times and everywhere as the great interpreter of the Word of God. Neander says that the seminaries of the Nestorians were conducted in the spirit of Theodore of Mopsuestia. It cannot be denied that the doctrine of universal restoration is an essential part of his system, and is inwrought [sic] into its whole development. Yet, besides Theodore, and his confession and liturgy, I can find the doctrine expressly stated in no other Nestorian creed and no Nestorian writer. 

Nestorian Creed.

They adhered to the general councils up to the condemnation of Nestorius. Layard gives their creed as it was up to that date, and it differs very little from the Nicene creed. (Layard’s “Nineveh,” ii., 219, New York). In this creed no reference is made to eternal punishment. After this they seem to have issued no additional creed of their own. Hence, the Rev. T. Laurie, a missionary to the modern Nestorians, says of them: “It is difficult to give an accurate statement of the doctrines of the Nestorians. For as a church they have no regular confession of faith, and their treatises on Christian doctrine express the views of individuals, rather than the belief of the whole body” (“Dr. Grant and the Mountain Nestorians,” p. 55). But to a certain extent Theodore’s sacramental liturgy is practically a confession of faith, for it sets forth the incarnation, and its ends and results, as based on the unfolding of the Trinity.

Influence of the Doctrine.

It is a matter of great interest to ascertain what was the influence exerted by the declaration of this doctrine by Theodore. Were those who came most under his influence injured thereby? Were those who held the doctrine of eternal punishment elevated thereby above the followers of Theodore? Universalism in America has generally been connected with a denial of the Trinity and the evangelical views of atonement, depravity, and regeneration. It was not so with ancient Restorationism. Its advocates were in all other respects orthodox. Were they less imbued with the spirit of active, self-denying missionary Christianity?

Reply As To Nestorians.

Account for it as we may, the fact is beyond denial, that the Nestorian churches were the most distinguished for a missionary spirit of any of those ages. They, too, were most inclined to reform the leading errors of the Church. They were the providential channel through which Europe was aroused from the ignorance and torpor of the dark ages. Of them in the fifth century Gieseler says: “They were found in every part of Asia and were of great use in diffusing the learning of Greece in that part of the world, as well as in founding schools and hospitals. At a later period they became the instructors of the Arabians” (Hist. Period ii., sec. 87). As late as the fourteenth century Gieseler says, “Of all the Christian parties, the Nestorians alone had penetrated as yet into the interior and eastern parts of Asia” (Period iii., sec. 90).

Dr. Anderson.

Of the extent of their missionary enterprises, Dr. Anderson gives an account in an extract taken from Tracey’s “History of Missions.” Of the Nestorians he says: “This sect continued to flourish, though occasionally persecuted under the Persians, the Saracens, and the Tartars. They had celebrated schools for theology and general education. For centuries they maintained missions in Tartary, China and other Eastern regions. Their churches were scattered from Syria and Cyprus to Peking, and from the coast of Malabar and Ceylon to the borders of Siberia” (R. Anderson, “History,” vol. i., p. 167). Dr. Anderson, in a note on p. 168, speaks thus of their seminaries: “Narses, on being expelled from Edessa, opened a school at Nisibis, A.D. 490, which became celebrated. About the same time Acacius, also from Edessa, established a school at Seleucia. It was revived in 530, and was in existence as late as 605. A school was established at Dorkena, A.D. 585. At Bagdad were two schools in 832, and two others were in its neighborhood. Schools existed at Terhana, Mahuza, Maraga, and Adiabene, in Assyria, and at Maraga in Azerbijan. There were also schools in Elam, Persia, Khorassan, and Arabia. The school at Nisibis had a three years’ course of study. The studies to a great extent were theological; but to the study of the Bible they added, in the schools generally, the study of grammar, rhetoric, poetry, dialectics, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, medicine,” etc. (p. 168).

Dr. Draper.

Of the anathematized Nestorians Dr. Draper says: “The philosophical tendency of the vanquished was soon indicated by their actions. While their leader (Nestorius) was tormented in an African oasis, many of them emigrated to the Euphrates, and founded the Chaldean (Nestorian) Church. Under its auspices the college at Edessa, with several connected schools, arose. In these were translated into Syriac many Greek and Latin works, as those of Aristotle and Pliny. It was the Nestorians who, in connection with the Jews, founded the medical college of Djondesabour, and first instituted a system of academical honors which has descended to our times. It was the Nestorians who were not only permitted by the khalifs the free exercise of their religion, but were intrusted [sic] with the education of the children of the great Mohammedan families, a liberality in striking contrast to the fanaticism of Europe. The Khalif Alraschid went so far as even to place all his public schools under the superintendence of John Masue, one of that sect. Under the auspices of these learned men, the Arabian academies were furnished with translations of Greek authors, and vast libraries were collected in Asia” (p. 290).

Of the expulsion of the Nestorians from the Church by Cyril, Dr. Draper truly says: “The expulsion of this party from Constantinople was accomplished by the same persons and policy concerned in destroying philosophy in Alexandria. St. Cyril was the representative of an illiterate and unscrupulous faction that had come into power through intrigues with the females of the imperial court, and bribery of eunuchs and parasites. The same spirit that had murdered Hypatia tormented Nestorius to death. Of the contending parties, one was respectable and had a tincture of learning; the other ignorant, and not hesitating at the employment of brute force, deportation, assassination. Unfortunately for the world, the unscrupulous party carried the day.”

Is it not a striking fact that the midnight of the dark ages in Europe, hastened by Cyril, coincided with the noon-day of Arabic learning, kindled at the fires of the Nestorians, expelled for no good reason from the so-called Church?


Alexander von Humboldt, in the second volume of his “Kosmos,” is quoted by Dr. Schaff as recognizing this obligation of the Arabs to the Nestorians, and of the world to them through the Arabians. He says of the Nestorian school of Edessa: “It awakened the scientific search for materia medica in the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. When it was dissolved by Christian fanaticism under Zeno, the Isaurian, the Nestorians scattered toward Persia, where they soon attained political importance, and established a new and thronged medical institute at Dschondisapur, in Khusistan. They succeeded in spreading their science and their faith to China.”

Of the Arabs he says that “they were a race which had long lived in free converse with Nature, and had preserved a more fresh sensibility to every sort of study of Nature than the people of Greek and Italian cities. What gives the Arabian epoch the universal importance which we must here insist upon, is in great part connected with the trait of national character just indicated. The Arabians, we repeat, are to be regarded as the proper founders of the physical sciences in the sense which we are now accustomed to attach to the word.”


In addition to the merits of the Nestorians thus far indicated, we ought to mention another. We will express it in the words of Mosheim: “It is to the honor of this sect that, of all the Christians resident in the East, they have preserved themselves most free from the numberless superstitions which have found their way into the Greek and Latin Churches.” Layard illustrates this statement in many particulars, such as the rejection of the worship of the Virgin Mary, of the worship of images, of the doctrine of purgatory, and transubstantiation, and of the celibacy of the clergy. At first all the clergy were allowed to marry. Afterward the patriarch and bishops were forbidden.


In view of these facts one thing is plain. The belief of the doctrine of eternal punishment, as it was held, did not save the so-called Church from the dark ages of intellectual and moral degradation. On the other hand, the full and firm belief and earnest advocacy of universal restoration by Theodore of Mopsuestia did not prevent those churches who revered him as the great interpreter of the Word of God from unexampled missionary enterprises, from establishing wide-spread systems of education, from illuminating the Arabs, and through them the dark churches who had sunk into a midnight gloom.

As to the real efficient causes in each case, those who can must judge. It is a field for deep thought and careful inquiry.



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