The Church of the East had no connection with Nestorius, but it could not avoid getting involved in his drama, or in what happened at Chalcedon – the pull of the Western Church was too great, and the fact that Persia received many refugees from a School Antioch, which had so much in common with its own theological thinking, meant it was inevitable that the story it received was one of the persecution of an innocent man who had taught sound doctrine; of course, viewed in the language used in the East, that was so.
As he made clear in his apologia, (which was only rediscovered in the nineteenth century) The Bazaar of Heracleides, Nestorius did not believe what he was alleged to believe – that is in two sons, but, of course, the language in which he expressed his views was not that of the West.
The language problem raised its head again at Chalcedon, but this time in was Dioscorus (d. 457), St Cyril’s successor, who suffered from it, as he interpreted Pope Leo’s Tome as ‘Nestorian’, when, in fact, in speaking of of the union of two natures in a single hypostasis it was using a Cyrilline formulation. The result, however, was to shatter the Western Ecumene for ever – and that was to have dramatic effects in the East – and in the end in the West too.
In Egypt, Syria and Palestine, Chalcedon was widely rejected, and despite 150 years of attempts to find a way to reunite the Church, the divisions became permanent and opened the way for the conquests of Islam. After nearly two centuries of persecution at the hands of the Chalcedonian Emperors, the ‘Monosphysites’ as they were called by their enemies, welcomed the Muslims as liberators – and for a while they were, indeed, better off.
In 544 the Emperor Justinian, in an attempt to win over the Egyptians and Syrians, condemned the Antichene theologians Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrus and Ibas – which effectively condemned the whole Church of the East as heretical. Justinian failed to win over the so-called ‘Monosphysites’, but closed the door between East and West for centuries.
The result of Justinian’s actions was to create three churches: the Chalcedonian – which would later fracture in 1054 into what we now call Catholic and Orthodox, and again in the 1500s in the West into Catholic and Protestant; the non-Chalcedonians, who are the fathers of the Coptic and Syriac Churches; and the Church of the East, lying outside of the Empire and looking eastwards to expand. The Syrian Christian tradition was represented in all three churches.
It was one of those expelled from the School of Edessa when it was closed, Bar Sawma, who became Metropolitan of Nisbis and developed there a School of Theodoran orthodoxy which became one of the power houses for the spread of Christianity Eastwards – and its theology was firmly in the Nestorian line. In 484 Bar Sawma convened the synod of Beth Lapat which allowed priests to marry and declared the teaching of Nestorius the official teaching of the Church of the East.
This was a deliberate, and successful, attempt to complete the divide between the West and the East. The Persian King, Peroz, who liked the idea of the Church being free from the influence of his enemies, the Romans, supported Bar Sauma. According to Bar Hebraeus’ Chronogrophy, written in the thirteenth century, at least 7000 Christians were killed for opposing the Nestorian doctrine. With their passing, the Church of the East became decisively Nestorian.