In the first of his two-volume history of Christianity in Asia, Samuel Hugh Moffett recalls the 1623 discovery of a black granular limestone, found close to the modern-day city of Xi’An. The stone may still be seen today, exhibited near the place that it was first raised. The monument’s engraving discloses its wonderful but complicated history: A cross rises from the midst of a lotus flower, and the flower is surrounded by clouds. Moffett tells us that the stone was erected in 781, set up to commemorate the 635 arrival of a Nestorian missionary in Xi’An.1The stone is large, measuring nine feet high and more than three feet wide. It commemorates the arrival of “Ta-ch’in Luminous Religion in China.” Moffett writes that the monument contains more than 1,756 Chinese characters and about 70 Syriac words. The stone’s inscription confirms Alopen’s arrival in the year 635, “the ninth year of the Chen-kuan period,’ i.e., the ninth year of the emperor T’ai-tsung. Moffett, however, speculates that Alopen was not the first Christian in China, as Nestorians populated the merchant class that participated in the trade between the Sassanid Persians and China in the fifth century. See Samuel Hugh Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 291. This city was then known as Chang’An, and its new guest went by the name of Alopen. Moffett mentions several traditions that place Christians in China before Alopen’s arrival, but the stone marks a substantiated history.
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At this point, many believers in the West are faced with a past to which we are too frequently ignorant. One may think of the Chinese church in reference to its reportedly growing size and influence in contemporary China.2In a 2020 article, The Economist referenced the growing number of Protestant Christians there. Everything that I have ever heard suggest these numbers are difficult to verify; nevertheless, they do reflect some sort of trend at the time of the article’s publication. Even Christian organizations struggle with these questions and sometimes factor in groups and denominations that truly represent persecuted peoples but fall outside the bounds of what should be considered Christian churches. More likely, he will recall the efforts of Hudson Taylor (1832-1905) and the mission that he eventually founded. Robert Morrison’s (1752-1834) name will be recognized by fewer still, often regarded as the first protestant missionary in China. Books such as written by Moffett are, therefore, indispensable; after all, the little-known Nestorian mission to Chang’an possesses an ancient context that is worth our continued consideration. As Moffett reminds us, the Nestorian mission to China was more or less contemporary with Aidan’s missionary journey from Iona to England, and occurred some 55 years before a pioneering effort among the Friesen tribes of northern Europe.3Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 288. In other words, the Nestorian stone also stands as a rather resilient reminder that Christians in the West—much like people everywhere—sometimes neglect history when they are neither its immediate benefactors nor its beneficiaries.
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As Moffett tells the story, Alopen arrived in China during the early part of the T’ang dynasty.4The T’ang dynasty ruled in China between 618-907 A.D., with a fifteen-year interruption between 690-705. That dynasty was established in 618, after a Chinese governor, Li Yuan, captured the Chinese capital with a Turkic cavalry. He was subsequently crowned as Emperor Gaozu. The strife that marked the dynasty’s beginning was initially reflected in anti-foreign sentiments. These were especially noted in the government’s anti-Buddhist policies, for the Chinese considered Buddhism a foreign, western religion. However, some of these attitudes moderated after Gaozu’s son succeeded him on the imperial throne. That happened in 626, when Li Shimin replaced his father and became Emperor Taizong.
Taizong methodically reversed several of his father’s policies, culminating in the 638 signing of an edict of toleration. A golden age in China is said to have followed. This period not only marked a toleration and revival of Chinese Buddhism, but it also provided the occasion for the arrival of Alopen and his missionary party. As Moffett reminds his readers, had Alopen entered China but ten years earlier, his entry would have likely been refused, anti-foreign feelings then being what they were. Alopen, however, was not left to some meager toleration: The emperor, himself, soon ordered the construction of a church in the capital, which he paid for out of funds from his own treasury.5Contemporary with the rise of a church in China is the mention of Christians in Tibet, referenced by a Nestorian patriarch, Timothy I (778-820). Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 295. Taizong also ordered Alopen to begin a translation of the scriptures, evidently intending to add the new translation to the other two hundred thousand volumes contained in the imperial library. Occasion had become opportunity: Alopen’s deepest desires had, in fact, become imperial policy. This was no insignificant situation: At that time, Chang’an was the largest city in the world.6Ibid., 293.
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But there is something else, for the very fact that Alopen represented the Nestorian church complicates the story. This once-large sect of Christians in the East obtained their name from a monk in Antioch, Syria. That monk, named Nestorius (c. 386 – c. 431), was later an elder in Antioch, but eventually patriarch of Constantinople. The churches that ultimately bore his name displayed significant evangelistic zeal; nevertheless, for all their evident enthusiasm, the doctrine of the Nestorians took some contested forms, leading to the Council of Ephesus in 431. For one, the Nestorians were charged with positing the independence of the human and divine natures in Jesus Christ; not merely claiming that there were two different natures in the incarnate Son—for that would have found wide agreement with other professing Christians; but the Nestorians said that the human and divine natures existed beside one another independently in Jesus of Nazareth. This is a superficial summary of the Nestorian error.
Philip Schaff originates the original controversy in Nestorius’ attempt to answer and overcome a growing veneration of Mary. This was laudable, but the point of debate slowly shifted. Schaff describes the eventual center of the dispute. Nestorianism, he writes,
asserted indeed, rightly, the duality of the natures, and the continued distinction between them; it denied with equal correctness, that God, as such could either be born or suffer and die; but it pressed the distinction of the two natures to double personality. It substituted for the idea of the incarnation the idea of an assumption of human nature, or rather of an entire man, into fellowship with the Logos, and an indwelling of Godhead in Christ. Instead of God-Man, we have the idea of a mere God-bearing man and the person of Jesus of Nazareth is only the instrument or the temple in which the divine Logos dwells.Philipp Schaff, Nicene and Post Nicene Christianity, vol. III, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1910), 717.
In the Nestorian mind, then, the two natures consist of a mere moral, rather than a personal unity. As Schaff thus summarizes the error, there is (at the most) in this formulation, an intimate friendship between the divine and human natures in the person of Jesus.7Ibid., 718. Another short but helpful summary of the foundation issues of the Nestorian controversy is found in Patrick Whitworth’s Three Wise Men from the East (Durham, U.K.: Sacristy Press, 2015), 200-02. Nevertheless, the Nestorian Church eventually became the dominant influence throughout much of the East, its influence diminished only by the eventual rise of Islam in the Persian Empire. But what of its fate in China? It is in the curious engraving on the Xi’an monument—sometimes rather called the Jingjiao Stele—that historians have often contemplated the answer to this question.
The mixture of symbols that adorn the monument’s edifice begs the interest. There, we find a cross, a lotus flower, and clouds. These are said to, in turn, represent the Christian faith, Buddhism, and Daoism. Both Buddhist and Daoist disciples predated Alopen’s arrival in China, and the picture on the monument’s etching obviously reflects its designer’s attempt to somehow associate these three symbols together. What, then, does their inclusion together mean? Does the cross rising from among the others declare its triumph? Or does their mutual inclusion rather represent a kind of syncretism? Westerners hardly know of this church’s founding, but its abrupt disappearance is accordingly made a mystery. By A.D. 987 there was only one Christian remaining in China.8Here, Moffett cites an Arab document. Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 303. In an endnote, Moffett also mentions that the same phrase could be understood as “not one Christian left.” See endnote 56, ibid., 319. Regardless, the decline is tragic and complete. By the time Robert Morrison arrived on the shores of China, its first churches had already both flourished and disappeared.
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Syncretism—the improper merging of disparate cultural and religious ideas—is a common feature of human thought and expression. Unavoidably, the Xi’an monument’s combination of symbols invites our suspicions of it, for the symbols appear together without a tool to adequately decipher their association together. The human mind is such that it needs and seeks forms for its heartfelt expressions; even so, the human heart is such that it will too easily justify false forms for their purported service to truth. The Lord Jesus could simultaneously speak of lilies and God’s faithfulness (Matthew 6:28-30) without endangering the symbol or the truth that it illustrated. It is a more difficult task for the rest of us.
Evidently, even agreeing to a single definition of syncretism presents difficulties: A brief survey of papers yields the impression that many of those who seem to have studied the idea the most have now given up on a precise definition. Nevertheless, evolutionary ideas abound in the literature: Syncretism is made evidence of how societies trade for power with ideas; it is made an explanation for the development of religion and culture—”Christianity” included. This last charge may be dismissed, at least in respect to the biblical kind. Quite simply, the biblical revelation will not yield this reading: As part of its very narrative, the Bible records and then condemns the repeated efforts of its own adherents to compromise the word and work of God. Generally speaking, propaganda will not admit to compromises, but the Bible includes such attempts as part of its historical record and even shows human treachery as instrumental in its redemptive message.
From its earliest days, Israel corrupted the forms of worship in search of worldly and religious aspirations. Indeed, Solomon would build a temple on Mount Moriah, and then also seek satisfaction on altars that he constructed upon the hills of Canaan (1 Kings 11). Israel’s history shows how bare rites would, again and again, be mistaken for the pleasure of God, and man’s affections attributed to God’s will. Similarly, Paul’s New Testament letters frequently address the problems that arose in the first churches, an increasingly eclectic mixture of peoples. The misappropriation of forms and their meanings, given man’s sinful inclinations, was inevitable. Some failed to distinguish the gospel from certain ideas about the Mosaic covenant. Other believers were so considerate of pagan errors that they could not apprehend the fullness of the gospel and what it said about Christian privilege. As such, the Bible itself becomes a witness to the dangers of syncretism.
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Perhaps we may better contemplate syncretism if we initially investigate its ambitions and only then its forms. What I mean is that syncretism arises in real aspiration, in the seat of our desires. This further means that its various expressions are often accompanied with a substantial amount of superficial piety. This superficial piety is not always insincere, but it is eventually apparent, bubbling up and giving sound and shape to religious practice. It is observed in outward forms that are governed by the controlling impetus. These forms, then, are explained and justified by sentiments, regardless of their absurdity or their error. The idol, greasy with oil and smeared with thick paste of vermilion, is the tangible expression of an invisible imagination. It is nothing more, but it is certainly nothing less. And it is the latter fact, rather than in the former, which is the true cause of the offense. “An idol is nothing in the world” writes Paul (1 Corinthians 8:4). This, he writes, not to excuse idolatry, but to rather confirm that the human heart is the source of the error. The greasy, purple-pasted thing, itself, easily excites disgust in most Christian observers, but not so often its founder’s misplaced desires, for those—rather than the gross form they might take—are much like our own. The feeling of horror, then, is merely aesthetical, and not really a judgement on its underlying inclinations. As such, syncretism will persist as long as forms may be sanitized of their original, created purpose and then reconsecrated by men for every new age and its people. It borrows its life from disordered desires.
In the early 20th century Modernism took root in the soil of post-war disenchantment. At that time, many Protestant churches abandoned the supernatural elements of the gospel to reinfuse the nation with a sentimental and spiritual ethic; more recent varieties of syncretism have flowered in the soil of Christian triumphalism. The gospel is sometimes recast to save the national character and influence of churches. Syncretism, then, is sometimes a conservative impulse—an evangelical error. When the gospel and its implications are distorted in order to obtain temporal triumph, syncretism flowers where it was, perhaps, not even perceived before—all the while accompanied with the appearance of piety. It is then seen for what it is—idolatry, regardless of its aesthetic qualities.
The most nefarious syncretism, then, is not merely the blending of truth and error; it is the misappropriation of forms—even those of the sound words of scripture (2 Timothy 1:13)—in search of “cultural clarity” and “practical usefulness.” We may go further still. What is finally in the balance is not clarity in a colloquial sense, for clarity is too often confounded with what is simplistic. Furthermore, Clarity is but one servant at Truth’s bidding. Truth will not send Clarity on an errand without Meaning. Facts as words must remain attached to their intended sense, and that is apprehended in the very structures of biblical language and narrative, not the natural sentiments that tempt us to reorder their forms.
In writing of the thought of some church fathers, historian Robert Louis Wilken includes his summary of their expositional method. One may disagree with various conclusions of those ancient men and still appreciate the method and summary that Wilken describes:
One can speak of God as the source of life without using the language of the Bible. The point is not that “living water” expresses things better than “inexhaustible infinite” or “boiling over with life.” What is significant is that “living water” is found in the Bible. Metaphors and images and symbols drawn from elsewhere, no matter how apt, do not stir the Christian imagination in the same way as those drawn from Scriptures. Like rhetorical ornaments that momentarily delight the hearer, they are as insubstantial as breath blown on glass.
Because the words and images of the Bible endure, they provide the scaffolding on which to construct the edifice of Christian thought. The Bible was, however, more than a platform on which to build something else, and biblical interpretation was not a stage on the way to the real work of thinking. Thinking took place through exegesis, and the language of the Bible became the language of Christian thought.Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Kindle Edition, Loc. 890.
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Moffett does discuss the several ways in which Nestorian Christianity influenced and (perhaps) mixed with elements already existing in China when Alopen arrived. He wonders about the ways this might have led to the church’s eventual demise. In the end, Moffett, at least, is satisfied that this first church of medieval China was neither heretically Nestorian nor fatally syncretistic.9Ibid., 312. He does refer to eventual expressions of false doctrine, evident in prayers for the dead in a later tenth century text,10Ibid. but Moffett settles upon another initial cause for the church’s demise. In considering the decline and eventual disappearance of the first Chinese church, Moffett names the very relationship upon which the church depended from its very beginning.
If any conclusion at all can be drawn from these various attempts to explain the cause of the collapse of the Chinese church in the T’ang dynasty, it should probably be that the decisive factor was neither religious persecution, nor theological compromise, nor even its foreignness, but rather 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. When a church writes “obey the Emperor” into its version of the Ten Commandments it is writing a recipe for its own destruction.”Moffett., 313.
I will assume that Moffett’s assessment relates to the church and its mission, rather than to the duties of a Christian as a citizen (cf. Acts 5:28-29, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:17). There is an important distinction between the two different responsibilities, though they tend to collapse together.
Whatever the case, God’s mercy becomes the bare condition for the church to return from the kind of well-intended efforts that frustrate righteousness in the name of contextualization, simplicity, and evangelistic “success.” We could give long consideration to the expression of God’s merciful sentiments—those are granted to us in the language of scripture; here, we need only remember and rejoice that its redemptive and controlling expression did not outstrip the means of its promise and provision. Creaturely faithfulness and divine grace appeared together in the Incarnate Son. The Word took the form of a servant to be employed in what was then most fitting for us all—the bearing of judgement. Accordingly, the believer may now enjoy what is most fitting for God—glory. The substantial difference between the human Jesus and the divine father were mysteriously united in the Son of God (1 Timothy 3:16). Thus, the mission of God succeeded in and for man. God’s substantiated marker was raised in history.
Notes & References
|The stone is large, measuring nine feet high and more than three feet wide. It commemorates the arrival of “Ta-ch’in Luminous Religion in China.” Moffett writes that the monument contains more than 1,756 Chinese characters and about 70 Syriac words. The stone’s inscription confirms Alopen’s arrival in the year 635, “the ninth year of the Chen-kuan period,’ i.e., the ninth year of the emperor T’ai-tsung. Moffett, however, speculates that Alopen was not the first Christian in China, as Nestorians populated the merchant class that participated in the trade between the Sassanid Persians and China in the fifth century. See Samuel Hugh Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1998), 291.
|In a 2020 article, The Economist referenced the growing number of Protestant Christians there. Everything that I have ever heard suggest these numbers are difficult to verify; nevertheless, they do reflect some sort of trend at the time of the article’s publication. Even Christian organizations struggle with these questions and sometimes factor in groups and denominations that truly represent persecuted peoples but fall outside the bounds of what should be considered Christian churches.
|Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 288.
|The T’ang dynasty ruled in China between 618-907 A.D., with a fifteen-year interruption between 690-705.
|Contemporary with the rise of a church in China is the mention of Christians in Tibet, referenced by a Nestorian patriarch, Timothy I (778-820). Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 295.
|Ibid., 718. Another short but helpful summary of the foundation issues of the Nestorian controversy is found in Patrick Whitworth’s Three Wise Men from the East (Durham, U.K.: Sacristy Press, 2015), 200-02.
|Here, Moffett cites an Arab document. Moffett, Christianity in Asia: Volume 1: Beginnings to 1500, 303. In an endnote, Moffett also mentions that the same phrase could be understood as “not one Christian left.” See endnote 56, ibid., 319. Regardless, the decline is tragic and complete.