‘Nestorianism’ in China – No such thing!

Jingjiao SteleThere is no such thing!

I have read many historical studies and essays about the encounter between Christianity and China, including in the last few months, and a great many of them begin by discussing the arrival of Nestorianism into China in the seventh century. While I also held this position for many years—and even used the term in my PhD—it was not until I was preparing my first book for publication that I decided to look into the literature on the matter. After much reading, I was convinced that I was wrong. Hence, the very first footnote in this book on twentieth century Chinese Christianity includes my longest footnote—dedicated to a seventh century topic. A very important seventh century topic.

To save you from looking it up, I cite it here at length:1

In Chinese, this group is often known by the term jingjiao—the “luminous religion.” In English it is still common to refer to the group as “Nestorian” or the “Nestorian Church,” named after Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, who was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council held in Ephesus in AD 431. This usage can be seen in the history written recently by the respected historian Daniel Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (New York: Wiley and Blackwell, 2011), 4–16.

There has arisen, however, some critique to the appropriateness of this term. Sebastian Brock argues that the so-called Nestorian Church has, in antiquity, preferred to self-describe itself as the “Church of the East”—a term I employ in this present study. He rightly states, “The association between the Church of the East and Nestorius is of a very tenuous nature, and to continue to call that church ‘Nestorian’ is, from a historical point of view, totally misleading and incorrect.” Sebastian P. Brock, “The ‘Nestorian’ Church: A Lamentable Misnomer,” Bulletin of John Rylands Library 78, no. 3 (1996): 35.

Peter Hofrichter goes on to argue that parts of the so-called Nestorian documents of China tend toward a position closer to Monophysitism—a theological position quite opposite the teachings associated by Nestorius but likewise anathematized by the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon in AD 451. This makes the description of this group as “Nestorian” even more precarious. Peter L. Hofrichter, preface to Jingjiao: The Church of the East in China and Central Asia, ed. Roman Malek and Peter L. Hofrichter (Sankt Augustin, Germany: Institut Monumenta Serica, 2006).

  1. Alexander Chow, Theosis, Sino-Christian Theology and the Second Chinese Enlightenment: Heaven and Humanity in Unity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pg. 177 fn. 1.