Light from the Theological Schools of Persian Christianity (An Early Asian Church) Dr. Y.C. Liong

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Whether in the Roman Empire (Western) or Persian Empire (Asian), the growth and expansion of Christianity during the initial centuries AD were at best difficult. Often, Christians were persecuted by individuals, groups or rulers.

Sozomen (A.D. 323~425), an early church historian, captured our hearts with the following report concerning the martyrdom of Christians in Persia:

.. I think that I have said enough of … martyrs who suffered in Persia during the reign of Sapor; for it would be difficult to relate in detail every circumstance respecting them, such as their names, their country, the mode of completing their martyrdom, and the species of torture to which they were subjected; I shall briefly state that the number of men and women whose names have been ascertained, and who were martyred at this period, have been computed to be sixteen thousand; while the multitude outside of these is beyond enumeration …[2]

Christianity in Persia was never quite supported by the governments of the Persian Empire throughout the first seven centuries: Parthian and Sassanians and the Muslim Arabs. There was no sense of security under the states as the church was quite often the target of suspicion, discrimination, manipulation, and persecution.

Internally, the church was an isolated and independent sect repeatedly condemned by the West over theological differences. In addition, there were destructive conflicts even within the church in Persia over theological issues and differences in traditions. It seems that the life of the church in Persia during this period was in great jeopardy.

However, a closer look at its development will prove this assumption wrong. The church in Persia had not only survived the severe challenges, it had also expanded far beyond the Mesopotamian region to cover other areas in Persia as well as lands further to the east as far as Central Asia and China, and to the South as far as Arabia, and to the land west of Persia.

The survival and growth of Christianity in Persia in the midst of crises and dilemma in the first seven centuries A.D. were unbelievable but true. The church went through no easy way or short-cut in keeping itself alive and in making progress. One of the reasons for the survival and growth of the Church was the role played by theological schools of the Persian (Asian) church.

Theological Schools of the early Asian Church

Indeed, the theological institutions played a significant role in the survival and growth of the Christianity during the early centuries in Persia. One such theological institution was the School of Edessa.

1¡DThe Theological School of  Edessa.

Information regarding the origin of the School of Edessa is scanty. It is believed by some that the beginning of the school may extent to as early as the third century.[3] It was only in the early fifth century that a director, Qiiore was first known. Narsai was also one of the directors from A.D. 451 to 471.

Basically, the School of Edessa of the Roman Empire was a theological school. The fact that it was also known as the School of the Persians shows that there were many Persian students studying there.[4] Indeed, as mentioned earlier, most of the clergy for the Church of the East (later renamed Nestorian Church) in Persia received their training from the School of Edessa until its closure in A.D. 489.

The one main thing that had made the School of Edessa outstanding and inseparable from the survival and growth of the Church of the East was its theological conviction which centred around the stance of Theodore of Mopsuestia, ¡¥the Interpreter¡¦ and expositor of the Bible. The theological stance adopted by the Church of the East was Nestorianism which grew out of the Christology developed at the school of Antioch by Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Nestorius. The school of Antioch asserted that there were two natures of Christ: the Man in his perfect humanity, and the Logos, the Son, consubstantial with the Father, perfect in his divinity. These two natures were united by God in one person. However, the unity did not produce a ¡§mixture¡¨ of the two natures but an equality in which each was left whole and intact.

The central program of the theological school was Bible studies with Theodore of Mopsuestia as its main lecturer. His method of literal and historical exegesis as an approach to the Scripture was adopted as the standard approach. Beside biblical studies, other subjects like philosophy, history, geography, and even astronomy were also part of the curriculum.[5]

Many of the works of Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia were then translated to Syriac by the School of Edessa in the fifth century where their works were highly favoured.[6] The students from Persia were naturally followers of their theological stance who, after their return to Persia, made a strong impact on the theology or doctrines of the Church. In the words of Karl Baus and his friends,

[The reason why] Nestorianism found entry into the Persian Church so easily is certainly connected with the fact that the School of Edessa had already established a reputation as a school whose graduates had for long time spread their ideas in Persia; but probably also with the fact that the Church of Persia, which must expressed itself emphatically in a Synod of 424 for its autonomy, that is, for its independence of Antioch [of the Roman Empire], could develop in Nestorianism something like a theological self-awareness as opposed to West Syria and the Byzantine Empire.[7]

Most clergy and several capable and influential leaders and reformers of the Church in Persia, such as Patriarch Acacius, Bishop Barsauma of Nisibis,  Narsai (director of the School of  Nisibis), and Abraham of Kashar were alumni of the School and defenders of Nestorianism. Without their work the church in Persia may not have stayed united, survived and made advances under the intense external and internal pressures from the fourth to the seventh century mentioned earlier on. Hence, in this sense, the survival and growth of the Church of the East was inseparable from the School of Edessa.

2¡DThe  Theological School of Nisibis

Another highly influential theological school for Asia was the School of Nisibis in Persia. The origin of the School was related to Narsai¡¦s departure from Edessa in A.D. 471 and Emperor Zeno¡¦s closure of the School of the Edessa in A.D. 489 and the expulsion of all Nestorians from his realm (Roman Empire) in the midst of the growing tension between Monophysites and Nestorians.

In fact, the School of Nisibis in Persia was the continuation of the School of Edessa in which Nestorianism found a new home. The two pioneers of the new school were Barsauma the initiator and supporter and Narsai the first director and scholar. [8]

The School had a very humble start as just ¡¥a camel hostel by the side of the church,¡¦ the site of a former school, purchased as the campus. The School also engaged some of Narsai¡¦s fellow-workers from Edessa to join him as teachers. Very soon, the ¡§majority of the Edessenes as well as new Persian and Syrian students were attracted to the new institution.¡¨[9] It was estimated that the peak enrollment climbed to more than a thousand.[10] It was not too difficult to imagine how important this school was, as the most famous center of learning in Asia, in injecting new life and dynamics to the Church of the East.[11]

Like the School of Edessa, the School of Nisibis placed great emphasis on the biblical studies[12] which followed Theodore of Mopsuestia¡¦s literal textual and historical method of exegesis and interpretations. This method was ¡§always the Nestorian model.¡¨ [13] After all, the School of Nisibis was strictly a Nestorian theological school.

In the area of spiritual discipline, Atiya states that the School was more than just a theological institution; it was some sort of a monastery where the students lived in a close-knit community and led a quasi-monastic or ascetic life. The rules of the School ¡§insisted on celibacy and enforced regularity, residence and work.¡¨[14] Some of the strict rules stated in the canons of the School of Nisibis are as follows:

The ninth. Of the brothers who live together, each of them shall not eat bread by himself, but their shall be in common as their study…

The seventeenth. Along with learning the brothers of the school shall be diligent also over the eskima of the dress and hair: they shall not shave entirely, also they shall not grow curls like the seculars but they shall go about within the school and on the streets of the town in chaste tonsure and dignified dress that is far from luxury, so that through these both they shall be known to everybody¡K, to the stranger and to those belonging to the household.

The eighteenth. No one of the brothers of the school is allowed to teach women, benat qeiama (¡¥the daughters of the covenant¡¦) from the town or outside the town under the pretext of the right cause, also no one shall have continuance of talk and prolonged conversion with women, in order that they may come no offense and blasphemy through the cause. And when he is found that he acts otherwise, he shall be foreign to the community and go from the town…

We have consented and do consent to all these canons which are the helpers of prudence, the discipliners of freedom, promoters and correctors of the soul and of the body likewise, and we, …in this time are in the holy community of the school of Nisibis, indeed, we know and are convinced that these commandments are of the Lord. And he who turns away and neglects their observance, is foreign to our community and the manner of life that is among us.[15]

The School of Nisibis had also placed emphasis on mission as its theology was a missionary theology.[16] Moffett is right to see that the School of Nisibis ¡§became the center for the Nestorianizing of the Persian church. Narsai, the first director, was no less fervently Nestorian than the bishop of Nisibis, Barsauma.¡¨ Such conviction, manifested extensively through his teachings, is found in his Metrical Homilies. [17]

One of the alumni of the School of Nisibis who was considered ¡§the most capable and prudent of the Patriarchs of the Church of the East, both in his exercise of church discipline, and in his relations with the State¡¨ was Mar Aba the Great (patriarch A.D 540~552).[18]Under the leadership of the new patriarch Mar Aba successful reforms were carried out within the already deteriorating Nestorian church.[19] This includes the restoring of order, unity, decency and spirituality, revitalization of theological education and monasticism, and reconciliation of the Christians of the East and West. He managed to ¡§turn the ecclesiastical demoralization of his time into … golden ages of the Church of the East.¡¨[20]

3. Other Theological Schools

However, under Henana (began in A.D. 571), the sixth director of the School of Nisibis, the situation of the school changed. The deviation of Henana¡¦s theological conviction from Nestorianism had inevitably lost the favour of the Church. Eventually, the School was shaken and divided. A number of theological schools were founded as a result of that schism, but the Great Monastery on Mount Izala founded by Abraham of Kaskar and the School of Seleucia-Ctesiphon founded by Mar Aba were the two centers of importance for the Nestorian church. The School of Seleucia-Ctesiphon was modeled after the School of Nisibis by Mar Aba. It was his conviction that ¡§the Capital should be not only the seat of government in the church, but a center for its theological enlightenment as well.¡¨[21]

The inseparableness of the survival and growth of the Church of the East and its theological schools of Edessa, Nisibis, the Great Monastery, Seleucia-Ctesiphon etc. can be summarized into three main points. First, they had equipped and nurtured many mature ecclesiastical leaders (patriarchs, clergy, reformers, school directors, theologians, teachers, writers, biblical scholars) who contributed immeasurably toward the welfare of the Church of the East, especially in difficult times.

Second, the schools had set a standard guide for the church to follow as far as the spirituality of the church was concerned. One such example was the strong emphasis on the biblical studies and ascetic life style.

Third, the schools had successfully upheld Nestorian theological conviction for the Church of the East. This was an extremely important matter not only because of its unique characteristic as the heritage of the Church, and the identity of the Church but also because of its significant political implications.

The Persian nationalistic character of the Church of the East, with Nestorianism as its doctrinal stance and total independence of administration, though offensive to the West, had reduced the suspicion and won the trust of the Persian government. [22]


Indeed, the Church of the East had survived and thrived in a rather hostile environment in Persia (Asia) in the early centuries. It is believed that one of the main reasons was the positive impact of the theological schools toward the expansion of the church at that time.

What lessons can we, the Chinese evangelical churches in Australia today, learn from the Asian church, the Church of the East or Christianity in Persia? I believe we can capitalise the experiences discussed above for the benefit of the Chinese churches in Australia in particular and the global Christian community in general.

We cannot take our biblical or evangelical stand for granted. In other words, we need to establish a firm foundation for our theological conviction, not only to make our stand known but to know why we believe in and promote it.

Unlike the early Asian Christianity, the Chinese evangelical churches in Australia today are not facing any persecution resembling those of the early Persian churches. Nevertheless, we are constantly bombarded by ideologies, philosophies and theologies of the post-modern world which are not compatible with the biblical principles.

The issues of homosexuality, genetic and ethical issues, human rights, multiculturalism, terrorism, and religious-cultural conflicts are just some of the many burning issues we face today. Further, the problems of executing our missiological and pastoral responsibilities among the different people-groups in our given contexts such as the second generation Chinese or the ABC, the Muslim community, other ethnic groups are sometimes too overwhelming. These challenges and issues are real and are too costly not to be dealt with by the Chinese evangelical churches today we should not allow any people, thought, theology or thing which is not biblically sound to determine our direction.

I believe many church leaders are not unaware of all these issues. However, as most churches are preoccupied with many ministries or may not have the resources to deal with them, it is rather difficult for them to address sufficiently the many burning issues before them via in-depth researches and theological constructions.

The Chinese evangelical churches in Australia would be irrelevant and even irresponsible to the society and eventually made redundant if we are unable to respond, operate on a default mode or are indifferent to the issues.

I believe this is where theological institutions such as the Chinese Department of the Bible College of Victoria (BCVCD) can come in to fill the gap by providing the much needed leadership role in spearheading pertinent researches for the churches so that they can be proactive in influencing the society via their missiological and pastoral ministries.

Interestingly, the BCVCD has three major objectives which bear a resemblance to those of the theological schools of the early Asian church in Persia. First, it trains pastors, missionaries and church leaders for the Chinese churches in Australia regardless of denominations. Second, it enhances the evangelical stand (theological conviction) of the Chinese churches in Australia. Third, it facilitates theological researches with a goal to developing a mature contextualised theology for the Chinese churches in Australia.

In fact, since 1995, BCVCD has begun to play its roles as stated above even though it is still in its infantile stage. However, this is only a part of the equation. The other part of the equation is the continual support given by the churches. Since the future of churches depends very much on a good theological school with a sound theological conviction and strong research capability, therefore, it is imperative that Bible schools such as BCVCD are to be intentionally and continuously supported in all aspects by the local churches so as to be effective in their roles.

In this fast changing, complex and hostile world, let us (BCVCD and Chinese churches in Australia), therefore, consolidate our co-operation as we continue to ¡§labour, struggling with all His energy, which so powerfully works¡¨ in us through our ministries together so as to help our churches to survive in all conditions and revive for the purpose of presenting ¡§everyone perfect in Christ.¡¨ (Col.1:28~29)

Such a noble hope or dream can be realised if we would co-operate and work hard in the grace of our Lord.

[1] This modified short article is based on a section of my dissertation taken from Liong Yuk Chong, ¡§The Historical Development of the Early Asian Christianity: The Rise and Struggle of Christianity in Persia During the First Seven Centuries AD.¡¨ MTh dissertation , SEAGST, 1997.

   The Asian church here denotes churches outside the Roman Empire in the East, such as those in Persia and kingdoms along the Old Silk Road during the first seven centuries AD.

[2] Sozomen, ¡§The Ecclesiastical History,¡¨ in Nicene and Post~Nicene Fathers, 14 vols.  (New York: The Christian Literature Company, 1890), 2: 267~268.

[3] See Karl Baus, Hans~Georg Beck, Eugen Ewig, Hermann Josef Vogt, History of the Church, Volume 1, (New York: Cross Road, 1986), 372; Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, volume 1, (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 189.

[4] Ibid.

[5] W. Steward McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, (Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), 62.

[6] Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, 1990 ed., s.v. ¡§Nestorianism,¡¨ by Susan Ashbrook Harvey; McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, p. 62.

[7] Karl Baus, Hans~Georg Beck, Eugen Ewig, Hermann Josef Vogt, History of the Church, 2: 464~465.

   The various Persian church synods, such as in A.D. 410, 424, 486, and 497 had explicitly expressed the constant increment of the degree of Nestorianization and independence of the Church of the East as the years went by.

[8] Details on how Barsauma had earnestly persuaded Narsai to join him in the establishment of the School and the related issues are substantially discussed by Stephen Gero, Barsauma of  Nisibis and Persian Christianity in the Fifth Century, pp. ( Lovanii: Peeters, 1981), 60~72.

[9]  Ibid., pp. 63, 64.

[10] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 202.

[11] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 200.

[12] It is believed that ¡§the three~year course covered the Scriptures in this order: the Pauline Epistles and the Pentateuch; the Psalms and the Prophets; the rest of New Testament.¡¨ See McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, p. 130.

[13] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 201.

[14] Aziz S. Atiya, A History of Eastern Christianity, (New York: Klaus Reprint, 1980), 253; Scott Sunquist, ¡§Light from the East on Early Theological Education,¡¨ in Trinity Theological Journal, (1989): 31; See McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, p. 130.

[15] See A. Voobus, Statutes of the School of Nisibis, (Stockholm: E.S.T.E., 1961) pp. 96, 99, 100, 102.

    See also Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 201, 202; McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, p. 130.

[16]  See Sunquist, ¡§Light from the East on Early Theological Education,¡¨ in Trinity Theological Journal, 33.

[17] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 203.

    See detail discussion on Narsai¡¦s Metrical Homilies on the Nativity, Epiphany, and Passion in the present dissertation:  Chapter Three, under section III,  point F: Nestorianisn in the Metrical Homilies of Narsai of  Liong Yuk Chong, ¡§The Historical Development of the Early Asian Christianity: The Rise and Struggle of Christianity in Persia During the First Seven Centuries AD.¡¨ MTh dissertation , SEAGST, 1997.

[18] William G. Young, Patriarch, Shah, and Caliph, (Rawalpindi: Christian Study centre, 1974), 59, 62.

[19] The deterioration of the church was partly the result of the ugly practice of nepotism resulted in an embarrassing schism of 524~539 and also partly  because of the delicacy of the relations between the church and the State. See Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 206, 207, 217.

[20] Ibid., pp. 217~225; Details also available in Young, Patriarch, Shah, and Caliph, pp. 59~72.

[21] Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia, 1: 234~242, 218; McCullough, A Short History of  Syriac Christianity to the Rise of  Islam, pp. 155~157.

[22] The Persian Empire and the Roman Empire were enemies for centuries.

 Light from the Theological Schools of Persian Christianity

(An Early Asian Church)

Dr. Y.C. Liong