Session 7: Early Middle Ages 600 to 1000

Session 7 Early Middle Ages 600 to 1000.

Ministry in the church was affected by the close attachment of the church to the state and to the fact that the church represented the most stable institution in European culture. Confession became more prominent in the church. Penance, in relation to confession, arose as a part of the pastor’s desire to help alleviate the guilt of parishioners. Manuals for pastors, originating in Ireland, helped to guide pastors’ responses to the sins and misdeeds of their people.

Christianity continued to expand in Europe. It experienced intellectual stirrings in the ninth century. At the same time, differences between the East and the West deepened.

This lesson will review the eastward advance of Nestorian Christianity to China.


At the end of this lesson, participants should
• understand pastors’ duties in the context of the times
• identify the geographic spread of Christianity in Europe during this time
• identify with early missionaries
• discuss the methods by which Europe was Christianized
• discuss theological issues of the ninth century
• analyze the increasing rift between the Eastern and Western churches
• debate the evangelistic success of groups of Christians considered heretical
            by looking at the connections between the Nestorian theological                                          controversy and its missionary movement
• describe the beginnings of Christianity in China, its political context, and
            reasons for its decline

Prepare Before Class

A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 17 and 18
            Write a Big Idea paragraph from your reading

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. The Church and the Ministry in the Early Middle Ages
                        Should ministers today become involved in politics?
2. The Spread and Development of Christianity in Europe
                        Compare the advantages of reaching out to the ruling class or the common
            3.Expansion Eastward
                        What are appropriate ways to expand the gospel today?

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  

The Church and Ministry in the Early Middle Ages

Refer to Resource 7-1 in the Student Guide.
The clergy became increasingly involved in the social life and affairs of medieval culture. The typical parish priest had a low level of education. Some had no knowledge of the meaning of the Latin words they were using in the mass. Yet, they were the besteducated persons in society. Illiterate laity could see in the mass a drama that reenacted the passion of Christ. The gospel was reduced to one central event, the Passion or death of Christ. Through the death of Christ came forgiveness of sins and communion with God.

Priests became involved in trade, business, and politics. Even in cases of military action, priests went into battle. War came to be considered blessed, and knights eventually came to be inducted in religious ceremonies into kinds of monastic orders. The pope himself set the example. The pope made treaties and agreements with various rulers. He became a great business administrator, caring, so it seemed, more for his estates than for the cure of souls. In 754 King Pepin of the Franks handed the keys of 10 cities to the pope for his civil rule. With continued sporadic invasions of Rome and these papal states, the pope provided protection and public order for those under his care.

In Gaul and Germany, the church controlled vast estates making up between one-third and one-half of various kingdoms. These lands were vested personally in bishops and abbots. The church distributed food all over the empire, sending wheat, for instance, from North Africa to Constantinople. At the same time, the rulers used priests and monks, being the most educated members of their societies, as advisors, tutors, and civil servants.

Even the monk enlarged his functions, and the distinctions between monasticism and the regular clergy became blurred. Monks served as evangelists and missionaries. Though they ran hospitals and places of refuge, monks emphasized their role in scholarship and maintaining culture, more than poverty. Monks became squires, with their lands producing wine, wool, grain, and other commodities. Monasteries used the labor of peasants, called serfs, who were indentured to the land. In some places the monasteries struggled with the bishops over control and revenue of a territory.

The church built great cathedrals in urban centers. Laypeople organized guilds to build the churches. Many of the cathedrals also served as monasteries—with the bishop serving as abbot—and schools. Rural churches were under lay control, sponsored by feudal lords.

Reform impulses in the church remained, nonetheless. There were principally two during this period. The first was for the church to be independent of lay control, meaning, from the control of monarchies and gentry. The pope argued that clerical sins of any kind should be left totally to the church—which was generally less severe in its punishments. In fact any sort of sin, since sin was “spiritual,” could be left to the church’s deliberations.

The church effectively used the threat of excommunication to discipline laity, since the laity believed salvation could only be found within the church. The church created a dependency upon itself for salvation. In order for the power of the monarchs over the churches to be diminished, the power of the pope, the reformers believed, should be augmented. The pope began to consider himself, as head of the universal church, also the leader over the monarchs. This brought the popes into serious conflicts with various rulers.

The second reform also emphasized the distance between the clergy and the laity. The dress of the clergy distinguished them from the laity. During communion, the priest was to stand, and the people should kneel. Only the priest partook of both elements. The laity was given only the bread.

The increased enforcement of celibacy upon the clergy further marked separation between them and the laity. Actually, the celibacy of the clergy was only partial. Many priests refused to abandon their wives simply at the church’s decree.

The evangelization of the world continued. In Europe, there still were many pagans among the German tribes. Their religion was polytheistic and animistic. Sometimes evangelists taught a system of punishments and rewards rather than the gospel. Typically, conversions came to people groups rather than to individuals. That is, the conversion of a king led to the whole kingdom becoming nominally Christian.

Penance and confession became increasingly important aspects of the role of the clergy. Through it, the priests probed the hearts of their parishioners. After a moral cross-examination, the priest would impose catharsis-producing penances.

Private confession and penance was frequent and common to all by 600. British and Irish monks wrote the earliest manuals, which by 700, were circulating widely throughout Europe. These manuals served as handbooks for ministers. There was a connection between the pre-Christian Irish idea of a “soul friend” and the role of a confessor. The penances were inspired by monasticism and asceticism. Confessors were often monks and, sometimes, especially in the East, laypersons and women.

   Nonetheless, people flocked to the church to do penance. Indeed priests declared they would cut off from the church any laypersons who did not confess and do penance. The busy times of penance were Christmas and Lent—the 40 days preceding Easter. Priests were supposed to admonish a penitent as a fellow sinner: “Brother, do not blush to confess thy sins, for I also am a sinner, and perchance I have done worse deeds than thou hast.” Priests realized there was moral peril in intimate contact with the penitent, and peril in asking about certain sins so as to incite them! For this reason, the priest was not to look directly upon the penitent.

Granting forgiveness—on the basis of John 20:23 and Matthew 16:19—led to confession becoming the sacrament of absolution. This led to the formal establishment of confession at the Fourth Lateran Council by Pope Innocent III in 1215.

On the basis of the confessional, priests would bring the word of God to bear upon the present conditions of people. Preaching was not exegetical. It relied on telling stories with a moral point. Often it included stories about saints and their miracles. Many times, preaching was left to the monks. Some monks became itinerate preachers. The monks’ sermons, in contrast to the priests’, were more fervent. Monks were less afraid to denounce sins.

The Spread and Development of Christianity in Europe

Growth of the Church in Western Europe

Refer to Resource 7-3 in the Student Guide.
 By the sixth century the Roman Empire was breaking apart. There was a vast movement of peoples across Eurasia that upset traditional patterns of life. Invaders included the Huns and the Goths.

Resource 7-4 is a map
Another major threat to Christianity came in the rise and rapid spread of Islam—from 622. Into Muslim hands quickly went major historic centers of Christianity, including:
• Jerusalem, 638
• Caesarea, 640
• Alexandria, 642
• the Persian Empire, 650
• Carthage, 697
• Spain, 715
• Sicily, 902
• Constantinople, 1453

Only the Battle of Tours in 732 prevented the spread of Islam into Western Europe. It meant that Christianity was, more and more, a religion confined to Europe.

Christians, members of ancient and historic churches, struggled under Muslim rule. The most affected churches were those of the Eastern rites that had split over Christological doctrines.

In the first generation under Muslim rule, Christians were for the most part tolerated. In some places, they retained important positions. However, the church was not allowed to proselytize. They could not marry Muslims unless they themselves became Muslim. In time, the Christians were taxed more heavily than Muslims, and other restrictions were placed on their civil liberties. Many Christians converted to Islam. In some localities, churches continued to exist as lonely outposts in a now-alien culture.

At the same time, Christianity spread to the West and North. Missionaries from Ireland spread the gospel in northern Britain and Scotland. In particular, Columba (521-597), a priest trained in Irish monasteries, founded several churches and monasteries in Ireland itself. About 563 he left Ireland with 12 companions and sailed to the island of Iona. There and in neighboring islands they established additional monasteries and evangelized the people. Columba was in charge of the region. He was able to convert Brude, king of the Pitcts.

The Irish and British sent missionaries to Europe. Irish missionaries included Columbanus (543-615), who settled in Gaul about 590. He set up monasteries and introduced Celtic church customs. This upset the hierarchy. Columbanus defended the Celtic customs at local councils and in Rome. His monks were sent out of Burgundy in 610 for their rebukes of the royal court, and began to work among the Alemanni pagans. However, when Burgundy expanded later that decade, they were expelled again, and settled in Bobbio in Northern Italy. Their monastery there became a great center of learning.

But the Irish customs of the churches these missionaries established had some differences with Roman practices, which had been introduced by Gregory the Great’s emissary, Augustine of Canterbury. The Synod of Whitby (663-664) decided in favor of Roman positions, against the Irish. Ecclesiastical order in Britain was established by the late 600s.

Another missionary, Willibrord (658-739), became known as the “Apostle to Frisia.” Born in England, he was a monk in Ireland 12 years before venturing out as a missionary with several companions in 690. He received papal support for this work on a trip to Rome in 693. The pope consecrated him archbishop of the Frisians and bishop of Utrecht. Willibrord served as bishop until 735. Under the protection of King Pepin of the Franks, Willibrord established churches and monasteries in Luxemburg, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

Another important British missionary was Boniface (680-754), known as the “Apostle of Germany.” Boniface made his first trip to the continent, to Frisia, in 716, but was unsuccessful in planting churches. He went to Rome, where he secured papal authority to evangelize Germany. Returning to Germany in 719, he was successful in Bavaria and Thuringia, converting many Hessians. Pope Gregory II was pleased. Boniface returned to Rome in 722 and received Gregory’s fullest support. In turn, Boniface’s loyalty to the pope strengthened Rome’s control over the German church.

Returning to Germany, Boniface displayed courage in felling the Oak of Thor at Geismar. Soon he laid the foundations for an ecclesiastical organization in Germany. The account from the eighth century is that:

Many of the people of Hesse were converted [by Boniface] to the Catholic faith and confirmed by the grace of the spirit; and they received the laying on of hands. But some there were, not yet strong of soul, who refused to accept wholly the teachings of the true faith. Some men sacrificed secretly, some even openly, to trees and springs. Some secretly practiced divining, soothsaying, and incantations, and some openly. But others, who were of sounder mind, cast aside all heathen profanation and did none of these things; and it was with the advice and consent of these men that Boniface sought to fell a certain tree of great size, at Geismar, and called, in the ancient speech of the region, the oak of Jove [Thor].

The man of God was surrounded by the servants of God. When he would cut down the tree, behold a great throng of pagans who were there cursed him bitterly among themselves because he was the enemy of their gods. And when he had cut into the trunk a little way, a breeze sent by God stirred overhead, and suddenly the branching top of the tree was broken off, and the oak in all its huge bulk fell to the ground. And it was broken into four parts, as if by the divine will, so that the trunk was divided into four huge sections without any effort of the brethren who stood by. When the pagans who had cursed did see this, they left off cursing and, believing, blessed God. Then the most holy priest took counsel with the brethren: and he built from the wood of the tree an oratory, and dedicated it to the holy apostle Peter.

After 741—the death of Charles Martel—Boniface received authority to reform the Frankish Church, which he did by calling a number of successive councils. In 747 he became archbishop of Mainz. After a few years however, he resigned and returned to “front-line” missionary work, to his old mission in Frisia, where he was killed by barbarian pirates.

Boniface and other missionaries did not attempt to destroy the old religions of Europe so much as to transform them. They sacralized ancient religious spots, seasons, and festivals, bringing them into relation to the Christian calendar and liturgy. Though they maintained the use of Latin in the mass, they also promoted the use of vernacular languages.

The Scandinavian countries remained pagan in spite of the efforts of the archbishop of Hamburg, Anskar (d. 865), in the mid-ninth century, to bring the gospel to them.

Hungary, made up of the Magyars, descendants of the Mongolians, were defeated in 955 by Emperor Otto II. The country was truly Christianized under King Stephen, who ruled from 975 to 1038. 
Intellectual Flourishing Under Charlemagne

Refer to Resource 7-5 in the Student Guide.
France was becoming the new, strongest center of Europe. The pope crowned Charlemagne—Charles the Great—ruler of the Holy Roman Empire in 800. Charlemagne was the son of Pepin III, who had taken the title “King of the Franks” in 752. Charles began as king of part of his father’s kingdom, shared with his brother, upon his father’s death in 768. His brother’s death three years later left Charles ruler of the entire kingdom.

Charles extended the kingdom. He subdued Lombardy, and then began campaigns against the Saxons that lasted for over 20 years (782-804). He conquered Bavaria in 778 and Pannonia the next decade. 

Those whom he conquered were converted to Christianity. He conquered all of Germanic and Roman Europe except for Scandinavia and England. His first attacks against the Pyrenees failed, but later he gained a strip of northern Spain. He captured Barcelona in 801. Otherwise he was unsuccessful against the Umayyad Emirate in Spain. The advance of the empire into northern Italy aimed to drive away piracy and raids along the coasts of the Mediterranean.

Charles created a strong, consistent, centralized government and standardized laws. He encouraged both the development of the arts and sciences and ecclesiastical reform. He employed Alcuin of York (735- 804) to advise him on both educational and religious matters, and to argue against the adoptionist heresies of Felix of Urgel. 

Alcuin became abbot of Tours in 796 and set up an important library and school. Other British scholars aided in the flourishing of scholarship, though it did not produce theologians of the caliber of the early history of the church. Charlemagne’s efforts brought about the “Carolingian Renaissance” in philosophy and theology that continued for decades after his death in 814.

In a climate of intellectual curiosity and vitality, old and new controversies emerged. An old heresy, adoptionism, emerged in Spain under Muslim rule. Bishop Felix of Urgel (d. 818) taught that the Son’s filiation to the Father was by adoption. By grace the human is adopted, whereas the divine in Christ is always the Son. The divine is most inherent to His nature. Felix’s position was close to the old Antiochan point of view. Opponents of Felix emphasized that the Son of God cannot be so divided, and accused Felix of Nestorianism. The controversy ended in the early ninth century.

Another controversy dealt with the perpetual virginity of Mary. There was an increasing cult to Mary growing in the church among the common people. In order to protect the virginity of Mary, folk theology spoke of Mary giving birth in a miraculous way. Jesus “broke forth” rather than was “born.”

However, this was opposed by Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868) who saw the danger of Docetism in this notion. Paschasius Radbertus (790-865) argued that the birth was a miracle in itself and Mary was not tainted by Eve’s sin, but that this miracle was unexplainable. He said, “Jesus came to us even while the womb was closed, just as he came to his disciples while the doors were closed.”

Meanwhile, Rabanus Maurus (780-856), the abbot of Fulda and archbishop of Mainz, was responsible for the continued evangelization of the Germans. He zealously promoted learning among monks and clergy. But he also argued that “predestination” was merely foreknowledge. Hincmar (806-882), the archbishop of Reims, furthermore insisted on free will. He argued that it was the will of God that all be saved. If God determined that some were to be damned, argued Hincmar, it would make God the author of sin. John Scotus Erigena, the most prominent philospher of the times, supported Hincmar’s views on rational rather than scriptural grounds.

In contrast, Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie (d. 868), and especially Gottshalk (808-868), a German monk, taught extreme predestination. Christ died, Gottshalk said, only for the elect. Gottshalk argued for the complete corruption of free will. He taught that God had predestined some to be damned as well as some to be saved. He seemed even to rejoice that those who opposed his views must be among the damned! In 848 the Synod of Quiercy not only condemned Gottshalk’s views but stripped him of his orders, beat him, and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Gottshalk continued to defend his views from prison.

Many of these same theologians and churchmen also expressed different views in relation to the Eucharist. King Charles the Bald asked whether there was a real change in the elements. Paschasius Radbertus argued for a realistic interpretation. That is, he said the bread and wine became the same flesh that was born to Mary, but that this was seen only through the eyes of faith. Ratramnus of Corbie, on the other hand, argued for a figurative interpretation. Though Christ is really present, His presence is “internal.” He is really in the sacrament, but the bread is not the real body of Christ, only His spiritual body in a way not accessible to the senses.

Similarly, Ratramnus also argued that the human soul is incorporeal, not related to the body. He refuted the idea that universals were real. Rather, he said, against Plato, they were only concepts.

The leading intellect of the times was John Scotus Erigena (810-877), an Irishman brought to the court of Charles the Bald. He attempted a synthesis of Christian and Neoplatonist ideas. He divided nature into four divisions: creating and uncreated; created and creating; created and uncreating; and uncreated and uncreating.  

Erigena believed God was unknowable and could not be limited by any definitions. Yet he agreed that God was in His most basic attribute Triune. God is the source of all being, the Son is Wisdom in whom all things were made, and the Spirit was the source of universal order. Erigena gave only a secondary role to Christ. His views of Christ tended toward Docetism.

Humanity was formed as an ideal in the mind of God and was designed only for a spiritual body. As a result of the Fall, humanity came to inhabit physical bodies. The souls of human beings are in the image of the Creator.

All creation is being led back to the Creator for final restoration. There the consequences of sin will be destroyed, and all will find their fulfillment in God. 

The Development of the Church in the Eastern Empire

Refer to Resource 7-6 in the Student Guide.

The Eastern and Western wings of the church continued to grow apart during these centuries. Constantinople remained the center of Greek culture, while the West was Latinized. Relations between East and West also were complicated by Islam, which inhibited communication. In the West, the pope increasingly dominated the political scene, whereas in the East, the church remained closely controlled by the emperor.

At the same time, the Eastern Church rejected the later addition to the Nicene Creed, the clause that said the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. The Eastern Church maintained the original form of the creed, which mentioned the procession only from the Father.

Theological controversies during these centuries indicated the priorities of the Eastern Church. The Eastern Church, in particular, was faced with controversy over the use of icons. These were flat pictures, usually on wood. Christians believed the saints exercised benevolent powers through them. The icons instructed and assisted the faithful in prayer. They “translated” the mystery of God. Icons had become integral to the Eastern Church’s practices. Icons, to the Eastern Church, also affirmed the artistic heritage of humanity.

One strong defender of icons was John of Damascus (675-749), the Eastern Church’s leading theologian. John began his ministry in territory under the Muslims. He became a monk in Jerusalem, and then a priest. His writings, which dealt principally with philosophy, heresies, and orthodoxy, were widely read. John referred to Islam as a heresy but argued that the God of Mohammed was not the God whom Christians knew as the Father of Christ Jesus.

An Easter hymn of John of Damascus celebrated what God’s redemption meant for all:

The day of resurrection!
Earth tell it out abroad

The Passover of gladness,
the Passover of God.

From death to life eternal,
from this world to the sky,

Our Christ hath brought us over
with hymns of victory.

Our hearts be pure from evil,
that we may see aright

The Lord in rays eternal
of resurrection light.

And, listening to his accents,
may hear, so calm and plain,

His own “All hail!” and, hearing,
may raise the victor stain.

Now let the heavens be joyful,
let earth her song begin.

Let the round world keep triumph,
and all that is therein.

Let all things seen and unseen,
their notes of gladness blend,

For Christ the Lord hath risen,
our joy that hath no end. Amen.

Yet Emperor Leo II condemned icons as idols. Emperor Leo III, who ruled from 717 to 740, further believed icons inhibited the conversion of Jews and Muslims, and in 726 ordered their destruction. Those who condemned icons were called iconoclasts. Monks held onto icons, whereas priests were divided as to their use. 

The Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicea in 787, dealt with icons. Since the Western Church used similar images of the saints in worship, the Roman pope indicated his support for icons. The council came to this conclusion, and condemned iconoclasm. Icons were—as Empress Irene said—“windows to heaven.”

The Eastern Church remained very strongly influenced by Monasticism. Through Monasticism, the church maintained a sense of “martyrdom” through voluntary self-denial and seclusion.

Since Constantinople, more than Rome, encouraged the use of vernacular languages in worship, Cyril created a Slavonic alphabet and script, and translated the Scriptures and liturgy into Slavic. Cyril and Methodius went to Rome to secure support and sanction for their work. In 869 the pope consecrated Methodius a bishop and allowed the use of Slavonic in liturgy. A subsequent pope, however, withdrew this permission. In the meantime, German bishops tried to take over the work. These actions brought the Eastern Church into conflict with the West.

Another controversy arose in 858 in regards to Emperor Michael III’s deposing of Constantinople Patriarch Ignatius and his appointment of Photius, then a layperson, as patriarch of Constantinople. Ignatius refused to abdicate, and Pope Nicholas I refused to recognize Photius. This interference of the pope angered the Eastern Church. A synod in Constantinople in 861, to which Nicholas sent emissaries, ratified Michael’s appointment, but a subsequent synod in Rome in 863 declared Ignatius still patriarch.

Acting as patriarch, Photius argued against the primacy of Rome. He criticized Rome for sending missionaries to Bulgaria, since the Eastern Church had already sent its own missionaries to the region. Furthermore, theologically, Photius criticized the filioque clause and accused the West of adding this clause later to the creed. Photius espoused the view that the Spirit did not proceed from the Son, but only from the Father. Photius succeeded in having the pope denounced at the 867 Council at Constantinople. 

However, when Basil became emperor in 867, he attempted to heal the breech with Rome. The Eighth Ecumenical Council that met in Constantinople, 869- 870, condemned Photius and reinstated Ignatius. Photius returned to the patriarchy upon Ignatius’s death in 877, only to be forced out again upon the ascension of Emperor Leo VI in 886.

The Eastern Church, unlike the West, was decentralized religiously. The Eastern Church set up ecclesiologically autocephalous or autonomous national churches. At the same time, Greek civilization accompanied Christianization. Bulgaria became a strong center of the Eastern Church after the conversion of Czar Boris in 864. Through Bulgaria, Slavonic culture spread to Romania and Russia.

Russia was made up of many tribes and ethnic groups. Constantinople had attempted to win the Russians to Christianity in the ninth century, to no avail. A significant event was the baptism in 957 of Olga, the ruler of Kiev. This did not, however, effect mass conversions, and her son probably became Muslim.

Finally, the church was firmly planted under Vladimir (980-1015), who was baptized about 988. Vladimir, the story goes, was searching for the best religion for his people and sent emissaries to Muslims, Jews, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Christians in Constantinople. His emissaries were impressed with the churches of Constantinople. The missionaries whom the Eastern Church sent to Russia were largely Greek, but they initially used Slavic in liturgy. It was natural, when Cardinal Humbert excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, that Russia sided with the East.

Expansion Eastward
Refer to Resource 7-7 in the Student Guide.
Historians can never say for sure who first brought Christianity to the great civilization of China. The first recorded missionary was Aloben—or, as it has been commonly spelled, Alopen—who reached China in the seventh century, during the reign of the second T’ang Dynasty Emperor, T’ai Tsung. Aloben is known from a monument that can be dated in A.D. 635. He was a Nestorian missionary bishop who entered China at a fortuitous time, yet the planting of Christianity in China proved to be only transitory.

Aloben was a Nestorian Christian. The Nestorian controversy arose in the Christian church in the fifth century over the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Particularly, Nestorius of Antioch objected to Mary being called the ‘Mother of God,’ or even the ‘bearer of God,’ preferring the designation ‘bearer of Christ.’ To Nestorius, Mary bore Christ’s humanity but not His divine nature. Nestorius spoke of the “conjunction” rather than the “union” of Christ’s nature. Cyril of Alexandria opposed Nestorius’s position as dividing the essential unity of Christ, but in Cyril’s Christology the human nature of Christ became obscure. The debate raged, each side accentuating its differences. Finally, the Council of Ephesus in 431 branded Nestorius a heretic, and the church forced him into exile, first in Antioch, and later in Egypt.

Certain Eastern bishops remained loyal to Nestorius and separated from the rest of the church. Many Nestorian Christians, faced with persecution, fled to Persia. In the early fifth century this church began an aggressive missionary program into Arabia, India, and eventually China. Aloben’s mission came at a high point in the Nestorian church’s history. The Nestorian Patriarch Isho-Yahb may have appointed a metropolitan for China sometime between 628 and 643, which, if so, implies there was both a number of Christians in China and a well-organized church.   After Muslims overran Persia, beginning in 636, Nestorians persisted in Persia and even attained positions of leadership under Muslim rule.

 Aloben may have been preceded by any number of Christian traders who traversed the “silk road” and other ancient land and sea routes to China. Even a first-century introduction is conceivable. On the other hand, it may be that the name of Jesus first reached the borders of China via the Manichaeans in the third century. They spoke of Jesus in Gnostic terms, as the Emissary of Light. Later, the Nestorian church was known as the “Luminous Religion.”

The church knows of Aloben through a marker, recovered in 1625 in the town of Hsian in Shensi Province, and examined by Jesuit missionaries, who had entered China a few decades before. It proved immediately that Christianity was of ancient origin in China, and this helped Jesuits in the seventeenth century to defend it more adequately.

The church knows of Aloben through a marker, recovered in 1625 in the town of Hsian in Shensi Province, and examined by Jesuit missionaries, who had entered China a few decades before. It proved immediately that Christianity was of ancient origin in China, and this helped Jesuits in the seventeenth century to defend it more adequately.

These Scriptures were of great interest to government officials. The early years of the T’ang Dynasty were favorable to foreign influences. The Chinese accepted Buddhism and Islam as well as Christianity until problems arose in the late eighth century.

The first part of the monument’s inscription is theological. It presents the ideas of a personal God, the Creator, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Ascension. Although this led some scholars to consider the type of Christianity Aloben introduced to be void of the gospel, it may also be said that the theology on the marker does not indicate anything unorthodox or particularly Nestorian in Christology. 

The second part of the inscription is historical, describing the arrival of Aloben and the growth of the “Luminous Religion”—Ching-chiao—with imperial favor. The tablet states that the emperor gave Aloben the title “great patron and spiritual lord of the empire.” Indeed the marker pays flattering attention to the various emperors, to whom it credits support for the religion since its introduction. The third part of the inscription contains prayers.

Nevertheless, even during the days of Aloben, the Emperor Kao-tsung began to favor Buddhism rather than Christianity. This was under the influence of his concubine and later Empress Wu Hou, who is known in history for her ruthlessness. She after Kao-tsung’s death until 705 and officially declared Buddhism the state religion. This set off persecutions against Christians. Some historians have suggested that the church persisted only among the expatriate community of Persians who sought asylum in China after the Arabs took over their own country.

A Nestorian bishop, Chi-leh, reached China in 713. In the mid-eighth century the Nestorian church thrived. Church buildings destroyed under the earlier time of persecution were restored.

Nestorian missionaries frequented the imperial palace, even to say mass. One Nestorian priest, Issu, served as a general in the Chinese army. His son, Chingching, or Adam, served as a bishop and was known for his scholarliness regarding Chinese literature and language. However, the dynasty itself was crumbling.

Later documents, discovered long after the monument, revealed that Christianity during this period in China was theologically orthodox. One document attributed to Aloben himself stated clearly that only “through the Messiah can all people be saved.” At other times, however, the Nestorians used Buddhist, Confucian, and Daoist terms to articulate Christian faith. Frequently they used the name “Buddha” for “God.” Ching-ching helped a Buddhist missionary from India translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese.

In 845, under the influence of Confucianists, Emperor Wu-tsung decreed that all foreign missionaries must leave China and that all monks must enter secular life. Although directed primarily against the Buddhist monks as well as Manichaeans, the decree included Christians as well.

This effectively ended more than two centuries of overt Christian presence. In fact, the most likely explanation for the disappearance of Christianity from China at this time is that its fortunes rested too completely upon imperial favor. When the T’ang Dynasty could no longer control the country, its patronage became useless.

This may be the biggest lesson to learn from the Nestorian mission in China, in fact: that it identified too completely with the ruling class and did not identify enough with the common people.

Christianity persisted among the outlying tribes, including the Mongols, who became rulers of China as well as much of Asia in the thirteenth century. When Franciscan missionaries reached China in the same century, they described still-functioning Nestorian churches in at least 15 towns in the Western provinces.

Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:


Turmoil in the twenties. Monica follows Augustine to Milan and finds him a catechumen and women in the Catholic Church. Both admire Ambrose but Augustine gets no help from him on his personal problems. Ambition spurs and Alypius and Nebridius join him in a confused quest for the happy life. Augustine becomes engaged, dismisses his first mistress, takes another, and continues his fruitless search for truth.

6. I was also glad that the old Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets were laid before me to be read, not now with an eye to what had seemed absurd in them when formerly I censured your holy ones for thinking thus, when they actually did not think in that way. And I listened with delight to Ambrose, in his sermons to the people, often recommending this text most diligently as a rule: “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life,” while at the same time he drew aside the mystic veil and opened to view the spiritual meaning of what seemed to teach perverse doctrine if it were taken according to the letter. I found nothing in his teachings that offended me, though I could not yet know for certain whether what he taught was true. For all this time I restrained my heart from assenting to anything, fearing to fall headlong into error. Instead, by this hanging in suspense, I was being strangled. For my desire was to be as certain of invisible things as I was that seven and three are ten. I was not so deranged as to believe that [this] could not be comprehended, but my desire was to have other things as clear as this, whether they were physical objects, which were not present to my senses, or spiritual objects, which I did not know how to conceive of except in physical terms. If I could have believed, I might have been cured, and, with the sight of my soul cleared up, it might in some way have been directed toward your truth, which always abides and fails in nothing. But, just as it happens that a man who has tried a bad physician fears to trust himself with a good one, so it was with the health of my soul, which could not be healed except by believing. But lest it should believe falsehoods, it refused to be cured, resisting your hand, who hast prepared for us the medicines of faith and applied them to the maladies of the whole world, and endowed them with such great efficacy.

Preparation for Session 8
Email your response paragraphs to the Sunday before the session.

A. Read: Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, chapters 19
            Write a Big Idea paragraph from you reading.

B. Read the following articles and give a one paragraph answer to the question asked.
            1. Reason and Revelation: Scholasticism
                        How would scholastics speak of holiness?
2. The Crusades
                        How do we overcome the centuries of anger and hurt, and the misperceptions of
            3.The Church and the Papacy
                        What are the positive aspects of the rise of papal authority?

C. Write in your journal. Reflect on and respond to the following:  


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