Moffett, Samuel H. (2006).
A History of Christianity in Asia: 
Beginnings to 1500
, vol. 1.
Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. 560 pages
Review by Lai Pak Wah

For most Protestants, the story of Christianity is often understood in terms of the growth of the Church in the Mediterranean and Europe, through the patristic era, the Dark Ages, Medieval, Renaissance and Reformation periods. After this, the Church essentially splits into two: the Roman Catholics and Protestants, and their story continues into the Post-Reformation/ Enlightenment, Modern and finally, the Postmodern eras. Of course, this chronological development of the Church is accompanied by her geographic expansion. The Protestants headed towards the New World, or North America, while the Catholics dominated South America and much of Africa. Following this, the evangelisation efforts of both parties reached Asia, including Singapore. And this is how many Christians came to faith, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic. 

     Yet, such a narrative leaves many questions unanswered. For example, “What happened to the lands east of Syrian Antioch and Jerusalem? Did the Gospel ever reach there? And what happened to those Arab, Mesopotamian and Parthian Jews who were converted by the Apostle Peter’s teachings in Jerusalem (Acts 2:9-11)? Did their new-found faith simply die out or did they continue to share the Gospel successfully with their fellow country-men by the power of the Holy Spirit?” The answer to these questions may be found in Moffett’s A History of Christianity in Asia, volume 1, which provides an engaging and fascinating history of how the Gospel of Jesus Christ spread across the vast continent of Asia and finally reached the lands of China and Mongolia, situated more than 5,000 miles away from Jerusalem!

      Moffett’s epic history begins with a highly informative survey of the Western (Greco-Roman) and Eastern empires (Persian, Indian and Chinese) in the first century AD. He then proceeds to discuss the history of the Church in both Syria and India. The chapter on the latter, in particular, is tantalising. Here, Moffett examines the historical claims that the Apostle Thomas was the first missionary to India, and concludes that the apostle probably reached that exotic land and evangelised either Northern or Southern India, or both, during his lifetime. 

     Following this, Moffett turns his attention to the growth of the Church in Persia, under the Sassanid Empire. Christians were the minority in Persia and frequently suffered persecutions from the religious cult of the Empire: Zoroastrianism. A Christian youth, for example, lost the hereditary rights to his father’s fortune, after he was found to be a Christian and was unable to perform the family sacrifices.  Another two sisters of a martyred bishop were sawn asunder by the Persian princess, at the instigation of the Jews. In spite of these troubles, the Persian Church continued to grow, formalising its ecclesiastical structure and setting up theological schools, like the famous school of Nisibis. It also established numerous monasteries in the Empire, which would supply most of its future missionaries for the lands that lied further east. 

    It was also under the Persians that this Church of the East became Nestorian. Contrary to popular belief, the Nestorianism of these Persian Christians was not a heretical rejection of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. Neither was it a denial of Christ’s full divine and human natures. According to Moffett, the faith of Nestorius and his Persian followers fully affirmed the Trinitarian proclamations of the first two Ecumenical Councils. In addition, they affirmed the divine and human natures of Christ. Indeed, the Nestorians were Christians who loved Jesus Christ and were fully devoted to Him. The Nestorian controversy, unfortunately, was the result of both ecclesiastical politics and differences in theological formulations. While Moffett admits that Nestorius’s theology was flawed and inadequate to represent the fullness of biblical Christology, he also aptly reminds us that such a theological weakness should not diminish our respect for the Nestorians’ devotion to Christ. The Nestorian controversy, however, did have a devastating outcome for the Church: it permanently fractured the Church into the three factions of the orthodox-Chalcedonians (as represented by the Western Church and Byzantine Christians), the Monophysites, or Jacobites, and the Nestorians. The latter two, in particular, were to dominate the Church in Asia. Their quarrels and conflicts through subsequent generations, sadly, diminished the Church’s witness to the unbelieving, and led, ultimately, to the demise of the Church by the 1500s. Indeed, it is heart-wrenching to read of how one Monophysite, Gabriel, betrayed the leader of the seventh century Nestorians, George the Monk, by reporting to the Persian Shah that George was an apostate from the Zoroastrian faith and was, therefore, deserving of death. The Shah promptly ordered George’s arrest and had him crucified!

     Despite the above, the Persian Church was also blessed with the leadership of several godly and wise Christians, especially in the times of its difficulties. The patriarch, Mar Aba, notes Moffett, single-handedly reorganised the Persian Church and revitalised its spiritual and moral vigour in the sixth century, even though he spent several years of his Patriarchate in prison! Furthermore, he was also instrumental in the restoration of the broken relationships between the Persian Church and that of the West (i.e., Byzantine and Roman Christianity). Then, there was Yeshuyab II, Patriarch of the seventh century Persian Church. Yeshuyab’s capability was shown through his successful negotiation of a peace treaty between the Persian and the Byzantine governments, while his godliness was proven by his patient forbearance of a fellow Bishop, who accused him of heresy. His greatest achievements, however, was probably his decision to send missionaries to China. 

      Christianity in China, observes Moffett in the latter sections of his book, experienced two waves of growth in both the Tang and the Yuan (Mongol) dynasties. The first wave was initiated by the arrival of Nestorian missionaries in AD 635 and enjoyed the support of some of the Tang Emperors. This Nestorian Church, unfortunately, was entirely destroyed by imperial persecutions by the end of the tenth centuries. The second wave began with the rule of the Mongolians in China, as many within the ruling class were already converted to Christianity in the Mongolian plains. Unfortunately, this Christian revival dissipated when the last of the Mongolian emperors converted to Islam and unleashed a series of persecutions upon the Church.

     In the concluding chapters of his book, Moffett focuses on the rise of Islamic supremacy in Asia and its impact on the Nestorian Church. Although the Nestorians were not unfamiliar with persecutions, be it Persian or Mongolian, the persistent persecution of its Muslim rulers, both explicit and implicit, finally took its toll on the Church’s spiritual vigour. Countless Christians were martyred during the various Islamic regimes. Missionary efforts were stamped out, while the heavy taxation gradually reduced many Christians to poverty. Under such pressures, many converted to Islam, out of despair or convenience. Nevertheless, the most important reasons for the Nestorian decline, suggests Moffett, are its internal failures, i.e., the Church’s decision to compromise missionary initiatives for the sake of survival under its Persian or Islamic rulers, and the ecclesiastical divisiveness between Nestorian and Monophysite Christians in Asia. The latter reasons, in particular, are sober reminders for every Christian not to forsake the commands of our Lord Jesus, i.e., to spread the Gospel and to love one another, for the sake of practical or even ecclesiastical expediency.

Chapel Notes

Samuel Kim (Grad. DipCS 2001, MCS student) was our chapel speaker on 9 May. Sharing from Psalm 148, he reminded us to take time to praise and enjoy God's marvelous creation!

Chapel speaker on 23 May will be Song Young Hak.

News Bits 

Courses Commencing (Jun-Aug, 2007)

  • *Communication Skills for Speakers & Church Leaders (AT232, 1.5 credits), starting Jun 13 (Wed), 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan

  • *Biblical Hebrew Exegesis II (BH211, 3 credits), starting Jun 25 (Mon), 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu

  • The Educational Ministry of the Church (CE101, 3 credits), starting Jun 26 (Tue), 7-10pm. Lecturer: Dr Ng Peh Cheng

  • The Christian Mind (AT361, 1.5 credits), starting Jun 28 (Thu), 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr David Wong

  • *NT Greek: Research Tools & Methods (BG214, 1.5 credits, video class), starting Jul 7 (Sat, Orientation), 2-3.30pm at 4 Bishan St 13, Room 317. Lecturer: Dr Quek Swee Hwa

  • *NT Greek I (BG111, 1.5 credits, video class), starting Jul 7 (Sat, Orientation), 2-3.30pm at 4 Bishan St 13, Room 317. Lecturer: Dr Quek Swee Hwa

  • *Greek Exegesis I (BG211, 3 credits, video class), starting Jul 7 (Sat), 4-5.30pm, at 4 Bishan St 13, Room 317

  • NT Foundations II (NT102, 3 credits, Video class), starting Jul 9 (Mon), 8-10pm. Lecturer: Dr Oh Boon Leong/Facilitator: Mr David Leong

  • The Parables of Jesus and the Kingdom of God (NT216, 1.5 credits), starting Jul 17 (Tue), 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Dr Aquila Lee

  • OT Foundations II (OT102, 3 credits), starting Jul 19 (Thu), 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Philip Satterthwaite

  • Biblical Hermeneutics & Interpretation (HE101, 3 credits), starting Aug 10 (Fri), 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu

  • *Masters of the Pulpit (AT241, 1.5 credits), starting Aug 8 (Wed), 7.30-10pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan

  • *Counsellor's Skill: Developing Micro-skills in Counselling (CO213, 3 credits), starting Aug 15 (Wed), 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Mr Yam Keng Mun

Intensive Courses by Guest Lecturers                                    

Prof Alan Millard

  • OT Archaeology (OT160, 3 credits), starting Jun 25, 7.15-10.15pm

  • The Bible Fantasies or Facts – FAQs (OT/NT250, 1.5 credits); starting Jul 3, 7.15-10.15pm

Dr David Ravinder

  • Lay Pastoral Counselling (CO355, 3 credits), starting Jul 9, 7.15-10.15pm 

  • Integration of Theology & Psychology: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Pastoral Care Today (CO214, 1.5 credits), starting Jul 10, 7.15-10.15pm

Dr Douglas Milne

  • Contemporary Theologians & Theologies (TS160, 3 credits), starting Jul 24, 7.15-10.15pm

  • Christian Ethics (TS252, 3 credits), starting Jul 25, 7.15-10.15pm

Registration is open for all courses. *Courses marked with an asterisk are not offered on audit basis. Visit our website for the course descriptions.

2. Dr Philip Satterthwaite & Dr Augustine Pagolu will be conducting Academic Writing Orientation on 20 July, and Thesis Writing Orientation on 27 July, time: 7.30-9.30pm. Call Admin office at 6227-6815 if you are interested to join these classes. Alternatively, you can register online.

3. On Sunday 20th May Dr Satterthwaite will be giving a seminar at Kampong Kapor Methodist Church on the topic: ‘What does the Bible teach about Health and Wealth?’ The seminar aims to help participants think biblically about the issues raised by the so-called ‘Health and Wealth’ or ‘Prosperity Gospel’. The seminar will run from 11.30 a.m. till 1.00 p.m., and is open to all. If you are interested in attending, please contact Kampong Kapor Methodist Church at 6293-7997.

 A Blessed Birthday to…

Ms Catherine Ho  21/5
Prof Daniel Chan  22/5
Mr Shi Pau Soon  22/5
Mdm Julia Ng  22/5
Mr Justin Lee  24/5
Mr Kevin Lim  24/5
Mrs Tan Chiew Peng  24/5
Mr Daniel Chiam  25/5
Mr James Goon  26/5
Mr Peter Lim  26/5
Mr Danny Tan  27/5
Ms Cindy Tay  27/5

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