Christianity’s Five Eastern Reformations, 325-1139 CE.

Western Christianity, which is in countries mainly west of Jerusalem in Palestine, has experienced various Protesting and Reforming Movements over its past one thousand years of history. This is mostly in reaction to particular Roman Catholic beliefs and practices.  Names such as Peter Waldo, John Huss, Dr Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, Menno Symons, John Wesley and John Spong soon come to mind.  This historical thread of Reformers is paralleled by the historical thread of responding  General Councils convened by various Popes of the Roman Catholic Church.  This thread of post-medieval, responsive or reacting Catholic Councils runs from the Eleventh to the Twenty-first General Council. These include  the Third Lateran Council held in Rome in 1179 CE, in which the Waldensian or Albigensian religion was condemned; then through the Reformation’s 19th General Council called the Council of Trent between 1545 and 1563 and right up to the recent Second Vatican Council in Rome in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In the last mentioned Council,  a few reforms were achieved in liturgical customs but no changes were made in the traditional practice of clerical celibacy, in the ban on the ordination of women to the priesthood or in the Church’s opposition to artificial birth control.

However, students of Eastern and Syriac Christian History also know that there were  ten similar General Councils called by the Popes of Rome well before the above mentioned Western Protestant Reforming Movements dating from 1179 CE to 2012. These earlier Councils were made possible as a result of the conversion to Christianity of the Emperor Constantine and his active promotion of the Christian religion by making it legal. These Councils began with the first General Council, called the Council of Nicaea, in 325CE. The tenth Council called the Second Lateran Council in Rome in 1139 CE marked the end of this earlier phase or the first series of ten General Councils. These Councils were convened by the Pope at such locations as Constantinople, at Ephesus, at Chalcedon, in the Lateran basilica known as the papal cathedral in Rome and in the Vatican.  Rome of course was situated to the west of Jerusalem and it was the cradle  of Roman Catholicism.

Whereas the Protestant Reformers were mostly based in Europe, commonly labeled the West, these pre-1139 Councils were involved in responses to reformers mainly from the East or East of Jerusalem. Various reforming ideas between 325 and 1139 CE  arose in the form of (1) a Movement for an emphasis on the Man-hood of Jesus Christ in the writings of Arius and Nestorius; (2) the Macedonites and their leader Macedonius, who challenged the divinity of the Holy Ghost; (3) the Monophysites who were led by Eutyches in the 300s in Alexandria and who stressed the one nature of the “Incarnate Word”; (4) the Monothelites, who preferred to see Jesus as having only one will and (5) the Movement for Schism and Separation from the Roman Catholic Church on the part of the Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

In the late 1970s, I was required to prepare a thesis on “Early Syrian Christianity”. This other half of early Christianity was established east of Jerusalem, in  such locations as Edessa in Osrhoene, Arbela and Nisibis in Adiabene, Dura Europos in Mesopotamia and in various locations in Persia and India. I was able to locate and read over 100 books and over 250 articles, which related to this Eastern Christianity and its Protestant-like patterns of attempted Reformations of the Roman Catholic Church. A few of these books and articles are included in the Bibliography at the end of this article.

Although the later conquests by the Muslims from the late 600s had a hugely detrimental impact on many of these Christian groups, their earlier history east of Jerusalem was connected with such centers of Christianity as Alexandria in Egypt, Caesarea in Palestine, Antioch in Syria and the great city of Constantinople which replaced Byzantium.

The Christianity east of Jerusalem therefore tended to reflect the doctrinal formulations of these centers, with Alexandria promoting a more allegorical and anagogical understanding and with Antioch promoting a more historical approach to the Bible and the Christian creeds.

Since  reforming ideas almost inevitably give rise to various responses and reactions by the Roman Catholic hierarchy, including the infamous and extremely cruel  Inquisition, these different and often challenging ideas become evident in the convoking and the conducting of business in these ten pre-1139 CE Councils.

(1)    The Movement for the stress on the Man-hood of Jesus by Arius with his Arians and later by Nestorius and his Nestorians gave rise to actions and formulations at both the first Council held at Nicaea in 325 CE and at the third Council held at Ephesus in 431 CE. At Nicaea, Arius, who held that Christ was a created being, was condemned and was banished to Illyricum.  The Council went on to verbally formulate the substantiability of God the Son with God the Father.

Later at the Council of Ephesus in 431 C.E., Nestorius and his ideas were on the agenda. He has been the Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431 but had upset the followers of the cult of Mary by affirming that Mary was just a human being and so could not be the Mother of God. He was condemned and this Council went on to define the divine maternity of the “Blessed Virgin Mary”. This Nestorian Church grew rapidly under the Persian protection. The work and preaching of Nestorian missionaries in many parts of Asia is evidence of the early and widespread pre-Islamic influence and impact of Nestorius.

(2)    Macedonius and his Macedonites sought reform in the doctrines about the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which became part of the business of the 2nd General Council, which was called the First Council  of Constantinople. Held in 381 C.E., this Council’s doctrinal affirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit in turn implied that the views of Macedonius were “heretical” and needed to be condemned,

(3) The Monophysites or Eutychians with their leader Eutyches in the 400s, were the next group to provoke the Roman Catholic Church. A General Council was therefore convened in 451 CE, which was called the Council of Chalcedon. Eutyches  believed that the “Word Incarnate”  had only one concrete existence and had only one nature. This view was popular in Alexandria, his hometown and it became prominent amongst the Coptic Christians in Egypt. The Council’s formulation in relation to this reformer, was to clearly define the two natures of Christ, both the human and the divine. History recalls that Eutyches also was banished. Another consequence was that the Egyptian Coptic Church, as well as other churches such as the Syrian Jacobite Church of the Antiochene Rite and the Armenian Church, withdrew from communion with the Roman Catholic Church after this Council concluded..

(4)  The Monothelites were the next reformers to experience the anger and intolerance of the Roman Catholics  at the 6th General Council, called the Third Council of Constantinople in  680 C.E.. These Christians affirmed that Christ had only one will, whereas the Duo-physites or believers in the dogma that Jesus Christ has two distinct natures, disagreed and condemned these Monothelites.

(5) The fifth Movement, which helped to give rise to General Councils, was the long-standing Movement for Schism and Separation by the Greek Orthodox Church centred in Constantinople, from the Roman Catholic Church, which was centred in Rome. Photius (820-891) was the Patriarch of Constantinople at various times between 858 and 886 and he became part of moves to try to raise the status within Christianity of the See of Constantinople, especially in view of its powerful position as head of the Byzantine Empire, with it strongly Greek and Oriental aspects.

Photius, as the Patriarch of Constantinople, also raised with the Roman Catholic Pope Nicholas 1 the famous “filioque” clause in the creed which asserts the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son as from the Father. As could be expected, Pope John 8th excommunicated Photius in 863 CE and he was banished in 886 CE to Bordi in Armenia.

Just to make sure, he was again excommunicated by 8th General Council, called the Fourth Council of Constantinople, in 869 C.E.

His attitude was later shared by Patriarch Michael Cerularius, who attacked the western customs of clerical celibacy and the credal doctrine of the “Filio-que”. With his inevitable excommunication, this year 1054 C.E. brought finality to this Schism between the Western-oriented Roman Catholic Churches and the Eastern-oriented Greek Orthodox Churches, which still lives on in the many nationalistic orthodox branches. This Schism became definitive after the repudiation of the union of Florence in 1472. Amongst reforming views here were the denial of the Pope’s primacy of Jurisdiction and his personal infallibility, as well as the denial of the validity of indulgences.

Not unlike the later Western Protestant Reformers, these earlier Reformer also repudiated the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception and of Purgatory.

We have seen above that Western Christianity,  from the time of the Third Lateran Council in 1179 to the era of Bishop John Spong in  today’s world, has experienced its reformers and its reform movements in such figures as Peter Waldo, John Huss, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, Menno Simons, John Wesley and many others.

However, many Christians do not know that Eastern Christianity, much earlier and from the time of  the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE to the Second Lateran Council in 1139, also experienced its share of energetic  Reformers and Reform Movements, in such brave figures as Arius, Nestorius, Macedonius, Eutyches, Photius, Michael Cerularius and various other Reformers, who were  attempting to reform the Roman Catholic Church.

It is therefore clear that the later Western Reforming Protestantism, extending from 1179 to today, is not unique within Christianity but it has an important predecessor in the traumatic and turbulent times of doctrinal formulation and finalizing at supposedly Ecumenical or General Councils organized between 325 CE and 1139 CE. Discussions about the Western Protestant reformation therefore need to always keep in mind the equally important, influential and very much earlier Eastern Christian Reformations.

John Noack, July, 2012.    Email:

John Noack (BA, DipEd; University of Melbourne) has been a Lutheran clergy-person at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia. He has been a Tutor in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Melbourne Victoria and he has been a Teacher of History and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, Victoria. He has conducted archaeological research at the Australian Institute of Archaeology and he has produced book reviews, which have been published in its Journal “Buried History”. He is at present engaged in an academic investigation into the many enigmas in the Gospel according to St Mark.


Bibliography of Books relating to Eastern Christianity.

Atiya, Aziz, “A History of Eastern Christianity”, Methuen, London, 1968.

Barnard, L.W. “Studies in the Apostolic Fathers and their Background”, Basil Blackwell, Oxford 1966.

Bauer, Walter, “Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity”, SCM Press Ltd, Bloomsbury Street, London, 1972.

Bowman, John, “The debt of Islam to Monophysite Syrian Christianity” Overdruk uit Nederlands, Wageningen, 1964.

Burkitt, F.C. “Early Eastern Christianity”, St Margaret’s Lectures, John Murray, Albemarle St, London, 1904.

Conzelmann, Hans “History of Primitive Christianity”, Abingdon Press, New York, 1973.

Cureton, W., “Bardesan: The Book of the Laws of the Countries”, Spicilegium Syriacus, London 1885.

Danielou, Jean “The Theology of Jewish Christianity”, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1964.

Doresse, Jean “The Secret Books  of the Egyptian Gnostics”, Hollis and Carter, London, 1960.

Elliot-Binns, L.E. “Galilean Christianity”, Studies in Biblical Theology No. 16, SCM Press Ltd, London, 1956.

Guignebert, Charles, “The Earliest History of Christianity”, Twayne Publishers, New York, 1927.

Jonas, Hans, “The Gnostic Religion”, Beacon Press, Boston, 1958.

Josephus, Flavius, “Complete Works”. Translated by William Whiston. Kregal publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1960.

Klijn, A. “The Acts of Thomas”, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1962.

Klijn, A “Patristic Evidence for Jewish-Christian Sects”, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1973.

Longenecker, Richard N., “The Christology of the Early Jewish Christianity”, SCM Press, Bloomsbury Street, London, 1970.

Murray, Robert, “Symbols of Church and Kingdom”, Cambridge University Press, 1975.

Nock, A.D., “Conversion: The Old and the New Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo”, Oxford University Press, London, 1933.

Schoeps, Hans-Joachim, “Jewish Christianity”, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1969.

Segal, J.B. “Edessa, The Blessed City”, Oxford, at the Clarendon Press, 1970.

Tisserant, Cardinal Eugene, “Eastern Christianity in India: A History of the Syro-Malabar Church from the earliest time to the present day”, Longmans, Green and Co. London 1957.

Vermes, Geza, “Jesus the Jew: a Historian’s Reading of the Gospels”, Collins, St James Place, London, 1973.

Voobus, Arthur, “History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient. I.  The origin of Asceticism. Early Monasticism in Persia”.  Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Subsidia 14, Secretariat du CorpusSCO,  Louvain 1958

Voobus, Arthur, “History of Asceticism in the Syrian Orient.II. Early Monasticism in Mesopotamia and Syria”.  Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Subsidia 26, Secretariat du CorpusSCO, Louvain 1958.

Waterfield, Robin E. “Christians in Peria”, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, 1973.

Wright, William, “A Short History of Syriac Literature”, Philo Press, Amsterdam, 1966.

Zernov, Nicolas, “Eastern Christendom: A Study of the Origin and Development of the Eastern Orthodox Church”, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 20 New Bond St London 1961.


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Beare, F.W. Christianity and Other Religions in the Graeco-Roman World, “Canadian Journal of Theology”,vol. 8, 1962, pp.197-207.

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Review & Commentary