Jessica’s series about the Church of the East reminded me of one of the documents of enduring interest from its history. It has been put on line by Roger Pearse, to whose efforts anyone interested in the Early Church is much indebted. It is a dialogue between the Nestorian Catholicos, Timothy I (780-823) and the Abbassid Kaliph al-Mahdi.
An interesting document in its own right, it has two other claims on our attention. It is an example of how the two faiths could confront each other without the sword; it is also an example of how to engage in such dialogue.
On another level, for those of us with an interest in Apologetics, it provides an example of Nestorian Apologetics; reading it, I was struck by the way it is based entirely in Scripture; there is no appeal to Tradition.
In 781 the Caliph asked Timothy to engage in a two day debate over the merits of Christianity and how it compared with the rising relgion of Islam. The ’Defence of Christianity’ which Timothy produced was one which elicited the admiration of the Caliph, and in these darker days, deserves to find wider circulation as an example of both faiths at their best.
The Caliph touches on topics which his co-religionists pick to this day: the Virgin birth; the nature of God; the identity of Christ – and the Trinity.
In response to the usual Muslim accusation that in believeing in Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Christians believed in ‘three Gods’, Mar Timothy denied it:
“The belief in the above three names, consists in the belief in three Persons, and the belief in these three Persons consists in the belief in one God. The belief in the above three names, consists therefore in the belief in one God. We believe in Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God. So Jesus Christ taught us, and so we have learnt from the revelation of the books of the prophets. As our God-loving King is one King with his word and his spirit, and not three Kings, and as no one is able to distinguish him, his word and his spirit from himself and no one calls him King independently of his word and his spirit, so also God is one God with His Word and His Spirit, and not three Gods, because the Word and the Spirit of God are inseparable from Him. And as the sun with its light and its heat is not called three suns but one sun, so also God with His Word and His Spirit is not three Gods but is and is called one God.”
His defence for this lay in the Psalms, the words of the Prophets and the words of the Evangelists.
Respectful of Mohammed, Mar Timothy is firm in telling the Caliph that there in no Scriptural warrant for him:
“If he were mentioned in the Gospel, this mention would have been marked by a distinct portraiture characterising his coming, his name, his mother, and his people as the true portraiture of the coming of Jesus Christ is found in the Torah and in the prophets. Since nothing resembling this is found in the Gospel concerning Muhammad, it is evident that there is no mention of him in it at all, and that is the reason why I have not received a single testimony from the Gospel about him.”
Jessica wants to say something on this discourse, but I thought it might help to place it in context. The whole piece is well worth studying.