The Reformation Goes East
As the story goes, the Reformation—that series of revolts against the Roman Catholic Church which is commonly said to have begun with the publication of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses in 1517—was a Western Christian phenomenon, and that is largely correct. Originating in the German lands and quickly spilling over into Switzerland, France, and then the rest of the European Continent, the Reformation had little direct contact with the Christian East at first. Since the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, (Western) Catholics and (Eastern) Orthodox had limited contact with each other. That tragic event in Christian history dashed any hope of resuscitating the reunion of East and West which was laid out at the Council of Florence in 1439. By that point, most of the Eastern Slavic lands that adhered to Orthodoxy were embroiled in their own conflicts with the Muslims or, in the case of Kievan Rus’, busy consolidating into the Russian state. The Reformation, simply put, was not on the radar.
A century before the Reformation, however, the followers of Jan Hus and Jerome of Prague, known as the Hussities, briefly sought communion with the Greek Orthodox Church after breaking with Rome. While many of their ideas were at odds with the settled doctrine of the Catholic Church, some contemporary Orthodox churchmen, including the former head of the Czech Orthodox Church, contend that Hus and Jerome were “martyrs” for the “undistorted [Orthodox] faith” following their execution at the Council of Constance in 1415-16. This attitude is telling insofar as it reveals an unfortunate commonality between Protestants and many (though not all) Eastern Orthodox, namely blind antipathy toward Rome. It is this antipathy which later Reformers, and indeed some contemporary Protestants, hoped to use in order to build an alliance against Catholicism.
The Orthodox/Lutheran Dialogue
Perhaps the most famous intersection of the Reformation with Eastern Christendom came in the mid-16th century when a Greek Orthodox deacon named Demetrius made contact with Phillip Melanchton, a conferee of Martin Luther. Both Melanchton and Luther had appealed to Greek Patristic sources in their polemical battles against the Catholics and believed that their vision of a “reformed Christianity” would align with the doctrines and practices of the Orthodox. One of the ideas floating about at the time was that the Orthodox, perhaps due to their relative isolation from Rome, had maintained the “pure” and “primitive” Christian Faith, unadulterated by alleged accretions such as Papal Primacy, Purgatory, and the Church’s practice of granting indulgences. Contact with Demetrius prompted the Lutherans to translate their statement of faith, the Augsburg Confession, into Greek, which was sent to Patriarch Joasph II of Constantinople. Upon reading the document and its accompanying letter, Joasph found its contents heretical and opted not to respond. The matter didn’t end there.
Later, in 1570, diplomatic contacts between Germany and the Ottoman Empire led to a fresh dialogue between the Lutherans and Orthodox. Jeremias II had ascended to the patriarchal throne and unlike many of his fellow Greek Orthodox under the Turkish yoke, he was a man of considerable theological learning. (After the Turkish invasion, most Greek priests and bishops had limited educational opportunities, leading to a “dark age” in Greek theological history.) After crafting a new translation of the Augsburg Confession, the Lutherans hoped that Jeremias would see that there were no substantial differences between the faith of the Lutherans and the faith of the Orthodox. They were wrong.
Jeremias, like his predecessor, was not enthusiastic about what the Germans had sent him, though he realized that it was necessary to respond to the Lutherans in order to clarify what the Orthodox Church actually professes. At the time, the Orthodox had no settled catechism or compendium of their doctrines, and the fall of Constantinople had left a lacuna in Orthodox learning that would take centuries to correct. After reviewing the 21 articles of the Augsburg Confession, Jeremias responded to each, noting where the Orthodox agreed and disagreed. For instance, while he approved of the Lutheran retention of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, he rejected their retention of the filioque (“from the Son”), which was introduced into the Latin version of the Creed in the latter half of the first millennium. (The addition and interpretation of the filioque remains a point of contention between Catholics and Orthodox to this day, though the Eastern Catholic churches in communion with Rome are under no obligation to use it in their respective recensions of the Creed.)
More distressingly for the Lutheran cause was Jeremias’s rejection of justification sola fide (“by faith alone”) and his profession that there are at least seven sacraments rather than only the two recognized by Lutherans: Baptism and the Eucharist.
With respect to the Eucharist, Jeremias stressed that bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ while admonishing the Lutherans for retaining certain Latin liturgical practices—such as the use of unleavened bread—which differed from the Byzantine Rite. Here, along with his comments on the filioque, Jeremias’s anti-Catholic bias shines through. Despite his well-placed desire to avoid compromising Orthodoxy in the name of ecumenical ties with the Lutherans, Jeremias’s chauvinistic attitude concerning Greek practices can be found among the Orthodox to this very day.
Another area where Jeremias could not come to an agreement with the Lutherans concerned the liturgical year, specifically the celebration of various feasts and the commemoration of the saints. Tied to this was Jeremias’s overarching uneasiness with the Lutheran rejection of works, including fasting and monastic life. For Jeremias and indeed Orthodoxy as a whole, the Church’s liturgical life is paramount; to deny the spiritual good of these works, these celebrations, and periods of penance degrades Christianity and breaks off communion with God.
Upon receiving Jeremias’s reply in 1576, the Germans drafted a response which Jeremias—in a much icier tone than before—in turn responded to in 1579. In that letter, Jeremias made it clear that unless the Lutherans set aside all doctrines and practices which did not adhere to Jeremias’s understanding of the Orthodox faith, there could be no hope for either ecumenical dialogue or ecclesiastical ties. While the Lutherans made additional appeals to Jeremias, he dispatched a note in 1581 which simply read, “Go your own way, and do not send us further letters on doctrine but only letters written for the sake of friendship.” Whatever hopes the Lutherans may have had for making an ally of the Orthodox were dashed once and for all.
Protestant Incursions in Russia
While the Orthodox/Lutheran dialogue ended in failure for the Protestants, this did not stop Protestant missionaries from attempting to convert the Orthodox individually, particularly in Eastern Europe. As already noted, Constantinople’s fall dealt a severe blow to Orthodox education among the Greeks. In the Slavic lands, particularly Russia, centuries of captivity under the Mongol Golden Horde along with ongoing conflicts with what became the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had a deleterious effect on clerical education. For centuries, the Russian Church’s hierarchy had come from among the Greek-educated clergy. Now that the Russian state and its church were one of the last “free” Orthodox polities in the world, they were on their own with respect to producing priests and bishops. This created a situation where many priests were ordained without any formal theological training, and large swathes of the laity took to superstitious beliefs and practices. This made them particularly susceptible to Protestant influence.
In order to stave off Protestant influence among the Orthodox, particularly in the western region of Russia, a learned Orthodox bishop, Peter Mogila, began revising his clergy’s liturgical and ceremonial books in order to deepen their understanding of the sacraments and remove superstitious beliefs. Ironically, despite his rejection of Catholicism, Mogila relied heavily on Latin Scholastic sources for explicating the meaning of the sacraments, including their proper form, matter, and intention. Mogila also borrowed heavily from Latin models of clerical and lay education, establishing not only a higher educational institute for monastics but also a series of schools around the modern-day Ukraine which instructed students in a variety of languages, including Greek and Latin, and other disciplines such as theology, philosophy, rhetoric, and classical studies. Moreover, Mogila also set-up print shops for the production of uniform liturgical and theological texts and a new catechism which, much like the famous Catechism of the Council of Trent, was intended to educate the laity while preserving them from Protestant polemics.
The effect of Mogila’s work (and the work of subsequent educated clergy in Russia) was considerable, though not total. Following the schism in the Russian Church in the 17th century over the matter of liturgical reform, Tsar Peter I (otherwise known as Peter the Great) instituted a “Protestantized” governance model on the Russian Orthodox Church beginning in 1700. After preventing the Russian bishops from electing a new patriarch to head their church, Peter created the Most Holy Governing Synod, a committee comprised of hierarchs and lay officials appointed by the Tsar, which oversaw church operations. Under the influence of Bishop Theofan Prokopovich, a prelate who had drunk deeply from the poisoned wells of the Reformation during his extended trips through France, Germany, and Switzerland, Peter believed that the church should be the handmaid of the state, with the tsar as its ultimate ruler. The “synodal model” of Peter the Great would last for more than 200 years, coming to an end only after the 1917 Soviet Revolution.
Protestantism and Orthodoxy Today
Following the Soviet Revolution and the spread of communism in Eastern Europe, increased numbers of Russian and other Slavic Orthodox Christians began making their way to Western Europe and North America. They were joined by Greek and Arab Orthodox Christians who had fled Muslim domination both before and after World War I. For the first time in centuries, sizable Orthodox communities had full and frequent contact with Western Christians, both Catholics and Protestants alike. The result, especially in Europe, was the establishment of formal and informal dialogue groups which aimed at overcoming Eastern/Western doctrinal differences. Although some Orthodox theologians were impressed by the spread of Eastern Patristic learning among their estranged Catholic brethren, ongoing criticism against certain Latin theological trends coupled with concerns over the power of the papacy prompted the Orthodox to keep their distance. Instead, many turned toward the Anglican Church as a source for fruitful dialogue, believing—wrongly—that they had retained the greater part of the Apostolic faith and might even be inclined to unite with the Orthodox Church. Upheavals in the worldwide Anglican communion during the 20th century, including the ordination of women ministers and the acceptance of homosexuality, thwarted any chance for unification.
By the close of the 20th century, a growing number of Protestants in the United States (specifically Evangelicals) began turning toward the Orthodox Church in the hopes of overcoming the doctrinal and practical disagreements that have plagued Protestantism from the beginning. While certain Orthodox jurisdictions were initially wary of receiving Protestant converts, especially en masse, this began to change in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today, most Orthodox jurisdictions operating in the West have sizable convert populations and even depend on these converts for their survival, given that many so-called “cradle Orthodox” have left their ancestral religion over the decades. Unfortunately, one of the effects of these conversions has been a growing Protestant influence in American Orthodoxy at the expense of closer relations with the Catholic Church. Holding fast to their deep-seated prejudices against Rome, these converts have instilled the idea that Orthodoxy is a bulwark against Catholicism and that whatever problems plague the Catholic Church, ranging from heterodox clergy to the sex-abuse scandal, are somehow nonexistent in Orthodoxy.
What this Protestant influence on Orthodoxy means for the future of Catholic/Orthodox relations remains to be seen. However, it is important to note that Orthodoxy in the United States, if not the West as a whole, is something of a backwater; the vast majority of Orthodox Christians still live in that communion’s historic lands, such as Greece, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, and Russia. Given that world Orthodoxy remains suspicious of the Western Christianity, including Protestantism, it is doubtful that the Orthodox Church will ever find itself wholly influenced by the Reformation. For that we should be grateful.