Examining the Reformation from an Orthodox Point of View

Five hundred years ago this past Tuesday, a professor announced a lecture.

The announcement was mailed to the Archbishop of Mainz in western Germany, and was posted next to other announcements on the 16th-century equivalents of bulletin boards: church doors. One of these churches, famously, was All Saints in Wittenberg. The professor’s name was Martin Luther.

The lecture was structured around propositions, or “theses,” that appealed to the Pope of Rome to condemn certain new fundraising practices that had just begun in the Wittenberg area. In an effort to drum up money, a local fundraiser named Johann Tetzel was claiming that the askesis of almsgiving (specifically, earmarking donations for church capital campaigns) was such a guarantee of heavenly reward that forgiveness could be effectively purchased. Giving to capital campaigns was, Tetzel suggested, a higher Christian virtue than almsgiving to the poor, and so effective that a donor could save his eternal soul without the bother of confession or repentance. You could even buy forgiveness for future sin! As a professor of moral philosophy, Luther seems to have imagined that church authorities would eagerly reject such outrage.

But Tetzel was also fundraising to pay off the Archbishop’s debts, leaving local authorities little incentive to heed the radical professor over the impressive fundraiser. Within four years Luther’s increasingly combative rhetoric led to his excommunication. He had a following, though—including political leaders—and used the freedom of being beyond the Pope’s reach to expand his critique of the Catholic Church into an outright attack on many dogmatic and doctrinal principles. Other dissidents followed suit, building an anti-Catholic movement which spread beyond Luther’s reach throughout Western Europe, opposing many beliefs (like infant baptism or veneration of the Virgin Mary) that Luther himself did not dispute.

The rest is history.

But not our history. We Orthodox Christians like to boast that we never had a Reformation. Perhaps, we suggest, one was never needed. After the Great Schism, the Catholics started getting all kinds of things wrong (the story goes), so that it urgently needed reform. Luther and the Reformers (the argument continues) were justifiably aggrieved, but “threw the baby out with the bathwater.” Some evidence for this viewpoint is found in a look at the 16th-century dialogue between Lutheran leaders and Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople. The Patriarch’s comparison of the “Augsburg Confession”—the Lutheran statement of faith—and Orthodox Christian doctrine suggests that the two confessions had little in common beyond our mutual rejection of Roman Papal supremacy. (The 1672 Synod of Jerusalem in would later clarify Orthodox views on various Protestant claims.)

But what are Lutherans and Catholics saying today? What did they say on Tuesday? Pope Francis said that, in reacting to Luther, Catholics “closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias,” and that “our separation has been an immense source of suffering and misunderstanding.” Christians, he continues, “will be credible witnesses of mercy to the extent that forgiveness, renewal and reconciliation are daily experienced in our midst.”[1] In a joint statement, the Lutherans and Catholics confessed “and lament before Christ that [they] have wounded the visible unity of the Church. Theological differences were accompanied by prejudice and conflicts, and religion was instrumentalized for political ends.”[2]

Lutherans and Catholics seem to suggest, as they reflect on the Reformation, that schism wounds. The Reformation clearly wounded Europe. In the wars that it provoked, one third of German towns were destroyed. As many as 40 percent of German people were killed. Violence, persecution, famine and disease wracked France, Britain, and nearly all of Western Europe. By the 19th century the tension, discord and violence born in 1517 had been exported to the farthest reaches of the globe. Schism really hurts.

Have Orthodox schisms ever caused such damage? It’s easy to answer “no,” but we have to remember that there were serious ruptures in Christendom, involving Orthodoxy, that occurred before 1517. They have had consequences.

In his account of the 20th-century encounter of the Banyore people of Western Kenya with Orthodoxy, His Grace Bishop Athanasios of Kisumu and Western Kenya suggests that the Chalcedonian schism in 451 left the Ethiopian Church—which had not even been at the council!—so alienated and alone that it “drastically affected the spread of Christianity in Africa; a wound that took a long time to heal.”[3] The Gospel went on to reach all of Europe because the (Chalcedonian) Church in Europe was not divided. But the wounds to the Church in Africa halted evangelism on that continent for a thousand years. Had the Chalcedonian schism been prevented by more mercy, patience, and longsuffering among the laypeople and political leaders on the correct, Chalcedonian side, the whole African continent could have been converted by the fifth or sixth century! The case could even be made that, without the Nestorian schism in 431, a united Church could have neutralized the rise of Islam, and evangelized all of Asia as well.

We can’t blame Orthodoxy for heresy or for heretics, but we can look at the many times that infinitely patient and merciful Christians, political and lay leaders, as well as priests and bishops, have, in love, guided wayward souls back into the flock and so avoided schism. When schism has occurred, the sins of us who remain Orthodox did play a part.

The Catholics and Lutherans have something to show us here. Without budging on doctrine, they admit that their sin, pride and selfishness had catastrophic effects. They model repentance to be admired by all Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

So, let’s mark the turmoil that continues to rend Western Christianity not with pride or condescension, but with sincere sorrow for the suffering brought by schism. As we pray for the salvation of others, may we be the first to repent.

[1] http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/10/31/full-text-popes-homily-at-service-for-500th-anniversary-of-reformation/

[2] https://www.lutheranworld.org/sites/default/files/joint_commemoration_joint_statement_final_en.pdf

[3] Akunda, Amos Masaba. (Bishop Athanasios) “Orthodox Christian Dialogue with Bunyore Culture.” Unpublished dissertation. University of South Africa, 2010. Pp 35 – 36

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James Hargrave is a stay-at-home dad in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
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