Lutherans Write the Patriarch: How the ‘German Orthodox Church’ Almost Happened

Lutherans Write the Patriarch: How the 'German Orthodox Church' Almost Happened

A century after the fall of the Roman empire to the Ottomans, a Greek deacon named Demetrius came in contact with Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther’s collaborators in the earlier part of the Protestant Reformation (A.D. 1558).

Like Luther, Melanchthon believed that their reformed, Roman faith would be one and the same with the ‘Greeks’ of the East. To that end, the leading Evangelical theologians had their Augsburg Confession translated into Greek and sent with their new friend in Demetrius to the Patriarch of Constantinople (1559). Melanchthon died the next year, and so his successors continued in the effort.

When Patriarch Joasaph II received the letter, the doctrines within were seen as “embarrassing” and even “heretical” (Ernst Benz, Wittenberg and Byzanz, p. 73ff), and so no reply was given. They thought it better to be friendly by giving no reply, rather than to reply with derision. Demetrius himself, having no message to bring back to the Lutherans, journeyed to Transylvania where he eventually died.

The first effort at contact between the Lutherans and the Orthodox had failed.

In 1570, a German ambassador named David von Ungnad arrived at Constantinople, accompanied by Stephen Gerlach, and he became friends with the chief secretary of the new Patriarch, Jeremias II. Incidentally, Jeremias II is considered to be one of the greatest bishops and theologians of the Patriarchate during Ottoman captivity, and so the Lutherans were fortunate to have made contact with him in particular. A Greek-speaking German named Martin Kraus (a. k. a. Crusius) from Tübingen was appointed by Gerlach to carry on a theological dialogue with Jeremias.

A fresh translation of the Augsburg Confession was made and sent to the Patriarch. A copy was also sent to the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but it is not clear whether or not they ever received it. Along with the confession, the Lutherans included a personal statement to Jeremias II. They were confident that their beliefs were synonymous with that of the Greeks:

Because of the distance between their countries there was some difference in their ceremonies, [but] the Patriarch would acknowledge that they had introduced no innovation into the principal things necessary for salvation; and that they embraced and preserved, as far as their understanding went, the faith that had been taught to them by the Apostles, the Prophets and the Holy Fathers, and was inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Seven Councils and the Holy Scriptures. —Stephen Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity

The immediate reaction of Jeremias was not entirely unlike that of his predecessor, although this time it could not be ignored (with the Germans in Constantinople eagerly awaiting). In cooperation with his holy synod, the Patriarchate sent a response on May 15, 1576, responding to each of the 21 Articles in detail. As Runciman notes:

Jeremias replied to each in turn, stating wherein he agreed or disagreed with the doctrines contained in them. His comments are valuable, as they add up to a compendium of Orthodox theology at this date. —ibid.

In the first article, he agrees with the Lutherans on their reception of the Creed, but notes that the double procession of the Holy Spirit (Filioque) is an unacceptable addition of the Latins. He amplifies the Lutheran interpretation of the Creed with twelve points related to the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc., and appends a list of eight ‘cardinal virtues’ alongside the ‘seven mortal sins.’

In the article on Justification, Jeremias cites St. Basil at length, emphasizing “faith without works is dead,” that one should not “presume upon grace,” while also denying that some are predestined to an unconditional election.

He spoke highly of the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments, but was careful to point out that there are “at least seven” sacraments alongside both baptism and the Eucharist. Jeremias largely agreed with the eighth and ninth articles, which spoke to validity of sacraments when administered by “evil priests,” along with an approval of infant baptism.

In the tenth article, perhaps the most substantial area of disagreement was seen. Jeremias condemned the Latin tradition of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist, objected to the Lutheran removal of the epiclesis or ‘calling down’ of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy, and emphasized the change of the bread and the wine into the very body and blood of Christ, but not according to “matter,” wanting to avoid some of the more extreme, philosophical speculations of the Latins.

Jeremias was in general agreement with articles eleven through fourteen, making statements of gentle correction and admonition throughout (objecting, for example, to a view of confession as a judicial tool).

In the fifteenth article, another area of stark difference was found. The Lutheran ambivalence to the celebration of various feasts and commemorations was offensive to the Patriarch, and he quoted from the fathers and scriptures at length, showing these to be not only necessary but also of great spiritual value, calling them “lasting reminders of the life of Christ on earth and of the witness of the saints.”

Articles sixteen and seventeen drew little controversy, but the Patriarch noted in article eighteen (on Free Will) that the Lutheran understanding was incorrect, and that—following John Chrysostom, accompanied by a number of his own thoughts—only those who are willing to be saved can be saved.

Jeremias agreed with article nineteen that God is not the cause of evil in the world, but on the twentieth article (dealing again with faith and works), Runciman notes:

The Patriarch agrees about the dual need for faith and works; but why, he asks, if the Lutherans really value good works, do they censure feasts and fasts, brotherhoods and monasteries? Are these not good deeds done in honor of God and in obedience to His commands? Is a fast not an act of self-discipline? Is not a monastic fraternity an expression of fellowship? Above all, is not the taking of monastic vows an attempt to carry out Christ’s demand that we should rid ourselves of our worldly entanglements?

The final article, on the invocation of saints, was also condemned.

He concluded his reply with a summary of five main areas of both disagreement and emphasis:

  1. The use of leavened bread in the Eucharist.
  2. The validity of both married and celibate clergy.
  3. The importance of the Liturgy.
  4. The necessity of the sacrament of confession.
  5. A defense of monasteries and the ascetic ideal.

He also included a few words of encouragement:

And so, most learned Germans, most beloved sons in Christ of Our Mediocrity, as you desire with wisdom and after great counsel and with your whole minds to join yourselves with us to what is the most holy Church of Christ, we, speaking like parents who love their children, gladly receive your charity and humanity into the bosom of our Mediocrity, if you are willing to follow with us the apostolic and synodical traditions and to subject yourselves to them. Then at last truly and sincerely one house will be built with us . . . and so out of two Churches God’s benevolence will make as it were one, and together we shall live until we are transferred to the heavenly fatherland.

His reply reached the Germans in 1576, and they worked diligently to reply to the Patriarch’s objections, making several clarifications on their viewpoints (especially as related to Justification), while standing firm in their beliefs regarding the existence of only two sacraments and the wrongness of praying to saints. Their response reached Jeremias in 1578, and the presence of Gerlach in Constantinople necessitated that he reply. This was sent in May of 1579.

In his follow-up letter, Jeremias was less cordial than before, making it clear that unless the Lutherans remove their recent innovations, fully accepting the Orthodox-Catholic faith, they could not continue in serious dialogue or have hope of formal, ecclesiastical relations. A council of Lutheran scholars then drafted a reply to Jeremias in the summer of 1580.

After Jeremias returned to the Patriarchal throne for a second term, he sent a final letter to Tübingen in 1581. Resolute, he simply replied:

Go your own way, and do not send us further letters on doctrine but only letters written for the sake of friendship.

The Lutherans sent even more clarifications to him, but he never sent a reply.