The Reformation at 500: An Orthodox View

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation turns 500 at the end of this month, and I honestly think he would have been surprised to see it last this long, not so much because his initial project of reforming the Church of Rome would have been realized by now but rather because he was under the impression that the world was probably ending soon. Well, here we are, and it’s 2017. A lot has happened in Protestantism’s five centuries.

As an Orthodox Christian, it would be easy for me figuratively to peer over the wall between East and West and condescendingly cast a glance over at the “egg that Rome laid.” That is certainly how some Orthodox writers have seen Protestantism with its myriad denominations and movements, that it is the fruit of a schism that was itself already about five centuries old, when Rome broke from the Orthodox East. Why, therefore, should we pay much mind to schisms from schism, now many times removed?

A similar sentiment was expressed by the Russian writer Alexis Khomiakov, who famously quipped that the pope was the “first Protestant” and also that “all Protestants are Crypto-Papists,” seeing both primarily as rebels against the Holy Tradition of the ancient Church. That Roman Catholics and Protestants are “two sides of the same coin” has become axiomatic in many Orthodox treatments of Western Christianity, and that currency is usually presented as for making purchases in a theological black market, where false doctrines are traded without regard to the official traditions of Christendom that predated the Great Schism of the eleventh century.

I have struggled with these views myself as now some two decades ago I began trying to understand the differences between the Evangelicalism of my childhood and the Orthodoxy I chose as a college student. Setting up Western Christians, especially Protestants, as “over there” was convenient and even comforting, and it was even easier to see them as basically responsible for their schism from the Orthodox Church, however many removes there were.

Yet, except for a handful of exceptions, almost all the Christians currently living who are not part of the Orthodox Church did not choose to be out of communion with it. Most of them actually aren’t even aware that it exists. They are the inheritors of schism. And in the case of Catholics, they see us as the schismatics, while for almost all Protestants now, schism isn’t even “a thing.” They don’t usually think of church bodies as being in or out of communion or have any sense that a break in communion might mean being outside the Church.

So this view that some Orthodox have of Protestants in particular merely as rebels against Orthodoxy isn’t going to make much sense to most of them, since they largely don’t know that there is such a thing as Orthodoxy and don’t really even have much of a sense of being in rebellion against anything, even Rome (#StillProtesting hashtaggers of course excepted). For them, their way of worshiping and believing is just the way things are.

Differences matter

Don’t get me wrong, though—I do think that it’s worth offering some critiques for the Reformation and its heirs, and I’ve written several chapters in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy dedicated precisely to that project.

The Reformation effectively killed ecclesiology, for one thing, at least for its followers. The Magisterial churches still retain a semblance of ecclesiology, but its working-out is mainly just an administrative question rather than sacramental or in terms of apostolic authority.

Who is in communion with whom is basically about whose doctrines and practices are not distorted too much in comparison to one’s own. Yet you’ve still got groups in communion with each other whose doctrine and worship are diverse from each other as parts of the ELCA and the ECUSA. I can’t even tell why they bother, and I don’t mean that dismissively. Just what is it that keeps, say, a conservative ELCA Lutheran (a vanishing breed) convinced that he ought to be sharing communion with a Christ-denier like ECUSA’s John Shelby Spong?

And can you imagine going down to the local mega-church and asking them which churches they’re in communion with? The question wouldn’t even make sense.

And without much ecclesiology, calling someone a heretic is a mostly pointless exercise in just saying that you disagree or that they can’t be hired by your denomination’s churches. It’s not like ejecting someone from some particular Protestant denomination gives anyone the idea that there’s a real anathema in play, the kind of thing where people really start to worry about their salvation.

And without that ecclesiology, there are really no limits to what sola scriptura can be made to do. The Bible might be seen as authoritative, but whose reading of it? I once attended a kind of public debate between a representative of the PCUSA and the more-conservative breakaway ECO denomination in which the latter accused the former of not respecting the Scripture. The former said he did respect it. So who decides between them? The Reformation still has no real answer for that question. Any answer would probably look dangerously like Roman Catholicism.

I also believe that the de-churching of the Reformation led to what philosopher Charles Taylor called an “excarnation” of Christian faith, in which Christian life becomes more about beliefs and less about whole-life living. This is why just about anything calling itself “worship” is acceptable for most Protestants, so long as “the message” is the same. Although most would never do it, there is effectively no argument against using death metal music in church. If the lyrics are good, well…?

But we’re actually in this together

I know some Orthodox who might be pumping their fists at my previous section who will definitely not like this one. But I think that we do actually have to see ourselves as in this thing together, that is, in this world where the transcendent is harder and harder to bring into our immanentized lives. We can lay the responsibility for much of that at the feet of the Reformation’s excarnated Christianity, yet all of us are experiencing it. All of us are actually heirs of the Reformation. We can’t escape it.

And even on a personal level, I am myself an heir of the Reformation. The first twenty-two years of my life were spent in Evangelicalism, as the son of missionaries, no less. I could pretend that I’m over all that now, that my Protestant past is simply renounced. But it would be foolish of me to pretend that it made no impact on me.

Of course it affected me, and I would say that it was mostly for the better. From my father and mother and various pastors and teachers throughout my childhood, I learned to love Jesus Christ, to love the Scriptures, and to seek higher things over worldly.

I also learned that engagement with the culture is part of what it means to be Christian. The Apostles were precisely sent into the world by Jesus Christ, not to build fortresses from whose battlements we could throw down taunts, Monty Python-style, that we’ve already got the Holy Grail that the world is seeking, but rather so that we could bring the whole world into the Church. And there are some parts of Evangelicalism especially that are really trying to do that, even if their Gospel proclamation is not all that it ought to be from an Orthodox point of view.

I also cannot help but admire the vitality and dedication of many Protestants, especially in terms of their creativity in telling others about the Jesus whom they love. The Orthodox often aren’t interested in creativity, even when it’s perfectly consistent with Orthodox tradition. But while some new expressions really are inimical to Orthodoxy, some are rather in line with the project of the Fathers, who responded both faithfully and creatively to the challenges of their ages.

My ultimate hope for the Reformation is that Protestants would be gathered into the Orthodox Church. But I don’t think that we Orthodox can proclaim that hope triumphalistically if we’ve got any actual hope of it coming to pass. No one will listen to us if we take the posture that we’ve got something that everyone else needs and that they’d better get on their knees and repent so that they can have it. That gives the impression that Orthodoxy is somehow true because we’re so great.

We’re not actually that great. I do believe that the Orthodox faith is indeed the Pearl of Great Price, but I also have observed that the Orthodox are pretty good at trying to keep it buried in that field and to make sure that the real estate listing on the field is well hidden from Zillow.

If I meet a Protestant, and he loves Jesus Christ, believes that He is both God and man, and believes in the Holy Trinity as written in the Nicene Creed, I believe that we have most of the crucial things in common. I will not pretend that that is all there is to it. There are of course differences that really matter and have eternal implications. But if someone loves my Christ, then I want to know him better and see his faith better. And if he does not yet love my Christ, then I want to know him anyway and try to show him Jesus Christ as well as I can.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true…

I won’t sit back and try to declare whether the Reformation ought to have happened or not. Certainly I think Luther and other Reformers had some genuine and well-founded grievances with Rome. But there is also a sense in which I don’t have a dog in that fight. I am not a Protestant, and I am not a Roman Catholic. I don’t have to pick a side. The authenticity of my church’s existence is not in any sense proven in that argument.

But the fact remains that the Reformation did happen. Calling each other illegitimate based on that doesn’t really help anyone. Maybe they’re out there somewhere, but I’ve never heard of anyone who became an Orthodox Christian because he was told that his former religious affiliation was false.

I don’t think it’s useful to spend our time blaming people who are currently alive for the actions of those who have been dead for centuries. The question is what we do now. Here is what I think we Orthodox should do now:

Besides stopping the blame-laying, we should have earnest discussions about both our similarities and our differences. We should have them with integrity and love. We should eschew both polemic and compromise. (Polemic is reserved for those actively undermining and opposing the Church, while I can’t imagine what compromise in dogmatic matters is legitimately for.)

We should also seek to know each other better and learn to stand in wonder at whatever ways people are seeking to connect with God, even if we do not agree with them. We can appreciate and interpret and connect with doctrines and practices that are not our own even while we critique them.

The key is that we remember that the people who believe and practice those things are precisely people, meaning that Christ desires them for His Church. And if they are already believers in Jesus Christ, then we should rejoice in their love for Him, even if it does not look exactly like ours.

And finally, we should also persistently invite all of mankind, but especially other Christians, into the inheritance of the Church Fathers, particularly those first Christians who received the faith from the Apostles. Because of its broad and deep influence, all of us in the modern world are heirs of the Reformation. But all Christians are also heirs of the Holy Fathers, who received the faith and who canonized and interpreted Scripture, and this is an inheritance that is deep and rich and will not disappoint any who seek for Christ with a humble spirit.

27 comments:

  1. Father Bless,
    Thank you for this timely post. I also believe we need to show our Protestant brothers the richness of our faith. I have tried discussion but that just turns into an argument and anger. I have discovered that the only success is simply inviting people to “come and see” when they find that I am Orthodox. Most have never heard of us (I really did not know what Orthodoxy was until I was 58) and they are either curious or quite negative. Some few have accepted the invitation and fewer have stayed and become Orthodox, but at least some have. I certainly wish I had a more effective answer to this.

  2. Many thanks, Father! This is a very helpful reflection.

    I would add to Nicholas’ post that I find many protestants do know about the Church Fathers and even have heard of Orthodoxy but they are badly misinformed about both. It is, unfortunately, a mark of this age where there seems to be more misleading information available than information that correctly informs. Patience and love are greatly needed in any discussion.

  3. Father,
    Great article. Being a convert from the evangelical/SBC background and briefly attending Liberty U for a M. of Div degree , I do feel at times angry with Protestantism. I feel that the total absence of teaching the history of the early church or church Fathers is sometimes intentional and deceptive. That is just a gut feeling, no proof, except that for 40+ years I never knew writings existed from the early church. It was like we magically went from the last writing of the NT to the Reformation and that the early church was SBC. Not kidding here.

  4. It’s going to be interesting to see what becomes of Protestantism in the U.S., in the next 10-20 years. Protestantism is essentially defunct in Europe right now, same with Canada. I suspect that the Mainline groups will be one the way out (they already are right now). I’m not sure what will become of the Evangelicals, I suspect that will continue to slide further into the jumbles Mess they are already in

  5. Thank you for this beautifully articulated reflection. Acknowledging the good and the correct in our heterodox Christian neighbors is essential if we desire evangelism in any meaningful sense. Truly, this is the best way forward.

  6. While I won’t say this caused a paradigm shift, it was informative. I grew up baptist and am a member of a small home church. I’ve heard the proclamations that unless I’m Catholic I can’t be saved. I’ve also read that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. It’s true that I wasn’t aware of the Orthodox Church for most of my life, but it’s disheartening to know it regards me as lowly as the pope does, with a dash of inimical disregard.

    We should all be concerned with what is true and good. Are we brothers, or aren’t we? Do we both acknowledge the deity and supremacy of Christ, his nature as both God and man, and his eternal membership within the trinity? Do we both acknowledge that the only means to fellowship with God is through His son?
    Finally, do we both live like this is true and call the world to repentance?

    If so, you are my brothers. I’ll meet you face to face in the presence of our savior, along with all who believed.

    Regardless of past events and striving of human authorities, God doesn’t change, and neither does the truth.

    1. It’s true that I wasn’t aware of the Orthodox Church for most of my life, but it’s disheartening to know it regards me as lowly as the pope does, with a dash of inimical disregard.

      I can’t speak for how the pope sees you, but I would at least say that the Orthodox Church has no position on you either way. 🙂 But of course individual Orthodox Christians may have many positions. My own position, as best as I can explain it, is to say that the Church does not know the eternal status of those who are outside her canonical boundaries any more than she knows it for those inside those boundaries–but for the saints. I would also say that the Orthodox Church alone has continued to teach and practice the Christian faith as given by the Apostles. And I also would say that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as God and in the Holy Trinity is a Christian, though I would not presume to know whether their faith will be salvific for them (I do not know that it will be for me!).

      One of our 20th c. theologians, Fr. Georges Florovsky, used to say that, in the phrase separated brethren, it is important to emphasize both separated and brethren. Most people like to emphasize one over the other, but I agree with him–both are important and need to be treated seriously. So that is my own view.

      1. You mention faith that is “handed down by the apostles”. How does that differ from the teaching in scripture? Does it?

        1. It doesn’t differ in the sense of contradicting Scripture, but it does differ in the sense of not being merely the text of Scripture. It is a whole way of life and even of understanding the Scripture. (Among other things, the Bible doesn’t interpret itself.) St. Paul mentions in II Thess. 2:15 that he is giving traditions to the Thessalonians both by word of mouth and by letter. So some of the faith he was teaching was not written down but delivered orally. The Scripture never says of itself that it represents the whole of the apostles’ teachings.

          And as an example of how unspoken assumptions can confuse these questions, “the teaching in scripture” isn’t obviously one thing (if it were, everyone would agree on what it means). Scripture has to be interpreted. That’s why in the example I gave of the two men from the PCUSA and ECO, they both said they were following Scripture (in that case, on sexual ethics). Yet they disagreed with each other on whether that was so. So both can say “The Bible says…” yet not agree. Which one is teaching the faith from the apostles?

          1. Scripture was written with clear intent to transmit a message by God. It was meant to be understood, and through the aid of the holy spirit (by whom, according to John, we have no need for anyone to teach us) it must certainly be possible to come to the truth of the message of scripture.

            Does Orthodoxy hold extra biblical writings as equally authoritative as the Bible? Is there additional teaching within those texts that does not appear in the Bible (as in new concepts or expounding on existing theology)? Please forgive my ignorance, I know little of Orthodoxy.

          2. If the meaning of Scripture is simply plain to everyone who reads it and there is no need for teachers, why 1) do so many people disagree (all claiming to be guided by the Holy Spirit) and 2) is church history (including the Ethiopian eunuch who is instructed by the Apostle Philip) replete with people explaining it?

            It would be hard to go into the full argument here for why sola scriptura is both unbiblical (since it doesn’t appear in Scripture and therefore violates its own rule) and unworkable (one aspect of that is in my previous paragraph), but I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the arguments against it. If I may be so bold, I recommend reading Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy, which is only $8.99 as an e-book and also available in paperback. I spend a lot of space discussing this, especially in the third chapter.

            I might also suggest that the comments on a blog are not the best place to learn about Orthodoxy. 🙂 That is, they’re necessarily limited. There are some good introductory works out there, though, such as Ware’s The Orthodox Church or McGuckin’s work by the same name (which is more recent and more thorough).

          3. There are also different ways and levels of interpretation. There is the Literal, the Allegorical and the Spiritual. Obviously it needs explaining because on the Road to Emmaus the Risen Lord had to explain Scripture to the Disciples He had been teaching for three years. By Scripture we mean what is now called the Old Testament as what we now call the New Testament was not even canonized until the 5th Century and accepted as Scripture.

          4. There are plenty of NT scripture that speaks about tradition, following what was spoken and written, and that not everything that Christ did was written down (I assume that goes for what he said as you can read all the “red lettering” in an hour….Christ preached for 3 years). I think more importantly is read what the first, second, third century Christians said about worship and beliefs, as we can all line up our Bible verses for battle. I thinks those who saw Christ, taught by His Apostles, as the Body of Christ or the Church, would know how to interpret Scripture and what was acceptable and what was not, better than us 2000 years later.

  7. Good article, Father. The evangelical denomination must understand that the world may not change the church for Christ came to change it 2000 years ago. Without the Holy Tradition there cannot be apostolic continuity. Without our Holy Fathers we would simply gather like sheeps and debate on personal interpretations of the Bible. The Absolute Thruth that was revealed cannot be debated outside the Church. The incarnation of the ‘logos’ during the Holy Eucharist is a way for us to be deified just as it is written ‘be holy as I am holy’. I live in a country (Romania) with orthodox majority (87%) where the number of monasteries equals that of the minasteries in Russia. We have an Apostolic Church and we have whitnessed during the centuries the constant effort of the Roman Catholic Church and later Protestant Denomination to reform us but we kept with the Truth. The Church should not make proselytism or force someone to believe something artificial but it should only make mission.

  8. Your comments are mostly on the various Protestant Churches in North America, I think.
    I’m not sure that your views would hold for the Anglican Communion which has a worldwide distribution.
    Some parts are influenced by Canadian Anglicans perhaps but I’m not sure that your U.S Episcopal Churches have very much influence on the Anglican Communion as a whole ,in the Commonwealth.

    The Scottish Presbyterians will still differ from U.S Presbyterians too. as will Commonwealth Presbyterians.

    There are Presbyterians and Methodists all over the world even in the Pacific Ocean islands.

    Anglicans in England too have been influenced by Orthodoxy and the Church Fathers., see C S Lewis and friends They also cherish the old ‘Celtic’ and Anglo Saxon saints, still. The Anglican Churches in Australia and New Zealand differ North American dioceses , by and large. and may not know what Orthodoxy means. Most see Church history as you point out as New Testament Times . Medieval Roman Catholic traditions and Reformation with little in between.
    Approaches to these congregations may need to differ from approaching U.S Protestants. but we rarely see that in blogs. or you tube lectures.

    I should like to sign as ME to prevent any unintended insult to Orthodox Church leaders.

    1. Approaches to these congregations may need to differ from approaching U.S Protestants. but we rarely see that in blogs. or you tube lectures.

      That’s probably because you’re reading and watching Americans! 🙂 We can speak only of what we know, so those in other places ought to get their own blogs and videos out there if they’d like to see something else.

      That said, I am speaking very generally here and cannot hope to cover all the nuance of what’s out there. I’ve got a lot more detail in Orthodoxy & Heterodoxy (especially the new edition), but again, it’s from where I am and to my primary audience.

      I welcome public contributions from elsewhere!

  9. The Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick,
    I am happy to have read this article as it is something that is near and dear to me and has been for years, it has become my purpose for the Body of Christ, all true believers in my Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ to become one in unity. As you have rightfully stated; many have the basic truth of the Most Holy Trinity, salvation and even of the Body and Blood. Lovers of Jesus the Christ should not be, in my humble opinion, chastised or neglected because they have inherited or were born into a so-called non-Orthodox church or understanding.
    Jesus said to him, Do not forbid him, for he who is not against you is for you. this is the basis of my understanding. This is where I have come to at my age of 65 years. i am currently in Baltimore and always seeking to grow in the spirit of the Lord.

    Blessings,
    +William

    1. You are in Baltimore? There are quite a few Orthodox parishes in and around Baltimore. I attend Holy Cross in Linthicum. Please feel free to visit anytime!

  10. Ethiopian orthodox church is seriesly harmed by the reformation program of the protests of chrsitanity. this article is very good for us.

  11. The whole problem comes down to the modern notion of self-actualization through freedom of choice. For many if not most of us, it shapes the entirety of how we look at the world. Even if someone were to convert to Orthodoxy, or any other faith, I would have to wonder if it were because they thought it necessary for their salvation, or if it was merely a choice they preferred.

    Speaking as a Catholic, I know the modern, consumerist worldview has pervaded our Church, as it has nearly all churches. Preference rules the day. Choice is the real god of modernity unleashed by the Reformation. We really don’t think any creedal affirmation is truly necessary at the end of the day, and so it simply becomes a smorgasbord of religious choices. Which liturgy do I like best? What style of worship? What beliefs appeal most to my inner sense of truth? With whom do I agree, or better yet, who agrees with me?

    As you mentioned, we are all products of the Reformation in a sense, and that really means that we are all really secular, consumerist, modernists—not by choice, but because we have been catechized by our culture since infancy to be so. The sense of desperate dependence, of necessity for salvation, is missing from nearly all religious belief today. Many would claim this sense of dependence is what kept people in thrall to institutions of power. But I would argue it is what sustained the vital faith of our forbears to a large degree. When given a choice, the Apostles responded, “To whom shall we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” They had no where else to go. Do we?

    Modernism is our original sin. And it is the work of a lifetime to detoxify from this heritage. Let us all make a beginning.

  12. This comment may less welcome then others, but to bring any Christian into the Eastern Orthodoxy is not evangelism by any definition of which I am aware. I was chrismated Greek Orthodox three years ago and, up until then, had never experienced the Eucharist, and what has followed I have likened to going through a door I did not know was there and partaking of a feast when I did not know I was hungry.

    Lest you think that I have answered my own question, let me tell you that I was an active Christian, i.e. serving our Savior to the best of my limited ability, for over 35 years. There are many more millions of persons who do not know Christ and bringing the Word of the Lord to them is evangelism. How is it that Church that spread through world so fast has become insular and the Latin Church and it’s wild eyed offspring have stolen the march on bringing Christ to the spiritually starved?

    1. John,
      The answer is partly historical. In 1054 the schism separated East from West, at first temporarily and then permanently after the blood letting of the 4th Crusade. Before this the spread of Islam cut off the Middle East and Africa. After the 4th Crusade the West tried to use military action to subdue the Eastern Church using the Normans as their hit men. The Byzantine Church fell under the yoke of Islam in 1453 and it continues in its yoke of captivity. For nearly 400 years the Russian Church was the sole center of resistance and after it threw off the Mongol and Tartar invaders it spread the faith eastward all the way to the US. In 1918 the Russian Church entered its period of captivity.
      Under captivity either to the Muslims or the Communists, the greatest feat of Evangelism of Orthodoxy was its survival. The Bolsheviks killed 300,000 priests in Russia in a few years. Neither Muslims or Communists allowed the Church its Missionary Mission. Preaching Christ in public still gets an evangelist death or long imprisonment in Islamic lands. Now that the Communists are out of power, Russia is exploding with evangelism. If the Orthodox team was denied taking the field for so many years it is hard to stay in the game. Now Russia is unyoked, the church is spreading like wild fire in Africa and other parts of the world where the Protestants and Roman Catholics only had each other as competitors.
      I hope you find this helpful.

      1. Thank you for the excellent reply, Deacon Griswold. I am an amateur student of ancient near eastern and western European history, but new to ecclesiology as such. My lament is not about the deplorable history of the Latin Churches’ relation with it’s eastern brothers. The Baltic Crusades were aimed at Eastern Orthodox Slavs. Of course, amber and the herring fisheries were an added bonus. And any educated protestant is well aware of the what happens when the Bishop of Rome turns his eye on an opponent.

        I would love hear about the progress of the Russian Orthodox in Africa.

        1. I will do you one better by given you a friend from Facebook who is in the Church in Africa: Archdeacon Mugalu Alexandrous. He is a very interesting fellow. Search him on FB and extend a friend request. He is always posting about the state of things in Uganda

  13. Thank you for this posting Father Damick; I find helpful as I continue to explore leaving my Church Tradition so as to join (and explore) the Eastern Orthodox Church more fully and intently. I, in particular, found your discussion with George Black helpful and illuminating.

    May the Blessings of the Triune God be with you,
    Paul Henry

  14. Father Stephen:

    In your first reply to George Black, you state: “And I also would say that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as God and in the Holy Trinity is a Christian, though I would not presume to know whether their faith will be salvific for them (I do not know that it will be for me!).”

    Here is my question: If you believe that Christ died for your sins, according to the scriptures; that He is the divine logos made flesh; that by means of His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension He conquered the enemies of both God and man – satan, sin, death and hell; then why, if you believe these things and genuinely seek to live out their implications, do you not know that your faith will be ‘salvific?

    I look forward to your response.
    Patrick Halferty

    1. There is a lot one could say, but the question is whether I really am living all that out and whether I will continue to do so. The Lord said that he who endures to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13). No one who’s not at the end can know whether he will indeed endure until then.

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