This is the second article in our Reformation 500 Series.
I can claim no more than the generalist knowledge of any reasonably educated Westerner of my generation concerning the Protestant Reformation and the situation of the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the Middle Ages that some say made it inevitable.
Much less can I claim to speak for the Orthodox Church. I offer the personal reflections of one Orthodox Christian.
Yet I hope that my readers will discern some measure of authenticity in my thoughts; that the main outlines of my presentation, if perhaps not every detail, will bear the ring of truth for my Orthodox brothers and sisters; that they will recognize herein, for the most part, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Faith that we Orthodox hold in common, “traditioned” (παραδοθείσῃ, traditae in the Vulgate) once for all to the saints; and finally, that the truth that I attempt to speak will be heard by those outside of the Orthodox Church as spoken in love. Many of my Protestant and Catholic readers are known to me personally. You enrich my life in ways immeasurable with your presence, your friendship, your deep love for Christ and His Gospel, your patience with my often inelegant and bumbling efforts to articulate this Faith of which I am unworthy to call myself an heir.
The fundamental question, it seems to me, is one of ecclesiology. Our theological understanding of the Church as Church will condition in large part how we view the Reformation. Here we should note that the Reformation eventually introduced categories into Christian discourses about the nature of the Church herself that exist nowhere in the New Testament, and nowhere in 1500 years of the Church’s self-understanding: “denominations,” “confessions,” the “branch theory” of “Christianity.”
The most ancient Churches—although not in communion with each other (but for reasons very different from those of the Reformation)—refuse to call themselves a “denomination,” a “confession,” or a “branch.” Here I have in mind the Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Catholic Churches. They each think of themselves simply as “the Church.”
The New Testament knows on the one hand the Church, and on the other hand schism (σχίσμα, scisma, often translated in English Bibles as division) and heresy (αἵρεσις, heresis, often translated as sect). However uncomfortable these terms make us in our quest for good ecumenical relations, they represent biblical concepts jettisoned at the peril of Truth. If Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox agree on one thing, it is this: What the Bible says matters.
I should therefore like to raise this question for the 21st century: How do we retain the scriptural concept of schism and heresy, but without resorting to tarring and feathering our cherished partners in inter-Christian dialogue as schismatics and heretics themselves? Some on both sides will accuse me of splitting hairs. Yet I see it as not only unhelpful and uncharitable, but as fundamentally untrue, to apply these epithets to modern Christians and genuine lovers of Christ who—largely through accidents of history and geography—were born into 500 or 1000 or 1600 years of schism.
If the Orthodox Church regards herself as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church in which the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed confesses belief, logically we must also regard the Roman Catholic Church as being in schism from us, and the events of 1517 as precipitating an endless series of schisms upon schisms from the original Western schism.
Russian lay theologian Alexei Khomiakov (1804-1860) famously characterized Roman Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same coin, calling the Pope the first Protestant and Protestants crypto-papists, and not only for the filioquist pneumatology that the latter inherited from the former. In Khomiakov’s estimation, Catholicism and Protestantism stake their opposing positions from a shared set of false premises.
As difficult and awkward as it is to admit in our current context of improved inter-Christian relations, Khomiakov is far from being an outlier among Orthodox theologians and religious thinkers, then and now. The much better known Father Pavel Florensky (1882-1937) hardly took a more optimistic view of Western Christianity.
For the sake of illustration, let us take what appears to us Orthodox as two false dichotomies unique to Western Christianity. Around these two the Reformation revolved in part: Scripture vs. Tradition, and faith vs. works.
The juxtaposition of “Scripture and Tradition” as two distinct entities marks a departure from the Church’s understanding that Tradition is everything and everything is Tradition. (The noun παράδοσις and its associated verb forms appear as a good thing with astonishing frequency in the New Testament.) The Bible has no independent existence or meaning apart from the Church and her Tradition, insofar as the Bible itself has been handed down or “traditioned” to us, in and through the Church, first orally and only later in writing, along with our liturgy, our patristic theology, our ascetical-mystical ethos, our iconography, our vision of the deification of man and the cosmos as the purpose of creation and redemption by the Son and Word of God in the Holy Spirit.
The second dichotomy seems to arise from a meritorious understanding of “works,” predicated in its turn on a legalistic, transactional, and substitutionary understanding of what it means to be “justified.” These ideas are foreign to Orthodox theology. If God became what we are to make us what He is (St. Irenaeus), if God became man so that man could become God (St. Athanasius), we are “justified” or made righteous (from δικαιόω) in conformity with Jesus Christ the Righteous One (ὁ Δίκαιος)—not in any declaratory or juridical sense, but in the entirely mystical sense of our inner transformation into the radiant image and likeness of that divine righteousness that has been revealed to us in human flesh by the God-man, and is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit so that we may become by grace without measure all that the God-man is by nature.
And yet—with all the audacity that it takes to say this—divine grace alone does not suffice. We are not passive recipients of grace and salvation, but God’s coworkers, collaborators, συνεργοί, adiutores (1 Cor 3:9), “working out our salvation in fear and trembling,” “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” “Faith without works is dead.”
There is no “merit” in our works. Like cast-off rags is my so-called righteousness! I have done nothing good upon the earth! No one has committed the sins that I have! I am the first among sinners! the Orthodox prayer book places on our lips and in our hearts. Our works constitute our minuscule, yet nonetheless absolutely necessary, ascetical effort to cooperate with divine grace. St. Maximus the Confessor states plainly, for instance, that unless we give alms to the poor and the homeless, generously, cheerfully, constantly, we have not even begun to become God.
We Orthodox have no room for triumphalism, false pride, or complacency. Individually and institutionally we fail every day, in ways great and small, to keep the beautiful deposit that has been entrusted to us in the Holy Spirit. The fulness of truth of the Orthodox Christian faith does not depend on us, but on the charism of the Holy Spirit freely bestowed on our Church in our unworthiness. In season and out of season let us witness to this Faith in humility, judging no one, loving all, even as Christ loves all, and died and rose for all.
If we speak in the tongues of angels but sound like noisy gongs or clanging cymbals, we ourselves bear the judgment for those whom we turn away.
Giacomo Sanfilippo is a PhD student in Theological Studies at Trinity College in the University of Toronto, and an editor at Orthodoxy in Dialogue. He volunteers with child cancer patients and their families at SickKids Hospital.