This is the third article in our Reformation 500 Series.
Though largely unknown to modern Christians, appeals to the Greek Church in both rhetorical usage and actual correspondence were pivotal during the formative years of the Reformation. In 1519, during the Leipzig Debate against Catholic interlocutor, Johann Eck, Martin Luther stated that the Greek Church had never accepted Rome’s claim to papal supremacy, and that it was the Greek Church that had produced the early Church’s finest theologians.
This and other comments made by Luther during his lifetime reveal that he held a generally positive view of the Greek Orthodox tradition, though his statements about the Greek Church were often made for polemical purposes. As such, many have concluded that Luther never engaged with the Orthodox tradition in any meaningful way, and that his statements should be viewed in this light.
The same, however, cannot be alleged of Luther’s comrade, Philip Melanchthon. Melanchthon has been called the mind behind the Reformation, a claim evidenced by the fact that he was the primary author and editor of the Augsburg Confession. He was a gifted linguist who excelled in both Greek and Latin, and was as familiar with the Church Fathers as was feasible during the 16th century. In his seminal work, Loci Communes, he makes several references to Church Fathers, including St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian. Melanchthon also demonstrates a profound interest in church history.
Melanchthon’s encounter with the Orthodox world became much more substantial when, in 1559, he hosted Demetrius Myros, a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, for six months in his home. From the ensuing dialogue, Melanchthon was inspired to pen a Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession, called the Augusta Graeca. He intended for his translation to be presented to the Ecumenical Patriarch in hopes that the latter would validate the Reformation project, thus bolstering the Protestant reformers in their cause against the Catholic Church.
Motivating this was an assumption, held by Melanchthon and many of his fellow reformers, that the true Christian faith found in Scripture was still preserved by the Greek Church, since it had never fallen victim to the errors of the Latins.
Unfortunately, Melanchthon never saw a response to his attempt. He died just one year after penning Augusta Graeca. Efforts to correspond with the Ecumenical Patriarch were not answered until the 1570s, when scholars at the University of Tubingen were able to initiate a dialogue with Patriarch Jeremiah II via a Lutheran ambassador in Constantinople.
In 1576, these scholars received the first reply in what would be a 6-year exchange. To their disappointment, Patriarch Jeremiah noted several areas of disagreement with the Augusta Graeca that corresponded to many of the same objections that had been raised by the Latin Catholic Church. Yet several areas of agreement were highlighted as well.
Despite the failure of the Lutherans and the Ecumenical Patriarch to establish any lasting accord, there are noteworthy elements of this dialogue that provide guidance as to how interfaith dialogue should operate today. Both sides of the conversation demonstrated a desire to seek fellowship in a spirit of love, civility, and understanding. In his first response to the Lutherans, Patriarch Jeremiah states:
We received the letters which your love sent us and the booklet which contains the articles of your faith. We accept your love, and in compliance with your request we shall endeavor to clear the issues in which we agree and those in which we disagree. The expression of love is the fulfilment of the Law and Prophets [cf. Rom 13:10]. Indeed, it is fulfilled, we may say, not only by mere words, but proven by the very facts themselves and by deeds. Even as the most precious stones that need no words of praise, yet they are looked upon with admiration because of their own intrinsic worth by those who know their value. You have displayed such a love, most wise German men, bereft of pride in those matters which you have communicated to us.
This and many other statements from both parties are timely reminders that, even in conversations where serious disagreements abound, one can speak in a spirit of love and faith seeking understanding.
Notwithstanding the approaches characteristic of political and religious discourse throughout history, disagreement need not be expressed in a hostile manner, or be a barrier to civility and friendship. Too often individuals fall victim to constructing their opponents and their convictions in the least sympathetic manner. Rather than first seeking to understand the perspective of those with whom we disagree, we label them idiots, haters, heretics, or any other number of names carrying negative connotations.
500 years following the Reformation, dialogue in the public square often leaves little room for hope that matters will improve in the next 500. It is still difficult for many to admit that those in other faith traditions hold their convictions in good faith or within reason.
Fortunately, dialogue in the academic and even certain segments of the clerical world indicate that, in at least these spheres, things are moving in a more positive direction.
Whether the Reformation ought to be celebrated is a controversial question. Its revolutionary take on Christianity brought increased access to education and biblical literacy to Europe, but also methods of interpretation that have often resulted in fractured Christian bodies, condemnation, and divergence from a holistic interpretation of the faith that places biblical texts within a broader liturgical and cosmological vision.
That said, there is no doubt that Orthodox Christians and Protestants have offered and continue to offer valuable resources and insights to one another. The theological and biblical perspectives of Orthodox fathers have revolutionized both patristic and biblical scholarship within predominantly Protestant and Catholic academies. The works of Protestant scholars like the Anglican N.T. Wright and the Lutheran Robert Jenson show a reorientation towards eschatological elements that were central to the early Church’s biblical exegesis. And strangely enough, the advent and flourishing of patristic scholarship in the West is primarily indebted to Protestant scholars who have made great efforts to preserve and circulate patristic texts. Orthodox and Protestant scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries have been co-dependent enterprises, made possible by effective dialogue.
Protestants and Orthodox Christians also have much to offer one another in everyday pastoral matters. In the US, an annual cultural festival is often the totality of an Orthodox community’s outreach: these parishes would benefit from duplicating the many community ministries—soup kitchens, homeless outreach, food banks, and so on—that are often operated by Protestant communities.
Additionally, the devotion Protestants have for the Bible is admirable, and would greatly benefit an American Orthodoxy wherein biblical literacy is often lacking.
In return, Orthodox Christianity beckons Protestants to experience a more encompassing and immersive Christian way of life that offers a window into lived Christianity as it was experienced during the centuries that predated the Reformation. Orthodox worship may likewise counter the ever more popular impetus to reduce Christianity to its ethical principles.
However one sees the Reformation, the initiatory dialogue between the Tubingen school and Patriarch Jeremiah II reminds us that our conversations, whether political or religious, do not require us either to forsake our convictions or to view our interlocutors with enmity. Ecumenical dialogue need not be condemned or disregarded as an “ecumenist heresy,” especially considering that Patriarch Jeremiah II, along with many of the fathers whom the Orthodox Church holds in the highest regard, readily engaged in dialogue with those outside of the Orthodox communion.
Continued dialogue may reveal that, despite cultural, linguistic, and political obstacles, our respective orientations will lead us to a similar destination.
Cameron Davis holds an MA in history from Utah State University, where his research focused on justification as interpreted in the writings of Philip Melanchthon and St. John Chrysostom. He is an Orthodox Christian living in Utah.