The Reformation at 500: An Eastern Orthodox View

By The Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick

For the month of October, Journey with Jesus is “Remembering the Reformation: 500 Years” with guest essays from five traditions: Catholic, Reformed, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox. This week’s essay is by The Very Rev. Archpriest Andrew Stephen Damick, pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and An Introduction to God, as well as the forthcoming Bearing God. He is also host of the podcasts Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads from Emmaus on Ancient Faith Radio, co-host of The Areopagus podcast, and a frequent speaker at lectures and retreats both in parishes and in other settings.

Martin Luther’s Reformation turns 500 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 thought that the world was probably ending soon. Well, it’s 2017. A lot has happened in Protestantism’s five centuries.

As an Orthodox Christian, it would be easy for me to peer over the wall between East and West and condescendingly cast a glance at the “egg that Rome laid.” That is certainly how some Orthodox writers have seen Protestantism’s myriad denominations and movements — they are the fruit of a schism that was already about five centuries old, when Rome broke from the Orthodox East.

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 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, a coin for making purchases in a theological black market, where false doctrines are traded without regard to the universal traditions of Christendom that predated the Great Schism of the eleventh century.

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The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel, Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula. 6th century.

I have struggled with these views myself, as 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 away.

Yet, except for a few exceptions, most Christians alive who are not part of the Orthodox Church did not choose to be out of communion with it. Most of them aren’t even aware that it exists. They are the inheritors of schism. For us, that is bad, but for most Protestants, 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 with church leadership could put you outside the Church.

Differences Matter

Don’t get me wrong, though — as an Orthodox Christian, I think that it’s worth offering some critiques for the Reformation and its heirs. (I wrote several chapters in my book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy dedicated to that project.)

The Reformation effectively killed ecclesiology, for one thing. The Magisterial churches still retain a semblance of ecclesiology, but its working-out is mainly an administrative question rather than sacramental one, or one 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 there are groups in communion whose doctrine and worship barely resemble each other. Just what is it that keeps a conservative ELCA Lutheran convinced that he ought to be sharing communion with someone like the Episcopal Church USA’s John Shelby Spong?

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

And without much ecclesiology, defining someone as a heretic is a mostly pointless exercise in saying that you disagree or that he can’t be hired in your denomination. Ejecting someone from a Protestant denomination doesn’t give anyone the idea that there’s a real anathema in play, where people 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 is authoritative, but whose reading of it? (This question holds even if someone is using pieces of Christian history to inform his reading.) I once attended a kind of public debate between a representative of the Presbyterian Church USA and the more-conservative breakaway Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians 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.

I also believe that the de-churching of the Reformation led to what philosopher Charles Taylor called an “excarnation” of Christian faith, in which Christianity becomes more about beliefs than anything else. This is why almost 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

Yet we’re in this thing together, in this world where the transcendent is harder to bring into our immanentized lives. We may lay that at the feet of the Reformation’s excarnation, yet all of us are experiencing it. We are all heirs of the Reformation.

And 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. 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 say that it made no impact on me.

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The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary. 12th century.

Of course it affected me, and it was largely for the better. From my parents and various teachers throughout my childhood, I learned to love Jesus Christ, to love the Scriptures, and to seek higher things over worldly ones.

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 throw down taunts, Monty Python-style, that we’ve already got the Holy Grail that the world is seeking, but rather so we will bring the 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 admire the vitality and dedication of many Protestants, especially their creativity in telling others about Jesus whom they love. The Orthodox of today often aren’t interested in creativity, even when it’s consistent with Orthodox tradition.

My honest hope for the Reformation is that all Christians would be gathered into the Orthodox Church, because I believe that it is uniquely the Church of Jesus Christ. But I don’t think that we Orthodox can proclaim that hope triumphalistically if we’ve got any hope of it coming to pass.

If a Protestant loves Jesus Christ, believes that He is both God and man, and believes in the Holy Trinity as written in the Nicene Creed, then we have most crucial things in common. That is not all there is to it. There are differences that matter and have eternal implications. But if someone loves my Christ, then I want to know him and his faith better.

Finally, Brethren, Whatsoever Things Are True

I won’t sit back and decide whether the Reformation ought to have happened. Certainly I think Luther and other Reformers had some well-founded grievances with Rome. But I also don’t have a dog in that fight. I am not Protestant or Roman Catholic. The authenticity of my church’s existence is not at stake there.

But the Reformation did happen. I don’t think it’s useful to blame 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 (and I hope that Protestants may join us):

We should have earnest discussions (especially informally) about both similarities and differences with integrity and love. We should eschew both polemic and compromise.

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

Why? Those 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 invite all of humanity, but especially other Christians, into the inheritance of the Church Fathers, especially people like Ignatius of Antioch, who received the faith from the Apostle John. 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 canonized and interpreted Scripture. This is an inheritance that is deep and rich and will not disappoint any who seek Christ with a humble spirit.

Image credits: (1) Wikipedia.org and (2) Wikipedia.org.

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