The Reformation at 500: An Orthodox View

Our parish’s conference in which we are inviting the larger Christian community in our area to gather together and reflect on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is coming up in less than a week next Monday and Tuesday, October 30-31 ( As we prepare to reflect on the effects of this event, we can benefit from this essay written by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick on the topic.

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 usas 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.Postcard