Orthodox Reformation

Published on: March 29, 2016
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Bronze cast of Luther's 95 theses
Image: Bronze cast of Martin Luther’s 95 theses. Credit: Friedrich

As the Orthodox Church prepares to convene its Holy and Great Council, the Protestant world is getting ready to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which will be celebrated next year. While at first glance these two events seem to have nothing in common, they are linked by a common desire to bear witness to the authenticity of the Christian faith by translating the experience of the early years of Christianity into today’s world. This issue is central for the Pan-Orthodox Council, and in addition to raising the question of Orthodoxy’s relationship to Protestantism, it asks the Orthodox Church to define its path towards reform and renewal while safeguarding the unity of the Church in time and space.

The history of the Reformation remains exclusively a chapter of Western Christianity, with no room for the Orthodox except where they were used as leverage in debates between Catholics and Protestants. This estrangement between East and West is the continuation of a long-standing process initiated at the end of the first millennium and exacerbated by the fall of Constantinople sixty-four years before Luther nailed his 95 theses against indulgences to the church doors in 1517.

Even the correspondence between the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II Tranos and the Lutheran scholars of Tubingen University (1573-1581) was a dead end. Patriarch Jeremiah II was undoubtedly focused on a legitimate theological dispute, but he did not fully understand that the Lutherans’ letters, particularly the Confessio Augustana Graeca, were in fact a proposal for unity, in the new ecclesiological era of denominationalism. Following this correspondence, Orthodox dialogue with the Reformation occurred securely within the sphere of Orthodox Theology, through a hybrid theology that Father George Florovsky qualified as “captive”, influenced by the bloody opposition between Catholicism and Protestantism.

The simple word “reform” frequently frightens Orthodox Christians. But this fear is one of the last remaining signs of our theological captivity, preventing us from calling our tradition a “living” tradition. Tradition is frozen in time, paused in History by a process of sanctification which is used by fundamentalism. This phenomenon of fundamentalism is the same as that found in other religions today. Sociologists as well as political scientists see fundamentalism not as an expression of traditional cultures, but rather as a crisis within traditional cultures fighting against other cultures, promoting norms and defining purity, in other words, orthodoxia. In this sense, the only acceptable reform would be a revival of the past and not an open answer to the present, which would be considered a “liberal” reform. The cultural crisis within the Orthodox Church seems to be due to the simultaneous phenomena of the progressive withdrawal of religion from the public sphere, the divorce between church and state/society (political, financial, and ethical), and the refusal to reformulate spirituality in a way that is accessible to secularized rationality.

In response to this three-fold issue, it is perfectly legitimate to question the temporal linearity that a reform process could break, challenging the apostolic succession and transmission. The Orthodox suffer what Professor Konstantinos Delikostantis calls a “Loukaris-complex”, meaning that because Orthodox theology was once influenced by western concepts, Orthodox theological revival should be a purification of that theology, using the Fathers of the Church not only as an unchanging spiritual identity, but also as the reason for not reforming things which have always had the potential to be reformed, such as language, liturgy, norms, calendars, dialogues, or gender roles, while respecting and protecting the foundations of the faith (Scripture, creed, dogmas). Unfortunately, many of traditions have been “essentialized” through a process of ideologization and isolation. As Vladimir Lossky wrote, “to be within the Tradition is to keep the living Truth in the Light of the Holy Spirit; or rather, it is to be kept in the Truth by the vivifying power of Tradition. But this power, like all that comes from the Spirit, preserves by a ceaseless renewing.”

Despite the fact that many oppose the ecumenical commitment of Orthodoxy, no one ever really addresses the crucial issue of denominationalism which was created by the 16th century Reformation. For the canon law professor Archimandrite Grigorios Papathomas, denominationalism justifies “Orthodox co-territoriality” in the Diaspora. However, it is necessary to clarify whether the Orthodox ecclesiological compromise on the Diaspora, of various Orthodox dioceses coexisting outside of their canonical borders, could not be considered as a real – although transitory – Reform of Orthodox self-understanding of the mystery of the Church based on territorial Eucharist. While the acceptance of the Orthodox Diaspora is often justified for pastoral reasons, does not the ethnic polarization of this issue oppose the catholicity of the Church? A Reform should reconcile reasonable accommodation and ecclesiological teaching.

At a time when the Orthodox Church is preparing to convene its Holy and Great Council, the proximity of the anniversary of the Reformation must invite us to consider the renewal of our spiritual tradition in order to remain in contact with History in “the life of the world” and not only for “the life of the world.”

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University