A largely unknown dialogue occurred between Lutherans and Orthodox churches in the 16th century....It's fascinating to imagine what 'could have been' had it gone differently
A century after the fall of the Roman empire to the Ottomans, a Greek deacon named Demetrius came in contact with Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther’s closest collaborators and systematic theologians of the early Protestant Reformation (ca. AD 1558).
Like Luther, Melanchthon believed that their “reformed” faith — as a “peeling away” of the numerous developments and supposed abuses of the Latin Church over the centuries — would be virtually one and the same as the faith of the “Greeks” in the east. To that end, the leading “Lutheran” theologians of the day had their Augsburg Confession translated into Greek, and sent with their new-found friend in Demetrius back to the Patriarchate of Constantinople (ca. AD 1559). Melanchthon died the next year, and so his successors in the reformation movement were able to continue in the effort.
When the Patriarch (Joasaph II) received the letter, the doctrines within were seen as “embarrassing” and “heretical” by Orthodox standards (Ernst Benz, Wittenberg and Byzanz, pp. 73ff), and so no reply was given. It was believed at this time in history that it is better to “be friendly” by giving no reply (pretending that it was never received) than to reply with condemnation and no-doubt spoil any potential friendship with the Germans. Demetrius himself, having no reply to bring back to the Lutherans, journeyed to Transylvania where he eventually reposed. The first effort at both friendly contact and ecclesiastical fellowship between the Lutherans and the Orthodox came to an abrupt end.
In 1570, a German ambassador named David von Ungnad arrived at Constantinople, accompanied by a Lutheran theologian named Stephen Gerlach, and he became friends with the chief secretary of the new Patriarch, Jeremias II. Incidentally, Jeremias II is considered to be one of the greatest Patriarchs and theologians of the Patriarchate during the Ottoman captivity, and so the Lutherans were rather fortunate to have made contact with him. A Greek-speaking German named Martin Kraus (a.k.a. Crusius) from Tübingen was appointed by Gerlach to carry on a theological “dialogue” with Jeremias II.
A fresh Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession was made and sent to the Patriarch. A copy was also sent to the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but it is not clear whether or not they ever received it (no reply was ever given). Along with the confession, the Lutherans included a personal statement to Jeremias II. They were confident that their beliefs were practically synonymous with those of the Greeks:
… Because of the distance between their countries there was some difference in their ceremonies, [but] the Patriarch would acknowledge that they had introduced no innovation into the principal things necessary for salvation; and that they embraced and preserved, as far as their understanding went, the faith that had been taught to them by the Apostles, the Prophets and the Holy Fathers, and was inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Seven Councils and the Holy Scriptures. (Stephen Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity)
The immediate reaction of Jeremias II to the confession was not entirely unlike that of his predecessor Joasaph II, although this time it could not be ignored, with the Germans in Constantinople eagerly awaiting. In cooperation with the Synod of Constantinople (all bishops of the Patriarchate), the Patriarch sent a response on May 15, 1576, responding to each and every one of the 21 articles of the confession in great detail. As Runciman notes: “Jeremias replied to each in turn, stating wherein he agreed or disagreed with the doctrines contained in them. His comments are valuable, as they add up to a compendium of Orthodox theology at this date” (Ibid.).
In the first article, he agrees with the Lutherans on their reception of the (Nicene) Creed, but notes that the “double procession” of the Holy Spirit (the Filioque) is an unacceptable addition of the Latins. He “amplifies” the Lutheran interpretation of the Creed with twelve points related to the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc., and also appends a list of eight “cardinal virtues” alongside the “seven mortal sins.”
In the article on “Justification by Faith,” the Patriarch quotes from Saint Basil at length, emphasizing that “faith without works is dead,” that one should not “presume upon grace,” while also denying that some people are predestined to anunconditional election.
He spoke highly of the Lutheran understanding of the sacraments, but was careful to point out that there are “at least seven” sacraments alongside both baptism and the holy Eucharist. Jeremias largely agreed with the eighth and ninth articles, which spoke to “validity of sacraments” when administered by “evil priests” and the commendation of infant baptism.
In the tenth article, perhaps the most substantial area of disagreement was seen. Jeremias condemned the “Latin” tradition of using unleavened bread for the Eucharist, objected to the Lutheran removal of the epiclesis or “calling down” of the Holy Spirit in the Liturgy, and emphasized the “change” of the bread and the wine into the very body and blood of Christ (following the scriptures and Jesus’ own words), but not according to “matter,” as the Latins claimed (i.e. rejecting transubstantiation).
The Patriarch was in general agreement with articles eleven through fourteen, making statements of gentle correction and admonition throughout (objecting, for example, to a view of confession as a “judicial” tool, but rather for spiritual “healing”).
In the fifteenth article, another area of stark difference was found. The Lutheran ambivalence to the celebration of various feasts and commemorations was offensive to the Patriarch, and he quoted from the fathers and scriptures at length, showing these to be not only necessary but also of great spiritual value, calling them “lasting reminders of the life of Christ on earth and of the witness of the saints” (Ibid.).
Articles sixteen and seventeen drew little controversy, but the Patriarch noted in article eighteen (on “Free Will”) that the Lutheran understanding was incorrect, and that — following John Chrysostom, accompanied by a number of his own words — only those who are willing to “be saved” can do so. Salvation is not a “one off” event in time, but is a continuing relationship with Jesus Christ that lasts forever.
Jeremias agrees with the confession in article nineteen that God is not the cause of evil in the world, but on the twentieth article (dealing again with “faith and works”), Runciman notes:
The Patriarch agrees about the dual need for faith and works; but why, he asks, if the Lutherans really value good works, do they censure feasts and fasts, brotherhoods and monasteries? Are these not good deeds done in honor of God and in obedience to His commands? Is a fast not an act of self-discipline? Is not a monastic fraternity an expression of fellowship? Above all, is not the taking of monastic vows an attempt to carry out Christ’s demand that we should rid ourselves of our worldly entanglements?
The final article, on the invocation of saints, was also condemned by Jeremias, noting from scripture the propriety of doing so.
He concluded his reply to the Lutherans with a summary of five main “points”: the use of leavened bread in the Eucharist, the validity of both married and celibate clergy, the importance of the Liturgy, the necessity of the sacrament of repentance/confession for salvation, and a defense of the institution of monasteries and the ascetic ideal. He also included a few words of fatherly encouragement:
And so, most learned Germans, most beloved sons in Christ of Our Mediocrity, as you desire with wisdom and after great counsel and with your whole minds to join yourselves with us to what is the most holy Church of Christ, we, speaking like parents who love their children, gladly receive your charity and humanity into the bosom of our Mediocrity, if you are willing to follow with us the apostolic and synodical traditions and to subject yourselves to them. Then at last truly and sincerely one house will be built with us … and so out of two Churches God’s benevolence will make as it were one, and together we shall live until we are transferred to the heavenly fatherland.
His reply reached the theologians of Germany in 1576, and they worked diligently to reply to the Patriarch’s objections, making several clarifications on their viewpoints (especially as related to “Justification by Faith”), while standing firm on their beliefs regarding the existence of only two sacraments and the incorrectness of praying to reposed saints. Their response reached Jeremias in 1578, and the presence of Gerlach in Constantinople necessitated that he send another reply (which was done in May of 1579).
In this follow-up, Jeremias was less cordial than before, making it clear that unless the Lutherans peel away their innovations and fully accept the Orthodox-Catholic faith, they could not continue in dialogue or hope for ecclesiastical relations. A council of Lutheran scholars drafted a reply to Jeremias in the summer of 1580.
After Jeremias returned to office (for the second term), he eventually sent yet another letter to Tübingen in 1581. Resolute, he simply replied ”Go your own way, and do not send us further letters on doctrine but only letters written for the sake of friendship.”
The Lutherans stubbornly sent more clarifications and arguments to the Patriarch, but he never responded. The dialogue had come to an end.
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