Orthodox America

  A Discordant Dialogue

    "How good it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" exclaimed the Psalmist. This was our Saviour' s fervent prayer to His Heavenly Father: "That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee" (John 17:21). It is only natural, therefore, that among Christians there should be a desire for harmony, for oneness, for unity.

    Ever since the great East-West rift of 1054, there have been numerous attempts at the re-unification of Christendom, a worthy aspiration and the ostensible motive behind today's Ecumenical Movement. Sadly, however. these efforts are invariably governed by a rationalistic approach which rests on a diplomatic spirit of compromise, of seeking the lowest common denominator. They disregard two essential facts: 1)compromise is alien to Truth, and 2) Christ provided the means for the unity of believers when He established His Church, against which, He promised, the gates of hell shall not prevail.

    This Church, this ark of salvation, was established as a visible, historical institution uniting within itself its members both heavenly and earthly; it is an institution which, for all the frailty of its members, is never in need of reformation, for it lives "not an earthly human life, but a life of grace which is divine ," Because of this other-worldliness of the Church, "reason does not comprehend her." (A, Khomiakov, The Church Is One.)

      Rome's insistence on papal supremacy caused it to sever itself from the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, although it continued to preserve the concept of the Church as a visible institution. Protestantism, an outgrowth from this severed branch, manifested its discontent with Rome's misrepresentation of the Church by dismissing altogether this concept of the visible Church, denying its authority and reducing it to a purely spiritual, abstract concept. In more recent times Protestant reference to the Body of Christ has come to encompass such a variety of confessions as to make it quite senseless to any serious reader of the Scriptures.

     Indeed, after year s of spiritual wandering and experimentation within the Protestant or Roman Catholic traditions, many believers have come to an awareness that the visible and historic Church founded by Christ on Pentecost and possessing the fullness of His teaching must, after all, exist; and, after a diligent and often laborious search they have, by God's grace, become united to the Orthodox Church; these are "no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph. 2:19).

      On the official level, however, efforts towards unity have, with rare exceptions, consistently proved barren. In seeking to understand the reasons for this failure we have chosen to focus here on two cycles of Protestant-Orthodox dialogue whose basic issues have not changed appreciably since the dialogue which was first initiated more than 400 years ago. The first of these discussions under consideration took place between the Lutheran theologians of the 16th century and the Patriarch of Constantinople; the second is the later 18th century exchange between the Non-jurors of England and the hierarchs of Moscow. In both cases the purpose behind the Protestants contacting the Orthodox was a desire, not for admission to the Universal Church, the only means of genuine unity, but; for acceptance whereby they would gain a measure of authenticity. They sought the approval of the Orthodox Church while refusing to submit to her ultimate authority and insisting on their own theological superiority.

    In approaching this discussion we must bear in mind that the Reformation Fathers were more conservative in their views on Church tradition and the authority of the Church Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils than their successors today who have been schooled in a Protestant interpretation of Church history. They were fully aware that Orthodoxy was superior to Rome in its preservation of the ancient faith and for this reason were anxious to seek its approval, hoping also to effect a united front against the Roman innovations.

    Before examining the first of these dialogues, we would do well to offer a brief digression concerning the life and character of the Patriarch, for some may be tempted to ascribe the dialogue' s collapse to a supposed short-coming on the part of the Patriarch-an insufficient knowledge of Scripture perhaps, or an ethnic preoccupation.

    Jeremiah II was born c. 1536 in a noble family of reputable piety. He was an accomplished Biblical and patristic scholar with an extensive knowledge of the Greek classics. Only 36 years of age when first elected Patriarch in 1572, Jeremiah was twice deposed in the interest of politics, but each time he was brought back to the throne through popular support. His rule under the Ottoman Turks was not an easy one, and he traveled extensively to strengthen his widespread flock not only from the Moslems but--further north in Greece and Italy--from Jesuits and Protestant proselytism. His attitude towards Pope Gregory was "diplomatically respectful and polite," while he was firm in rejecting the Pope's calendar reform as an innovation designed to strengthen Rome's authority. In general, in matters of Faith and Orthodox ecclesialogy, "he was of an adamant character and inflexibility," although he exhibited no harshness in his personality. According to the unbiased testimony of one of the German representatives, "Patriarch Jeremiah was a mild and ,pleasant character, a likeable and joyful person a fat man with very long hair dispersed on his shoulders (just like our Saviour Christ) very simple and humble in respect to his daily dealings, diet and dress."

    Patriarch Jeremiah strengthened ties with Russia when he made a trip to Moscow in 1588 presumably to gather alms, although a more likely motive may have been a desire to secure the Tsar as an ally against the Turk. The Russians wasted no time in discussing with him their desire for a Patriarchate, proposing Jeremiah himself for the position. But after further deliberation, Metropolitan Job of Moscow was elected and enthroned as the first Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia in the presence of Jerimiah, a multitude of Russian clergy and the whole Imperial court.

    Contact between the Lutherans and the Patriarch was initiated in 1574, when two German theologians of Tubingen University sent Jeremiah a Greek translation of the Augsburg Confession (calling it A Confession of the Orthodox Faith)and two homilies on verses from the Gospels of Sts. Luke and John. The Patriarch met this overture with "kindness and paternal love," but made it clear that he rejected the erroneous Lutheran interpretation of the Gospels and sent them the Orthodox meaning of the same verses, stating in conclusion that "nothing but 'Christ the self-truth' could serve as a basis for true faith."

    In a second letter, containing a mere thorough examination of the doctrinal points set forth in the Protestant Confession, Jeremiah stated an essential condition for unity:

     "...since so many and such important of our theologizing Fathers forbid thinking otherwise, there is only one correction: conform to the Holy Synod and follow the canons of the Apostles and thus follow Christ in all things ."

     He concluded by warmly encouraging the Protestants to embrace a true orthodoxy of faith and unite themselves to the Church:

     "O most wise German men and beloved children of our humble self, since as sensible men, you wish with your whole heart to enter our most Holy Church, we as affectionate fathers, willingly accept your love and friendliness, if you follow the Apostolic and Synodical decrees in harmony with us and will submit to them. For then you will indeed be in communion with us, and having openly submitted to our holy and catholic Church of Christ, you will be praised by all prudent men. In this way the two churches will become one by the grace of God..."

     In reply, the Germans claimed to accept the Patriarch's "admonition as wise and paternal,'' but nonetheless insisted that they indeed clung to the true faith set out by the Apostles and God-bearing Fathers and by the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and rejected only innovations in the Faith, including those made--in their opinion--by the Orthodox.

     This set the tone for all the exchanges to follow, and for nearly five years the Patriarch simply set forth and explained the fundamental dogmas of Orthodoxy from a patristic viewpoint, supported by extensive citations from Scripture, while the Germans attempted to instruct the Patriarch in "true Christianity" and in the need to "clarify" and "refine" Tradition according to their view of Scripture. From the correspondence it is clear that the Lutherans would accept no teaching which could not be found in Scripture or deduced from their own presuppositions. In addition, they steadfastly refused to relinquish any heterodox belief which could not be proven to be explicitly  contradicted by or forbidden in Scripture, even if told such b e lie f s were incompatible with Holy Tradition, Clearly, they were interested in Patriarch Jeremiah's response only insofar as it supported their claims to orthodoxy of belief; they were not willing to bring their doctrines into harmony with the Orthodox teaching following the Patriarch's critique.

    The Patriarch was at first quite patient with his Lutheran correspondents, sincerely hoping to win them with kindness, but in the end, when it became obvious they had sought him out, not to be students of the true Faith, but teachers, he ended the dialogue with great firmness, saying:

    "You have dangerously distorted and changed the written teachings of the Old and New Testaments to your own purpose· ..and then call yourselves theologians! -

    "You reckon the invocation of saints, their icons, and their sacred relics as futile.·. Moreover you also reject confession to another. In addition you reject the angelic, monastic life...

    ".. Therefore we request that from henceforth you do not cause us more grief, nor write to us on the same subject if you should wish to treat these luminaries and theologians in a different manner [i.e., than the Orthodox]. You honor and exalt them in words but reject them in deeds .... Therefore, going about your own way, write no further about dogmas, but if you do write, let it be for friendship's sake only."

    For Jeremiah, the criterion of judgment was a true patristic humility, which asks only: how do we see ourselves, the world around us, our Faith, in the light given us by Orthodoxy, by Tradition, by the Fathers. The Germans, having founded their Reformation on a belief in unfallen reason and the all sufficiency of Scripture--which they were therefore free to interpret independently of any Tradition, continued to use both these beliefs as their guiding principles. Therefore they asked themselves nothing more than: how do we see the Church, the Fathers, even God, in the light of our own intelligence and our understanding of Scriptures?

     The same points of doctrine which were such obstacles in the Lutheran dialogue with Patriarch Jeremiah proved to be the undoing of the Non-Jurors' dream of union with Moscow and Constantinople. Largely deprived of rights in England for their refusal to break allegiance to James II and to subscribe to Anglican doctrine under William III, the Non-Jurors thought to win a greater validity through union with the Orthodox Church. But, like the Lutherans, they were secure in their own beliefs whose opposition to various Orthodox teachings held little promise that their dream would be realized. While insisting on their respect for the Holy Fathers-whom they-often quoted in support of their arguments--they rejected, as did the Lutherans-the infallible authority borne equally in the Orthodox Church by Scripture, Tradition and the Seven Councils--all reflecting the authority of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church; they also rejected fasting, the invocation of the saints, the Real Presence and the use of leavened bread in the Eucharistic Sacrament, and monasticism. The Non-Jurors went so far as to ask the Eastern Patriarchs to "rescind" or somehow qualify the Nicean statement concerning the veneration of icons, another teaching with which they were in disagreement.

    The Orthodox hierarchs finally informed their English correspondents that their zeal, though great, was not according to knowledge and that it was no more possible to alter the decrees of the Councils than it was to rewrite the Holy Scriptures.

    The English wrote at great length to the Orthodox, insisting on their right to believe nothing beyond what seemed reasonable to them, asking for concessions or ameliorations of dogma to allow everyone on both sides freedom to believe as they chose within certain rather amorphous limits, i.e., a definition of the Real Presence that would permit them to believe in only a symbolic change and the Orthodox to go on believing in an actual change, etc. [This same insistence in the right to believe only the "reasonable" doctrines of Christianity has today made Anglicanism lose its credibility even among other Protestant bodies. ]

      The Church ordained by the Lord and established by His Apostles is one for all; but the frantic folly of discordant sects has severed them from her. And it is obvious that these dissensions concerning the faith result from a distorted mind which twists the words of Scripture into conformity with its opinion instead of adjusting that opinion to the words of Scripture.

-- St. Hilary On the Trinity Book VII

      Finally, in 1723, the Eastern Patriarchs assembled once more and, among other things, sent a last reply to the English dissenters, telling them that, although they "apprehend the sense and intention of the [Dissenters'] particulars," they "have nothing more to say ·.. than what we had formerly laid before you" (...) "that the doctrines and sentiments of our Eastern Church...have been long since examined and rightly and religiously defined and settled by the Holy and Ecumenical Synods, and that it is neither lawful to add anything to them or take anything from them. And that those who are disposed to agree with us in the divine doctrines of the Orthodox Faith, must necessarily follow and submit to what has been defined and determined by the decision of the Elders and Fathers from the time of the Apostles and their holy Successors the Fathers of our Church to this time. We say, they must submit to them with sincerity and obedience, and without any scruple or dispute. And this is a sufficient answer to what you have written..."

    Following this last long letter little exists except a desultory series of letters between Moscow and London, and after the death of Peter the Great in 1725 the contact seems to lapse altogether·

     Both the Lutheran exchanges with Constantinople, and the English contacts with Moscow, are decorated with effusive sentiments of reverence for, and trust in, the Orthodox hierarchs, as well as their love for the Holy Fathers and their fervent desire to effect re-unions of their respective churches. In spite of this their own standard of truth is based, in each case, on their own opinions and fallen reason. Elder Macarius of Optina summed up what is perhaps the essence of the matter when he wrote: "the Lutherans do possess gold (the Word of God) and silver (men with good dispositions) but.., to this gold and silver they have added so much alloy (reasoning of proud, self-opinionated men) that the alloy has reduced the value not only of the silver but even of the gold. For this they bear responsibility and will have to answer."

    What we see, then, in both dialogues, is a confrontation between the patristic spirit of true Orthodoxy and the spirit of the modern age as identified by that autonomous rationality which later rendered the West increasingly bereft of spiritual fruit. If indeed the Protestants recognized the Orthodox to be that living link with the Apostles, they could have done nothing better than to follow the Patriarch’s invitation and humbly submit to the mind of the Church; instead, they stubbornly preferred to be satisfied with their own invention, leaving intact the obstacles to unity.

     Like the foolish virgins, the Lutherans and the Non-Jurors came to the spiritual banquet of Orthodoxy bereft of the oil of humility, and remained quite unable to enter in to the riches shown them. May future efforts at re-unification--whether individual or corporate-learn from the failures of the past. Now, as then, the true Church of Christ stands willing to receive all who come to Her in humility and love, wishing to be numbered as one her true children. May all those who genuinely thirst for Truth find refreshment in the living springs of Holy Orthodoxy.

Nun Michaila


Mastrontonis, G., Augsburg and Constantinople: The Correspondence Between the Tubingen Theologians and Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople on the Augsburg

Confession; Holy Cross, 1982.

Tsirpanlis, Prof. C., 'A Prosopography of Jeremias Tranos (1536-1595) and His Place in the History of the Eastern Church" in The Patristic and Byzantine Review, Vol. IV, No. 3/1985.

Williams, G., The Orthodox Church of the East in the 18th Century: A Correspondence Between the Eastern Patriarchs and the Non-Juring; Bishops; Rivington Press, Oxford, 1968.