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Why didn’t the early Reformers more seriously seek reunion with Eastern Orthodoxy after rejecting the excesses and innovations of Western Catholicism?

The Protestant Reformers tried, but it did not work out. The story is intriguing.

Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy had split from each other centuries before, with mutual condemnations in 1054 and the Fourth Crusade of 1204, when Crusaders sacked Constantinople. Desperate attempts by the Byzantine emperor and the leaders of the Orthodox Church to gain reinforcements against the onslaughts of Muslim forces under the Ottoman Turks led to the Council of Florence in 1439. The price Rome demanded for that support was adoption of Roman teachings and practices—a price the Orthodox were unwilling to pay. A few years later, in 1453, Constantinople—without assistance from the West—was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. This much the early Protestants knew. But aside from recognizing a shared opposition to Rome and a common respect for the Church fathers, the early reformers were not familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy itself.

In the 1570s, some Lutheran theologians reached out to Eastern Orthodoxy by writing to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremias II. The Lutherans hoped that Orthodoxy largely agreed with Lutheran views on doctrine and practice. If that proved to be true, then some sort of alliance against Rome might be achieved.

The patriarch wrote back, and a significant period of communication followed. In due course, the patriarch brought an end to the discussions, pointing out that Orthodoxy did not share the views set forth by the Lutherans.

Not long after this, an Orthodox clergyman, Cyril Lucaris, studied theology in Geneva and embraced Reformed teaching. In the early 1600s, he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople. In that office, he attempted to introduce Reformed teaching and practice within Orthodoxy. That endeavor was rejected, and his views were condemned as non-Orthodox in the Confession of Dositheus (also known as The 18 Decrees of the Synod of Jerusalem).

Attempts in the 16th and 17th centuries to draw Protestantism and Eastern Orthodoxy together also failed. Protestant churches and Eastern Orthodoxy would not really begin to develop ecumenical openness toward each other until the 20th century.

Jim Payton is a professor of history at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont., and a member of Ancaster Christian Reformed Church.

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