Approaching Wittenberg from the East

This year, the end of the present month of October will mark a full half-millennium since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the entrance doors of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, sparking the Protestant Reformation. Many have begun to commemorate this event throughout the world. For Protestants, it offers an opportunity to reflect on the many positive achievements of the Reformation. Many Roman Catholics and Roman Catholic publications have also joined in, noting the historically momentous and undeniably profound contribution of the Reformation upon modern Christianity. But where have the Orthodox been in this commemoration? 

The discussion of the significance of 1517 has been limited to, in fact locked within, the Protestant-Roman Catholic interpretive circle of modern western Christendom. Protestants have seen it as the dawn of renewal of pure Christianity, modeling that of the Apostles. Needless to say, the Roman Catholic view has been less triumphalistic. In a book published several years ago, for instance, Brad Gregory challenged the legacy of the Protestant Reformation by tracing the genealogy of our modern secular society back to it. Entitled The Unintended Reformation, his work identified numerous ways in which Protestantism unintentionally contributed to the decline of Christianity within the cultural framework of the west.

What has mostly been missing in the celebration of Protestantism’s five-hundred-year anniversary is an eastern perspective. Very few Orthodox commentators have arisen to offer their evaluation of the event. Indeed, the place of eastern Christianity in debates about the Reformation–as in other matters related to modern Christianity–has always been limited. Roman Catholicism and Protestantism have appeared throughout most of the past centuries as the only viable options to consider.

Even at the dawn of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, both parties saw little reason to consult the east as they struggled fiercely against one another. The second generation of Lutheran divines at Tübingen were an exception. They reached out in a moment of uncharacteristic curiosity to Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II of Constantinople (d. 1595) to ask him questions about the Orthodox Church’s position on reformed doctrine. After a cordial exchange of initial letters, however, they were asked to desist in such a fruitless exchange. Roman Catholics had a much more organic connection to the Orthodox in Central Europe and might be expected to have gained more from the east. But after subjugating  formerly Orthodox congregations to the papacy through the Union of Brest in 1596, they too would loose interest in and respect for eastern Christianity for nearly four centuries, until the Second Vatican Council brought the east back into view.

What would an eastern perspective on the Protestant Reformation look like? Two books that offer one are Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy by Andrew Stephen Damick and Rock and Sand by Josiah Trenham. Their authors are American Orthodox priests who began their lives as Protestants, and they offer many fresh insights into the Reformation.

What I would like to do in my own blog posts that follow is to explore some of the cultural consequences of the Protestant Reformation that began five centuries ago this month. To borrow Brad Gregory’s phrase, I will argue that in many cases they were indeed unintended. However, going beyond the Protestant-Roman Catholic divide, I will also argue that the character of western Christendom had been fundamentally altered long before Martin Luther came to the church doors of Wittenberg in 1517.


Entrance doors of All Saints Church, Wittenberg (Luther’s Ninety-Five These are engraved on their surface).


Those doors, like others throughout Christendom, were part of an architecture of orientation, of “facing eastward.” They were located in the western part of the church building, and indeed the event they symbolize has usually been seen from a western perspective.


Altar of All Saints Church, Wittenberg

But the altar table to which they led was located in the easternmost part of the church. It is from that direction that I will approach Wittenberg and the religious history of the west that followed the momentous event modern Christendom commemorates this month.


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