Luther Had His Chance

It was inevitable that, sooner or later, the Protestant Churches, protesting against Roman autocracy, should seek to find out about a Church which had made such a protest from the earliest times.

Martin Luther's chief interest in the Eastern Question lay in the belief, which he shared with many of his evangelical contemporaries, and with many of the Greeks themselves before the fall of Constantinople, that the end of the world was near and that the Grand Turk was Antichrist: though he had an alternative candidate in the person of the Pope ...

Luther himself was a reactionary in temperament, disliking the spirit of the Renaissance. But his leading disciples were children of the Renaissance. The most distinguished of them, Philip Melanchthon, had been professor of Greek at Wittenberg and was deeply interested in Hellenism. His interest extended to the contemporary Greeks; and he thought that it would be valuable to establish a friendly understanding with the Greek Church.1

The difficulty was to find out how to make contact with the Greeks. The only European powers in diplomatic relations with the Ottoman Empire were Catholic: Venice, France, and the Habsburg dominions. It was, he thought, through Venice, with its colony of Greek scholars, its Greek possessions and its lack of religious intolerance that an approach could best be made, particularly if a Greek scholar could be found there who was in touch with the East and had not joined the Roman faith ...

But rather more than a year earlier he had received at Wittenberg an elderly cleric from Montenegro called Demetrius, who came with an introduction from James Basilicus. Nothing is known of Demetrius' early history. He was already an old man when he met James in Moldavia in 1558. Demetrius made an excellent impression in Lutheran circles. Melanchthon liked him; and Nicholas Hemmingius wrote in a letter that he was an old man of exemplary piety and admirable morals, whose claim to be a deacon was undoubtedly genuine, though the Lutherans could not check up on this; he was certainly full of erudition about his Church. Here was a heaven-sent agent for achieving the desired contact with Constantinople. In order that the Orthodox might be properly informed about the Reformed religion, the Confession of Augsburg, which summarized Lutheran belief, was hastily but ably translated into Greek by a learned Hellenist, Paul Dolscius of Plauen, and a copy was given to Demetrius to deliver to the Patriarch together with a personal letter from Melanchthon, which barely touched upon doctrine but suggested that the Lutheran and Greek Churches had much in common.2

Demetrius left on his journey late in 1559. Melanchthon died before an answer could have easily been returned, but his fellow-divines waited for many more months for news from Constantinople. At last they decided that Demetrius could not have delivered the letter. In fact he arrived at Constantinople at the end of 1559 and was received by the Patriarch, but the documents that he brought embarrassed Joasaph and the Holy Synod. A brief glance at the Confession of Augsburg showed that much of its doctrine was frankly heretical, but it would be undesirable to spoil relations with a potential friend. The Patriarch and his advisers took refuge in the favorite device of oriental diplomacy. They behaved as if they had never received the communication, which they carefully mislaid.3 Demetrius waited for two or three months for a reply to carry back to Wittenberg. When none was forthcoming he did not venture to return to Germany. He moved to Transylvania, where he spent three years trying to introduce Lutheranism into its villages, encouraged by James Basilicus. After James' fall he carried on his propaganda in the Slav dominions of the Habsburg Emperor. The date of his death is unknown.4

The subsequent events in Moldavia must have confirmed Joasaph in his suspicion of the Lutherans. Some fifteen years later the atmosphere improved. The Habsburg Emperors employed a number of Lutheran officials. In about 1570 an Imperial Ambassador arrived at Constantinople who was a Protestant, David von Ungnad; and he brought with him as chaplain an eminent Lutheran scholar, Stephen Gerlach, who was in close touch with the Lutheran universities in Germany. Gerlach soon made friends with the learned Protonotary of the Great Church, Theodore Zygomalas, who introduced him to the Patriarch Jeremias II, then in his first term of office. In return he put Zygomalas into touch with the leading professor of Greek in Germany, Martin Kraus, or Crusius, of Tübingen, a man interested not only in Classical Greek but also in the Greek world of his time. Through Zygomalas, Crucius entered into correspondence with the Patriarch Jeremias, whom he greatly admired.5

When such friendships were established it was natural for the Lutherans to press again for closer ecclesiastical relations with the Greeks. In 1574 Ungnad was prompted by Gerlach to write to Germany to ask for fresh copies of the Confession of Augsburg. In reply six copies were sent out by Crusius and Jacob Andreae, Chancellor of the University of Tübingen. One was to be given to the Patriarch, one to Zygomalas, one to Metrophanes, Metropolitan of Berrhoea, one to the scholar Gabriel Severus, and one to the rich layman, Michael Cantacuzenus, who had promised to have it translated into vernacular Greek. A copy translated into Georgian was dispatched a little later, for transmission to the Orthodox Church of Georgia in the Caucasus. To the Patriarch's copy the Lutheran divines added a letter, in which they said that, though because of the distance between their countries there was some difference in their ceremonies, 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.6

What the Georgians thought of the Confession of Augsburg, if their copy ever reached them, is unrecorded. To the Greeks it was as embarrassing as it had been fifteen years previously. Cantacuzenus did nothing about its translation into the vernacular. But Jeremias could not ignore the Confession as Joasaph had done. Von Ungnad and Gerlach were close at hand, pressing for an answer. After a little hesitation Jeremias wrote a polite letter of thanks to Tubingnen, promising to send a statement on doctrinal points a little later. These delaying tactics were in vain; Gerlach continued to ask for his views. At last, after consulting with the Holy Synod, the Patriarch, with the help of Zygomalas and his father, John, composed a full answer to the various points in the Confession. The letter was dated 15 May 1576.

The Confession of Augsburg contains twenty-one articles. 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.

The first article states the Nicene Creed to be the basis of the true faith. The Patriarch naturally concurred, but pointed out that the Creed should be accepted in its correct form, omitting the Dual Procession of the Holy Ghost, an addition which, as he explains at length, was canonically illegal and doctrinally unsound.

In the original Confession the second article proclaims original sin, the third is a summary of the Apostles' Creed and the fourth declares that man is justified by faith alone. In the Greek version the second and third articles change place; which is more logical. The Patriarch's second chapter therefore deals with the Creed. While approving of the Germans' summary he adds for their benefit twelve amplifying articles which, he says, contain the traditional doctrine of the Church. Three concern the Trinity, six the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Redemption, and three the life hereafter. He gives further glosses to these and appends a list of the seven cardinal virtues-he actually gives eight-and the seven deadly sins.

On original sin, the Patriarch takes the opportunity of pointing out that baptism should be by triple immersion and not by aspersion, and should be followed by chrismation. The baptismal practice of the Latins is, he says, incorrect.

In his fourth chapter, on justification by faith alone, the Patriarch points out, quoting Basil, that grace will not be given to those who do not live virtuous lives. He amplifies his views in his fifth and sixth chapters. In the Confession, the fifth article says that faith must be fed with the help of the Holy Scriptures and the Sacraments, and the sixth that faith must bear fruit in good works, though it repeats that good works alone will not bring salvation. Jeremias takes for granted the doctrine given in the fifth article, and uses the chapter to continue his previous argument. The Sermon on the Mount lists virtues that will bring salvation without any reference to faith. Faith without works is not true faith. In the sixth article he warns the Germans not to presume on grace nor despair of it. He makes it clear that he disapproves of anything that might suggest predestined election.

The seventh article of the Confession declares that the Church is one and eternal, and the sign of its unity is that the Gospel shall be rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered. So long as this is fulfilled, differences in ritual and ceremonial do not impair its unity. Jeremias agrees; but he goes on to talk about the Sacraments. Suspecting that the Lutherans held baptism and the Eucharist to be the only Sacraments, he insists that there are at least seven Sacraments.

Jeremias concurred with the eighth and ninth articles in the Confession. The former says that Sacraments do not lose their validity even when administered by evil priests. The latter recommends infant baptism, so that the child may be at once qualified to receive grace.

The tenth article was more controversial. It says that the body and blood of Christ are truly present at the Lord's Supper and are distributed to those who participate in it; and those who teach otherwise are condemned. So far the Patriarch could agree. But he may have learned that the original German version of the Confession added the words "in the form of the bread and the wine," words omitted in the Latin and Greek versions. He asks for further details, saying: "for we have heard of certain things about your views, of which it is impossible for us to approve." The doctrine of the Holy Church, he maintains, is that at the Lord's Supper the bread is changed into the very body of Christ and the wine into His very blood. He adds that the bread must be leavened, not unleavened. He points out that Christ did not say "This is bread," or even "This is the figure of my body," but "This is My body." It would indeed be blasphemy to say that the Lord gave to His disciples the flesh that He bore to eat or the blood in His veins to drink, or that He descends physically from heaven when the mysteries are celebrated. It is, he says, by the grace and invocation of the Holy Spirit, which operates and consummates the change, and by our sacred prayers and by the Lord's own words that the bread and wine are transformed and transmuted into the very flesh and blood of Christ.

Jeremias is here making three points. In two of them he considered that the Lutherans were following the errors of the Latins. The Greeks, faithful to the traditions of the early Church, had long disapproved of the Latin use of unleavened bread, which seemed to them to mar the symbolism of the Sacrament; for the leaven symbolizes the new dispensation. Then Jeremias touches delicately on the Epiklesis, the invocation of the Holy Ghost which to the Greeks completed the change in the elements. They could not condone the Latin omission of the Epiklesis. On the actual question of the change in the elements Jeremias is cautious. He avoids the word which is the exact Greek translation of "transubstantiation." The words that he uses do not necessarily imply material change. He does not explain the exact nature of the change, leaving it, rather, as a divine mystery. But the Lutheran view that though Christ's body and blood were present at the Sacrament there was no change in the elements seemed to him inadequate.

The eleventh article of the Confession advocates the use of private confession, though it is not absolutely necessary; nor can one enumerate all one's petty sins. The Patriarch agrees but thinks that more should be said about the value of confession as spiritual medicine and as leading to true acts of penitence. It must be remembered that to him the act of penitence ranked as a sacrament.

The twelfth article teaches that sinners who have lapsed from grace can receive it again if they repent. It disavows both the Anabaptist view that the saved can never fall from grace and the Novatian view that the lapsed can never recover it. The Patriarch concurs but adds that repentance must be shown by works.

The thirteenth article declares the Sacraments to be proofs of God's love for men and should be used to stimulate and confirm faith. This seems a little crude to Jeremias, who stresses the need for the Liturgy as providing the necessary framework for the Sacraments, the whole divine drama which gives them their spiritual value.

To the fourteenth, which states that only ordained priests should preach or administer the Sacraments, the Patriarch agrees, so long as the ordination has been correctly performed and the hierarchy canonically organized. He clearly doubted whether this was the case with the Lutheran Church.

The fifteenth article pleased him less. It approves of such rites and festivals as are conducive to giving peace and order to the Church but denies that any of them are necessary for salvation or provide the means for acquiring grace. To the Greek Church, with its full calendar of feasts and fasts, such teaching was distressing. The Patriarch, quoting at length from the early Fathers, emphasizes that these holy days and the ceremonies attached to them are lasting reminders of the life of Christ on earth and of the witness of the saints. To deny them any spiritual value is narrow-minded and wrong.

He concurs with the sixteenth article, which says that it is not contrary to the Gospel to obey civil magistrates or to engage in warfare if they should order it. He adds that one should remember, all the same, that obedience to the laws of God and to His ministers is a higher duty, and that no true Christian seeks for worldly power.

He concurs also with the seventeenth article, which foretells the coming of Christ to judge the world and to reward the faithful with eternal life and punish the wicked with eternal torment. He seems to have been unperturbed by the implied denial of the doctrine of Purgatory.

The eighteenth article deals with free will. The Lutherans maintained that, while a man may by the exercise of free will lead a good life, it will avail him nothing unless God gives him grace. This is too close to the doctrine of complete predestination for the Patriarch, who points out, with long quotations from John Chrysostom, that only those freely willing to be saved can be saved. Good deeds conform with the grace of God, but that grace is withdrawn concurrently with an evil deed.

The nineteenth article, declaring that God is not the cause of evil in this world, is perfectly acceptable. The twentieth returns to the problem of faith and works, repeating that, though good works are necessary and indispensable, and it is a libel to say that the Lutherans ignore them, yet they cannot purchase the remission of sins without faith and its accompanying grace. 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 Patriarch was especially shocked by the twenty-first and last article, which says that, while congregations should be told of the lives of the saints as examples to be followed, it is contrary to the Scriptures to invoke the saints as mediators before God. Jeremias, after citing the special powers given by Christ to the disciples, answers that true worship should indeed be given to God alone, but that the saints, and above all, the Mother of God, who by their holiness have been raised to heaven, may lawfully and helpfully be invoked. We can ask the Mother of God, owing to her special relationship, to intercede for us and the archangels and angels to pray for us; and all the saints may be asked for their mediation. It is a sign of humility that we sinners should be shy of making a direct approach to God and should seek the intervention of mortal men and women who have earned salvation.

Jeremias ended his letter with a supplementary chapter, stressing five points. First, he insists again that leavened bread should be used at the Eucharist. Secondly, while he approves of the marriage of secular clergy, the regular clergy should take vows of celibacy and should keep to them. Thirdly, he emphasized once more the importance of the Liturgy. Fourthly, he repeats that the remission of sin cannot be attained except through confession and the act of penitence, to which he attaches sacramental importance. Finally, and at great length, he gives arguments in support of the institution of monasteries and the taking of monastic vows. Many mortals, he admits, are unfitted to bind themselves to a life of asceticism; and if they lead good lives according to their abilities, they too can reach salvation. But it is, he thinks, a better thing to be ready to forswear the world and to devote one's life to the disciplined service of God; and for this end monasticism provides the proper means.

His final paragraph is written in a mixture of humility and condescension. "And so, most learned Germans," he writes, "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."7

His reply reached Germany in the summer of 1576. The German divines detected in it a certain lack of enthusiasm. Crusius arranged a meeting with the theologian Lucius Osiander; and together they composed an answer in which the points to which the Patriarch seemed to object were elucidated and justified. They confined themselves to doctrines mentioned in the Confession of Augsburg and therefore did not touch on matters such as leavened bread, the Liturgy or even monasticism. They attempted to show that their view on justification by faith was not really so very different from the Patriarch's; and they repeated at some length the Lutheran view that, though Christ's flesh and blood were present at the Lord's Supper, there was no material change in the elements. They made it clear that they believed in only two Sacraments and that they could not admit the propriety of invoking the saints.

Their letter was written in June 1577, but it probably only reached Constantinople in the course of the following year. Once again Jeremias tried to avoid sending an answer, but Gerlach was still in Constantinople, pressing for one. Gerlach left to return to Germany in the spring of 1579. In May, Jeremias sent off at last a further statement of his views. His tone was now a little less conciliatory. He pointed out clearly and at greater length the doctrines which the Orthodox Church could not accept. It could not admit the Dual Procession of the Holy Ghost. In spite of what the Lutherans claimed, their views on free will and on justification by faith were not Orthodox and were in the Patriarch's opinion too crude. While admitting that the Sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist ranked above the others, the Patriarch insisted that there were sacraments. He repeated that it was correct to invoke the saints and added that respect should be paid to holy images and relics.

A committee of Lutheran divines, including Crusius, Andreae, Osiander and Gerlach, met at Wurttemberg to compose a further reply, which was dispatched in June 1580. Its tone was very conciliatory. When not yielding on any points, it tried to suggest that the doctrinal differences between the Churches on justification by faith, on free will and on the change in the elements at the Lord's Supper were only matters of terminology, and that other differences could perhaps be treated as differences in ritual and usage.

The Germans had to wait for an answer. Jeremias had been deposed in November 1579, and did not return to office till September 1580. Some months elapsed before he could settle down to compose an answer. It was eventually sent in the summer of 1581. He briefly recapitulated the points of disagreement, then begged for the correspondence to cease. "Go your own way," he wrote, "and do not send us further letters on doctrine but only letters written for the sake of friendship." In spite of this, the Lutheran committee sent one more letter, almost identical with their last. The Patriarch did not reply to it.


1. For Melanchthon's attitude towards the Greeks see E. Benz, Die Ostkirche im Lichte der Protestantischen Geschichtsschreibung, pp. 17-20.

2. Benz, Wittenberg und Byzanz, pp. 94ff., giving the text of Melanchthon's letter.

3. Ibid. pp. 71-2: J. N. Karmiris, _______________, p. 36.

4. Benz, Wittenberg und Byzanz, pp. 73ff.

5. For Ungnad and Gerlach see E. Benz, Die Ostkirche im Licht der Protestantischen Geschichtsschreibung, pp. 24-9. Gerlach's very discursive Tagebuch was not published until after his death; but Crusius in his Turco-Graecia frequently cites Gerlach as the sources of information. Jeremias II spoke no Western European language. When Phillippe Du Fresne visited him in 1573, Theodore Zygomalas and his father were present to act as interpreters. P. du Fresne Canaye, Voyage du Levant (ed. M. H. Hauser). pp. 106-8.

6. Benz, Wittenberg und Byzanz, pp. 94ff.

7. It was this letter which gives Jeremias II's fullest statement on doctrine together with the Lutheran arguments that he was answering, that the Jesuit Sokolowski published in 1582, thus obliging the Lutherans to publish the whole correspondence.

An Excerpt from Stephen Runciman's The Great Church in Captivity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968). This article was originally reprinted in Volume 3 of The Christian Activist (now defunct).