Make no mistake: The absence of the Orthodox Church in the Reformation debates of the 16th century is one of the great tragedies of Christian history. What might have happened if Orthodox churches had been party to the theological controversies that dominated 16th-century Europe?
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation provides an occasion for assessing Eastern Orthodox and Protestant attempts at unity on the key Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). Is a consensus possible between the Reformers and the Orthodox Church on this central tenet, which Luther described as “the article by which the church stands or falls?” As an Orthodox theologian, I think the answer is yes, but only if Christ, not justification, is the core of the Christian gospel.
A Dialogue of Fits and Starts
In the 16th century, both East and West were embroiled in all-consuming issues that stunted effective theological dialogue, especially on issues like justification by faith alone. While Catholics and Protestants were undergoing the most turbulent revolution in the history of Western Christianity, the Orthodox Church was trying to survive repressive conditions under Islamic rule in Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
The first positive theological overture came from none other than Martin Luther himself. During the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, Luther defended himself against papal theologian Johann Eck’s accusation that Luther’s views of the papacy had become schismatic or even heretical like those of the Eastern churches. Luther cited Orthodoxy’s unbroken continuity with the great church fathers over the previous 1,400 years to argue that they were not heretical. In fact, Luther stated ...1