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 that Eastern Christianity was “the best part of the universal church” and that it could serve as an ally in his opposition to papal authority.

In this spirit, Luther’s colleague Philipp Melanchthon organized the first official contacts with the Orthodox in 1559 by sending the Augsburg Confession (a summary of Lutheran theology) to the patriarch of Constantinople for reply. Unfortunately, no response was given, so the invitation failed. Between 1573 and 1581, Lutheran theologians from Tübingen, Germany, sent the Augsburg Confession again to the new patriarch of Constantinople, Jeremiah II, for a theological assessment. Through a series of written exchanges, both sides showed deep respect and genuine concern for unity. Regrettably, they failed to fully understand the inner rationale of each other’s theology, and Jeremiah abruptly ended the correspondence.

Article continues below

In 1629, Cyril Lukaris, a later patriarch of Constantinople, published his Confession of Faith with strong Calvinist leanings. Although the Confession sought reconciliation with the Protestants, it landed like a bombshell throughout Western Europe because of its clearly Calvinistic theology. Eventually, the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem condemned Lukaris in 1672, restraining Calvinism in the East.

Between the 17th and early 20th centuries, Orthodoxy was infiltrated by Reformation and Counter-Reformation arguments. Instead of theologizing after the traditional manner of the church fathers, the Orthodox often used Protestant arguments against Catholic critiques, and Latin scholasticism to answer Protestant attacks. Mutual suspicion eventually resulted in the East’s condemnation of Luther as the leader of a heresy by the Synod of Constantinople in 1836.

Today, in the 21st century, the mutual suspicion has eased somewhat. Orthodox churches in the United States and the World Council of Churches (WCC) have engaged Protestant communities through the WCC and the recent Lausanne Orthodox Initiative. Yet, the response given by the worldwide Holy and Great Synod of Orthodox churches that convened in Crete in June 2016 revealed hesitation toward theological dialogue with the West while also affirming the churches’ need to restore unity.

Despite this hesitation, there is reason for optimism that a theological reconciliation on topics such as justification by faith alone is possible if both sides are willing to patiently learn from each other’s history and emphases.

An Orthodox Assessment of Sola Fide

Faith alone is a Reformation formula that expresses how we are saved by grace through faith. But “faith alone” is a foreign expression in the patristic vocabulary that shaped Orthodox theology, and therefore the phrase has been rejected as an inadequate expression of how humans are saved. Nevertheless, the intended meaning of the Reformation formula can be recognized as consistent with Eastern Orthodox theology if it is interpreted within the context of the Incarnation and the deification of humans offered through union with the divinized humanity of Christ.

I will focus on Martin Luther since his views on sola fide were largely shared by other Reformers. David Yeago, my dialogue partner in the former Orthodox-Lutheran Dialogue of North America, identifies sola fide as the key Reformation issue, which he sums up this way:

Article continues below

How do we become children of God and receive eternal life? Are Christians striving with the help of grace to acquire God’s favor and be rewarded with eternal life? Or are they struggling to receive and rely on the free gift of God’s favor and eternal life amidst conflict with the world, the flesh, and the devil? Luther thought that the first model carried with it a corrupting anxiety about self that got in the way of love and thankfulness towards God and service to neighbor.

Luther’s opposition to the Roman Catholic system of merit and indulgences was based on concerns about Pelagianism—the belief that humans are the cause of their own salvation. Here Luther was consistent with Orthodox theology, which clearly affirms that good works are the result of saving faith, not its cause. However, Luther’s rejection of “merit” and the opposition between “faith and works” didn’t become contentious within Eastern Christianity largely because of the Eastern Church’s understanding of grace and the Fall.

Eastern theological anthropology sees grace and free will as remaining part of the Trinitarian “image of God” even after the Fall. Therefore, the Orthodox would not say with Luther that humans are born guilty of the sin of Adam. We inherit sin and death, not guilt, from Adam (Rom. 5:12). Nor would we say that our fallen wills cannot turn to God in faith without a prior liberating act of grace, as if grace were entirely absent in fallen humans.

Although the mind is darkened by inherited evil desires and the will is weakened and prone to sin, grace and freedom remain in humans and may still work together without rivalry or opposition. The Council of Jerusalem in 1672 concluded that God “takes not away the power to will—the will to obey or not obey him.” Such is the Orthodox emphasis on synergism, the unequal cooperation between God and humans. In our weakened state, God’s grace infinitely outweighs human response as the two mysteriously work together. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has stated, “We are saved by faith, and not by works; but faith signifies an act of receptiveness on our part, a willingness to accept what God is doing.”

The distinction between the Orthodox doctrine of synergism and Luther’s claim that humans cannot be the cause of their own salvation is clear in their views of monasticism. Luther condemned the monastic asceticism of his day as Pelagian because of its emphasis on “works-righteousness.” The Orthodox would concur, but based on the church’s own ascetic understanding of the relation between faith and works.

Article continues below

A condemnation of “works-righteousness” similar to Luther’s comes from Mark the Ascetic (c. 430–535). Mark was popular in Byzantine monastic circles. His teachings are widely accepted across the centuries and included in an anthology known as The Philokalia. Mark’s treatise titled, “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works” had such a strong emphasis on unmerited grace that Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), a Catholic polemicist, forbade Catholics to read it because he believed it reflected a proto-Protestant perspective.

In Mark’s treatise, good works are not the cause of our acceptance by God, but they are a necessary manifestation of saving faith. Salvation begins through the Spirit’s sacramental work of uniting the believer with Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism (Rom. 6:4–6) and progresses as a lifelong journey of growth in the divine likeness through works of faith and love (known in Orthodoxy as theosis). Although salvation is a “gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast,” we are also “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (Eph. 2:8–10). There is no salvation without obedience (James 2:17).

Faith includes good works, not to earn salvation but as a form of cooperation with grace. Mark explains:

We who have received baptism offer good works, not by way of repayment, but to preserve the purity given to us. . . . When Scripture says “He will reward every man according to his works” (Mt. 16:27), do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or the kingdom. On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself: and He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer.

Another area where Luther converges with Orthodoxy is the grounding of justification by faith in Chalcedonian Christology. Professor Yeago asserts that Luther “demonstrates very powerfully the determination of the soteriological by the Christological,” on occasion virtually identifying justification with Christological dogma. Although Luther doesn’t normally identify justification with Christology, his link provides a bridge for Orthodox agreement. Our salvation is not just a transaction that imputes the righteousness of God to our account, it is bound up with the very person of Christ. This comports well with Orthodoxy’s doctrine of theosis as expressed by Athanasius: “For he [Christ] was made man that we might be made God.”

Article continues below

Justification and sanctification are linked together in baptism “as one divine action . . . one continuous process,” according to the common statement by the Lutheran-Orthodox Dialogue in North America (see 1 Cor. 6:11). Following the Sixth Ecumenical Council (680), the Orthodox maintain that cooperation between the divine and human wills in Christ becomes ours by participating in the vicarious humanity of Christ. Our will is healed through union with his will. In the very act of taking human flesh and living obediently to the Father, he acts in our place and on our behalf so that his obedient will may be given to us by faith. As Gregory of Nazianzus explained, “Whatever is not assumed [by Christ] is not healed.”

Communion in Faith

Sola fide was a rallying cry of the Reformation, but its meaning no longer needs to be a church-dividing issue between historic Protestants and the Orthodox. The discussions and decisions of the past can be re-examined today with more informed negotiations free from awkward encounters and inhospitable historical conditions.

Modern evangelical children of Luther are challenged to re-examine how fully they have integrated Chalcedonian Christology in their understanding of justification as primarily an act of imputed righteousness. Justification is not only accomplished by Christ on the cross but is first given through union with Christ’s justified humanity, which he restored to communion with the Father.

Likewise, the challenge for the Orthodox is to move beyond our past partial understandings of Luther’s teachings on grace and justification. If Christ, not justification, is the content of Luther’s gospel, and justification is grounded in union with Christ on the basis of the Incarnation, then the Orthodox would have trouble disagreeing.

The main ecumenical challenge facing both the Orthodox and Protestant traditions is the paradox of schism itself: We are “separated brethren.” Yet, the noun weighs as heavily as the adjective. Our separation must not minimize our unity in Christ.

Bradley Nassif is professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University. His latest book is coedited with Brock Bingaman, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford University Press).

Are we right about this? Off the mark? Share your feedback here.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.