A Question I Was Asked:

'Did the Reformation Only Affect the Western Church?'

The Question:

"I keenly read your articles. In one of your articles you recently said, or I gather this is what you said, that the Protestant Reformation only affected the 'western' established church, what I suppose one could call Roman Catholicism, and its papal authority, but the eastern Church was not affected. I never knew this before, and I find it interesting because the eastern Church must have covered a lot of area, Antioch, Asia Minor and the whole Greek world, for example. Can you expand a little on this please?'

My Reply:

Yes, it was the outrages of the papacy which caused the problems leading to the Protestant Reformation - especially the selling of 'indulgences' and such like. But the eastern Church simply developed into Eastern Orthodoxy completely unhampered by this. As Mark Greengrass states in his online essay (which is here:http://www.gla.ac.uk/centres/tltphistory/protref/intro.htm),

"In the sixteenth century, something important and unique happened to the history of western European Christianity. It did not occur in orthodox Christianity in Russia or what was left of the Byzantine empire in Greece and it is difficult to find appropriate comparisons for it in the other advanced civilizations of Eurasia. It is called the protestant reformation and it was initially an attempt to reform the traditional 'fabric' of the western church. By fabric, we mean not merely the institutions of the church but also the supporting rationale for offering a means of salvation. Protestants sought to change things by using the Bible as the primary authority for doctrine and the early Christian church as an institutional model. In the process, protestants rejected papal authority and (with it) much of the traditional beliefs and practices of the established church."

The fact is that Eastern Orthodoxy had already put a separation between themselves and the papal excesses of the western church and the Eastern Orthodox Church continues to this day in independent fashion, not part of Roman Catholicism but neither part of Protestantism. They claim that they alone are the truly established Church of Jesus Christ (in institutional form, anyway), although they freely accept Christians from other traditions as true believers. Without doubt, they continue to uphold many things which are entirely biblical; their teaching on salvation is more 'open' than that found within Protestantism because Eastern Orthodoxy received comparatively liitle influence from Augustine and almost none, of course, from Calvin. They reject the immaculate conception of Mary; however, they do affirm the perpetual virginity of Mary as well as her bodily assumption. They also give Mary the title "Mother of God," neverthless, May occupies a lower place than within Roman Catholicism. Eastern Orthodoxy should also be congratulated in that that it seems to have enjoyed amazingly harmonious leadership and organisation; my understanding is that their 'patriarchs' only have authority to help, guide and advise local churches, but never to meddle or demand.

But for all its good points, Eastern Orthodoxy appears to have three main problems:

1. State Identity.

Orthodoxy has been very firmly tied in with being a National, or a State Church, as for example, in Greece and Russia. The tradition is so strong that I believe that it is only in north America where one may enter an Orthodox church and even hear an English language sermon. I believe that I am correct in saying that even here in the UK, only Russian or Greek services are available.

2. Heavy Ritual in Services.

The ritualistic aspect of worship is very strong, there is also an encouragement of icons and pictures of various saints which appear to be reverenced. Of course, baptismal regeneration is also upheld as in other Catholic traditions. Focus on liturgy and tradition is very, very strong.

3. It is Unevangelistic.

Christian Orthodoxy appears to do very little evangelistic work anywhere in the world; the focus is much more on keeping the Orthodox tradition strong within families. The fact that it is rare to find Orthodox services which are not conducted in either Greek or Russian really seems to highlight the Orthodox disinterest in evangelism.

Despite these criticisms there are, of course, true Christians within Orthodoxy as within all Christian worship traditions. I find much to admire in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well as certain areas which would make many evangelicals feel uncomfortable.

Robin Brace, 2007.