Why Didn’t the Reformation Happen in the East?

My icon of St. Nicholas of Myra that I purchased in an Orthodox Monastery in Serbia

Has anyone asked the following question: why didn’t the so called Reformation happen in the East?  Why didn’t it happen in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Armenia and other Eastern Countries that call themselves Christian.  This is something that I’ve thought about for a long time and I believe that I’ve found the answer.

In the year 1500, the West was all Catholic under the Church which was governed by the Pope of Rome.  A few decades later, many nations abandoned the Catholic Church for various Protestant groups.  In my previous posts I mentioned that this happened because of a rise in nationalism.  Various groups wanted to  have a local Church that they could relate to rather than have a Universal Church headquartered in a far away land.  Monarchs and Dukes didn’t want their bishops to answer to the Roman Pope, but they wanted their own autonomy.  National Churches won out in England, Scotland, Scandinavia, many Swiss cantons and most of the Germany principalities.

Let’s look out East.  What do we see?  We have three Eastern Churches and all of them claimed apostolic succession.  These are the Orthodox Church, the Monophysites, and the Nestorian Church.  The Nestorian Church ceased to be a force in the 13th Century as Tamerlane destroyed much of their holdings in Central Asia.  They were reduced to Iran and Iraq at this point.  In other words, they were a minority under Islam.  Much of the Orthodox and Monophysite Churches were under Islam as well.  When one is a minority religion there is more of a survival instinct and not a reforming instinct.

However, why didn’t the Orthodox Churches that weren’t under Islamic control have a reformation?  Churches such as Russia, Romania and others.  The answer is simple.  They already had national Churches.  The Orthodox Church doesn’t have one head like the Catholics in the Pope, but has a body of governing Patriarchs.  It’s technically not one Church but a family of Churches.  These Churches all have the same doctrine but they have multiple and equal administrative centers so there was no fear of alienation.  If you lived far away from a certain Patriarch of Metropolitan, you lived close to another one.  One who spoke your language, had your customs and that you could relate to.  There was no need to start what was already in existence.

This actually makes a lot of sense.  The reason that Protestantism is splintered into many factions and the Orthodox Churches are a family of Churches under one doctrine is that the Protestants adopted the doctrine of Sola Scriptura since they had no pre-existing Church to interpret the Scriptures for them.  Orthodoxy didn’t have that problem since they didn’t have this doctrine.

Also, when I say that nationalism caused the reformation, I’m not saying that Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale and others didn’t care about Scripture and doctrine.  They certainly did.  However, one person preaching their own ideas didn’t get them anywhere without support from the local monarch.  If he liked your movement and wanted a national Church, the state promoted you.  If your movement wasn’t liked, then the state would crush you like it did in the medieval era.

The fact that politics has often had a hand in Church affairs is quite disturbing.  I’m currently reading the biography of Pope Gregory VII, one of the greatest Popes who ever lived.  During the 11th century, if a powerful monarch of Europe didn’t like the Pope, they didn’t promote a heretic to start a national Church, they just created an anti-Pope and promoted him against the true Pope.  It never worked but it would wreak havoc and run interference across Europe.  This is what Emperor Henry IV did against Pope Gregory VII.  This also happened during the reign of Pope Nicholas II, and Pope Alexander II who were the predecessors of Gregory VII.

I will end this post with one quote from Scripture and one quote from a Pope.

St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Ephesians the following:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

One thing about the Reformation national Churches is that they weren’t of one faith.  As I mentioned, this is where Sola Scritpura came in.  As I previously mentioned, the Orthodox Church didn’t embrace this so they can properly claim one faith.

The last quote is a statement that was condemned in the Syllabus of Errors of Pope Pius IX:

National churches, withdrawn from the authority of the Roman pontiff and altogether separated, can be established.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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8 thoughts on “Why Didn’t the Reformation Happen in the East?

  1. Hi Allan,

    Well, I was wondering if you would talk critically about Catholic Church ecclesiology. I thought you might say something directly about conciliarism. Well, ostensibly it seems conciliarism is fine since the Eastern church’s doctrinal unity was sufficient to protect them from the inimical effects of the Reformation.

    Yes, the Reformation had a strong political dimension to it, and it could have not have succeeded without political support. German princes who wanted more autonomy allied themselves with Luther.

    I suppose in Islam it is similar (regarding fiqh). There is an ijma (consensus) of the ulama (scholars) that pass rulings on various issues. There is no central authority that grants the ulama any theological legitimacy; the legitimacy of the judgments/positions of any scholar/sheikh is probably based on his knowledge and the perception that he is willing to serve the ummah for the sake of Allah, subhanuhu wa ta’ala.

    Graham E. Fuller said Islam was theologically lean (concerning aqeeda, or creed). It does not have complex Christology and soteriology; it, for the most part, is just monotheism and various rituals and etiquette (to emulate the prophet, sallahu alayhi wa salaam). I suppose that makes Sunni Islam fairly resistant to the proliferation of various theological doctrines, even though it does not have a centralized authority.

    • Hi Latias,

      Conciliarism only works for them because they have a Catholic foundation. If you look at the Monophysite situation in the 5th Century and early sixth, the entire Eastern Church would have been Monophysite if it weren’t for Pope Leo and some subsequent Popes. About 75% stayed with Chalcedonian Christology because of the Papacy. Also, on non-Christological issues, there is a lot of confusion in the Eastern Church. If you read Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Church it talks a lot about sacraments. If I convert to the Orthodox Church will I have to be re-baptized? It depends on what country you’re living in, in what century. Today ROCOR and the Athonite monks support re-baptism of converts while other Orthodox Jurisdictions don’t. In other words, they have fairly stable doctrinal unity. It’s infinitely more united than the Protestant Churches but not nearly as much as Catholicism.

      Regarding what you said about Islam being theologically lean, is that what attracted you? You mentioned that you were Catholic at one point. Did you feel that you were being boggled down by Doctrine and Creeds and you just wanted simple worship of God accompanied with certain specific rituals?

      • Allan,

        as salamu alaykum

        I was busy for the last few days. I think I wrote ~9,000 words in about three days.

        I would say that during my last two years as a “Catholic”, I just felt numb and disillusioned for a variety of reasons. I really didn’t pray or even receive* Holy Communion (for two years) or go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I honestly did not think about the Trinity, Christology, or soteriology on a deep level at all. I just felt betrayed by the Church (as an institution).

        (*I originally typed “take”)

        However, Catholicism gave me no consolation at all, but I honestly tried to retain my faith by expressing my struggles with a Catholic confidant. I think hearing a speech at someone’s shadada gave me immense respect for the deen (religion) although I then had no desire to be a Muslim. (Someone was invited to give a speech for that event.) I was actually happy for that woman who said it then, since it reminded me why I became a Catholic, even though I wasn’t yet a Muslim. That speech actually inspired me to maintain my Catholic faith (however weak it is) and try to persevere for a short while, but while I was hearing it, I assessed that my disillusionment in the Church wasn’t my fault.

        I also remember hearing from another earlier event that there was no original sin in Islam, and human nature is inherently good. I actually viewed that positively.

        I think my intellectual engagement with Islam comes from watching a bunch of Jonathan Brown videos on YouTube out of intellectual curiosity. But the MSAers gave me a more emotional, personal, and political dimension to it. I honestly don’t think I would be inspired to do salat unless I see others doing it. I simply found their piety inspiring.

        This is somewhat related to this although not in an obvious way. What do you know about the Battle of Leyte Gulf?

        • Hi Latias,

          Thank you for sharing your story. I bet it’s not easy to do so. You mentioned in your comments ” it reminded me why I became a Catholic”. You were a convert I suppose? Anyways, you don’t need to elaborate here but I’m at least glad I now know some of your backstory. If you have any questions about me, feel free to ask.

          The Battle of Leyte Gulf? All I know is that it’s a naval battle in WWII. I’ve never studied the Pacific Theatre of World War II much. Recently I’ve been reading on Amelia Earhart and how she may have been captured by the Empire of Japan and executed on Saipan but that was pre-war.

          I have a good friend who reads this blog who’s a huge military geek. If I have any military questions, I ask him. He’s like a military encyclopedia.

          As for me, I’m not too familiar with the details of the battle. Is it outlined in “Sea of Thunder” which you previously mentioned? I just ordered the book yesterday btw.

          Also, good luck on any remaining essays or exams.

          God Bless,

          • as salamu alaykum.

            Yes, Sea of Thunder is largely about the battle, although it touches on other aspects of the Pacific Theater. It is more about the commanders and the men of the battle on both sides. I also read the transcripts of the interrogations of some Japanese officers concerning the battle.

            It seems odd for me to actually have a somewhat comprehensive knowledge of the Pacific Theater and Eastern Front. (I also know some stuff about the American Civil War, and at least the names of some battles in the American Revolutionary War and the North American 1812 [I have to say that so it would be confused with Russian history].) There are a few men that I have met that have some interest in that. I don’t think most men (Muslim or otherwise) know what the Battle of Midway is.

            I really envisioned my last years as a Catholic as the Imperial Japanese Navy after Midway. I just felt I was at a disadvantage. It is an appropriate metaphor.

          • Hi Latias,

            Ah okay. I’m actually somewhat familiar with the Battle of the Midway and it’s affect in the Pacific War. I do understand your metaphor. The tide had turned and it was a slow defeat over the course of several years.

            Thanks again for sharing your story.

            Also, are you a history student? You seem to know quite a bit. Or is it just a hobby?

            God Bless,

          • Allan,

            as salamu alaykum

            I would say that I am in the most male-dominated field of liberal arts. The MSAers really don’t study the liberal arts. I think there is only two other people who associated with the liberal arts that attended an MSA meeting. The MSA brothers are mostly STEM majors.

            There were three others who were in International Relations last year, but they are gone now.

            I mostly read the work of dead white guys. I like some fat Scottish dude, and he didn’t have that many kind words towards Islam or “Mahometanism”.

          • Hi,

            Okay gotcha. I remember that most of the MSA when I went to University were in Comp Sci.

            We have something in common. We both read the work of dead white guys, though mine are Catholic Saints.