36. Protestant Reformation, Part 2 – Where Luther was right, Where he went wrong, and What it all led to

To my surprise, I am impressed with Martin Luther. He made big mistakes, as don’t we all? and he was headstrong, as aren’t we all sometimes? But I think his intentions were honorable, his heart was good, and much of what went wrong with the Protestant Reformation (which was a whole lot) was not Luther’s fault. However, some of it was.

Or at least that’s what I think, as follows:

1 Papal intransigence

Did the late medieval Roman Catholic Church need reforming? Desperately. I wrote last time of how it had largely covered up the Gospel, the genuine Tradition with what in seminary we used to call “medieval corruptions”, legalisms and blind obedience instead of the Good News of God’s love and Christ’s triumph over death, substituting the God “who is good and loves mankind” with a lesser god who was required by “justice” to condemn his children to hell. Not to mention astonishingly immoral behavior among especially the higher clergy. Luther was right to rebel against this. That the Roman Catholic Church was not open to reform was not Martin Luther’s fault. He tried.

2 “Sola Scriptura”

In Luther’s time the Roman Catholic Church was making little use of the Scriptures, which allowed their “tradition” to become badly deformed. Was Luther right in his rediscovery of the centrality of the Holy Scriptures? Absolutely. That’s why in Orthodox churches the book of the Holy Gospels is placed permanently at the center of our Holy Table at the center of our Altar – In western terms the center of the “altar” in the “sanctuary”. His translating of the New Testament into German combined with the use of “modern media” (the printing press) made it possible for the first time for laypeople to have direct access to the Scriptures – a wonderful thing. But we all know it is easy to bounce from one extreme to the other, which is what Luther did: he proclaimed Bible alone, “Sola Scriptura”. How could he have missed the obvious? (1)The Bible had never stood alone. The Church and her Tradition had come first: the community, the oral remembrance of Christ, what he did and what he said, the apostolic ministry, the sacraments, the Christian “way” of living. From within that context, the New Testament was written. (2) “Sola Scriptura” is a teaching never found in the Scriptures! (3) Luther believed that the Bible was “self-interpreting”, that all would read it the same way. Wrong. Oh, how wrong! If the Scriptures are not guided by the Tradition of the Church, they can mean anything to anyone, as past history should have made clear to him. Had he never heard of Arius? This was Luther’s fault. If only he had been guided by the Church’s living Tradition…

3 “Faith alone”

Another example of going to the opposite extreme: The Roman Catholic Church had fallen into salvation by works, by following laws. Luther, reading Galatians 2:16-20, had rediscovered the need for personal faith. He was right. But then in his German translation of Galatians he had the audacity to add the word “alone”! We are justified by “faith alone”. Faith, not works. This became the key doctrine of Lutherans and most Protestants. However Paul never said that. In fact the only place those words are found in the New Testament is James 2: “A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone [!]… Faith without works is dead.” When this was pointed out Luther became as intransigent as the Pope. He called James “an epistle of straw” and said he wished he could take it out of the New Testament. All this from the man who taught “Scriptures alone”! 

Exactly what Luther meant by “faith” can be debated. However, if good works and right living have nothing to do with our salvation, why should we behave ourselves? I once visited a man in our local jail who had violated almost all of the Ten Commandments. I asked him if this didn’t bother him. He answered, “No. I believe in Jesus. I’m saved by faith, not by works.” Certainly most classical Protestants don’t act this way. Indeed they do many good works, sometimes more than us Orthodox. But when asked, they quickly insist that their good works are not necessary for salvation. I’ve learned by experience here in super-Lutheran Wisconsin that if I even gently raise the issue to conservative Lutherans most withdraw into a shell. To them this un-Scriptural doctrine is an unchallengeable absolute. (We Orthodox believe they misunderstand the New Testament and Patristic concept of what salvation is all about. More about this in a minute.) This teaching and all that has come out of it was Luther’s fault. If only he had been guided by the Church’s living Tradition…


4 But how could Luther have been guided by the Church’s living Tradition? 

Where could he have found it? Where could he have seen it? In the west it was so covered with accretions that it was almost invisible. Luther had read some of the eastern Fathers, but without experience with the living Tradition they are easily misunderstood. (I read Father Schmemann’s For the Life of the World before I was Orthodox and was perplexed by parts of it. After I had been Orthodox for a year, I read it again and suddenly it came clear.) And in Luther’s time the Orthodox Church in what had been the Orthodox eastern empire was behind the “Turkish curtain” and for the most part inaccessible, and Russia may as well have posted signs at its borders: “Visitors not welcome”. Even if he could have traveled east, Luther would have found the Orthodox Church under the Turks barely hanging on, unable to teach or proclaim the Gospel, and our bishops being turned into agents of the state. Luther rediscovered the Holy Scriptures but how could he have had access to the full living Tradition of the Church?

In 1576 some Lutheran theologians initiated correspondence with Patriarch Jeremiah I of Constantinople, hoping to find some support. Finally the Patriarch concluded the correspondence: “Please do not write to me again”, explaining that Orthodox did not want to be reformed by giving up prayers for the dead, devotion to the Theotokos and the saints, and icons, let alone adopting “Sola Scriptura”, “faith alone” and the like. And that was that till modern times.

5 The Big Mistranslation and Luther’s misunderstanding

I mentioned in Part 1 that the passage from Galatians (2:16-20) that turned Luther’s life around contained a mistranslation. Saint Jerome’s Vulgate and (I think) every western translation since has read like this: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ.” But the New Testament Greek says: “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by the faith of (πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ) Jesus Christ, even as we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ. (I notice online that a few Protestants are daring to notice this even now.) Some Orthodox English translations use the same words “faith in Jesus Christ” – even our Antiochian Epistle book and the online English of the Greek Archdiocese! Why? Little words can mean lot, as we shall see.

But first, to understand this better, let’s look at the word “justified”, δικαιολογείται, from the Greek word δίκαιος, which in the Orthodox understanding means to “make righteous”, to be changed into the good, holy righteous persons God created us to be, made over into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Western Christians have understood the word “justified” in legal terms, to be “declared righteous or innocent” as in a law court. The problem was we are sinners, and in this world always are and always will be guilty. So how can we be declared innocent? Because, as Luther understood it, Christ stepped in, paid the legal penalty of our guilt on the Cross, and so God the Father declares us “not guilty”. Thus we escape the just punishment of going to hell. (I think this doctrine is found nowhere in the Scriptures.) I still hear exactly this on the Lutheran Hour here in Milwaukee: “Christ paid the penalty of our sins by dying on the Cross, and so we escape hell and can go to heaven.” All you have to do is put your faith in Jesus Christ and you’re “out of jail free”, so to speak. In the Orthodox view this from beginning to end is a complete misunderstanding of what justification is all about.

A man once told me, “Here’s what we do in our church. When someone visits we ask, ‘Do you want to be sure you’re going to heaven?’ If they say yes, we say ‘Just repeat this statement: I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior’, and you’ll be saved.”  He asked me what I thought of it. I was so startled I could barely reply, “Well, that isn’t how we do it here.” I hasten to report that the man is now safely Orthodox!

Here is what Saint Paul is really telling us: The key to “becoming righteous” is to gain the faith of Jesus Christ, the total faith in his Father that Jesus had from the beginning to the end of his earthly life, through good times and bad, leading up to that horrible moment when he felt abandoned by his Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he would not “come down from the Cross”. He had faith in his Father’s love and will for him.

How we get “the faith of Jesus Christ” is the same way he did, in terms of his earthly life. He immersed himself in the Tradition of Judaism: the Scriptures, the community, the prayers, the worship, the people, the stories of holy men and women, the moral life, and all else that went with it. And it rubbed off on him, so to speak, and became part of him. We attain that faith of Jesus Christ by doing what he did, by immersing ourselves in the holy community, the Church, the new Israel: the Scriptures, the prayers, the worship, the people, the stories of the saints, the moral life, and all else that goes with belonging to his Church. Above all the sacramental “mysteries” where in the Holy Eucharist Jesus literally pours himself and his faith into us. And so we gain the faith of Jesus Christ, and our life becomes his life, so that by his faith we can follow him through life and death and with him into Glory. It is good, of course, to have faith in Jesus Christ, to trust him, to follow him, to obey him. But that’s not what Paul is telling us here.

Saint Paul had made great progress in gaining the faith of Jesus Christ, for he dared to conclude like this: “I died to the Law, that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

But Luther was trapped in the legalism of his time and couldn’t get beyond it: the penalty of our sins must be paid. This was not his fault. Almost all of us accept the common misunderstandings of our own times. Future generations, if the world endures, will look back at us in the early 21st century and wonder, “How ever could they all have believed that?”

6 The Splintering of Christianity

Luther had a choice to make: submit to the Roman Catholic Church and its perversions of the faith (and other things), or follow his conscience. Apparently he always hoped that what he had done would result in the “reformation” of the Church. But for centuries it caused Roman Catholics just to “dig in” and Protestants just to “protest”.

In his lifetime Luther was horrified to see that there were many differing interpretations of the Scriptures, and how others easily accepted the idea that any group of Christians could declare themselves “church”.

But so they did and so they do, till now there are thousands of Protestant denominations. In Wisconsin today there are three major Lutheran churches, none in communion with the others, and one which forbids even table prayers with other Lutherans. Before the Reformation there was The Church and all knew what it was. Now there are thousands of “churches”, small and large, liberal and conservative, each saying “We have the true understanding of Christianity.” Now it’s “cafeteria Christianity”. “Which ‘church’ should I choose?”. There is the story of an African tribal chief back in colonial days who wouldn’t let Christian missionaries in, saying, “I believe in Christ. But my people are now united. If I let you Christians in we will be torn apart.”

I was raised Protestant. I also had to choose – couldn’t avoid it. It was a quarter century process. I chose to go back to the Fountainhead, the Holy Orthodox Church, and let her teach me the Faith.

Next Week: Michael and Gabriel and all the Bodiless Powers of Heaven












12 thoughts on “36. Protestant Reformation, Part 2 – Where Luther was right, Where he went wrong, and What it all led to

  1. I read with interest this article and the previous one. I agree with you that the perversion of Rome in the middle of the second millennium were the root cause of the Reformation. The True Holy Tradition was so obscured by Romes innovations that the Reformers had to find their own way (and sometimes not the right way). Unfortunately at the time there was no real outreach from the Orthodox communions for many reasons.

    I was raised in Anglicanism (Baptized in the Cathedral of the Diocese of Oklahoma of PECUSA) but now count myself as an orthodox Anglican and not associated with TEC. What I am taught and what I believe are not far different from the Orthodox. I know there are people that have moved from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy that hold that Anglicanism is mired in its early Reformation from Rome but I have seen the return to a more catholic belief. I hold to the understanding of Scripture, Tradition and Reason as the basis of Faith.

    Now that is established, I wanted to find out if there is a good English translation of the New Testament from the Koine Greek? Ancient Faith points to the New Kings James as a study Bible but it has the same error you point out above. And on-line modern Greek translators translate the phrase to “faith in”. The New Testament as a root part of Tradition (in the Orthodox sense) is important for all who believe in Christ.


    1. The only Orthodox New Testament I know of which claims to be from the koine Greek is “The Orthodox New Testament”, available online. I have a copy which is beautifully bound and has many quotes from the Fathers. I haven’t used it, though I note it contains the same mistranslation from Galatians, so I wonder how accurate it is. I’m wary of it because it is produced by “The Genuine Orthodox Church of America”, a breakaway from canonical Orthodoxy. So far as I can determine it consists of an archbishop, a bishop and 3 or 4 churches, who believe that they are the only true Orthodox and the other 250 million of us are heretical. “Canonical” means recognized by the rest of Orthodoxy. We Orthodox determine Orthodoxy/Catholicity not by doctrine alone but because all Orthodox bishops recognize that we are Orthodox in doctrine. Therefore we are “in communion”, and clergy can celebrate the Divine Liturgy together. At Saint Nicholas, for example, our Orthodoxy is determined not by our own opinion about it, but because our bishop recognizes us as Orthodox. Thus we are in communion with our Bishop who is in communion with our Metropolitan Archbishop who is in communion with our Patriarch who is in communion with all other Orthodox Patriarchs and heads of churches in the world. (With me so far?) This is a different approach from that of Protestantism and present-day Anglicanism.

      1. I will take a difference with your opinion of present-day Anglicanism. Our “orthodoxy” (though broken now because of the Liberals in North America, Europe and some other provinces) is also defined by our relationships. The communicants are in communion with their priest who is in communion with our bishop who is in communion with our provincial arch-bishop who is in communion with the Arch Bishop of Canterbury who is essentially the Patriarch of the Anglican Communion. I will state again that this is broken as of now because of the Heresies in the Anglican Communion but that is the ideal picture that Anglicans strive for. I understand the greater Communion beyond that and pray that it can be found. I pray that Constantinople and Rome can put behind them the last 1000 years ( and really more like 1500 years of disagreement) to start the reunification of Christianity.

        1. Regarding the “Orthodox New Testament” which I referred to yesterday: I forgot to mention that I can’t discover who did the translating or where it came from or who approved it, other than the archbishop of this tiny group of “Genuine Orthodox”. Odd.

          1. Thanks Fr. Bill. I will use the info from this post in informing me of what Galatians should say. As I am retiring from my job (in a week), one of the things I was planning to do was study and learn koine Greek to the extent that I can. I appreciate this conversation with you. Thanks again for your time.

  2. I am a former Protestant. I am sad to see that, like the mantra of Protestants, you are repeating the same lies regarding the availability of the Bible in 16th century vernacular languages. Luther’s translation of the Bible into German had never been the “first”, and never will be no matter how many times this myth will still be spinned into eternity. When Luther tackled his “new” (not “first”) New Testament translation into German the Germans already had circa 16/17 German editions. Plus the Latin Vulgate. Last mentioned was of course translated when Latin became the lingua franca of Western Europe. In other words, the Scriptures in the “vulgar” language which most people in the” West” then spoke or could understand.

    Perhaps you guys should read historians, even honest Protestant historians, on this revisionist myth of “the Catholic Church kept the Bible hidden and all the scandalous variations which had been passed on since the Protestant revolt/reformation. And eagerly lapped up and perpetuated by the new “Orthodox” of our time.

    One thing you guys (and gals) share , hey? Near hatred of the Catholic Church.
    I grew up as a Reformed Protestant with this myth about the Catholic Church. Only oned of the lies, by the way, that had become part of the DNA of Protestants, even still preached from pulpits on 31 October every year. LOL!! The same goes for the English language translations. And French and Italian, etc.
    History is a bit more interesting and revelational than my Prot and Orthodox friends seem to acknowledge.
    But, at least you share the same “enemy”! Don’t devour one another one of these days….it is a typical characteristic of schismatics in all religions.

    Just sayin’
    In the peace of Christ!

    1. I did not know there were German translations of the Bible before Luther. (Most of my adult life i’ve been studying either Anglicanism or Orthodoxy.) I think we can’t blame Roman Catholics for their medieval deviations. They developed their authoritarian, legalistic style from the need to hold society together after the fall of the West. Popular Eastern Orthodox hatred of Roman Catholics developed mostly because of the Crusaders’ destruction of Constantinople. Late medieval superstitions in the Roman Catholic Church were due to the plagues which nearly destroyed their monasteries and institutions of learning. (We had the same problems because of the Turks.) Before the Reformation they didn’t distribute Bibles because there were no printing presses, and they kept them chained to lecterns in churches lest they be stolen because they were valuable – and after the Reformation because they saw what had happened because of the Reformation. Their Post-Reformation super-authoritarianism (infallible Papacy and the like) was a misguided way of trying to hold things together in the face of Protestantism. I think in this country few Orthodox are devoured by hatred of Roman Catholicism or Protestantism; we have too many good friends and family members who ARE Roman Catholic and Protestants. However, we certainly disagree with both groups in many ways. We also agree with both groups in many ways.

  3. I just found this article and when looking up Galatians 2: 16-20, I found that the KJV actually has “faith of” instead of “faith in.” I never noticed this before. Maybe those “King James only” preachers aren’t completely misguided. I’d never really been to an Orthodox church as a seeker until last summer, so when I went to a tiny parish in the Russian tradition near my house and heard the priest reading from the King James, I was kind of confused by the seeming contradiction of an ancient church using a translation associated with hard-core fundamentalists. His explanation was that the language flowed better for singing and chanting and that it’s really one of the few English translations based on texts the Church used historically. Makes sense. Modern English translations are usually based on the oldest manuscripts without regard to whether or not they were found in caves filled with Gnostic texts.

    1. Thanks, Kevin. I never noticed that. I wonder why the New King James Version went back to the inaccurate “in Jesus Christ”. (Can some Biblical scholar tell us?) There are now several Orthodox English translations of the Scriptures but none of them “official”, and (the Russian priest was right) some are in awkward English and do not flow well. The King James Version is used by many fundamentalists, but the Church of England translators were certainly not fundamentalist. The various editions of the KJV were translated with reference to the Hebrew, the Greek and the Fathers, using Saint Jerome’s Vulgate translation as a base, as the Introduction to the 1611 version makes clear at length. See https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/1611-Bible/1611-King-James-Bible-Introduction.php I once asked a fundamentalist woman which version of the Scriptures was “totally without error”, as she had put it. She thought a while and then replied “The King James Version”! I’m sure its translators thought no such thing.

  4. My spouse and I stumbled over here coming from a different website and thought I may as well check things out. I like what I see so now i am following you. Look forward to looking at your web page repeatedly.

    1. Thanks. I’ve been blogging for about 3 years now, but am just now going “independent”. Still working out the kinks. We should soon have a way to “subscribe”, so it will be emailed to you each time it comes out.

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