Prospects for church fellowship between the Orthodox Church and churches with roots in the 16th century Reformation have been and continue to be distant at best. This is not a reason to despair. This makes dialogue, official or unofficial, all the more important, not least as a repentant and hopeful protest against divisions which we know are contrary to Christ’s will.

The deep scandal of Christian disunity is disobedience to Christ’s command: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Such love is not “tolerant” indifference to true doctrine and right practice but demands patient, persevering effort toward reconciliation with fellow Christians from whom we are estranged. The horror of our divisions lies less in the divisions themselves than in our long acceptance of them and the ensuing enmity or (worse) indifference of divided Christians toward one another. Persistent conversation about the faith, even with no prospect of immediate “results,” is one small but essential way for divided Christians to practice loving one another in imitation of the Savior without whose persistent love in the face of contradiction we would have no hope.

An Opening and an Invitation

Bradley Nassif’s article “The Reformation Viewed from the East” is a noteworthy example of an Orthodox theologian looking without rancor at a central Reformation teaching, sola fide, and putting the best construction on it. It is an opening and invitation into just the sort of conversation to which we are summoned by Christ’s command. Representatives of Reformation traditions would doubtless have much to say in response. But rather than pursue this particular conversation further, it seems more useful in this context to say something about the wider theological horizon of contemporary conversation between the Orthodox and heirs of the Reformation.

I am honored that Professor Nassif draws so heavily on my article of 20-plus years ago for his understanding of Luther. Since that time, recognition of the importance of union with Christ to both Luther and Calvin has become more common, though by no means universal. Even among those who agree, many questions remain, particularly concerning the relation of union with Christ to the “forensic” (legal) character of justification, which is unquestionably Reformation teaching.

Furthermore, the doctrine of justification can’t be separated from the doctrine of the redemptive work of Christ. Recognition that justification is more than a legal exchange leads naturally to suspicion that atonement might be more than just Jesus bearing sin’s penalty in our place. If I’m not mistaken, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty among today’s Protestants about both these utterly central Reformation doctrines. This is troublesome, but at the same time, it is also an opportunity for deeper understanding.

On the other hand, it seems fair to say that recent Orthodox theology has been seriously allergic to these forensic, juridical themes in the whole “Latin” theological tradition (not just Protestantism). They are similarly wary of notions of “imputed righteousness” as well as of the idea of Christ’s vicarious endurance of divine judgment on the cross. Against these ideas, the Orthodox vigorously advocate Patristic understandings of salvation in terms of participation in divine life and the renewal of human nature through Christ’s victory over death at Easter.

Nevertheless, a few voices among the Orthodox have recently pointed out that Saint Athanasius has no difficulty saying that Christ offered his body to the Father on the cross “as an equivalent” for all human beings so that the divine law which decreed death as the penalty for sin might be satisfied (Gen. 2:17; 3:19). This doesn’t conflict with Athanasius’s overall account of Christ’s overcoming of corruption and death but seems integrated into it. Why doesn’t Saint Athanasius (or his great successor Cyril) see a conflict here? This provides yet another opening for conversation.

For Further Discussion

It seems to me that Protestant theologians could profit enormously from extended conversation with the Orthodox on these matters. This is particularly the case in light of a great blessing recent study of the early church has given to theology: It is much easier now to appreciate the profoundly scriptural character of Patristic theology than it was through much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The remarkable recent flood of translations of early Christian exegesis reinforces the work of both Orthodox and Western scholars who have illuminated the intense biblical focus of doctrinal debate in the ancient church. Dogmatic and ecumenical theology have barely begun to recognize the implications of these developments.

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Further conversation would be valuable if Orthodox and Reformation Christians come together, not to repeat old polemics and defend “identities” but patiently attempting to understand one another and to look together into the mystery of Christ. This is what happens in the best ecumenical dialogues, not the unprincipled negotiating and compromising that conservative Christians often fear.

Such dialogue is not bound to—or guaranteed by—any institutional format but takes place as Christian friendships are formed across lines of division. This does not happen without the Holy Spirit, from whom all Christian fellowship and theological insight come. In this anniversary year, as we contemplate with gratitude and sorrow the tangle of good and evil which has come of the Reformation, we need above all else to cry out, “Come, Holy Spirit!”

David S. Yeago is Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at The North American Lutheran Seminary and Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.