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16. Cyril Lucaris: The Patriarch who tried to Reform the Eastern Church

Responses within Eastern Orthodoxy to the Reformation

Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (d. 1560), had not just the Reformation of the Church but also its reunion much at heart. In hopes of starting ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox Church he sent a copy of the Augsburg Confession to Patriarch Joasaph II of Constantinople, but without effect or reply. Some years later (1576-1581) Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremias II and Lutheran Scholars at Tübingen corresponded over the theological issues at stake in the Reformation.

In Eastern Orthodox Dogmatics at this time justification was not by faith alone, works were essential to justification. Justification was not seen as a divine declaration of the sinner as righteous that was received by faith; rather it was purely a synergistic work entailing human effort and divine grace moving towards an intrinsic righteousness. This purely analytical view of justification as espoused by the Orthodox Church in the sixteenth century meant that any forensic element in justification was impossible; God would not declare a man just until a man was actually really just. “Think how much you must give,” Jeremiah noted, “in order to be righteous!” (TandC, 60). Despite these early attempts at dialogue they ultimately came to nothing. That was until the emergence of a remarkable Eastern Orthodox theologian, Cyril Lucaris.

Cyril Lucaris 1572-1638

In 1594 Lucaris was ordained an Eastern Orthodox priest in Constantinople and later became special envoy of the Patriarch of Alexandria. He came to despair of the low standard of training and biblical understanding of the Greek Orthodox clergy (centuries of Muslim rule had not helped) and was convinced that a Reformation was needed. Over several years as Lucaris studied what was happening in Europe he came to agree that the Evangelical Reformers understanding of the Gospel was true and in agreement with Scripture.

An outstanding theologian, Cyril was elected the new Patriarch of Alexandria in 1601 when he was barely 29. By 1620 he was elected to the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople, the highest position of honour in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Scripture and Doctrine

In 1627 Cyril built a printing press in Constantinople, the first of its kind in the Greek world, in order to produce new works of theology to help train Eastern Orthodox clergy. However, the French ambassador, who had close association with the Jesuits, sent a military detachment and razed the printing press to the ground in 1628. There were concerns in the Roman Catholic Church that there a Reformation in the Eastern Orthodox Church would bring about a union with the Evangelical Churches in Europe. Antoine Léger, a Reformed chaplain at the Dutch embassy in Constantinople, assured Cyril that his works would be printed and published in Geneva with his support.

Lucaris’ Confession

Lucaris produced a summary of the true doctrine of Eastern Orthodox Church according to biblical principles. The work was entitled The Confession and was translated into Greek and French in 1631. The Confession of Cyril taught that the Sacred Scriptures have supreme authority in matters pertaining to faith:

“We believe ... the testimony of the Holy Scriptures to excel that of the authority of the Church. It is not the same to be instructed by the Holy Spirit and by men. A human may sin or be deceived through ignorance. Holy Scriptures cannot deceive nor be deceived; they are not liable to err for they are infallible and have an eternal authority.”

Depriving a Christian any opportunity to read the Bible was, for Cyril, a real injury and he strongly pushed for a Greek Bible to be printed and made available.

For Lucaris “the Church is sanctified and taught by the Holy Spirit in the way of life,” but he denied its infallibility, saying: “The Church is liable to sin, and to choose the error instead of the truth; from such error we can only be delivered by the teaching and the light of the Holy Spirit, and not of any mortal man” (Ch. XII.). In denying the infallibility of the Church, Lucaris was opening the door for a broad Reformation of the Eastern Orthodox Church’s teaching and traditions.

Concerning the doctrine of justification (Chapter XIII.) Lucaris stated:

“We believe that man is justified by faith, not by works. But when we say "by faith," we understand the correlative of faith, viz., the Righteousness of Christ, which faith, fulfilling the office of the hand, apprehends and applies to us for salvation. And this we understand to be fully consistent with, and in no wise to the prejudice of, works; for the truth itself teaches us that works also are not to be neglected, and that they are necessary means and testimonies of our faith, and a confirmation of our calling. But, as human frailty bears witness, they are of themselves by no means sufficient to save man, and able to appear at the judgment-seat of Christ, so as to merit the reward of salvation. The righteousness of Christ, applied to the penitent, alone justifies and saves the believer.”

A New Bible Translation

Cyril began work on a modern Greek New Testament in 1629. The printing of this New Testament finally took place five years later at Geneva in 1638. Unfortunately, Cyril himself could not see his work in print.


Pope Urban VIII decided to remove Lucaris by all means possible. A meeting of Catholic cardinals with the Pope decided that a bribe would be paid to the Ottomans to remove Lucaris from his position of Ecumenical Patriarch. Several Catholic Cardinals questioned the ethics of bribing Muslims to remove a Christian Church leader. The Pope declared the use of bribery was permitted in this case as Lucaris was accused of spreading Evangelical doctrine.

Lucaris was arrested and executed by the Ottomans in 1638 on trumped up charges that he was inciting the Cossacks to rebel against the Turks. Following his execution his body was thrown in the Bosporus (it was later recovered and buried). His supporters surrounded the Patriarchal palace and besieged his successor crying, 'Pilate, give us the dead, that we may bury him.”

The Legacy of Lucaris

Lucaris’ legacy was complicated for the Eastern Orthodox Church. On the one hand many revered him as a martyr and champion of orthodoxy, however, others were alarmed that a leading figure in the Eastern Orthodox Church could have taught so clearly the theology of the Evangelical Reformers.

After his death the Synod of Dositheus (1672) decalred that Cyril was guilty of “receiving the holy Scriptures stripped as it were of the expositions of the holy Fathers of the Church” and also of denying “the traditions which have obtained all along from the beginning throughout the whole world, without which our preaching would be reduced to an empty name” (Balmer 1982:54). Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Dositheus also emphasised that the Eastern Church cannot be considered inferior to the Divine Scriptures. Nor, he declared, was it correct to hold that the Church can ever err in its teaching.

So severe were these condemnations that both “clergy and laity were prohibited under pain of suspension and excommunication” if anyone bought, received or read Lucaris’ New Testament translation (Vaporis 1977:241). In total six Eastern Orthodox councils condemned Lucaris and his theology as heretical. However, he is still seen as a saint and martyr within Eastern Orthodoxy today. In 2009, he was canonized as a martyr by the Patriarchate of Alexandria and yet again in 2016 at the Pan Orthodox Synod the Synod of Jerusalem and its anathemas against Lucaris were again endorsed. The legacy, it seems, is still a complicated question for Eastern Orthodoxy today.


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