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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

The Forgotten Reformer Cyril Lucaris

Published Monday, January 1, 2018 By John Stovall

The medieval historian Steven Runciman once quipped, “Of all the roads that a historian may tread none passes through more difficult country than that of a religious historian.” If he’s correct, then the controversial terrain of Greek reformer, writer, and eventual patriarch Cyril Lucaris (1570–1638) is a most treacherous bog for us to enter. Yet enter we must, for the life and times of Lucaris deliver all the intrigue of a le Carré novel and the passion of a Kennedy speech—moreover, this saint’s life offers a salutary reminder of the costs of the gospel and the travails of Christ’s bride.

Lucaris was born to Greek parents on the Mediterranean isle of Crete, which was under the auspices of the mercantile republic of Venice yet always aware that on the horizon loomed a grave threat: the Ottoman Turks. With the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the rise of the Ottoman Empire heralded the emergence of an Islamic power in a former hub of Christianity. Combined with the sixteenth-century tumult of Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Lucaris’s lifetime was a hubbub of theological and political strife—in which he stood squarely in the middle.

From an early age, he was rescued from a life of poverty via the benefits of patronage and connection and given access to wealth and education in the entrepôt of Venice. Here, he learned Greek, Latin, Italian, and theology. More significant than expert tutelage and guides, however, were the prestige, presence, and patronage of his uncle, Meletios Pegas (1549–1601). Pegas, who would eventually rise to the patriarchate of Alexandria, did not simply provide support for Lucaris as a blood relative; he molded the precocious young man into his protégé. Pegas was a critical contact in the formation of young Lucaris, responsible for his rise through the ecclesiastical hierarchy of the Orthodox Church. The training Lucaris received at the university, combined with his family connections, made him an ideal candidate to move within Greek, Catholic, and Protestant circles. As a preacher, his sermons were filled with biblical quotations, classical allusions, and humanist references. In short, Lucaris was able to bridge the gap between the Greek and Latin streams of Christianity—quoting from the Cappadocian fathers, while dripping sweet words from Augustine, all wrapped in burnished rhetoric and impervious logic.

Beginning in 1590 with his establishment to the Alexandrine see, Pegas asked for his nephew to come from Italy to work in Egypt. By the age of twenty-three, Lucaris was ordained as a priest and subsequently sent to Poland, where we find our man joined in the heat of confessional battle for the existence of the Orthodox community. While he is most known in Western circles for his later anti-Catholic animus, Lucaris first encountered the assiduous energy of Jesuit educators and papal power as a liaison between the Greek faithful in the Ottoman Empire and Orthodox bishops in Poland and Lithuania. In Poland and the Ukraine, Lucaris was forced to watch as a (slight) majority of bishops committed the Orthodox Church to a merger with Rome—concluding the Union of Brest in 1596. Lucaris then became one of the allies of those Orthodox believers who refused to submit to the authority of this council, teaching and educating across Eastern Europe while under threat of expulsion. It was here that he first encountered Lutheran divines, who began to plant the idea in him of a union between the Lutheran and Greek churches—a long-sought dream of the Lutherans.

Yet, after his time in Poland, Lucaris had to rush back to Alexandria. His uncle Pegas was dying and wanted his nephew to replace him in the high office of patriarch of Alexandria. Soon, Lucaris was within the inner circles of Orthodox ecclesiastics, where he would stay until elevated to the first rank of patriarch of Constantinople in 1620. While in Egypt, Lucaris cemented his second key relationship (after his uncle) when he met Cornelius Haga—the Dutch ambassador to the Ottomans—who would become a close friend. Haga spawned in the belletristic Lucaris a European-wide network of contacts that would endure until Lucaris’s death in 1638. For the intellectual Lucaris, Haga encouraged connections with Dutch theologians (Jan Uytenbogaert and David le Leu de Wilhelm) and gave the patriarch his first taste of the writings of John Calvin.

Haga also supplied the financial means to Lucaris’s desires for reform of the Greek Church—and reform was needed, on a host of levels, ranging from dilapidated churches to illiterate priests. The only problem was that the Greek Church was not its own master. Since the fall of the Byzantine commonwealth in 1453, it had been governed by Islamic jurisprudence of the Ottoman Turks. While the branch of Islamic law used by the Ottomans was the more tolerant Hanafi School, the status of the Greek Christians was precarious at best. We might hear this and tremble for the welfare of Christians living under Islam, but ironically, the minority position of the Greek Orthodox made them an irresistible commodity for all foreign powers. For if the English or the French could capture the allegiance of Lucaris and this fifth column within the Ottoman lands, then perhaps they could instigate an uprising against Islamic overlords; failing that, at least they could gain a religious triumph to show the progress of Rome or Canterbury.

Recent work on the reliability of Lucaris’s writings has enriched our grasp of his mind-set. He was not solely focused on high matters of Reformed theology. Rather, his life’s work was more mundane and penultimate: crushing the threat of a Catholic Poland through an ambitious plan to forge an alliance between Russia, Sweden, and the Ottoman Empire for a common offensive against Poland. For a small taste of his vitriol against the Catholic Church, we note how he labeled himself in one letter to Dutch politicians, “the horror of your adversaries.”  He detested “the dogmas of the Roman church because they are false.” This grand plan, if accomplished, would have completely changed the religion and politics of Europe, which was one of the major reasons Lucaris became a political persona and a household name in all European courts.

The hurricane of activity that Lucaris brought to all he did—whether penning missives to Moscow or outmaneuvering the Jesuits—displayed a mind and a man committed to his work and sure of its success. Beyond the political machinations, Lucaris is most known to us as a theological and educational reformer, aghast at the dilapidated state of the Greek Church, who attempted immediate renovation. Taking his cues from Genevan pastors (such as Antoine Leger) and Dutch ambassadors (Cornelis Haga), Lucaris set about translating the New Testament from its first-century koinê Greek into seventeenth-century Greek vernacular.

His plan to reform the Greek Church was conjoined with politics. Not only did he move to install the first Modern Greek printing press in Istanbul (which was subsequently destroyed after a French spy warned the Ottoman authorities), but he also drew up the fateful document that would endear him to history: a confession of faith filled with robust statements on the nature of justification by faith alone, a solid predestinarian streak, and a constant stress on the need to return to the word of God as the only norming norm for faith and practice. Indeed, such was Lucaris’s commitment to Reformation teaching that he was willing to “die as an Orthodox Catholic, faithful to Evangelical doctrine and to the Belgic Confession.”

Ever since its Latin publication in 1629, Lucaris’s Confession has sparked debate over its legitimacy, intent, and purpose. Did he actually write it? Some doubts were spawned by its late appearance in Greek (1633), for if he penned it, wouldn’t he have written in Greek first? Instead, the timing of the confession’s publication worked in the favor of Lucaris’s Dutch and English allies, who were able to use this blast from the East in their unceasing conflict with the Habsburgs in Germany.

Therefore, while Lucaris’s authorship of his confession is now a consensus view (since he never denied it), it is likely that the original publication was planned for foreign political benefit—not for his own domestic plans or even for a Greek Reformation. As sometimes occurs in this present age, the intersection of politics and theology does not always benefit the ordinary church-goer, and we have little indication that Lucaris’s confession of faith was ever used beyond some schools in Crete. The initial response from Rome was to label it a forgery, with repudiation and counter confession following in 1631. However, the most deadly result of his continued polemics was not ink but blood. In July 1638, backed by a secret deal with the Ottoman Vizier and supplied by gold from the Jesuit mission fund, the governor of Constantinople arrested Lucaris, sent him on a boat into exile, and watched as soldiers strangled him and threw his body overboard. Thus ended a most intriguing life.

The intrigue, however, continues, for Lucaris still represents a tantalizing path not taken. It should not surprise us that his reputation in Rome was dismal, yet in the lands of the Orthodox he received an array of judgments. Within a decade of his death, Lucaris stood condemned by at least two pan-Orthodox synods; yet in 2009, the Greek Orthodox patriarchate canonized him. What prompted such a divergence? Likely, his pastoral zeal (expressed through the commitment for the reform of morality and for the intellectual and spiritual growth of the clergy), his defense of Orthodoxy, and his violent death at the hands of the Turks combine to make him appealing to the Orthodox Church.

If we Protestants are not in a rush to canonize Lucaris, why learn of him at all? I suggest that several pertinent details from his life offer crucial guidance to twenty-first-century would-be Reformers. Lucaris points us to the privilege and difficulty of living in a contested religious environment, not unlike our own. The network of contacts he maintained across Europe, from the Russian tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich Romanov and George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, to the Swedish prime minister, Axel Oxenstierna, and the Remonstrant, Jan Uytenbogaert, indicate the influence and cachet Lucaris presented to all of Europe’s elite.

What endured when tsar and archbishopric faded was not political succor but personal friendships based on a shared commitment to Christ and his church. The willingness of the Dutch ambassador van Haga and the Swiss pastor Leger to support and shield Lucaris, even to buy him safe passage from Jesuit schemes, should remind us of the love and friendship shown by the Christians in Ephesus, who walked to the shore with Paul and wept when he left.

Furthermore, the advance of a Reformed confession and the inroads into the Orthodox community were only possible through the multicultural associations of Dutch, English, and German pastors, companies, and state dignitaries. While we may value the heroic missionary trope of Victorian-era writers, it is important to avoid placing Lucaris in the genus of top man—even his industry and gifts did not provide a sterling legacy; his devotees scattered and his allies departed. Within twenty years, the status quo of Turkokratia returned to the Greek Orthodox community.

For Lucaris, the status of a Christian minority in a Muslim-dominated society was a challenging prospect, and the offers of financial support and personal acclaim from his Protestant co-laborers served a vital role in sustaining Lucaris through multiple periods of exile and imprisonment in the 1620s and 1630s. The impact on such “foreign missions” supplies a salutary reminder to American Christians today who may wonder at the value of supporting believers across the globe.

As we look back on his life, what stands out most is his energy. The patriarch mastered multiple languages, possessed a remarkable library, and could choose his references. He was as comfortable with political philosophy as with theology—able to sprinkle quotations from Augustine, Ficino, and Calvin in seventeenth-century Greek. He was passionate about the propagation of the Christian faith in the face of Islam, supported the common good of the Greek people in educational reform, and attempted to turn the ship of Orthodoxy toward the Scriptures and the Christ they proclaim. Yet for all this, he failed. Likewise, we too must take our stand not on what-ifs or might-haves, nor on the strength of chariots or princes, but on the gospel itself as the power of God unto salvation for the Greek.


John Stovall is pastor of the Rock Presbyterian Church in Stockbridge, Georgia, and is a doctoral candidate in history at the State University of New York, Albany.

  • John Stovall

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