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Luther on Rome and Constantinople

November 29th, 2006
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The pope’s visit to Turkey is quite interesting, and to whatever extent it can serve the purpose of aiding Christians who are in the persecuted minority in that country and help heal [meaningfully] the split between East and West we can certainly be grateful for that; however …


… there are far more serious
and meaningful doctrinal issues underlying the differences between Rome
and Constantinople that require us to realize that to this day neither
the Bishop of Rome nor the Patriarch of Eastern Orthodoxy represent
church bodies that believe, teach and confess the Gospel in its full
truth and purity. Here is Luther on Rome and Constantinople. Thanks to
Dr. Sonntag for passing this quote along:

They really overshot the mark
and appointed a patriarch to the new church in Constantinople without
the previous knowledge and consent of the bishop of Rome, just as
though his co-operation in these matters did not matter at all. This is
where the eternal quarreling and bickering started (as the pope’s
hypocrites themselves write)
 between the bishops of Rome and Constantinople over primacy or supreme authority. When the bishop
of Constantinople (though he was in a new city) was as patriarch the
equal of the bishop of Rome, the one at Rome feared that the other
would arrogate the primacy to himself—which afterward actually
happened. The bishops of Constantinople asserted that the emperor had
his residence or court in Constantinople and not in Rome and that
Constantinople was known as “new Rome”; this is why he would have to be
the supreme bishop because he was the bishop of the imperial city and
court. On the other hand, the one in Rome asserted that Rome was the
true Rome, and that the emperor was known as the Roman emperor and not
the Constantinopolitan emperor, and that Rome had existed before
Constantinople. They indulged in such childish, womanish, and foolish
squabbles that it is a sin and a shame to hear and read. The bickering went on until Phocas
emperor. He had had the pious emperor Maurice (whom history calls a
saint), his predecessor and lord (Phocas had been his captain)
beheaded, together with his wife and children. This godly Cain
confirmed the supremacy of bishop Boniface
of Rome over all other bishops. And this
kind of supremacy could have been justly certified by no better man
than by this shameful murderer of an emperor! So Rome had as good a
beginning of papacy as its empire had previously had, when Romulus
murdered his brother Remus so that he could rule alone and name the
city after himself. Nevertheless, the bishops of Constantinople paid no
attention to this, and the squabble continued on and on, although the
Roman bishops meanwhile embellished the emperor Phocas’ certification
with fig leaves [
Gen. 3:7], and screamed loudly with great bellowing, Revelation 12 [13:5], that the church of Rome was supreme, not by human command but by Christ’s own institution, Matthew 16 [:18], “You are Peter.” But the ones in Constantinople saw that those in Rome were quoting the words of Christ falsely and senselessly, like uneducated people, and ignored them. Thus
the two churches, Rome and Constantinople, wrangled over the invalid
primacy with vain, rotten, lame, and useless squabbles, until the devil
finally devoured them both, the ones in Constantinople through the
Turks and Mohammed,
 the others in Rome through the papacy and its blasphemous decretals.
I am relating all of this so that one can see what misery was caused by
this fine council in Constantinople because the bishop of that city was
made patriarch, which would have happened anyway, even if no patriarch
of Constantinople had been appointed, for the ambitious devil’s head in
Rome had already begun to make all kinds of demands of the bishops (as
we said above). And if the bishop of Constantinople had not crossed
him, he would have rubbed against the bishops of Alexandria, Jerusalem,
and Antioch, and he would not have tolerated the decree of the Council
of Nicaea, which had made him the equal of the bishop of Alexandria and
the inferior of the bishop of Jerusalem. He wants to be supreme without
councils and fathers, “by divine right,”
 instituted by Christ himself—as he bellows, blasphemes, and lies in his decretals."

Source: Martin Luther, "On the Councils and the Church," American Edition of Luther’s Works 41:89-91

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Categories: Eastern Orthodoxy
  1. Holger Sonntag
    November 29th, 2006 at 20:17 | #1

    It is really remarkable that the argument between these two ancient churches to this day comes down to the question of church order. The faith is mainly the same, with different emphases, some of which are expressed in the greater or lesser appreciation of St. Augustine. Certainly nothing “modern” hermeneutics couldn’t handle. When pressed in the 17th century, Orthodox theologians felt far greater proximity to Rome (despite their grievances against the pope’s supremacy claims and Catholic proselytizing in Poland and in the Ukraine in the course of the Counterreformation) than to Geneva / Canterbury — Wittenberg / Tuebingen had already lost out in the 16th century.
    As the Formula of Concord affirmed, quoting Irenaeus, the man from the East who served as bishop in the West: dissonantia ieiunei non dissolvit consonantiam fidei (SD X, 31). Yet order-driven (law!) as both the Roman and Constantinopolitan churches are, it is no surprise that the supremacy question keeps them appart. One could say, AC VII and Ap. VII/VIII have yet to be heard by Rome and Constantinople.
    I add to the above Luther-quote that Luther is referring to the First Council of Constantinople in 381, by the third canon of which the bishop of Constantinople was elevated in rank because he was the bishop of the New Rome. Can. XXVIII of the Council of Chalcedon (451), while acknowledging Rome’s seniority, then gave him jurisdiction over the whole heathen world outside the circumscribed jurisdictions of the other four bishops of the classic pentarchy (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Rome). Unsurprisingly, the Roman popes did not directly recognize these two canons of otherwise highly important councils (Trinity, Christology!). Can councils err after all when they go beyond Scripture? Hmm…
    The situation got more complicated after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when Zoe / Sophia, a niece of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI (he, faithful to the decrees of the union Council of Ferrara-Florence in the 1430s, died in fellowship with the Roman pope at the hands of the Turks when The City fell; his brother, Thomas, died in Rome, a faithful son of the pope — as did, in 1503, Thomas’ son, Andrew, who bequeathed his title (Emperor of the Romans) on Ferdinand II of Aragon from where the title ended up with Charles V of Augsburg fame), married Ivan III, the leader of the emerging Russian empire, who then felt entitled to call Moscow the “Third Rome”, which, according to ancient political-ecclesial logic, placed the patriarch of Moscow above both Rome and Constantinople. This not only makes relations to the West (Rome) difficult; this is a festering wound in the Orthodox community as well. — So much for “unity” in the East! So much also for a path that really does not lead to genuine unity in the church! (Anybody still looking East or West starry-eyed?)
    Thank God for Luther’s rediscovery of what is constitutive of the church and therefore necessary for godly church union!

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