The Ethiopian Church Was an Unsung Inspiration for the Protestant Reformation

Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Sean Gallup / Staff / Getty / WikiMedia Commons
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs / Source images: Sean Gallup / Staff / Getty / WikiMedia Commons

Jennifer Powell McNutt is the Franklin S. Dyrness Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Wheaton College, parish associate at First Presbyterian Church of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and co-president of McNuttshell Ministries Inc.

There are some parts of the world that you never expect to see. A few years after the Iron Curtain fell, my parents took me out of school to visit Russia. My dad was taking pastoral study leave and was involved in the missionary outreach foundation of our denomination.

Our first days were spent in Moscow, an austere but extraordinary city that was home to soldiers, beggars, and the Bolshoi Ballet. Our overnight sleeper train from Moscow to St. Petersburg required bodyguards to protect our travel group from train robberies. Tourism was new, so we were some of the first Americans to set foot in the Kremlin and the Hermitage Museum. Statues memorializing past regimes had been toppled and moved. Tour guides were still sorting out the complexities of explaining their past in a fast-changing and sensitive present. We felt exhilarated (and overwhelmed) by the food, the language, and the customs, but most of all, we were drawn to the churches.

Stepping into St. Basil’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg’s Red Square was a lesson in Christian unity and diversity. We three American Presbyterians were surrounded by the familiar and the strange. For the first time, we saw an iconostasis—a screen of icons that divides the sanctuary from the nave—and encountered the stories of Christian faith, suffering, and beauty depicted there. Later in the trip, a visit with an embattled Protestant missionary added layers to my young adult perspective on faith. Through these and other experiences, the Eastern Orthodox branch of the church was making itself known to me in the heart of the “Third Rome,” a moniker used to signify Moscow as the heir of Byzantium (or Eastern Orthodox) Christianity. I began to realize that the church was much bigger and far more complex than I knew.

These years later as a scholar, I see now more than ever how the interconnections of the global body are historical, present, and eschatological all at once.

The Reformation, in particular, gives me a starting point. When the Reformers looked at the Bible, not only did they see the Word of God; they saw the global church. They saw the familial bond that stretches across time, space, and culture. Some Christians minimize the Protestant Reformation based on their perception that Reformers blazed their own trail without regard for the global church or church tradition. But primary sources offer a different story. The Reformers did not view their work in isolation from historical or even contemporary global Christianity. They saw the broader church as right at the heart of their efforts. In fact, one of the main inspirations for the Reformation movement came from somewhere far removed from Geneva and other centers of Protestant thought: the Ethiopian church.

Orthodox Christianity and the Protestant Reformation

As the Protestant Reformation began to unfold, global Christianity was grappling with an unprecedented crisis. At the onset of the 16th century, a little over 90 percent of the world’s Christians were living in Western and Eastern Europe (including Russia). Up until that point, Christianity had thrived as a tricontinental faith, flourishing in Asia, Africa, and Europe. The movement of Christianity’s center of gravity from the East to the West was one of the most troubling consequences of the rise of Islam and the loss of Constantinople (1453).

In 1526, as the conquest continued, Eastern European rulers lost a critical battle to the Ottoman Empire at Mohács. The defeat of King Ludwig II of Hungary and Bohemia left the route to the gates of Vienna open to Turkish armies, and with that the door to central Europe. Early Modern Europeans were living through a rapid geographical shrinking of Christendom just as the Western Church also began to crack. It is not an exaggeration to say that they felt like the world was ending, and the Turks were God’s apocalyptic agents. Nevertheless, the Eastern branches of the Christian church were not far from Protestant minds.

Protestants engaged with both the Eastern Orthodox tradition and Oriental Orthodox traditions in a few consistent ways. To Protestants, it mattered immensely that Eastern branches of the church did not follow the Catholic practices of preaching purgatory, selling indulgences, or observing petrine supremacy. Luther marveled at how the churches of Armenia, Ethiopia, and India had avoided the private masses that developed in the West since Gregory the Great’s time. Luther also regarded it significant that, before there was a “pope,” there were the bishops of Ethiopia, Syria, Antioch, and Rome. The Orthodox branches were a link back to a purer, more apostolic era.

The church of Ethiopia, especially, was mentioned among early modern Christians. Some scholars have noted that Luther mentions Ethiopia at least 85 times in his written works. (It was a common though mistaken belief to view Ethiopia as the first Christian kingdom. That belief was based on a particular reading of Acts 8.) Luther’s esteem only grew after he was visited by Michael the Deacon, an Ethiopian cleric, in 1534. As Daniels explains,

For Luther, the Church of Ethiopia had more fidelity to the Christian tradition. … Thus, the Church in Europe needed to be reformed in the direction of the Church of Ethiopia. Possibly for Luther the Church of Ethiopia was proof that his reform of the Church in Europe had both a biblical and a historical basis.

To Luther, “Ethiopia” symbolized the church, and one of the most valued legacies that the Reformers identified within the Ethiopian church was its insistence on maintaining the Bible in the common language.

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Source: Christianity Today