Ralph Lee reports on some significant Reformation research

This presentation was given by Dr Stanislau Paulau through the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs at Georgetown University on 18 November 2020. A recording is available at: https://youtu.be/Vuc-uWBlwJ0. Dr Paulau is a scholar of the global history of Christianity and a researcher at the Department of History of Religions at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. For his doctoral research, he explored the encounter in 1534 between Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Abba Mika’el (also known as Michael the Deacon), a monk and deacon of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The presentation explores a fascinating episode in Protestant history.

Dr Paulau’s research centres on three sources that narrate this encounter: Melanchthon’s letter to Benedikt Pauli, 31 May 1534; Luther’s letter of recommendation, 4 July 1534; and Melanchthon’s letter to Martin Bucer, 4 July 1534. There are further recollections of the event: Luther’s sermon on 4 or 11 July 1537, and statements from Luther and Melanchthon dated 1537 and 1538 and handed down in the Table Talk. The letter to Pauli mentions an unexpected encounter with Abba Mika’el, in which Luther and the monk have a conversation about the Trinity. The conclusion was that the Eastern Church and Luther shared the same view of the Trinity, although they could only communicate in broken Italian, a fact which may connect Abba Mika’el with the Ethiopian Orthodox monastery in Rome at that time.

All the sources have the Trinity and the eucharist as their main subjects and they must be understood in the context of broader discussion in Wittenberg, where there were anti-Trinitarian elements and divergent Catholic, Zwinglian and Anabaptist thinking about the eucharist. It is in this context that Luther claims the Ethiopians as allies. Importantly, the sources conclude that the Orthodox and the Protestants belong to the one church of Christ, something also proclaimed by Abba Mika’el, as reported in the letter of recommendation which Luther provided for him:

Even though the Eastern Church observes some different religious ceremonies he [Abba Mika’el] judges that this dissimilarity neither abolishes the unity of the Church nor contradicts the faith, because the Kingdom of Christ is spiritual righteousness of the heart, fear of God, and trust through Christ. We also approve this view.’

This ecumenical vision was, Paulau argues, very important for the self-understanding of the Wittenberg Reformation, as the idea of common belonging gave credibility to the article of the Creed that affirmed the universality of the church. This must also be understood in the context of a larger discourse between Ethiopian and European Christianity, with other important thinkers at that time commenting on Ethiopian Christianity. There are important recollections of this dialogue, with repeated instances of Luther and Melanchthon referring to it. In the Table Talk there is mention of Abba Mika’el (referred to here as a bishop) as affirming the Protestant Creed as expressed by Luther.

In the following centuries, this dialogue was gradually erased from the Lutheran collective memory, and remembering it today raises several important issues. The encounter changes the understanding of the Reformation’s relation with the wider world, as it is the first encounter of the new Protestantism with non-European Christianity. Luther saw Abba Mika’el as representing the Eastern Church broadly, and so he affirms unity with all the churches of the Christian East. Furthermore, the dialogue challenges scholarly perceptions of the early modern period which understands European as the only ones driving the globalisation of Christianity. One might almost say that it was a precursor, half a millennium ago, of the work of LOI!

The research is being published in German: Das Andere Christentum: Zur transkonfessionellen Verflechtungsgeschichte von äthiopischer Orthodoxie unde europäischem Protestantismus (The Other Christianity: Towards an Entangled Transconfessional History of Ethiopian Orthodoxy and European Protestantism), forthcoming from Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. This volume is available as an open access electronic book at DOI: https://doi.org/10.13109/9783666336041 and now https://www.vr-elibrary.de/doi/pdf/10.13109/9783666336041?download=true. A summary article is likely to appear in English.

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