January 24, 2021

The Influence of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church on the Protestant Reformation

Of interest to the American protestant church should be the unique role the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church had on preserving biblical Christianity from the time of Christ through the 16th century, and its role in influencing and confirming the thinking of Martin Luther and other protestant reformers during the Protestant Reformation in the 1500’s.

Prominent among such scholarship is the work of Dr. David D. Daniels III, Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. As Dr. Daniels noted in his treatise “Martin Luther and Ethiopian Christianity: Historical Traces,” it is clear from Martin Luther’s writings that he held the Ethiopian Church in great esteem. Daniels noted that “Uncorrupted by the Roman papacy, Ethiopian Christianity, according to Luther, possessed apostolic practices which were absent in Roman Catholicism and which Protestants would “adopt” through their own reading of Scripture: communion in both kinds, vernacular Scripture, and married clergy.” He went on to say that “Absent, meanwhile, within the Church in Ethiopia were European practices then under critique by various Protestant reformers: the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, indulgences, purgatory, and marriage as a sacrament,” and “Recalling his dialogue with Michael [the Deacon, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church], Luther stated: “We have also learned from him, that the rite which we observe in the use of administration of the Lord’s Supper and the Mass, agrees with the Eastern Church.” And finally, “According to Luther, Michael [the Deacon] responded positively to his articles of the Christian faith, proclaiming: “This is a good creed, that is, faith.””

In conclusion, Daniels noted “For Luther, the Church of Ethiopia had more fidelity to the Christian tradition, and the practices mentioned above were marks of this fidelity. Thus, the Church in Europe needed to be reformed in the direction of the Church of Ethiopia. What seems clear is that Ethiopian Christianity played an important role within Luther’s writings. I also believe that the dialogue between Luther and Michael the Deacon is historically significant. This ecumenical dialogue between Christian Africa and Europe challenges narratives that cast the Reformation as totally the product of “western” civilization. It also counters other narratives that place [colonial, or imperial missionary] Europeans in Africa during this era, without studying [the much more significant population of] African Christians [spiritually tied to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church] in sixteenth-century Europe.”

Words in brackets [] are ours.

Source: https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/martin-luther-and-ethiopian-christianity-historical-traces

In this video:

Ephraim Isaac, Professor, African and Afro-American Studies, Harvard University, discussed his book about the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church and also that of Christianity as a whole in Ethiopia. Not only are there strong Biblical Hebraic elements in the theology, political theory, and liturgical calendar of the Ethiopian Church but there is also a strong influence from Beta Israel and Ethiopian Jews. Quotes from Dr. Issac’s presentation follow:

The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church is the most Jewish of all Christian churches.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church has roots in the early church in Jerusalem, and contributed much to the preservation of Judaeo-Christian literature.

Ethiopia has long been a symbol of redemption for Africans and Afro-Americans. The Ethiopian Church ever more became their spiritual homeland.

The Abyssinian Baptist Church [in the U.S.] goes back to 1807… the Ethiopian Church played a very, very important role in inspiring the fight against slavery and the fight for equality.

(2014) The Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahido Church. [Video] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/webcast-6586/.