Cyril Lucaris – A Contested Reformer

Cyril Lucaris – A Contested Reformer

On June 27, 1638, a man was ordered to board a boat, presumably to move to a different location. Instead, the boat had barely left shore when some guards strangled him and threw his body overboard. This man, Cyril Lucaris, had risen to the highest rank in the Orthodox Church until the fury of his enemies rose to the point of murder.

Lucaris’s Life and Influences

Lucaris was born on November 13, 1572 to Greek parents, in a town named Candia, on the island of Crete. His baptismal name was Constantine, but he changed it to Cyril in 1595 when, after completing his studies in Venice and Padova, Italy, he was ordained priest.

            In his life choices, Lucaris relied much on the advice of his cousin Meletius Pegas, who was elected Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1590. A fierce opposer of the Roman Catholic Church, Pegas hoped for the unification of Orthodox and Coptic churches.

After some travels throughout what are now Poland, Ukraine, and southwestern Russia, where he came to understand the specific problems of the Orthodox Church in that region (particularly with a Roman Catholic group called the Uniates), Lucaris accepted Pegas’s invitation to move to Egypt. When Pegas died in 1601, Lucaris was elected to take his place as patriarch. Besides preaching, Lucaris worked to reform and revitalize the churches under his administration.

            In Egypt, Lucaris met another person who became highly influential in his life: Cornelius van Haag, Dutch ambassador to the Ottomans. Van Haag put Lucaris in touch with Dutch theologians, such as Jan Uytenbogaert (a pupil of Arminius) and David le Leu de Wilhelm, who remained in correspondence with Lucaris until his death. It was then that Lucaris first encountered the writings of John Calvin.

            Lucaris also engaged in correspondence with George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury, who invited him to send young Greeks to London to study theology. Lucaris sent, among others, a young Macedonian named Metrophanes Kritopoulos who, in spite of his initial interest in Protestant doctrines, ended up subscribing to the decisions of the 1638 Council of Constantinople that condemned Lucaris for his Protestant leanings.

Lucaris’s Reformation and Its Opponents

            The opposition to Lucaris started early. One of his main antagonists was Timothy II, Patriarch of Constantinople, who had first taken the patriarchate by paying a large sum of money. He denounced Lucaris as Lutheran and even sent out a mandate for his arrest. Lucaris responded that, if Timothy had read Luther, he would have found many similarities with his own beliefs (possibly a reference to Timothy’s opposition to the Roman Catholic Church).

            The Jesuits had also been among Lucaris’s enemies ever since Lucaris had visited Poland. When Timothy died short after attending a party held by Van Haas, the Jesuits spread the rumor that Van Haas had poisoned Timothy so that Lucaris could take his place. This rumor must not have taken root because Lucaris was promptly elected Patriarch of Constantinople.

            In his new capacity, Lucaris gave much emphasis to education, reforming the Patriarchal Academy and facilitating the installation of the first modern printing press in Constantinople, which allowed him to print theological works in Greek. He later arranged for the first translation of the New Testament from first-century Greek to the vernacular Greek of his day. This translation, undertaken by ieromonk Maximus Calliopolitus, was printed in Geneva in 1638. In the preface to this edition, Lucaris reiterated the importance of translating the Scriptures into the languages of the people, and the people’s right to read them. He met the immediate opposition of Dositheus of Jerusalem.

But the greatest opposition came in 1629, when a controversial Confession of Faith was published under his name in Geneva and dedicated to van Haas. This confession, among scathing remarks against the Roman Catholic Church, adopted several Protestant teachings, such as justification by faith alone, the superiority of Scripture over the authority of the Church, the acceptance of only two sacraments (baptism and Lord’s Supper) as instituted by Christ, and a rejection of transubstantiation and Purgatory. Most of the work, however, stood in line with the tradition of the Orthodox Church – including the veneration of icons, which the author allowed as long as they didn’t become objects of worship.

In reaction to this publication, two alternative Confessions were published by Orthodox theologians, one by Peter Mohila, Metropolitan of Kiev, and another by Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem. These reiterated some traditional doctrines, such as transubstantiation and the obtaining of eternal life through faith and works. Mohila was particularly strong against Protestants (calling them “wicked heretics”) and denounced Lucaris’s writings as “profane and imious.” It also limited the reading of Scriptures to biblical experts.

The fact that this Confession was printed in Latin caused some in the Orthodox Church to doubt its authorship (Lucaris spoke primarily Greek). While an early church council in Constantinople condemned both Lucaris and the Confession, later councils – particularly one held in Jerusalem in 1672, separated the two, proclaiming that Lucaris was faithful to the Orthodox faith while the Confession was spurious.

But since Lucaris never officially denied writing the Confession – even when under attacks – and added by his own hand some annotations to it, many scholars today concur he was the author. If so, he might have written it in Latin to reach a European audience before producing by his own hand the same Confession in Greek in 1631. Translations into other languages soon followed.

A Violent Death

Lucaris’s efforts ended abruptly in 1638, when the governor of Constantinople, backed by the Jesuits, arrested Lucaris and exiled him to one of his castles in the Bosphorus. This was only one step in a larger plot to kill Lucaris. The executioner was Sultan Murad IV, who had been persuaded that Lucaris was an enemy of his country. Jesuits, Orthodox, and Muslims were therefore involved in this plot. The murder on the boat was carried out by the sultan’s Janissary Guards.

Buried by his friends, Lucaris’s body was later dug up by his enemies who threw him again into the sea. This time, his friends buried the body in a safer location – the small monastery of St. Andrew on an island by the bay of Nicomedia.

Despite ongoing suspicions on the authorship of the Confession, in 2009 the Greek Orthodox patriarchate canonized Lucaris as a martyr. Today, many Protestants still consider him a Calvinist, while many in the Orthodox Church denounce these claims as fabrications. As it often happens, the truth might lie in the middle.

            An English translation of Lucaris’s Confession is available online[1] and a short book of his early sermons is in print.[2]

[2] Cyril Lucaris, Sermons, 1598-1602, Brill 1974.


Simonetta Carr