Luther’s Imagined Ethiopia and the Challenges of Global Exchange

19 Nov

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)
by Andrew DeCort, University of Chicago Divinity School
The thesis of David Daniels’s recent Sightings column, “Martin Luther and Ethiopian Christianity: Historical Traces,” is exciting and important amidst the recent celebrations of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. In short, the Reformation was not “a solely European event” but was marked by “global exchanges” traceable to Ethiopia. Thus, “the standard narrative of the Reformation will need to be revised.”

Photo Credit: Andrew DeCort

Daniels’s argument here is significantly more modest than in his earlier, shorter article, “Honor the Reformation’s African Roots” (Commercial Appeal), which went viral soon before October 31. He shifts from speaking of “African roots” to “historical traces,” from naming “Ethiopian Christianity” to describing “Ethiopian Christianity, as understood by Luther.” He retreats from making claims to asking questions and suggesting possible connections. I believe this modesty—though less likely to go viral—makes Daniels’s second “experiment” more accurate and responsible vis-à-vis “global exchanges” in Christian faith today, especially with respect to Ethiopia.

“European interest” in Ethiopia generally goes back a thousand years before this specific interest in Ethiopian Christianity, to the time of Homer and Herodotus. In his brilliant study Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society, the late Donald Levine (my mentor in Ethiopian Studies at the University of Chicago) detailed the ancient and extensive interest in “Ethiopia” across Europe. But what Levine crucially demonstrated is that these “conventional images” of Ethiopia were often little more than European projections, which “tell us less about Ethiopian realities than they do about the history of the world outside.”

Unfortunately, it appears to me that “Luther’s Ethiopia” also squarely merits Levine’s critique, and thus Daniels’s Luther ironically becomes as much a representative of European misrepresentations of Ethiopia as an example of a reformer whose movement may have been inspired by it. While it enriches our picture of Luther to learn that he admired Ethiopian Christianity, his admiration was riddled with ignorance and inaccuracy. This is not to dismiss Luther smugly for not having reliable intercultural knowledge, which would have been extremely difficult to obtain in the sixteenth century. It is to point out that Daniels’s Luther highlights the European mischaracterization (colonization?) of Ethiopian narratives as much as the promise of “global exchanges” between European and Ethiopian Christianities.

First, Daniels gives us several contextless quotes from Luther about Ethiopia. The first ambiguously refers to Ethiopia as a place destined for “conversion,” likely alluding to the famous (but not likely Ethiopia-referencing) Psalm 68:31. The second refers to Ethiopia as a place of “ardent faith,” which was and is surely true, but is also one of Levine’s “conventional images,” concealing more than it reveals. The third and fourth quotes oddly refer to Ethiopia as “the church of the Gentiles”—odd since Ethiopian Orthodoxy prides itself on its piety being deeply informed by Judaism, including keeping kosher laws and observing the Sabbath. (There were fierce debates raging in Ethiopian monasteries in the generations before Luther, which became deadly battles, over whether the “Sabbath” is on Saturday or Sunday or both.) In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church with its Kebra Negast (“Glory of Kings”) claims to be the direct descendant of King Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, to possess the Ark of the Covenant in Axum, and to have replaced Israel as God’s specially chosen people. Anyone who had the slightest familiarity with Ethiopian Orthodoxy would not call it a church of “Gentiles.” Moreover, it is unpleasant to speculate how anti-Semitic Luther might have evaluated and ridiculed Ethiopian Christianity’s Jewishness.

Second, aside from these fragmentary quotes, Daniels refers to Luther’s “narrative of Ethiopia” as the piece of the puzzle that should “attract the attention of researchers.” But here, again, Luther’s narrative—like so many European narratives of Ethiopia—was mostly misguided:

(1) As Daniels himself points out, Luther was (excusably) unaware that there is no empirical evidence of Christianity in Ethiopia before the imperial conversion under Ezana in the fourth century.

(2) While Luther apparently saw Ethiopian Orthodoxy as “uncorrupted by the Roman papacy,” the Ethiopian church had its own patriarch or “pope” with all of its hierarchy, just like Catholicism. In fact, the pope-like meddling of Ethiopian emperors in doctrine and piety around this time would likely have horrified Luther, including Zara Yaqob’s mediatory role for Mary in Christian salvation. (Incidentally, Zara Yaqob is venerated as an indigenous saint in the Orthodox Church to this day.)

(3) Luther’s apparent appreciation for the non-Catholic “apostolic practices” in Ethiopian Christianity was also largely misguided. First, it is questionable whether Ethiopian Orthodox Christians practiced the Eucharist in the way Luther assumed. In fact, to this day, few adult Orthodox Christians take the Eucharist at all after childhood, because they see it as too holy to risk defiling. Second, with regard to “vernacular Scriptures,” much of the liturgy in Orthodox corporate worship (which is wafting in my window as I write this) is in Ge’ez, the ancient Ethiopic equivalent of Latin, which most ordinary Ethiopians cannot understand, nor could they in the sixteenth century. Thus, there is a dynamic in Ethiopian worship very similar to the liturgical language rejected by Luther, which contemporary Protestants do not hesitate to point out polemically. Third, although the Orthodox Church may not have written and sold formal “indulgences,” the idea that our works—especially gifts to the church and the poor—affect our eternal destiny after death is a deep part of Ethiopian Orthodox spirituality. In fact, Protestants today regularly condemn the Orthodox for believing in “works righteousness” due to this conviction. Fourth, the Orthodox actually see marriage as extremely holy (if not a sacrament), and therefore typically forego the traditional Eucharist at their weddings, lest they defile God’s covenant in the event of getting divorced. (It would be interesting to learn if this was also the pattern in sixteenth-century Ethiopia.)

Thus, Luther’s “narrative of Ethiopia” was deeply inaccurate, if not mostly imagined.

Finally, Daniels informs us that Luther had an encounter with an Ethiopian Orthodox deacon named Mikael (“Michael”), “a new voice in his ecumenical dialogue,” to whom Luther happily extended hospitality. Apparently Mikael served as a confirmation for Luther of his views about Ethiopian Christianity.

But it’s worth asking about the possible translation complications that may have limited the depth of Luther’s theological discussion with Mikael. (How often have foreigners in discussion with Ethiopians excitedly assumed that they said one thing when they really said another?) Given how thin Luther’s image of Ethiopian Christianity appears to have been, I question how deep his discussions with Mikael were. (A researcher should trace how Luther’s views of Ethiopia changed or remained the same after 1534.) Moreover, Luther’s interaction with Mikael happened during the time of Ahmed Gragn’s destructive jihad in Ethiopia, when the Christian Ethiopian state desperately needed foreign assistance—which eventually came from Portugal. How might this political context have affected Mikael’s affirming engagement with Luther?

Overall, the probability that Ethiopian Christianity had “more fidelity to the Christian tradition”— as Luther himself would have understood “fidelity”— is extremely low. Of course, it is entirely possible that Luther thought “the Church in Europe needed to be reformed in the direction of the Church of Ethiopia.” But rather than a mark of authentic inheritance or a border-crossing compliment on Luther’s part, this is really proof of how little Luther actually knew about, or understood, Ethiopian Christianity. A generation before Luther, a monk named Abba Estifanos, who is sometimes cast as an Ethiopian forerunner of Luther, was tortured to death by the Orthodox hierarchy and condemned as a heretic—cold “proof” of the church’s affirmation, much less initiation, of Luther’s reform! (Could it be that Mikael was an exiled follower of Abba Estifanos, who wanted a radically reformed church like Luther?)

Daniels’s article, then, should indeed lead us to question the ingrained image of “the Reformation as totally the product of ‘western’ civilization,” and happily so, especially given the “outside history” (Levine) of Trump’s emphatically white “evangelical” America. But it should also remind us of the dangers of caricature and outright mischaracterization (colonization?) of others’ narratives when seeking global exchanges.

This is not to say that ecumenical dialogue is too difficult to be worthwhile, but simply that it is as hard—perhaps harder—than the brash work of reform, whether in 1517 or in 2017. Ethiopia, including its Christianities, was and is so much more than “Luther’s Ethiopia,” and we would be wise to take as much from Luther’s errors as we do from his insights.

And this lesson would be a wholly catholic one: to question our assumptions, listen more, and allow others to tell their own narratives as much as possible.


    – Daniels, David D. “Honor the Reformation’s African Roots.” Commercial Appeal. October 21, 2017.

    – —. “Martin Luther and Ethiopian Christianity: Historical Traces.” Sightings. November 2, 2017.

    – DeCort, Andrew. “How Not to Celebrate the Reformation: The Imperative of Responsible Sensitivity for Theological Education Amidst Religious Complexity and Conflict.” Blog of the University of Chicago Divinity School’s Craft of Teaching Program. November 7, 2017.

    – The Ethiopian Royal Chronicles. Ed. Richard Pankhurst. Oxford University Press, 1967.

    – The Ge’ez Acts of Abba Estifanos of Gwendagwende. Trans. Getatchew Haile. Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium 620. Peeters Publishing, 2006.

    – Haile, Getatchew. The Mariology of Emperor Zar’a Ya’eqob of Ethiopia. Orientalia Christiana Analecta 242. Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1992.

    – Hailu, Afework. Jewish/Hebraic Cultural Formation in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Forthcoming from Langham Literature.

    – Kaplan, Steven. The Monastic Holy Man and the Christianization of Early Solomonic Ethiopia. Studien zur Kulturkunde 73. Franz B. Steiner, 1984.

    – The Kebra Nagast. Trans. Miguel Brooks. LMH Publishing, 2001.

    – Levine, Donald. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. The University of Chicago Press, 1974 and 2000.

    – Sellassie, Sergew Hable. Ancient and Medieval Ethiopian History to 1270. United Printers, 1972.

    – Tamrat, Taddesse. Church and State in Ethiopia: 1270-1527. Oxford University Press, 1972.


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