Theological Traditions and their Effect on Mariology

The Third Law of Theology - For every theologian there is an equal and opposite theologian.

The Third Law of Theology

We often forget our theological traditions have an important function; they serve to guide us in our hermeneutics, which affect our doctrine. Regarding the effect of tradition upon late Protestant doctrine, Peter Gillquist writes:

Saddled even more with late tradition is the Protestant movement. Whereas Rome generally has added to the faith, Protestantism has subtracted from it. In an effort to shake off Roman excesses, modern Protestants have sorely over-corrected their course. The reductionism that results cripples Protestant Christians in their quest for full maturity in Christ and in steering a steady course in doctrine and worship.

Mary has become a non-name; Holy Communion, a quarterly memorial; authority and discipline in the Church, a memory; doctrine, a matter of personal interpretation, constantly up for renegotiation. Name one Protestant denomination that has held on fully to the faith of its own founders — to say nothing of its adherence to the apostolic faith. (Gillquist 2009, 63)

Lutherans (and from them, the Protestants in general) assert two primary principles of interpretation. The first principle is the absolute oneness (or unicity) of the literal sense (sensus literalis unis est), by which they mean that each passage has only one literal meaning, as intended by the original author; the second principle is the internal consistency of Scripture (scriptura scripturam interpretatur). (Piepkorn, I Believe 2007, 290-291) The interpretive problem comes when we try to determine the literal sense of Scripture, and attempt to discover which passages of scripture should be used to interpret other passages. What is often missed, as Piepkorn reminds us, is that the principles of interpretation are secular, not theological, and apply equally to scripture as well as other critical enterprises. (Piepkorn, I Believe 2007, 291)

Piepkorn describes a problem that is often missed — that the conclusions of your scriptural interpretation depend to a great extent upon the place you start from. An Orthodox, a Catholic, a Lutheran, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist may well look at the same passages of scripture, apply the same rules of interpretation, and come to different conclusions about what the scriptures say. Each theological tradition would look at the conclusions of the others as “prima facie evidence of malice, blindness, or ignorance. …[I]n applying the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture” (scriptura scripturam interpretatur) we discover which scripture is in the nominative (scriptura) and which scripture is in the accusative (scripturam) not from the bible immediately, but from our theological tradition.” (Piepkorn, The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions 2007, xxx)

The fact that the principles of scriptural interpretation are products of human reason does not mean we should discard them, but it does mean that we should use them with care. It is not always clear exactly how these tools should be used. The famous principle, scripture interprets scripture, functions differently in different hands. We often think of the principles of scriptural interpretation as a roadmap that guides us to our proper destination. Yet a great many theological traditions claim that scripture interprets scripture, and each of them arrives at a different theological destination. The problem, as Piepkorn defines it, is that “scripture interprets scripture” leaves open the question of how to identify which passage of scripture is being used to interpret another passage. In other words, the principle itself tells us that one passage of scripture should be used to interpret another passage, but knowing that does nothing to tell us which is which.

The theological argument from the sufficiency and the perspicuity of the Sacred Scriptures was fortified with the basic principle of classic Lutheran hermeneutics: Scriptura scripturam interpretatur. Although it still left open the serious question of how one identified the nominative Scriptura interpretans [the Scripture passage that is doing the interpretation] and differentiated it from the accusative scriptura interpretanda [the Scripture passage to be interpreted], the implication was that every sober student of the Sacred Scriptures would finally have to come out at the same place theologically, regardless of his epoch and the other aspects of his Sitz im Leben [setting in life]. (Piepkorn, The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions 2007, xxix)

Piepkorn’s argument is based on Luther’s concept of the perspicuity (clearness) of Scripture, which formed a major part of Luther’s argument in his “The Bondage of the Will” — his answer to the Diatribe of Erasmus. The basic thrust of this argument is expressed in Luther’s famous answer at the Diet of Worms:

 I cannot think myself bound to believe either the Pope or his councils; for it is very clear, not only that they have often erred, but often contradicted themselves. Therefore, unless I am convinced by Scripture or clear reasons, my belief is so confirmed by the scriptural passages I have produced, and my conscience so determined to abide by the word of God, that I neither can nor will retract any thing; for it is neither safe nor innocent to act against any man’s conscience. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. May God help me. Amen. (Luther, The Bondage of the Will 1823, xvii)

Luther’s principles of scriptural interpretation are based upon the idea that scripture is clear and open to individual interpretation. His famous (and perhaps apocryphal) statement expresses the primacy of the individual conscience over and against the Catholic church, in this specific instance. Yet once Luther opened this door, it was difficult to close it again. Even though the Lutheran Book of Concord is perhaps the largest and most comprehensive confessional statements in all of Christendom, it does not suffice to create doctrinal unity. In fact, the Lutherans have become increasingly sectarian even amongst themselves, and continue to split over issues of conscience to this day.

The fact is that the scriptures are not always clear, and are often confusing. Professor Peter Bouteneff quotes a number of ancient Christian authors on this subject, beginning with Tertullian. “Scripture, writes Tertullian, is complex by design, containing material that God knew would be wrongly understood, because ‘there must be heresies’.”[i] (P. C. Bouteneff 2008, 90) Boutenoff goes on to explain that the complexity of Scripture requires a variety of methodologies be used to get at the meaning. “Indeed, Scripture is designed by God in such a way that multiple methods would need to be used in order to read in terms of the regula. [Regula fidei, or rule of faith.] As T. P. O’Malley has shown, biblical language has a certain “otherness” or “strangeness to it, wherein terms do not always mean what people think they do.” (P. C. Bouteneff 2008, 91)

It is because of their complexity and otherness that the conclusions we draw from Sacred Scriptures are not determined by the proper or improper application of our hermeneutic, but are in fact determined by our starting place, our theological tradition. This then points out the importance of theological tradition in the life of the church, for it provides a common starting point for our scriptural interpretation. An individual or a church body that jettisons theological tradition altogether does so on the basis of suppositions that determines the final outcome of their scriptural interpretation. Thus a church body that begins by jettisoning their theological traditions is really exchanging one set of theological traditions for another; and, being guided by a different set of traditions, the church body inevitably comes to different theological conclusions. Therefore scripture is not self-authenticating, as some like to say, for the dogmatic content of scripture, and indeed the canon of scripture itself, is determined to a great extent by ones initial suppositions.

It is impossible to jettison tradition; instead, we trade one set of traditions for another. What we see among theological Liberals is the interpretation of scripture by means of a rationalistic, enlightenment tradition. What we see among conservative Protestants is a tradition that tries to reject the rationalistic, enlightenment tradition. The United States has developed its own peculiar theological traditions as well, derived from a romantic notion of lawlessness, of every man for himself, of a frontier ethos; these theological traditions include a rejection of the communal aspects of Christianity in favor of an individualist Christianity, aptly summarized in the country song “Me and Jesus” by Tom T. Hall:

Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
Me and Jesus, got it all worked out.
Me and Jesus, got our own thing goin’.
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.

Many older Protestant hymnals contain the song “In The Garden” (by C. Austin Miles), which expresses much the same sentiment.

I come to the garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses,
And the voice I hear falling on my ear,
The Son of God discloses.


And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

The literary critic Harold Bloom makes a similar statement in the opening paragraph of his book The American Religion.

Freedom, in the context of the American Religion, means being alone with God or with Jesus, the American God or the American Christ. In social reality, this translates as solitude, at least in the inmost sense. The soul stands apart, and something deeper than the soul, the Real Me or self or spark, thus is made free to be utterly alone with a God who is also quite separate and solitary, that is, a free God or God of freedom. …No American pragmatically feels free if she is not alone, and no American ultimately concedes that she is part of nature. (Bloom 1992, 15)

The morphology or shape of one’s theology can often be derived simply by determining their theological traditions; in a similar fashion, if we determine a person’s theological traditions, we can often guess at their theology. For an example of how this works in practice, let us return to a contentious issue in modern Lutheran circles, one alluded to in the introduction to this paper — the question of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Two different Lutheran scholars, looking at the same scriptures and Lutheran confessions, and reviewing the same arguments, will come to very different conclusions — one wholeheartedly accepting the perpetual virginity of Mary, the other adamantly rejecting it. This does not indicate that one or the other of them has acted in bad faith, or in ignorance, or is simply blind to the truth. Instead, it indicates that each scholar began from a different theological starting point, one based on different theological traditions.

Basically, you can tell what theological traditions a person comes from by the different conclusions they draw from the identical arguments and passages of scripture, or by which passage of scripture they use to determine the meaning of other passages. Therefore, despite what Protestants are often told, tradition is important in the life of the church, for the starting point of theology generally determines its morphology. This is amply illustrated by the manner in which different faith traditions approach the Annunciation, and specifically the initial greeting by the angel Gabriel. Unfortunately, it was not possible to find a wide assortment of modern, Protestant, & authoritative sources who dealt specifically with the meaning and import of the Annunciation—more’s the pity.


Matthew J. Slick, writing from a Presbyterian and Reformed background,[ii] says the Catholics derive their translation “full of grace” from the Vulgate, a Latin mistranslation of the bible, rather than from the original Greek. “What does the Greek say here for ‘highly favored one?’ It is the single Greek word kecharitomene and means highly favored, make accepted, make graceful, etc. It does not mean ‘full of grace’ which is ‘plaras karitos’ (plaras = full and karitos = Grace) in the Greek.” (Slick 2002)

Slick then provides two word definitions — one from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible and one from the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Greek, both of which give a definition for charitoo (caritow) instead of kecharitomene (kecaritwmenh). Now it is true that kecharitomene is the perfect passive participle form of charitoo, but that does not mean that one can substitute the definition of charitoo for that of kecharitomene. In fact, as Fr. Manelli reminds us, the Greek expression kecharitomene is not easily translatable. (Manelli 2005, 162)  And it is at this point, having conflated the definitions of two Greek words, that Slick then switches to English to find places where Protestant translators use the phrase “full of grace”. In other words, he accuses the Latins of basing their theology upon a translation, then uses a translation as a means of arguing against the Latins.

The phrase “full of grace” in Greek is “plaras karitos” and it occurs in only two places in the New Testament, neither one is in reference to Mary.

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

The first citation refers to Jesus who is obviously full of grace. Jesus is God in flesh, the crucified and risen Lord, who cleanses us from our sins. In the second citation it is Stephen who is full of grace. We can certainly affirm that Jesus was conceived without sin and remained sinless, but can we conclude this about Stephen as well? Certainly not. The phrase “full of grace” does not necessitate sinlessness by virtue of its use. In Stephen’s case it signifies that he was “full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” along with faith and the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:3,5). But Stephen was a sinner. (Slick 2002)

So what Slick is saying is that we should be careful in reading too much into the statement of Gabriel. “[Mary] was graced with the privilege of being able to bear the Son of God.” (Slick 2002) In fact, although Slick doesn’t put it as crassly this, we might not be too far off if we accuse Slick of saying that God was doing Mary a favor by using her as an incubator.

Dispensationalist & Reformed

John MacArthur is a pastor and prolific author, writing from a Dispensationalist & Reformed perspective (which is a curious combination, neither fish nor fowl). The John MacArthur Collection, hosted on the Bible Bulletin Board, contains an alphabetized list of questions and answers, none of which concern Mary. It is almost as if Mary is an inconsequential figure. But in a two part article, MacArthur does provide information on what he calls the “Idolatry of Mary Worship” in Catholic Dogma. Unfortunately, MacArthur does not deal with Luke 1:28, which a key verse for any discussion of the topic. Instead, he begins by discussing peripheral matters, things that are merely derivative from an orthodox understanding of the angelic greeting: “Hail, full of grace”. He quotes from 1 Tim 1:3, where the apostle warns against certain men who teach strange doctrines, and not to pay attention to myths. (MacArthur, Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 1 n.d.) Interestingly, he fails to notice that it is the concept of Mary as just another woman that is the aberration in the history of the church. MacArthur deals almost entirely with secondary and tertiary sources, and that in a most superficial way. He mentions a book by St. Alphonsus Delaguarie entitled The Glories of Mary, a history of devotion to Mary which seems to form the basis of his argument. What he fails to do is deal in any substantive way with any authoritative document — not the Catechism of the Catholic Church, not the papal bulls, nor the papal encyclicals. He does quote from Vatican II, and from some of the Catholic Saints, but fails to quote from the Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. He quotes from the Ineffabilis Deus of Pope Pius IX, which established the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but only to establish the specific content of the doctrine. (MacArthur, Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 2 n.d.) MacArthur never asks the question of why the Catholics (and to some extent, the Orthodox) believe as they do, nor how they exegete the passages in question — he assumes it the entire edifice is idolatrous devil-worship, and that is that. (MacArthur, Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 2 n.d.) Based on his writings, you would think the Catholics do no analysis at all. Interestingly enough, although MacArthur speaks of himself as an exegete, he does precious little exegesis in this area. (MacArthur, Nothing But the Truth 2007) It is as though someone tried to deal with Lutheran doctrine without dealing with the Lutheran Confessions, or tried to deal with Reformed doctrine without dealing with Calvin, Zwingli, and the Synod of Dort. MacArthur seems unwilling to admit that Catholics might have an exegetical basis for their dogma, whether he agrees with their analysis or not. In his 26 pages of anti-Catholic invective, MacArthur is clearly coming from a theological tradition that is actively hostile to any form of Mariology, to any indication that Mary might be special, and to any sense that Mary might have a unique place in the plan of God. Moreover, it is evident that the reason for the denial of Mariology is solely its association with Catholicism.

A Lutheran Response to Mariology

Abbé Lucien Dhalenne was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1945, and later was converted and served the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of France. In his Lutheran response to the conclusion of the 1954 “Marian Year” by Pope Pius XII, he made the following comment:

Where do we find the Scriptural basis for the mariology of the Roman Church? Some believe that they find it in Gen. 3:15, where God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” Isa. 7:14 is also cited: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” — In the interpretation of these passages we agree with Rome to this extent, that we see in them prophecy of the birth of the Savior, His conception by a virgin, and the victory of man over Satan in and through Christ. But to derive the theses for mariolatry from them seems like a bold stroke, in which we have to deal with anything but theology. For in Gen. 3:15 the term woman (האשׁה) designates Eve, and not Mary, as the mariologists insist, cf. vv. 12, 13, and 16. The woman’s Seed, Christ, in the protevangelium is the descendant of Eve, the first woman, who introduced transgression. He (Hebrew: הוא), not Eve (Vulgate: ipsa), shall bruise the head of the serpent. The seed of Jacob, in whom all the families of the earth shall be blessed, Gen. 28:14, was not his immediate descendant, but a distant descendant, Christ. Isaiah 7:14 does not support Roman mariology either, although here the miraculous birth of Christ by a virgin is prophesied most distinctly. Here the prophet is giving the dynasty of David the sign of divine judgment, that not it, but the untouched, unknown virgin shall bear the Messiah. By a miracle of God the prophecy of judgment is changed into a prophecy of grace. The emphasis shifts plainly also from the virgin, who is only God’s maid, to Immanuel, the God-with- us, cf. Isaiah 8:8, 10. The Roman theologians also appeal to Luke 1:28, which reads: “And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee,” in order to justify at least the Roman doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary. But with the best of good intentions we cannot find any support for that doctrine here. In that case we should have to attribute to Stephen also an immaculate conception, for of him it is said Acts 6:8: “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.” (Dhalenne 1954)

In my opinion this statement says more about Dhalenne than it says about Mary. He indicates the Protoevangelium applies to Eve and Jesus, not to Mary, even though the angel Gabriel stated Mary would conceive in her womb of the Holy Ghost, and that she would bring forth a son who would be called the Son of God — a clear fulfillment of the protoevangelium. Dhalenne’s position turns Mary into an incubator, and the Holy Spirit into an incubus. Dhalenne also rejects the importance of Mary in Isa 7:14, changing the sign from the Virgin who conceives and bears a son who is to be called Immanuel, to an Immanuel who is his own sign apart from the virgin birth. In fact, by reinterpreting Isa 7:14 in this manner, Dhalenne has made the virgin birth unnecessary and superfluous. It is clear that Dhalenne has rejected Roman Catholicism, and in rejecting Roman Catholicism, he has also rejected an entire theological history, including the theological history the Lutherans inherited from the Roman Catholics. It is this rejection of the theological tradition, whole and entire, that fueled enthusiasts (Schwärmerei) and radicals like Karlstadt, against whom Luther fought for the last half of his career.


Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Bouteneff, Peter C. Beginnings: Ancient Christian Readings of the Biblical Creation Narratives. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Dhalenne, Abbé Lucien. “Antichristian Mariology.” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Essay File. 1954. (accessed October 14, 2008).

Gillquist, Peter. Becoming Orthodox: A Journy to the Ancient Christian Faith. Third. Ben Lomond: Conciliar Press, 2009.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Translated by Edward Thomas Vaughan. London: Forgotten Books, 1823.

MacArthur, John F. “Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 1.” Bible Bulletin Board. n.d. (accessed January 19, 2009).

—. “Exposing the Idolatry of Mary Worship: Catholic Dogma, Pt. 2.” Bible Bulletin Board. n.d. (accessed January 19, 2009).

—. “Nothing But the Truth.” Bible Bulletin Board. 2007. (accessed January 20, 2009).

Manelli, Stefano. All Generations Shall Call Me Blessed. New Bedford: Academy of the Immaculate, 2005.

Piepkorn, Arthur Carl. “I Believe.” In The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, by Arthur Carl Piepkorn, 282-295. Mansfield: CEC Press, 2007.

—. The Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Phillip J Secker and Robert Kolb. Vol. 2. Mansfield: CEC Press, 2007.

Slick, Matthew J. “Mary, full of grace, and Luke 1:28.” CARM Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Jan 2002. (accessed January 17, 2009).

[i] The Orthodox church disagrees with Tertullian on this; the scriptures are complex because God is speaking to us about things that are too high for us to understand — God is speaking to us in baby talk. It should also be noted that Tertullian ended his life as a heretic, which is why he is not a Saint in the Orthodox church.

[ii] Matthew J. Slick received a Bachelors in Social Science from Concordia Irvine before receiving his M.Div from Westminster Theological Seminary.