Monergism, Synergism, and Hermeneutics

Monergism vs. Synergism: God thowing a lifeline vs. using a fishhook.

Monergism vs. Synergism

One of the key issues in the Protestant Reformation is whether humans cooperate with God in their own salvation. Early Protestants denied, with different emphases, that humanity had any role in their own salvation. This view is known as Monergism, which means that Salvation is all God’s work and has nothing to do with man’s efforts. Later Protestants split into two camps on this issue. Lutherans and the Reformed (a.k.a. Calvinists) affirming that God alone was responsible for humanity’s salvation. Methodists and many Baptists and Pentecostals adopt a position known as Synergism, which means that humanity cooperates with God in its own salvation. While this is a huge debate among Protestants, Synergism is the default position of (to my knowledge) all other Christian communions.

Having grown up as a Fundamentalist, the idea that humanity cooperates with God was an affront to the saving work of Christ. The battleground between Monergism and Synergism was fought using proof texts from the New Testament. Each side had their own supporting scriptural texts and explained away those of the opposing side. Even as a boy, however, I struggled with this. As a Monergist who believed Scripture means what it says, I found it hard to explain away passages like: “For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Ro 10:13) On the other hand, Jesus says: “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”

The argument seemed to be along the lines of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Does salvation have anything to do with a person seeking after God, or is it God who causes people to seek after Him? Scripture itself resolves this problem, and in a rather explicit fashion. The prophet Zechariah writes: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.” (Ze 1:3)

Given that Protestants hold to the principle of Scripture Alone,[1] how do we move from the clear statement of Zechariah to the Protestant teaching of Monergism? For this, we have to discuss the subject of hermeneutics which Protestants use as a control on the interpretation of Scripture.[2] Hermeneutics consists of a number of rules which govern the interpretation of Scripture. Given this, some speak of hermeneutics as a science.[3] However, these rules can be applied differently by different people, which is why it is sometimes called an art. The idea of the pastor and theologian as an artist implies that they bring something of themselves to the text that guides their application of the rules. David Jasper writes:

Hermeneutics is about the most fundamental ways in which we perceive the world, think, and understand. It has a philosophical root in which we call epistemology — that is, the problem of how we come to know anything at all, and actually how we thing and legitimate the claims we make to know the truth.[4]

Hermeneutics, then, is not a scientific endeavor, nor can the rules be applied with mathematical rigor. It might be helpful to think of hermeneutics not as rules, but as a set of tools that can be applied to the job at hand. A skilled carpenter knows to use the right tool for the job, while an unskilled homeowner might cause damage by using a tool inappropriately. But even skilled carpenters vary in their approach to the job, using different tools and techniques for the same job.

Getting back to the subject of Monergism vs. Synergism, it would appear that Protestants approach the Scriptures with a particular worldview that guides their search for truth. To me, the passage in Ze 1:3 is clear that a person’s turning to God is required for God to turn to them. I would argue the following hermeneutical rule applies: “Interpret the obscure in light of the clear – not vice versa.”[5] However, Richard D. Phillips seems to apply a different set of rules in his commentary on Zechariah when he applies this text to Christians only. He writes:

If you are a Christian, but backslidden into sin and spiritual decline, remember the history lesson Zechariah placed before his generation. Your sin will not bring blessing but ruin, however sweet its deceptive song in your ears. If you persist in sin you will at the least bring upon yourself God’s chastisement, and at the worst you will prove that you have really not believed at all.[6]

Note that the author’s Reformed Theology forms the basis for his interpretation of this clear passage. He interprets this passage both in the light of Irresistible Grace and the Perseverance of the Saints.[7] For Richard D. Phillips, this passage illustrates the wrath of God upon sinners. By contrast, St. Gregory Palamas uses this passage to demonstrate the mercy of God. He writes:

Do you see the extent of God’s wrath? Yet, “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil of men” (Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2), though only for those who repent and turn from their wicked ways. “Turn ye unto me and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord” (Zech. 1:3). “Thou shalt turn”, it says, “to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; for the Lord thy God is a merciful God; he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, but thou shalt find him, the Lord thy God, an help, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul in thine affliction” (cf. Deut. 4:30–31, 29).[8]

Different presuppositions, different toolsets, different interpretations of what is, on the face of it, a very clear passage.


  1. “The doctrine that the Bible alone is the only infallible rule for faith and practice, and that the Bible alone contains all the knowledge that is necessary for salvation.” (Trenham 2015, 263)
  2. “Hermeneutics is defined as: The science and art of interpretation. …Hermeneutics is required to provide adequate controls for interpretation.” (Carlson 2014, 1)
  3. “Hermeneutics is considered a science because it has rules, and these rules can be classified in an orderly system.” (Henry A. Virkler 2007, 16)
  4. (Jasper 2004, 3)
  5. (Carlson 2014, 72)
  6. Richard Phillips also addresses this passage to non-Christians, but fails to address the obvious issues of Monergism vs. Synergism. (Phillips 2007, 15)
  7. Note, too, that this is what Protestants call an “application” derived from his use of hermeneutical rules. For a Protestant, the “application” of a passage is, in essence the last three of the ancient four senses of scripture: The allegorical, the moral, and the analogical.
  8. (St Gregory Palamas 2013, Kindle Locations 148-153)


Carlson, Norman E. 2014. Hermeneutics: An Antidote for 21st Century Cultic and Mind Control Phenomena. Colorado Springs: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Henry A. Virkler, Karelynne Ayayo. 2007. Herneneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation. 2nd Edition. Grand Rapics: Baker Academic.

Jasper, David. 2004. A Short Introduction to Hermeneutics. Louisevill: Westminster John Knox Press.

Phillips, Richard D. 2007. Zechariah. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing Company.

St Gregory Palamas. 2013. On Bearing Difficulties: To Those Who Find Hard to Bear All the Different Kinds of Difficulties Which Come Upon Us From All Sides. Kindle Edition. Edited by Christopher Veniamin. Dalton: Mount Thabor Publishing.

Trenham, Josiah. 2015. Rock and Sand: An Orthodox Appraisal of the Protestant Reformers and Their Teachings. Columbia: Newrome Press LLC.

This is My Body: Hermeneutics and the Eucharist

The Eucharist - Priest communing a young child.

The Eucharist

The first written account of The Last Supper is found in 1 Cor 11: 20-34. The Synoptic Gospels also contain an accounting (Mt 26:26-28; Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20). In all these accounts we find the words “This is my body.” The meaning of this phrase was settled for more than 1500 years — Jesus was referring to his actual flesh and blood. Then came the Reformation; its hostility towards the Roman Catholic Church formed the basis for scriptural interpretation.

In general, Protestants claim a certain scientific basis for their individual interpretations of scripture. They claim to have principles of interpretation which, when applied correctly, provide the correct interpretation.[1] Even the Lutherans, who accept the literal interpretation of Christ’s words, adopted explanatory wording which is problematic. In rejecting the ideas of Impanation (that Christ is imparted to the bread and wine), Consubstantiation (that Christ is next to the elements), and Transubstantiation (that the bread and wine are changed into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine), the Lutherans adopted the position that Christ was present “in, with and under” the bread and wine.[2] In attempting to reject rationalistic explanations for Christ’s Real Presence, Lutherans nonetheless created a dogmatic formulation that suffices for an explanation — the very thing they were trying to avoid.

At the Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli attempted to resolve their theological differences. They came to an agreement on 14 of 15 articles, but the one point that divided them was the phrase hoc est corpus meum (this is my body). Luther accepted Christ’s words as written, while Zwingli could not accept that Christ could be locally present at the right hand of God the Father, and also be present at the Eucharist. Vincent Medina notes this argument is fundamentally about a difference in Christology.[3] The problem is what happened at the Incarnation: did the Son divest Himself of certain attributes in order to be contained within a human body, or did the Son take humanity into Himself? How can the Son be always present and filling all things if He is circumscribed by human form?[4]

Modern Protestants take their cue from Zwingli in rejecting the idea that the phrase “This is my body is anything other than a symbol. They apply their supposedly scientific methods of interpretation to the text, trying to determine exactly what type of figure of speech Jesus was using, and which word is the symbolic portion of the statement. In this they cannot agree.

Hal Schee and E.W. Bullinger are two people who agree that the phrase “This is my body” is symbolic and that the important word is “is”. Yet they give very different explanations for why this is so. Hal Schee writes: “In Aramaic (as in Hebrew), the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense is implied, not explicitly stated; as such, when Jesus says ‘this is my body’ or ‘this is my blood’, his meaning should be taken as symbolic.”[5] E. W. Bullinger’s explanation is more detailed, and seemingly more scientific. Bullinger acknowledges that Hebrew “has no verb substantive or copula answering to the Greek and English verb “to be”. …In the Greek, as we shall see below, whenever a Metaphor is intended, the verb substantive must be used; otherwise it is often omitted according to the Hebrew usage.”[6] The preceding passage comes in the middle of the first four pages about the use of Metaphor in the bible. But when Bullinger gets to a discussion of the phrase “This is my body” his discussion takes on an entirely different and hostile tone.

“Few passages have been more perverted than these simple words. Rome has insisted on the literal or the figurative sense of words just as it suits her own purpose, and not at all according the laws of philology and the true science of language. …So the Metaphor, ‘This is my body,’ has been forced to teach false doctrine by being translated literally. …Luther himself was misled, through his ignorance of this simple law of figurative language. In his controversy with Zwingle, he obstinately persisted in maintaining the literal sense of the figure, and thus forced it to have a meaning which it never has. He thus led the whole of Germany into his error!”[7]

It is only after this verbal onslaught that Bullinger adds to his description of Metaphor. “The whole figure, in a metaphor, lies, as we have said, in the verb substantive ‘IS’; and not in either of the two nouns;[8] and it is a remarkable fact that, when a pronoun is used instead of one of the nouns (as it is here), and the two nouns are of different genders, the pronoun is always made to agree in gender with that noun to which the meaning is carried across, and not with the noun from which it is carried, and to which it properly belongs. This at once shows us that a figure is being employed; when a pronoun, which ought, according to the laws of language, to agree in gender with its own noun, is changed, and made to agree with the noun which, by metaphor, represents it. Here, for example, the pronoun, ‘this’ (τοϋτο, touto), is neuter, and is thus made to agree with ‘body’ (σώμά, soma), which is neuter, and not with bread (άρτος, artos), which is feminine.”[9] Bullinger goes on for six pages building his case that the phrase “This is my body” is a Metaphor or Representation — “A Declaration that one Thing is (or represents) another; or, Comparison by Representation.”[10]

I find Bullinger’s hubris astounding. He claims to have finally discovered the truth in 1898, a truth that had been hidden for nearly 1,900 years. All biblical scholarship throughout history was dismissed out of hand, to be replaced by Bullinger’s ideology. I also find it interesting that instead of defining the undergirding philology at the beginning of his nine page article on metaphors, he buries this until he comes to the passage “This is my body”. Now it is true the preceding three pages mostly covered Old Testament metaphors, and only now are we dealing with Greek texts.[11] However, the proper place for this discussion would have been immediately upon beginning with the New Testament, not waiting until a specific passage was in view. Moreover, once Bullinger begins dealing with the phrase “This is my body”, he abandons all pretense of working his way through the New Testament metaphors, but devotes the rest of his article to proving that “This is my body” is a metaphor.

Bullinger, like many Protestants, abandons the principles of Protestant Hermeneutics when it comes to this passage. There are many different formulations[12] of these, but here are a few.

  • Interpret scripture in harmony with other scripture. (Protestants usually fail to deal with John’s gospel, which does not contain an account of the Lord’s Supper, but instead provides its theological rationale. For example: “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” (Jo 6:53-56.)
  • Interpret the unclear in light of the clear. (Once again, Jesus’s meaning is clear when taken in context with His other discourses.)
  • Derive normative theological doctrine from didactic passages that deal with a particular doctrine explicitly. (This expands upon the previous two principles. It is not enough that a passage be clear, but that it be didactic. The discourses of Jesus are exceedingly clear, while the parables are intentionally obscure.)

Using the Protestant’s own principles of biblical interpretation, it should be clear that Jesus’ meaning was not symbolic — that Jesus was not using figurative language. The Jesus repeated references to himself as the bread of life, and to the eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood make this abundantly clear. Instead, Protestants impose their own prejudices and preconceived notions upon this passage, rejecting its literal interpretation in harmony with other passages of scripture. In the case of Bullinger, his hostility towards Roman Catholicism colors not only his treatment of the passage, but his treatment of those Reformers with whom he disagrees.

  1. Why then are there so many different denominations, each claiming to rightly interpret scripture?
  2. Luther’s Small Catechism uses the phrase “in and under” the bread and wine. Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s friend and theological confidant, preferred “in and with” the bread and wine. The Formula of Concord, written after both Luther and Melanchthon died, uses the phrase “in, with and under”.
  3. Note that Zwingli’s position assumes that God the Father exists in a locality; that the Father is in a place, that place has a throne, and that God is has a spatial presence in such a manner as to have a right and a left, a front and a back, a top and a bottom.
  4. The problem is that the New Testament texts are in Greek, not Hebrew, so his argument does not apply.
  5. J. Edwin Hartill defines Metaphor as follows: “Words are taken from their literal meaning and given a new and striking use. The figure is a distinct affirmation that one thing is another which it resembles. The two nouns must always be mentioned. The figure lies in the verb. ‘IS’ is equivalent to ‘REPRESENTS’.” Hartill’s examples are from the Old Testament: “flesh is grass” (Isa 40:6) and “sheep of his pasture” (Ps100:3b). J. Edwin Hartill says the metaphor must have two proper nouns, and does not allow for the use of pronouns.
  6. E. W. Bullinger does not use the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Old Testament.
  7. A simple Google Search for “Principles of Hermeneutics” returns almost 500,000 results. I looked at a number of them, and while they often have something in common, there are significant differences. Thus the supposed rationality of their systems is exposed as nothing more than personal preference.

Facts vs. Faith, and Faith’s Seeming Fragility

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It)The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong by Thom Stark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Faith can be a fragile thing. It is possible to lose your faith when confronted by facts that don’t fit into your mental model. With that in mind, I cannot recommend this book to my Protestant friends, particularly those who are inextricably wedded to a literalistic interpretation of the bible. This book has the potential to change your perception of scripture and, with nothing to replace it, destroy your faith.

The Bible is not what we are so often told it is, particularly when we claim to be biblical literalists and interpret the text solely according to the historical-grammatical method. The fact is that no one is a biblical literalist, as the author aptly demonstrates. What are we to make of the evidence that our scriptures contain multiple points of view about who God is? About the existence of other gods? And even (God forbid) child sacrifice? The fact that we explain these away instead of taking them at face value is evidence that we are spiritualizing the scriptures, reading into them our point(s) of view.

If we come face to face with the obvious differences of opinion within scripture regarding fundamental things, what are we to do? For many, having no explanation and unable to integrate what they know into their religious perspective, they lose their faith. I don’t think that is what the author is trying to do, yet the author exposing these issues without providing a completely satisfactory solution.

Most of what Thom Stark describes is known to the Christian world — just not the Protestant world, and in particular the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. For most of the world’s Christians, the Bible is Sacred Scripture because the Church says it is. The Bible was written within the Church, declared to be scripture by that same Church, and interpreted within and by that Church on the basis of a living Holy Tradition (also known as the general consensus of the Church Fathers).

When Peter wrote that Paul’s letters were scripture, which ones? Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians; we have only the second and the fourth. Again, in Ephesians 4:15,16 Paul tells the Ephesians to read in church the epistle he wrote to the Laodiceans. The missing Pauline epistles were determined by the Church not to be scripture, while others became part of the New Testament.

Thom Stark contrasts the literalist, historical-grammical hermeneutic with three other hermeneutical methods of dealing with problem texts, each of which come up wanting. These are the allegorical, the canonical, and the subversive readings.

Stark recognizes that those employing the allegorical method recognize the problematic nature of some texts (particularly the genocidal narratives of the conquest of Canaan), yet argues that when this reading becomes the traditional meaning, it prevents people from confronting the problem texts directly, and dooms us to repeat the conquest narratives (as in the Crusades, the Colonial era, and Manifest Destiny) instead of learning their lessons.

The Canonical Method recognizes that the scripture was created within, by, and for the community of faith. Stark argues that the determination of what is and is not scripture was not created by the faith community, but by the elites within that community. The argument seems to be that because the process was not democratic, it may be that the elites chose those scriptures most amenable to their point of view and the maintenance of their status. This is a highly problematic argument, as it reads the modern western culture back into the situation as it existed in the past. Moreover, it ignores the fact that in the early church, bishops were sought out for persecution; some early records show that the term of a bishop was typically in the low single digits, and bishops often died as martyrs. To be elevated to the position of bishop was, in many cases, a death sentence. And finally, the idea that the Holy Spirit moved within the community of faith apart from the bishop was foreign to the early church.

The Subversive Method points out that in many cases a meaning can be given to a text that subverts its obvious meaning. In some cases this is justified; the Revelation of St. John is full of coded language suggesting the end and judgement of the Roman Empire. Even Jesus’ call to ‘Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God” has a subversive message—since everything ultimately belongs to God, nothing rightfully belongs to Caesar. But it is possible to subvert the subversive message to justify confiscatory taxation, as took place in the Byzantine Empire, and under the Medieval popes. It is also possible to use scripture to justify racism, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of women.

Stark offers an alternative approach: viewing certain texts as condemned texts. Their status as scripture would be precisely because of what they reveal about us, and about what they fail to say about God. Under this reading, the text is valuable as an example of what not to do and how not to think. For example, few Fundamentalists think the fatalistic message of Ecclesiastes is an example for us to follow, but rather an example of just where an idolatrous and hedonistic life ends up. So too we don’t accept Satan as a role model to follow, even though his seven-fold “I will” is recorded in the book of Isaiah.

What Stark fails to recognize is the vibrancy of Holy Tradition as a guide for the interpretation of the text. The fathers recognized the problematic nature of some of scripture; not only that, but they wrote about it, and we use their writings today to help us deal with the same problems. We don’t hide these texts away, we don’t pretend they don’t exist, and we don’t explain them away. Just as the church has determined the canon of Sacred Scripture, so too the church has passed on the methodology of dealing with problem texts. This methodology is different on a case by case basis. In fact, there are competing hermeneutics within Holy Tradition, just as there are competing views about God within Sacred Scripture. None of this is either a revelation or a problem for the Orthodox. All the hermeneutics described by Stark are present to some degree or another, in some place or another, within Holy Tradition.

I finish this review as I began. If you are a Fundamentalist or Evangelical Protestant, avoid reading this book, as you lack the cognitive framework for dealing with the information.

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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.