An Open Letter to Lutherans

Dear Pr. X,

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

For some twenty years I was Lutheran. I read the Book of Concord many times, and spent innumerable hours arguing Lutheran theology. I enjoyed the give and take, the parry and thrust, the lively debates and the hostile arguments. Eventually, however, the arguments weren’t enough. The jargon wasn’t enough. The Book of Concord wasn’t enough. Eventually I discovered questions for which Lutherans had no answers, and Lutheran arguments that were inconsistent, short-sighted, and just plain wrong. And so I am writing this letter concerning some of my struggles with the Lutheran faith. Maybe I’m wrong in my conclusions, or maybe I’m wrong for writing this. May God forgive me.

A few years ago I was introduced to Vincent of Lerins and the Vincentian Canon: Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus; that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all. This is the classic definition of catholicity, and the standard by which Vincent of Lerins proposed to discern truth from heresy. I find myself troubled by this, as the Lutheran doctrine of justification, the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, fails this crucial test; and in failing this test, the Lutheran church is revealed as schismatic and sectarian rather than part of the church catholic.

The early church seems to have held to the Christus Victor or the ransom theories of the atonement. The idea of atonement as a satisfaction of God’s offended honor was a late development, coming from Anselm of Canterbury’s book, Cur Deus Homo, written in the 11th century. From the Protestant Reformation came the idea of Penal Substitution, which is derivative of Anselm of Canterbury, and made popular in the 16th century by Luther, Calvin, and the Protestant Reformers. (See Dr. Masaki, Contemporary Views on Atonement, Concordia Theological Quarterly, October 2008) Since forensic justification is such a late development, how then is it catholic? And if the doctrine by which the church stands or falls is not catholic, how then are Lutherans part of the one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church?

St. Athanasius, writes the following in Chapter 2 of On the Incarnation:

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all.

This is clearly not substitutionary atonement, and clearly not penal satisfaction. For Athanasius, justification is not forensic, no matter how Dr. Weinrich spins it. (Weinrich, God Did Not Create Death: Athanasius on the Atonement, Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 72, Num. 4)

Polycarp, disciple of the apostle John, writes the following in his Epistle to the Philippians:

…our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sins suffered even unto death, [but] “whom God raised from the dead, having loosed the bands of the grave.” “In whom, though now ye see Him not, ye believe, and believing, rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory;” into which joy many desire to enter, knowing that “by grace ye are saved, not of works,” but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, chap. I)

While this passage does not provide the details of soteriology, yet it is significant that Polycarp provides not even a hint of substitutionary atonement, nor any idea of juridical satisfaction. Polycarp does not see salvation in terms of the Father seeking satisfaction for his offended honor, nor in terms of the Father as judge seeking to fulfill some juridical mandate.

This focus on forensic justification to the exclusion of other views was exemplified for me when I attended a symposia at Concordia Theological Seminary. Dr. Just was given the topic of Justification in the book of Galatians. He concluded that in Galatians, Paul spoke of justification more in terms of a recreation than as forensic. As it happens, I was seated next to the recently departed Rev. Klemet Preus (writer The Fire and the Staff, and son of the late Dr. Robert Preus). Rev. Preus was incensed by Dr. Just’s presentation, and I later saw him commenting on it in a vociferous manner to Dr. Wenthe, the President of Concordia Theological Seminary. This became quite a contentious issue among the so-called Confessional Lutherans, many of whom accused Dr. Just of the Ossiandrian heresy for suggesting that justification could be anything other than forensic. But of course, Dr. Just was correct, as born out by scripture.

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (1 Cor 5:17-21)

This idea of justification as regeneration or recreation is even found in the explanation of the Small Catechism on the Sacrament of Holy Baptism:

What does Baptism give or profit?–Answer.

It works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.

Which are such words and promises of God? Answer.

Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.

How can water do such great things?–Answer.

It is not the water indeed that does them, but the word of God which is in and with the water, and faith, which trusts such word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is simple water and no baptism. But with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Ghost, as St. Paul says, Titus, chapter three: By the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost, which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Savior, that, being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying. (SC IV, 5-10)

This leads me into another problem with Lutheranism: its antinomianism. Yes, I know the arguments about the third use of the law, but in the words of Dr. Phil: “How’s that working out for you?” Lutherans give lip service to the third use of the law, yet most Lutheran pastors don’t preach it, and most Lutherans don’t live it. “You are free,” as my Lutheran pastor once sermonized, “you don’t have to do anything.” Let’s see what Polycarp would say about that.

He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, false witness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again;” and once more, “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, chap. II)

Lutherans do not preach this way, and would consider it the preaching of the law. The law is a curb, a judge, and a guide, many say. Lutherans do not believe, teach and confess that we will be raised “if we do his will, and walk in His Commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness.” Lutherans do not preach the law as a guide for holy living; Lutherans especially do not preach the law as a necessity for salvation, as did the early church. Lutherans preach that we have been set free from the law of sin and death, as sayeth the scriptures, but then neglect the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15); and again, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love” (John 15:10).

I find a striking pattern in the epistles of the blessed apostle. The first two thirds are usually concerned with matters of theology, while the latter third is concerned with matters of church order, and with prescriptions for holy living. The epistles to the Corinthian Church are even more explicit, mixing prescriptions for church order and discipline, theology, and exhortations to holy living throughout these letters. How we live as Christians mattered to the apostle. We are to live out our faith; we are to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Other New Testament authors say the same. James tells us to resist the devil (Jas 4:7). In his exhortation to holy living, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews write: “Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin” (Heb 12:4).

Let us examine some of the works which preserve the church order of the early church. The Didache (a.k.a. the Teachings of the Apostles), is a very early work, perhaps written as early as 70 AD, possibly preserving for us the church order of Jerusalem. The Didache contains very little doctrine, but is mostly concerned with matters of church order, church practices, and holy living. (Anonymous 2004)

In the third century, Hippolytus (c. 170-c. 236) wrote his Apostolic Traditions, preserving the church order and practices in use in Alexandria, but containing none of what we today would call doctrine. (Hippolytus 1997)

The so-called Constitutions of the Holy Apostles appears to be a second or third century work (with fourth or fifth century interpolations), which preserves the church order and practices of the churches in Asia Minor. This work consists of eight books, most of which are solely concerned with church order and holy living. Only the sixth book against Heresies contains any doctrine—and apart from a creedal portion in Section III entitled An Exposition of the Preaching of the Apostles, most of the work consists of a description of various errors or of the prescriptions of the apostles. What we would term the doctrinal portion of this work is surprisingly brief. (Anonymous, Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 2004) From these we may surmise that doctrine was considered a mystery, passed on orally in the early church, and that how one lived and worshiped was also a matter of great concern in the early church.

This conclusion is born out by the Anti-Nicene Fathers, who over and over again exhort their readers to holy living, to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. This is such a common theme that I am forced to ask why this same fervor for holy living is lacking amongst Lutherans? I once noted that I received more moral guidance from Dr. Laura, a secular Jew, than from my own pastor. I wondered why that was, and presumed that it was because my then pastor was from a more liberal wing of the Missouri-Synod. But I have since been forced to reexamine my conclusion since I see this same tendency no matter on which side of the theological or political spectrum a Lutheran pastor falls.

Lutherans are more concerned with purity of doctrine than with purity of life. Of course purity of doctrine is important, but doctrine does not save. We do not work out our own salvation through more and more learning, but through prayer and fasting, through fear and trembling, through progressive sanctification, through peering into the glass darkly and in doing so becoming more and more like Christ. It does not appear that the early church was terribly concerned with dogma, only reluctantly defining it when forced into it as a necessary means of preserving the faith against heresy. Yet Lutherans (and others) give each other litmus tests, creating ever greater delineations of dogma which we proclaim to the benchmark by which we measure the faith, and by which we determine our essential unity. Thus dogma becomes a means of establishing divisions and creating breaches amongst the faithful, not of uniting the body of Christ. I’m not suggesting we create a lowest-common-denominator faith, but I am suggesting that we make the mistake of equating doctrinal purity with rightness before God, of presuming that God is more pleased with us for our right belief than our right living.

I could go on and on about the flawed arguments of the Lutheran Confessions and how radical they are, and how in some cases they are contrary to Scripture. But this letter has gone on much too long already. Instead, I will quote from Luther’s Winterpostille of 1528: “Marriage is far superior to the celibate religious life, and not only because it is clearly instituted and honored by God. It is an estate of ‘faith,’ for those who enter into it should be convinced that they are doing God’s work and fulfilling their calling. It is an estate of love, for in it one “must and should” help and serve others.” (Kreitzer 2004, 98) I note that this directly contradicts our Lord’s words in Matt 19:11-12, and the argument of the blessed apostle, who proclaims virginity to be preferable to marriage (1 Cor 7). Luther’s argument in this Winterpostille underlie the arguments in Articles XXII and XXVII of the Augustana, and similar arguments made elsewhere in the Book of Concord. In these areas the reformers describe Romish abuses of monasticism and, instead of providing the necessary corrective, they eliminated the practice altogether. While Philip Carey in his article Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant considers Luther to be a conservative reformer, the views and actions of Luther in these areas are quite radical in their theology and their practical implications for the Christian life.

And with this we are back to the Vincentian Canon; Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus; that which is believed everywhere, always, and by all; and I pose the following question (and yes, I know it is begging the question): how do Lutherans deny catholicity and yet consider themselves to be part of the one, holy, apostolic and catholic faith?

Mariology and Prayer to the Saints

Theotokos Praying for the People, Vladimir Church (Vologda)

Theotokos Praying for the People, Vladimir Church (Vologda)

Prayer to the saints is one of the areas where most Protestants  differ with the Catholic Church. Actually, this is not fully accurate; as it turns out, non-Protestant Christians — whether Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Coptic Christians — all have no problem praying to the saints, of whom the blessed Virgin Mary is the paradigmatic example, being the greatest of all the saints.

Perhaps the most clear argument against prayer to Mary, to the saints, and to angels is found in the Smalcald Articles, part of the Lutheran’s Book of Concord. Here Martin Luther draws from and expands upon Philip Melanchthon’s arguments from the Augsburg Confession, and from the Apology to the Augsburg Confession.

The invocation of saints is also one of the abuses of Antichrist conflicting with the chief article, and destroys the knowledge of Christ. Neither is it commanded nor counseled, nor has it any example [or testimony] in Scripture, and even though it were a precious thing, as it is not [while, on the contrary, it is a most harmful thing], in Christ we have everything a thousandfold better [and surer, so that we are not in need of calling upon the saints]. And although the angels in heaven pray for us (as Christ Himself also does), as also do the saints on earth, and perhaps also in heaven, yet it does not follow thence that we should invoke and adore the angels and saints, and fast, hold festivals, celebrate Mass in their honor, make offerings, and establish churches, altars, divine worship, and in still other ways serve them, and regard them as helpers in need [as patrons and intercessors], and divide among them all kinds of help, and ascribe to each one a particular form of assistance, as the Papists teach and do. For this is idolatry, and such honor belongs alone to God. For as a Christian and saint upon earth you can pray for me, not only in one, but in many necessities. But for this reason I am not obliged to adore and invoke you, and celebrate festivals, fast, make oblations, hold masses for your honor [and worship], and put my faith in you for my salvation. I can in other ways indeed honor, love, and thank you in Christ. If now such idolatrous honor were withdrawn from angels and departed saints, the remaining honor would be without harm and would quickly be forgotten. For when advantage and assistance, both bodily and spiritual, are no more to be expected, the saints will not be troubled [the worship of the saints will soon vanish], neither in their graves nor in heaven. For without a reward or out of pure love no one will much remember, or esteem, or honor them [bestow on them divine honor]. (Dau and Bente 1921, SA II, 26-28)

In the passage, Martin Luther argues not from scripture. Instead, his argument is that prayer to the saints is against the chief article of faith — Justification, as defined by Lutheran dogma. This is a highly curious stance, as it can be argued that prayer to the saints and to angels is supported in scripture, even in the Protestant’s truncated canon.

The Scriptural Witness

The book of Zechariah is important for a number of reasons, but for our purposes we will focus on the importance of Zechariah for its development in the theology of angels. In particular, God communicates to Zechariah through angels, and Zechariah questions them as to the meaning of the visions he has been seeing. In the first chapter of Zechariah receives a series of visions, after which is recorded an extensive conversation with an angel, beginning as follows:

Then said I, O my lord, what are these? And the angel that talked with me said unto me, I will shew thee what these be. … And the LORD answered the angel that talked with me with good words and comfortable words.  So the angel that communed with me said unto me, Cry thou, saying, Thus saith the LORD of hosts; I am jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion with a great jealousy. … Then lifted I up mine eyes, and saw, and behold four horns. And I said unto the angel that talked with me, What be these? And he answered me, These are the horns which have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem (Zec 1:9, 13-14, 18-19).

The careful reader will notice that Zechariah inquired of the angel what these things meant; the angel asked the Lord, the Lord replied to the angel, and the angel told Zechariah. For our purposes, this demonstrates that prayer (which may be described as a conversation) may be made to angels. In Zechariah there seems to be little difference between asking an angel for an interpretation, and asking the Lord himself. Moreover, Zechariah treats the  answer from the angel as though it came directly from the Lord. This same back and forth between the Zechariah and the angel continues throughout the book. This idea is also found in the book of Daniel, where Daniel prays to God for the interpretation of his vision, and then discusses the interpretation with an angel. And of course Mary herself had a conversation with an angel, a non-corporeal, spiritual being, a conversation we know of as the Annunciation, and which is discussed more fully in Part V: Mariology in Sacred Scripture (from my book, “Why Mary Matters”). Not only did Mary converse with the angel, but treated the angel’s words as being those of God Himself.

Another Old Testament passage from 2nd Maccabees clearly indicates that prayer to the saints is not only heard, but answered.

And this was his vision: That Onias, who had been high priest, a virtuous and a good man, reverend in conversation, gentle in condition, well spoken also, and exercised from a child in all points of virtue, holding up his hands prayed for the whole body of the Jews. This done, in like manner there appeared a man with gray hairs, and exceeding glorious, who was of a wonderful and excellent majesty. Then Onias answered, saying, This is a lover of the brethren, who prayeth much for the people, and for the holy city, to wit, Jeremias the prophet of God. Whereupon Jeremias holding forth his right hand gave to Judas a sword of gold, and in giving it spake thus, Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with the which thou shalt wound the adversaries (2 Mac 15:12-15).

You may argue that 2 Maccabees is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, and you would be correct. It is, however, in the scriptural canon used by every other Christian body (not just the Roman Catholics). Moreover, 2 Maccabees was in Martin Luther’s German translation of the Holy Bible, and in the original 1611 King James Bible (although in both were separated from those books that make up the current canon of the Hebrew Scriptures.) This is not the place to discuss canonical issues, other than to state that there are good and valid arguments to make for its being part of the Christian canon. But what we can say is that it is clear that the Jews of the diaspora 1) believed the saints were alive, 2) believed the saints were able to hear their prayers, and 3) believed the saints were able to respond. Therefore, it is not much of a stretch to understand how the early Christian church, being comprised mainly of Jews, did not have a problem with intercessory prayer to the saints.

Historical Witness

A belief in prayer to the Virgin Mary appears to be a quite early development. The John Rylands Papyrus 470 is a fragment dated to around 250 A.D., and containing the following prayer to the Theotokos:

Under your
we take refuge,
Mother of God! Our
prayers, do not despise
in necessities,
but from the danger
deliver us,
only pure,
only blessed. (Tribe and Villiers 2011)

Notice, if you will, the dating of this fragment — well before the time of the edict of Milan in 313 A.D.; this papyrus dates to the time of Emperor Decius, under whose reign there was a persecution of Christian laity across the empire. This prayer, dating from a time of great persecution, is still contained in the Greek Orthodox “Book of Hours”, where it is one of the concluding prayers of the evening services; also, the Orthodox sing this hymn as the last dismissal hymn of daily Vespers during Great Lent. (Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia 2011) The prayer is also used in the Roman Catholic Church, where it is known as the Sub tuum praesidium. (Mathewes-Green 2007, 85-86)

Shawn Tribe and Henri de Villiers provide us with the following theological analysis of this prayer.

Three fundamental theological truths are admirably synthesized:

  1. The special election of Mary by God (“only blessed”).
  2. The perpetual Virginity of Mary (“only pure”).
  3. The Divine Motherhood (“Mother of God”; “Mother” may be considered as a poor translation of Genitrix). (Tribe and Villiers 2011)

We should also add the idea that Mary hears our prayers and, in some sense, answers them. Thus prayer to the Theotokos, along with a belief in her remaining ever-virgin, is an expression of ante-Nicene Christianity, rather than (as some suggest) a syncretic grafting of paganism onto Christianity by a post-Constantine, apostate church.

Witness of the Fathers (and others)

St. John of Kronstadt waxes lyrical on this topic.

Pray, my brethren, to the Mother of God when the storm of enmity and malice bursts forth in your house. She, Who is all-merciful and all-powerful, can easily pacify the hearts of men. Peace and love proceed from the one God, as from their Source, and Our Lady–in God, as the Mother of Christ the Peace, is zealous, and prays for the peace of the whole world, and above all–of all Christians. She has the all-merciful power of driving away from us at Her sign the sub-celestial spirits of evil — those ever-vigilant and ardent sowers of enmity and malice amongst men, whilst to all who have recourse with faith and love to Her powerful protection, She soon speedily gives both peace and love. Be zealous yourselves also in preserving faith and love in your hearts; for if you do not care for this, then you will be unworthy of the intercession for you–of the Mother of God; be also most fervent and most reverent worshippers[i] of the Mother of the Almighty Lord; for it is truly meet to bless Her–the ever-blessed; the entirely spotless Mother of our God, the highest of all creatures, the Mediatrix for the whole race of mankind. Strive to train yourself in the spirit of humility, for She Herself was more humble than any mortal, and only looks lovingly upon the humble.” He hath regarded the low estate of His handmaiden” (said She to Elisabeth), of “God, Her Saviour.” (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Kindle Locations 3050-3059)

I must admit that this troubled me for some time. Even as I write this, after being chrismated into the Orthodox Church, I am still not entirely comfortable with prayer to the saints. Yet I consider this more a matter of my sloppy prayer habits rather than conviction, for I have become convinced that prayer to the saints is the most natural thing in the world.

One of the best places to start is with the words of Jesus: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mat 22:32). The context of this passage has to do with the Sadducees and their disbelief in the resurrection from the dead. Jesus responded not with a defense of resurrection per se, but instead with the statement that the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob was the God of the living. In other words, the mortal bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may have died, but they were still very much alive. Jesus made much the same claim in his story of Lazarus and the rich man. This is likely not a parable, because Lazarus is named in the story; therefore he is a real person, despite his having suffered bodily death. Even after death, the rich man recognizes both Abraham and Lazarus, and actually converses with father Abraham (Luke 16:19-31).

St. John of Krondstat writes:

The saints of God live even after their death. Thus, I often hear in church the Mother of God singing her wonderful, heart-penetrating song which she said in the house of her cousin Elizabeth, after the Annunciation of the Archangel. At times, I hear the song of Moses; the song of Zacharias–the father of the Forerunner; that of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel; that of the three children; and that of Miriam. And how many holy singers of the New Testament delight until now the ear of the whole Church of God! And the Divine service itself–the sacraments, the rites? Whose spirit is there, moving and touching our hearts? That of God and of His saints. Here is a proof for you of the immortality of men’s souls. How is it that all these men have died, and yet are governing our lives after their death–they are dead and they still speak, instruct and touch us? (St John of Kronstadt 2010, Location 63-68)

Thus the souls of those asleep in Jesus, while disembodied, are kept conscious and alive, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies (1 Thes 4:13-18). Jesus describes one conversation in particular, a conversation in which the rich man seems aware of the spiritual condition of his brothers. This would seem to allow for the possibility that those asleep in Jesus are aware of us. Moreover, at the Transfiguration, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, both of whom seemed aware of Jesus’ upcoming death (Mat 17:1-9).

Peter Gillquist writes:

If Saint Paul instructs us as a holy priesthood to pray “always …for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18), is it so outrageous to confess with the Church that holy Mary (along with all the saints who have passed from death to life and continually stand in the presence of Christ) intercedes before her Son on behalf of all men? For Mary is the prototype of what we are all called to be. (Gillquist 2009, 101)

It is with all this in mind that we read the roll call of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. Despite the Lutheran confessions arguing against intercessory prayer to the saints, Lutheran theologian Gustaf Aulén notes:

The koinonia of the church is not limited to the church as it exists now in the present. Death does not constitute a boundary. The fellowship of the church includes the witnesses to the faith in all ages. When the Letter to the Hebrews in the eleventh chapter has enumerated a long line of witnesses from the time of the old covenant, it continues in chapter twelve to stress the significance of the fact that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” and especially that we look “to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:1-2). In these words the author of the letter has disclosed the true perspective of the relationship between the many and the one. Just as the old covenant has its heroes of faith, so the new has “so great a cloud of witnesses.” (Aulén 1960, 310)

Lutheran pastor Berthold Von Schenk writes in “The Presence” regarding the presence of our dear departed, worshiping with us around the altar:

As we seek and find our Risen Lord, we shall find our dear departed. They are with Him, and we find the reality of their continued life through Him. The saints are a part of the Church. We worship with them. They worship the Risen Christ face to face, while we worship the same Risen Christ under the veil of bread and wine at the Altar. At the Communion we are linked with heaven, with the Communion of Saints, with our loved ones. Here at the Altar, focused to a point, we find our communion with the dead; for the Altar is the closest meeting place between us and our Lord. That place must be the place of closest meeting with our dead who are in His keeping; The Altar is the trysting place where we meet our beloved Lord. It therefore, must also be the trysting place where we meet our loved ones, for they are with, the Lord. 

How pathetic it is to see ‘men and women going out to the cemetery, kneeling at the mound, placing little sprays’ of flowers and wiping their tears from their eyes, and knowing nothing else. How hopeless they look! Oh, that we could take them by the hand, away from the grave, out through the cemetery gate, in through the door of the church, and up the nave to the very Altar itself; and there put them in touch, not with the dead body of their loved one, but with the living soul who is with Christ at the Altar!

Oh, God the King of Saints, we praise and magnify Thy holy Name for all Thy servants, who have finished their course in Thy faith and fear, for the Blessed Virgin Mary, for the Holy Patriarchs, Prophets, Apostles, and Martyrs, for all Thy other righteous servants; and we beseech Thee that, encouraged by their example and strengthened by their fellowship, we may attain to everlasting life, through the merits of Thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Von Schenk 1945)

The saints are living, are aware of us (as seen in the conversations between Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Christ), fellowship with us, worship with us at the heavenly altar (of which the earthly altar is but a shadow), and are able to speak with Jesus. The author of Hebrews charges us to keep in mind the saints in heaven, the great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1) — of whom constant mindfulness in some way helps us avoid sin and keep us on the path towards salvation.

Many Protestant churches are aware of the saint’s perpetual involvement in the life of the church, even if they do not fully comprehend it. Why is it that many Protestant churches have graveyards on the church grounds? If you ask some of them, the more theologically sophisticated will say that the departed are still members of the church. Some sacramental Protestants (such as Lutherans) will go so far as to say that every time they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the departed dead are celebrating it with them in heaven.[ii] If this is true, then why would we not ask the saints to intercede for us, just as we might ask the pastor or a trusted friend?


Aulén, Gustaf. The Faith of the Christian Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960.

Dau, William H. T., and Gerhard F. Bente, . Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.

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

Mathewes-Green, Frederica. The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Theotokos in Three Ancient Texts. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2007.

Orthodox Metropolitanate of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. “The Oldest Hymn to the Theotokos.” OMHKSEA. August 10, 2011. (accessed February 12, 2012).

St John of Kronstadt. My Life in Christ, or Moments of Spiritual Serenity and Contemplation, of Reverent Feeling, of Earnest SelfAmendment, and of Peace in God. Edited by John Iliytch Sergieff. Translated by E. E. Goulaeff. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2010.

Tribe, Shawn, and Henri de Villiers. “The Sub Tuum Praesidium.” New Liturgical Movement. February 3, 2011. (accessed February 12, 2012).

Von Schenk, Berthold. The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion. New York: E. Kaufmann, Incorporated, 1945.

[i] This is an excerpt from the diary of St. John of Kronstadt. As such it lacks the theological precision one might otherwise expect. Theologically, we honor or venerate Mary and the saints, but reserve worship for God alone.

[ii] Scandinavian Lutheran churches often have a semi-circular altar rail; the other half of the circle is in heaven, and reserved for the departed saints who celebrate their heavenly liturgy with us.

The Book of Concord on Mariology

Book The Book of Concord, German Edition

The Book of Concord, German Edition

What does the Lutheran Book of Concord (aka The Lutheran Confessions) teach regarding the Virgin Mary?

Our churches teach that the Word, that is the Son of God, assumed the human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (AC III, 1-2)

“The Son became man in this manner: He was conceived, without the cooperation of man, by the Holy Spirit, and was born of the pure, holy Virgin Mary. …Concerning these articles, there is no argument or dispute. Both sides confess them. Therefore, it is not necessary now to discuss them further. (SA Preface, The First Part 4)

Granted, the blessed Mary prays for the Church. Does she receive souls in death? Does she conquer death? Does she make alive? What does Christ do if the blessed Mary does these things? Although she is most worthy of the most plentiful honors, yet she does not want to be made equal to Christ. Instead she wants us to consider and follow her example. (AP XXI 27)

These citations set the limits of Lutheran Mariology. Although Lutherans may respect and venerate Mary, as did the fathers, including the Lutheran confessors; and although they believe, teach, and confess that Mary prays for the church; yet they do not believe that Mary usurps any of the prerogatives that properly belong to Christ. Therefore Lutherans reject the concept of the Virgin Mary as a mediatrix interposed between us and her Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. The merits of Mary (and they are many) are not offered on our behalf, nor if they were would they be effective. “Each will receive his wages according to his labor” (I Cor 3:8). Thus, as the Apology says, “[The saints] cannot mutually give their own merits, one to another.” (AP XXI, 29)

The citation from the Smalcald Articles is fascinating passage, for it expands the boundaries of Mariology beyond what Protestants and modern Lutherans generally accept. The Smalcald Articles define as a matter of faith that Lutherans believe, teach and confess exactly what the Catholic church (prior to the Council of Trent) confessed concerning Mariology. This is true with the exceptions delimited in the Apology, Article XXI. When Lutherans confess Mary as pure & holy, it is a reference to the chastity and sinlessness of Mary. When Lutherans confess Mary as Virgin, it is meant that Mary is virgin, not that she was virgin. The Blessed Mother of our Lord is as virgin today as she was when the angel Gabriel appeared to her some 2,000 years ago. When we talk of the Virgin Mary, that is itself a confessions of her perpetual virginity, for no one having lost their virginity is described as virgin.

The preface to the Smalcald Articles explains why the Book of Concord contains no articles on Mariology, for in the main it was not an issue between Lutherans and Catholics. What the papacy professed, the Lutheran fathers believed, pausing only to correct errors and abuses (points where they believed the papacy had departed from the deposit of the faith.) Thus where the Lutheran fathers believed the papacy to be in error, they wrote extensively on the subject. But where the Lutheran fathers agreed with the Catholic Church, they said little or nothing. This is a profound doctrinal principle for Lutherans, for it presupposes a third norm[i] besides Sacred Scriptures and the Book of Concord: the writings of the church fathers and the teaching of the church (explained by Vincent of Lerins as antiquity and consent; for more information, see the post entitled “Mariology and the Vincentian Canon“.)

Since some question the idea that the doctrine of the confessions are limited to the areas of controversy, let me quote from the Preface to the Book of Concord, primarily composed by Jacob Andrea and Martin Chemnitz. “Subsequently many churches and schools committed themselves to this confession as the contemporary symbol of their faith in the chief articles of controversy over against both the papacy and all sorts of factions.” (Tappert, et al. 1959, 3) [Emphasis added] The Preface contains many such references, most specifically relating to the development of the Formula of Concord.

“Mindful of the office which God has committed to us and which we bear, we have not ceased to apply our diligence to the end that the false and misleading doctrines which have been introduced into our lands and territories and which are insinuating themselves increasingly into them might be checked and that our subjects might be preserved from straying from the right course of divine truth which they had once acknowledged and confessed. (ibid, 4)

Once again, we see that the confessions are delimited over against error, meaning that the content of the confessions are limited to the areas of controversy and doctrinal error. Thus, an article of faith that was not at issue is not discussed in the Book of Concord.

We …unanimously subscribed this Christian confession, based as it is on the witness of the unalterable truth of the divine Word, in order thereby to warn and, as far as we might, to secure out posterity in the future against doctrine that is impure, false, and contrary to the Word of God.(Tappert, et al. 1959, 6)

This last quote is remarkable, as it demonstrates not only that the content of the confessions were delimited to the areas of theological controversy between the papacy and other factions, but that it is the intent of the confessors to create a doctrinal standard that will stand the test of time. This means that for Lutherans, the interpretation of the confessors is binding upon all who call themselves Lutherans. This does not mean that those who disagree with the Lutheran Confessions are not Christian, but that they cannot properly style themselves as Lutheran who do not believe as Lutherans believe concerning the content of the Sacred Scriptures.

[T]here was no better way to counteract the mendacious calumnies and the religious controversies that were expanding with each passing day then, on the basis of God’s Word, carefully and accurately to explain and decide the differences that had arisen with reference to all the articles in controversy, to expose and reject false doctrine, and clearly to confess the divine truth….[T]he said theologians clearly and correctly described to one another, in extensive writings based on God’s Word, how the aforementioned offensive differences might be settled and brought to a conclusion without violation of divine truth, and in his way the pretext and basis for slander that the adversaries were looking for could be abolished and taken away. Finally they took to hand the controverted articles, examined, evaluated, and explained them in the fear of God, and produced a document in which they set forth how the differences that had occurred were to be decided in a Christian way. (Tappert, et al. 1959, ibid, 6)

This quote is clearly states that the confessions are based on God’s Word, and are meant 1) to “counteract the mendacious calumnies [a deliberately untrue defamatory statement, a.k.a. slander] and religious controversies”; 2) to explain the differences in doctrine that has arisen; 3) to decide upon the correct interpretation of the controverted articles in a Christian way without violation of divine truth; and 4) to abolish the basis for slander. Through all this, it is clear that the confessions are not a dogmatics treatise, in that they do not systematically treat all of Christian doctrine, but are delimited over and against controversy and error.

In my book “Why Mary Matters”, I discussed the Marian title of Mother of God as a confession of Chalcedonian Christology concerning the two natures in Christ, over against the Nestorian heresy. Here I briefly discuss this topic as it is expressed in the Epitome of the Formula of Concord.

So we believe, teach, and confess that Mary conceived and bore not merely a man and no more, but God’s true Son. Therefore, she also is rightly called and truly is “the mother of God”.(Ep VIII, 12)

The title of Mother of God is properly a Christological title, not a Marian title. It was adopted as a reaction against the Nestorian heresy by the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus. Nestorius held that Mary should be properly titled the “Mother of Christ”, since no one can give birth to that which is antecedent in time. The Council of Ephesus held that Nestorius was falsely dividing the two natures in Christ and creating two persons: one who was the Son of Mary, and the divine nature which was not. Thus the title “Mother of God is a Christological confession that the two natures were united in one person, such that Mary was truly the mother of God. The opposite Monophysite heresy soon developed which stated that the Christ had only one nature, that the human was subsumed into the divine leaving only a single nature, one that was not fully human. This heresy was dealt with by the Council of Chalcedon, which gave rise to the Christological doctrines expressed in the Athanasian Creed.

Christ Jesus is now in one person at the same time true, eternal God, born of the Father from eternity, and a true man, born of the most blessed Virgin Mary.(SD VIII, 6)

The descriptive title of “most blessed Virgin Mary” is, of course, a reference to the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel said “blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). It is also a reference to the Visitation, where Elizabeth shouted in the Spirit: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. …And blessed is she that believed” (Luke 1:42, 45). And finally, it is a reference to the Magnificat, where Mary says: “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48).

On account of this personal union and communion of the natures, Mary, the most blessed Virgin, did not bear a mere man. But as the angel testifies, she bore a man who is truly the Son of the most high God. He showed His divine majesty even in His mother’s womb, because He was born of a virgin, without violating her virginity. Therefore, she is truly the mother of God and yet has remained a virgin. ( SD, VIII 24)

It may take a careful reader to understand what the Solid Declaration is saying. First, the Solid Declaration uses the Mariological titles “Blessed Mother” and “Mother of God”, making them wholly Lutheran. Second, this passage teaches the perpetual virginity of Mary by stating that she is “the mother of God and yet has remained a virgin”. The point here is twofold: first, that the passage of an infant through the birth canal would destroy itself destroy the evidence of virginity, should it still exist; and second, that Mary was and remains perpetually virgin. Regarding the first point, the Solid declaration states that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, “without violating her virginity”. This is known as the “painless parturition”.

Luther himself taught this position, as in this “Sermon on Christmas”:

Some people dispute about exactly how this birth [of Christ] happened, whether she [Mary] was delivered of the child in the bed, in great joy, whether she was without all pain as this was happening. I do not reproach people for their devotion, but we should stay with the Gospel, which says, “she bore him,” and by the article of faith that we recite: “who is born of the virgin Mary.” There is no deceit here, but, as the words state, a true birth. We certainly know what birth is, and how it proceeds. It happens to her as it does to other women, with good spirits and with the actions of her limbs as is appropriate in a birth, so that she is his right and natural mother and he is her right and natural son. But her body did not allow the natural operations that pertain to birth, and she gave birth without sin, without shame, without pain, and without injury, just as she also conceived without sin. The curse of Eve does not apply to her, which says that “in pain shall you bring forth children” [Gen. 3:16], but otherwise it happened to her exactly as it does with any other woman giving birth. For grace did not promise anything, and did not hinder nature or the works of nature, but improved and helped them. In the same way she fed him naturally with milk from her breasts; without a doubt she did not give him any stranger’s milk or feed him with any other body part than the breast. (Karant-Nunn and Wiesner-Hanks 2003, 50)


Karant-Nunn, Susan C., and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, . Luther on Women. Translated by Susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Preus, Robert. Getting Into the Theology of Concord: A Study of the Book of Concord. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977.

Tappert, Theodore G., Jaroslav Pelikan, Robert H. Fischer, and Arthur C. Piepkorn, . The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959.

[i]Lutherans accept the Book of Concord as normative for doctrine, in the sense of the norma normata: the normed norm, or secondary norm. The sacred scriptures, on the other hand, are normative in the sense of the norma normans: the norming norm, the primary norm, or the source. The Preface to the Book of Concord proposes three norms: Scripture, confessions, and the “ancient consensus”. (Tappert, et al. 1959, 3) Preus describes this three-fold tier of authority as scripture, confessions, and other good Christian literature. (Preus 1977, 22)


Mariology and the Vincentian Canon

Mariology and the Vincentian Canon

Icon of St Vincent of Lerins

Icon of St Vincent of Lerins

In the 5th Century, Vincent of Lerins wrote his famous Commonitory with the purpose of providing a rule whereby catholic truth can be distinguished from error. (P. Schaff, NPNF2-11. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian 2004, 209) This rule has come down to us as the Vincentian Canon: “Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est” or in English, “What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”. This expression — this summary of the Commonitory — is something of a tautology: the rule is meant to define orthodoxy, yet the word “all” refers only to those holding fast to orthodox doctrine. (G. Florovsky 2002) Despite this, the Vincentian Canon remains a useful rule, a means by which we may discern truth from error. As explained Vincent of Lerins, the rule becomes a means of determining the catholicity of a doctrine.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors. (P. Schaff, NPNF2-11. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian 2004, 214)

In this explanation of the Vincentian Canon, Vincent of Lerins is careful to point out that catholicity means three things: universality, antiquity, and consent. Thus we accept no doctrine on account of its antiquity if it is not likewise accepted everywhere by common consent of the church. Likewise we do not accept innovation in doctrine, no matter how widespread it becomes, if it does not come down to us from antiquity.

It can be said that the modern, Protestant view of Mariology is an innovation. The modern opposition to Mariology is contrary to The Apostles’ Creed, as properly understood. Modern protestant theology must dismiss the antiquity of Mariology, and indeed of the Mariology of the reformers. For Lutherans, the opposition to Mariology runs contrary to our Book of Concord, and the sections touching on Mariology must be dismissed or explained away. This becomes a neo-quatenus confession, a confession made “in so far as” it agrees with our doctrinal bias. Thus an improper Mariology becomes a door to the dismissal of the deposit of the faith and an acceptance of the private interpretation of scripture. In this manner the individual becomes his or her own authority, the rule by which the orthodoxy of others is measured. In this manner the body of Christ is divided asunder, and Lutherans remove themselves from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.


Florovsky, George. “The Catholicity of the Church.” Christian Orthodox Publications, Booklets, Articles, Bishop Alexander Mileant. January 8, 2002. (accessed Aug 10, 2010).

Schaff, Philip. NPNF2-11. Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Edited by Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 11. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004.