Wise orators stand mute as fish.

Book cover for "The Orthodox Church" by John Anthony McGuckin

The Orthodox Church

NOTE: The following is an excerpt of Fr. John Anthony McGuckin’s book “The Orthodox Church”. I highly recommend it.

…This is only a brief argument using scriptural indications to speak about historical tradition soberly received and reverently passed on. It will hardly convince a generation of so-called historical scholars who have mutilated the scriptural record they set out to comment on, using the premise that ‘nothing unusual can happen in the world, that is not entirely explicable by reference to things that are usual’: and thus ‘explaining’ the Virgin birth for their readership as a ‘magical’ explaining away of an illegitimate birth. But the Akathist hymn gave a good response to this in ancient times:

Wise orators stand mute as fish before you Theotokos; for they are unable to explain how you could remain a virgin and yet give birth. But we who marvel at the mystery of faith can cry out to you: All hail, you who are the chosen vessel of God.

The Virgin Mary stands not only as a Christological bulwark, epitomizing the ultimate ‘scandal of our faith’ that if she is called the Theotokos, her Son must be confessed as divine (God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, as the Creed has it). But in many ways she is a ‘Bronze Gate’ in a contemporary world abounding in reductionist and faithless exegesis. She who treasured all these stories and tales of wonder about her Son in her heart, as the evangelist tells us, is still one who refuses to allow the sacred kerygma of the Gospel to be watered down and made palatable to the tastes and conceptions of those who are far from being deeply rooted i the strange and paradoxical ways of a God who, with the world’s salvation in the balance, chose a simple and innocent heart which was ready to say to him: ‘Let it be done in me, as I am your servant. The choice of an unmarried first-century Jewish woman from a rural backwater was a contradiction of the ‘wisdom of this world’, and still is. It is perhaps why theological reflection on the Theotokos (so prevalent and powerful in the early church) has fallen into relative silence today.

McGuckin, John Anthony. The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.


Evidence from Silence

Dormition of the Theotokos

Dormition of the Theotokos

“In the fourth century, bishop Epiphanius noted, cautiously, that nobody knows if or whether Mary died, nor if she was buried, nor the location of her grave.” Philip Jenkins, “Why Mary?

Several years ago, while I was still Lutheran, my pastor noted a number of interesting things about Mary. In particular, he mentioned that although there were church all over the holy land commemorating various persons and events, there were no churches where Mary died, nor was anyone claiming her gravesite, or claiming to have her bodily relics. This is so unusual that it must mean something. We cannot be dogmatic about it, but it does support the position of most of the world’s Christians that there was a miracle attached to her death, such that her body was lost. How and in what way we don’t know, except for the evidence preserved in the liturgy and in the apocryphal writings.

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)


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.


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[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.

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. http://www.fatheralexander.org/booklets/english/catholicity_)church_florovsky.htm (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.