Monergism, Synergism, and Hermeneutics

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

Monergism vs. Synergism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Spiritual Techniques

"Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)"; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

“Untitled (Old Man with Prayer Book)”; painted by Maurice Bismouth; Tunisia; 1920

In the West, we despise tradition, the accumulated wisdom of our predecessors. In some cases this is good, causing us to learn new things. The idea that our predecessors didn’t know everything is a Western phenomenon. The idea that there was more to learn, more to discover, and that our predecessors could have been wrong was unthinkable before the modern era. We now know that disease is not caused by an imbalance of the four humors. The idea that sickness was caused by bacteria and viruses was a medical breakthrough enabled by a culture that allowed for new ways of thinking. So far, so good.

The problem is that western Christianity quickly adopted this same mode of thought. And it is not just Protestants—this began with the scholastic movement among the Roman Catholics, and thus became part of Protestantism as well. I believe it was the Lutheran Samuel Schmucker who stated that we are standing on the shoulders of giants, and therefore see further than they did. The idea that we can understand Christianity better than the apostles who studied at the feet of Jesus is arrogant in the extreme, yet widespread in the west. Samuel Schmucker himself was not speaking of seeing further than the apostles, but rather of the Martin Luther himself. Schmucker was using this idea to abrogate and replace Lutheran dogma with something he considered more appropriate for the situation in America.

By dismissing the past, theologians and churchmen are seeking to discover the truth in its purity, stripped of the accretions of dogma, tradition, and folk religion.In fact, by reducing Christianity down to the bare text, they strip Christianity of 2,000 years of accumulates wisdom. This is demonstrated most clearly in the realm of spiritual techniques.

About ten years ago I happened to be listening to a Roman Catholic radio show. A caller asked about resisting temptation, and the host suggested that when faced with temptation, try saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. I tried it, and it worked. I was surprised that I could learn something about the spiritual life from a Roman Catholic. I have continued to keep my eyes and ears open since that time, and have decided it is time to discuss some of these things.

When facing an extended period of spiritual doubt, begin reading the gospels, beginning with the gospel of Matthew. Matthew was used as the earliest Christian catechesis, and the five discourses are key to understanding Christianity. Do not begin reading the gospel of John right away. This is advanced theology, and the person wrestling with doubt needs to build up to it.

When struggling with bad thoughts, begin by saying the Lord’s Prayer three times. if the spiritual assault is severe, you may need to continue saying the Lord’s Prayer, speeding up the tempo until it crowds out the bad thoughts. You can also begin repeating the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” I realize this runs counter to some of the advice from the spiritual fathers, who often counsel praying slowly and concentrating on the words. This is good advice under normal circumstances, but when under spiritual assault the mind needs to be forced to focus on something else.

I the Protestant churches, I was never taught to pray. We had prayer in our churches, and we had our Wednesday prayer meetings, but it was very ad hoc. We didn’t follow any patristic model. Instead, we parroted the prayers of those around us. I am still a beginner in the way of prayer, but this is what I’ve learned.

Prayer is not about accommodating the desires of the flesh. In the Lord’s Prayer, we begin with praising God, then asking for spiritual blessings. Even the prayer for our daily bread is probably a reference to the Eucharist. Even if it is not, it is simply a request for the bare minimum necessary to keep us alive, not for fleshly extravagances. According to the Lord’s prayer, we praise God, ask for our spiritual necessities, and ask for deliverance from the wiles of the evil one.

Likewise, the morning prayer discipline begins with the Trisagion Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, The Morning Troparia, Prayer of St. Basil the Great, Psalm 50(51), and The Nicene Creed. Then we get into the Intercessory Prayers, praying for the health, welfare, and spiritual well-being of the world. Only then do we get to the Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, in which we begin to pray for ourselves. Except even then, most of the prayer is focused on our spiritual needs and our relationship with others.Our Final Prayers are for our spiritual well-being, the spiritual well-being of those around us, and request for intercession by the Mother of God and all the saints. Never do we pray for our physical needs, wants, and desires. Not that these are unimportant, but the model seems to be to have others pray on our behalf, and for us to pray on theirs. Prayer then becomes a communal affair. We share our burdens with our fellow Christians, and they pray for us, just as we pray for them. Prayer becomes a means of increasing our bond of unity as the body of Christ.

I which I had more, but that’s it for now.


Canonicity and the Self-Authenticating Scriptures

Antique Homemade Carpenter's Level

Antique Homemade Carpenter’s Level

Protestants are told the scriptures are self-authenticating; because the scriptures are God’s word, they have the power to convince us of their truth. This idea is promoted as a means of determining whether a particular book is canonical or not. However plausible this may sound, this is not a useful principle for determining canonicity. The self-authenticating principle can draw one astray into all manner of enthusiasms, allowing an individual or group to determine their own canon of scripture. This was the error of Marcion, who is the first one to devise a Christian canon that “self-authenticated” his preexisting heresies.

The problem is in the nature of canonicity, which is the principle (or principles) by which the scope of the canon is determined. Regarding this process, Dr. Eugenia Constantinou writes:

On what basis were certain books accepted and others rejected? What criteria were used? Did the authority of the book precede its canonization or was it recognized as authoritative because of its history or a particular quality that ultimately rendered it officially canonical? Which qualities were most important? Apostolicity? Prophecy? Spirituality? Perceived inspiration of the writer? Inspired reaction in the reader? Dogmatic importance? Orthodoxy of doctrine? Use by the community of faith? Didactic usefulness? Resonance with Christian experience?[1]

Scholars debate two different approaches: what John C. Peckham defines as the Community-Canon approach and the Intrinsic-Canon approach. Peckham describes the Community-Canon as “a collection of books deemed authoritative by a given community”, and the Intrinsic-Canon as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.”[2] On the one hand, a text is authoritative because the community declared it to be so; on the other hand, a text is authoritative apart from the community’s declaration of the text to be scripture.

The Community-Canon Approach

The Community-Canon approach is based on the community’s declaration of certain books to be Scripture. This presupposes the existence of said books, and their recognition by and use within the community. The pure Community-Canon approach implies that the books are not Scripture until the community declares them to be so, but this is something of a straw man. There is no evidence for such an idea among the various Christian communities and their individual canons of Scripture. The early church was more concerned to declare particular books outside the canon than to positively decide upon the limits of the canon. But, when pressed by outside forces, or out of necessity, the community of faith found itself in the position of creating an authoritative collection of inspired writings.

Objections to the pure Community-Canon approach include the hostile reaction of the community of faith to the prophets, and the failure the community to immediately declare a text to be scripture. For example, Jeremiah’s writings were not immediately recognized as scripture. John C. Peckham writes:

The biblical concept of a true prophet refers to one divinely authorized to speak for God (Jer 15:19; Acts 3:18, 21). There is then, by definition, a divinely appointed authority belonging to true prophets that is thereby inconsistent with the epistemological[3] primacy of the community.[4]

In layman’s terms, the prophet’s being authorized to speak for God exists independently, apart from any criteria the community might use to determine the prophetic authority of the prophetic writing. The prophetic authority is, therefore, intrinsic to the text, and exists apart from the texts witness to and existence within the community.

Peckham then raises another interesting question: “What Constitutes a Legitimate and/or Adequate Community?” There were various canons circulating in the early church; seemingly each Bishop had his own opinion. And there were different communities of faith which considered themselves Christian, and considered themselves to have the authority to determine canonical issues. Among these was the early heretic Marcion, whose canon did not include the Old Testament, and included only portions of the New Testament. The Gnostics also had their own canonical texts that were rejected by the orthodox Christian community. Peckham writes:

Perhaps one might posit that a later community, whether a community of a particular time and place or the collective early Christian community over a period of time, is authoritative to determine canonicity. Yet the same problems apply to later communities. On what grounds should one accept that a later community is more legitimate and/or adequate to determine canonicity? As was the case for the earliest Christian community, the “community” is not monolithic decades or even centuries later. There are now and have been in ages past numerous communities that differ regarding the scope of sacred writings as canon. Examples include the times of the early church (the so-called canon of Marcion and Irenaeus’ view of the scriptures vs. his Gnostic opponents), over one thousand years later (the canon posited by the Council of Trent vs. the Thirty-Nine Articles), and more recent times (the Gospel revisions of the Jesus seminar). Hence, asserting that a later community might be authoritative to determine the canon likewise raises the question, “which community?”[5]

John C. Peckham fails to mention that this argument also applies to the Reformation. The idea that the Reformers could determine for themselves the canon of Scripture raises the question of their authority to do so. Did the Holy Spirit reveal Himself to the Reformers in a way that He had not revealed Himself to the previous 1,500 years of the body of Christ? By what authority were the Reformers able to make that decision on behalf of themselves and their followers, over and against the authority of the witness of the Holy Spirit to the historical Church? What were the criteria the Reformers used to determine which books were truly Scripture — which books were written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? It is interesting that Peckham mentions the Jesus Seminar, but fails to recognize that the Reformers functioned in exactly the same way when they devised their truncated canon.

Objections to the Community-Canon Approach

We must deal with the objections to the Community-Canon approach, so clearly defined by John C. Peckham. First, how do we account for the fact that the larger community of faith does not immediately attest to the inspiration of a particular book? Did not the Holy Spirit inspire the author to write it? And was it therefore not Scripture before the community declared it to be so? The solution to this dilemma is that communities are not time bound, but change and grow. The Holy Spirit is not subject to time; witness of the Holy Spirit comes as a still, small voice, working within the heart of the community, just as He worked within the heart of the prophet. Just as dripping water will eventually wear a hole through a rock, so the voice of the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, leading the community of faith to recognition of same.

The question of which community has the authority to decide is a more difficult one.[6] Just what is the proper basis upon which the community determines the canon? This is an important question, and was answered in different ways by different communities in the early church. Some churches used books that were later dropped from the canon by the larger community. Other books that were later included in the canon which were rejected at some point by large parts of the Christian world. Different bishops produced different canonical lists, lists which in some cases were changed by later bishops using different criteria. So what were these criterion used?

The primary basis was apostolicity. This did not mean that every New Testament book was written by an apostle, but that every book was consistent with the witness of the apostles. While this is a highly subjective assessment today, it was considerably more objective in the primitive church, which contained people who had been taught by the apostles themselves. As the earliest canonical testimonies contained the core of the New Testament as we know it today, we can safely say these books were confirmed by those who actually were taught by the apostles.

Part of apostolicity has to do with orthodoxy, with the regula fidei — the rule (or deposit) of faith. When the apostle Paul reminded the Thesselonians of all that he had taught them concerning the Gospel, he used the term “traditions”, which is a way of referring to the apostolic deposit, the rule of faith.

But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.(2 Th 2:13-15)

Paul uses a similar line of thought when he addresses the Corinthians, telling them he is sending Timothy to remind them of “his ways” which he teaches everywhere, and to every church. In this extended passage he tells them not to follow the teachings of men, but to follow the rule of faith which is held in common among the churches — which we call orthodox doctrine.

I beseech you, be ye followers of me. For this cause have I sent unto you Timotheus, who is my beloved son, and faithful in the Lord, who shall bring you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach every where in every church. (1 Cor 4:16-17)

Another part of apostolicity is antiquity. Indeed, one of Tertullian’s arguments against the truncated canon of Marcion is that it doesn’t pass the test of antiquity. Tertullian argues the unedited version of Luke had been accepted from the time it was written, while Marcion’s edited version was unknown to the Church. In his writing, he connects apostolicity and antiquity.

That Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people, and to none whatever is it known without being at the same time condemned. It too, of course, has its churches, but specially its own—as late as they are spurious; and should you want to know their original, you will more easily discover apostasy in it than apostolicity, with Marcion forsooth as their founder, or some one of Marcion’s swarm. Even wasps make combs; so also these Marcionites make churches.  The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage—I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew—whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul.[7]

Another important criterion was authorship. Was the author of a particular book known and accepted as an authority? The book of Hebrews was troubling, because the book does not state who wrote it, and the book’s authorship has been lost. Some, such as Eusebius, attribute the book of Hebrews to the apostle Paul. Yet the Pauline authorship is doubtful, and the Western Church did not include the book in its list of approved texts on the basis of its disputed authorship. Yet eventually, Hebrews was accepted as Sacred Scripture. The important thing to note is that authorship is a criterion while the status of a book is in doubt. Once the general consensus of the Church declares this or that book to be Scripture, the issue of authorship is no longer relevant.

Today there are any number of disputes as to the authorship of various books of the Old and New Testament. Many scholars believe that II Peter was not written by Peter, but instead by Peter’s disciples after his death. Some scholars believe the John who wrote Revelation is not the same as the John who wrote the Gospel of John. The authorship (in the modern sense) of the five books of Moses is in dispute. All this is troubling to the Protestant mind, and some have even lost their faith over issues such as these. Yet these issues are unimportant to the Orthodox, and indeed to other Christians. For them the Church has spoken, and the issue is settled. The books of Hebrews, II Peter, Revelation, and the Pentateuch are Scripture, no matter who the author is.

It should be obvious that one of the criterion used was that a book was consistent and free of contradiction. Of course the writing had to be internally consistent, but more important was that it did not contradict other writings considered to be either scripture or authoritative. Justin Martyr, in his dialogue with Trypho the Jew, argues that scripture does not contradict itself.

If a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext [for saying] that it is contrary [to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself.[8]

Another important canonical criterion is that the writings were read in church. For a writing to be read in church, it needed to be authoritative. For example, Paul’s letters were written to be read aloud in church. They were then copied and passed on to other churches, who found them to be valuable and worthy of being read in church. The use of our New Testament books became part of regular church usage, a process Eusebius describes as their being “recognized” and “encovenanted”. Steve Rudd writes:

The regular use of writings in the ancient churches was also an important factor in their selection for the New Testament canon. This is what Eusebius had in mind when he mentioned that certain writings were “recognized” (homolegoumena) among the churches and became “encovenanted” (endiathekoi = “testamented” or “canonical”).[9]

One criterion that applied to the book of Jude was that a writing should not quote from books that were not part of the canon. Since Jude quotes the Book of Enoch, which was not part of the Septuagint, some argued that the book of Jude should not be approved for reading in church. Eventually this argument was deemed unpersuasive, and Jude became part of the New Testament canon.

These different criterions were not applied as part of some algorithmic process. There are books that meet these criterions, yet did not make it into the canon. The Didache was written prior to 70 A.D. and the destruction of the temple. Some wanted to attach it to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, where it seems a natural fit. As it describes the regular functioning of the church, its use was normative in the early church. It certainly does not contradict any other scripture text. And yet it did not make it into the canon. Some books like Clement 1, the epistles of Ignatius, and the Shepherd of Hermas were fully orthodox in doctrine, and were often read in church. And yet, eventually, they were left out of the canon.

The process of canonical formation is not a smooth, logical process. The rules were applied loosely, and sometimes were bent or ignored. The only rules that were applied across the board were that a writing had to be consistent with other scripture, and that it be fully orthodox in doctrine. The rest of the rules were applied in a seemingly haphazard fashion, a process that suggests a supra-rational approach, following the leading of the Holy Spirit working within the community of faith.

Epistemology and the Community-Canon Approach

Perhaps the greatest problem with the Community-Canon approach is that it uses an epistemological criterion (one determined by propositional knowledge) to determine the suitability of a book for inclusion into the canon. If the Biblical canon is a list of authoritative and inspired books compiled by the Christian community, then only the Christian community can recognize and define that list. If, however, canonicity is an epistemic criterion, then individuals and groups can each use different criterion and reason their way towards producing different lists. William Abraham describes the key difference between these two views.

The older way was prepared to leave scripture as both a gift of the Holy Spirit and as subject to the ongoing activity of the Spirit without worrying overmuch about epistemology. In my terms, the older way was content to leave scripture as a means of grace. The new fashion was to give primacy to ideas of revelation and inspiration as applying in some unique fashion to the Bible, and to limit scripture to the Bible. However, it is only someone already smitten by epistemology, and more precisely by the kind of epistemology furnished by Aquinas, who can accept the shift identified here so gladly and readily.[10]

For us to understand this argument, we must discuss the development of an epistemological role in theology — the foundation, source, and validity of revelatory truth. Richard Foley comments: “For the medievals, religious authority and tradition were seen as repositories of wisdom”. According to Foley, it was the enlightenment views of men like Descartes and Locke who “regarded tradition and authority as potential sources of error and took reason to be the corrective”.[11] But interestingly, this view did not originate with Locke and Descartes, but has its roots in the writings of Aquinas. William Abraham develops this thesis following this quote from the French theologian Yves Marie Joseph Cardinal Congar, who claims Thomas Aquinas inherited the following crucial assumptions from the Middle Ages:

First, the attributing of all true (and holy determinations of the life of the Church, to a [revelation, inspiration, suggestion], of the Holy Spirit.

Second, the practice of including the Fathers, the conciliar canons and even the pontifical decrees and (more rarely) the more outstanding treatises of the theologians, in the Scriptura Sacra [sacred Scripture], or again, without distinguishing, in the divina pagina [interpretation of scripture].[12] This is a practice of long standing; there seems no doubt but that it arises from the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ][13], which …had passed into canonical collections, and into those chapters which dealt with sources and rules.[14]

For William Abraham, and likely with Protestants in general, the implications are quite startling.

‘Scripture’ was not originally confined to the Bible; it had a much wider frame of reference. …What we see emerging in what follows is a quite different range of sense and reference. Over time, Scripture was cut back to apply materially to the Bible; and its primary function lay in that of operating as an authority.[15]

According to William Abraham, Thomas Aquinas developed that “special kind of rigour in theology”, and was therefore the first to distinguish the authority of the Bible from that of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.[16] Thus, it was Aquinas that laid the foundations for the Reformation’s outright rejection of the Bible as interpreted by the Father’s and the Councils, and in favor of the Bible as interpreted by Reason and Conscience.

The Intrinsic-Canon Approach

As we have spoken unfavorably of the Community-Canon approach, and particularly with its reliance upon human reason and epistemological criteria, we bring ourselves to the Intrinsic Canon approach.

John C. Peckam’s arguments against the Community-Approach apply to the Intrinsic-Canon approach as well. As previously mentioned, Peckham defines the Intrinsic-Canon approach as “a collection of authoritative books that are authoritative because God commissioned [inspired] them.” There is something important missing here: is a book inspired apart from its being part of a collection of authoritative books? And how can there be a collection of such books apart from the community who collected them?

Peckham’s own explanation of the Intrinsic-Canon approach argues for the community’s recognition of certain texts as authoritative. Why? Because an inspired scripture is of no use to anyone if it is not recognized as such. The Holy Spirit bears witness to the inspiration of the writing, and this witness takes place within and to the community of believers — the Church.

If we deal with the two views atomistically, they seem like alternate and opposing approaches. However, we have already noted that the Intrinsic-Canon approach does not preclude the community’s involvement in recognizing that a particular book is authoritative and inspired. Therefore, in practical terms, the two approaches are much the same, and attempts to separate them are short-sighted at best.

As you will remember, John C. Peckham wrote of the prophet as being one “divinely authorized to speak for God.” Thus we must conceive of the Holy Spirit primarily working with individuals, and of inspiring them to write Sacred Scripture. Just as the Holy Spirit works with individuals apart from the community, so then the text produced is inspired apart from its being part of “a collection of authoritative books.”

This raises some important questions. Can we conceive of a single book being inspired, apart from its inclusion in a collection of inspired books? More importantly, is a book inspired apart from its witness to and within a community? And what is the role of the Holy Spirit in all this?

Objections to the Intrinsic-Canon Approach

The idea of an Intrinsic-Canon, of the inspiration of the text apart from the community’s recognition of said inspiration, is a problem historically. A prophet would speak, and then he, his amanuensis, or his followers would write down what he had to say. For the text’s continued existence, it had to be copied by hand, which was an expensive and laborious process. Thus we cannot conceive of a text’s existence apart from its usefulness to and recognition by the community.[17]

The case of Jeremiah is important in this regard. The original text of Jeremiah was destroyed by Jehoakim, king of Judah, and Jeremiah had to dictate another scroll to his scribe, Baruch. (Jeremiah 36) So the question becomes which text was inspired: the first scroll, or the second? Actually, both of them were inspired, but only one is canonical. How can this be? Because the Scripture is a witness to the revelation, not the revelation itself. Therefore, a pure Intrisic-Canon approach will not do, as it does not account for the problem of Jeremiah.

The Verbal Icon and the Witness of the Holy Spirit

Karl Barth, the most important Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, seems to argue against the Community-Canon approach when he states: “the Bible is the witness of divine revelation.” Barth thus draws a distinction between the revelation of God and the Bible as the witness to that revelation. Barth goes on to state: “there is a Word of God for the Church: in that it receives in the Bible the witness of divine revelation.”[18] Thus the Bible is the Word of God for the Church precisely because of its witness to divine revelation. Regarding this proposition, Barth writes:

A witness is not absolutely identical with that to which it witnesses. This corresponds with the facts upon which the truth of the whole proposition is based. In the Bible we meet with human words written in human speech, and in these words, and therefore by means of them, we hear of the lordship of the triune God. Therefore when we have to do with the Bible, we have to do primarily with this means, with these words, with the witness which as such is not itself a revelation, but only — and this is the limitation — the witness to it.[19]

Barth is careful to say that the Bible mediates the original revelation; that it is the means by which the revelation comes to us, the means by which the revelation accommodates itself to us, and the means by which the revelation of God becomes “an actual presence and event.”[20] In other words, the revelation of God is primary; the text of the Bible is absolutely dependent upon the initial revelation, and is a faithful witness to that revelation, but must be distinguished from it.

Here would be a good place to develop the idea of the “Verbal Icon”. The icon is an image of a thing, and not the thing itself. Thus the icon resembles and is symbolic of the object to which it refers. The icon therefore interprets and illumines reality.[21] When God says “Let us make man in our image” (Gen 1:26), the Hebrew word used is צלם (tselem, pronounced tseh’- lem). The Greek translation of that term is εικων (eikon,pronounced  i-kone’), which is the source for our English word icon. Thus an icon is not, as is often thought, merely a visual symbolic representation: humans are the created icon of God; paintings may be the icon of Jesus, of saints, and of angels; and the Bible may be a “verbal icon” of God.[22]

This is important because the Scriptures are written in human language. Words are not the thing itself, but are symbols of that thing. The word “running” represents the act of running; the word “love” represents an abstract concept; the word “God” represents many things, not of which capture the essence of divinity. It is because of the consideration and condescension of God that we have this verbal icon at all. As St. John Chrystom says in his Homily 17 on Genesis:

Let us follow the direction of Sacred Scripture in the interpretation it gives of itself, provided we don’t get completely absorbed in the concreteness of the words, but realize that our limitations are the reason for the concreteness of the language. Human senses, you see, would never be able to grasp what is said if they had not the benefit of such great considerateness.

Robert C. Hill, the translator of Chrysostom’s Homilies on Genesis 1-17, writes of “the delicate balance or the two correlatives: in Chrysostom’s “theology of the Word — divine transcendence and considerateness for human limitations.” It is as though the text of Sacred Scripture represents both the immanence and transcendence of God. It is as if, to use an idea from C.S. Lewis, the inside is larger than the outside.[23] St. John of Damascus writes of the “womb in which the Uncontained dwelt.”[24] Germanos of Constantinople describes the infant Jesus, as being “wider than the heavens.”[25] Our Lord Jesus Christ was both locally present according to his humanity, and everywhere present and filling all things according to his divinity. We should therefore not be astonished at the idea that the God who is ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, nevertheless shows consideration of human weakness by allowing His divinity to be circumscribed in human language. The bible is the verbal icon of God Himself.

If we accept the idea that the initial revelation of God is separate and distinct from the capture of that witness in the pages of Sacred Scripture, then we have a problem, for the Bible is witness to that revelation, and therefore not that revelation itself. Thus the Intrinsic-Canon approach to canonicity will not work. But the Community-Canon approach will not work either, for the revelation of God predates the community’s recognition of its witness in the text.

The resolution to this problem is quite simple, and remarkably profound. The previous approaches to canonicity ignore the work of the Holy Spirit. If we accept the Holy Spirit’s role as working with “holy men of God” (2 Pet 1:21) as opposed to the community as a whole, then it is possible for an inspired text to exist apart from its recognition as Scripture by the community. We know that it took time after a book was written and in use by the community before the community began to refer to it as Scripture. In nearly every case (with the possible exception of 1 Tim 5:18 and 2 Pet 3:15-16), what the New Testament authors speak of as Scripture is the Old Testament, even while using the books that would become the New Testament in their services. And, as we have mentioned previously, Paul referred to his own writings as “traditions” and “epistles” (meaning letters), rather than as Scripture (2 Th 2:15).[26]

However, the thesis that the Holy Spirit’s ministry is primarily to the individual is a problem. The very concept of the individual is a recent western phenomenon. The ancients considered themselves to be persons, but persons who were part of a larger whole. Their identity as persons, their self-worth and reason for living, was tied to the community they were part of. Thus the prophet was moved by the Holy Spirit (2 Pt 1:21) to be a witness to the community and, eventually, his witness was accepted as such by that same community, as influenced by that same Holy Spirit. The Protestant conception of the Holy Spirit’s working primarily through individuals was unknown to the biblical authors, for whom inspiration developed within a community, and functioned as a witness to that community. Thus the inspiration of Sacred Scripture was for the community the witness of the Holy Spirit’s witness to the community, through the inspired text, of the original revelation of God. Thus the Holy Spirit doesn’t work at one level, through the person, but within and through the community as well.

If we accept the idea that the Holy Spirit works within the community, and in a special way to persons as a witness to that community, then it is possible a text could be inspired apart from the community’s initial recognition of such. However, the Holy Spirit works within the community towards its recognition of the Scriptures. And although we are limited by time, the Holy Spirit is not. From God’s perspective, it is unlikely there is any difference between the scripture’s recording of revelation, and the community’s recognition of that record as inspired.[27]


Abraham, William J. Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ambrose. “Letter XLII.” In The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop Of Milan, by Ambrose, translated by H. Walford, 282-287. London, Oxford, & Cambridge: James Parker And Co., And Rivingtons, 1881.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God. New York: T&T Clark, 2004.

Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. “Introduction to the Bible – Lesson 2: Inspiration and inerrancy.” Search the Scriptures. Ancient Faith Ministries, Jun 14, 2008.

Contantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis. Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation. Translated by Eugenia Scarvelis Contantinou. Laval: Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université Laval, 2008.

Cunningham, Mary B., trans. Wider Than Heaven: Eighth-century Homilies on the Mother of God. Kindle Edition. Yonkers, New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011.

Fiorenza, Francis Schüssler. Systematic Theology: Tasks and Methods. Vol. 1, in Systematic Theology: Roman Catholic Perspectives, by Francis Schüssler Fiorenza and John P. Galvin, 1-88. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991.

Foley, Richard. Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Kruger, Michael J. “The Gospel Coalition.” Apocrypha and Canon in Early Christianity. March 13, 2013. (accessed July 13, 2014).

Lewis, Clive Staples. The Last Battle. New York: Collier Books, 1970.

McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Traditions in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Rudd, Steve. Criteria used by apostolic fathers to determine canon. n.d. (accessed September 6, 2014).

Schaff, Philip. ANF01 The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1884.

Schaff, Philip, and Allan Menzies. ANF03 Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian. Vol. 3. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2006.

Wimsatt, William Kurtz, and Monroe C. Beardsley. The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry. Kindle Edition. The University Press of Kentucky, 1953.



[1] (Constantinou, Andrew of Caesarea And The Apocalypse in the Ancient Church of the East: Studies and Translation 2008, 31)

[2] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[3] Epistomology is a philosophical concept having to do with the foundation, scope, and validity of knowledge.

[4] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011, 209)

[5] (Peckham, Intrinsic Canonicity and the Inadequacy of the Community Approach to Canon-Determination 2011)

[6] There are a variety of ways to approach the issue. For myself, the question was answered when I became convinced through the pages of Scripture, the witness of the church fathers, and the evidence of Church history that the fullness of the Church was to be found only in Eastern Orthodoxy. However, my situation is odd, in that I began life as a Fundamentalist, coexisted uneasily with the Evangelicals for a time before I became Lutheran, and finally ended up as Eastern Orthodox. You could think of me as open-minded, or as unstable as water. Frankly, the question is between you and the Holy Spirit. Once you prayerfully examine the evidence, it may well be that the Holy Spirit wants you to stay where you are, using the canon approved by your community.

[7] (Schaff and Menzies, ANF03 2006, 581-582)

[8] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 370)

[9] (Rudd n.d.)

[10] (Abraham 1998, x-xi)

[11] (Foley 2001, 13)

[12] Divina pagina refers to the interpretation of Scripture, (McGinn 1998, 127) and is one of the three early medieval terms used for theology, the other two being sacra doctrina and sacra scriptura (Fiorenza 1991)

[13] Tradition attributes the Decretum Gelasianum [Gelasian Decree ] to Pope Gelasius I, who was Pope from 492-496. The second part of the Decretum Gelasianum is a list of canonical scriptures. The list includes the Old Testament Scriptures which the Protestants consider to be Apocryphal, and the entire New Testament with the exception of 2 Corinthians. The third part discusses the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The fourth part makes the ecumenical councils authoritative and receives the works of a number of the church fathers. Finally, the fifth part contains a list of books compiled or recognized by heretics and schismatics, works which are not received by the church. It is possible that the list of Apocryphal books represents a tradition that can be traced back to Pope Gelasius, but was not actually written by him.

[14] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[15] (Abraham 1998, ix)

[16] (Abraham 1998, x)

[17] The idea that the preservation of a text is related to the community’s acceptance of the text leads to the idea that the number of preserved or extant manuscripts reflects the importance of that manuscript to the community. Michael J. Kruger, author of The Question of Canon, describes this as “Extant Manuscript” evidence, which concept us used to demonstrate the canonicity of the New Testament books over against the New Testament apocryphal writings — in particular, the gnostic texts recently discovered in the Nag Hammadi library. (Kruger 2013)

[18] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 462)

[19] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[20] (Barth, Church Dogmatics I.2: The Doctrine of the Word of God 2004, 463)

[21] (Wimsatt and Beardsley 1953, Kindle Locations 35-38)

[22] (Constantinou, Introduction to the Bible Lesson 2 2008)

[23] (Lewis 1970, 180)

[24] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 1458)

[25] (Cunningham 2011, Kindle Location 3328)

[26] The recognition that Paul did not refer to his own writings as Scripture is significant, because Paul was something of a braggart. I understand that Paul was forced to defend his apostleship, as he was not one of the original twelve. Still, we know more about Paul’s torments from his own mouth, rather than from the mouths of others.

[27] Although God created time and is aware of its limitations upon us, God is apart from time, seeing the particular moment and the sweep of history all at once.

The Harrowing of Hell

In Harrowing of Hades, fresco in the parecclesion of the Chora Church, Istanbul, c. 1315, raising Adam and Eve is depicted as part of the Resurrection icon, as it always is in the East.

The Harrowing of Hell. This representation of Christ’s descent into Hell shows Him breaking down the gates of hell and restoring Adam and Eve to Paradise.

The Harrowing of Hell

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ: Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.(1 Pet 3:18-22)

For Protestants, this is a difficult and most troubling passage, one whose meaning is unclear, and therefore subject to all sorts of interpretations. What does the phrase “spirits in prison” mean? Why did Jesus preach to them, and what was the content of His sermon?[i] When I was in High School, I remember a sermon on this passage in which it was claimed that the “spirits in prison” were the fallen angels, and Jesus message was: “I have beaten you.” While it made for a powerful sermon, this interpretation cannot be supported by the text — although in the absence of other evidence, it is certainly no worse than any of the other interpretations I heard.

And yet, none of the Protestant interpretations of this passage relate to the interpretation given by the early church, which was derived from the book of Tobit and various Old Testament passages, as illumined by the life of Christ. In the book of Tobit we read his prayer of thanksgiving, in which he makes reference to what most Christians call the Harrowing of Hell; the descent of Christ into Hell, where he led captivity captive — that is, from whence he delivered the Old Testament saints from their bondage of sin, death, and the devil.

Then Tobit wrote a prayer of rejoicing, and said, Blessed be God that liveth for ever, and blessed be his kingdom. For he doth scourge, and hath mercy: he leadeth down to hell [Hades], and bringeth up again: neither is there any that can avoid his hand (Tobit 13:1-2).

It is important to note that the verses above are from the King James Version, which tends to conflate the terms for Hell and Hades, translating them both as Hell. However, the word used here is not the Greek word for Hell, but the word for Hades [άδην], the place for disembodied spirits; in the Old Testament, this equates to the Hebrew word Sheol [שׁאול], being the grave, the abode of the dead. While in the New Testament Hades is reserved for the wicked awaiting judgment, in the Old Testament (prior to Christ’s Descent into Hades), Hades/Sheol held both the righteous and the damned.

One of the most important Old Testament passages concerning Christ’s descent into Hades is found in Psalms 24. This passage comes in two parts; the first declares that all of creation is the LORD’S, and states that only the pure in heart will stand in the holy place of God.

The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.

For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?

He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.

He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah. (Ps 24:1-6)

After this passage comes the word Selah, which is a musical and liturgical term, giving one time to pause and reflect upon what has come before. Reflecting on the fact that only the pure in heart will see God (Mt 5:8), we must ask who, then, is pure? Who is without sin? (Joh 8:7) The answer, of course is Jesus, who was tempted like us, yet without sin (Heb 4:15); who was offered for and on behalf of our sins, and was raised again without sin (Heb 9:28). In the remainder of Psalm 24 we see Christ, the King of glory, as being the one able to conquer the hold death had on humanity, and who has opened for us the gates of paradise.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.

Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.

Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah. (Ps 24:7-10)

These last verses from Psalm 24 are part of the Paschal liturgy of the Eastern Church. After reciting (and acting out) this passage, the doors of the church are flung open and the people enter, after which is sung the Easter troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb bestowing life.” This refrain, dating as early as the 2nd century, contains the theological meaning of what is termed the Harrowing of Hell. Death could not hold Him. In defeating death, Christ led captivity captive (Ps 68:18; Eph 4:8), meaning He led the souls of the departed righteous out of their resting place, where they are now kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation (1 Pet 1:5).

We should note that this doctrine is not some medieval invention of the Roman Catholic Church, but is in fact the universal witness of the Church into the apostolic age. We know this from a variety of sources; the New Testament itself, the apocryphal writings of the New Testament period, Christian poetry, and fathers of the early church.

New Testament sources include Jesus’ discussion of His impending three-day burial: “For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:40); Christian tradition holds this to be a foretelling of Christ’s descent into Hell.[ii] Other incidental passages include Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:22-32); Paul’s sermon in the synagogue of Antioch (Acts 13:34-37); and “St Paul’s words that speak of how Christ ‘descended into the lower parts of the earth’ [Eph 4:9] and of his victory over death and hell.'[1 Cor 15:54-57; Rom 10:7; Col 2:14-15]”[iii] Perhaps the most important passage, which became a prototype for other writings of the post-apostolic period, is the passage from 1 Peter which opens this discourse.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev notes the Harrowing of Hell is much more prominent in the Christian Apocalypses than in the canonical texts. Among these texts, which were “indirectly” used by the early church are the Christiain interpolations into the Ascension of Isaiah and The Testament of Asher, along with the “Christian adaptation” of The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs. Other texts include The Gospel of Peter, The Epistle of the Apostles, The Shepherd of Hermas, The Sybilline Oracles, The Teachings of Silvanus, The Gospel of Bartholomew, and The Gospel of Nicodemus. This last book “exerted decisive influence on the formation of church doctrine on the subject.”[iv]

Besides the previously mentioned Easter troparion, which is dated to at least as early as the 2nd century, we should mention the poem “On Pascha” by St Melito of Sardis, and dated to the middle of the 2nd Century, a portion of which is quoted below.

66. When this one came from heaven to earth for the sake of the one who suffers, and had clothed himself with that very one through the womb of a virgin, and having come forth as man, he accepted the sufferings of the sufferer through his body which was capable of suffering. And he destroyed those human sufferings by his spirit which was incapable of dying. He killed death which had put man to death.

68. This is the one who covered death with shame and who plunged the devil into mourning as Moses did Pharaoh. This is the one who smote lawlessness and deprived injustice of its offspring, as Moses deprived Egypt. This is the one who delivered us from slavery into freedom, from darkness into light, from death into life, from tyranny into an eternal kingdom, and who made us a new priesthood, and a special people forever.

70. This is the one who became human in a virgin, who was hanged on the tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from among the dead, and who raised mankind up out of the grave below to the heights of heaven.

71. This is the lamb that was slain. This is the lamb that was silent. This is the one who was born of Mary, that beautiful ewe-lamb. This is the one who was taken from the flock, and was dragged to sacrifice, and was killed in the evening, and was buried at night; the one who was not broken while on the tree, who did not see dissolution while in the earth, who rose up from the dead, raising up mankind below. [v]

Instead of placing the saving work of Christ into different categories and treating each atomistically (as is done in western theology), St Melito of Sardis connects it all into a seamless narrative, flowing from the pre-existence of the Son of God, His clothing of himself of the flesh of the Virgin Mary, His life, death, burial, and His raising of mankind from the grave by virtue of His own resurrection. This same method is repeated elsewhere in his “On Pascha”, to similar effect.

Another interesting bit of poetry comes to us by way of the Odes of Solomon, a work most scholars believe first appeared in Syria in the mid-second century. About their origin, Rutherford Hayes Platt states: “one of the most plausible explanations is that they are songs of newly baptized Christians of the First Century.”[vi] With this in mind, it is interesting to note that these Odes contain significant references to and descriptions of Christ’s descent into Hades.[vii] Ode 42 is particularly interesting, in that it describes both the “spirits in prison”, and the content of Christ’s preaching.

ODE 42.

The Odes of Solomon, the Son of David, are ended with the following exquisite verses.

1 I stretched out my hands and approached my Lord:

2 For the stretching of my hands is His sign:

3 My expansion is the outspread tree which was set up on the way of the Righteous One.

4 And I became of no account to those who did not take hold of me; andI shall be with those who love me.

5 All my persecutors are dead; and they sought after me who hoped in me, because I was alive:

6 And I rose up and am with them; and I will speak by their mouths.

7 For they have despised those who persecuted them;

8 And I lifted up over them the yoke of my love;

9 Like the arm of the bridegroom over the bride, So was my yoke over those that know me: And as the couch that is spread in the house of the bridegroom and bride,

12 So is my love over those that believe in me.

13 And I was not rejected though I was reckoned to be so.

14 I did not perish, though they devised it against me.

15 Sheol saw me and was made miserable: Death cast me up, and many along with me.

17 I had gall and bitterness, and I went down with him to the utmost of his depth:

18 And the feet and the head he let go, for they were not able to endure my face:

19 And I made a congregation of living men amongst his dead men, and I spake with them by living lips:

20 Because my word shall not be void:

21 And those who had died ran towards me: and they cried and said, Son of God, have pity on us, and do with us according to thy kindness,

22 And bring us out from the bonds of darkness: and open to us the door by which we shall come out to thee.

23 For we see that our death has not touched thee.

24 Let us also be redeemed with thee: for thou art our Redeemer.

25 And I heard their voice; and my name I sealed upon their heads:

26 For they are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.

This last phrase sums up the soteriological [salvific] theology contained within the description of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. We were all in bondage to sin, death, and the devil; Christ has broken our chains, destroyed the gates of hell, and declares to all: “They are free men and they are mine. Hallelujah.”

An interesting patristic passage comes to us by way of Eusebius, in “The Story Concerning the King of Edessa.” King Agbar of Edessa[viii] was ill with some form of wasting disease. Hearing of Jesus, the King wrote and besought Jesus to come and heal him. Jesus sent King Agbar a letter saying one of his disciples would come and heal his sicknesses and bring salvation to his people. This was accomplished after the resurrection of Christ when Thomas sent Thaddeus (one of the seventy) to Edessa. Thomas not only healed King Agbar and a great many others, but preached the following Gospel to them, which included a description of Christ’s descent into Hades:

Because I have been sent to preach the word of God, assemble me tomorrow all the people of thy city, and I will preach before them, and sow amongst them the word of life; and will tell them about the coming of Christ, how it took place; and about His mission, for what purpose he was sent by His Father; and about His power and His deeds, and about the mysteries which He spake in the world, and by what power He wrought these things, and about His new preaching, and about His abasement and His humiliation, and how He humbled and emptied and abased Himself, and was crucified, and descended to Hades, and broke through the enclosure which had never been broken through before, and raised up the dead, and descended alone, and ascended with a great multitude to His Father.[ix]

The fact that the Harrowing of Hell featured prominently in the Apocryphal texts, Christian poetry, and patristics testifies to the early origins of this Christian doctrine. And the fact that this doctrine is supported from the Old Testament, including both canonical and so-called Apocryphal texts, suggests the loss of something vital to the Gospel when the Apocrypha were separated from the rest of the Old Testament.



[i] We won’t even discuss the problematic phrase: “even baptism doth also now save us”.

[ii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 17)

[iii] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 19)

[iv] (Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev 2009, 20-29)

[v] (St Melito of Sardis 1989, 20-23; 32-34)

[vi] (Platt 2007, 205)

[vii] See Odes 17, 22, 24, and 42.

[viii] Edessa was the capital city of Osreone, which was part of the Syriac empire. The country of Osreone is roughly located in the border area of Turkey and Syria; the city of Edessa is located in modern-day Turkey, and known as Şanlıurfa (or colloquially as Urfa).

[ix] (Schaff, ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age 2005, 1098)


Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Christ the Conqueror of Hell. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009.

Platt, Rutherford H. The Forgotten Books of Eden. Sioux Falls: NuVision Publications, LLC, 2007.

Schaff, Philip. ANF08. The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, The Clementia, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Age. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

St Melito of Sardis. “On Pascha.” Edited by Jr. James T. Dennison. KERUX: A Journal of Biblical-Theological Preaching (Kerux, Inc.) 4, no. 1 (1989): 5-35.


Merrill F. Unger and the Protestant Canon

Unger's Bible Dictionary

Unger’s Bible Dictionary

The late Merrill F. Unger, former professor of Old Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, provides a series of arguments for the Protestant’s shorter canon. Although I once accepted these arguments without question, they now seem quite odd.

They abound in historical and geographical inaccuracies and anachronisms. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a most curious argument, given that the Sacred Scriptures are full of seeming inconsistencies, contradictions, pre-scientific descriptions, anthropomorphisms, and even what some might call actual errors of fact. If the arguments for inerrancy apply to the Protestant canon, why would they not apply to the Apocrypha? But as we shall see in Part II, the existence of supposed errors is not an argument against inspiration, for the Bible never claims to be inerrant.

They teach doctrines which are false and foster practices which are at variance with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

The argument here seems to be that of Martin Luther, who desired to exclude from the canon any books that disagreed with his interpretation of Scripture. The reasoning is that as we do not hold to certain doctrines, we cannot accept as canonical those books which teach doctrines contrary to ours. It is circular reasoning at best.

They resort to literary types and display an artificiality of subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture. (Unger 1966, 70)

This is a curious statement, given that the bulk of the New Testament consists of letters, Gospels, an apocalypse (Revelation), and a theological treatise (Hebrews), literature not found in the Old Testament Scriptures. The only historical book is Acts; the only wisdom literature is the book of James. The Old Testament does not contain an apocalypse, a style of writing that was in fashion from the time of the Maccabees until the destruction of Jerusalem, but absent from the Old Testament.[i] So basically, nearly all of the New Testament is made up of “literary types” and contains “subject matter and styling out of keeping with inspired Scripture” — at least depending on your point of view.

They lack the distinctive elements which give genuine Scripture their divine character, such as prophetic power and poetic and religious feeling. (Unger 1966, 70)

I’m sorry, professor Unger, but this is not only completely subjective, but utter nonsense as well.[ii] First, let us examine Unger’s critique that the Apocrypha lack prophetic power. In his book “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”, Alfred Edersheim points to the almost hypostatic conception of the Logos in the Apocrypha, “especially the Book of Wisdom — following up the Old Testament typical truth concerning ‘Wisdom’ (as specially set forth in the Book of Proverbs) almost arrived so far as to present ‘Wisdom’ as a special ‘Subsistence’ (hypostatising it).” (Edersheim 1993, 32) The book of Barach takes this even further, going so far as to hint at the Incarnation of the Logos (something we will mention again in Part IV).

Hear, Israel, the commandments of life: give ear to understand wisdom. …Thou hast forsaken the fountain of wisdom. For if thou hadst walked in the way of God, thou shouldest have dwelled in peace for ever. …O Israel, how great is the house of God! and how large is the place of his possession! Great, and hath none end; high, and unmeasurable. …Who hath gone up into heaven, and taken her, and brought her down from the clouds? …This is our God, and there shall none other be accounted of in comparison of him. He hath found out all the way of knowledge, and hath given it unto Jacob his servant, and to Israel his beloved. Afterward did he show himself upon earth, and conversed with men [emphasis added](Baruch 3:9, 12-13, 24-25, 29, 35-37).

As for “poetic and religious feeling,” let us read the supplicatory prayer of Judith, which will hold up to anything in the Hebrew Scriptures.

For, behold, the Assyrians are multiplied in their power; they are exalted with horse and man; they glory in the strength of their footmen; they trust in shield, and spear, and bow, and sling; and know not that thou art the Lord that breakest the battles: the Lord is thy name. Throw down their strength in thy power, and bring down their force in thy wrath: for they have purposed to defile thy sanctuary, and to pollute the tabernacle where thy glorious name resteth, and to cast down with sword the horn of thy altar (Judith 9:7-8).

And again this, from Judith’s song of rejoicing:

I will sing unto the Lord a new song: O Lord, thou art great and glorious, wonderful in strength, and invincible. Let all creatures serve thee: for thou spakest, and they were made, thou didst send forth thy spirit, and it created them, and there is none that can resist thy voice. For the mountains shall be moved from their foundations with the waters, the rocks shall melt as wax at thy presence: yet thou art merciful to them that fear thee. For all sacrifice is too little for a sweet savor unto thee, and all the fat is not sufficient for thy burnt offering: but he that feareth the Lord is great at all times (Judith 16:13-16).

As we can see, none of Merrill F. Unger’s reasonings stand up to scrutiny. Therefore, it would appear that his opposition to the Apocrypha being in the canon is ultimately subjective, based on unstated and perhaps unwarranted assumptions.


Edersheim, Alfred. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: New Updated Edition. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1993.

Unger, Merrill F. Unger’s Bible Dictionary. Third Edition. Chicago: Moody Press, 1966.



[i] Even though the New Testament contains an apocalypse, many in the ancient church rejected the Revelation of St. John precisely because of its mysterious symbolism and apocalyptic character — something the heretics were able to twist to their advantage.

[ii] I do not wish to be too hard on Mr. Unger, whose book was written before the implications of the Dead Sea Scrolls were widely known. Still, he lived until 1980 and never updated this portion of his Bible Dictionary.

Sola Scriptura and the Church

The Branch Theory of the Church

The Branch Theory of the Church

In his blog post entitled Questions about Sola Scriptura, Robin Phillips raises some very good questions about the relationship between Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and the Church. If the primary or only source of spiritual authority is the Bible, how do we determine which Church Body or tradition properly interprets the Bible? Which set of doctrines are authoritative in the life of the Church? Of the individual Christian (if there is any such thing as a Christian apart from the Church?)

If Scripture is your primary authority, it becomes difficult to determine exactly which secondary authority may be used to interpret the Sacred Scriptures. Indeed, Protestantism — following the lead of Martin Luther — asserts the primacy of reason and the individual conscience as a means of interpreting Scripture. It must therefore be acknowledged that any number of people have approached the scriptures prayerfully, with great care, and in all sincerity, and have devised all manner of doctrinal systems from the pages of Sacred Scripture. Which dogmatic system is correct, and how do we know? There are many different contradictory positions within Protestantism, and differences on doctrine seem invariably to give rise to new denominations.

If you are a Protestant, you will likely point to your church or denomination as the true and visible church because it best understands the Bible. If you are Lutheran, you will point the the Lutheran Confessions as your guide to the understanding of Scriptures, and claim your Church as the true and visible Church, (although which branch of Lutheran, and on what basis do you decide?) If you belong to some other Church communion (Rome, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, etc.), you will point to the traditions of the fathers as a guide to understanding the Scriptures; the question then becomes which tradition, and which set of church fathers?

The problem is that if the Scriptures are self-authenticating, which is to say they attest to their own inspiration apart from the Church, then it becomes extremely difficult to determine which is the true and visible Church. The answer, according to some, is to differentiate between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible church, comprised of all the saints of God past, present, and future, is the true church; the visible church is the local manifestation of the invisible church — indeed, is a branch of the one, true Church. Thus, the branch theory of the Church, first postulated by the Church of England.

The problem with the branch theory is that it separates church and doctrine, in that a church may be doctrinally in error, and even heretical, and yet be a branch of the one, true church. Sola Scriptura and the Branch Theory provides no objective way to determine truth from error, making the choice of visible church a subjective affair. Moreover, it is almost impossible to draw any objective criteria by which a particular group claiming the name of Christian may be understood as apart from the invisible church. Indeed, that is the point, in that the saints are known to God alone. Thus, does it even matter which visible Church we belong to as long as we are part of the invisible Church?

As Robin Phillips points out, there is an element of circular reasoning at work here. We say the Scriptures are inspired by God, but so do other religions. How do we know our Scriptures are inspired, apart from some testimony external to the Scriptures themselves? And if we accept an external source that attests to the inspiration of Scripture, how then may we hold to the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (especially as interpreted by the modern Fundamentalists and Evangelicals as Solo Scriptura, also known as Nuda Scriptura, the naked Scriptures?)

It is possible to accept a subsidiary authority attesting to a superior authority. Indeed, this is the general position of Lutherans, who accept the Lutheran Confessions and the testimony of the Church Fathers as secondary and tertiary authorities. Yet this does not resolve the question of which doctrinal system, derived from Scripture Alone, is correct.

The idea of Scripture Alone creates more problems than it solves. The sole reason for the assertion of the Scripture Alone was to separate Scripture from the Church of Rome. If that is the rationale, then the foundation for Scripture Alone is weak indeed.

Is the Bible the Word of God?

The Gospel of John

The Word of God?

Why is our Bible sometimes referred to as the “Word of God?” As a Protestant, I became used to using that term to refer to the text of the Sacred Scriptures. But the Bible I take from my shelf, hold in my hands, and read — in what sense is the text itself the Word of God?

Archimandrite Daniel Byantoro says that for Islam, the Quran is the Word of God as a book, while for Christians, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh. The Word made text of Islam existed from eternity with God, but is separate from God. By contrast, Christianity says the Word made flesh was from eternity with God, and was God. Within the Godhead are three persons in eternal and interpersonal communion, which communion the Word made flesh shares with us. (Byantoro 2008, (podcast)) As evidence of the Christian view, John’s gospel is quite clear: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Joh 1:1, 14).

While there are some places in the New Testament where it could be interpreted that the phrase “Word of God” refers to the inspired text, it is clear from the context, and from the other places where the phrase is used, that “Word of God” includes the content contained within the text, but not the text itself.

This can be illustrated most clearly in the book of Hebrews. We read in chapter 11, the “roll call of faith”: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear” (Heb 11:3). It is clear that in this passage, Word of God is a reference to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for as the apostle John wrote: “All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (Joh 1:3).

Given that Hebrews uses the phrase “Word of God” to refer to the Christ, the Son of God, what do we make of the following passage, also from Hebrews, one which is often interpreted as referring to the Bible:

For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.  Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Heb 4:12-13).

If you stop with verse 12, then considering the “Word of God”  to be scripture is reasonable. Once you move on to verse 13, which continues the thought, it is clear the author is not talking about a book, but a person, before whom all creatures are made manifest, and before whom all things are naked and open. Indeed, the author goes on to say this person is he “with whom we have to do.” Thus, this passage is obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, revealed by the Holy Spirit. This revelation could be through the pages of Sacred Scripture, yet it is clear that it is the person of Jesus Christ who is the “Word of God”, not the actual peculiar combination of marks on paper.


Byantoro, Daniel. “Christ the Word Become Flesh.” Christ the Eternal Kalimat. Ancient Faith Radio, August 30, 2008.



Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

Lex Orandi, Lex CredendiThe Latin phrase “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” is generally translated as the law of prayer is the law of belief.  The reverse is also true; the law of belief is the law of prayer. But what does it mean?

The “Law of Prayer” is a reference to the prayers the worshipping church. So one way of looking at it is that the way we worship reflects the way we believe, and the way we believe is reflected in our worship. This seems reasonable and straightforward. But how does this work in practice?

A great many Protestant communities create their own hymnals. Other Protestant bodies share hymnals across denominational lines. The reason for the variety of Protestant hymnals is they reflect differences in doctrine. Hymnals from a Presbyterian tradition will have a different collection of hymns than a hymnal from the Reformed, which would be different from the Wesleyan or Lutheran hymnal.

Within the Lutheran community in America, there are quite a few different denominations, each with different hymnals reflecting their differing approach to Scripture and differing understanding of the Lutheran Confessions. The hymnals contain different selections of hymns and different liturgies — both of which reflect differences in belief. Even when different hymnals contain the same hymns, there may be differences in translation, or the hymns may be rewritten to reflect changes in both doctrine or societal norms, such as gender-neutral language.

We still have not exhausted the complexity of our discussion. Whereas the older hymnals tended to have just a few different musical settings of the same liturgies, the newer hymnals not only contain different musical settings, but actual variations between the liturgies.  And within liturgical variation are different propers (the changeable parts of the liturgy), and occasionally there may even be differences in the ordinaries (the parts of the service that are supposed to stay the same from week to week). The liturgical variations within the service are presented in multiple columns. Thus, even within the same Protestant denomination there can be wide variation in the conduct of the service from one church to another — and between churches that use the same liturgical settings.

I contend that the beliefs of a church body are reflected in their choice of hymnal. If this is true, then the change of hymnals that tend to take place each generation, in that it changes the worship of the church, reflects an actual change in doctrine.[1]  And when a hymnal contains not merely different liturgical settings, but actual liturgical variations, this reflects the doctrinal disagreements that exist within that church body.

Another way to view this change is to look at the differences between the older and the newer catechetical (or religious instructional) material. Whereas hymnals tend to change each generation, catechetical material seems to change less often. Within the Lutheran Church, catechesis is generally represented by Luther’s Small Catechism, which doesn’t change. However, the explanation of the Small Catechism is usually appended in the same volume. These explanations are quite different between the different Lutheran bodies, and even between versions published by the same Lutheran body.

The most recent Small Catechism with Explanation for the LCMS was published in 2005. The previous version was first published in 1943. There are distinct differences in the Explanations between the two versions (explanations which are presented in question and answer form). In some cases, the differences reflect societal changes. In the 2005 edition the first question asked is “What is a Christian?” This question was not included in the 1943 version, which indicates a considerable societal change in the intervening 60 years.  There are also differences in the questions asked and the answers given. These are subtle, yet significant differences, differences that are debated by pastors of the LCMS.[2]

Lest you think this is a tirade against Protestants, the Roman Catholics have their own issues. It is clear that there is a distinct difference in Roman Catholic worship before and after Vatican II. This is not only because the Vatican allowed the mass to be celebrated in languages other than Latin, but because the actual liturgy changed. There are changes in the prayers of the church in the Latin rite versus the post-Vatican II vernacular rite. This can be demonstrated by the furor that developed when Pope Benedict XVI relaxed the rules governing when and where the Latin rite can be held, primarily because the old Latin rite contained a prayer calling for the conversion of the Jews, a prayer than had not been carried forward into the post-Vatican II rite.

While the Roman Catholics will never formally admit the church has changed (and why would we expect them to), it is clear that it has changed over time  — if for no other reason than the change in the attitude towards the Eastern Orthodox. Meanwhile, the Eastern Orthodox Orthodox Church will often say that it hasn’t changed since the days of the apostles. Yet this isn’t precisely true, either.

It is clear that the Eastern Orthodox liturgy has changed over the years. This can be demonstrated by perusing Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VII, containing The Liturgy of St. James; The Liturgy of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Mark; and The Liturgy of the Blessed Apostles. Not only are these clearly different from The Liturgy of St. Basil and The Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom used today, but they show evidence of interpolations over time. So the question is why did the Liturgy change; and can it be said that these changes reflect actual doctrinal changes?

The simple answer is yes, the liturgies changed because the doctrine of the church changed. Or rather, as the doctrine of the church was set forth by the ecumenical councils, these definitions were incorporated into the liturgy of the Church. So whereas the early church allowed for a greater variety of expressions of Christianity, the later church found it necessary, in response to heresy, to define the faith more precisely. Thus, while the church in Asia Minor had a certain millenialist quality, this doctrinal option was closed off when the Second Ecumenical Council added the following phrase to the Creed: “whose kingdom shall have no end.”[3]

It is clear that different areas of the Roman Empire developed different liturgies, which appear to be based on common prototypes. This is evidenced in part by the similarities between the different church orders passed down to us as the Didache (~50 A.D.), the Didascalia Apostolorum (~230 A.D.), the Apostolic Traditions (of Hippolytus, ~215 A.D.), and the Apostolic Constitutions (~375 A.D.).  In addition, the different liturgical families contain much the same basic structure and content.[4] The similarity within the liturgical families is even more pronounced. The Liturgy of St. James is roughly comparable to the Liturgy of St. Basil and the Liturgy of St. James;[5] the differences primarily being that some of the more flowery language of the Liturgy of St. James has been condensed and simplified in the later liturgies.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I can follow the Liturgy of St. James, and recognize nearly all of it. But I can also say that when I first read it, I noticed some commonality between it and what Lutheran’s sometimes call the “Common Service”, or what may be more generally known as the Western Rite. This demonstrates that the Eastern and Western Rites are derived from a common source. One difference I note is the absence of the Epiclesis in the Western Rite, which is the Eucharistic prayer which calls for the Holy Spirit to change the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ.[6]

It is not always clear why the epiclesis is missing from the Protestant version of the Western Rite.  However, we may infer this from the movement of the epiclesis in the Roman Catholic rite to a place prior to the so-called words of institution, which in the western sacramental Churches, is the point at which the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. In the Eastern Church, the definition of when this occurs is left open, but is definitely said to have occurred once the epiclesis has uttered.

What does this all matter, anyway? To the average churchgoer, not much. But in the early church, and among today’s flea-picking theologians, it matters a great deal. The simply movement of the epiclesis within the liturgy represents a profound theological change. In the East there is an appreciation of mystery, and a sense that not everything requires or is even subject to intellectual analysis. In the West, the question of when exactly the bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is not only a matter for intellectual analysis, but the answer to that question actually changes the liturgy.

Lex Orandi, Les Credendi. The way we worship reflects the way we believe. Thus the difference between the so-called contemporary service, what the U.S. Military would call a general Protestant service, and a liturgical service represent fundamental differences in doctrine. Likewise the differences between the Western Rite and the Eastern Rite are reflective of differences in doctrine.

I said all this as preparatory to asking this question: Does the use of the Western Rite in Eastern Orthodox Churches reflect an actual difference in theology?

[1] For example, the latest hymnal of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) contains remarkably few hymns written by Luther himself. What this means I leave to others to determine.

[2] A Lutheran pastor once mentioned that an analysis of the theological differences between the various versions of the Small Catechism’s explanations would make a good subject for a Ph.D. dissertation, which is why I choose not to delve into the subject here.

[3] The editor’s comments in ANF-7 describe this phrase being added to the creed to combat the errors of one Marcellus of Ancyra. Among other things, the Marcellians appeared to hold to the impermanence of the Kingdom of the Son, something they shared in common with the chiliasts, those who held to an earthly temporal Kingdom prior to the permanence of the heavenly Kingdom.

[4] See ANF-7, pp. 793-794

[5] See ANF-7, p. 791

[6] The Epiclesis, from the Liturgy of St. James:

Then, bowing his neck, [the priest] says:—

The sovereign and quickening Spirit, that sits upon the throne with Thee, our God and Father, and with Thy only-begotten Son, reigning with Thee; the consubstantial and co-eternal; that spoke in the law and in the prophets, and in Thy New Testament; that descended in the form of a dove on our Lord Jesus Christ at the river Jordan, and abode on Him; that descended on Thy apostles in the form of tongues of fire in the upper room of the holy and glorious Zion on the day of Pentecost: this Thine all-holy Spirit, send down, O Lord, upon us, and upon these offered holy gifts;

And rising up, he says aloud:—

That coming, by His holy and good and glorious appearing, He may sanctify this bread, and make it the holy body of Thy Christ.

The People.


The Priest.

And this cup the precious blood of Thy Christ.

The People.