March 31, 2007

Protestant Mariology

The God Fearin' Fiddler has a post up on why Protestants are offended by Mariology. This was one of the issues that came up in our previous debate, so I would like to address it briefly here. Before I do so, I want to make a few preliminary remarks. The first is that the assertion that Mariology is offensive to Protestants contains a terminological mistake, but it is a mistake that is also made by many Protestants. "Mariology" is the branch of theology that deals with Mary. Protestants are not offended by this subject of study. In fact, there is such a thing as "Protestant Mariology." I shall have more to say about this shortly, but for now let me give as an example that Protestants are not Nestorian: we do indeed believe that Mary was theotokos - she carried God Himself in her womb and gave birth to him. This is a statement of 'Mariology' and one which is not offensive to Protestants. Now the particular doctrines of Catholic and Orthodox Mariology, and the practices associated with them, are indeed offensive to Protestants (or, at least, Protestants disagree with them), so we do still have something to discuss. Second, I'd like to point out that in our discussions so far it has become clear that when the Fiddler was a Protestant, he was more 'Reformed' than I am. By 'Reformed' (in scare quotes) I mean two things: first, that on certain issues (which issues these are will, I hope, emerge in coming discussions) his version of Protestantism was further away from Catholic views than mine (of course, on other issues - sacraments, for instance - Presbyterians are closer to Catholicism than I am); second, I mean that his views were more similar to those of Calvin and of prominent Calvinists of later times. As a result, we have sometimes in this discussion found ourselves in unexpected agreement (though I'm not sure we've always realized it).

Having said those two things, let me proceed to the task at hand, which is a brief (I hope) examination of the Protestant view of Mariology and it's differences from the Catholic view.

As I have already stated, Protestants are not Nestorians: we do affirm that Mary gave birth to God. While, as the Council of Ephesus affirmed, Mary is indeed theotokos (lit. "The God-Bearer" - where "bear" means "to give birth to" unlike in the name "Christopher," sometimes translated "Christ-Bearer," where "bear" means "to carry") , many Protestants have objected to the traditional English translation "Mother of God" (from the Latin translation Mater Dei) as it has seemed to some to imply that Mary is the ontological source of God (though clearly no one has ever intended the phrase in this way) or, less radically, that some continuing relationship between Mary and the Godhead is present as a result of her role as theotokos. To this latter claim more attention will be given shortly, but suffice it to say that we all agree that Mary gave birth to God in the flesh.

Now, Protestants have been cautious in making any statements about Mary probably due to what they see as the excesses of Catholicism and so, unfortunately, not much thought is devoted to her in most Protestant circles. There is, however, an urgent need for Protestants to recover the theology of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), and, of course, in the preceeding passage, Elizabeth says to Mary "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" (Luke 1:42) Compare this to the text of the traditional Ave Maria:

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

And further note that the last line (the "pray for us" part) was added relatively late in the Middle Ages.

(It is also of interest that Elizabeth says eulogeo in v. 42, but Mary says makarioo in v. 48 - but that's a discussion for another time.)

Furthermore, many (though not all) Protestants have affirmed a tradition regarding the interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15 which would translate it as something like "But she [i.e. Woman in the abstract] will be saved through the birth of a Child, if they [women, individually] continue in faith and love and holiness with prudence." Obviously, Mariology won't solve every difficulty with this extremely puzzling verse (at least as confusing as the passage immediately preceding it!), but the idea, which is developed in many of the Church Fathers, is that Mary is, in some sense, the new Eve (just as Christ is the new Adam - Romans 5:12-21). Now, this must be carefully developed in a Protestant direction: it is (for reasons I don't particularly understand) Adam who is responsible for the Fall, but Eve took the fruit first, and handed it to him. So there is an idea here of a reversal of sorts. The first Eve took the fruit first, and handed it to the first Adam, and he fell. The second Eve suffered first (in the pain of childbirth - contrary to some ancient and Medieval writers who said that since Jesus was free from the curse of sin his birth must have been painless) in order to bring the second Adam into the world, so that, just as the first Eve put the first Adam in a position to fall, the second Eve put the second Adam in a position to redeem. Nevertheless, it is the first Adam who is responsible for the Fall, and the second Adam who brings about redemption. Mary's suffering does not accomplish or in any way contribute to redemption.

It is also critically important the Christ is unique. No one else could have brought about our salvation. But God could have chosen someone else than Mary, just as he could have chosen someone else than Abram. He could not have chosen someone else than Jesus. Mary, like Abram, is to be praised for her obedience in the face of bizarre divine commands, and for her faith that God would bring about his promise. Protestants should not shy away from making these kinds of assertions.

I am told that Calvin even saw Mary as a type of election. That is, like Mary, each of us is chosen by God to bring Christ into the world around us in our lives and actions; like Mary, we are undeserving.

It will be noted that none of the above squares well with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. There is a further problem with that doctrine as well: it places Christ at a further remove from humanity. By calling Mary a perfect vessel and denying that Christ was born through any ordinary woman, Christ is separated from us not only by his own perfection, but by the perfection of his mother. And how is his mother free from original sin? Some Medieval Catholic writers claimed that this was because Saint Anne (the mother of Mary) was also a virgin at the time of Mary's birth, so that there was no male line to transmit Original Sin, but this was eventually repudiated by the Church (at least that's what Wikipedia says). Furthermore, this contradicts what Paul says throughout Romans (and what is taught through the rest of Scripture) about all humans being sold under sin. Furthermore, it should be noted that, in Luke 1:28 the word translated 'favored' or 'highly favored' in most translations is the Greek charizomai, so that Mary is addressed literally as "woman to whom grace is shown;" but grace (Gr. charis) is by definition undeserved! The Scripture does not treat Mary as "immaculate" but as graciously chosen by God.

A related doctrine is the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. This one is very common from very early times in the history of Christianity, and it doesn't explicitly contradict any Scripture, nor, I suppose, does it have any particular theological problems, but it requires highly unnatural interpretations of Scripture in a number of places. Firstly, right at the beginning of the New Testament in Matthew 1:25 it says that Joseph "did not know her [Mary] intimately until she gave birth to a son." This is not an explicit contradiction, but in the most straightforward interpretation it implies that he did know her intimately after she gave birth (and this is where Catholics start to be offended by Protestant Mariology!). Second, there are all the references to Jesus' siblings (Matt. 13:55-56, Mark 6:3, etc.). Catholics usually point out (rather questionably) that adelphos can also mean cousin or (less questionably) half-brother or step-brother or brother-in-law (the last of these is, of course, not relevant). So the claim that these were Jesus' cousins doesn't hold any water, but the half-/step-brother claim (that is, the claim that the children were Joseph's by a previous marriage) is a possible interpretation, although it is not the most straightforward one.

The final and, in my view, most important consideration is simply that Mary and Joseph were married. Paul gives the following moral command: "A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. A wife does not have authority over her own body, but her husband does. Equally, a husband does not have authority oover his own body, but his wife does. Do not deprive one another - except when you agree, for a time, to devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again; otherwise, Satan may tempt you because of your lack of self-control." (1 Cor. 7:3-5) It is true that the next verse says "I say this as a concession, not a command," but that most likely refers back to verse 2, where he talks about people marrying at all. Even within Catholicism, a marriage is only valid if it is consummated by intercourse. How, then, could Mary and Joseph be married? And, make no mistake, they were married: the angel commanded Jospeh, "don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife" (Matt. 1:20). There is no ambiguity here. So the doctrine of perpetual virginity is no good Biblically. It probably comes from the similarly unbiblical idea that sex is somehow evil, which was popular among certain segments of early Christianity and in late Medieval (and later) Catholicism.

The other doctrine in this cluster is the Assumption. I have no argument to make against that, other than that it isn't recorded in Scripture. Nothing that happened to me today is recorded in Scripture, but it still happened. Elijah and Enoch were 'assumed' into heaven bodily. In short, my answer to this one is "whatever." I see no good reason to believe that it happened, but I suppose it could have.

Of course, none of these doctrines is the central issue. The really central issue is the differing treatment of the Communion of Saints, and the practice of 'veneration' of saints and icons, as well as prayer to saints. The Fiddler mentions that, during the course of his conversion, he discovered that he was comfortable with prayers to Michael the Archangel for protection, but not prayers to Mary. I suggest that this is actually not because of the general Protestant discomfort with Mary, but because there is good Biblical/theological reason to suppose that Michael the Archangel and hear us and does protect us, but no similar reasons with regard to Mary.

This post has already gotten quite long, so I'm not going to include general arguments about prayers to saints. I've already dealt briefly with the issue of the supposed distinction between 'worship' and 'veneration' in my post on icons. I'm not convinced that the distinction is real, and I think this is the real reason why even some informed Protestants (and not only the ignorant ones) claim that Catholics worship Mary. I would not say this in the context of a discussion with a Catholic, but only because it would be begging the question: we all agree that worshiping Mary would be wrong, but we disagree on whether official Catholic practice (what actually happens in, e.g., Latin America is another story altogether) constitutes the worship of Mary. That, as I have said, is a topic for another post.

Posted by Kenny at March 31, 2007 9:07 PM
TrackBack URL for this entry:


on the statement you made about eve taking the fruit of the tree it is in the book of sirach that eve is said to fallen Sir 25:33 From the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die.

also mary's magnifica part comes this book

Sir 10:14 The Lord has turned mighty princes off their thrones and seated the humble there instead.
Luk 1:52 He has pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.

Posted by: adolfo at February 8, 2009 10:31 PM

see this youtube video on mary :

Posted by: adolfo at February 8, 2009 10:37 PM

I like the details you gave concerning the expectations of marriage. Another verse from Matthew 1 that's usually worth mentioning is verse 18. It says "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit."

Because it says "before they came together," there's no denying that they did in fact come together. You can argue that "came together" does not refer to anything of a sexual nature, but a couple of verses later Matthew connects this statement with the prophecy that a virgin will conceive. The purpose of this verse is to establish the fact that Mary was a virgin, so an interpretation that divorces the phrase "came together" from any possible sexual reference (ie., the "Catholic dodge") makes far less sense than the typical Protestant interpretation.

Let's not forget that if you read the words "before they came together" and pretend it doesn't have anything to do with sex, this passage no longer succeeds in establishing Mary's virginity at the time of conception. With that one gone, there's only one other verse like it that remains in the entire Bible.

Posted by: Mike at July 23, 2009 8:48 AM

Post a comment

Return to