Why we shouldn't ignore her any longer.
posted 12/05/2003 |
In his History
of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox described an incident from his early life as a Protestant. Having been delivered
from "the puddle of papistry," as he called it, he was taken as a prisoner and forced to row in a French galley ship for 19
Soon after the arrival [of the galley ship] at Nantes, … a glorious painted Lady
was brought in to be kissed and, amongst others, was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said, "Trouble
me not; such an idol is a curse; and therefore I will not touch it." The Patron and the Arguesyn, with two officers, having
the chief charge of all such matters, said, "Thou shalt handle it"; and so they violently thrust it in his face and put in
betwixt his hands; who seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about, he cast it in the river, and said,
"Let our Lady now save herself: she is light enough; let her learn to swim!"
Some scholars believe the "Scottishman" involved in this incident was none other than Knox himself.
Most evangelical Protestants can relate to this story, for we belong to a tradition of piety decisively shaped by the likes
of Knox. We have an almost instinctive distrust of Mary. Why?
First, we find no biblical warrant for the kind of devotion to Mary that flourishes among many
of the Catholic faithful. Mary's perpetual virginity (the belief that she had no children after Jesus and remained a virgin
throughout her life), immaculate conception (that she was born without the stain of original sin), and bodily assumption (that
she was taken body and soul into heaven after she died without seeing corruption) are extrabiblical beliefs that cannot be
traced to the earliest historical memory of the church.
To be sure, if God had wanted to raise Mary and take her directly to heaven without her waiting
for the general resurrection, he certainly could have done so. We know that God took Elijah into heaven without death. But
to declare this teaching an infallible dogma, as Pope Pius XII did in 1950, creates an even deeper divide between Catholics
and other Christians. This is why Brother Roger Shutz, the Swiss Protestant founder of the Taizé community, felt it necessary
to travel to Rome to urge the pope not to take this step. Brother Roger rightly saw that this act would drive Christians further
away from one another.
Protestants believe that an undue extolling of Mary obscures, if it does not contradict, the
sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the unique Savior and only mediator between God and human beings. Recent efforts to have
Mary officially recognized as mediatrix of all graces, or as co-redemptrix with Christ himself—though
unsuccessful thus far—have only added to the fear that lifting up Mary can only result in bringing down Jesus.
So the question remains: does Protestantism have a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary or, like
Knox of the galleys, must we throw her overboard once and for all? Without compromising the Reformation principles of sola
gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, can we understand and honor Mary in ways that are scripturally based
and evangelically motivated? Are we to be included among those of every generation who call Jesus' mother "blessed"?
Protestants are right to be concerned about these issues, especially when such extreme devotion
to Mary remains unchecked at a popular level. But in reacting to Catholic excesses, have we gone to the other extreme? Must
nearly everything we say about Mary be couched in the language of dissent and disbelief? The fact is, evangelicals often say
less about Mary than the New Testament does. She is seldom mentioned in our sermons or worship services, except for her honorary
appearance in the annual Christmas pageant.
In 1925, A. T. Robertson, a noted Southern Baptist New Testament scholar, published a book titled
The Mother of Jesus. He wrote, "I have felt for many years that Mary, the mother of Jesus, has
not had fair treatment from either Protestants or Catholics … She is the chief mother of the race, and no one should
be allowed to take her crown of glory away from her."
If Roman Catholics have deified Mary, Robertson said, evangelicals have subjected her to "cold
neglect." We have been afraid to praise and esteem Mary for her full worth, he said, lest we be accused of leanings and sympathy
with Catholics. Robertson is right. It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin
Mary and her role in the history of salvation, and to do so precisely as evangelicals. We may not be able to recite the rosary
or kneel down before statues of Mary, but we need not throw her overboard. Let me suggest five ways for us to think biblically
about the mother of Jesus—the Blessed Evangelical Mary.
Spotless Bride and Pilgrim Sinner
Mary stands, along with
John the Baptist, at a unique intersection between the old and new covenants. Mary's role points backward. In the gospels,
she is the culmination of a prophetic lineage of pious mothers—Sarah, Rachel, Hannah (and not forgetting Tamar, Rahab,
and Ruth who appear in Matthew's genealogy).
In one sense, any one of them, as members of God's people, Israel, could have been the mother
of the Messiah. When Mary cradles the baby Jesus in the Temple in the presence of Anna and Simeon, we see brought together
the advent of the Lord's Messiah, and the long-promised and long-prepared-for "consolation of Israel."
But Mary's role also points forward. As the Daughter of Zion, Mary also represents the eschatological
and redeemed people of God. But it is not an easy redemption. In the Old Testament, the Daughter of Zion is depicted as being
in the labor of childbirth: "Writhe and groan, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail" (Micah 4:10).
"For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of the Daughter of
Zion gasping for breath" (Jer. 4:31).
By reading such texts typologically, the early church depicted Mary as the new Eve, the one
through whose obedience the disobedience of the first Eve was reversed.
Yet from an evangelical perspective, one more thing must be said. In the Old Testament, Israel
is not only portrayed as a virgin daughter, but also as an unfaithful bride. "Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you
have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel," the Lord declares in Jeremiah 2:20. The waywardness of Israel is contrasted
to the covenant fidelity of God: "Return, faithless people," declares the Lord, "for I am your husband. I will choose you
… and bring you to Zion" (Jer. 3:14). It is hard to relate this theme to Mary if we consider
her immaculately conceived and sinless from birth.
But there are at least hints in the gospels of another Mary—one who as David Steinmetz
put it, "does not understand what God's purposes are, who intervenes when she ought to keep silent, who interferes and tries
to thwart the purpose of God, who pleads the ties of filial affection when she should learn faith" (cf. Mark
Seen in this light, Mary appears as both faithful and faithless, obedient and interfering, perceptive
and opaque, simul iustus et peccator, "at once a just person and a sinner." This Mary fulfills a fuller typology of
Old Testament Israel, just as she also prefigures the New Testament church, a community which is both the spotless bride of
Christ by virtue of God's unmerited grace and, at the same time, a company of pilgrim sinners who need to pray the Lord's
Prayer every day: forgive us our sins.
Virgin Mother of a Man
Especially since the Fundamentalist-Modernist
controversy of the 1920s, belief in the virgin birth has been a test of evangelical orthodoxy; its denial is still likely
to get one fired from most evangelical schools. Despite fervently advocating this doctrine, however, evangelicals may have
missed two important aspects of its meaning.
First, evangelicals have defended the miraculous character of the virgin birth because they
see it undergirding the deity of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth teaching arose in the early church from a different concern:
namely, as a way to affirm that the Son of God was truly human. "Away with that lowly manger, those dirty swaddling clothes,"
Marcion had cried. Marcion denied that Jesus had ever been humanly born at all. How could one so deeply divine be associated
with messy diapers and afterbirth?
Against all such antimaterialism, Ignatius of Antioch declared in one of the early creedal expressions
of the Christian faith that Jesus was "truly born, truly lived, truly died." That word truly resounds like a gong throughout
the writings of the second century.
In defending the virgin birth as a supernatural reality, evangelicals have frequently been more
concerned with Mary's virginity than with her maternity. But Mary was not merely the point of Christ's entrance into the world—the
channel through which he passed as water flows through a pipe. She was the mother who cared for the physical needs of Jesus
the boy. She nursed him at her breast and nurtured and taught him the ways of the Lord. Doubtless she was the one who taught
him to memorize the Psalms and to pray, even as he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others (Luke
Evangelicals can and should join with other Christians
in celebrating the virgin Mary as theotokos: or as historian Jaroslav Pelikan translated the classic theological word,
as "the one who gave birth to the one who is God." This title takes us back to the debates about Christology in the fifth
The teacher Nestorius did not like to give Mary the title theotokos. He preferred to
call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ." This is because he understood the divinity and humanity of Christ to
function as two separate compartments not intrinsically related to one another. Believing that this portrayed a schizophrenic
kind of Christ who could hardly be understood as one undivided person, the Council of Ephesus (431) declared Nestorius's teaching
heretical and recognized the title theotokos, God-bearer, as an orthodox way to describe Mary.
The purpose of the title was not so much to exalt Mary as to assert the unity of divinity and
humanity in her son. For this reason, both Luther and Zwingli strongly affirmed this title. While Calvin had reservations
about the way "mother of God" (as theotokos was rendered in Latin) could be misunderstood, he too embraced the doctrinal
truth this title was meant to convey. Most evangelicals today would agree with Calvin in finding "mother of God" language
strange, if not inappropriate, but we should not miss the crucial Christological issue at stake in this ancient debate. We
use God-bearer language to describe the mother of Jesus, not in order to exalt Mary unduly but to confess Christ completely,
to assert that the beloved Son of the Father was "born of a woman"—God manifested in the flesh (1
Handmaiden of Faith
Contemporary Protestants are wise to listen
to both the Reformers' critique of Marian piety and their praise of Mary, the handmaiden of the Lord. Luther and all the Reformers
strongly protested against the "abominable idolatry" of medieval Mariology. This is not too strong a term for some of the
beliefs that prevailed at that time. For example, Mary was often portrayed as placating her stern son with milk from her breasts.
This was one reason why Mary's milk, supposedly preserved in reliquaries throughout Europe, was so highly valued.
Mary was seen as the one who intervened with Christ on behalf of sinners—she was a mediator
with the Mediator. In this vein, various texts of Scripture were rewritten with a Marian slant: 1 Corinthians
15:22 became, "as in Eve all die, so also in Mary shall all be made alive." And John 3:16
was rendered: "Mary so loved the world … that she gave her only-begotten son for the salvation of the world." And, anticipating
feminist liturgies half a millennium later, the Lord's Prayer began: "Our Mother who art in heaven, give us our daily bread."
This kind of exaggerated devotion, the Reformers held, does not praise the virgin mother of
God but in fact slanders her by making her into an idol. Nowhere is the Protestant reaction to Marian excess more cogently
put than in Philipp Melanchthon's "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" (1530):
Some of us have seen a certain monastic theologian … urge this prayer upon a
dying man, "Mother of grace, protect us from the enemy and receive us in the hour of death." Granted that blessed Mary prays
for the church, does she receive souls in death, does she overcome death, does she give life? What does Christ do if Mary
does all this? . .. The fact of the matter is that in popular estimation the blessed virgin has replaced Christ. People have
invoked her, trusted in her mercy, and sought to appease Christ as though he were not a propitiator but only a terrible judge
Yet alongside this critique the Reformers expressed a positive devotion to Mary. Both Zwingli
and Bullinger defended the Ave Maria not as a prayer to Mary but as an expression of praise in honor of her. (In fact,
many medieval versions of the Ave Maria did not include the phrase most repugnant to Reformers: "pray for us sinners,
now and in the hour of our death.")
Calvin too refers to Mary as "the treasurer of grace," the one who kept faith as a deposit.
Through her, Calvin says, we have received this precious gift from God. "She deserves to be called blessed, for God has accorded
her a singular distinction, to prepare his son for the world, in whom she was spiritually reborn." In 1521, Luther, sequestered
in the Wartburg, prepared for press his commentary on the Magnificat. Mary, he wrote, is the embodiment of God's unmerited
She is called blessed not because of her virginity or even her humility, but because she was
chosen as the person and place where God's glory would enter most deeply into the human story. "I am only the workshop in
which God operates," Luther has Mary say. As T. S. Eliot would say in Four Quartets, Mary is "the
place of impossible union where past and future are conquered and reconciled in incarnation."
Above all, the Reformers recognize Mary as the one who hears the Word of God and responds in
faith, and thus is justified by faith alone. Mary was a disciple of Christ before she was his mother, for had she not believed,
she would not have conceived. Mary's faith too is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace. This means that
when we praise and love Mary, it is God whom we praise for his gracious favor to his chosen handmaid.
Honoring Mary certainly doesn't come naturally to Protestants. For complex historical reasons,
to be a Protestant has meant not to be a Roman Catholic. To worship Jesus means not to honor Mary, even if such honor is biblically
grounded and theologically sound. But, as the Reformers were quick to point out, Mary is the embodiment of grace alone and
faith alone, and thus contemporary Protestants, along with the Reformers, should highly extol Mary in our theology and worship.
In 1886 A. Stewart Walsh published Mary: The Queen of the House of David
and Mother of Jesus. A magnum opus of 626 pages, it reads somewhat like an extensive Harlequin romance of Mary's life.
Highly romanticized and fictionalized, it is a paean of praise to motherhood in general, of which Mary is the chief exemplar.
Near the end of this fanciful work, however, there is this plea for a proper evangelical recognition of Mary:
No friend of the divine Son can dethrone Him by honoring her aright: indeed, as He
Himself did. It was of Him she spoke when exclaiming: My soul doth rejoice in God my Savior! Can one truly honor Him and despise
and ignore the woman who gave Him human birth? Can one have His mind and forget her for whom love was uppermost to Him in
His supreme last hours? Can one honor her aright and yet dethrone the son whom she enthroned? She bore Him, then lived for
Him. She honored herself in bearing Him, and was His mother, His teacher and His disciple. He revered her, she worshiped Him.
Pointers to Jesus
The New Testament portrays Mary as among the
last at the cross, and among the first in the Upper Room. She bridges not only the Old and New Testaments at Jesus' birth,
but also the close of his earthly ministry and the birth of the church. It is significant that in Eastern iconography, Mary
is never depicted alone, but always with Christ, the apostles, and the saints.
At the foot of the cross, Mary represents the church as a faithful remnant. Already before the
Reformation, Mary was seen as the archetype of the remnant church: her faithfulness alone kept the church intact during Christ's
suffering on the cross.
When all of the disciples (including Peter!) had fled in fear, Mary remained true to Christ
and his word. Her fidelity unto the Cross showed that the true faith could be preserved in one sole individual, and thus Mary
became the mother of the (true remnant) church. This is why the Reformers honored Mary.
Today, perhaps more than ever, the image of Mary under the cross speaks to the church, which
is increasingly the persecuted church. Some interpreters have found an allusion to Mary in the book of Revelation's depiction
of the pregnant woman pursued and persecuted by an enormous red dragon (Rev. 12:1–5). Whether
or not this is a correct interpretation, there is no doubt that the Mary of the Gospels stands in solidarity with all believers
in Jesus who also live under the shadow of the Cross, including many whose lives are at risk today because of their witness
My favorite religious painting shows Mary standing under the cross. It is the famous painting
by Mathias Grünewald (above) from the Isenheim Altarpiece produced on the eve of the Reformation. A copy of this painting
hung over the desk of Karl Barth.
The painting shows John the Baptist pointing with his long bony finger to Jesus writhing in
the agonies of death. In faded red letters, in Latin, are the words "He must increase, I must decrease." John points not to
himself nor to anyone else, but to Christ alone. This is the task of all true ministers of the Gospel, indeed of every true
Christian. We say to those we meet, "Don't believe in me, believe in him. Don't follow me, follow him. He is the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The Blessed Virgin Mary is also a prominent figure in this painting. She too stands under the
cross—not only with John the beloved disciple (as usually depicted), but also with John the Baptist. She joins him in
pointing others to Jesus, representing the church in its primary call to discipleship and witness.
This is the Mary Protestants can and should embrace. We do not think of the mother of God, an
object of devotion by herself, in isolation from her son. We need not go through Mary in order to get to Jesus, but we can
join with Mary in pointing others to him. This, more than anything else, will honor her as she honored him. As the Anglican
poet-chaplain of World War I, G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, expressed it in his poem "Good Friday Falls on Lady Day":
And has our Lady lost her place?
Does her white star burn dim?
Nay, she has lowly
veiled her face
Because of Him.
Men give to her the jewelled crown,
And robe with broidered rim,
But she is fain
to cast them down
Because of Him.
She claims no crown from Christ apart,
Who gave God life and limb,
She only claims
a broken heart
Because of Him.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and an executive editor
of CT. This article has been adapted from a longer essay in the forthcoming Mary:
Mother of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten (Eerdmans, 2004).
Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
to my arms. (Rest …
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seemsLuci Shaw
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
sprout a world. Charmed by doves' voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native
to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.