‘Bearing God’: The Mother Of Jesus In Protestant Theology

This is a paper I wrote in college. Some friends asked to read it. This is the simplest way to easily share it. I present it now without edits or updates. It is not good. Enjoy.

*

Introduction

Theologian Tim Perry was horrified to discover that his colleagues were heretics.[1] At an event hosted by Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent Evangelical figure opined that he would have sided with Nestorius in the famous “Theotokos” debacle, which led to the pronouncements at the Council of Chalcedon (CE 451). “I think Christotokos is a good compromise,” the colleague said. “It acknowledges what’s important, that Jesus is our savior. But it doesn’t worship Mary, like Theotokos does.” The man meant well, but failed to grasp the stakes. Perry explained that if Mary is not the Mother of God, it can only mean that Jesus isn’t God. Regrettably, Protestants have fumbled around Mary for nearly 500 years, fearful of lapsing into “crypto-Papism.” But there is good reason for Protestants to devote themselves to the study of Mary. This paper will argue that the life and witness of Mary (the mother of Jesus) has unique value for Christian discipleship rooted in her being the “Mother of God” and the consistency of her life and witness.

 

Theological Perspectives

Mary plays a vital role in Eastern Orthodox liturgy.[2] Her full title is “Our All-Holy, Immaculate, Most Blessed and Glorified Lady, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary.”[3] If these terms are unfamiliar to Protestants, it isn’t because they’re new. They are also not worshipful. Both God and Mary are celebrated, but the Orthodox do not tolerate any overlap in veneration.[4]

Mary is not owed any intrinsic veneration, according to bishop Kallistos Ware, but is bestowed extrinsic honor expressly because of her role as the “Mother of God.”[5] From this ground, they deduce a number of elements that are not explicitly found in scripture. Because Christ is the “New Adam,” consequently Mary is the “New Eve.”[6] He overturns the curse of the Fall on the cross, and He includes Mary’s “cooperation” in bearing and bringing Him to term in the process – though precisely how is a mystery. He is the Savior, she is the Handmaiden.[7]

As such, Mary provides the foundational example of “saving faith.” God’s plan to become incarnate in Mary’s womb was fulfilled because she freely consented. This does not make her worthy of salvation, but simply images her cooperation with the divine will.[8] She was, however, “free from all actual sin.”[9] Formally speaking, however, Orthodox Christians do not believe in the so-called Immaculate Conception because they disapprove of anything that would “separate Mary from the rest of the descendants of Adam.”[10] Her life culminated in the so-called “Assumption.” She died, as do all humans, but was resurrected in anticipation of the resurrection of all believers.[11] “She has passed beyond death and judgement, and lives already in the age to come,” concludes Ware.[12]

Whereas Orthodox Christians avoid detailed explanations on questions that are not clearly addressed in scripture, Roman Catholicism affords greater weight and clarity to deductive conclusions. As such, questions left unsettled in Orthodoxy are given sharper delineation. Because she is the Mother of God, her “Immaculate Conception” was carried out to prepare Mary for the responsibilities of mothering the Incarnate Lord.[13] “In Adam, Mary died, as others.” wrote John Henry Newman, but “for the sake of Him who was to redeem her and us upon the cross, to her the debt was remitted by anticipation.”[14]

A female “helpmate” in Jesus’ redemptive mission “enhances the symmetry of redemption as the inversion of the Fall.”[15] By obeying God’s will rather than disobeying like Eve, she represents humanity obeying where previously they had rebelled. This is what Catholics call Mary’s “Co-redemption.”[16] When she “offers” her Son, she does so on behalf of all of God’s people.

According to Aidan Nichols, her association with her Son must logically be thoroughgoing. As with His birth and life, she must now be associated with Him in His resurrection.[17] It would be fitting, he suggests, for her inevitable death to be followed by an anticipated resurrection: “If the Co-redemption did not issue in the Assumption, then the parallelism between Christ and Mary ceased at Calvary.”[18]

Because she is every Christian’s mother, she is concerned with “the birth and growth of human beings in the divine life,” the “Mediatrix.”[19] She mediates the graces that each person needs need at each juncture, as do human mothers, training her children to be more like her Son.[20] While Jesus, their mediator, “stands before the Father ever to make intercession on [their] behalf” (Heb. 7:25), Mary stands before Jesus praying on their behalf.[21]

Perhaps surprisingly, Mary has cast a towering shadow on the field of “liberation theology.” Against some of the problematic elements of High Mariology, feminist Elizabeth A. Johnson argues that both “salvific” and “sanctifying” roles that have become attached to Mary through the years should be attributed only to God.[22] Instead, she is the “quintessential believer,” and her primary contribution to Christian theology is her example.[23]

A poor maiden in her earthly life, Mary can be envisioned as an advocate, especially, for the downtrodden throughout the Third World.[24] As shown in the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55), her witness images a way of being human in which people use their power and privilege to bestow dignity on those marginalized by society.[25] Conversely, destitute Christians, especially women, can “creatively make the Magnificat their own,” integrating the witness of Mary of Nazareth into their experience of abject poverty and oppression.[26] Claiming Mary as an image of themselves, Christians cannot content themselves to echo the world’s categories of dehumanization.[27]

She freely chose to participate in God’s actualizing justice for the whole creation. Thus, according to Carol Frances Jegen, Christians must identify with Mary and freely choose to “participate in God’s mission to bring justice and peace to the world.”[28] She is the model for what discipleship looks like, for both men and women, married and virginal.[29]

Alternatively, classic Protestant approaches to Mary have been more noteworthy for their absences than anything. Wolfhart Pannenberg is representative. Dismissing the Immaculate Conception and “perpetual virginity” as mythical extravagances, he goes on to abandon the virginal conception entirely. That the New Testament is not uniform on the matter, coupled with modern science’s perceived “debunking” of such miracles, has moved most contemporary Protestants to do the same.[30]

Among confessional Protestants, there is a greater tendency to accept traditional designations like Theotokos or “Handmaiden.” In John MacQuarrie’s estimation, the very fact that “Jesus was sent by God” necessitates that “there must have lived a woman through whom He was born into the world.” Historic Protestant exegesis has held that God’s “providence” somehow foreordains all things to achieve His eternal will. In this context, he suggests, “that woman must have been conceived and elected by God in the beginning as the indispensable handmaiden needed to cooperate in His work.”[31]

 

Theological Position

If Mary is Jesus’ mother, and Jesus is God Incarnate, then she is the “Mother of God.” And as Robert Jenson points out, if the epithet Theotokos is justified, “it must also be right for there to be a sub-department called Mariology.”[32] If Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Christians are “crucified with Christ and raised with Him to new life” (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:1), then Mary can be understood to be every believer’s mother as well. Because Christians are “members” of the “Body of Christ,” it is correct to deduce that her Divine Motherhood carries over to those who are included in Christ’s resurrection. While not everything in traditional Mariology is tenable, there are elements of truth in each doctrine.

Early suggestions of Mary’s “Immaculate Conception” and “Perpetual Virginity” were met with resistance.[33] Jovinian and Helvidius protested that these notions were rooted in an unbiblical denigration of sex and marriage.[34] Eventually, as Protestant religion gradually embraced the notion that marriage, not celibacy, is God’s normative expectation for Christians (and thus de-stigmatized sexual relations) the impetus for “such doctrines as the ‘Immaculate Conception’ and the ‘Perpetual Virginity’ of Mary was cut off.” Additionally, recent Protestant exegesis has convincingly shown that the Scriptures do not regard sex as inherently corrupt.[35] As a result, in the absence of clear scriptural evidence for the “Immaculate Conception” and “Perpetual Virginity,” it is difficult to endorse or even deduce these doctrines. It is best to acknowledge, with the ante-Nicene churches, a fully human, sinful, and often doubtful Mary who led a normal married life after the birth of Jesus.[36]

As the Church pushed further into the Medieval period, functions traditionally attributed to Jesus shifted to Mary and she began to symbolize the forgiveness that Christ paid for on the cross.[37] Medieval devotion to Mary often centered on the certainty that Jesus “would not refuse any favor asked Him by His mother.” Mary would mete out the merits of her Son to those who devoted themselves to her so that they need not fear the wrath of heaven.[38] What the Reformers rejected was the caricature of Mary interceding to her wrathful Son’s “masculine rage” with her “womanly benevolence.”[39] It is best to acknowledge, with the second-century Alexandrians, that Mary’s motherhood should comfort us but does not shield us from divine wrath. [40]

In Switzerland, Ulrich Zwingli maintained the Feast of the Assumption among his churches, as did Heinrich Bullinger.[41] This is unsurprising, and perhaps even prudent. Throughout the Old Testament, figures like Enoch and Elijah were “assumed” into heaven. These assumptions came at the end of faithful lives devoted to a singular purpose in the plan of God and do not separate them from the rest of fallen humanity.[42] Assumption need not imply “sinlessness” in the aforementioned figures, nor Mary herself. In the absence of explicit scriptural evidence, it would be irresponsible to dogmatize her Assumption, but it is easy to imagine Mary, who joined her Son in His birth, ministry, and at His death, joining her Son at her death.

 

Objections

According to Mary Aquin O’Neill, denying Mary’s role as Co-Redemptrix effectively bars women from salvation.[43] Because the Savior, Jesus, was historically male and has now ascended into heaven in a male body, His redemptive work cannot be understood as equally efficient for female bodies. Mary’s role as Co-Redemptrix opens pathways for the death and resurrection of Jesus to include a female element by association with Mary. But low Mariologies rob the Incarnation of its female element, she argues, and thus cast doubt of the possibility that women can be saved.

O’Neill’s objection initially sounds weighty, but was actually addressed by Augustine and Theodoret, among others. Patristic consensus held that the Messiah was born male precisely in order to include both sexes in the Incarnation.[44] In classical exegesis, the masculine pronouns given to the Godhead do not imply that God is male, nor does the fact that Jesus was born male. As God is not “sexed,” and both male and female elements were included in the Incarnation, both male and female bodies are eligible for salvation.

Both Catholic and Orthodox Christians have protested that A low Mariology constitutes a hard-break from historic Christian tradition. As have some Protestants, including Anglican John MacQuarrie, who argues that “Protestants cannot afford to ignore Mariology” because it has historically shaped “our Anthropology, Christology, Ecclesiology, Hamartiology, and Soteriology.”[45] Out of 2000 years of Church History, less than 500 have gone by in which low Mariologies have been considered acceptable.

Theoretically, Catholic/Orthodox objections that low Mariology breaks with Christian tradition is self-defeating. Robust Protestant exegesis of the Mary passages only actually breaks away from those elements of “historic Christian tradition” that cannot be squared with the extant Apostolic writings, as found in the New Testament. According to Kevin Vanhoozer, “The ‘mere Protestant’ pattern of interpretive authority begins with the Triune God in communicative action, accords first place to Scripture interpreting Scripture . . . but also acknowledges the appointed role of church tradition . . . in the economy of testimony.”[46]

Reading the “Mary passages” in their Chronological order paints a helpful picture of how “proto-Mariologies” may have developed within her own lifetime. In the Pauline writings, there is only a nameless woman who gives birth to a pre-existent Christ (Gal 1:19, 4:4;28-29).[47] The same can be said of the pre-Pauline hymns and creeds that he includes in some of his writings (Phil. 2:5-11; Rom. 1:3-4). In Mark, she has a name, and perhaps several other children (Mk. 6:3). She exhibits, if nothing else, concern for her Son’s safety as He travels Palestine, preaching and healing (3:20-35).[48] Matthew presents a pregnant Mary whose conception is virginal (Mt. 1:16;18-23; 2:1-23; 12:46-50).[49] Luke, who probably interviewed her for his writing, paints her as a woman who gives Israel its fullest expression (Lk. 1:26-2:1-52; 8:19-21; 11:27-28; Acts 1:14).[50]

Finally, in the Johannine writings, she is imaged as something like a “heavenly queen,” although the precise meaning of his images are not clear (Jn. 2:1-12; 19:25-27; Rev. 12).[51] Liberal Protestantism has historically ignored the “Woman Clothed with The Sun” figure in Rev. 12 as a factor in determining the role of Mary today. But if you believe that the same author produced John’s gospel and John’s Apocalypse, it becomes plausible that this mysterious figure is a reference to the Mother of Jesus, and, of course, the Church. While the “heavenly queen” imagery adds depth to Mary’s role in the Incarnation, it is too vague to draw any precise theological conclusions. To quote Perry, “There is insufficient biblical material to construct a Mariology of the kind of detail that has emerged in Western theological history.”[52]

 

Integration

While Mary “does not figure highly in the New Testament narratives or Epistles, to conclude that Mary is therefore insignificant is wrong,” writes Tim Perry. Because of the vast shadow that “Mariology” has cast over Western culture, to “rethink Mariology” really amounts to “beginning to create a new culture,” according to Ruether. Hearkening to Marina Warner, she notes that her image has borne the cultural weight of patriarchal and domineering associations regarding the relationship of the sexes, the relationship of “superior” to “inferior,” and more.[53] Protestant exegetes have a responsibility to honor Mary’s image by working to undo the trauma carried out in her name.

Among second- and third- wave feminists, there has been a movement to “retrieve” long-buried pre-Christian goddess images.[54] This is a troubling trend for any Nicene Christian, but it is one symptom of a broader cause. The sweep of Western History is one “in which a male ruling-class conquered nature and the female.” The desire for “goddess” figures emerges from a dearth of feminine images onto which women may cling. As Ruether has suggested, this craving for transcendent female figures is meant to find its terminus in Mary.

As mother of the Church, Mary serves chiefly as an example to imitate. Her faithful response to the good news of her pregnancy was to sing the Magnificat. Her privileges in bearing the Son of God only moved her to consider the glory of the God who joins the poor in solidarity.[55] Identifying with Mary, Christians are called to follow her example by participating in God’s mission to bring justice and peace to the world in whatever capacity they are able. That requires us to “see through her eyes,” writes Ruether. Mary of Nazareth saw a world with which neither she nor the Messiah in her womb could be satisfied until “the victims have been empowered to be persons and power itself has been transformed.”[56]

 

Conclusion

While Protestants operate on different interpretive principles than Catholic and Orthodox Christians, engaging the admittedly scant New Testament passages on Mary to develop a robust “Protestant Mariology” creates new pathways for productive Ecumenical dialogue. Protestants cannot share many of the more elaborate deductions that Eastern Orthodox Christians have embraced and Catholics have canonized, but by orienting Mariologies around their common mother’s faithful witness, she can serve as a common anchor for Christian discipleship across Ecumenical lines.

*

 

Bibliography

Blancy, Alain, and Maurice Jourjon. Mary in the plan of God and in the communion of the

saints: toward a common Christian understanding. New York: Paulist Press, 2002.

Bulgakov, Sergej Nikolaevič. The burning bush: on the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of

God. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2009

Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, MA:

Cowley Publications, 2001.

Donnelly, Doris. Mary, woman of Nazareth: biblical and theological perspectives. New York:

Paulist Press, 1990.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Mary: glimpses of the Mother of Jesus. Columbia: University of

South Carolina Press, 1995.

______ Blessed one: protestant perspectives on Mary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox

Press, 2003.

Gebara, Ivone, Bingemer, and Phillip Berryman. Mary, mother of God, mother of the poor.

Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist

            Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

Macquarrie, John. Mary for all Christians. London: T & T Clark, 2001.

Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An

            Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011.

Nichols, Aidan. There is no rose: the Mariology of the Catholic Church. Lanham: Fortress Press,

2015.

Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Mary through the centuries her place in the history of culture. Urbana:

University of Illinois Pr., 2002.

Perry, Tim S. Mary for evangelicals: toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord.

Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Mary: the feminine face of the church. London: SCM Press, 1979.

Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. London, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1997.

[1] Perry, Tim S. Mary for evangelicals: toward an understanding of the mother of our Lord. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006. 13.

[2] Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Church. 2nd ed. London, Eng.: Penguin Books, 1997. 257.

[3] Bulgakov, Sergej Nikolaevič. The burning bush: on the Orthodox veneration of the Mother of God. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2009. 95-96;

[4] Ware 257.

[5] Ibid 258.

[6] Bulgakov 41-42.

[7] Ware 259; See also Cabasilas, Nicholas, On the Annunciation.

[8] Ibid 258.

[9] Bulgakov 7-14.

[10] Ware 260

[11] Bulgakov 67-114.

[12] Ware 260

[13]Nichols, Aidan. There is no rose: the Mariology of the Catholic Church. Lanham: Fortress Press, 2015. 64; Also Blancy, Alain, and Maurice Jourjon. Mary in the plan of God and in the communion of the saints: toward a common Christian understanding. New York: Paulist Press, 2002. 131.

[14] Nichols 63.

[15] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 86

[16] Nichols 87

[17] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 102-103

[18] Nichols 104

[19] Blancy, Jourjon, and Group 88

[20] Nichols 126

[21] Ibid 146

[22] See Johnson 25-68, “Mary and the Image of God” in Donnelly, Doris. Mary, woman of Nazareth: biblical and theological perspectives. New York: Paulist Press, 1990.

[23] Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Mary: the feminine face of the church. London: SCM Press, 1979. 86.

[24] Johnson 69-91 “Reconstructing a Theology of Mary” in Donnelly, 1990.

[25] Ruether 86

[26] Gebara, Ivone, Bingemer. Mary, mother of God, mother of the poor. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989. 164-171.

[27] Ruether 86

[28] Jegen 133-145, “The Justice Dimension: Mary as an Advocate of Peace” in Donnelly, 1990.

[29] Ruether 84-85, 78-80; Also Carr 7-21 “Mary, Model of Faith” in Donnelly, 1990.

[30] See Perry 275

[31] Macquarrie, John. Mary for all Christians. London: T & T Clark, 2001. 64, 66; More typical is the approach in Sakenfeld 21-31, “Tamar, Ruth, and the Wife of Uriah: The Company Mary Keeps in Matthew’s Gospel” in Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Blessed one: protestant perspectives on Mary. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.

[32] Quoted in Perry 269.

[33] Ruether 55; Also Warner 244-245.

[34] See Ruether 56 and Pelikan 113-124.

[35] See, for example, Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Nashville, TN: B & H Academic, 2011. 547-553, and Davis, Ellen F. Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2001. 65-86.

[36] Perry 146.

[37] Ruether 62.

[38] Pelikan 125-138; Also Ruether 65.

[39] Perry 208.

[40] Ibid 147.

[41] Ibid 237.

[42] MacQuarrie 80.

[43] O’Neill, Mary Aquinn 139-157 in LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995.

[44]Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity. HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. 265-267.

[45] MacQuarrie 60

[46] Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. S.l.: Brazos, 2018.. 143.

[47] Perry 29-31

[48] Ibid 39-40

[49] Ibid 60-62 over against Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. Mary: glimpses of the Mother of Jesus. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. 72-75.

[50] Nichols 6-17.

[51] Perry 113-114, over against Gaventa 79-97.

[52] Perry 268

[53] Ruether 77

[54] Ibid 76-77

[55] Ruether 86

[56] Ibid

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s