Protestants are, on the whole, extremely reluctant to talk about Mary. If a Protestant theologian should dare to suggest that Mary’s role in the history of salvation is an important theological issue, he would be informed that the matter is of concern to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox but scarcely to Protestants—as if, a concern to two-thirds of Christendom could be of no significance to the remaining one-third! Even the early fundamentalists who insisted on the Virgin Birth as one of the key fundamentals of the faith were less interested in Mary than in her virginity.
One can argue, of course, that the Protestant reluctance to talk about Mary reflects the New Testament’s reluctance to offer much information about her. The Bible has really very little to say about Mary, and much of what it does say is not highly complimentary to her. She cannot seem to comprehend what her son is about and tries to interfere. Indeed, the blood relationship between Jesus and Mary appears to stand in the way of her faith relationship. When a woman says to Jesus (Luke 11:27), “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked,” he responds, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” And when Jesus is notified (Mark 3:32) that “your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you,” he replies, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” According to the witness of the New Testament, there is a distance between Jesus and his mother, that can be bridged only by faith.
Luke’s portrayal of Mary as humbly obedient when she learns she is to be the mother of the Messiah and John’s picture of her role at the cross are the high points of the New Testament witness to Mary. She is not at the center of the New Testament but at its periphery. At the time of the birth of Jesus and at the cross, Mary is not the initiator; she is the humble recipient and observer of the mysterious action of God. When Mary tries to intervene in the course of events, she is very much like Peter. She misunderstands what is happening and by her actions stands in the way of the fulfillment God’s will.
But while the New Testament does not focus on Mary, it does have a number of impressive things to say about her. In the Gospel of Luke, Mary represents the remnant of Israel. When she breaks into song in the presence of her cousin Elizabeth, she sings the New Testament reformulation of the song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:4–7): “The feeble gird on strength.… Those who were hungry have ceased to hunger. The barren has borne seven.… The LORD brings low, he also exalts.”
The virginity of Mary is the sign of the divine initiative. As God brought forth a son from Sarah, who was too old to bear a child, so he brings forth a son from Mary, who as yet has no husband. In establishing the covenant with Abraham, God acted by creating a possibility where no human possibility existed. In fulfilling the covenant with Abraham, God once again created a new possibility for man where there was an absence of possibility. Sarah was the recipient of a covenantal blessing: “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarah your wife … I will bless her, and … she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:15, 16). This covenantal blessing is echoed in the words of Luke 1:28, 42: “Hail, O favored one, the LORD is with you!… Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!The addition of the phrase “Mother of God” to the Ave Maria grows out of the Nestorian controversy of the fifth century. The Orthodox Fathers ascribed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the title of Theotokos or God-bearer, which better preserved the Word-flesh Christology of Alexandria against the Word-man Christology of Antioch. Curiously, the West did not use the exact Latin equivalent, Deipara, but rather the phrase Dei Genetrix or Mother of God. The intention, however, was the same: to preserve the high Christology of Chalcedon rather than to ascribe special honor to Mary herself. The later medieval theologians saw in Mary’s role as Theotokos the basis of her work as intercessor. Mary is a sign of the continuity of the people of God, of Israel and the Church.
Of course, Protestants do not wholly neglect Mary. The Apostles’ Creed confesses that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and thus, by the back door, Mary enters into Protestant worship. There is very little in the New Testament about the Virgin Birth itself. Matthew and Luke speak of it; possibly John also, though that is open to question. Paul makes no mention of it.
Contemporary men and women, who have difficulty believing in any kind of miraculous birth, stumble in the creed over the word “virgin.” The ancient Church, though it knew as well as we how babies ordinarily come into existence, stumble not over “virgin” but over “born.” The early Church proclaimed the good news that God had intervened in human history, that he had taken humanity upon himself and become a man, though without surrendering his deity. The early Greeks to whom the Gospel was declared found that improper. It was improper that an uncreated God should link himself with something created in this way. What could a transcendent God have to do with human clay? The word “born” as applied to God was a terrible stumbling block to the pagan mind of the early Christian world. Therefore the Virgin Mary was viewed as a sign that God had decisively intervened in human history for the redemption of mankind, that he had taken flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. The early Church was interested in Mary not for her own sake but only as a sign, a guarantee of the reality of the Incarnation. Although Mary is seen as the last of a covenantal line that begins with Sarah and is continued through Hannah and Elizabeth, affirmations about Mary are not about her but about her son. Mary is a signpost pointing to Jesus Christ and to the reality of the historical intervention of God in human history.
The unbiblical reluctance of Protestants to deal with the figure of Mary can be understood only as a reaction to certain later developments in the life of the Church. In the Middle Ages, as well as earlier in the age of the Fathers, Mary increasingly became an object of interest in herself. I will not attempt to summarize all the ways in which Mary claimed the attention of churchmen, but here are a few.
1. Immaculate conception. It is not really made clear in the New Testament why Mary should be the mother of Jesus Christ without the aid of a human father—unless, as John intimates in his description of regeneration as a kind of virgin birth, this marvelous act was intended to show that the advent of Jesus was not a human possibility but solely a divine one. Jesus was born, if one can apply the text of John 1:13 to Jesus rather than the Church, not by the will of man and not through man’s cooperation but by the will of God alone.The suggestion that John 1:13 is an indirect allusion to the Virgin Birth was first made by Hans von Campenhausen in his book Die Jungfrauengeburt in der Theologie der alten Kirche, Sitzungsberichte der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, Phil. hist, Klasse, Abh. 3, 1962, p. 12. And the sign for this is the virginity of Mary at the time of the birth of Jesus. Or perhaps, as Luke suggests, the Virgin Birth shows the extreme humility of Mary, who, precisely because she had no husband, occupied the bottom rung of Jewish society.
But this is speculation. The fact is, no theory is put forward to explain why Mary should be a virgin. Matthew stresses the idea that virgin birth fulfills the ancient prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, which only pushes the unanswered question further back in time: why was such a prophetic utterance made in the first place and why was it applied to Jesus? Luke feels that the Virgin Birth is further vindication of the principle that “with God nothing will be impossible,” though the primary vindication of that principle is the conception of John the Baptist in the barren womb of his mother Elizabeth (Luke 1:37).
In the absence of any clear explanation for the necessity of the Virgin Birth, the Church began to devise theories. It connected procreation with lust and sin, and exalted virginity as a higher state of moral purity—as if a virgin could not be impure and as if procreation within marriage were not the will of God! Furthermore, the transmission of original sin was believed to take place in procreation, though the sexual act itself was not looked upon as evil. Lust is sinful, and fallen man conceives in lust. At the moment of conception, sin is mysteriously transmitted to the child by means of the perverted self-regard that accompanies the biological act. By doing away with birth through procreation, so the theory ran, Jesus is preserved from the human predicament in which we all find ourselves. He is not involved in original sin. Therefore he is Emmanuel and can save his people from their sins.
But what about Mary? Is it not fitting for the mother of Jesus also to be preserved from original sin? Would that not contribute to the guarantee that her son could not be involved in hereditary sinfulness? If there is no sinful procreation and if the mother herself is preserved from original sin, then surely the Saviour is free from all taint or sin.
The Catholic Church did not, of course, affirm that Mary was also born of a virgin, but rather that she was sanctified and preserved from sin through an immaculate conception. When some theologians (like Thomas Aquinas) argued that to exempt Mary from sin would undercut the centrality of Jesus Christ as Redeemer, they were told (by Duns Scotus among others) that one gives greater honor to Jesus Christ by saying that he preserved the Virgin Mary from sin than by holding that he waited to save her only after she had fallen.
2. The maternity of Mary. Mary is not simply a virgin; she is also a mother. And the medieval Church rang the changes on that theme. God chose Mary to be the mother of Jesus Christ, as he once chose Abraham to be the father of his people, Israel. According to the Genesis account, when God made man he took the dust of the earth. But redemption begins, not with dust, but with the body of Mary. It is from her flesh that the Messiah comes. Mary is the second Eve, the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15.
God chose Mary. But Mary, according to medieval Catholic thought, merited that choice. She cooperates with God in becoming the mother of Jesus Christ. God does not use her as a potter uses clay or as he once used the dust of the earth from which he formed man. Mary has freedom of choice. She chooses to cooperate with God; she accepts the message of the angel in Luke’s narrative; she gives her assent. That choice, that assent, that cooperation, is meritorious.
Mary is thus a type of the Church. Like Mary, the Church has freedom of choice, the ability to decide. God respects the human reality of the Church. He does not deal with it as if it were inert clay. And the Church’s choice to cooperate with God is meritorious. God respects the creation he has made. He deals with it as a responsible covenant partner. And he graciously rewards the good works of that partner. God does not destroy human freedom but works with that freedom.
Mary is also an example for the Church. She obediently and humbly accepted the role God offered her, even though it brought her suffering. There is no obedience to God that does not involve some personal cost to oneself. The Church is called to imitate Mary, her obedience and selfless love.
3. Cooperation in redemption. Now we come to a crucial point, that of Mary’s cooperation in redemption. Mary is more than mother and virgin; she is also a covenant partner. At the Cross, Mary does not stand above or below her son; she stands beside him, sharing in his sorrows and suffering as only a mother can suffer. But for the good of the Church and its redemption, Mary takes the suffering of her son upon herself. She offers him to God the Father for the sake of the Church, even at the cost of her own spiritual torment. At the cross she is the bride of Christ. Through the sufferings of Mary and her son, the Church is born. Jesus came from Mary’s womb, but the Church comes from her broken heart. All forsake Jesus and flee, all except Mary. She belongs to the faithful remnant of God’s covenant people. It is not the case that all humanity has been faithless to God and that God finds a faithful covenant partner only in Jesus Christ. Mary, too, is faithful. She is the elect remnant. And from her faithfulness and the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, the redemption of the world is effected. As Mary consents to the Incarnation, so she consents to the Cross, and by her consent and self-sacrifice she cooperates in the work of redemption.
At this juncture one must not forget the analogy between Mary and the Church. The Church, like Mary, is also the mother of the faithful. A Christian is born in the womb of the Church, nourished by its sacraments and teaching. Like Mary the Church also stands by the cross, not the cross on Calvary but the cross over the altar. Like Mary the Church makes a re-presentation of the body and blood of Christ for the sins of the people in the unbloody sacrifice of the mass.
4. Intercessor. Mary is not only mother, virgin, and bride. She is also intercessor. In the Middle Ages it became increasingly difficult for ordinary Christians to believe that Jesus Christ was really a man. People tended to think of him solely as divine. Consequently he receded farther and farther into heaven, and became more and more remote and inaccessible. Increasingly it was Mary to whom people looked for compassion. Jesus Christ was a judge who spent his time scrutinizing Christians to make sure that they were using to best advantage the means of grace he had provided for them in the Church and the sacraments.
A second development was closely related to this. Jesus Christ was the God-man. He was perfectly obedient to the will of God. But in this obedience he had an advantage over ordinary men and women. He could be obedient in the power of his divine nature. We do not have this advantage. When we are tempted, we have no divine nature to give us the power to obey. How can Jesus, therefore, really understand the temptations that befall ordinary men and women? How can he have compassion on them? Mary on the other hand is wholly human. Originally, to call Mary pure was simply to call attention to her freedom from the taint of sin. But this began to take on a new meaning. To call Mary pure human being was to call her real human being. She obeyed and pleased God without a divine nature. She is just like you and me. Therefore she can have pity on us in our sins and temptations. One should pray to the compassionate Mary. She will pray to her son. And her son cannot really deny his mother’s requests.
The medieval vision of the role of Mary is a vision that Protestants cannot affirm. Mary as one who cooperates with God or who participates in the redemption of the world is a theological point of view that Protestants reject. Men do not cooperate with God in the sense of earning merits. Good works are given not to God, who does not need them, but to the neighbor, who clearly does. Any view in which Mary or the Church offers something to God reverses the direction of both the original sacrifice of Jesus and the eucharistic sacrifice. We do not offer a sacrifice to God to procure his benefits; the movement is all the other way. God offers himself to us in the suffering love of the cross. God nourishes the Church through the benefits of Word and sacrament. We do not offer anything to God, except, perhaps, gratitude and praise. God offers everything to us, and we then gladly share with our neighbor. Mary as co-worker and Mary as co-offerer are images that Protestants cannot accept.
Moreover, Protestants agree with Thomas Aquinas in opposing any thoughts about Mary that undercuts the centrality of Jesus Christ. God found a faithful covenant partner only in his Son. Since Mary is a mythical personification of the Church, the judgment of Gerhart Ebeling that for the Church to glorify the fidelity of Mary and her role in the redemption of the world is for the Church to glorify itself, though it may be too harsh, it is certainly not without some theological justification.
1. On the other hand, Mary is a sign that God has really intervened in human history, really involved himself in our human clay, our suffering, our temptations. If there is reason to reject a theology that is interested in Mary in herself, there is no reason to reject one that makes affirmations about Mary as a signpost pointing away from her to God’s mysterious activity in Jesus Christ. Mary is humble. She stands at the periphery of the New Testament. And there is where she should be. She is a sign pointing to Jesus Christ. Truly biblical Mariology is only another term for Christology.
2. Mary is also a sign that God’s new act in Christ stands in historic continuity with his saving acts in the Old Testament. To be sure, Christian theologians are correct when they say that the Messiah undercuts many of the expectations of the Old Testament. In a very real sense the Messiah who comes is not the Messiah who is expected. But Mary is a sign that the promise is fulfilled as well as transformed. With Simeon, Anna, Zachariah, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist, Mary belongs to the Old Testament people of God, who stand on the threshold of fulfillment. A church that takes Mary seriously may say no not only to denials of Christ’s humanity but also to denials of the authority of the Old Testament.
3. Furthermore, the image of Mary as a type or analogue of the Church is not a bad one, so long as the whole biblical witness is taken. Mary is not only the obedient maiden; she is not only the sorrowing mother. She is also one who 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. And that is what the Church is like. It is not only faithful; it is faithless. It is not only a custodian of God’s truth; it falsifies the Word of God as well. The Church like Mary is iustus et peccator simul: obedient and interfering, perceptive and opaque, faithful and faithless. It is false theology to say that Mary, because she is feminine, adds an element of compassion that is somehow missing in God. On the contrary, there are no bounds to the compassion of God, of which the compassion of Mary is a finite and limited reflection.
Mary confesses that she is not worthy to be chosen by God. That is not false humility. It is the truth of every human being’s situation before God. The words of Luther on his deathbed are applicable to Mary as well as to the Church of which she is the type: “Wir sein pettier; hoc est verum.” We are beggars; this is true. To recognize this fact is to give Mary her true honor, to recognize her rightful place in the history of salvation. Mary is the sign of the continuity and reality of God’s saving activity. To understand this is to hear in the salutation the echo of the blessing of Sarah; to find in her song the strains of Hannah’s; to say with Luke: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!… Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
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