Reflections on Mary: Historically Informed Theology

One of the perils of being a graduate student is constant busyness. For me, this busyness often distracts me from writing about subjects which are interesting and important but which are (unfortunately) beyond my ability to find time to address. One such subject is the Blessed Virgin Mary. In my searching for answers, Mary has often “come up” as something of a stumbling block for any progress I might make towards Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Below is the launch of my series reflecting on Mary, stemming primarily from an article written by my good friend Ben Cabe.[1] Today’s post reflects on why Christians (especially Protestant Christians) ought to seriously think about Mary and her role in Christian faith.

Icon of MaryReflecting on Mary can be “dangerous”, especially if you are a Protestant who wants to claim Protestant “Orthodoxy.” Sure, we sing about Mary at Christmas, feel her pain on Good Friday, and maybe even read a little about her in the gospels in-between. But for most American Protestants, to have almost any other interaction with Mary is borderline Catholic. So we don’t talk about Mary, don’t engage Mary, and don’t think about Mary. Life is simply easier that way.

But this is historically and theologically problematic.

For many years, however, I have been aware that there is more to the story of Mary than American Protestantism lets on. Growing up in a Lutheran Church, for example, I did not ever hear about the Marian beliefs of Martin Luther, who just happened to affirm her divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, and Immaculate Conception.[2] Likewise, John Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity[3] and a qualified view of Mary as the “mother of God.”[4] Although these Reformers did not advocate the same robust Marian theology that Rome and the East did in the 16th century, these perspectives are nonetheless quite different than what the spiritual descendents of these reformers often believe. To assume—as many Protestants do—that certain beliefs about Mary were simply excoriated with the other “Catholic corruptions” during the Protestant Reformation is simply an error. The historical discomfort with contemporary American Protestantism only increases once you engage the early Church, which had some pretty strong things to say about Mary.

Jesus - History and TheologyNow, I am not advocating here (or in the rest of this series) that just because some of earlier members of the Communion of Saints believed some aspect of theology that you should blindly follow their example. What I am advocating, however, is the need to take seriously what the early Church believed. This means interacting with primary sources, forming some understanding of early Christian theology, coming to terms with how history has developed, and then figuring out what the beliefs of the past mean for faith today. Regardless of the different conclusions that people come to based on this type of historical interaction, I believe that God calls all of his people to love him with their minds, at least one component of which encompasses our understanding of the past.

Byzantine Icon of MaryFor me, a central component in any attempt to reflect on Mary involves taking the Christian past—especially the early Christian past—seriously. For my Protestant readers, this may mean placing more emphasis on “tradition” than you are comfortable with. For my Catholic and Orthodox readers, this may mean paying more attention to the scriptures than you think is warranted by this type of discussion. Let me say that this balance—however uncomfortable—is something I find important in every constructive Christian theological project. In the coming weeks I will reflect on the theotokos, immaculate conception, bodily assumption, praying to Mary, and the perpetual virginity. Unlike most of my other series that I run here, this one is not yet complete, so I can make promises as to where I will end up.

Thanks for following as I am pursuing veritas.


Sources

[1] If you check out this article, you’ll note that my post is actually a response to a response to a sermon (that I just happened to be in attendance for).

[2] See Eric W. Gritsch, “The Views of Luther and Lutheranism on the Veneration of Mary” in H. George Anderson, J. Francis Stafford, Joseph A. Burgess, eds, The One Mediator, The Saints, and Mary, Lutherans and Roman Catholic in Dialogue VIII, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1992), 235-248, 379-384. Provided, of course, that these doctrines did not obscure justification by faith in Christ alone.

[3] John Calvin, Commentary on Luke 1:34.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on Luke 1:34 and Commentary on John 19:26.

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