A Protestant Thinks About the Blessed Virgin Mary

Talking about Mary can feel dangerous, especially if you are a Protestant who adheres to 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. But for most American Protestants, almost any other interaction with Mary is borderline Catholic. So we don’t talk about Mary, we don’t engage with Mary, and we don’t think about Mary. Life seems easier that way. But in truth, this approach is historically and theologically problematic.

Some Protestants are aware that there is more to the story of Mary than American Protestantism often lets on. Some might know that the Protestant reformers, for example, held views on Mary different than most Protestant churches today. Martin Luther affirmed Mary’s divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, and immaculate conception. Likewise, John Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity and espoused (with qualifications) a view of Mary as the “mother of God.” 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 those of their spiritual descendants.

To assume—as many Protestants do—that everything the Church has always believed about Mary should be excoriated as a “Catholic corruption” is simply an error. We must take seriously the biblical and historical insights on who Mary is—and how she is to be approached. Modern Protestants cannot simply be content to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Continue reading

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Gnosticism, Women, and Elaine Pagels

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting upon Women and Gender in Early Christianity.

GnosticsFor today’s reflection, I outline and reflect on Elaine Pagels’ “What Became of God as Mother? Conflicting Images of God in Early Christianity.”[1] In so doing I argue that while Pagels’ approach to the question of the divine feminine remains an important aspect of early Christian thinking, her characterization of the category “gnostic” remains unhelpful for framing the study of these documents. Continue reading

Book Review: After Acts (Liftin)

After Acts (Liftin)Many readers of the New Testament are both fascinated and perplexed by the book of Acts, the earliest “history of Christianity” put to papyrus. Acts begins to tell the story of the church, following the miracles, lives, and journeys of Peter, the Jerusalem Church, and the Apostle Paul. But Acts also ends abruptly—with Paul under house arrest in Rome—and often raises a number of questions about the early Church. Thus, readers find themselves wondering, “What really happened after Acts?” In answer to this question, Bryan Liftin has written After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015), a book dedicated to introducing and exploring the traditions of the Apostles following the end of “church history” in the New Testament canon. Continue reading

Book Review: Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Allen)

Luke Authorship of HebrewsFew queries surrounding the New Testament are as well known as the question regarding the authorship of Hebrews. Since the early centuries of Christianity—indeed, long before the New Testament canon was finalized—inquisitive readers have investigated who wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews. Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Eusebius, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Harnack (to name but a few) have theorized and argued about the identity of Hebrew’s author. No less a list than Paul, Barnabas, Apollos, Luke, Silas, Peter, Clement of Rome, Priscilla and Aqulia, Ariston, Philip, Jude, Epaphras, John the Apostle, Timothy, and Mary (the Mother of Jesus) has been suggested as to whom this figure might be. In recent decades, those studying Paul have increasingly problematized claims that the Apostle’s authored Hebrews, making it less likely that the long-assumed writer of Hebrews actually penned the work. And despite the copious number of theories concerning other potential authors of Hebrews, rather little has been offered by way of solid conclusions. To address this noteworthy issue, a couple of years ago came David L. Allen’s Lukan Authorship of Hebrews (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010. 416 pgs). Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Church Search: Roman Catholic Church

This post is part of our ongoing Church Search. For more information on our search and the churches we have visited already, please click here. During the “First Exposure” phase of our search, we are visiting different churches to gain a basic understanding of their doctrines and practices. Following these visits, we will post some of the basic doctrinal and practical considerations of the church we visited, as well as some thoughts on our experiences.

Basic History

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

The Roman Catholic Church claims a history as long as the history of the Christian Church itself. It does injustice to Church History (and the history of Western Civilization) to summarize the history of the church in a paragraph; yet here we must. So, in as much of a nutshell as possible: the Apostle Peter is said to have founded the Church at Rome and been its first bishop, setting the stage for the Roman Church’s leadership for the next two centuries (and indeed, the amount of early Christian literature coming from Rome at least partially supports this claim). While the Western Church was less involved in the great Ecumenical Councils of the fourth and fifth centuries, they nonetheless affirmed the teachings of those councils (as well as the three additional councils of the sixth through eighth centuries). As the dominant city and church of the Western Roman Empire, the prestige and influence of the Roman Church and her bishop steadily increased throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The Western Roman Church suffered a series of splits from the Eastern Roman Church (commonly called the Byzantine or Orthodox Church) over the course of the tenth through thirteenth centuries, most famously in 1054 CE. The rise of scholasticism (c. 1100-1700 CE), impact of the Protestant Reformation (begun 1517 CE), and challenge of the Enlightenment further shaped the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic Church, most notably in the Council of Trent (1545-63 CE) and First Vatican Council (1868-70 CE). Of greatest importance in our times has been the Second Vatican Council (1962-5 CE), and the worldwide prominence of certain popes, most notably Pope John Paul II (d. 2005) and the current pontiff, Francis. The Roman Catholic Church has more than 1.2 billion members around the world, making it the largest Christian communion.

Doctrinal Considerations (Where possible from the Catechism of the Church)

Much like the long and varied history of the Roman Catholic Church, there are countless Catholic doctrinal points which we could discuss. For the sake of brevity, we will touch only on the major doctrinal stances of Catholicism. With most other Christians, the Roman Catholic Church affirms both the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, though they include the filioque clause in the latter, differentiating themselves from the Orthodox Church. The Catholic Church affirms that “The Sacred Scriptures contain the Word of God and, because they are inspired, they are truly the Word of God”  (CoCC, 135), as well as the canons of twenty-one councils ranging from Nicaea to Vatican II. Among the doctrinal points which distinguish the Catholic Church from her Western Protestant brothers and sisters are the sacraments, Marian doctrines, views on justification, and teaching on Papal infallibility. The RCC believes in seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance and reconciliation, anointing the sick, holy orders (the priesthood), and matrimony. The four Catholic Marian doctrines state that Mary may be called the Mother of God (theotokos, the ‘God-bearer’), was bodily assumed into heaven, remained a virgin perpetually, and was conceived without original sin. Catholic teaching affirms that the Pope (whose full title I need to work in here:  ), when speaking ex cathedra as teacher of the church, is infallible on matters of faith or morals (Vatican I, First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 4.9). The most important modification to the Catholic Church in recent decades was the Second Vatican Council, which (among other things) named Protestants “separated brethren” and encouraged the delivery of Mass in the vernacular (instead of Latin). Such changes undoubtedly have helped fuel the increasing number of Protestants who have migrated to the Catholic Church in recent years.

Local Church Experience

St. Leo the Great Catholic Church

St. Leo the Great Catholic Church

We visited St. Leo the Great Catholic Church this past Sunday for our local engagement with the Catholic Church. Having been to Mass before, we were fairly confident in what we would walk into, but were surprised on several fronts nonetheless. The first thing we noticed upon arriving was the food for the poor, which was overflowing into the entrance of the building. The second thing we noticed were the folding chairs– the church was packed, in spite of the fact that we attended the fourth service of the day. The sanctuary was already so full by the time we arrived that we barely grabbed a seat in the last pew, and people were quickly filing the folding chairs along the sides of the sanctuary and the back. The ushers were bringing people and having to make room for people for the first half-an-hour or so of the service. The third thing we noticed was the diversity. People of all ages (lots of children and teens included), backgrounds (from suits to shorts and t-shirts), and ethnic backgrounds were worshiping together. Even the priest who was preaching was from Germany. One thing we would add is that if we had not been familiar with the basic parameters of Mass (i.e., what a hymnal was, how to use the service booklet, to not go up to communion), we probably would have been quite lost, as there wasn’t much instruction of any sort. Overall, our visit was very positive and eye-opening, and we were glad to have worshiped with our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Thank you for following along with our Church Search. We wrap up our “First Exposure” phase with a visit to the Eastern Orthodox Church in a few weeks. We look forward to sharing our experience with you.