Monday, February 05, 2007

Rejecting Mariology

It is often claimed the Mary was heralded by the Patristics as a woman full of grace, perhaps sinless, and deserving our veneration above other departed saints as the Mother of the Church. This is not the case. While I do freely admit that the word Patristic can be used to cover a variety of ages, I prefer to use it to the pre-nicaean leaders of the church. Let us start with them, and we can move on from there.

In the Apostolic Fathers, as the first century leaders are often called, one sees little to no mention of Mary at all. Clement of Rome leaves her out of his epistle completely. This is a glaring omission for ‘Mary full of grace’ since Clement’s entire letter is about submission, faith, and peace. Clement uses as examples of Christian living Paul, Peter, Moses, Abraham, David, and several martyrs in addition to Jesus Christ. Beyond that he even uses a few women as examples. Rahab gets the most ink as a wonderful example of faith, two women killed by Nero are mentioned, Esther get a paragraph, as does Judith from the Apocrypha. But no Mary. First century writers seem to view Mary as a good believer, but nothing more, much like Protestants today.

Second century writers turn up the first exaltation references to Mary, but even these are over stated. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian all try to draw Mary as the anti-type of Eve as Jesus was of Adam. This leads to some grandiose statements about Mary, but the ancient mind often thought more typologically and allegorically then we do today. These men did not have any allusions about Mary being above sin (original or actual). In fact Irenaeus condemns Mary as a sinner for her role in the Wedding of Cana arguing that Jesus rebukes her for her presumptuous pride. Tertullian along with other second century leaders like Origen and later writers like Basil the Great and Chrysostom (4th century) all ascribe to Mary the sins of maternal vanity, anxiety, and doubt and state that the ‘sword’ that pierces Mary’s soul in Luke 2:35 are these sins. Hardly a high view of Mary despite their typological attempts.

The rise of Mary really follows the rise of Monasticism and the encroachment of Neo-platonism into Christianity. The third and fourth centuries see apocryphal texts like the Gospel of the birth of Mary, which were all condemned by the church as a whole, but eventually the teachings of these books would be folded into the Mariology of the Roman church. The asceticism of the monastic orders arising from their neo-platonic view of the flesh exalted Mary as the ultimate example and claimed for her perpetual virginity. This helped give their life-style a bigger backing as well as giving them a patron saint.

The controversies of the 5th century about Christ led to Mary being the Mother of God as a test of orthodoxy. Mother of God was not meant to convey anything at all about Mary, but rather something about the natures of Jesus. However, it would come to be twisted to elevate Mary into something higher than merely human. The first person to actually advocate Mary did not have any actual or original sin was Pelegius, the free-will opponent of Augustine. During this time also one must remember that Rome was destroyed by the uneducated and pagan barbarians. As the centers of learning were destroyed the educated clergy could no longer restrain phrases like ‘Mother of God’ and Mariology became Marialotry took on a life of its own as the masses carried Mary to extremes she was never meant to reach. By the time of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, Mary was installed in her current position for the Roman church. Gregory freely instructed his missionaries to the barbarians not to destroy pagan temples, but rename them and the statues in them. Many pagan temples were to women, and Mary worship was well on its way.

Thus, I do not think Protestantism needs a Mariology at all. Mary is a wonderful example of saintly piety and faith as are many people in the Bible. She should not be avoided for she is the mother of our Lord. But we must remember, as I believe the Reformed tradition does, she is simply one of his disciples no better than any other believer in Christ. This is, after all, exactly what our Lord teaches in Matthew 12:47-50.

‘Then one said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren stand without, desiring to speak with thee. But he answered and said unto him that told him, Who is my mother? and who are my brethren?
And he stretched forth his hand toward his disciples, and said, Behold my mother and my brethren! For whosoever shall do the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.’


Andrew McIntyre said...

As always, Lee, you make good points, and, again, as always, you back it up with impressive research.

However, consider the following:

1. An argument from silence is not conclusive one way or the other when it comes to the church fathers, although I think it holds some relevance when it comes to the Scriptures. In fact, I would say that Clement erred in mentioning Rahab instead of Mary. Mary is, by far, a great example of faith. However, I would say that he excluded her because the major text from which the early church drew examples of faith were the Old Testament Scriptures. He probably had in mind Hebrews 11 as he wrote, but, since he is not around to ask, I guess we will never know. Consider also that the fathers were largely silent regarding justification by faith and the substiutionary atonement.

2. I think the allegorical or typological connection, or, rather, disconnection, between Eve and Mary is quite significant. I cannot think of a greater contrast than the questioning mind of Eve and Mary's utterance "Be it done to me according to your Word." Even more to the point, the fruit of Eve's action was death, whereas the fruit of Mary's action was life.

3. Christ's utterance from the cross should be taken into account. Each of Christ's utterances, as recorded, have profound theological significance. The utterance concerning Mary would be an exception to this if all He was doing was looking out for her material welfare. I also find it odd that this would be necessary considering the fact that Jesus' brothers, if they truly were His brothers (which I find likely), were alive, and were believers.

4. Consider that the flesh of Christ, from which spiritual life is communicated unto the saints, eternally bears the DNA of His mother.

5. Consider the fact that in ancient cultures being called "blessed" because of the greatness of your children was not a mere recognition of association. It was a term of honor. A great woman would be honored when her husband and children rose at the gate and declared her "blessed" in public.

6. She is the mother of Christ and we are His brothers, we are His body. I am not exactly sure what this means, but it seems there should be some metaphorical significance here.

7. It was by Mary's behest that Christ performed His first miracle at the wedding of Cana and, thus, publicly declared His deity.

I will stop there for now, as I don't want to throw too many things on the floor. But, remember, Mariology does not necessarily lead to Mariolatry. In fact, I would say that Mariolatry is a practical outcome not of Mariology per se but bad, unreflective, unscriptural Mariology.


Lee said...

Those are good starting points. Thank you for organizing (not a strong suit of mine) this discussion so well. I will just follow your points.

1. I see your point about the argument from silence. However, if silence of Scripture does have some weight, then what about the silence of the author of Hebrews in chapter 11? The author of Hebrews (many think it is Clement for its many similarities) does not include Mary, but does include Rahab. Does that silence carry any weight?

2. My problem with the typological connection is that Eve’s action was not death on anyone but her. The Bible is consistent in ascribing death to Adam’s action, but not Eve. The Bible also never ascribes life to Mary’s action either. In fact, one might ask what action of Mary’s are we even considering. Mary did show great faith in believing and praising the name of her Lord, but what action did she do to conceive Jesus? If she had doubted the angel’s message, what would that have changed? Would the angel have found someone else? Would it have prevented Jesus from being immaculately conceived in her womb? So I have trouble seeing the connection between Eve and Mary.

3. I admit I often wonder why the brothers were not in charge of Mary, but I am not sure what significance that adds to the utterance of Jesus. What import do you think his utterance had other than the fulfilling of the 5th commandment?

4. This argument, I cannot buy. It seems to led to a never ending problem that plagues Roman Mariology today. The flesh of Christ contained DNA of Mary, but does that make Mary’s DNA holy or important at all? It takes the holiness of Christ and tries to argue backwards, which I am not sure is possible. Plus, part of Mary’s DNA is her mother Anna’s DNA; thus, part of the flesh of Jesus’s DNA is Anna’s DNA. So is this argument not also an argument for Anna and for anyone whoever contributed DNA to Mary and her ancestors?

5. I do not have any problem calling Mary ‘blessed.’ I am just not sure that necessitates a Mariology.

6. True we are the brothers and sisters of Christ, but we are the adopted brothers and sisters of Christ. Adopted by the Father. Never are we mentioned of being adopted by the mother. In addition to being the body of Jesus, we are also the bride of Jesus, so if we are making metaphorical connections it seems to create mutually exclusive relationships. I think that means drawing metaphorical connections beyond the intended metaphor is dangerous. Plus, Jesus himself tells us that anyone who does the will of the Father in heaven is Jesus’s mother. That just makes the idea of connections even more head spinning.

7. It is at Mary’s behest he performs the miracle at Cana, but I do think Jesus rebukes her for her request. I know that I may differ with many commentators here, but Jesus does not even refer to her as ‘mother’ in the passage. He says, ‘Woman, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come.’ Even if I concede that ‘Woman’ is a respectful term, he is still rebuking her with the rest of his words. So, I am not sure what significance can be drawn from John 2.

I agree Mariology does not necessarily lead to Mariolatry. And feel free to pile on as much as you want. I enjoy these discussions, and having them has made me realize how much I miss those discussions in Seminary when we all gathered at Old Chicago's to eat pie and talk theology.

Andrew McIntyre said...


I should not have thrown so many out. I'm having a hard time keeping track of them.

1. I don't think the silence of Hebrews 11 is significant. The author is listing Old Testament saints who had died. Mary may have still been alive at the time. Even if she was dead, she was not an OT saint.

2. According to covenant, you are correct, of course. The curse flows through Adam, not Eve. Nevertheless, Eve was the one who was deceived. It was her action that caused Adam to sin. Thus, death resulted from her wickedness. Yet, it is also the seed of the woman, not the man, who would crush the head of the serpent that deceived her. Physically, Eve gave birth to a dead human race. We are all the physical children of Eve. Physically, Mary gave birth to the Redeemer, Life Himself, the Head of the church who would unite His people to His life in His flesh. Thus, I think metaphorically, we are the children of Mary, the mother of the new humanity.

3. I am not decided on the utterance from the cross, but I have always found it interesting that such a mundane utterance would be preserved, given the theological significance of the other utterances. So, I have also thought that some may have a good point when they conclude that Christ was speaking metaphorically and theologically. That is, they might say John, the only disciple at the foot of the cross, was directed to Mary as his "mother," the type of the church. Christ was, in effect, ushering in a new era where His disciples would be nurtured no longer by Him directly but through His appointed means.

4. I knew you wouldn't like this one. I thought about not including it, but the deed is done. I am not sure that it proves anything really, other than that she is still the mother of Jesus Christ, and I think it is safe to say that we maintain such distinctions and identities in eternity. This role and the eternal connection of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity to Mary may be significant, but I am willing to drop it.

5. I do not doubt that you hold Mary to be blessed. What I am getting at is the respect and attention that I think is her due. The Jews, for instance, and we Christians, especially those who confess covenant theology, give great weight and attention to Abraham. The early Christians prided themselves in the fact that, though uncircumcised Gentiles, they could call themselves the sons of Abraham. Likewise, I think it is valid to pride ourselves in being the sons of Mary, that is, sons of the church.

6. Yes, indeed, we are adopted sons of the Father and not the physical sons of Mary. I see this metaphorically and typologically. The Church brought forth the Savior and is, in a metaphorical sense, our mother which brings us forth as believers and nurtures us at her breast. I think Mary is the type of the church. Now, as a type and metaphor, the ramifications are limited. After all, the church is also the “bride” of Christ. The metaphors are mixed, no doubt, but they still have meaning.

7. Christ revealed Himself for the first time at Mary’s behest. I think this is, again, typological. Christ revealed Himself on behalf of His church. I am not sure I agree with your interpretations of His words as rebuke. I think the words were meant to accentuate the fact that He was willing to reveal Himself on behalf of His church, even when it may not have been the most opportune time or circumstance. Certainly, if His time had not really come in an absolute sense, He would not have revealed Himself. He would have told His mother that He would not do it and left it at that.

I guess the whole point is that Mary seems to be presented as a type of the church. This is how I would interpret the famous passage in Revelation wherein the woman who brings forth Christ can be seen as the woman herself but, more properly given the literary context, the church which she typifies.


Lee said...

I think where we disagree is whether or not Mary typifies the church. I think you are referring to Revelation 12 where the story of the Woman and the Dragon occurs. I agree with you that given the literature type, the Woman represents the church. The question is whether or not she is a reference to Mary at all. Is a literal reading of the Woman possible at all, and if so should it be Mary? If it can be Mary as well as the Church, then when did she run for her life from Satan into the dessert for 3.5 years? When did she fly off on wings given to her by God? A literal reading of this text is not possible. It is a prophetic passage, and we should read the passage as symbols representing truths. The Woman is the church, but she cannot be Mary. Revelation as a whole, and 12 in particular is heavily dependent on OT imagery. Revelation 12 brings to mind the Garden of Eden from the beginning. It is the Serpent and the Woman, and the Seed of the Woman gaining the victory. Thus the image that is brought to mind is the promise to Eve. The war between the Woman and Her Seed against he Serpent is pictured, the victory given to the Seed of the Woman and then the Woman is whisked away on eagles wings. A picture used in places like Isaiah 40:31, Exodus 19:4, and Deuteronomy 32:11f to show how God protects his church. I have a hard time seeing the introduction of Mary into this passage.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I would agree that the imagery in Revelation is more representative of the church than Mary. I see the connection in the fact that the church is the Mother of Christ, the firstborn among His brethren of the new humanity. Thus, Mariology, in effect, is a means of studying a high ecclesiology.