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.’