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It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation—and to do so precisely as evangelicals. The question, of course, is how to do that. Can the evangelical reengagement with the wider Christian tradition include a place for Mary? Can we, without forsaking any of the evangelical essentials, including the great solas of the Reformation, echo Elizabeth’s acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42), or resonate with the Spirit-filled maid of the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46–48)?

Certainly, there is growing evidence of fascination with Mary among evangelical Protestants. Many evangelicals, including a number of Southern Baptists, have begun to observe the liturgical season of Advent, which has led them to ponder more deeply the role of Mary in the history of salvation. In December 2004, I wrote for Christianity Today on “The Blessed Evangelical Mary,” which drew a strong, mostly positive response. Evangelical scholars have begun to write books about Mary, with two volumes, Tim Perry’s Mary for Evangelicals and Scot McKnight’s The Real Mary, appearing just this past year.

At a popular level, The Nativity Story, a movie that premiered at the Vatican, was strongly promoted among evangelicals. Over the holidays, many Christian radio stations played the beautiful “Breath of Heaven,” in which Mary sings, “I have traveled many moonless nights, cold and weary with a babe inside, and I wonder what I’ve done. Holy Father you have come, and chosen me now to carry your Son.” At the theological level, the study group known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, having produced an earlier document on the communion of saints, has now taken up the theme of the Virgin Mary, with special attention to how she is portrayed in the Bible.

For all this positive interest in Mary among evangelicals, however, both Marian dogma and Marian devotion remain contentious, church-dividing issues. In a recent dialogue with a Catholic friend, one evangelical remarked, “If you were to ask me to give my three best reasons why I’m not a Catholic, I’d simply say, ‘Mary, Mary, and Mary.’” It seems to many evangelicals that Catholic preoccupation with Mary obscures the preeminence and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ and thus leads many people away from rather than to the Savior himself. Good Catholics know, of course, that Mary is not the object of worship or the kind of adoration given only to God (latria), but rather of veneration (doulia), albeit of a special kind (hyperdoulia). But this distinction often seems to get lost at the local level.

Such concerns are not alleviated by the campaign of some Catholics a few years ago to have Mary officially recognized, perhaps even with another infallible dogma, as mediatrix of grace and co-redemptrix with Christ himself. Orthodox Catholics interpret such Marian titles in a way that they believe leaves intact the unique role of Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and man. No Protestant theologian could make this point more clearly than Vatican II: “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer . . . the Church does not hesitate to profess the subordinate role of Mary.” Still, the very fact of the campaign points to the difference between the ways Catholics and Protestants feel about the Blessed Virgin.

So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a “herald” of God’s good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.

Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.

Consider Mary’s first title, Daughter of Israel. Mary stands, along with John the Baptist, at a unique point of intersection in the biblical narrative between the Old and the New Covenants. When Mary cradles the baby Jesus in the Temple in the presence of Anna and Simeon, we see brought together the advent of the Lord’s messiah, and the long-promised and long-prepared-for “consolation of Israel.” The holy family is portrayed as part of a wider community, namely “all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Mary appears in the infancy narratives as the culmination of a prophetic lineage of pious mothers: Sarah, Rachel, and Hanna—together with Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, who appear in the Matthean genealogy. There is a sense in which any of them could have been the mother of the messiah. According to one interpretation of Genesis 4:1, when Eve exclaims at the birth of Cain, “I have gotten a man from the Lord,” she supposes that her firstborn son was already the fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, the seed of the woman who would bruise the head of the serpent.

But Mary as the handmaiden of the Lord, chosen to give birth to the messiah, is more than the culminating figure among the mothers of Israel. As the Daughter of Zion, she is the kairotic representative of the eschatological and redeemed people of God: Israel itself. George Knight and Max Thurian, as well as a number of Catholic exegetes, have pointed to numerous Old Testament texts in which Israel is personified as a woman: See Isaiah 62:11, for example, “Say to the daughter of Zion, behold, your salvation comes” and Lamentations 2:13, “O daughter of Jerusalem . . . O virgin daughter of Zion.” Several verses depict the daughter of Zion in labor: “Writhe and groan, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail” (Micah 4:10) and “For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of the daughter of Zion gasping for breath” (Jeremiah 4:31).

It is this kind of typological reading that allowed the early Church, from Justin Martyr and Irenaeus onward, to depict Mary as the new Eve, the one through whose obedience the disobedience of the first Eve was reversed. The image of Mary in the New Testament is inseparable from its Old Testament antecedents, without which we are left with not only a reductionist view of Mary but also of Christ.

And yet, in the Old Testament, Israel is portrayed as both a virgin daughter and an unfaithful bride. “Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel,” declares the Lord. “Return, faithless people, for I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion” (Jeremiah 2:20 and 3:14). It is hard to relate this theme to Mary, immaculately conceived and sinless from birth, but there are hints in the gospels of a Mary who, as David Steinmetz put it, “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.”

We hear echoes of this in the way the irritation passages are interpreted in the early Church. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, takes John 1:11, together with Mark 3:31–34 (and its parallel in Matthew 12), where Mary and Jesus’s brothers are portrayed as “standing outside” while they send someone else in to call for Jesus, and says, “But because he came to his own and his own did not receive him, in his mother and brothers the synagogue and the Jews are prefigured abstaining from going in to and approaching him.” If Hilary is right, Mary is shown here outside the messianic community, indeed as one who participates in deliberate rejection of Jesus. Tertullian offers a similar interpretation in both De Carne Christi and Adversus Marcionem.

Without pressing the image of Mary as the prototype of the synagogue, can we say that Mary is not only the obedient handmaiden of the Lord but also both faithful and faithless, obedient and interfering, perceptive and opaque, simul iustus et peccator, just and sinful alike? Interpreted in this light, Mary not only fulfills a more inclusive typology of Israel in the Old Testament, but she also prefigures the Church that is both the spotless Bride of Christ by virtue of God’s unmerited grace and, simul et semper, the company of pilgrim sinners that must pray everyday, “Forgive us our sins.”

The second common title of Mary is Virgin Mother. The doctrine of the virgin birth emerged in America as one of the badges of evangelical orthodoxy during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. J. Gresham Machen, professor at Princeton and later founding president of Westminster Theological Seminary, published in 1930 a major treatise on the virgin birth of Christ. Machen was concerned to support the ancient Christian conception against the anti-supernaturalistic views set forth at a popular level by Harry Emerson Fosdick and supported in academic circles by scholars at the University of Chicago and elsewhere.

Though he was a straitlaced Presbyterian and could never be accused of “cozying up to Rome,” Machen rightly recognized that evangelicals had much more in common with Catholicism on this than they did with what he disdainfully called that “totally foreign religion—liberalism.” “Let it never be forgotten,” he wrote, “that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands . . . . The blessed story of the miracle in the virgin’s womb is intrinsic to the good news of the Gospel. Only one Jesus is presented in the Word of God; and that Jesus did not come into the world by ordinary generation, but was conceived in the womb of the virgin by the Holy Ghost.” Machen did not go so far as some in claiming that no one could be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth. He recognized that the biblical accounts may not have been known in some circles of earliest Christianity. But while one might conceivably be a Christian without affirming the virgin birth, there could be no true Christianity among those who denied it.

The virgin birth continued to be a celebrated point of difference between mainline Protestants and their more conservative counterparts during the neo-evangelical renaissance after World War II. In 1958, Christian Century published an editorial denying the historicity of the virgin birth: The virgin birth, the editorial said, presents Jesus as some kind of tertium quid, half God and half man. In reply, the Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn snapped: “To account so materially, so biologically, so cellularly for the uniqueness of Jesus is to land dead center on what is precisely not the point.” Such disdain for Jesus’s “miracle of entrance,” as Karl Barth called it, obviously belonged to the trajectory of theological liberalism, from Schleiermacher through D. F. Strauss to Paul Tillich, who wrote in the first volume of his Systematic Theology: “Apollo has no revelatory significance for Christians; the virgin mother Mary reveals nothing to Protestantism.”

For all their fervent advocacy of this doctrine, evangelicals may have missed two important aspects of this teaching. Modern evangelical preoccupation with the virgin birth arose in the context of post-Enlightenment skepticism and reductionism: Evangelicals were concerned to defend the miraculous character of the virgin birth because they saw it undergirding the deity of Jesus Christ. The prominence of the virgin birth teaching among the Apostolic Fathers, however, arose from a different Christological concern: as an affirmation of the true humanity and genuine historicity of the Son of God. “Away with that lowly manger, those dirty swaddling clothes,” Marcion had cried. Against all docetism and anti-materialism, Ignatius of Antioch declared in one of the early creedal expressions of the Christian faith that Jesus was “truly born, truly lived, truly died.” The adverb resounds like a gong through the writings of the second century.

It is also a fair criticism to note that, in their strong defense of the virgin birth, evangelicals have been more concerned with Mary’s virginity than with her maternity. Mary was not merely the point of Christ’s entrance into the world—the channel through which he passed as water flows through a pipe. She was ever the mother who cared for the physical needs of Jesus the boy. She was the one who nursed him at her breast and who nurtured and taught him the ways of the Lord. Doubtless she was the one who taught him to memorize the Psalms and to pray, even as he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others (Luke 2:52).

This emphasis on the full humanity of the mother of Jesus is in keeping with the evangelical reticence about the debates over the parturition of Mary. To be sure, there is nothing theologically difficult about affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity. This venerable tradition, first given dogmatic sanction at the fifth ecumenical council in 553, was affirmed by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin during the Reformation (though Calvin was more agnostic about this belief than the other two Reformers).

More difficult is the claim for the inviolate virginity of Mary in partu: the virgin birth in a precise sense. Not only does this belief stem from a post-canonical writing, the Protoevangelium of James, but it also seems to undermine the anti-docetic emphasis of the doctrine. This is especially true when it is said that Mary gave birth to Jesus without pain. If indeed the virgin mother of God is the link that unites Christ and humanity, it is hard to see why the virginal conception of Jesus, attested by Scripture, should entail an anesthetized delivery. While Cardinal Newman was surely right to say that God could have spared the mother of the messiah the pains of childbearing, there is no sound biblical reason for assuming God did so. Indeed, if the woman of the apocalypse in Revelation 12 harks back to Mary, then the opposite seems to be the case, for there we are told that this woman “was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth” (Revelation 12:2).

The third title of Mary to consider is Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” a title for Mary as the Mother of God. Evangelicals can and should join Catholics in celebrating the Virgin Mary this way. In the Reformation, Calvin (unlike Luther and Zwingli) balked at the title Mother of God but not at the doctrinal truth it was intended to convey. Barth, however, was faithful to the deepest intention of Reformed Christology when he acknowledged that Mother of God is “sensible, permissible, and necessary as an auxiliary Christological proposition.”

Although the conceptual genesis of Theotokos is very early—Ignatius of Antioch can say “Our God, Jesus Christ, was carried in Mary’s womb” (Ephesians 18:2)—the debates leading up to the Council of Ephesus were not concerned in the first instance with the status of Mary but rather with the unity of divinity and humanity in her son. The Church was right to reject Nestorius’s preferred title for Mary, Christotokos, “mother of Christ,” as an inadequate description of Mary’s role in the mystery of the Incarnation. We are not at liberty to construct a merely human Christ, cut off from the reality of his entire person. Then-cardinal Ratzinger aptly sums up this important point in the development of doctrine:

The Christological affirmation of God’s Incarnation in Christ becomes necessarily a Marian affirmation, as de facto it was from the beginning. Conversely: only when it touches Mary and becomes Mariology is Christology itself as radical as the faith of the Church requires. The appearance of a truly Marian awareness serves as the touchstone indicating whether or not the Christological substance is fully present. Nestorianism involves the fabrication of a Christology from which the nativity and the mother are removed, a Christology without Mariological consequences. Precisely this operation, which surgically removes God so far from man that nativity and maternity—all of corporeality—remain in a different sphere, indicated unambiguously to the Christian consciousness that the discussion no longer concerned incarnation (becoming flesh), that the center of Christ’s mystery was endangered, if not already destroyed. Thus in Mariology Christology was defended.

There is another dimension of Theotokos, however, that touches evangelical sensibilities. Some forty years ago, Heiko A. Oberman published an important article, using the research of Bishop Paulus Rusch of Innsbruck, in which he argued that the negative Nestorian reaction to Theotokos was initially a response to heretical groups who claimed that Mary was the mother of God not only according to the humanity of Christ but also according to the divinity of Christ, in the same way as there are mothers of gods in pagan religions. Epiphanius of Salamis attested the existence of such heretical groups, one of which he located in Palestine: a community of women who made circular cakes and offered them to the Virgin Mary, whom they had come to look upon as a deity. (This group was called the Collyridians, after the shape of the cakes in their ritual.)

Thus, according to Oberman and Rusch, in rightly opposing an exaggerated, heretical Mariolotry, Nestorius himself unwittingly fell into Christological heresy. This may be a more charitable reading of Nestorius than the facts warrant, but it points to a continuing concern of Protestants: Granted the legitimacy of doctrinal development, including the Christological clarification that led to the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, where are the checks against exalting the Virgin so high that her son is obscured? Another biblical title for Mary is Handmaiden. Through the Middle Ages—by application of the Anselmian rule that “one should ascribe to Mary so much purity that more than that one cannot possibly imagine except for God”—Mary came more and more to assume an inflated soteriological significance. Thus, Mary, as mater misericordia, was sometimes claimed to rule the kingdom of mercy while Christ, in the famous pose of judge on the rainbow, reigned in the kingdom of truth and justice as iudex vivorum et mortuorum.

In this schema, Mary became, as Bernard of Clairvaux put it, “a mediator with the Mediator.” Or, as Anselm has it, “She pleads with the Son on behalf of the sons.” This led to a view of Mary as co-redemptrix, a term that became popular in the fifteenth century, through images of Mary as placating her stern son with milk from her breasts. (This was one reason why Mary’s milk, preserved in vials throughout the reliquaries of Europe, was so highly valued. Luther was shown some of Mary’s milk on his trip to Rome in 1510.)

The Protestant Reformers vehemently protested against the “abominable idolatry” of medieval Mariology. Exaggerated devotion, the Reformers held, does not praise the virgin mother of God but slanders her by making her into an idol. Perhaps nowhere is the Protestant reaction to Marian excess more cogently put than in Philip Melanchthon’s “Apology of the Augsburg Confession” of 1530: “Some of us have seen a certain monastic theologian . . . urge this prayer upon a dying man, Mother of grace, protect us from the enemy and receive us in the hour of death.’ Granted that blessed Mary prays for the church, does she receive souls in death, does she overcome death, does she give life? What does Christ do if Mary does all this? . . . The fact of the matter is that in popular estimation the blessed virgin has replaced Christ.” Mary, as Hugh Latimer was to put it, was not to be seen as “a Saviouress.”

Yet there was also a positive devotion to Mary among the Reformers. Both Zwingli and Bullinger defended the Ave Maria not as a prayer to Mary but as an expression of praise in honor of her. Calvin too refers to Mary as “the treasurer of grace,” the one who kept faith as a deposit and through whom we have received this precious gift from God. In Luther’s 1521 commentary on the Magnificat, Mary is the embodiment of God’s unmerited grace. She is magnified above all creatures, and yet it is her humility, lowliness, and indeed nothingness (nichtigkeit) that is notable. However, Mary is called blessed not because of her virginity or even her humility “but for this one thing alone, that God regarded her. That is to give all the glory to God as completely as it can be done . . . not she is praised thereby, but God’s grace toward her.” “I am only the workshop (fabrica) in which God operates,” Luther has Mary say.

Mary’s significance for Luther is twofold. Mary is the person and place where God has chosen to enter most deeply into the human story. And Mary is also the one who hears the Word of God—fides ex auditu, the one who responds in faith and thus is justified by faith alone. Mary was a disciple before she was a mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived. Mary is the object of God’s gracious predestination, and this divine choice is the source of both her blessedness and her fertility. At this point Barth is fully in line with the Reformation message when he declares (against Rudolph Bultmann) that redemption is wrought by Christ “outside of us, without us, and even against us” and yet, because this is true, also for us and even in us. As the embodiment of sola gratia and sola fide, Mary should be highly extolled in evangelical theology and worship.

So why is this not the case? Why do evangelicals remember the Reformation critique of Marian excess but not the positive appraisal of Mary’s indispensable role in God’s salvific work? One element is the pruning effect of the scriptural principle. Luther closed his commentary on the Magnificat with a prayer of intercession addressed to the Virgin Mary. But already in Zwingli’s Sixty-Seven Articles of 1523, it was claimed that, because Christ is our only mediator, no mediators other than Christ are needed beyond this life. Luther too gave up Marian intercession when he could find no explicit scriptural warrant for it in the Bible.

Beyond the theological constraints of a biblical religion, however, there was also what might be called an ecclesiological hardening of the arteries within the Protestant and evangelical traditions. To be an evangelical meant not to be a Roman Catholic. To worship Jesus meant not to honor Mary, even if such honor were biblically grounded and liturgically chaste.

In some quarters of the evangelical world, the loss of catholicity was marked by a disdain for creedal Christianity. Thus, in 1742, when the Philadelphia Baptist Association published a confession of faith and asked the churches for their approval, those who rejected it could think of nothing nastier to say than to call it a new Virgin Mary: “We need no such virgin Mary to come between us and God.” In time, of course, some evangelicals not only abandoned the virgin Mary but the Holy Trinity as well. This was especially true in England, where nearly the entire denomination of General or Arminian Baptists converted to Unitarianism.

In the context of this development, it is astounding to come across a remarkable book published in 1886 by A. Stewart Walsh and introduced by the popular evangelical preacher T. DeWitt Talmage. Called Mary: The Queen of the House of David and Mother of Jesus, it reads like a Harlequin romance of Mary’s life: a paeon of praise to motherhood, with a highly fictionalized account of Mary as the chief exemplar. Near the end of this fanciful tome, however, there is this plea for a proper evangelical recognition of Mary: “But this only, and surely, here I know, no friend of the divine Son can dethrone Him by honoring her, aright; indeed, as He Himself did. It was of Him she spoke when exclaiming: ‘My soul doth rejoice in God my Savior!’ Can one truly honor Him and despise and ignore the woman who gave Him human birth? Can one have His mind and forget her for whom love was uppermost to Him in His supreme last hours? Can one honor her aright, and yet dethrone the Son whom she enthroned, she bore Him, then lived for Him. She honored herself in bearing Him, and was His mother, His teacher and His disciple. He revered her, she worshiped Him.”

Yet another title of Mary is Mother of the Church. At Vatican II there was heated debate on whether to prepare a separate document on Mary, but by a close vote the decision was made to treat Mary in the context of ecclesiology.

Is there a sense in which evangelicals, too, can speak of Mary as mater ecclesiae? The New Testament portrays Mary as among the last at the cross and the first in the upper room. She is thus a bridging figure between the close of his earthly ministry and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecostal birth of the Church. It is particularly Mary at the foot of the cross that speaks to the reality of the Church. When all the disciples had fled in fear, Mary remained true to Christ and his word. Her fidelity showed that the true faith could be preserved in one sole individual, and thus Mary became the mother of the true remnant Church.

The other scriptural text in which Mary emerges as the Mother of the Church is the apocalyptic vision of Revelation 12. Here the woman who gives birth to a son is harassed and pursued by the dragon. As Luther wrote, “If, then, a person desires to draw the Church as he sees her, he will picture her as a deformed and poor girl sitting in an unsafe forest in the midst of hungry lions, bears, wolves, and boars, nay, deadly serpents; in the midst of infuriated men who set sword, fire, and water in motion in order to kill her and wipe her from the face of the earth.” In God’s sight, the Church is pure, holy, unspotted—the Dove of God—but in the eyes of the world it bears the form of a servant. It is, like its bridegroom, Christ, “hacked to pieces, marked with scratches, despised, crucified, mocked” (Isa. 53:2–3). Mary speaks to the pilgrim Church, which today is also increasingly the persecuted Church.

Perhaps we should ask what Catholics, without ceasing to be Catholics, can learn from evangelicals about Mary. Certainly we should ask what evangelicals, without ceasing to be evangelicals, can learn from Catholics about Mary. If Catholics need to be called away from the excesses of Marian devotion to a stricter fidelity to the biblical witness, evangelicals should re-examine their negative attitudes toward Mary, many of which derive from anti-Catholic bias rather than sound biblical theology. They need to ask themselves, as the Groupe des Dombes suggested, “whether their too frequent silences about Mary are not prejudicial to their relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Can there be a proper place for Mary in the prayer and devotional life of evangelicals? The early Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century thought so. Evangelicals do not pray to Mary, but we can learn to pray like Mary and with Mary—with Mary and all the saints. Evangelicals can join with all Christians in a prayer like this: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.”

Timothy George, an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, is the dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a member of the First Things editorial board.

Image by Wikimedia Commons on GetArchive, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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