In 1994, after intense study, discussion, and prayer, we issued a statement titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” In 1997, we bore common witness to “The Gift of Salvation,” underscoring God’s unmerited justification of sinners because of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, true God and true man, and our only hope of salvation. In our third statement, “Your Word is Truth” (2002), we affirmed a convergence in our understanding of the transmission of God’s saving Word through Holy Scripture and tradition, which is the lived experience of the community of faith under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In 2003, we addressed “The Communion of Saints,” in which we confessed that our communion with Christ means that we are in a certain, albeit imperfect, communion with one another in his body, the Church. “The Call to Holiness” in 2005 lifted up our common participation in the life-transforming love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The statement “That They May Have Life” (2006) set forth the Christian mandate, based on biblical authority and clear reason, for the protection of innocent human life from conception to natural death.
In the present statement we turn our attention to the Virgin Mary as an example of God’s saving grace, the divinely chosen mother of our Lord and a model of discipleship. As in previous statements, we wish to emphasize that we speak from and to, not for, our several communities, and that we are determined honestly to engage differences between our communities, recognizing that the only unity pleasing to God, and therefore the only unity we may seek, is unity in the truth.
Since the sixteenth century, the subject of the Blessed Virgin Mary has been a primary point of differentiation, and even conflict, between Evangelicals and Catholics. While figures such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli retained a special reverence for Mary, this dimension of their teaching and piety was largely lost by their followers in the course of growing animosity between Protestants and Catholics. On the Catholic side, the determination to draw a clear line against Protestantism sometimes led to exaggerations and distortions in Marian devotion.
In our time there is among Evangelicals a renewed interest in Mary, and among Catholics a determination to make clear that the greatness of Mary is in her faithfulness to Jesus Christ, her Lord and ours. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, “No creature could ever be counted as equal to the Incarnate Word and Redeemer . . . . The Church does not hesitate to profess the subordinate role of Mary” (Lumen Gentium 62). Whatever is said about Mary is ever and always in the service of what must be said about Christ.
Our purpose in the present statement is not to resolve all the familiar differences on this subject, although we address such differences. Our purpose, rather, is to examine anew, as Evangelicals and Catholics together, the place of Mary in Christian faith and life. In doing so, we acknowledge the primary authority of Holy Scripture. We also recognize the importance of the teaching and practice of the early Church, which relied on Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples into all truth.
We recognize that, in discerning such guidance, Catholics have a distinctive view of apostolic authority exercised by bishops with and under the “Petrine ministry” of the Bishop of Rome, a view not shared by Evangelicals. Teaching authority in the Church or magisterium, as it is called, may be the subject of a future statement. For our present purpose, we say what we can say together—and what we must say to one another.
At the announcement of the coming birth of the Savior, the angel says to Mary before she conceives that she is “full of grace.” Because grace is always a gift, that she is full of grace is God’s gift and not her achievement. In her song called the Magnificat, Mary says that “all generations will call me blessed.” She is rightly called by us the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is the long-awaited daughter of Israel, in fulfillment of biblical prophecy. She stands strikingly between the Old Covenant and the New, her child being recognized by Simeon in the Temple as the long awaited “consolation of Israel.”
In the gospel writings, she is portrayed as the culmination of a prophetic lineage of devout mothers: Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, along with Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. Such early Christians as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus acclaimed her as the New Eve in whom was fulfilled the promise to the first Eve that the seed of a woman would reverse the calamitous fall into sin. She is the woman through whom that promise is vindicated in the birth, life, suffering, death, glorious resurrection, and promised coming again of Jesus Christ, her son and her Lord. The typological reading of Mary, and of Christ, in the Old Testament is at the heart of the Christian understanding of the relation of continuity and fulfillment between the Old Covenant and the New.
Since the days of the apostles, faithful Christians have understood Mary to be the virgin mother of Jesus. In more recent times, the virgin birth became a decisive point of difference between Evangelicals and liberal Protestants. In the apostolic era and among orthodox Christians of all times, it is clearly understood that the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception is based on the apostolic witness and is intimately connected with the belief that Jesus the Christ, the Son of God and son of Mary, is both true God and true man.
Agreeing on the miracle of the virgin birth, we would also encourage a fuller reflection on the maternity of Mary. As the mother of Jesus, she was the first to learn of his nature and mission, and she was the first to give faith’s assent: “Let it be with me according to your word.” We picture her nursing him at her breast, teaching him his first words, kissing his bruises when he fell, introducing him to Israel’s understanding of the ways of the Lord—the mother who helped him memorize the psalms and say his prayers, even as he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and man (Luke 2:52).
When, much later, Mary is depicted as praying with the apostles (Acts 1:14), we may imagine that Mary prayed to her son with the words that she had taught him to pray. Contemplating the motherhood of Mary powerfully reinforces—against every form of gnosticism or docetism, whether ancient or modern—our understanding of the full humanity of Jesus the Christ. In the fullness of time he was born of a woman from whom he received all that pertains to his human nature.
We are agreed that it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, to call Mary Theotokos—the God-Bearer. Theotokos means “the one who gave birth to the One who is God,” and the title, based on the clear witness of Scripture, was emphasized in the early Church to counter the heresy of Nestorius, who divided the human and divine natures of Christ.
Here and elsewhere, what must be said about Mary is inseparably connected with what must be said about Christ. Because Jesus is both true man and true God, and because his human nature and divine nature are inseparable, it is right to call Mary, who is the mother of Jesus, the Mother of God or the God-Bearer. Such language is intended first to exalt Jesus Christ and only then to honor Mary. Indeed, in the Magnificat, Mary glorified not herself but God alone.
Mary is always and ever a creature among creatures and no less in need of redemption than any other human being, Jesus only excepted. Mary is always and ever in the role of subordinate and servant. As she said to the angel, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). Her message, first spoken to the servants at the wedding of Cana, and also to us, is simply this: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
We agree with St. Augustine who wrote: “Indeed the blessed Mary certainly did the Father’s will, and so it was for her a greater thing to have been Christ’s disciple than to have been his mother, and she was more blessed in her discipleship than in her motherhood. Hers was the happiness of first bearing in her womb him whom she would obey as her master” (Sermon 72A.7).
Mary’s act of faith and her giving birth are at the beginning of the incarnate life and mission of the Savior; the New Testament also depicts her gathered with the disciples on the day of Pentecost. She is at the foot of the cross at the close of Christ’s earthly ministry. When other disciples had fled in fear, Mary remained. When from the cross the dying Lord told John to see in Mary his mother and told Mary to see in John her son, we may understand that, symbolically speaking, John represents all the disciples through the ages who will love and honor Mary as the blessed mother of their brother and their Lord.
Mary participates in the suffering of her son, as indeed all Christians are called to do (Phil. 3:10). When the child Jesus was presented in the temple, holy Simeon predicted that a sword would pierce the heart of Mary. Mary stands in solidarity with the Church, the pilgrim People of God through time, and is powerfully pertinent to our time in which we witness the increasing persecution of Christians in many parts of the world.
Today there is a new and welcome attentiveness to the role of women in both Church and society. In this connection, it is important to underscore that the place of Mary in the plan of salvation is not one of passivity but of courageous faith and love. Catholics and Evangelicals can agree with Pope John Paul II, who wrote in his 1987 encyclical Redemptoris Mater: “This Marian dimension of Christian life takes on special importance in relation to women and their status . . . . The figure of Mary of Nazareth sheds light on womanhood as such by the very fact that God, in the sublime event of the Incarnation of his Son, entrusted himself to the ministry, the free and active ministry of a woman.”
Having addressed matters on which we can speak together, we must also speak to one another about the differences in our understanding of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian faith and life. We do so as brothers and sisters in Christ, fully committed to unity in truth.
A Catholic Word to Evangelicals
We believe that Catholic teaching with respect to the Blessed Virgin Mary safeguards the fullness of revelation and deepens our understanding of God’s plan of salvation. We here address, all too briefly, four aspects of that doctrine: the perpetual virginity of Mary, her Immaculate Conception, her bodily Assumption into heaven, and her role, along with all the saints, in the communion of the Church. We do so in fidelity to “the relation between Sacred Scripture, as the highest authority in matters of faith, and Sacred Tradition as indispensable to the interpretation of the Word of God” (Ut Unum Sint 79).
The Bible is the foundation of all Catholic teaching. Catholics also believe, in accordance with Jesus’ promise to send the Holy Spirit to teach the Church all things (John 14:16), that, under the influence of the Spirit, the gospel of grace is more fully and completely understood. Thus the Catholic Church believes that in its listening to, praying with, and reflecting on the truth of Holy Scripture, the Spirit is active as a divine guide, leading to a rich and comprehensive consideration of God’s Word. The Spirit leads the Church to see the full implications of the gospel through the teaching of the early Fathers, through ecumenical councils, through prayer and liturgy, through the lives of the saints, and through the study of theologians. All of these help the Church to see more clearly the profound meaning of Christ’s message and the extraordinary role of his mother, Mary, in the history of salvation.
The ancient liturgy celebrates Mary as Aeiparthenos, the Ever-Virgin. New Testament references to the brothers and sisters of Jesus do not refer to other children of Mary but to children of Joseph by a previous marriage or, more likely, are a biblical manner of referring to close relations (Gen. 13:8, 14:16, 29:15).
Mary was predestined from eternity and uniquely prepared to be the dwelling place of God. Schooled by the New Testament authors in typological reading of the Old Testament, the Fathers of the Church speak of the womb of Mary as the New Ark of the Covenant, the temple of him who is the New Temple (John 2:21). The Spirit of God hovered over the void at the first creation (Gen. 1:2) and descended as glory over the ark (Exod. 40:34; Num. 9:19-20) and the temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 8:10-11). And the same spirit hovered over the womb of Mary, initiating the new creation and new covenant in Christ (Luke 1:35). In the patristic view, Mary’s statement that she has no husband and is the handmaid of the Lord is understood as a total and irrevocable vow to dedicate herself to God as a virgin (Luke 1:34, 38). No man may enter the sanctuary thus consecrated to God (Ezek. 44:1-3).
Belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity reflects not a denigration of the good of human sexuality but an understanding of the utterly gratuitous nature of God’s initiative and the totality of Mary’s response of faith. The virginal theme is evident also in the new birth of the faithful, in which participation in the divine life arises “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13). This new life is virginal because it is entirely the gift of the Spirit. The human vocation in relation to God is spousal (2 Cor. 11:2) and is perfectly fulfilled in Mary’s virginal motherhood.
All this is by faith. Mary’s response is itself God’s gift of grace. As with Mary, so also with the Church which “by receiving the word of God in faith becomes herself a mother. By preaching and baptism she brings forth sons, who are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of God to a new and immortal life. She herself is a virgin who keeps in its entirety and purity the faith she pledged to her spouse” (Lumen Gentium 64). Thus, the Catholic Church says with St. Augustine, “Mary remained a virgin in conceiving her Son, a virgin in giving him birth, a virgin in carrying him, a virgin in nursing him at her breast, always a virgin” (Of Holy Virginity 3.3).
Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised to the Church (John 16:12), the understanding of the Immaculate Conception of Mary developed more slowly and not without considerable dispute. In light of the promise of Genesis 3:15, many early Christians saw Mary as the sinless New Eve, the first member of the new creation inaugurated by Christ, the New Adam. Later thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas, acknowledged that there is no creature more holy than the Blessed Virgin but said that she, like all human beings, inherited original sin from Adam and was later purified for her unique mission in the plan of salvation. In the fourteenth century, John Duns Scotus, recognizing that Christ came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), taught that Christ, out of love for his mother and a desire to reveal his total victory over sin and death, brought his salvation to Mary by preserving her from all sin from the beginning of her existence.
In 1854, Pope Pius IX clarified a long tradition of theological development and piety by formally defining the Immaculate Conception: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved from all stain of original sin” (Ineffabilis Deus).
In continuity with scriptural witness and Christian tradition, it is affirmed that Mary is saved by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone and is “blessed among women” to be the New Eve who bears the New Adam, the Savior of the world. She is sinless only by virtue of the saving work of Christ. Her assent (“Let it be with me according to your word”) is perfect, untainted by sin, and is thus the preeminent model of faith and discipleship, as she is also a sign of hope in Christ’s power to undo sin and death in the members of his body, the Church. Against every form of Pelagianism, the Immaculate Conception bears witness to the utter gratuitousness of God’s gift of salvation, making clear that it is not dependent upon human merit but is by grace alone (sola gratia).
In 1950, also after a long development of the Church’s reflection on the role of Mary in the plan of salvation, the Assumption of Mary was defined: “Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death” (Munificentissimus Deus).
“Mary, the all-holy, ever-virgin Mother of God,” declares the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “is the masterwork of the mission of the Son and the Spirit in the fullness of time” (CCC 721). In her, the Father prepared a dwelling place for the Son and Spirit among men. The Annunciation to Mary inaugurates “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4). In Mary, the mission of the Holy Spirit is conjoined to and ordered to the mission of the Son (John 16:14-15). In Mary, the Holy Spirit fulfills God’s loving plan and manifests the Son of the Father, now become the son of the virgin. In her Assumption, Mary anticipates the promised destiny of all the faithful, the eschatological icon of the Church. “She shines forth on earth until the day of the Lord shall come, a sign of certain hope and comfort to the pilgrim People of God” (Lumen Gentium 68).
Mary is the first disciple and mother of the Church, which is the communion of saints professed in the Apostles’ Creed. The earliest disciples “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and to prayers” (Acts 2:42). The communion of saints includes the faithful pilgrims on earth, those who have died and are being prepared for glory (purgatory), and those who already contemplate “in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is” (Lumen Gentium 49). All these are in living communion through Christ who has conquered sin and death.
As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the other” (Symb . 10; Eph. 4:16). Thus, in the communion of saints, the brothers and sisters of Christ, adopted by grace, recognize his mother as their mother. In the words of St. Augustine, “Clearly she is the mother of Christ’s members . . . since she has cooperated with love in bringing about the birth of the faithful in the Church. They are the members of the head, but she is physically the mother of the head himself” (On Holy Virginity 6.6). When from the cross Jesus commends Mary to John as his mother, John represents the faithful of all time. John welcomes Mary “into his own” (eis ta idia), which means not only into his house but into all that is his—his heart and mind and soul (John 19: 25-27, 32-37). Thus is Mary rightly recognized as Mother of the Church.
The communion of saints entails a sharing with “the saints in light,” they with us and we with them (Col. 1:12). We on earth are permitted to participate in the fulfillment of Christ’s mission (Col. 1:24). Mary, with all the saints in heaven, prays for the Church on earth. As we ask for the prayers of the Church on earth, so also we ask for the prayers of the Church in heaven, knowing that “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1). The Church on earth lives in lively conversation with the Church in heaven. Already now, for those who live by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7), death is vanquished. In drawing closer to Mary, we are drawn closer to Christ, for the entirety of her being is devoted to Christ, and her one will for his disciples is “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Devotion to Mary, the fully redeemed creature, is directed to the adoration of Christ, true God and true man.
Any mediation attributed to Mary is only part of the mediation of Christ, who is the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5). “No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways by both his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (Lumen Gentium 62). As John Paul II explains, “Although participated forms of mediation of different kinds and degrees are not excluded, they acquire meaning and value only from Christ’s own mediation, and they cannot be understood as parallel or complementary to his” (Redemptoris Missio 5).
The many titles of Mary—Mother of God, Mother of the Church, Seat of Wisdom, Ark of the Covenant, Queen of Heaven—illuminate the facets of her role in the plan of salvation. They represent centuries of Christian reflection on the greatest of mysteries—that God became man in order that man may share fully in the life of God. “The canticle of Mary, the Magnificat (Latin) or Megalynei (Byzantine) is the song both of the Mother of God and of the Church; the song of the Daughter of Zion and of the new People of God; the song of thanksgiving for the fullness of graces poured out in the economy of salvation and the song of the poor whose hope is met by the fulfillment of the promises made to our ancestors, ‘to Abraham and his children forever’” (CCC 2619).
This, all too briefly stated, is the understanding of Mary and her part in Christian faith and life that we respectfully recommend to our Evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. We have done so in a manner conscious of the admonition of the Second Vatican Council: “[We] exhort theologians and preachers of the divine word to abstain zealously both from all gross exaggerations as well as from petty narrow-mindedness in considering the singular dignity of the Mother of God. Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Holy Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always look to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity, and piety. Let them assiduously keep away from whatever, either by word or deed, could lead separated brethren or any other into error regarding the true doctrine of the Church” (Lumen Gentium 67).
We believe that Catholic teaching about Mary safeguards the fullness of revelation and deepens our comprehension of God’s plan of salvation. After centuries of misunderstanding between Catholics and Protestants, for which we as Catholics accept our measure of responsibility, our fervent prayer is that this conversation about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, will enhance our unity in Christ.
An Evangelical Word to Catholics
Since its inception in 1994, Evangelicals and Catholics Together has proceeded with two common assumptions: that all who accept Christ as Lord and Savior are brothers and sisters in Christ, and that we recognize spiritual kinship in one another as dialogue partners in this process. These assumptions have been tested over the years in our explorations of many controverted themes including the nature of justification and the relation of Scripture and Tradition. This testing is also evident in our current discussions about Mary, the mother of our Lord, her place in the teaching of Holy Scripture, and her role in the history of redemption. We seek here greater mutual understanding of Evangelical and Catholic perspectives on the Blessed Virgin Mary bearing witness to our different understandings of the one apostolic faith. We do so in keeping with the original ECT declaration, which noted that “the differences and disagreements . . . must be addressed more fully and candidly in order to strengthen between us a relation of trust and obedience to truth.” We have always endeavored to speak the truth to one another in love, and we do so here believing that, in the words of the Pilgrims’ pastor, John Robinson, the Lord “has yet more truth and light to break forth out of his Holy Word.”
In this section of the paper we address three things: the neglect of Marian teaching in Evangelical theology and our hope for its recovery; the issues of Catholic teaching about Mary that still separate us and require prayerful reflection; and a proposal for moving forward.
Evangelicalism is a worldwide renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church embracing, but not limited to, puritanism, pietism, and pentecostalism. As such, it claims as its own the trinitarian and christological dogmas of the early Church, not because they are ancient or endorsed by any particular denomination but because they are necessarily implied by how the Bible presents God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel and Israel’s Messiah, Jesus the Lord. These teachings were also basic to the ecclesial and spiritual renewal in the churches of the West in the sixteenth century generally known as the Reformation. Evangelicals embrace this movement, with its principles of the normative authority of Holy Scripture and justification by faith alone.
With our Catholic brothers and sisters we say without hesitation: Mary is for all Christians. The Reformation has been called a “tragic necessity.” The neglect, almost the disappearance, of Mary in Protestant theology belongs to the tragic side. The Reformers rightly rejected an overemphasis on Mary’s role in late medieval piety—the sweet mother placating her stern Son—because it obscured the supreme glory of Jesus Christ and salvation through him alone, but they also spoke of Mary with a love and respect that is instructive for us today. As heirs of the Reformation, Evangelicals do well to revisit the Marian thought of the Reformers.
For Luther, Mary is the workshop (fabrica) in which God operates to bring about the salvation of the world. Mary is the person and place where God has chosen to enter most deeply into the human story. She is the one who hears the Word of God (fides ex auditu), the one who responds in faith and thus is justified by faith alone (WA 7, 573). The Reformed tradition is more reticent, yet both Zwingli and Bullinger joined in the “Hail Mary, full of grace” not as a prayer to Mary but as an expression of praise in honor of her. Calvin too referred to Mary as “the treasurer of grace” and spoke of how Christ “chose for himself the virgin’s womb as a temple in which to dwell” (Institutes 2.14.1).
In recent years, Mary has once again become the focus of constructive reflection among Evangelicals, and this is a positive development. There is a place for a biblically precise, theologically robust love and honor of Mary among Evangelicals—not one that claims her as mediatrix or coredemptrix but one that sees her as the figure the Bible presents her to be: the handmaiden of the Lord, divinely chosen to give birth to the Messiah, she who stood loyally by Jesus at the cross where he offered “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” (Book of Common Prayer , 1662). Mary’s aim was to exalt her Son and to point others to him. We do not detract from Christ by showing proper reverence to his mother.
An important aspect of this reverence is to acknowledge our common confession of Mary’s prophetic ministry of proclaiming the message of salvation. Inspired by the Spirit, Mary’s Magnificat announces the divine restoration of creation in parallel with Jesus’ own proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19). Mary is not simply a passive instrument of God’s plan. She actively participates in the Spirit’s charismatic activity, which from generation to generation serves as a model for men and women who seek to proclaim the gospel “in the power of the Spirit.” Consequently, there is a pneumatological continuity between Mary’s unique vocation and the ongoing vocation of the Church that allows Evangelicals, with Ambrose (Expos. in Luc. 2.6-7) and Vatican II (Lumen Gentium 63), to affirm her role as a type of the Church (ecclesiae typus).
The common confession of Evangelicals and Catholics includes the virginal conception of Jesus and Mary’s role as Theotokos , the God-Bearer. The latter term has been resisted by some believers because it can be (and has been) confused with pagan notions of fertility cults, goddess worship, and Magna Mater. Yet the debates leading up to the Council of Ephesus (431), which defined Mary as Theotokos, were framed by the New Testament witness to the deity of Christ. This title was always christologically driven: It had less to do with the status of Mary than with the unity of divinity and humanity in her son.
To confess Mary as the God-Bearer is not to project some notion of a pagan goddess; it is to declare what the Bible says—that Mary was the human mother of he who is the eternal Son of God. Evangelical theology shines most clearly in its hymnody, and Graham Kendrick’s hymn “Meekness and Majesty” (1986) expresses this point well: “Meekness and majesty, human and deity, in perfect harmony, the One who is God. Lord of eternity, dwells in humanity; kneels in humility and washes our feet. Oh what a mystery, meekness and majesty; bow down and worship, for this is your God.”
Catholics and Evangelicals both confess the historicity of the virginal conception of Jesus. J. Gresham Machen, who published a classic study of the virgin birth of Jesus in 1920, recognized this common ground and declared that the gulf between Rome and the Reformation was negligible compared to the abyss that separated both traditions from others who eviscerated the historic Christian faith. Evangelicals affirm both Mary’s virginity and her maternity. Mary was not merely the point of Christ’s entrance into the world—as though she were a channel through which he passed as water flows through a pipe. She was truly human and a real mother. Her tender care and life-giving love for Jesus calls for all believers to love and honor her.
Despite all this common ground, however, both Marian dogma and Marian devotion remain contentious issues. Evangelicals understand that the Catholic Church does not equate adoration of God (latria) and veneration for Mary (hyperdoulia). It seems to many Evangelicals, however, that the devotion of some Catholics to Mary can obscure the preeminence, unique sinlessness, and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ as well as the common pneumatological ground of worship for all Christians who pray “through Christ in the Spirit.”
Emphasis on Mary’s intercessory role, coupled with prayers to Mary, can create confusion between adoration and veneration—and risks leading people away from, rather than to, the Savior. This is especially true in contexts where devotion to Mary is a deeply ingrained part of cultural identity. We do not think this is the intention of Catholic teaching as expressed in Lumen Gentium, and Catholic members of ECT have addressed in helpful ways exaggerations of Marian piety. In an age of syncretism and radical pluralism, the recent statements by Pope Benedict XVI declaring Jesus Christ the one and only Savior are an encouragement to all faithful Christians. We acknowledge that there is little Evangelical reflection on any of these Marian themes, certainly nothing commensurate with the vast Catholic literature in the field. This stems from Protestant neglect of Mary, born of a conviction that the Catholic portrait of Mary exceeds its biblical warrants.
At the same time, disputed questions remain serious points of difference between us. These points represent postbiblical developments in Catholic teaching. Evangelicals also claim continuity with the doctrinal development of biblical teaching in the early Church. But the notion of development itself, along with the necessary refutation of error, implies that the Church can be, and sometimes has been, mistaken and misled about important matters of faith. Jesus did not guarantee the infallibility of ecclesiastical pronouncements. Jesus did promise instead that the Holy Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth, that true faith would be found on the earth when he returned, and that at the last God would save his people, “in the intervals of sunshine between storm and storm . . . snatching them from the surge of evil, even when the waters rage most furiously” (John Henry Newman).
Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) sets forth the principle of scriptural sufficiency that marks Evangelical thought with reference to these disputed points. “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of anyone, that it should be believed as an article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”
Applying this principle of Scriptural sufficiency, we offer brief comments on the following four issues:
1. Perpetual Virginity. That a woman named Mary conceived and gave birth to a baby named Jesus without the sexual involvement of a male partner is a truth of biblical revelation (Matt. 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38). To what extent her physical virginity remained inviolate in the act of her birthgiving (in partu) and thereafter (post partum) the Bible does not say. Various views were expressed among ancient Christian writers. The Protoevangelium of James, for example, describes in graphic detail the exact nature of Mary’s virginity (20:1-3). Various themes of later Marian piety are found in this apocryphal work, though Jerome, who himself believed in the perpetual virginity, regarded the work as untrustworthy.
The Bible tells us that Jesus had brothers and sisters and names four of his brothers—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matt. 13:55-56). Evangelicals commonly maintain that this text refers to the half siblings of Jesus, the subsequent children of Joseph and Mary who lived as husband and wife in the full sense. We do recognize, however, that the Greek word adelphoi has a range of meaning and could refer to Jesus’ close relatives, either cousins or the children of Joseph by a previous marriage.
In the sixteenth century, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin all accepted the ever-virgin character of Mary while fully supporting marriage and the inherent goodness of sexuality. Mary’s perpetual virginity is an adiaphorous teaching, neither required nor forbidden by Scripture itself. We may regard Mary’s virginity as an example of her fidelity to the unique calling she received to become the mother of Jesus, but we may not use it to elevate celibacy above married life, nor to denigrate sexuality as the good creation of God within the sacred bonds of marriage. Some Evangelicals may refer to Mary as ever-virgin, but all acclaim her as blessed because as a virgin she carried the Redeemer in her womb.
2. Immaculate Conception. Evangelicals find unnecessary and unbiblical the notion that Mary was preserved from the stain of original sin from the first moment of her conception. Still, we affirm much of what this teaching is intended to convey—that Mary was the object of God’s gracious election in Christ; that she was uniquely prepared to become the mother of our Lord; that she is an extraordinary model of the call to discipleship and the life of holiness; that her assent to the purpose of the Lord was itself the result of God’s unmerited favor toward her—an example of sola gratia; and that she should be honored and called “blessed one” in all places and by all generations.
Much interconfessional discussion has centered on the Greek kekaritomene of Luke 1:28 which the Vulgate renders gratia plena and the Douay-Rheims version as “full of grace.” In its clearest form, this perfect passive participle expresses divine favor in the passive voice, as in the King James Version: “Hail thou that art highly favoured” (cf. Luther, holdselige, and Calvin, agréable). Luke 1:28 does not mention Mary’s conception, though Scripture does teach that God’s redemptive call can take place before birth or even conception (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).
The concrete manifestation of divine favor occurred through the descent and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35), whose sanctifying activity enabled Mary’s response of faith and thus inaugurated the renewal of all creation in her womb (Luke 1:38). Calvin affirms this point by stating that “to carry Christ in her womb was not Mary’s first blessedness, but was greatly inferior to the distinction of being born again by the Spirit of God to a new life” (Commentary on the Harmony of the Gospels, 42). By divine grace alone Mary was enabled to give birth to the Son of God, and from her alone he received his human nature. It is not to be doubted that this was wrought by the power of God in a way no less miraculous or mysterious than the virginal conception itself.
Immaculate Conception is not accepted as a dogma by the churches of the East and was much debated in the West before and after the Reformation. Augustine held to a high view of the personal holiness of Mary but believed that God’s abundant grace was conferred on her “for vanquishing sin in every part” (On Nature and Grace 36.42). The idea that Mary was conceived without original sin was rejected by Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas, among other notable teachers of the Church. Their thinking about Mary deserves fresh consideration.
Evangelicals confess the sinlessness of Christ but not the sinlessness of Mary. Hebrews 7:26 refers to Jesus as our High Priest. He alone was perfectly holy, blameless, unstained, separated from sinners. The Bible makes clear that no other human being can claim this (John 8:46; Rom. 3:23, 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 5:21; Eph. 2:3; Heb. 4:15). Jesus taught his disciples, among whom Mary was the first, to pray “Our Father who art in heaven . . . forgive us our trespasses” (Matt. 6:12). The Bible declares that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and he was the Savior as well as the son of his blessed mother (1 Tim. 1:15; Luke 1:46-47).
3. The Bodily Assumption. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is incongruent with Sacred Scripture because it exempts Mary from original sin and declares that she is thus saved by Jesus in a unique manner. At one level, the doctrine of Mary’s bodily assumption applies to Mary what the Bible declares to have happened to the prophets Enoch and Elijah—that she was taken into heaven, body and soul, at the end of her earthly life.
In this way, Mary is believed to have anticipated what many Evangelicals refer to as the rapture of the Church at the return of Christ. Mary’s assumption presupposes a number of things that are indeed a part of our common Christian confession: the reality of heaven; the communion of saints; the overcoming of death; the resurrection of the flesh; the certain triumph of Jesus Christ over sin, hell, and the grave; belief in the literal, visible return of Christ in glory; the goodness of creation; and the unity of soul and body for all eternity. None of these biblical truths, however, requires belief in the bodily assumption of Mary, which is without biblical warrant (the vision of Revelation 12:1-6 says nothing about Mary’s body being taken into heaven) and has no basis in the early Christian tradition.
The apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus (1950), in which Pope Pius XII promulgated the dogma of the assumption, does not take a position with respect to Mary’s death, yet this is a question of some theological importance. If Mary was taken to heaven without death in the manner of Enoch and Elijah, was this because her body was incorruptible and thus not subject to the fact that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23)? On the other hand, if she actually died (without having sinned) and then was raised from the dead to heavenly glory, then her resurrection would seem to be parallel to that of Christ who alone died and rose again for our justification (Rom. 4:24-25). Both opinions are present in the apocryphal writings that form the basis of later legends (such as Christ’s surrender of the heavenly kingdom to Mary at her coronation in glory), but it seems prudent to follow here the silence of the Scriptures and the reticence of the Church Fathers of the first three centuries.
4. Invocation of Mary. Because Evangelicals take seriously the biblical record of the annunciation and the visitation, we honor and love the Blessed Virgin Mary. We praise God with her and for her, and with the angel Gabriel we hail her as the highly favored mother of the Savior in whom the sanctifying and charismatic presence of the Spirit was at work. We also recognize in her Magnificat a prophetic witness to the redeeming acts of God in salvation history, especially his concern for the poor and downtrodden. We seek to learn to pray like Mary and in her spirit, and we celebrate Jesus’ special love for Mary, which extended even to the cross. Because the Spirit unites things separated by space and time, we join our voices in communion with the universal Church, with the angels and all the saints in heaven, including Mary, to extol and magnify the triune God of holiness and love.
Evangelicals do not think that such evocation of Mary leads to her invocation, intercession, or mediation. We do not find in Scripture that Mary has any ongoing redemptive role as the dispenser of grace to sinners. As there is one and only one God, so too there is one and only one mediator between God and human beings, the man Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 2:3-6). We do not deny that, through the Holy Spirit, God uses external means of grace, especially the proclamation of the gospel, to draw lost men and women to the Savior, but he does this in such a way that no creature, in heaven or on earth, shares with Christ the role of redeemer.
Evangelicals affirm that the Church is the Body of Christ extended throughout time as well as space. The bonds among those who are in Christ are not severed by death, and the struggling Church on earth shares one faith and one hope with the noble company of the apostles, martyrs, and all the saints in glory, including Mary. As Jonathan Edwards declared, “the Church in heaven and the Church on earth are more one people, one city, and one family, than is generally imagined” (“Miscellaneous Observations”).
Whether Mary and other departed believers with the Lord in glory can hear and answer words addressed to them from this life, the Bible does not say. Evangelicals believe that through the finished work of Christ on the cross, and by the power of the Spirit who intercedes for us, we may come directly and “boldly to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:16). Although the Church triumphant and the Church militant join together in common worship by means of the one Spirit (Rev. 5:6-14), there is no mention of prayers to Mary or the saints in the witness of the New Testament and the first two hundred years of the Church. Irenaeus observed that the heretical Gnostics invoked angels, but he offered no counterpart that the orthodox invoked saints; rather, they invoked the name of Christ alone (Against Heresies 1.23; 2.58).
As a safeguard against the temptation to idolatry and because this pattern of piety is not found in the New Testament, most Evangelicals today do not include prayers to Mary and the saints in their worship and personal devotions. At the same time, we acknowledge that the sovereign Lord may choose to reveal himself in extraordinary ways whenever and however he wills.
This Evangelical discussion of Mary raises the question of where we go from here. Our unity as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ and our desire to move toward a common mission both require that we do so. We affirm with Max Thurian, Brother of Taizé, “Instead of being a cause of division amongst us, Christian reflections on the role of the Virgin Mary should be a cause of rejoicing and a source of prayer.” To that end, we Evangelicals offer a few suggestions.
• As theologians committed to unity in truth and unity in love, we will seek together the mind of Christ about Mary. We Evangelicals have sensed the loving pastoral concern of our Catholic partners and we extend the same to them. We both want to avoid Marian excess on the one hand and Marian narrow-mindedness on the other, but we continue to differ on what is excessive and what is too restrictive. In our approach to one another, we desire the humility so evident in the mother of our Lord.
• Our different perspectives on Mary stem, in part, from our differing understandings of the Church and its teaching authority. Both require further elaboration. More attention must also be given to the development of doctrine in the history of the Church. Evangelicals need to explain how we can accept the doctrine of the Trinity and the Person of Christ developed in the early Church while not embracing some later developments. We ask further explanation from Catholics on how doctrinal deviation is checked and on how genuine reformation of dogma can take place.
• Mary’s announcement of the kingdom’s arrival signals the fulfillment of the biblical prophesy that both “sons and daughters” (Joel 2:28) will serve as instruments of God’s grace as they declare his Word to each generation. The sanctity of life is a core conviction of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and we should give more attention to Mary as a model and an encouragement in our efforts to advance the culture of life.
• Evangelicals need to consider whether more reflection on Mary would strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ. We cannot take the Incarnation seriously without taking Mary as seriously as the Bible does. The theme of Mary in art, music, and literature is a treasury of the human imagination, but the messages are mixed, reflecting fluctuations in piety and teaching. In Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Mary and John the Baptist stand on either side of Jesus on the cross and both point to him. Marian devotion at its best ever reflects this posture, and from this kind of spirituality Evangelicals have much to learn.
• If Evangelicals are to recover a proper sense of Mary in the life of faith, it will be through the rediscovery of the Mary of the Bible. Together, Catholics and Evangelicals should study the Bible’s witness to Mary—the prophecies of Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14, her annunciation, visitation, and purification, her witness to the miracles and ministry of Jesus, and her presence at Christmas, Calvary, and Pentecost. Evangelicals do not believe that we come to Jesus through Mary, but we confess that through Jesus we are one with Mary and with all those who, like her, trust in him alone as Savior and Lord. In this sense, Evangelicals and Catholics can sit together in the school of Mary. And thus we will see more clearly the face of God in the face of Christ, proclaiming salvation through his name and by his grace alone to all the world. Soli Deo Gloria!
A Common Prayer
As Evangelicals and Catholics Together, we recognize that we have not addressed every point of our agreement and difference over Mary, her role in salvation history, and her continuing role in the life of the Church. Nonetheless, we have attempted to indicate steps toward a deeper mutual understanding.
As brothers and sisters in Christ who are in lively communion with the saints on earth and the saints in heaven, we together pray—in words Richard John Neuhaus composed for us before he died:
Almighty and gracious God, Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who was in the fullness of time born of the Blessed Virgin Mary, from whom he received our human nature by which, through his suffering, death, and glorious resurrection, he won our salvation, accept, we beseech you, our giving thanks for the witness of Mary’s faith and the courage of her obedience.
Grant to us, we pray, the faithfulness to stand with her by the cross of your Son in his redemptive suffering and the suffering of your pilgrim Church on earth. By the gift of your Spirit, increase within us a lively sense of our communion in your Son with the saints on earth and the saints in heaven. May she who is the first disciple be for us a model of faith’s response to your will in all things; may her “Let it be with me according to your word” be our constant prayer; may her “Do whatever he tells you” elicit from us a more perfect surrender of obedience to her Lord and ours.
Continue to lead us, we pray, into a more manifest unity of faith and life so that the world may believe and those whom you have chosen may, with the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, rejoice forever in your glory. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and forever.
Mr. Charles Colson
Colson Center for Christian Worldview
Dr. Dale Coulter
Dr. Joel Elowsky
Dr. Timothy George
Beeson Divinity School
Dr. Frank James
Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary
Dr. Cheryl Bridges Johns
Pentecostal Theological Seminary
Dr. T.M. Moore
Dr. Thomas Oden
Dr. J.I. Packer
Dr. Cornelius Plantinga
Calvin Theological Seminary
Dr. Sarah Sumner
A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary
Dr. Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Dr. John Woodbridge
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
Dr. Joseph Bottum
James J. Buckley
Loyola College in Maryland
Dr. Peter Casarella
De Paul University
Dr. Gary Culpepper
Avery Cardinal Dulles (1918–2008)
Fr. Thomas Guarino
Seton Hall University
Fr. Arthur Kennedy
St. John’s Seminary of Boston
Dr. Matthew Levering
University of Dayton
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (1936–2009)
Fr. Francis Martin
Sacred Heart Major Seminary of Detroit
Fr. James Massa
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Fr. Edward T. Oakes, S.J.
Mundelein Seminary of Chicago
Mr. George Weigel
Ethics and Public Policy Center
Dr. Robert Louis Wilken
University of Virginia