Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Mary, it seems, is a hot Evangelical topic. As a new professor at Wheaton College, I proposed a course focusing on the Virgin Mary and braced for resistance, but intrigued approval was all that came my way. Nor was I alone. I learned that another course on the Virgin was being offered in a different department at Wheaton the same semester; rather than com­peting for student attention, both classes quickly filled.

And so I packed my syllabus with primary sources, supplemented with Tim Perry’s excellent Mary for Evangelicals, and off we went, twenty-five students and I, on a journey from Luke to Lourdes, from Matthew to Medjugorje.

Though an overwhelmingly Protestant class, we enjoyed a visit from fervently Catholic students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, who gave articulate testimony to lived Marian devotion. More importantly still, one of our class members was herself a faithful Catholic and a recent pilgrim to Fátima, the site in Portugal of the twentieth century’s most famous Marian apparition, made all the more central when John Paul II placed the bullet fired by his would-be assassin in Our Lady of Fatima’s crown.

This student’s tender testimony of Marian piety in service to Christ left a lasting impact on all of us. And as she grew frustrated with the apocalyptic speculation still surrounding the secrets of Fatima, we enjoyed some unexpected ecumenical kinship: The end times obsession that plagues Evangelicals has its Catholic equivalent as well.

Still, the Virgin of Wheaton that slowly emerged in our course was a Protestant one, even if she came to light in conversation with the four traditional Catholic Marian teachings: Mary as Mother of God, her perpetual virginity (before, during, and after the birth of Christ), her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven. How did each of these teachings fare with my Evangelical students?

Our class had no difficulty assenting to the common Christian teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431, that Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. “That which was formed in the womb is not itself God,” insisted the heretic Nestorius. This appeared to us a refusal to acknowledge the extent of Christ’s human condition, even while it offered chilling rationale for the culture of abortion. Cyril of Alexandria’s question to Nestorius became ours: In light of Christ’s divinity even in utero , “How can anyone have scruples about calling the holy Virgin the ‘Mother of God’?”

In regard to the second Catholic teaching, the perpetual virginity, of course we accepted Mary’s virginity before the birth of Christ. As J. Gresham Machen argued, to dismiss this cardinal doctrine, as fashionable Protestants once did, was to invent a religion other than Christianity. Karl Barth, for whom there is much enthusiasm at Wheaton, asserted against his liberal Protestant colleagues, his own father among them, the necessity of the virgin birth as both a fact of revelation and an indispensible illustration of salvation by grace alone.

Most students were surprised to discover that the chief Protestant Reformers, Luther, Calvin, even Zwingli, as well as later lights like John Wesley, assented to Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ, giving most of us pause before dismissing the notion as necessarily unbiblical. Our difficulties with the teaching of Mary’s physiological virginity during the birth of Christ, however, were far more pronounced.

Was this not a refusal to grapple with the gynecological fact of Christmas? Patristic defenses of the issue were ingenious (an appeal to Christ’s walking through the door at Emmaus, for example), but did not strike us as necessary, let alone convincing.

This teaching, still upheld by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, smacked of Gnosticism. Why, one student wondered, would a tradition so eager to emphasize Mary’s suffering with Christ be hesitant to admit that she suffered in labor as well? In partu virginity, the same student pointed out, also seemed at odds with the Marian interpretation of Revelation 12:2: “She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.”

Not surprisingly, our strongest objections arose in regard to the Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was preserved by God from original sin, and the Assumption, the belief that her body was taken into heaven at the end of her earthly life, the first declared by Pope Pius IX in his 1854 Ineffabilis Deus and the second by Pope Pius XII in 1950 in Munificentissimus Deus . We gave these pronouncements the close reading they deserve, concluding, of course, that they are within the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. In fact, the papal definitions can be understood as a reigning in of excesses in Marian piety that so plagued the “Age of Mary” (roughly 1850 to 1950) in which these pronouncements were made.

But our Protestant scruples were not settled with the evident possibility of these dogmas. Our concern was their de fide necessity. We noticed a stark and unfavorable contrast between the diversity of orthodox views of Mary’s conception and the one-sided historical overview offered by Pius IX in Ineffabilis Deus.

Unmentioned by Pius was the fact that the same Cyril who defended Mary as Theotokos also asserted that “the Passion in its unexpectedness had caused even the mother of the Lord to fall.” John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas, hardly minor figures, each demurred from Mary’s complete preservation from original sin. John Duns Scotus’ argument, which anchored Mary’s unique preservation to Jesus, seemed another ingenious defense of medieval English piety (devotion to the Immaculate Conception was strongest in England), but for the most part our class sided with Erasmus, who, though a personal believer in the Immaculate Conception, scoffed at the suggestion that it was a matter of orthodoxy or heresy, which it has since become.

Some would suggest that such papal declarations offer a necessary tonic of submission to us free-minded moderns, which I admit we moderns readily need. But I too am a man under authority. Halfway through our course, as I signed my contract for renewal, I found myself again assenting to Wheaton’s statement of faith, which stipulates “all human beings are born with a sinful nature that leads them to sin in thought, word, and deed.” I see no way of reading this sentence that would not include Mary. As I put pen to paper, perhaps I too modeled the virtue of docility (albeit to a lesser magisterium).

Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption fared better for us than the Immaculate Conception, as his phrasing, “the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory,”made some room for a range of Christian opinion as to whether or not Mary died. The best and most recent scholarship on the dormition narratives, after all, testifies to a “synchronic coexistence of a variety of traditions,” as Stephen J. Shoemaker described it, in early Christianity.

Still, ecumenical progress lends new resonance to the counsel of the English Reformer William Tyndale on this particular matter: “As pertaining to our lady’s body, where it is, or where the body of Elias, of John the evangelist, and many other be, pertaineth not to us to know. One thing we are sure of, that they are where God hath laid them . . . . [I] give [Christians] free liberty to hold what they list, as long as it hurteth not the faith.”

Our class was intrigued by the curtailment of Marian piety that seemed to mark the Second Vatican Council, which, in a famously narrow vote, subordinated Mary to ecclesiology. But despite this welcome corrective to Marian devotional excesses, no amount of reform can rescind the papal decrees of 1854 and 1950. Have dissenters on these matters really, in the words of Pius IX, “suffered shipwreck in faith” or, as Pius XII put it, “certainly abandoned divine and Catholic faith”? Such wording seems to permanently close off possibilities for communion with Orthodox and Protestant Christians who differ for the sake of principle, not for the cheap thrill of dissent.

Or so we thought. There are, we discovered, serious Catholics who have suggested ways to mute, without retracting, the two infallible Marian claims. In the American context, Avery Dulles argued at an ecumenical conference in 1974 that the anathemas on the infallible statements could be lifted while still presenting the dogmas as true: “It is inexcusable for the churches to be mutually divided by doctrines that are obscure and remote from the heart of the Christian faith.”

Ours was not, however, merely an intra-Christian discussion. Chief among our class’s concerns was the continuing challenge of secular feminists, for whom Mary has been a lightning rod. The Christian feminist response to this secular critique, however, from scholars such as Tina Beattie and Sarah Jane Boss, has brilliantly vindicated the Marian tradition.

Strangely though, our most provocative “feminist” text came not from the twenty-first century, but from the seventh. The earliest known Life of the Virgin, attributed to none other than Maximus the Confessor, was finally translated into English just as our course began. The Annunciation is for Maximus the death blow to phallocentrism: “The Word of God himself, united himself with humanity not through seed but by the power of the Most High and the coming of the Holy Spirit.”

Maximus is straightforward about both patriarchy and its reversal: “There was no end to the servitude and pain and affliction of women. But when the archangel said to the holy Virgin, ‘ the Lord is with you ,’ all the debts of afflictions were erased . . . . There is no longer the lordship of man over you.” Mary emerges in this document almost as a bishop: “The holy mother of Christ was the model and leader of every good activity for men and for women through the grace and support of her glorious king and son . . . . She was a leader and a teacher to the holy apostles.”

And so she remains a leader and teacher to us Protestants as well. Mary, once known as “Destroyer of Heresies,” can similarly protect Evangelicalism from its own set of foes: from Protestant liberalism’s dated conceits; from tired neo-Gnostic assaults; from stubborn divisions that weaken the mission of the Church; from a lingering, unholy patriarchy within the Christian tradition; and from the siren song of secular feminism, which has bargained with the devil on the wrong side of the sanctity of life.

Still, is right doctrine without active piety enough? John Henry Newman did not think so. “I would not give much for that love which is never extravagant,” he wrote in regard to Mary, “which always observes the proprieties, and can move about in perfect good taste.” The formalization of Marian feeling, continued Newman, “is as repulsive as love-letters in a police report.” Which is to say, was our class a mere academic exercise, or did we display actual Marian devotion?

For many of us, it was the latter. Over the semester, our class found itself deeper in the abandoned mine of Protestant Marian piety, deserted without being fully explored. Here, a gem: Marian images saturated the Lutheran churches of Germany, which retained many of her feast days. And there, a ruby: John Donne’s Marian poetry could rival even Dante’s: “What honour can unto that queen be done / Who had your God for father, spouse and son?” And then came the singing.

In an effort to safeguard ourselves from Marian excesses, we began each class session with Scripture. Our method was a corporate recitation of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46:55). After some experimentation, students came to prefer the version Thomas Cranmer inserted in the original Book of Common Prayer. Before long, we had mastered the passage and began to chant it responsively from memory. If I may say so, we got pretty good.

The Magnificat is neither an Akathistos nor an Angelus nor a Salve Regina, those more traditional songs, each being filled with direct address and effusive praise. But it precedes each of them and calls each of them home.

John Keble, who, to Newman’s frustration, never followed him to Rome, precisely articulated what the Magnificat meant to us in his poetic diagnosis of the Protestant Marian condition, “Mother Out of Sight”:

Mother of God, O not in vain,
We learn’d of old thy lowly strain;
Fain in thy shadow would we rest,
And kneel with thee, and call thee
With thee would magnify the
And if thou art not here adored,
Yet seek we day by day the love?
and fear
Which brings thee with all saints
near and more near.

Such was the devotion ascending last semester from within the Evangelical bastion of Wheaton, Illinois. We may not have sung to her, but Mary, our blessed sister, sang with us.

Matthew Milliner is assistant professor of art at Wheaton College.