What about Mary? Protestants and Marian Devotion

By Byassee, Jason | The Christian Century, December 14, 2004 | Go to article overview

What about Mary? Protestants and Marian Devotion


Byassee, Jason, The Christian Century


The name of the Theotokos expresses the whole mystery of God's saving dispensation.--St. John of Damascus (655-750)

In the doctrine and worship of Mary there is disclosed the one heresy of the Roman Catholic Church which explains all the rest.--Karl Barth (1886-1968)

THERE WOULD NOT seem to be much chance of reconciling these two descriptions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. For John Damascene, a touchstone figure for Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians, calling Mary the theotokos', "Cod-bearer," orprovocatively, "Mother of God," is a thumbnail description of the entire saving work of Christ. The Council of Ephesus in 4:31 codified theotokos as Christian dogma, insisting that anyone who fails to affirm Mary as the Mother of Cod commits a heresy--that of denying that the one who gestated in Mary's womb is God. Such descriptions of Mary vindicated and encouraged popular Christian devotion to Mary, including the invocation of her aid in prayer, the praise of her in liturgy, and the depiction of and devotion to her in icons and statuary.

It is precisely such practices that Karl Barth railed against. For him, as for most heirs of the Reformation, such attention to Mary is an extrabiblical intrusion into Christian faith that deflects attention from Jesus. Devotion to Mary, may well land its practitioners in idolatry, leading them to worship one who is not God, and who called herself merely a humble "servant of the Lord" (Luke 1:38).

Much of what being Protestant has historically meant has involved a protest against the Catholic devotion to Marx. Nevertheless, the Second Vatican Council declared in Lumen Gentium that Mary is a potential ecumenical bridge, a source of the future unity of all Christians. That suggestion might seem either ridiculous or insulting to Protestants. But recently there has been a flurry of publications by Protestants on Mary, works that suggest she could be an ecumenical bridge--or at least that the Protestant aversion to Marian devotion is eroding.

Beverly Roberts Gaventa, a biblical scholar at Prince ton Theological Seminary, has led the charge with Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of Jesus (1995) and with a collection of essays she coedited called Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (2002). Meanwhile, Robert Jenson's monumental two-volume Systematic Theology (1997 and 1999) and another collection of coedited essays, Mary: Mother of God (2004), has given a certain pride of place to the Mother of God.

Church historians of all stripes have long granted that Marian teaching and devotion dates from the earliest days of the church. And they grant that devotion to Mary was not discarded even by the leading Reformation figures Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. The fruit of ecumenical labor on this topic can be seen in such balanced and helpful resources as Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of the Saints (1999), a product of years of dialogue between French Catholics and Protestants that calls for both Catholic and Protestant "conversions" on the subject.

The most interesting new book on the theotokos in terms of its form is Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, by two graduates of the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, one now an evangelical Episcopalian and the other a Catholic convert and professional apologist (2003). Dwight Longenecker (the Catholic) and David Gustafson (a lawyer by trade) manage to defend their positions tenaciously while being gracious toward one another.

Many Protestants who have plunged into the thought and spiritual practice of the ancient church have found a Mary more appealing to them than she was to their forebears. Kathleen Norris, a Protestant participant in Benedictine monastic life, wrote the foreword to the most recent Gaventa book. She notes that she was not familiar enough with the Bible to know where the monks' nightly vespers prayer comes from, and only later learned that the stirring words of the Magnificat come straight from Mary's lips in the scriptures. …

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