Christian History Home > Issue 83 > Recovering a Protestant Mary
Recovering a Protestant Mary
A conversation with Timothy George
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School, an interdenominational, evangelical theological school within a Baptist university (Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama), and an executive editor of Christianity Today. He is author of the article "The Blessed Evangelical Mary" in the December 2003 issue of Christianity Today, which is a short version of a chapter from Mary: Mother of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten (Eerdmans, 2004).
In your article, you suggest that Protestant believers have cut themselves off too hastily from Mary, a biblical figure who was at the forefront of the church's imagination from the post-apostolic period through the Reformation and beyond. Could you say a little about this?
I take my bearings from the Reformers. On the one hand, they were very critical of what they considered Marian excesses, and they talked at length about some of the ways in which Mary was given too much veneration, too much almost idolatrous worship, substituting her for Christ himself in some ways at the popular devotional level. On the other hand, they themselves had a very explicit devotion to Mary, especially Luther but also Zwingli and Calvin in their own way. They wanted to give honor to Mary. They wanted to remind the church that she was to be called blessed in every generation. They honored her as the vehicle of God's grace in giving Jesus to the world and an example of justification by faith alone, because she believed so purely in the gospel. I think we need to go back and reclaim something of the Reformers' more positive view of Mary, insofar as it really is biblical. It really is a part of our own Protestant heritage.
How did Martin Luther's regard for Mary manifest itself in particular beliefs or practices?
Luther continued to celebrate three of the great Marian festivals-Purification, Annunciation, and Visitation. He also continued to use the Ave Maria prayer; that is, the first part of it: "Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb." The latter part, "Pray for us sinners in the hour of our death," actually came later, added by the Carthusians after the Reformation. All the Reformers, even the relatively radical Zwingli, continued to say the first part of the Ave Maria. Of course, they did not say it as a prayer to Mary—they made that very clear—but as an acknowledgement of the fact that God's grace was so manifest in the virginal conception and her giving birth to Jesus.
Also, Mary is prominent in some of the hymns that come from the Lutheran Reformation. And if you take it to the next century, obviously this continued with, for example, Bach's Magnificat and so forth surrounding both the Advent of Christ and also Mary at the cross. So in worship, in liturgy, in theology, despite the Reformers' critique, Mary continued to have a prominent place for early Protestants—I think an appropriately prominent place.
Sometimes there would also be religious plays. This is the one part of the Marian devotion that we still practice, in a way, with the Christmas pageant. That is really a remnant of medieval Marian devotion: it enters the Christian tradition with St. Francis's devotion to the crèche (pp. 22, 24). So today, even we good old-fashioned Southern Baptists always have a Christmas pageant: one of the young ladies dresses up like Mary; sometimes she carries a live baby. This is a good thing, to keep this part of the tradition. But sometimes that's the only acknowledgement that we have, and even that is often done without serious reflection on the meaning of the Incarnation, which is what Advent and Christmas are all about.
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