The Blessed Evangelical Mary
In his History of the Reformation in Scotland, John Knox described an incident from his early life as a Protestant. Having been delivered from "the puddle of papistry," as he called it, he was taken as a prisoner and forced to row in a French galley ship for 19 months.
Soon after the arrival [of the galley ship] at Nantes, a glorious painted Lady was brought in to be kissed and, amongst others, was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said, "Trouble me not; such an idol is a curse; and therefore I will not touch it." The Patron and the Arguesyn, with two officers, having the chief charge of all such matters, said, "Thou shalt handle it"; and so they violently thrust it in his face and put in betwixt his hands; who seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about, he cast it in the river, and said, "Let our Lady now save herself: she is light enough; let her learn to swim!"
Some scholars believe the "Scottishman" involved in this incident was none other than Knox himself. Most evangelical Protestants can relate to this story, for we belong to a tradition of piety decisively shaped by the likes of Knox. We have an almost instinctive distrust of Mary. Why?
First, we find no biblical warrant for the kind of devotion to Mary that flourishes among many of the Catholic faithful. Mary's perpetual virginity (the belief that she had no children after Jesus and remained a virgin throughout her life), immaculate conception (that she was born without the stain of original sin), and bodily assumption (that she was taken body and soul into heaven after she died without seeing corruption) are extrabiblical beliefs that cannot be traced to the earliest historical memory of the church.
To be sure, if God had wanted to raise Mary and take her directly to heaven without her waiting for the general resurrection, he certainly could have done so. We know that God took Elijah into heaven without death. But to declare this teaching an infallible dogma, as Pope Pius XII did in 1950, creates an even deeper divide between Catholics and other Christians. This is why Brother Roger Shutz, the Swiss Protestant founder of the TaizÃ community, felt it necessary to travel to Rome to urge the pope not to take this step. Brother Roger rightly saw that this act would drive Christians further away from one another.
Protestants believe that an undue extolling of Mary obscures, if it does not contradict, the sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ as the unique Savior and only mediator between God and human beings. Recent efforts to have Mary officially recognized as mediatrix of all graces, or as co-redemptrix with Christ himselfthough unsuccessful thus farhave only added to the fear that lifting up Mary can only result in bringing down Jesus.
So the question remains: does Protestantism have a place for the Blessed Virgin Mary or, like Knox of the galleys, must we throw her overboard once and for all? Without compromising the Reformation principles of sola gratia, sola fide, and sola scriptura, can we understand and honor Mary in ways that are scripturally based and evangelically motivated? Are we to be included among those of every generation who call Jesus' mother "blessed"?
Protestants are right to be concerned about these issues, especially when such extreme devotion to Mary remains unchecked at a popular level. But in reacting to Catholic excesses, have we gone to the other extreme? Must nearly everything we say about Mary be couched in the language of dissent and disbelief? The fact is, evangelicals often say less about Mary than the New Testament does. She is seldom mentioned in our sermons or worship services, except for her honorary appearance in the annual Christmas pageant.