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 himself—though unsuccessful thus far—have 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.
In 1925, A. T. Robertson, a noted Southern Baptist New Testament scholar, published a book titled The Mother of Jesus. He wrote, "I have felt for many years that Mary, the mother of Jesus, has not had fair treatment from either Protestants or Catholics … She is the chief mother of the race, and no one should be allowed to take her crown of glory away from her."
If Roman Catholics have deified Mary, Robertson said, evangelicals have subjected her to "cold neglect." We have been afraid to praise and esteem Mary for her full worth, he said, lest we be accused of leanings and sympathy with Catholics. Robertson is right. It is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation, and to do so precisely as evangelicals. We may not be able to recite the rosary or kneel down before statues of Mary, but we need not throw her overboard. Let me suggest five ways for us to think biblically about the mother of Jesus—the Blessed Evangelical Mary.
Spotless Bride and Pilgrim Sinner
Mary stands, along with John the Baptist, at a unique intersection between the old and new covenants. Mary's role points backward. In the gospels, she is the culmination of a prophetic lineage of pious mothers—Sarah, Rachel, Hannah (and not forgetting Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth who appear in Matthew's genealogy).
In one sense, any one of them, as members of God's people, Israel, could have been the mother of the Messiah. When Mary cradles the baby Jesus in the Temple in the presence of Anna and Simeon, we see brought together the advent of the Lord's Messiah, and the long-promised and long-prepared-for "consolation of Israel."
But Mary's role also points forward. As the Daughter of Zion, Mary also represents the eschatological and redeemed people of God. But it is not an easy redemption. In the Old Testament, the Daughter of Zion is depicted as being in the labor of childbirth: "Writhe and groan, O Daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail" (Micah 4:10). "For I heard a cry as of a woman in travail, anguish as of one bringing forth her first child, the cry of the Daughter of Zion gasping for breath" (Jer. 4:31).
By reading such texts typologically, the early church depicted Mary as the new Eve, the one through whose obedience the disobedience of the first Eve was reversed.
Yet from an evangelical perspective, one more thing must be said. In the Old Testament, Israel is not only portrayed as a virgin daughter, but also as an unfaithful bride. "Like a woman unfaithful to her husband, so you have been unfaithful to me, O house of Israel," the Lord declares in Jeremiah 2:20. The waywardness of Israel is contrasted to the covenant fidelity of God: "Return, faithless people," declares the Lord, "for I am your husband. I will choose you … and bring you to Zion" (Jer. 3:14). It is hard to relate this theme to Mary if we consider her immaculately conceived and sinless from birth.
But there are at least hints in the gospels of another Mary—one who as David Steinmetz put it, "does not understand what God's purposes are, who intervenes when she ought to keep silent, who interferes and tries to thwart the purpose of God, who pleads the ties of filial affection when she should learn faith" (cf. Mark 3:21, 31-35).
Seen in this light, Mary appears as both faithful and faithless, obedient and interfering, perceptive and opaque, simul iustus et peccator, "at once a just person and a sinner." This Mary fulfills a fuller typology of Old Testament Israel, just as she also prefigures the New Testament church, a community which is both the spotless bride of Christ by virtue of God's unmerited grace and, at the same time, a company of pilgrim sinners who need to pray the Lord's Prayer every day: forgive us our sins.
Virgin Mother of a Man
Especially since the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s, belief in the virgin birth has been a test of evangelical orthodoxy; its denial is still likely to get one fired from most evangelical schools. Despite fervently advocating this doctrine, however, evangelicals may have missed two important aspects of its meaning.
First, evangelicals have defended the miraculous character of the virgin birth because they see it undergirding the deity of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth teaching arose in the early church from a different concern: namely, as a way to affirm that the Son of God was truly human. "Away with that lowly manger, those dirty swaddling clothes," Marcion had cried. Marcion denied that Jesus had ever been humanly born at all. How could one so deeply divine be associated with messy diapers and afterbirth?
Against all such antimaterialism, Ignatius of Antioch declared in one of the early creedal expressions of the Christian faith that Jesus was "truly born, truly lived, truly died." That word truly resounds like a gong throughout the writings of the second century.
In defending the virgin birth as a supernatural reality, evangelicals have frequently been more concerned with Mary's virginity than with her maternity. But Mary was not merely the point of Christ's entrance into the world—the channel through which he passed as water flows through a pipe. She was the mother who cared for the physical needs of Jesus the boy. She nursed him at her breast and nurtured and taught him the ways of the Lord. Doubtless she was the one who taught him to memorize the Psalms and to pray, even as he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others (Luke 2:52).
Evangelicals can and should join with other Christians in celebrating the virgin Mary as theotokos: or as historian Jaroslav Pelikan translated the classic theological word, as "the one who gave birth to the one who is God." This title takes us back to the debates about Christology in the fifth century.
The teacher Nestorius did not like to give Mary the title theotokos. He preferred to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ." This is because he understood the divinity and humanity of Christ to function as two separate compartments not intrinsically related to one another. Believing that this portrayed a schizophrenic kind of Christ who could hardly be understood as one undivided person, the Council of Ephesus (431) declared Nestorius's teaching heretical and recognized the title theotokos, God-bearer, as an orthodox way to describe Mary.
The purpose of the title was not so much to exalt Mary as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her son. For this reason, both Luther and Zwingli strongly affirmed this title. While Calvin had reservations about the way "mother of God" (as theotokos was rendered in Latin) could be misunderstood, he too embraced the doctrinal truth this title was meant to convey. Most evangelicals today would agree with Calvin in finding "mother of God" language strange, if not inappropriate, but we should not miss the crucial Christological issue at stake in this ancient debate. We use God-bearer language to describe the mother of Jesus, not in order to exalt Mary unduly but to confess Christ completely, to assert that the beloved Son of the Father was "born of a woman"—God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16).
Handmaiden of Faith
Contemporary Protestants are wise to listen to both the Reformers' critique of Marian piety and their praise of Mary, the handmaiden of the Lord. Luther and all the Reformers strongly protested against the "abominable idolatry" of medieval Mariology. This is not too strong a term for some of the beliefs that prevailed at that time. For example, Mary was often portrayed as placating her stern son with milk from her breasts. This was one reason why Mary's milk, supposedly preserved in reliquaries throughout Europe, was so highly valued.
Mary was seen as the one who intervened with Christ on behalf of sinners—she was a mediator with the Mediator. In this vein, various texts of Scripture were rewritten with a Marian slant: 1 Corinthians 15:22 became, "as in Eve all die, so also in Mary shall all be made alive." And John 3:16 was rendered: "Mary so loved the world … that she gave her only-begotten son for the salvation of the world." And, anticipating feminist liturgies half a millennium later, the Lord's Prayer began: "Our Mother who art in heaven, give us our daily bread."
This kind of exaggerated devotion, the Reformers held, does not praise the virgin mother of God but in fact slanders her by making her into an idol. Nowhere is the Protestant reaction to Marian excess more cogently put than in Philipp Melanchthon's "Apology of the Augsburg Confession" (1530):
Some of us have seen a certain monastic theologian … urge this prayer upon a dying man, "Mother of grace, protect us from the enemy and receive us in the hour of death." Granted that blessed Mary prays for the church, does she receive souls in death, does she overcome death, does she give life? What does Christ do if Mary does all this? … The fact of the matter is that in popular estimation the blessed virgin has replaced Christ. People have invoked her, trusted in her mercy, and sought to appease Christ as though he were not a propitiator but only a terrible judge and avenger.
Yet alongside this critique the Reformers expressed a positive devotion to Mary. Both Zwingli and Bullinger defended the Ave Maria not as a prayer to Mary but as an expression of praise in honor of her. (In fact, many medieval versions of the Ave Maria did not include the phrase most repugnant to Reformers: "pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death.")
Calvin too refers to Mary as "the treasurer of grace," the one who kept faith as a deposit. Through her, Calvin says, we have received this precious gift from God. "She deserves to be called blessed, for God has accorded her a singular distinction, to prepare his son for the world, in whom she was spiritually reborn." In 1521, Luther, sequestered in the Wartburg, prepared for press his commentary on the Magnificat. Mary, he wrote, is the embodiment of God's unmerited grace.
She is called blessed not because of her virginity or even her humility, but because she was chosen as the person and place where God's glory would enter most deeply into the human story. "I am only the workshop in which God operates," Luther has Mary say. As T. S. Eliot would say in Four Quartets, Mary is "the place of impossible union where past and future are conquered and reconciled in incarnation."
Above all, the Reformers recognize Mary as the one who hears the Word of God and responds in faith, and thus is justified by faith alone. Mary was a disciple of Christ before she was his mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived. Mary's faith too is not the achievement of merit, but the gift of divine grace. This means that when we praise and love Mary, it is God whom we praise for his gracious favor to his chosen handmaid.
Honoring Mary certainly doesn't come naturally to Protestants. For complex historical reasons, to be a Protestant has meant not to be a Roman Catholic. To worship Jesus means not to honor Mary, even if such honor is biblically grounded and theologically sound. But, as the Reformers were quick to point out, Mary is the embodiment of grace alone and faith alone, and thus contemporary Protestants, along with the Reformers, should highly extol Mary in our theology and worship.
In 1886 A. Stewart Walsh published Mary: The Queen of the House of David and Mother of Jesus. A magnum opus of 626 pages, it reads somewhat like an extensive Harlequin romance of Mary's life. Highly romanticized and fictionalized, it is a paean of praise to motherhood in general, of which Mary is the chief exemplar. Near the end of this fanciful work, however, there is this plea for a proper evangelical recognition of Mary:
No friend of the divine Son can dethrone Him by honoring her aright: indeed, as He Himself did. It was of Him she spoke when exclaiming: My soul doth rejoice in God my Savior! Can one truly honor Him and despise and ignore the woman who gave Him human birth? Can one have His mind and forget her for whom love was uppermost to Him in His supreme last hours? Can one honor her aright and yet dethrone the son whom she enthroned? She bore Him, then lived for Him. She honored herself in bearing Him, and was His mother, His teacher and His disciple. He revered her, she worshiped Him.
Pointers to Jesus
The New Testament portrays Mary as among the last at the cross, and among the first in the Upper Room. She bridges not only the Old and New Testaments at Jesus' birth, but also the close of his earthly ministry and the birth of the church. It is significant that in Eastern iconography, Mary is never depicted alone, but always with Christ, the apostles, and the saints.
At the foot of the cross, Mary represents the church as a faithful remnant. Already before the Reformation, Mary was seen as the archetype of the remnant church: her faithfulness alone kept the church intact during Christ's suffering on the cross.
When all of the disciples (including Peter!) had fled in fear, Mary remained true to Christ and his word. Her fidelity unto the Cross showed that the true faith could be preserved in one sole individual, and thus Mary became the mother of the (true remnant) church. This is why the Reformers honored Mary.
Today, perhaps more than ever, the image of Mary under the cross speaks to the church, which is increasingly the persecuted church. Some interpreters have found an allusion to Mary in the book of Revelation's depiction of the pregnant woman pursued and persecuted by an enormous red dragon (Rev. 12:1-5). Whether or not this is a correct interpretation, there is no doubt that the Mary of the Gospels stands in solidarity with all believers in Jesus who also live under the shadow of the Cross, including many whose lives are at risk today because of their witness for Christ.
My favorite religious painting shows Mary standing under the cross. It is the famous painting by Mathias GrÃ¼newald (above) from the Isenheim Altarpiece produced on the eve of the Reformation. A copy of this painting hung over the desk of Karl Barth.
The painting shows John the Baptist pointing with his long bony finger to Jesus writhing in the agonies of death. In faded red letters, in Latin, are the words "He must increase, I must decrease." John points not to himself nor to anyone else, but to Christ alone. This is the task of all true ministers of the Gospel, indeed of every true Christian. We say to those we meet, "Don't believe in me, believe in him. Don't follow me, follow him. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The Blessed Virgin Mary is also a prominent figure in this painting. She too stands under the cross—not only with John the beloved disciple (as usually depicted), but also with John the Baptist. She joins him in pointing others to Jesus, representing the church in its primary call to discipleship and witness.
This is the Mary Protestants can and should embrace. We do not think of the mother of God, an object of devotion by herself, in isolation from her son. We need not go through Mary in order to get to Jesus, but we can join with Mary in pointing others to him. This, more than anything else, will honor her as she honored him. As the Anglican poet-chaplain of World War I, G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, expressed it in his poem "Good Friday Falls on Lady Day":
And has our Lady lost her place?
Does her white star burn dim?
Nay, she has lowly veiled her face
Because of Him.
Men give to her the jewelled crown,
And robe with broidered rim,
But she is fain to cast them down
Because of Him.
She claims no crown from Christ apart,
Who gave God life and limb,
She only claims a broken heart
Because of Him.
Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and an executive editor of CT. This article has been adapted from a longer essay in the forthcoming Mary: Mother of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten (Eerdmans, 2004).
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Also posted today, Inside CT: Birth Stories.
Other CT articles on Mary include:
The Serene Contradiction of the Mother of Jesus | Why I reclaimed the virgin mother as a significant figure in my faith (Dec. 23, 2002)
There's Something About Mary | Beliefs about Jesus' virgin mother vary between Christians of the early church, Roman Catholics, and modern-day Protestants, but this model of total trustful devotion has lessons to teach all Christians. (Dec. 23, 2002)
Reuniting Mary and Martha | Theology is women's work, too. (Nov. 01, 2001)
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary? | Experiencing Marian devotion as a Protestant (Jan. 29, 2001)
Mary, Mother of Darth Vader | NBC's "Mary, Mother of Jesus" tries to make Mary more noble, but only by making everyone else worse. (Nov. 1999)
Let Mary Be | Why the pope shouldn't give Mary that which belongs to her Son. (Dec. 8, 1997)
Mary Rejoicing, Rachel Weeping | How shall we reconcile the glorious birth of the Savior with the bloody deaths of the boys of Bethlehem? (Dec. 8, 1997)
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