A Protestant Thinks about the Blessed Virgin Mary
Talking about Mary can feel dangerous, especially if you are a Protestant who adheres to Protestant orthodoxy. Sure, we sing about Mary at Christmas, feel her pain on Good Friday, and maybe even read a little about her in the gospels. But for most American Protestants, almost any other interaction with Mary is borderline Catholic. So we don’t talk about Mary, we don’t engage with Mary, and we don’t think about Mary. Life seems easier that way. But in truth, this approach is historically and theologically problematic.
Some Protestants are aware that there is more to the story of Mary than American Protestantism often lets on. Some might know that the Protestant reformers, for example, held views on Mary different than most Protestant churches today. Martin Luther affirmed Mary’s divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, and immaculate conception. Likewise, John Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity and espoused (with qualifications) a view of Mary as the “mother of God.” Although these Reformers did not advocate the same robust Marian theology that Rome and the East did in the 16th century, these perspectives are nonetheless quite different than those of their spiritual descendants.
To assume—as many Protestants do—that everything the Church has always believed about Mary should be excoriated as a “Catholic corruption” is simply an error. We must take seriously the biblical and historical insights on who Mary is—and how she is to be approached. Modern Protestants cannot simply be content to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Some Historical Notes
The historical discomfort of contemporary American Protestantism regarding Mary only increases once you engage the early Church, which had some pretty strong things to say about the Blessed Virgin. Jerome’s letter Against Helvidius (c. 383 CE) argues vociferously for Mary’s perpetual virginity. Although the content of this missive makes clear that some Christians did not accept this belief about Mary, Jerome clearly articulates a defense of his thinking—which was apparently fairly widespread—on the truth of Mary’s perpetual virginity.
Similarly, the Protoevangelium of James (2nd-3rd c.) and Maximus the Confessor’s Life of the Virgin (7th c.) indicate that belief in the immaculate conception (the conception of Mary miraculously and without the stain of original sin) was a common viewpoint amongst early Christians. The Sub Tuum Praesidium, written around 200 CE, stands as the earliest invocation of Mary as intercessor: “Beneath your compassion, We take refuge, O Mother of God: do not despise our petitions in time of trouble: but rescue us from dangers, only pure, only blessed one.” And the clearest evidence from the early Church is, of course, the Theotokos controversy that led to the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE.
While Nestorius (who, we must remember, was a bishop before he was a heretic) found calling Mary the “God-bearer” or “mother of God” to be a Christological stretch, even he was eminently comfortable ascribing to Mary a place of high honor as the Christotokos. Ephesus (and more firmly, Chalcedon) made clear that calling Mary the “mother of God” was a Christological statement, as the term conveys the truth that Jesus is truly God enfleshed. In his Letter to the Monks of Egypt, Cyril of Alexandria summarized the orthodox view by saying, “I have been amazed that some are utterly in doubt as to whether or not the Holy Virgin is able to be called the Mother of God. For if our Lord Jesus Christ is God, how should the Holy Virgin who bore him not be the Mother of God?”
Of course, just because some earlier members of the Church believed a particular point of theology does not mean that we should blindly follow their example. But as people called to love God with our minds (Matt. 22:37) and seek truth, we ought to wrestle with this historical data when it comes to questions like this.
How Do We Think about Mary Today?
What does this biblical and historical information mean for us today? Allow me to make three suggestions:
Search the Scriptures. Take very seriously Biblical passages about Mary, including the annunciation and Magnificat (Luke 1:26-56), wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12, esp. 3-5), references to Jesus’ family (Matt. 13:55-57, Mark 6:2-3, Luke 4:22; John 6:42), and Jesus’ words on the cross to Mary and the beloved disciple (John 19:25-27). Prayerfully and thoughtfully consider what these verses say about who Mary is and how she should be viewed.
Honor Mary. Show the Blessed Virgin honor and respect in accordance with her personhood and position. In practice, I have found it helpful to ask myself how I honor other people in like positions of importance, and trying to grant Mary the same sort of honor. Very often, honoring someone today means remembering them, thinking about them, talking about them, and showing them respect in thought, word, and deed. Most practically for me, this has meant being willing to think and talk about Mary using her honorific titles (e.g., Blessed Mother, Blessed Virgin, and Holy Mother).
View Mary as a role model. If Jesus is who He says He is (Lord and Christ), then His mother occupies a unique position in history. As with other individuals who stand out as worthy of our attention in history, Mary should be viewed as an exemplar and role model. She was courageous in the face of what would have been significant societal pressure (Matt. 1:18-25). She was strong when danger threatened the life of her son (Matt. 2:13-15). She shows herself to have been a loving—albeit imperfect (Luke 2:41-51)—mother (John 2:1-12), an appropriate role models for Christian mothers everywhere. Like so many other Biblical and historical saints, Mary serves as a worthy example of what it means to live a life that is honoring to God.
What about you: how do you think about Mary? What are the appropriate boundaries in your mind for thinking about the Blessed Mother?
Image courtesy of Holly Hayes.