Honouring Mary as Protestants

Today was the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.  I probably would never have noticed the fact except that we happened to attend the local Anglo-Catholic church yesterday, and they were keen to make the most of the occasion.  Ironically, we had attended the same church precisely two years ago for the first time, venturing through its doors on the Feast of the Assumption in 2009, and finding ourselves rather alarmed when, at the end of the service, everyone turned toward us (we happened to be seated right by the statue of the Virgin) and began reciting the Ave Maria.  The experience prompted me to reflect a bit on the practice of praying to saints generally, and the precise nature of the Protestant objection thereto.* 

This time, I wanted to reflect more specifically on the practice of Marian devotion (not, though, on the dogma of the Assumption specifically), and how Protestants ought to approach it.  We Protestants certainly have a problem when it comes to Mary–so allergic are we to any sign of Marian devotion that we flip out and run the other way at any sign of it, including thoroughly orthodox phrases like “Mother of God” and “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  

The first phrase is of course part of the touchstone of orthodoxy the Definition of Chalcedon, and is the proper translation of Theotokos–the preferred Protestant version (for those who even bother to recite it) is “God-bearer,” but this unfortunately names not the orthodox doctrine, but the heresy of Nestorius that Theotokos was coined to contest. (Note that I do not count myself an expert in 5th-century Christological controversies, but this is my understanding based on what I have read on the subject; feel free to shed light on this if you have any.)  To call Mary the “Mother of God” was a truth that many Christians actually gave their blood and their lives to defend, and yet we Protestants have casually tossed it aside because it sounds icky and Catholic.   

Likewise, the first part of the Ave Maria is of course straight from the Gospel of Luke: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you…. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  And yet I found that the words caught in my throat during the service, as if I was saying something idolatrous.  I daresay most Protestants could not even imagine reciting these words, unless they happened upon them while reading aloud Luke ch. 1.


In this, as in so many other such things, there are two warring impulses that it is hard to reconcile–the call to purity and the call to unity.  On the one hand, we might be inclined to say that even those sorts of Marian devotion that are not in themselves idolatrous nevertheless are so prone to become so, and so often have, that we must lean in the opposite direction, and steer clear of the whole notion of honouring Mary, lest we should thereby dishonour God.  Therefore we must be on guard even against forms of devotion that on paper seem legitimate, lest there lurk within them an idolatrous spirit.  On the other hand, we might say that we are supposed to seek unity with Christian brothers and sisters in everything that we possibly can do, in everything that is not in itself wrong, and that includes seeking unity with the Church of past generations.  For almost as long as the Church has existed, it has held Mary in a place of special honour, and seen fit to show that honour liturgically.  No doubt Marian devotion has taken many harmful forms, but should we not defer to the consensus of many centuries of Christians that some kind of Marian devotion is appropriate and desirable?  Therefore we should seek to engage, together with Catholics, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholics, and long centuries of Christian practice, in whatever forms of Marian devotion that are not necessarily heretical, idolatrous, or what have you, and try to assume the best of forms that seem dubious or ambiguous.  

Having been so long exposed to the dominance of the first impulse, which on so many issues has had such a destructive Gnosticizing effect on Protestant churches, I am naturally inclined to try to give freer rein to the second impulse, but of course, balance is necessary.  So I wanted to think through a little more specifically what it is that might trouble us in a service like the one I attended on Sunday.  What forms of honouring Mary might prove to be idolatrous or heretical, etc., and as for the ones that don’t, is there any reason not to participate in them? 


First, though, let’s ask what the point should be of honouring Mary at all.  What do we mean by this notion?  Protestants are likely to react against the entire idea, for to honour Mary–a creature–seems like it must necessarily be a way of dishonouring God.  God only should be honoured, and no mere creature!  But this is a product of that Puritan impulse that I have recently been harping upon, the impulse which insists that grace is a zero-sum game**, that God can only be honoured at human expense; that mankind must be correspondingly humbled as God is exalted.  But of course, this is not what Scripture celebrates.  Scripture celebrates the fact that God has condescended to us, and lifted us up to share in his glory.  To celebrate the glories of an Abraham or a David or a Mary, or, most of all, the Church of which Mary has always been understood to be a symbol, is not to honour them for what they are in themselves, but to honour them as sites of God’s redemptive grace, as testaments to the incredible goodness of God that has seen fit to bestow honour on his creatures, to work in and through them as instruments of his purpose, and to raise them up to share with him in heavenly glory.  Rightly understood, then, this is what honouring Mary should be all about. 

 For where else do we find such a stupendous display of the mystery of grace?  In Mary, God took a lowly maiden who had done nothing at all but show faith in his promises, and not only made her the means for the redemption of the whole world, but actually came and made his home within her!  As such, she is a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, the Church, which God has, through no merit of our own, made the agent of his redemptive purposes toward the world, and in whom he mysteriously dwells in the person of his Son.  In celebrating Mary, and her role in the history of redemption, we are not detracting from God, but rather celebrating the stupendousness of his grace; in honouring her, we are of course honouring Him.  After all, to call Mary “blessed” is of course to make the statement that she has been blessed–by God–and that we are in awe of the bounty of His blessings.

This is, of course, a rather Protestant way of describing it all.  No doubt a great many Catholics could agree with a great deal of what I just said, but certainly dogmas like the Immaculate Conception, the language of Co-mediatrix, and such teachings tend to obscure this notion that Mary is not honoured for anything special she did or anything special she was in herself, but for God’s grace exhibited to her and through her.  The Protestant suspicion that to honour Mary is not to honour her as a creaturely object of God’s benevolence, but as a quasi-transcendent subject somehow alongside God, is certainly not unfounded, having a basis not merely in bastardised Catholic practice but also in Catholic dogmatics.  

But if we are following the second impulse–the impulse of unity–then perhaps we will, even while holding such problematic notions and forms of devotion at arm’s length, heartily embrace formulations and practices that celebrate Mary as object and instrument of grace, Mary as a symbol of God’s grace toward all of us, Mary as the locus of the mystery of the Incarnation.


In that case, we should have no problem with hymns like this (which I sang on Sunday): 

Virgin-born, we bow before thee:
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.
Blessed was the breast that fed thee;
blessed was the hand that led thee;
blessed was the parent’s eye
that watched thy slumbering infancy. 

Blessed she by all creation,
who brought forth the world’s salvation,
and blessed they, for ever blest,
who love thee most and serve thee best.
Virgin-born, we bow before thee;
blessed was the womb that bore thee;
Mary, Mother meek and mild,
blessed was she in her Child.

Or even with hymns like:

Sing we of the blessed Mother who received the angel’s word, 
And obedient to the summons bore in love the infant Lord; 
Sing we of the joys of Mary at whose breast the child was fed 
Who is Son of God eternal and the everlasting Bread. 

[it continues in this vein for three more verses]

Or should we?  I expect most of us still would be super-nervous about these, especially the second. For to honour Mary theologically in the way I described might seem like one thing; to honour her liturgically quite another.  Indeed, Protestants have often made this sort of distinction.  We claim to have a high doctrine of creation, but many Protestants–at least Reformed Presbyterians, don’t like creation to play much of a role in worship, purging our churches of any kind of imagery.  While of course part of this might be legitimate avoidance of idolatry, more of it seems to be part of the same old Puritan fear that to honour God through his creations is to dishonour him.  More theologically sound, I think, is the kind of worship that a hymn like “All Creatures of Our God and King” displays–praising God through praising his works.   

And if we can worship him by praising his inanimate works like the sun and the moon, then why can’t we praise his infinitely greater works like the Virgin Mary and her story?  Again, perhaps it seems legitimate in principle, but we are liable to be suspicious that such worship will quickly have the effect of making the Virgin an object, not an avenue, of worship.  Certainly in some Catholic churches, where even devotion that might be prima facie legitimate is part of worship on a daily or weekly basis, this is a serious cause for concern. (Of course, I should add that based on my limited experience, most ordinary Catholic worship services do not feature displays of Marian devotion.)  But I’m not sure that this would be a fair objection for a church that merely sings such hymns a couple times a year on stipulated feast days, like the one where I was worshipping.  


Okay, so maybe we could justify all this thus far, and thus, for the sake of unity, and of respect for the historic Church, we should be happy to participate in this kind of worship.  But what about singing or praying to Mary?  After all, while it might’ve been fine for the angel to say “Hail Mary” or Elizabeth to say “Blessed are you among women,” they were looking at Mary when they said it.  We aren’t.  So why should we be addressing her in the second person singular in worship?  Isn’t that something we only do to God?  This seems quite a natural concern to have, and it does feel like you’ve crossed over some barrier when you go from saying “Sing we of the blessed Mother” to actually singing to the blessed Mother.  On the other hand, it is not true that our hymns are exclusively addressed to God.  A great many hymns are worded so that they are addressing one another, the communion of saints (e.g., off the top of my head, “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come”), or even addressing ourselves (“Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”).  In fact, “All Creatures of Our God and King,” mentioned above, goes so far as to address the inanimate creation directly, calling on “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” to praise God, and praising God for them.  This being the case, we may reasonably ask what is wrong with singing 

“Praise, O Mary, praise the Father, Praise thy Saviour and thy Son, 
Praise the everlasting Spirit, who hath made thee ark and throne;
O’er all creatures high exalted, lowly praise the Three in One.” (At least, assuming–the poetry is ambiguous–that it is the Three in One that is “o’er all creatures high exalted,” not Mary herself.)

In a context like this, the second-person singular can be understood as a poetic invocation no more polytheistic than the invocation of “Brother Sun.”  But of course, it often goes further than this.  Most Marian devotion is not merely poetically invoking her, but genuinely praying to her–or, at any rate, asking her to pray for us.  Of course, as I wrote two years ago, there is not necessarily any idolatry or heresy in the notion that we could call upon some deceased saint and ask them to pray for us, though we Protestants might well doubt whether there was any way they could hear us, and suppose that the practice, imputing to the dead in Christ godlike powers of prayer-hearing, would certainly lend itself to idolatry. So, while not wanting to consider all such “prayers” ipso facto idolatry, I would tend to personally draw the line here, and stop short of joining the congregation in “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.”

And then, of course, even beyond this are prayers or hymns to Mary that speak of her as someone not just with power to pray for us, but with power that sounds like it should be Christ’s alone–as in one anthem that the choir sang, which was mercifully in Latin: “Honour her that she may free thee from thy many sins.  Call on her, lest the storm of sins overtake thee.”  


When such genuinely idolatrous language is present in the service, it is of course reasonable to ask whether we ought not just to steer as clear as possible from the whole shady business, instead of going along as far as conscience permits.  On the other hand, it certainly seems that Protestants have impoverished their faith by completely excising from it any real consideration of Mary, and the disregard this shows for the faith of the early Church does not boost our credibility when we claim to be recovering that faith.  Finding the appropriate balance is sure to prove a difficult task, but continuing to neglect that task is not a responsible option.  


*You can read my post on prayers to the saints (though as what I say here suggests, I have retreated a bit fromt the ground I tried to stake out then) here.  

** For more on “the Puritan impulse” see here.

53 thoughts on “Honouring Mary as Protestants

  1. Kent Will

    You're dead on that Protestants have overreacted by downplaying rather than honouring Mary, and I'm fairly comfortable with where you drew the lines in your post above. My only concern would be a practical one, the mechanics of reintroducing Protestants to Mary. While it sounds great to talk about unity and respect for tradition, I suspect that anything but a very gradual and careful change would be more productive of Protestant-on-Protestant schism. Also, how about the "weaker brethren" who might be emboldened by our knowledge into violating their consciences, and so actually commit idolatry with legitimate, non-idolatrous forms? The scholars can theorize all they want, but I'll bet most pastors would find this sort of reform way beyond what's possible in their congregations today–and I hope they wouldn't try, for the sake of unity and orthodoxy.


  2. "God-bearer" is a faithful and orthodox translation of theotokos. The Nestorian preference was to stop with Christotokos (Christ-bearer). "Tokos" means one who brings forth, delivers, or produces offspring. "Mother" would metera. Directly related is just how much equivocation goes on with these words. "Mother of God" can be defined in an unorthodox manner or in an orthodox manner, depending on what is meant. So too with "full of grace." Even the term "hail" is routinely given a more religious/devotional connotation that it strictly calls for. So much of the hesitation and controversy is not over the mere locution, but rather the illocution and perlocution. Protestant theory would also want to distinguish between liturgical speech/actions and other speech/actions. Praising Mary is fine in many senses, but when such is made a part of the liturgy the dangers arise. You recognize in that last stanza of verse the possibility of setting Mary up above the rest of creation. I would venture to say that many common worshippers would also fall into including her in the list of persons to be praised alongside of Father, Son, and Spirit.And finally the overall RC notion of grace has truly done a disservice to Mary by requiring her to be some different kind of human. She's born apart from original sin, cannot have sex, etc. The Protestant program is seeking to humanize her once again, and in doing so, bestow upon her a great honor. Protestants could easily include Mary in the Te Deum as one of the parties praising God without any trouble. It is curious, however, that she wasn't included in the original.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks for the helpful clarifications and insights, Steven. If "God-bearer" is legitimate and orthodox, then that's certainly comforting to hear. I certainly do recall reading someone (not a Catholic, I don't think) arguing rather pointedly to the contrary, but perhaps they had an axe to grind. Regarding locution, illocution, and perlocution, I think that's precisely right. My question, of course, is whether, recognising that someone may be illegitimately using or understanding a locution that is in itself legitimate, we should refuse to join with them lest we share in their corruption, or if we should, for the sake of unity and charity, join together with them, putting an orthodox construction on words and practices to the fullest extent possible. Singing a hymn about Mary is merely one example of this much broader problem, that I've run into many times. For instance, a great many Protestants would say that you should never attend a Catholic Mass, since for them it is an idolatrous celebration of transubstantiation, a re-sacrifice of Christ, etc., and their evil intent perverts the whole liturgical action, so you should be no part of it. Or, if you must attend for some reason, you shouldn't partake. Aside from the issue that some of these accusations are quite overblown when you actually look at current Catholic eucharistic teaching, I tend to take issue with the whole logic (which is often used to condemn any participation in "liberal" services as well). If the words and actions of the liturgy are in themselves orthodox and non-idolatrous, or readily capable of being understood that way, then I'm inclined to say that one should be happy to participate, ensuring that one's own heart is pure, and leaving any misunderstandings of other worshippers as a matter between them and God. (As you might imagine, this inclination got me into some trouble during my Moscow days.) Kent, thanks for the helpful comment. As the above answer to Steven suggests, my main concern was not so much with how much Protestant churches should try to reintroduce legitimate forms of Marian devotion (or whatever the right noun is), but with how much Protestant individuals should be willing to participate in, or at least tolerantly accept, such things when done by other churches. Your question does raise, as you point out, a bunch of other issues. Showing catholicity can have very un-catholic results if you do it in front of people who have no interest in showing catholicity. If displays of solidarity with one group of churches are seen as betrayals by another group, then unity is in no way fostered. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that one should never act in such a way that will cause offence, just as Christ did not hesitate to offend Pharisees by refusing to be as exclusive as them. But in general, one shouldn't alienate one set of "weaker brethren" (arch-Protestants) by seeking too hastily to come alongside other "weaker brethren" (those disposed to some kind of Marian devotion). In any case, the decision about when it's important to expand a narrow-minded congregation's horizons, even if it means ruffling some feathers, and when it's important to work within a non-ideal status quo, to avoid provoking schism (on any issue, not just this one, of course), is one that will vary on a congregation-by-congregation basis, and requires enormous pastoral wisdom. Just one of the reasons that I've had little trouble in concluding I'm not called to pastoral ministry!


  4. Yes, well, I still do believe the old charges against Rome and think she has only managed to "improve" by adopting a policy of ambiguity and liberality of which isn't likely to hold. But that's for another day and another conversation.


  5. Bradley

    …a great many Protestants would say that you should never attend a Catholic Mass, since for them it is an idolatrous celebration of transubstantiation [….] Some of these accusations are quite overblown when you actually look at current Catholic eucharistic teaching.I'm with you on the practical aspects of this. I have no problem per se in attending a Catholic Mass, or even partaking in it, if they would let me. I don't believe I would be contaminated by their idolatrous bent during the worship.Nevertheless, I do recognize that they commit plenty of idolatry in this area…perhaps not so much during the Mass as after it. How does current Catholic eucharistic teaching undermine the tradition of transubstantiation? I'm not quite sure what you're referring to, and obviously I'd like to learn more. As far as I'm aware, my very limited experience (with 4 different Catholic friends in 3 different states) is that Catholics literally worship the bread and wine as if it were god: praying to it, bowing to it, gazing upon it, scheduling time to spend with it, etc. How on earth is that not idolatry? What do current RC teachings have to say against that?


  6. Brad,A couple of points:The difficulty Protestants have with the term "God Bearer" is that they often say it in a heretical Nestorian way. Often it is taken as synecdoche, but this is heretical–and as declared to be so by an Ecumenical Council–II Constantinople. God freely willed that the Logos be twice begotten, once of the Father and once of the Virgin the Theotokos. As the council says: "If anyone does not confess that God the Word was twice begotten, the first before all time from the Father, non-temporal and bodiless, the other in the last days when he came down from the heavens and was incarnate by the holy, glorious, God-bearer, ever-virgin Mary, and born of her, let him be anathema."For this reason, she is rightly, and truly, called "fountain of life" because precisely, the One she poured forth is Life. And likewise the verse you quoted is precisely correct in saying she is exalted above all creatures–though this too can be taken heretically. It is not chiefly that because she is mother of God she has been exalted above all creatures, but that precisely in being God bearer she is above all creatures. The problem with the first formulation (which is common) is that it acts as if there is something greater than Christ to which she can be exalted. Rather, whatever exaltation she has, it is precisely in being mother of God (and all this entails throughout time), for no exaltation is greater than the Logos Himself.Second, as Steven said, "Mother of God" is not a translation of "theotokos" but of the Latin translations from that time "Mater Dei" ("Dei Genetrix" was also common).Third, you should check out Jenson's essay on the Theotokos here (his article is, I believe, complete): http://books.google.com/books?id=hiSzedqyGVQC&printsec=frontcover&dq=jenson+mary+mother+of+god&hl=en&src=bmrr&ei=phRMTpGQHOnjiALJrPGpAQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=book-thumbnail&resnum=1&ved=0CDEQ6wEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false


  7. Thanks Brad (and all other commentators) for a very helpful and illuminating discussion.My own two pence worth is to note that there has traditionally been a distinction between adoration/worship/latreia and veneration/honour/douleia. The former is reserved for God alone; the latter may be shown to those to whom honour is due (Romans 13.7 – though the term here is timè and I'm not sure of its relation to douleia).As for prayers to the dead, I have no problem (and think it is important to recognise) that we pray with the dead (as the Te Deum suggests, and is also implied by, say, Rev 6.9-11, even if this is metaphorically with them) and even about the dead (as many of the BCP collects model). I even think that certain kinds of prayers for the dead may be justified (for instance, asking that God would keep them until resurrection), but can we pray to the dead? Certainly, the scriptural and ancient liturgical practice of addressing parts of creation in order to summon them into the praise of God (e.g. Ps 147) could be extended to the dead (who are still creatures, after all). Is this prayer? Perhaps here it becomes a matter of definition. If prayer is simply invocation, then I certainly accept that we can invoke the dead (under certain constraints of course – we are not calling upon them to speak to us, but to share our praise for the Creator and Resurrector). Can we request that they pray for us? Why does this imply a divine power (as the post suggests)? Of course there are various Catholic dogmas about the state of the blessed as opposed to those believers who experience purgatory which I do not share. If we are to address the dead, then let us not restrict our discourse to a super-spiritual subsection thereof, but acknowledge that all those who die in the Lord are held in his grace.Yet even acknowledging this, we still ask: in what sense are our invocations received by the dead? And here we get into speculative theology of the intermediate state, being asked to adjudicate on matters such as soul sleep and the experience of the faithful departed prior to the resurrection, matters on which the scriptures do not give a fulsome picture. Cranmer's Homilies rule out prayers for and to the dead, but the logic is based on an anthropological dualism that I don't share. With much hesitation, I am inclined to disagree with Cranmer on this, at least until someone convinces me otherwise. Personally, I don't invoke the dead. But I am not sure that at the moment I am willing to correct those who may do so. I may wish to criticise various aspects of how this is done, but whether it ought never be done under any circumstances, I am not yet persuaded.Why does it matter how we treat the dead? Because the sixth commandment tells us "honour your father and mother that it may go well with you in the land". Most commentators have taken this command to be considerably broader than merely applying to one's parents, but to imply a respect for those who have gone before and on whose shoulders we sit.I also have a hunch that how we treat the dead is not unrelated to how we treat those who are not yet born. Excluding either group from our moral community is a form of chronological myopia or snobbery.I would love to hear any further reflections on these matters, as I feel significantly under-formed on them.


  8. I myself am strongly in favor of prayers for the dead. When someone dies, we do not thereby cease to be concerned about them–particularly, immediately after death, we are especially concerned for them. And the Divine command is to present our cares and worries to God. Historically, prayers for the dead were caught up with the doctrine of Purgatory, so it was believed prayers for the dead were to get them out of Purgatory. But you can simply reject Purgatory, and still pray for the Resurrection–as I believe N. T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope. And this is, I believe, almost nearly commanded, as I said above. We can pray with confidence that our prayer will be heard, and that they will be resurrected in glory, but we cannot perceive that they will be resurrected. Precisely because we have this confidence we pray for them, knowing that we ask what is in God's will. We pray because we are confident it is God's will, not because we are unsure.


  9. Brad Littlejohn

    Heh, I hoped I could prompt you into jumping in armed with a panoply of quotes from the Ecumenical Councils, Matt! Those are helpful clarifications. Suffice to say then that the issue of proper terminology is a complex one, but Protestants should work to make themselves more comfortable with the terminology of the Patristics and the Ecumenical Councils.Steven, it also occurred to me yesterday that it was a bit disingenuous for you to say, "And finally the overall RC notion of grace has truly done a disservice to Mary by requiring her to be some different kind of human. She's born apart from original sin, cannot have sex, etc. The Protestant program is seeking to humanize her once again"–after all, Protestants taught, not only at the Reformation but for quite some time afterward, the perpetual virginity of Mary.


  10. Brad Littlejohn

    "Nevertheless, I do recognize that they commit plenty of idolatry in this area…perhaps not so much during the Mass as after it. How does current Catholic eucharistic teaching undermine the tradition of transubstantiation? I'm not quite sure what you're referring to, and obviously I'd like to learn more. As far as I'm aware, my very limited experience (with 4 different Catholic friends in 3 different states) is that Catholics literally worship the bread and wine as if it were god: praying to it, bowing to it, gazing upon it, scheduling time to spend with it, etc. How on earth is that not idolatry? What do current RC teachings have to say against that?"Well, Steven and Peter would probably have much more to say on this, and they'd be rather less sanguine about modern Catholicism than I would try to be. However, in the 20th century, there was a big move (some of it connected with de Lubac's work) both toward emphasising the other important things that were going on in the sacrament aside from transubstantiation (the communal, church-forming aspect of it), and also toward a less materialistic doctrine of transubstantiation. Rightly understood, the medieval tradition emphasised that the changing of the substance took place at the metaphysical, not physical level, and thus was about a change in, shall we say, "efficacious power" rather than material structure. The sacrament was to be understood in more dynamic terms, in terms of what it accomplished as the power of Christ made present amongst us, instead of as a static object. All this, I think, is salutary, and could get us to the point where Calvin and Luther (though perhaps not their less sacramentally-inclined successors) would be satisfied. Now, of course this is only one side. Such revisionist views, even if they have made good arguments for historical continuity, have certainly been contested, and the force of traditional formulations remains strong–and is perhaps, if Peter is right, gaining ground again. But then there is the level of popular devotion. The new liturgies promulgated after Vatican II do provide, so far as I remember, a better theology of the Eucharist, but it is, as you say, what happens afterward that is likely to raise the most eyebrows. Most forms of devotion to the reserved host do seem profoundly unhealthy if not outright idolatrous, and tend to reinforce (to my mind, at any rate) very static conceptions of the nature of Christ's presence. However, even many of these practices are capable of a defensible "Protestant" explanation, as subjective aids to devotion.And given the complexity of the issues involved, I am inclined to be slow to judgment. My views on the Eucharist are well captured by Hooker, who essentially says (though this is a gross oversimplification and reduction of one of the most rhetorically powerful parts of the Lawes) that the important thing is that we unite in confessing Christ to be really present in the sacrament; the Lutherans and Catholics, he thinks, have sought to explain that mystery in ways that he considers unnecessary, unhelpful, and improbable, but not ipso facto heretical. Transubstantiation is a flawed but understandable attempt to articulate the mystery, and if it were accurate, then there would be nothing wrong with responding to Christ's presence in the host in prayer and devotion. As it is, then, it is not so much that I object to the practices because they stem from a heretical theology (though I do think the theology is questionable), but that I object to the theology because of the unhealthy practices toward which it seems to lead–in particular, a privatised devotion that is cut off from the public worship of the saints (ironically, much like many forms of modern evangelical devotion). But that, of course, is not what I was talking about–I would have a lot more reservations about joining some Catholic friends in a time of Veneration of the Reserved Sacrament, than I would about joining them in a Mass, where, as I said, there are fewer practices that smack of idolatry, and those that do are generally capable of an acceptable explanation.(Byron–I'll try to get to your excellent comment as soon as I can…)


  11. patrick

    When I became Orthodox, I was exposed to a very free and scholarly strain of thought at the monastery of St. John — where the man who was the Abbot was then made Metropolitan of all the United States. He talked a lot about Mary and his clarifications were helpful. Unfortunately I think many Orthodox still suffer from a protestant de-valuiing of Mary in their attempt to draw distinctions between them and the RC folks. An example would be the immaculoute conception. Orthodox say that Mary was immacualutely concieved and even have this as part of the liturguical services in special prayers ¨oh thou who was so immacutately concieved.¨ The problem comes because the RC had invented this doctrine of original sin and so they had to cover for it to explain how Mary could be sinless. But the Orthodox people also believe that she was sinless and this is not understood by many Orthodox, even those who write books.As for praying to the dead, in what sense are the Saints really dead? If they are Saints, then they haven`t really died. Our church tradition has it that Mary didn`t die in a physical sense. I have heard that Martin Luther prayed to Mary and had no problem praying to Saints.


  12. Patrick

    When I was at the monastery, the Abbot told me, ¨Most protestants have a hard time accepting about praying to saints. That is, until the Saints appear to them.¨ How would a protestant explain so many Marian appearences throughout the world? At one point they were reading a book about Mary—that was going on and on about her life with stories and things that weren`t in the bible and I asked one of the senior monks if it was necessary to believe all that and how we could know if it were true. He said, ¨This book is kind of like if Charles Dickens had lived in the 1st century and was really excited about Christ and wanted to impart that excitement through stories.` Perhaps Orthodox and Catholics are able to seperate small T tradition from big T tradition, that is what is necessary and dogmatic, and what is not necessary to believe, maybe more than sometimes we are initially credited for being able to.


  13. Patrick,To clarrify: what Luther and Calvin accepted that's shocking to Protestants was the perpetual virginity. Luther had something of a Marian devotion, but without prayer. Regarding Marian appearances, I put that question back to you. "I am the Immaculate Conception."


  14. A clarrification for Steven regarding Adoration:It is true that Catholics regularly practice Adoration. But they decidedly are not worshiping the bread. They are worshiping Jesus Christ whom they believe to be actually present. They are perhaps wrong that He is actually present, but their worship is for Jesus, albeit, confused.


  15. patrick

    Matthew – you`re Orthodox right? If so, you should have no problem accepting the Marian apparitions because they happen so much in Orthodox countries and contexts (for example Elder Cleopa of Romania). Also, you should have no problem accepting her sinlessness because this is something that is taught to Orthodox. Constantine Zuolous, for example, said regarding her sinlessness: ¨how could it be otherwise? Imagine the transforming physical and spiritual affects carrying Christ for nine months would have on anyone, much less someone chosen by God?¨ We`re talking here about a communion with God and a holiness that no human being before or since would be able to achieve. It`s not about whether or not one of her actions was a sin at one point by accident or not a sin, but about emphasising her holiness and her purity, which is why we can say she was sinless. We are used to hearing the word grace tossed around a lot, but in that culture, for Elizabeth to say ¨full of grace¨ would be equivalent for us saying ¨super holy¨. Wasn`t the problem with St. Bernadet, who claimed that Mary came to her and said, ¨I am the Immaculate Conception¨ , the same problem that occured with Fatama, namely that the priests got involved immedietely afterwards, who had theological agendas, and isolated the original recipients. Thoughts on the purpitiual virginity: It seems that sooner or later protestants are going to have to face up to Mary. How can they believe that Joseph would even have considered approaching Mary sexually knowing that God had come out of her womb? The thought is so outrageous that I find it hard to believe that protestants actually think that. She was a teenager and he an old man. Moreover, where is the scriptural support? If they had had children afterwards, it would have been simply unthinkable for Jesus to put John in charge of her shortly before he died.


  16. patrick

    After writing the above comments, I encountered this quote from Orthodoxwiki:Most Orthodox reject the dogma of the Immaculate Conception as unnecessary. Because Orthodoxy does not see ancestral sin as an inheritance of guilt or a stain, there is no reason for the miraculous removal of either. Nonetheless, Orthodox tradition does hold that the Theotokos remained free of personal sin, a belief shared with some reformers such as Martin Luther.


  17. Brad Littlejohn

    *Sigh* Patrick, don't make me regret that I tried to encourage Protestants to be a little more friendly to Orthodox and Catholics on this point–I recall that when Robin did his similar kind of post on images here, the discussion was hijacked by you Orthodox folks who used it as an excuse to beat up on Protestants. Suffice to say that the perpetual virginity of Mary seems to be a classic case of an adiaphoron. There is simply nothing clear in Scripture one way or another (aside from the prima facie negative evidence of Jesus's apparent brothers and sisters, but I'm aware there's another explanation for that), nor is there any reason that I can tell why the doctrine should make any difference to important doctrines of redemption and therefore any reason why it should be a necessary doctrine. If someone wants to believe it, or if a whole church wants to believe it, fine. But no one has any business requiring belief in it or beating other people up either for believing it or disbelieving it. (That doesn't mean there's not room for constructive debate about the plausibility and implications of the doctrine.)Now, Byron, I can at last return to your comment. I'm pretty much on the same page with you here. These are the questions that I explored in the post two years ago linked above, which led to some follow-up from Bradley Belschner, after which I posted the qualification that, although I remained officially agnostic and non-judgmental, "There seem to be manifold problems in accounting for how the dead could hear our prayers–can they read minds? Can they read them from a distance? Can they hear thousands–yea, sometimes millions–of prayers at once? It seems that to attribute these powers to them is to attribute very superhuman powers, and it's hard to see theologically why unglorified souls in the intermediate state would be as gods."This is why I said above that it seems hard for prayers to the saints not to tend to attribute a god-like power to them. Not intrinsically, of course, but once you try to cash out how it might actually work, then we run into, as you said in your comment, the question of "whether our invocations are actually received by the dead." The way I generally understand the intermediate state (and, given the origin of this thread, I should add that I cannot accept that Mary was specially bodily assumed up into heaven bypassing an intermediate state that all the other dead must pass through…as I understand the doctrine of the assumption to teach), I am very skeptical that they can hear us. And for that reason, I have a lot of trouble joining in with those prayers…not because I think they're idolatrous, but they just feel a little…pointless. But I, like you, am open-minded on this point, and would not be hasty about condemning honest Catholics or Anglo-Catholics on this point.


  18. If I may dissent with something from your last post:First, I agree we did get off track a little in that post, but I'm pretty sure neither patrick nor Perry were hijacking the thread–it just sorta went off track–and I don't think they were intending to beat up on Protestants. I for one, enjoyed that discussion, and found it very informative re: the Orthodox position. Anyway, I consider Perry a friend, and I would bet patrick from this thread is patrick from that thread.But second, and close to my heart, I think the argument you make against prayers to the saints in the above post is misguided. Mary's Son hears our prayers; and hears them in his humanity. But if Mary's Son is able to hear our prayers, it is not impossible that Mary and all the saints hear our prayers, for we shall be like Him. The question is whether they can yet not whether it is humanly possible to do so. It definitely is humanly possible, and on this our hope depends. However, it is not necessarily possible for those in the intermediate state, and so it seems that the tack that should be taken is that prayers to the saints assumes more than we know, particularly, it assumes that they have certain powers which we only know the Resurrected have.


  19. patrick

    Patrick Phillips. Yes I am Patrick, Robin`s brother. I brought up the stuff about Mary because these are very clear and I`ve never seen even in print an attempt by protestants to answer these ideas — never, and so I`m obviously still curious. And these kinds of ideas about Mary come from within Orthodoxy and not from the RC. If we are going to talk about Mary skepticism within evangelical circles, it`s certainly not irrelevant to bring up some of the main facets of the outworking of said skepticism such as believing she and Joseph had relations, that she was sinful etc.


  20. Brad Littlejohn

    Fair enough, Matt. I overstated my complaint. Also, I agree (I think) with your qualification about the powers of dead and resurrected saints. Patrick, For now I will only say that I didn't think any of the points you raised in the argument remotely compelling–for one thing, we have no way of knowing Mary and Joseph's relative ages, although there is certainly old tradition along the lines of your claim. Not that I deny them either–I simply don't see compelling evidence one way or another, and so, as I said, whatever I personally think about it, it should be an adiaphoron.And in any case, I don't see how this relates precisely to the point at issue in the post. If Mary was perpetually a virgin, is it for that that we give her special honour? I should think not…it's hard to see how that notion doesn't denigrate sexuality. As Matt said, her honour comes from the fact that she carried and bore the God-man, not from any subsequent virginity that she might have claimed.


  21. David

    Brad said, "…for one thing, we have no way of knowing Mary and Joseph's relative ages, although there is certainly old tradition along the lines of your claim."While I too struggle with the notion that viginity is somehow morally surperior to married sexuality, I'm also starting to struggle with comments like the above. Old family traditions can be fraught with myth (that fish I caught…) but do we Protestants so reject all authority in the Oral Tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, that we easily dismiss it? IF it IS the oral Tradition of the Apostles that Joseph was far older (with children frorm a prior marriage) and God graced he and Mary for whatever reason NOT to have sex…why do we so incredilously dismiss it? Have we erected (bad choice of words) a subtle notion that sex is better than no sex, and frequent sex better than infrequent — thus marriage better than celibacy? (I've certainly thought this.) Yet does this make young actively-sexual marrieds in their 20s somehow more human/holy than old couples (less sex)? Obviously don't have all this worked out (we have 8 children) but I'm increasingly uneasy with how we seem to flippantly dismiss history and what seems to be credible Apostolic/Patristic oral tradition…while we embrace other history with little quarrel. Lots going on here and I suspect it's more complicated than we've reduced it…not the least our assumption that Protestant notions about sex and sexuallity are right…making all others wrong…thus some openly mock (not brad) the very idea of Mary's perpetual virginity and any authority in oral tradtition (at least the non-protestant parts of it).


  22. patrick

    Nobody is saying that with the belief of Mary`s virginity that it implies virginity is better than being married. But the whole concept of celibicy and the spirituality related to virginity and celibicy is lost in the west. It doesn`t denegrate sex to have monasteries where people live devoted to God. The term ¨virgin¨ thoughout histoy, even in English, refers to people who are under these kinds of lifetime commitments to celibicy, and knowing that this tradition existed in the east at that time (Jesus Himself chose celibicy) it makes sense that Mary too would be virgin. Again, virgin and celibate were two words that historically have been synonyms. It`s not just oral tradiion. It was customary for women to mary when they were 13 o 14. If she had have been older it would have been strange. There is al kinds of support in the bible for our beliefs about Mary but that are overlooked by protestant biases. I`m sorry but that is just the truth. How could Joseph dream of appoaching the whomb where God had come from — it`s unthinkable!


  23. Brad Littlejohn

    I've just posted a reply over at Orthodox Bridge. Thanks for the heads-up. David, I take your point about respect for tradition. I must confess that, as a typical Protestant, I am ignorant of just how ancient and widespread the tradition of Mary's perpetual virginity is. If it goes back as far as you say, then I am inclined to give it a great deal of weight as well. In any case, I never meant to flippantly dismiss it, only to say, as a good Protestant, that I cannot view it as legitimate to elevate it to the level of dogma so long as it remains nothing but an unwritten tradition. I sympathise with your other remarks expressing concern about the Protestant imbalance on the issue of sex and celibacy. It does seem to me that in reaction to Catholic over-valuation of celibacy, Protestants have moved to an undervaluation. But what recovering a healthy balance looks like, I couldn't say….When I tried to develop some of these thoughts in conversation with a friend recently, he pushed me to admit in the end that I did think that anyone who "burned" with sexual passion ought to get married, and that that describes something like 99% of people (I'm just pulling that statistic out of the air, but you get my point). So I don't see how to get around saying that the "gift of singleness" is quite a rare phenomenon, even if we seek to affirm it fully when we see it.Patrick,I'm afraid I'm quite skeptical of your claim about the meaning of "virgin"–as far as my experience in ancient languages goes, it very rarely means any such thing. Likewise, although I would be happy to admit the perpetual virginity, I simply do not buy your claim that it is "unthinkable" that Joseph would have had relations with Mary after the birth of Christ. Theologically, I think to state it that way fails to take seriously the full humanness of the incarnation, and makes Jesus, from birth, into some kinda weird superman, not one of us. And historically, it does not appear that either Mary or Joseph quite realised just who and what their son was, as the story of his visit to the temple at age 12 suggests.


  24. David

    Thanks Brad, and I didn't have you in mind about flippancy brother. And I suspect the gift of celibacy is extraordinary and the exception to the rule. Yet (Patrick), I do recall some Orthodox implying if not saying outright that celibacy/virginity somehow superior to marriage and I'll see if I can run it down. Either way is doesn't touch the reality of Mary's perpetual virgnity. She and Joseph having sex after the birth of Christ never denigrated her morally to me…but IF the Apostles believed it and taught their disciples this…then why would I argue the point? In light of a serious exegesis of Jn. 14:26, I'm unwilling to recieve Their oral Tradition as I would my uncle Fred's fish memory. Obviously, there are "many other things Jesus said and did" they did not write down. For now, the Orthodoxy view of Mary is far more palitable, and easy to swallow than is the RC's.


  25. I think the idea regardng virginity with respect to marriage is taken from the biblical material about heaven lacking marriage along with other material of depicting those in heaven as virgins such as in Revelation. Consequently sexual reproduction is a temporary, though naturally legitimate thing. the heavenly life then does not include marraige or sexual reproduction, which is why Jesus was neither married nor had sexual relations, pace the LDS.Steve wrote, "And finally the overall RC notion of grace has truly done a disservice to Mary by requiring her to be some different kind of human. She's born apart from original sin, cannot have sex, etc. The Protestant program is seeking to humanize her once again, and in doing so, bestow upon her a great honor. "Not that I buy the Catholic dogma of the IC, but that aside, if that makes Mary some other kind of human as if to imply she is not genuinely human, then I cannot see how we cannot say the same about Jesus for which both things Steven lists are true.The "Protestant program" of humanizing her seems to me to be a program of pelagianizing her in making death natural, if we are to take being conceived without sin and not having sex as making her some kind of non-human.


  26. David

    Nice to meet you Patrick (Robin Phillips brother? have enjoyed blogs & talk). But here's a quote from the highly reccomended Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky's _Orthodox Dogmatic Theology_ (translated from Russian by the amazingly gifted Fr. Seraphim Rose), which I've found his brief but pointed comments on a host of issues very helpful in understanding what Orthodox believes. This is from "The Mystery (Sacrament) of Marriage" "There is yet another way of personal life which is blessed in Christianity: virginity or celibacy. Celibacy for the sake of Christ has created another kind of Christian social unit: monasticism. The Church places it above married life, and in actuality, in the history of the Church it has been a leading, guiding element, a support of the Church, bringing into realization to the greatest degree the moral law of the Gospel, and perserving the dogmas, the Divine services, and other foundations of the Church." "However, not all can take upon themselves the vow of virginity in the name of Christ and the Church. Therefore, while blessing virginity as a chosen and a perfect form of life, the Church blesses also married life for the sake of those exalted, adn at the same time difficult, aims which are placed before the Christian family, and this blessing is acknowledged as a Mystery"Here, I think is their way of honoring marriage and all it entails, while giving greater honor to celibacy & monasticism. Granted, this is an aside from the honor due and given to Mary the Theotokos as a creature who was born as normal humans and died but whose body was secretly taken up. This Tradition about Mary far easier for me to embrace within Apostolic Oral Traditions…than is the basic superiority of celibacy and monasticism (which I'm growing to see value in) to reproductive married life. Anyone out there who has something they think helpful here…please do fire away, or send it on. I'll try to be teachable.


  27. And finally the overall RC notion of grace has truly done a disservice to Mary by requiring her to be some different kind of human.

    I'm not sure what his later examples have to do with anything, and I'm not convinced that the Catholic understanding of grace is as problematic as he claims (or at least not for the reason he claims), or that the Catholic understanding of grace is actually Catholic, and not just a particular Roman position–for instance, how many Maronites would agree with it, and did Pope John Paul II, or does Pope Benedict–but I think all the interlocutors here would object to the old Roman formulation of natural/supernatural, and the dehumanizing of Mary is a problem that would seem to arise from this poor understanding of natural/supernatural.That said, Balthasar said that Thérèse of Lisieux gives a Catholic answer to Luther, and since she makes this same criticism of Catholic Marian devotion, perhaps she here too gives a Catholic answer to Protestant questions.Finally the fact of the Theotokos should give refutes also Protestant understandings of grace, since the Theotokos is exalted far above where she could naturally have been prior to the fall. Creation, in itself, is not capable of being an intermediary between the Logos and the Father, or of teaching God Himself to love; yet the Theotokos was in very truth an intermediary between the Logos and the Father, and taught God Himself to love, when he knew not love. Contrary to the Protestant position, the Incarnation does merely restore (and complete) the natural, but by the Incarnation, God is man, and thus there is a Theotokos, a Mother of God. And Jesus tells us that, somehow, incomprehensibly, all of us shall be exalted, for who is His Mother, if not those who do the Will of His Father in Heaven? (Matthew 12:50)


  28. Brad Littlejohn

    Interesting thoughts all. Thanks for the contributions–I was particularly intrigued by Perry's remark that if these perfections dehumanise Mary, how do they not dehumanise Christ? These dogmas really aren't quite so easy to shoot down as we would like, perhaps…


  29. Patrick

    Brad LIttlejohn? Why would the Niciean Creed say that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary if later she wasn`t really a virgin or the church didn`t hold her to always have been one? (By the way this has never been a dogma in the EO church.) In those times they spoke of Virginity in terms of a life given to the church. You can see this also in the literature of England up until recently. Since it was assumed that one was going to be a virgin until one married, there was no need to speak of virginity except in a monastic context like we do today and to do so now about Mary would be anachronistic.


  30. Brad Littlejohn

    Patrick, Unless you are prepared to cite some sources to prove your sweeping assertions about the linguistic practices of several different languages over a couple of millennia, practices for which I have seen no evidence in all my experience with them, I see no reason why I should be compelled to believe you. Unfortunately, there has been no age of human history in which it could be simply "assumed that one was going to be a virgin until married."


  31. patrick

    Brad, I didn't say that everybody remained pure until marriage. What I was trying to get across was that only recently did they use the word virgin in the context that we think of it today. Remember the line from Shakespeare, and forgive me if I can't site it exactly for your exacting tastes—I live in South America where access to English books is almost non-existant, where she says that if the man does what she wants then she will go back to the monastery and have 20 virgins praying for him.You still haven't told me why you interpret the nicien creed differently than the church with respect to the passage of Jesus being born by a virgin. I suppose you would say that it meant that at the time Jesus was born Mary was a virgin but afterwards not necessarily, but don't you see that that is to play textual sophistry.


  32. patrick

    in fact, if you read the histories of the Virgin Mary, she is ALWAYS refered to as a Virgin — so it is not just the Nicean creed that establishes her Virginity.


  33. patrick

    In today`s culture, the word virgin means somebody who hasn`t had sex. We`ve lost the meaning where it was used more as a TITLE. Perhaps the following website would help us. http://www.faculty.de.gcsu.edu/~dvess/ids/medieval/maryout.htm By saying that it was assumed that one would be chaste until marriage, it was to say that they wouldn`t have been tossing around the term like we do today saying this or that person was a virgin, to do so would have been profane, as much as using it as a title similar to what is meant today in terms of celibicy or monasticism.


  34. Brad Littlejohn

    David,You should just need to click on the "Main Blog RSS" button, above right. If that isn't working, then I don't know what to do for you. I never subscribe to things myself, because I always forget to read my feed, so I'm not the best person to help you.Patrick, I acknowledge that the word "virgin" used to often refer to someone who devoted their life to "virginity"; but this was an extension of the basic meaning–"a maiden who has not yet been sexually active" (so far as I know, it *is* modern to use it to refer to males as well, though I may be mistaken). Both meanings were, as I understand, common use for the English "virgin," the Latin "virgo," and the Greek "parthenos," and it is lexicographically unjustifiable to claim that only the former meaning was operative. In any case, I see no reason why it is "textual sophistry" to say that the Nicene Creed means that Mary was a virgin at the time she conceived and bore Jesus–after all, that's the point in the creed where it uses the word "virgin" to describe her. If the Creed mentioned her later in the life of Christ and still referred to her as a Virgin, you might have a point. As it is, it's thoroughly ambiguous. And hence, I think it's a point for legitimate disagreement. However, I'm really not inclined to belabour the point, since the Reformers were happy to accept the doctrine. I simply don't like the divisiveness that *insists* that everyone sign on board with the doctrine, upon threat of being pronounced heterodox.


  35. Brad, a book review at http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/is-the-reformation-over-1.php gives some resources we might want to check out if you haven't already: "The authors make a significant contribution to the growing number of books authored by Protestants that reflect on Roman Catholic theology and practice. To take just one example–Protestant reflections on Mary–a sample of books includes: Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Mary: Glimpses of the Mother of God (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995); Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, eds., Mary: Mother of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004); Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary (Louisville: Westminster, 2002); Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic–Evangelical Debate (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2003). "


  36. Donald

    I am an Orthodox Christian (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America). The Orthodox Church does not accept the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. We believe that Mary was conceived with ancestral sin (we do not believe in original sin, in the western sense), just like the rest of humanity. She was subject to the consequences of ancestral sin, just like you and I (she experienced physical death).However, we do believe that she was kept from actual sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by any special merit of her own, in preparation for her role as the Mother of God. I cringe a little bit at the following quote regarding Mary's perpetual virginity: "nor is there any reason that I can tell why the doctrine should make any difference to important doctrines of redemption and therefore any reason why it should be a necessary doctrine. If someone wants to believe it, or if a whole church wants to believe it, fine. But no one has any business requiring belief in it or beating other people up either for believing it or disbelieving it."The doctrine of Mary's perpetual virginity is extremely important for the Orthodox. The reason actually doesn't have anything to do with Mary. It has everything to do with who we believe Jesus Christ is. We believe that denying the ever-virginity of Mary belittles the Incarnation. The reason for this is not something that one would be explicitly stated in Scripture, because it so obvious. If Mary conceived a child through the Holy Spirit and gave birth to God, it just seems crass and disrespectful to the point of blasphemous that Joseph would have then engaged in sexual relations with her. This is why all of the major early Reformers – Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, and Wesley – upheld this doctrine. They understood that, even if not explicitly stated in Scripture, it is actually quite fundamental to the doctrine of the Incarnation."Not intrinsically, of course, but once you try to cash out how it might actually work, "Okay, the last quote made me cringe a little. This one made me laugh. How it actually might work??? Seriously?Please explain to me how a young Palestinian virgin gave birth to a man who was at the same time fully human and fully God. How did that work? How did the Transfiguration work? How did the Ascension work? When people were healed by touching Saint Paul's relics (Acts 19:12), how did that work? When a dead man was brought to life by touching Saint Elijah's relics (2 Kings 13:21), how did that work? We could go on and on.This is one of the biggest differences between the Christian East and the Christain West. Why are Protestants and Roman Catholics so interested in how things work? These things are mysteries. They are profoundly mystical. There is no figuring out how it works. You and I couldn't begin to understand any of it.


  37. David

    I'm generally…at least so far, sympathethic to the Orthodoxy view of Mary…as well as the notion that we Protestants have to parse out just how everything "works". This lack of knowing is one reason why I've been content with logical difficulties in the way Calvinism handles decrees, double-predestination without God being the author of sin, man's free agency…All the while believing God saying "My thoughts are NOT your thoughts, nor My ways your ways…" We humans clearly do not know how it all "works". Nevertheless, I still don't get the Orthodox squimishness about Mary having sex with Joseph messing up the incarnation? When did marital sex become "morally" or physically contaminating? Isn't this mentality overtly Gnostic…sex being Orthdoxy's fundy-alcohol material contaminant? Not that it bothers me to learn Joseph was older, had prior children, and maybe was hindered by the Holy Spirit from having sex with Mary. Okay, if that what the Fathers were taught by the Apostles via the Holy Spirit. But I fail to see why it would sully, soil, or denegrate Mary's virtue, much less Christ's??


  38. Donald

    David,There is nothing in the teachings of Orthodoxy to suggest that sexual relations between a husband and wife are sinful or corrupting. The prayers that are read at an Orthodox wedding could be reated PG-13 at the least. They are very much in the Genesis theme of "be fruitful and multiply". One of the Orthodox icons of Saints Anna and Joaquim actually has a bed in the background, a fairly straightforward visual reference to the sexual union that led to the conception of the Theotokos. I probably look at it from a different perspective, actually being Orthodox, but I have never interpreted Orthodox teaching to suggest that sexuality is sinful or defiling.We believe that the Theotokos was specially chosen by God, before the foundations of the world, for a very special purpose. We believe that she was set apart for God. Mary was chosen from all of humanity to become the vessel of the Lord God Himself. Everything we read in the Old Testament – creation, God's covenent with Israel, the law, the Psalms, the Prophets – culminated in the Incarnation. Considering the glory and profoundness of this great miracle, I don't thin it is far fetched at all to suggest that Mary's earthly marriage was not an ordinary, normal arrangement. In Acts 19:12, we read that Saint Paul was so powerfully filled with the Holy Spirit that even his clothing could impart healing to the people that touched it. In Kings 13:21, we read about how a man was raised from the dead simply by coming into contact with the skeletal remains of Saint Elisha. This saint was so profoundly filled with the Holy Spirit that his very flesh was sacred. I know that many Protestants are uncomfortable with this kind of thing, but it is right there in black and white in Scripture. In II Samule 6:2-8, we read where Uzziah was instantly struck dead for touching the Ark. This is where God dwelt, and it was a sacred object that no human being could touch.Now consider the Virgin Mary. God literally and physically dwelt within her flesh. She gave him His human body. This is central to the Incarnation. If power can flow through the hem of Christ's clothes and impart healing, what can we say about the body that contained Him? No other human being in all of history has had a more intimate physical relationship with God. Mary was the first human being in all of history to receive Christ, in the literal, physical sense. Saint Elisha's bones continue to reverberate with the power of the Holy Spirit well after his death, such that they raise a dead man, and yet we are to believe that Mary, after carrying God within her, returns to a normal, ordinary marriage after giving birth to Christ? Really?Let me present a scenario for your consideration. Let's say you decide one Sunday to attend a Divine Liturgy at your local Orthodox Church. After the celebration, during the coffee hour, you notice the priest drinking a diet coke from the chalice that was used just minutes ago to serve communion. Wouldn't you find that a bit odd? The chalice is used to serve the literal phyiscal body and blood of Jesus Christ to the faithful. It literally contained God. I know you may not believe that, but just work with me here. Wouldn't you find it strange that the priest would treat it as an ordinary cup? By no means should the chalice be worshipped, but it should be shown profound respect and reverence. Everything has its proper place. There is certainly nothing at all sinful or corrupting about drinking diet coke. It is completely fine. However, it is all about context and circumstance. Given that it is the chalice that contains Christ's blood, I think most non-Orthodox would still find it strange. There is nothing wrong with sexual relations between a husband and a wife. In fact, I can guarantee you that Orthodoxy encourages it. However, again, context and circumstance. Mary was set aside and reserved for a very special purpose. We believe that she was holy. For Saint Joseph to have known that his young wife had been reserved to be the vessel of the Lord and still demand the satisfaction of his conjugal rights would have been blasphemous. Do you think that upon learning that his wife would give birth to God, Saint Joseph's reaction was "Well, when will it be my turn?" We believe that both Mary and Joseph, given the incredible miracle that they were witnessing, would have understood that their marriage was not an ordinary, normal marriage. To deny Mary's ever-virginity is to deny the thing that makes it necessary – the Incarnation.We also believe that Mary's ever-virginity was prophesied."This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it, for the Lord God of Israel has entered by it; therefore it shall be shut" Ezekiel 44:2We don't believe that Mary's ministry ended when Christ was born. She was not a happenstance vessel of God, and she was not case aside as no longer useful when Christ was born. Her ministry began at the Annunciation, and it continued throughout her life. In John 2:5, she commends us to obey her Son. At the crucifixion, she is there at the foot of the cross, pointing us to her Son. That special place to which God appointed her did not end when Christ was born. She did not return to an ordinary married life after Christ was born.Let me conclude by asking, why would you not hold to the doctrine of Mary's ever-virginity? Eastern Christianity has upheld this teaching for two millenia and shows no sign of tiring. In the West, this doctrine was not challenged unti the Reformation. Do you find it plausible to suggest that a teaching with no discernible geographic or literary origin could have been introduced after apostolic times, into a church that was vigorously examining and debating every doctrine and practice, and that such a novel tradition would have passed as so inconsequential that it need not be debated before becoming universally proclaimed?


  39. Brad Littlejohn

    Donald,Thanks for the illuminating reply to David's question, which was going to be my question as well. It bears remembering, perhaps, that many Protestants wouldn't shrink from drinking diet coke out of a communion cup (they probably wouldn't call it a "chalice"), which perhaps explains the more casual attitude on this matter. Of course, while I find that attitude on some things (e.g., the communion cup) appalling, I do think it's important to recognise that there's a paradigmatic difference in how we understand "holy things." To us it simply doesn't follow that because Mary's was the womb of God, she couldn't then use that womb in the normal way from then on. The Incarnation, indeed, is God's stamp of approval on creation, his hallowing of the ordinary. Jesus ate, drank, slept, and yes, it always horrified me when my dad told me when I was little, urinated. Why should the Incarnation mean that everything Jesus touched now had to be withheld from its ordinary purpose, instead of being consecrated to continue in all its wonderful ordinary-ness? That said, I do understand where you're coming from now, and that's helpful. It makes sense. I only ask that you see why Protestants don't necessarily see it that way, and that doesn't make them crazy and profane. As to your final question, I've said throughout that my objection is not to the doctrine, but only to the making of the doctrine necessary. I'll have to continue to reflect, I suppose, on how seriously we ought to take it–this discussion has certainly been challenging.As for your remark in your comment above, picking on me for saying, "but once you try to cash out how it might actually work…" –my point is not that we have to understand everything, or to do away with mystery. Far from it! I love mystery! I'm all with Hooker that the worst thing that ever happened to the doctrine of the Eucharist was to try to cash out precisely how it actually worked. My general point regarding prayers to the saints was to give prima facie approval to those who pray in simple faith, asking saints to pray for them, and not treating them as saviours. However, I do think that if we're going to defend the continued use of a practice that has been and is seriously abused in many many quarters of the Church, and which causes a great deal of consternation to most Protestants, then it is necessary to at some point stop and say, "Just what is it that we are doing here?" and be able to explain it in a way that makes some doctrinal sense, and avoids idolatry. Or, to put it more simply, we don't need to be able to explain everything we're doing liturgically all the time, but if something is seriously challenged, someone does need to be able to offer some justification from it that goes beyond "Well, we've always done it this way, so it must be OK."


  40. Daniel/Brad, Excellent responses…both of you. I think Brad nailed it saying he (& I agree) has little problem with the doctrine of Mary being the Theotokos and ever virgin…so long as we don't imply it is "necessary". Because IF her subsequent sexual relation w/Joseph would have "of-necessity" sullied/corrupted her…then the Incarnation did not further sancitify the physical/material creation and there IS something "inherently-dirty" about sex. Nevertheless, setting Mary aside completely as unviolated and perpetual virgin for the Holy Spirit/Incarnation does not "in-itself" offend, as of-necessity, Gnostic.Cuodos also to Brad for embracing mystery and granting that not all things CAN be parsed out (cashed) via rational verbage. It does seem he's tempted to take it all back and demand every-ready "explanation" for all venerations — placing all saints in the place of the young preacher who can't make a strong point without neuterig it with the cuts of a thousand qualifications! It is a touchy thing and some cultures are more prone to unexplained "veneration" excesses than others…kinda like Southern Baptist do "eternal-security…"once saved, always saved"…subject to legion abuse. Good/helpful discussion.


  41. Donald

    Brad and David,Does the fact that Jesus Christ never married mean that marriage is defiling and would have sullied Him?By the way, Brad, I certainly don't believe – and I believe that the majority of Orthodox would agree – that Protestants who don't accept Mary's ever-virginity are profane or crazy. It is possible to be sincere and terribly misguided at the same time. I am also certainly not picking on you with my comment about figuring out how things work. I was just pointing out what appears, to me at least, to be a major difference between the Christian East and the Christian West. In the East, understanding how things work is not that important. For example, Saint John Chrysostom, in talking about predestination, stated that even if it were possible for humans to understand predestination, it would be blasphemy for us to desire to do so. Our emphasis is on a mystical experience of God, not on an intellectualization of dogma.


  42. Brad Littlejohn

    Thanks Donald. Helpful clarification.No, the fact that Jesus married does not mean marriage is defiling–although some might explain it that way. Nor would the fact that Mary remained a virgin necessarily man that sex is defiling. Which is why I was resisting explanations of that doctrine which seemed to explain it in just that way–"how could Joseph ever dare to approach her sexually?!"Anyway, like I said, the discussion has been fruitful, and I've certainly come away from it determined to give the doctrine rather more attention than I have before.


  43. dancingmommio

    I am grateful to have found a discussion of these issues, as I have recently raised such questions of Protestant Marian devotion and explorations of the Catholic Church on my own blog, Organic Mothering. I have been hard pressed to find online articles suggesting how a Protestant could honor Mary without converting to the Catholic church. I do believe that Mary IS special in her own right, which she must be for God to have chosen her as the God-bearer. She may even have been especially created for this task. Some believe that Mary was the incarnation of Sophia, in the Wisdom tradition, especially those of the Orthodox faith. The many apparitions of Mary in modern times, beginning with Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, suggest that God has chosen her as His emissary as the ecumenical bridge between all of the religions of the world. As she said to Juan Diego, "I am the Mother of All Nations."


  44. Christopher Miller

    Unrelated to the discussion thread, I had a question about the song lyrics."Blessed she by all creation,who brought forth the world's salvation,and blessed they, for ever blest,who love thee most and serve thee best."So is it who "love" and "serve" Mary best? Does "thee" refer to her?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s