“Evangelicals and the Mother of God”

Timothy George, a Southern Baptist theologian, writes at First Things; Eric Svendsen comments.

George says,

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.

I think evangelicals do have a “fully biblical appreciation” of Mary–I wonder if he’s really asking evangelicals to be more sympathetic to extra-Biblical Catholic teachings.

Can we, without forsaking any of the evangelical essentials, including the great solas of the Reformation, echo Elizabeth’s acclamation, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42), or resonate with the Spirit-filled maid of the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-48)?

I’ve never known any Evangelicals who had a problem with either. They are Gospel texts, after all.

It seems to many evangelicals that Catholic preoccupation with Mary obscures the preeminence and sole salvific sufficiency of Jesus Christ and thus leads many people away from rather than to the Savior himself.

Yes, it does. A key example is seen at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Jesus is seen as a stern visaged figure ready to pop you upside the head, but Mary, Immaculately Conceived, stands atop the baldachino, mercifully coming between you and him. Catholics are exhorted to go “to Jesus, through Mary.”

Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant.

Mary does have a pivotal role–she says “yes” to the angel and gives birth to Jesus. She and Joseph raise him. After that, she pops into the story a couple of times and then disappears, with neither Acts nor the epistles concerned with her after Pentecost.

Is Mary the “new Eve”? That’s not a Biblical image. Jesus is the second Adam–it was his obedience that overcame the disobedience of Adam. Mary did agree to the incarnation–but the Bible doesn’t separate her in any other way.

Was she a virgin mother? Yes, the Bible is clear that a virgin conceived. That’s all it says–it has none of the legends about her remaining a virgin in the act of giving birth, without pain; nothing about her remaining a virgin in her relationship with Joseph.  George notes:

More difficult is the claim for the inviolate virginity of Mary in partu: the virgin birth in a precise sense. Not only does this belief stem from a post-canonical writing, the Protoevangelium of James, but it also seems to undermine the anti-docetic emphasis of the doctrine. This is especially true when it is said that Mary gave birth to Jesus without pain. If indeed the virgin mother of God is the link that unites Christ and humanity, it is hard to see why the virginal conception of Jesus, attested by Scripture, should entail an anesthetized delivery. While Cardinal Newman was surely right to say that God could have spared the mother of the messiah the pains of child-bearing, there is no sound biblical reason for assuming God did so. Indeed, if the woman of the apocalypse in Revelation 12 harks back to Mary, then the opposite seems to be the case, for there we are told that this woman “was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth” (Revelation 12:2).

I think this a critical point–the separation of Mary from normal aches and pains of womanhood seems to be heading in the direction of docetism. We saw this issue raised by some Catholic critics of “The Nativity Story,” who were aghast that Mary should be shown having discomfort. We see it in articles like that of a young Bryce Sibley wondering whether Mary had a period. According to Scripture, Jesus was like us in all things except that he didn’t surrender to temptation. Scripture doesn’t make even that exception for Mary.

Can Evangelicals call her “Mother of God”? Certainly, for the child in her womb was indeed her creator.

What about Mary in prayer? George says,

Evangelicals do not pray to Mary, but we can learn to pray like Mary and with Mary-with Mary and all the saints.

I’d say we can pray like Mary and the saints–we can pray as they did. Now they await the resurrection of Christ. We’ll join together one day in praising God together.

10 thoughts on ““Evangelicals and the Mother of God”

  1. It seems that we are so afraid of enjoying a direct relationship with God that we consistently prop up human intercessors to lead us to God. God, however, wants to dwell with us. This seems to be the theme of the book of Hebrews.

    Our access to heaven is through Jesus. Jesus is the only person uniquely qualified to lead us to God. Mary’s humanity disqualifies her as an intercessor.

  2. Mary’s freedom from the pain of childbirth are a result of her freedom from sin; cf. Gen. 3, wherein Eve is told that *b/c* of her sin, she will experience the pain of child birth.

    It’s not Docetism: it’s recognizing the consequences of her freedom from original sin by the grace of God.

  3. Yes, that’s an accurate statement of the Catholic contention. And yes, it is because of sin that women have pain in child birth, and both men and women grow old, and get colds, etc. Jesus wasn’t immune from pain or anything else, Scripture clearly says. It was our flesh and blood he took, not that of angels or other unfallen beings.

    Hebrews 2:14 Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.

    Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.

    Anything that takes us away from this affirmation of the full share of Christ in our humanity is a step toward docetism. To preserve Mary from the normal human condition is indeed a step towards docetism.

  4. No, it’s not. 🙂

    Mary participated in the human condition sans original sin and its effects, just like her Son and Lord. Catholicism doesn’t teach that Mary was free from pain tout court, but that she’s free from the pains which flow from original sin. Like Jesus, Mary was able to experience pains with external causes, but the pain of childbirth is different from the former because of its explicit connection to original sin.

  5. So, when her leg muscles stretched they might have gotten sore, but when it was her vagina, cervix and uterus stretching, there was no soreness. Oh, wait a second, she gave birth without any of those things stretching. Call it what you want. Still Docetism.

  6. Hey, I’m just taking the scriptural text for what it says: the pain of childbirth is due to original sin. Granting for the sake of argument that Mary was free from original sin, it’s pretty elementary to conclude that she was free from the pain of childbirth, isn’t it?

  7. First, what is said in Genesis about “original sin” in the sense of an inherited guilt?

    Second, “eating bread by the sweat of your brow” is also a direct result of the fall. Does that mean Jesus didn’t work up a sweat in his shop? Or does it mean it miraculously vanished when he reached for his lunch?

  8. Actually, it seems to me that Genesis 3 indicates that postlapsarian cultivation is more difficult than prelapsarian cultivation (an external for Jesus, btw), not that sinless men don’t sweat. But in any case, what is *your* reading of what God says to Eve and its application to a possibly sinless Mary?

  9. It’s seems simple enough to me–that as a result of the fall, human life, including giving birth, involves pain and suffering. That’s a universal.

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