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Advancing Mariology

Jame Shaefer, ed
Published by Marquette University Press in 2017

Mark A. Peters is a professor of music at Trinity Christian College.

In recent years, there has been an extended, and surprising, debate in this journal’s pages over Christian belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary.1 While I have appreciated perspectives from both sides of the debate and am always heartened by civil and thoughtful scholarly dialogue, I have been surprised that the particular Marian doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has been the trigger for such extended debate in the pages of a journal sponsored primarily by institutions in the Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Wesleyan, Nazarene, and Evangelical traditions, Christian traditions more likely either to ignore or decry Marian doctrines than to engage in hearty and healthy debate over them. Furthermore, a survey of Christian Scholar’s Review indicates that the essays included in this exchange are the only content in the journal’s pages (including articles and reviews) that address Mary in any way in the past five years.

In the current review, my hope is to expand the discussion about Mary in Christian Scholar’s Review through engaging a book that would not typically be reviewed in this journal, Advancing Mariology: The Theotokos Lectures 2008-2017. Published by Marquette University Press and edited by Jame Schaeffer, an associate professor of theology at Marquette, the volume collects the first ten lectures in the university’s Theotokos Lecture Series. Advancing Mariology provides an excellent introduction to recent research in Mariology from a wide variety of perspectives. For Christian Scholar’s Review readers intrigued by the debate over the Immaculate Conception of Mary, Advancing Mariology opens up a wealth of historical and current perspectives on Mary, most of which are not nearly as contentious as the Immaculate Conception. For Christians from traditions not generally open to engaging Marian discourse and research, the volume will likely shed much light on what Christians from other traditions believe, and debate, in relation to Mary.

Advancing Mariology also provides nuance to Marian perspectives, too often presented dichotomously as “what Catholics believe” and “what Protestants believe.” To take the Immaculate Conception of Mary as brief example, Brian E. Daley, S.J., in the inaugural Theotokos Lecture (2008), “Woman of Many Names,” clarifies differences in perspective between East and West, Orthodox and Roman Catholic. As Daley observes, while both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologies have understood “Mary’s predestined holiness” (35), their perspectives on this holiness are quite distinct and may be traced back to different understandings of the doctrine of original sin (which was never claimed in the same way in the East as it has been in the West since Augustine). And only the Western church has claimed the Immaculate Conception as dogma (34-37).

Furthermore, in the 2009 lecture, “The Virgin of Guadalupe in Ecumenical Context: One Lutheran’s Perspective,” Maxwell E. Johnson helpfully distinguishes among various Protestant perspectives on Mary. Johnson clarifies that, in contrast to Reformed or Evangelical perspectives, Christians in Lutheran and Anglican traditions tend to feel a greater affinity for the universality (that is, catholicity) of the Christian church. In both theology and liturgical practice, Lutherans and Anglicans tend to demonstrate greater attention to the communion of the saints and thus may be more open to considerations of Mary (58). In my own research into German Lutheran liturgy, theology, and music in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, I have found a wide variety of perspectives on Mary communicated in sermons, commentaries, and church music texts.2

As the examples of Daley and Johnson demonstrate, the Marquette University Department of Theology has been intentional in fostering complex and wide-ranging discussions of Mary in the Theotokos Lecture series both through the lecturers they have invited and through the topics addressed. Some of the lectures are grounded in theology, others in church practice, others in spirituality, and others in history, while others in combinations of these perspectives. They cover a variety of topics, which I summarize briefly here:

  1. Mary in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions;
  2. The meaning of the Virgin of Guadalupe for Protestant Christians;
  3. An early biography of Mary written in Old Georgian;
  4. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary;
  5. A study of four Marian lyrics;
  6. An examination of the title ascribed to Mary, “Omnipotent by Grace”;
  7. Mary in the Jewish scriptures as “Wisdom” and “Lady of the Temple”;
  8. The significance of Mary for those who are marginalized by society;
  9. The history of Marian devotion in Latin America; and
  10. The state of Marian piety and Mariology today.

All ten lectures are characterized by excellent scholarship—clearly and convincingly presented—while likewise representing a wide array of topics and approaches within the field of Mariology. Since the book’s Introduction by editor Jame Schaefer provides succinct overviews of each lecture, I will not attempt to do so in this review. In the remainder of the review, I will instead provide comment on a few of the lectures that I personally found to be most engaging.

The first of these is Edward T. Oakes, S.J.’s “Predestination, Sola Gratia, and Mary’s Immaculate Conception: An Ecumenical Reading of a (Still) Church-Dividing Doctrine,” which further speaks into the recent CSR dialogue around the Immaculate Conception of Mary. Oakes begins the lecture by naming the barriers to ecumenism that have been identified in relation to the Immaculate Conception (123-125). In an intriguing turn, Oakes goes on to argue in the remainder of the lecture for the ecumenical potential of the doctrine, particularly in reaching across Roman Catholic and Protestant divides. Oakes states his thesis thus:

The doctrine actually dovetails quite neatly with important Reformation concerns, especially the topoi of unmerited grace and predestination. One can, after all, hardly “merit” grace until one first exists; but Mary was given a singular grace at the first moment of her conception, which also means that she must in some sense have been predestined for her role as Mother of God from all eternity and quite independent of any later “merit” on her part. (126)

Relying especially upon the writings of Cyril of Alexandria, John Duns Scotus, and Hans Urs von Balthasar, Oakes presents Mary as “the quintessential example of unmerited grace” (147) and as “premier example of the elect of the human race” (137). Oakes emphasizes, as did the sixteenth-century reformers of every church tradition, that salvation comes only from the pure, unmerited grace of God. Rather than seeing the doctrines of unmerited grace and the Immaculate Conception in opposition to each other, Oakes sees them as complementary: “Mary’s Immaculate Conception both illuminates the doctrines of predestination, election, and sola gratia and also depends on them for its justification” (139).

While not addressing the Immaculate Conception of Mary particularly, Maxwell E. Johnson’s 2009 lecture, “The Virgin of Guadalupe in Ecumenical Context: One Lutheran’s Perspective,” likewise seeks ecumenism through Mariology. While Oakes was writing from a Roman Catholic perspective, Johnson, a Lutheran, argues that Protestants should take seriously the Virgin of Guadalupe.3 The Virgin of Guadalupe is a central figure in Latin American Christianity, particularly in Mexico. Johnson briefly relates the story of the Virgin’s appearance to Juan Diego in December 1531 and her instruction to have a church built on the site, just northeast of Mexico City. The subsequently built Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a central pilgrimage site in Latin America, and the Virgin of Guadalupe the symbol of Roman Catholicism in Mexico. After framing possible Protestant approaches to the Virgin of Guadalupe and considering the relationship between religious faith and culture, Johnson presents three reasons he believes Protestants can celebrate Mary of Guadalupe.

Johnson begins with a reflection on Mary’s song recorded in Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat, stating that Mary “proclaims to us the Gospel, the good news of our salvation in Christ, the good news of God who scatters the proud, exalts the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and remembers his promises to Abraham and his children forever” (61). Second, Johnson states that Protestants can celebrate Mary of Guadalupe because she embodies God’s unmerited grace, “God’s gracious act of salvation” (65). In this regard, Johnson further explores the relationship between grace and justice and quotes Daniel Migliore: “Acknowledgement of salvation by grace alone goes hand in hand with a passionate cry for justice and a transformed world” (qtd. 67). Finally, Johnson states that Protestants can celebrate Mary of Guadalupe because she is a type and model of what the church is to be in the world, not only as justified by grace alone through faith, but also as multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural (73).

Maria Clara Lucchetti Bingemer even more pointedly addresses Mariology from a Latin American perspective in her 2016 lecture, “Mary of Nazareth: Disciple, Mother, and Symbol (A Latin American Perspective).” Bingemer focuses on the importance of Mary in the Latin American church and particularly addresses the role of Mary in Mexico and Brazil in the section “Mary’s Identification with the Poorest: Guadalupe and Aparecida.”4 She highlights Mary as patroness of various Latin American countries, as “the one who represents some important values and who assists those who are at the lower levels of society and do not have access to benefits and privileges” (271), and as one who “works tirelessly for the advent of the Kingdom of God which will bring justice and peace to the poor and to all people” (279).

Bingemer helpfully contextualizes a Latin American understanding of Mary by considering the ways Marian theology came through colonization (260-263). While Bingemer acknowledges such devotion to Mary has not come easily in Latin America, she explains that it is now firmly established due to two factors: 1) Mary as one who brings dignity to the oppressed; and 2) Mary as mother, disciple, and builder of the Kingdom of God (262). Bingemer concludes her chapter with a beautiful reflection on the Incarnation and on Mary’s role therein (280-282). She begins:

In Jesus, Son of God, the same God assumed human flesh, flesh of men and women. The Son of the Father, pre-existent since all eternity, who also gave us the power of being children of God is also the son of Mary of Nazareth who was born of a woman. (280)

Elizabeth A. Johnson focuses similarly on liberation and salvation in her 2015 lecture, “‘The Mighty from Their Thrones’: Interpreting Mary of Nazareth”:5

[This lecture] proposes that we interpret Mary as a real historical woman who walked faithfully with God during her life’s journey and who now, joined to the church in the communion of saints, encourages people’s faithful discipleship in their own time and place. (237)

Johnson counters some historical images of Mary that have idealized her and put her on a pedestal, arguing rather that we need to encounter her as a real, historical person. She writes within the framework of feminist theology, which she defines as

a form of liberation theology that takes explicit account of women’s voices in interpreting the faith; it brings their long-excluded questions, suffering, wisdom, and struggle for human dignity into view when seeking the truth of religious matters, with a view toward the praxis of liberating justice as a mode of praising God. (238-239)

Johnson probes three biblical accounts: the Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56), the cross of Jesus (John 19:25-27), and the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11). For the first, Luke 1:39-56, she highlights this biblical passage as a rare one in which women’s voices—those of Elizabeth and Mary—are prominently heard. She stresses that in the Magnificat Mary “speaks in solidarity with the oppressed wives, famished mothers, and silenced women of the world” (241) and envisions a world defined by Mary’s song of praise: “peace breaking out, women treated as fully human persons, and all the children fed” (242). Johnson likewise stresses Mary’s maternal role in relation to Jesus on the cross in John 2:1-11 and its implication for our world today, stating that it defines “a hope for a world shaped by the reign of God, which would be a world with no more sorrowing mothers” (248). Finally, Johnson briefly considers the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), recognizing Mary as one who “stands among the marginalized … and speaks the hope of the needy. Her strong, compassionate impulse to call for relief corresponds to God’s own desire to spread the hospitality of life on the earth” (254-255). Johnson concludes that interpreting Mary in this way “is not only coherent with biblical and classical teaching but also capable of inspiring active hope for a just and peaceful world in which poor people, women, indeed all human beings and the earth, can flourish as beloved of God” (255).

In offering Advancing Mariology as a helpful entryway into Marian theology for those in Reformed or Evangelical Christian traditions, I am not arguing that this is in any way the purpose of the book. And at the same time, many other fruitful introductions to the field exist. Other helpful starting points include The Blessed Virgin Mary by Tim Perry and Daniel Kendall, S.J., Daniel L. Migliore’s “Woman of Faith: Toward a Reformed Understanding of Mary,” and Timothy George’s “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective.”6 While I do highly recommend Advancing Mariology for all CSR readers, the volume is also not designed as a polemic for promoting Marian doctrine. It rather stands on its own as an important record of recent research in Mariology by leading scholars in the field. Advancing Mariology thus reflects the excellent work being done in the field of Mariology, the close connection between research and spirituality within the field, and the vital role Marquette University’s Theotokos Lectures are playing in contributing to this field.

Cite this article
Mark A. Peters, “Advancing Mariology —An Extended Review”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 47:3 , 287-292


  1. The debate opened with Jack Mulder, Jr.’s article, “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception” in 2012 (CSR 39.1: 117-134). In 2014, R. Gary Chiang and Evelyn M. White challenged Mulder’s conclusions in “A Theologically Based Biological Challenge to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary” (CSR 43.3: 241-260), which was published together with Mulder’s response, “A Response to Chiang and White on the Immaculate Conception” (CSR 43.3: 261-265). In 2017, E. Jerome Van Kuiken published yet another response to Mulder, “Why Protestant Christians Should Not Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception: A Response to Mulder” (CSR 46.3: 233-247), and Mulder’s response appears in the present issue (CSR 47.3: 281-286).
  2. See, for example, Mark A. Peters, “J. S. Bach’s Meine Seel’ erhebt den Herren (BWV 10) as Chorale Cantata and Magnificat Paraphrase,” Bach 43/1 (2012): 29-64; and “Marian Theology in Printed Cantata Librettos for the German Lutheran Church, 1704-1754,” Yale Journal of Music and Religion 3 (2017): 93-118.
  3. See also Maxell E. Johnson, ed., American Magnificat: Protestants on Mary of Guadalupe (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010).
  4. See also Ivone Gebara and Maria Clara Bingemer, Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Poor (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1987).
  5. See also Elizabeth A. Johnson’s monumental Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003).
  6. Tim Perry and Daniel Kendall, S.J., The Blessed Virgin Mary, Guides to Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2013); Daniel L. Migliore, “Woman of Faith: Toward a Reformed Understanding of Mary,” in Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary, eds. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 117-130; and Timothy George, “The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective,” in Mary Mother of God, eds. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2004), 100-122.

Mark A. Peters

Trinity Christian College
Mark A. Peters is Professor of Music and Director of the Center for Teaching and the Good Life at Trinity Christian College.