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Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of the Saints: Toward a Common Christian Understanding

Alain Blancy, Maurice Jourjon, & Groupe des Dombes
Published by Paulist Press in 2002

Mary, Mother of God

Carl E. Braaten & Robert W. Jenso
Published by eerdemans in 2004

Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary

Beverly Roberts Gaventa & Cynthia L. Rigby
Published by Westminster John Knox in 2002

The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts

Frederica Mathewes-Green
Published by Paraclete Press in 2007

Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate

Dwight Longenecker & David Gustafson
Published by Brazos Press in 2003

The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus

Scot McKnight
Published by Paraclete Press in 2006

Mary for Evangelicals: Toward an Understanding of the Mother of Our Lord

Tim S. Perry
Published by IVP Academic in 2006


In a recent article in SEEN, the journal of Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), Beverly Roberts Gaventa poses the question, why bother with Mary? With this simple question, Gaventa identifies the attitude harbored by many Protestant Christians today. For some, however, this casual disregard moves to the level of uneasy suspicion and apprehension regarding any form of interaction with the Roman Catholic Church—theological or practical. In his foreword to Tim Perry’s Mary for Evangelicals, theologian William J. Abraham relates this reality well with an anecdote describing his mother’s great dismay on learning that he had preached in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Seattle for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration some twenty years ago. “She looked at me in pain and said plaintively, ‘Billy, you didn’t really do that now, did you?’ At that moment,” Abraham writes, “I knew I had crossed a line that thousands of evangelicals have crossed in the last generation. We had simply ceased to see Roman Catholicism as the theological enemy; we had entered into a whole new relationship in which neither side could ever be the same again” (Perry 9, emphasis mine). This story resonates particularly powerfully for me because I have wondered since I was a teenager whether God laughed or cried at our human tendencies to move into ecclesiastical and denominational enclaves that seem to divide and exclude rather than to unify and include believers as members in the one body of Christ, the church universal.

In the preface to Mary, Mother of God, an anthology of essays drawn from thepapers presented at a theological conference by the same name sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology at St. Olaf College (Minnesota) in June 2002, editors Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson note that,

Renewed interest in a theology of Mary was sparked in modern times by the Second Vatican Council and the ensuing ecumenical dialogues. The Council made clear that Mary is firmly connected to Christ and the church, and does not play an independent role in the mediation of salvation (viii).

In the decades that followed the Second Vatican Council, Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan would write the book that would broaden that interest to include not only theologians but historians and art historians in particular. That seminal work, Mary Through the Centuries—Her Place in the History of Culture, first published in 1996, inspired a whole body of new literature on the mother of Christ ranging from major scholarly investigations to devotional books with a renewed interest in Marian images that have generated numerous art exhibits and books devoted to the art about Mary. Most of the volumes discussed here represent but a sampling of the diversity of books on Mary that have been published since the release of Pelikan’s book. In his essay for the catalogue of Highly Favored, an exhibit sponsored by CIVA that currently is traveling to a variety of venues nationwide, Father Terrence Dempsey remarks that, “in the last ten years alone, over 200 books in English have appeared on Mary.”1 This burgeoning phenomenon gives new meaning to the title of the opening chapter of Mary, Mother of God, “Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed,” that was, interestingly, written by Jaroslav Pelikan as well. Indeed, we are now witnessing a renewed regard for the significance of Mary in the history of the church, theology, art, and culture.

My own interest in Mary was piqued some years ago when I was teaching a course on iconography in the ancient Umbrian hilltop town of Orvieto in the summer of 2002. As a means to understanding how images acquire meaning, the class focused on the development of three key events in the life of Christ—the Annunciation, The Last Supper, and the Crucifixion—as case studies. Readings from primary and secondary sources including scripture, apocryphal texts, theological, historical, and art historical studies informed our investigation of the development of the images based on these themes. For my students, most of whom came from evangelical Protestant backgrounds, this was the first time they had been asked to think about Mary as more than a foil for Jesus in the Christmas story. As part of the interdisciplinary approach the course was taking, I assigned the students a number of creative writing assignments for reflection and response that attempted to correspond with aspects of medieval and Renaissance devotional practice which involved “a visualizing meditation.”2 In their historical context, such practices were intended to bring about a spiritual transformation through the internalization of the experience and characteristics of the figures that were the subject of their meditation. Meditations on the Life of Christ and the Garden of Prayer, which was written specifically for young girls in 1454, are but two examples in a large body of medieval literature that promote this ideal. On reading my students’ assignments, I was stunned to find that the process of reflection and response actually had brought about just the kind of powerful experience and connection that was presumed would occur centuries ago. One student summarized especially poignantly the confusion that so many Protestants experience when they are confronted with the person of Mary and begin to grapple with what to do with her for the first time:

I’m having a little trouble making the distinction between love and utter confusion. I find that I’m falling “in like” with the Virgin Mary. I’m lusting after her humility. I’m eying up her tender face. I want to hold the hands that first clutched her breast and then caressed her child. I long to mimic her smile.

Yet, I simultaneously struggle with the desire to blow Mary off completely. I don’t want any part of her. I don’t want to have a go-between standing in the way of my relationship with God. She makes me nervous….

I might be jealous of Mary. I want to know what she has that other women of her time didn’t have. I want to know what she has that I don’t have. Perhaps it was courage. Perhaps a willingness to accept change. Perhaps a more humble spirit. Either way, she must have been miles ahead of me. Sometimes it almost feels like God was playing favorites when Mary was chosen. But then I realize that’s bull and I’m only just jealous because she was a normal human being and still everything that I’m not.

This response reveals the way one is confronted not only with Mary but with both Christ and one’s self when one looks at Mary.

This essay draws on a selection of the books on Mary published in recent years and includes books of many types with differing audiences and objectives in a purposeful effort to draw together the wide-ranging nature of the renewed interest in Mary, particularly among Evangelicals and other Protestants. Because of my own broad interests and background as an art historian, I intersperse reflection on aspects of the arts and humanities as they have informed my own thinking about Mary in relation to the books discussed. Many of the authors discussed in this essay have also experienced some kind of awakening to the need to reconsider the significance of Mary. Each has undertaken that task in a different manner—from the highly personal to the seriously historical and the deeply theological. All, however, expand our understanding into the person and place of Mary within the history and theology of the Church and Christian devotion.

Key Twentieth-Century Developments

So what has brought about the current surge of interest in Mary more specifically? Tim Perry identifies three “Marian main events” in the 20th century in his last chapter in the section on Mary in the History of the Church in Mary for Evangelicals that he sees as critical developments that bring us to the present moment: the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary, the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, and the “new plurality of voices” speaking to the issue of Mary beginning in the 1970s (239-63). This “new plurality of voices” encompasses many different theological perspectives: feminist and liberation theology, contextual theology, as well as inquiries coming from many different Protestant denominations that spawned new ecumenical dialogues on many subjects that continue today.

The Dogma of the Assumption of Mary

The first “event” is the official establishment of the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary proclaimed by Pope Pius XII in 1950, a step that raises Mary’s official stature to a new level. This proclamation, however, culminates a century of heightened Marian devotion that began with Pius IX’s bull on Mary’s immaculate conception in 1854. That proclamation establishes that Mary is, in Perry’s words, “from her conception…exempt from original sin, while from that same instant…saved by Christ” (232). As is realized so often by those who make the effort to study Catholic belief, while Catholic dogma consistently exalts Mary’s position beyond that which is comfortable for most Protestants, it always stops short of seeing her as without the need for salvation or raising her to the status of her son, Jesus Christ. In this particular case, her exemption from sin is not a result of her own doing but a result of God’s grace making her an appropriate vessel to be the theotokos, the Mother of God or God-Bearer, as it is translated more accurately. While popular belief since the earliest days of the Church frequently has blurred the roles of Mary and Christ, the carefully articulated limits of Mary’s status reveal the necessity of distinguishing between popular practice and official church teaching.

One of the most interesting factors Perry identifies as leading to the establishment of these two doctrines is the assessment of the “world political situation.” Citing Fulton J. Sheen, the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was designed to counter nineteenth-century perceptions of the “inherent goodness of the human race by reminding the world that all save two had been touched by original sin”(242). A century later, in the aftermath of two world wars and growing anxiety regarding the possibility of nuclear extinction, the declaration of the bodily assumption was intended to present an alternative to “materialist theories” such as communism that offered little hope regarding the state of the world “by presenting the true future of the human race as foreshadowed in one singular individual.” In this scheme Mary is a kind of sign, as the one who is associated with Jesus most intimately, of that which awaits the believer.

The Second Vatican Council

The second “event” is the Second Vatican Council which opened in 1962 under Pope John XXIII and closed in 1965 under Pope Paul VI who went on to oversee its implementation. Perry’s discussion reveals the vigorous tug-of-war that took place between factions pushing for a further elevation of the status of Mary as “Mediatrix of all Graces” with some members advocating her designation as coredemptrix as equal with Christ in the “objective accomplishment of salvation” and those “Marian minimalists” who sought (quoting Adrian Hastings’ 1968 volume A Concise Guide to the Documents of the Second Vatican Council) “the return on all sides of the Church’s life to a more scriptural and liturgical way of viewing things…not so much to advance but to deepen and purify Marian devotion” (246).The minimalists prevailed. The Council reaffirmed Mary’s high status as “highest after Christ and closest to us” yet acknowledges that she, like all other believers, is “one with all those who are to be saved.” She is, as Perry puts it, “the representative of all believers, for she is the church in eschatological relief” (247).But most significantly, the Council lays to rest the question of whether Mary is an agent in salvation along with Christ. While her mediation on behalf of others continues in heaven, it is an extension of the mediation to which all Christians are called and “neither takes away anything from, nor adds anything to, the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator” (248). With this clear declaration of Christ as the exclusive and completely sufficient agent of salvation, those uneasy about the Marian emphasis in Catholicism and Protestants in particular, were now able to undertake a reconsideration of the significance of Mary in Christian history and theology. Nevertheless, the question of whether the Roman Catholic Church might designate Mary coredemptrix appears to reemerge on a regular basis, just as it has down through the history of the Church. A recent example of this occurred in the late 90s. Pope John Paul II’s evident devotion to Mary generated widespread reports about whether he was planning to “cap his career” by instituting a new dogma causing the Vatican to come out with a statement definitively quashing such speculation.3 None other than Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Benedict XVI, spoke to his own concerns about overdrawing the role of Mary.

[T]he formula ‘Co-redemptrix’ departs to too great an extent from the language of Scripture and of the Fathers and therefore gives rise to misunderstandings…. Because Mary is the prototype of the Church as such and is, so to say, the Church in person, this [truth of Christ’s] being ‘with’ [us] is realized in her in exemplary fashion. But this ‘with’ must not lead us to forget the ‘first’ of Christ: Everything comes from Him…. Mary, too, is everything that she is through him. The word ‘Co-redemptrix’ would obscure this origin. For matters of faith, continuity of terminology with the language of Scripture and that of the Fathers is itself an essential element; it is improper simply to manipulate language (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God and the World, Peter Seewald, ed.; Ignatius, 2000; quoted in Longenecker and Gustafson’s Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate, 197).

David Gustafson and Dwight Longenecker debate this issue of whether Mary can be viewed as sharing in the work of redemption. From a Catholic perspective, Longenecker expresses his own serious reservations about the wisdom and appropriateness of establishing a dogma of Mary as coredemptrix, explaining:

With the actual terms being used, it is difficult to get around the idea that Co-Redeemer must mean “equal partner in redemption.” But that is not what Catholics mean by the term. So let’s use the word “partner” instead. I can see that Mary is a partner with her Redeemer inasmuch as her “yes” to God allowed her to participate in the plan of redemption in a unique way and reverse Eve’s “no” (197).

To this, Gustafson replies, offering a stark Evangelical perspective,

I think your clarification doesn’t satisfy Evangelical concerns. We’re not content just so long as Mary remains no more than a junior partner of the Redeemer; we think he had no partners in redemption. Like [John Henry Cardinal] Newman said, he was alone. He accomplished not just 95 percent of our redemption, not just 99 percent, but all of it (197).

This exchange reflects both the challenge of defining and understanding accurately such terms and the importance of attempting to do so if we are to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings. No doubt such issues will continue to be raised but this case serves as a useful reminder that speculation about the intentions of some person or institution may be just that and must not be given too much credence without clear evidence to support such assertions.

Tim Perry concludes his discussion of the Second Vatican Council in Mary for Evangelicals by identifying the ways in which these reforms and the intended revitalization through purification of Marian devotion are to be governed “by biblical, liturgical, ecumenical and anthropological guidelines” (250). The words and modes of veneration are to have a “biblical imprint.” Devotional forms should not neglect communal worship and should “lead back to the church’s central liturgical rite, the Eucharist” (250). Significantly, if these first two are followed, Marian devotions will be essentially ecumenical and should take into consideration historical and cultural distinctions with regard to the form they might take. The articulation of these criteria not only tempered but helped to reverse the trend of the previous century to elevate the status of Mary within the Roman Catholic world. But perhaps more significantly it laid out parameters that made it possible for many who stood to the side of Catholic teaching and those outside of the Catholic Church to find points of contact. With all of this in view, it is not difficult to see how the Second Vatican Council was a pivotal event not just for Roman Catholics but for the Christian church as a whole because it established the conditions for a new ecumenism to take root and flourish. Although it is viewed widely as a positive development for the Roman Catholic Church in the way that it encouraged the reading of the scriptures by the laity along with efforts to make worship more accessible through the use of the vernacular and the introduction of contemporary music, Vatican II was not without its downside for many. I was reminded of this recently at a conference when the Father of the local university parish shared some of his own experience growing up in the years following Vatican II when the catechism involving extensive doctrinal instruction and memorization was replaced by a program of instruction through “burlap and hugs”—a witty reference to the emphasis on banners and personal affirmation. Presented with what he described as a watered down version of the faith that lacked any force or impact, the Father recounted his journey of discovery as a young man of a Christ who was so compelling as to command his allegiance and love when he began to dig more deeply into the scriptures and the teachings of the Catholic Church. His experience serves as a reminder of the need to consider both teachings and practice and the ways that they may at times diverge.

The “New Plurality of Voices”—Feminist and Liberation Theology

The third “event” identified by Perry is really more of a development resulting from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council—as proponents of Protestant, feminist and liberation theology turn their attention to reconsider who Mary is and what she represents. In an illuminating discussion of Elizabeth Johnson’s Truly Our Sister (Continuum, 2004) and Tina Beattie’s God’s Mother, Eve’s Advocate (Continuum, 2002), two books purportedly presenting a feminist perspective, Perry reveals the widely divergent viewpoints that exist under the umbrella of feminist theology. Concluding that traditional Marian attributes that emphasize her symbolic function within the faith have, according to Perry, “so historically marginalized women and promoted misogyny,” Johnson provides a reading of Mary as “a woman of Spirit” who is “truly our sister” in her very ordinariness, her faith, and her affiliation with those who suffer (253-54). In contrast, Beattie represents a perspective more typical of European feminist theologians who do not feel the need to reject the traditional symbolic attributes of Mary arising from the doctrines of the immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, and bodily assumption but provides a “gynocentric refiguration of Marian symbolism,” in Beattie’s words, of Mary as mother, virgin, daughter, and woman that seeks to elevate these identities in and of themselves (254-55). Marshalling a plethora of feminist catch-phrases and concepts, Perry summarizes the point on which Johnson and Beattie agree—not surprisingly—that

traditional understandings of Mary…in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church’s male leadership, perpetuate false gender binaries in which the male/masculine is first essentialized and then divinized while the female/feminine remains associated at best with creaturelines sand at worst with fallen humanity and its corruptive sexuality. For both, Mary must be returned to the laity (255-56).

Perry follows his discussion of feminist theology with a consideration of liberation theology that focuses on Mary as the prophetic voice of the poor. Comparing a book by Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation (Trinity, 1997) with Leonardo Boff’s book The Maternal Face of God (Orbis, 1987) published one decade apart, Perry demonstrates the way that ideological lenses can bring fresh insight but just as often may introduce the danger of filtering out or distorting equally relevant aspects of the subject under consideration as well as a barrage of dizzying jargon. Mary’s courage and role in helping to establish a new community that “was to carry the message of human liberation” supersedes all else. Marian dogmas only serve to distance Mary from this prime calling and must be minimized. While Boff and Balasuriya seem to agree on this fundamental tenet of liberation theology—social justice as the supreme message of the gospel that accords the poor and downtrodden a preferential status that subordinates most if not all other considerations—Perry sees Boff merging aspects of Mary as the Latin American Catholic feminine ideal with contemporary theory regarding the non-rational feminine principle that lurks in the “collective human unconscious” (256-57).

By “the feminine,” Boff means “the pole of darkness, mystery, depth, night, death, interiority, earth felling, receptivity, generative force, and the vitality of the human,” while the opposite pole, “the masculine,” refers to “light, sun time, impulse, surging power, order, exteriority, objectivity, reason.” The former evinces itself in “repose, immobility, immanence, a longing for the past, and a certain darkness,” while “aggressiveness, transcendence, clarity, the thrust toward transformation, the capacity to impose order and project in to the future” mark the latter. When Latin American Marian enthusiasm is read through the lenses provided by Boff’s “feminine,” Mary—the virtual embodiment of this principle in her humility, silence and service to others—becomes the revelation of the divine feminine to the world. She functions, as it were, as an incarnation of the feminine divine (257).

Interestingly, these are some of the very conceptions of Mary that Nora O. Lozano-Díaz finds so problematic and objectionable in her essay “Ignored Virginor Unaware Women: A Mexican-American Protestant Reflection on the Virgin of Guadalupe” in Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby. Referencing Stephen B. Bevans’ concepts of contextual theology (Models of Contextual Theology, Orbis, 1994), Lozano-Díaz establishes the philosophical framework for her thinking that “the contextualization of theology is imperative if it is going to be pertinent” (Gaventa and Rigby, 85). ForLozano-Díaz, this means that her identity as a Protestant Mexican-American woman is essential to her experience of and assessment of the Virgin of Guadalupe and how she has affected the lives and perceptions of not only Latina women but Latinos as a whole. The Virgin of Guadalupe is not just a religious symbol but permeates the Mexican identity because children hear constantly that “todos los mexicanos somos Guadalupanos”—all Mexicans are followers of Guadalupe—and her image appears everywhere. Lozano-Díaz provides an illuminating account of the Protestant Latin experience and the distinct ways in which Protestant Latinos attempt to stand apart from aspects of the dominant Catholic culture. She explains how Protestants seldom name their daughters Mary or Guadalupe and women’s church groups shun the name Mary in favor of other female biblical figures or missionary women, distinguishing themselves determinedly from their Catholic counterparts. The Virgin of Guadalupe and the Virgin Mary combine to provide a model of the ideal role of women for Hispanic women. Quoting Rosa M. Gil and Carman Inoa Vázquez in their book The María Paradox (Putnam’s, 1996) that bears the subtitle How Latinas Can Merge Old World Traditions with New World Self-Esteem, Lozano-Díaz undertakes her own deconstruction of Latin marianismo:

Marianismo is about sacred duty, self-sacrifice, and chastity. This cultural phenomenon focuses on dispensing care and pleasure, not receiving them. The marianismo mentality fosters an environment in which women live in the shadows, literally and figuratively, of their men (father, boyfriend, husband, son), children, and family (Gaventa and Rigby, 90).

Recounting Gil and Vázquez’s “ten commandments of marianismo,” Lozano-Díaz concludes,

Obviously marianismo is an outdated cultural structure that is oppressive for Mexican-American women. Gil and Vázquez highlight that the ultimate expression of marianismo is the noble sacrifice of self.

Marianismo erodes the self-esteem of Mexican-American women. Although not every element of marianismo affects all Mexican and Mexican-American women in the same way and with the same intensity, I believe that all of these women are affected by marianismo. Consequently, they need to challenge these cultural stereotypes in order to discover and develop themselves and their self-worth. They must engage in this challenge in order to live fully as human beings made in the image of God.

One way to do this is to look for new readings of the Lady of Guadalupe (91).

These “new readings” that Lozano-Díaz offers for consideration must necessarily come from a “feminist liberative perspective that promotes freedom and espouses a holistic life for Mexican and Mexican-American women” since traditional readings have come from “patriarchally oriented views” (91). Referencing the work of Jeanette Rodríguez and Virgilio Elizondo, who view the Virgin through the lens of liberation theology, the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531 becomes a symbol of hope and empowerment to indigenous people. This, however, provides an insufficient basis for overturning the traditional image of Guadalupe and marianismo for Lozano-Díaz. In keeping with her Protestant heritage, she asserts that the Bible is the best resource seen through a feminist lens. Thereby Mary the passive vessel becomes an active agent exercising her free will to “take the mission that God had for her. She did not consult anybody,” writes Lozano-Díaz, “about becoming a mother, not even her future husband” (93). Challenging “traditional” perceptions of Mary’s submissiveness and primary role as motherhood, she concludes,

This Mary and her liberating qualities can be a model for Mexican and Mexican-American Protestant women in their struggles to achieve liberation and justice because she provides them with a new biblical model of how to be a woman…[and] to confront and challenge the oppressive characteristics that have been ascribed to the Lady of Guadalupe (94).

These interpretations of the character of Mary as prophet and advocate of the poor and oppressed are recognized widely outside of feminist and liberation theology as well and the words of her Magnificat recorded in Luke chapter one are understood commonly as a kind of prophetic announcement that marks the coming of a new age where the Lord will bring “down rulers from their thrones” and fill “the hungry with good things” sending “the rich away empty.” The danger, however, in focusing the meaning of these events on the liberation of specific groups of people rather than seeing them as a comprehensive overturning of the earthly order is to risk placing ourselves at the center of the Gospel message instead of Christ. In her essay, Lozano-Díaz provides an insider’s view of Latino culture, the peculiar place of Protestants within that culture, and the particular experience of Latina women that raises important questions for all Christians regarding how culture and gender identity inform our theological understandings.

Protestant Perspectives

I was struck recently with how far removed many Protestant Christians are now from many aspects of the Christian tradition when a group of my undergraduate students were presenting an analysis of a print titled Mother and Child by the Harlem Renaissance artist Romare Bearden that happens to be in the permanent collection of my college. After listening to them explain aspects of the color and design, I asked them to address the expressive content of the piece—in other words, what was the image about and what was it trying to convey. Their response was that it was showing the warmth and comfort of love and family. I asked what the subject was and its historical sources. I was stunned to learn that they did not recognize that what they were looking at was a rendition of an African-American Mary holding the Christ child bearing all of the earmarks of over 1500 years of representation of this subject. This incident reveals not one but two lacunae in the education of so many Protestants—the person of Mary and the Christian tradition. While this neglect is understandable given the birth of the Protestant church in a period when Mariology was at its height, the lack of historical perspective and connection with the work of the Church down through the centuries limits our capacity to understand our own time and its place in the outworking of God’s grace in human history and in each individual life.

The decades since the Second Vatican Council have witnessed a new interest on the part of Protestants in reevaluating their perceptions of the Catholic Church and of Mary in particular. The Council’s clarification of Christ’s exclusive role as Redeemer and Mary’s dependence and subordination to Him allowed Protestants to begin to consider questions and affiliations previously deemed irrelevant or a threat to the integrity of their Christian faith. In the opening of the introduction to Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary Gaventa and Rigby declare, “The time has come for Protestants to join in the blessing of Mary” (1).This represents the consensus of the Evangelical and Protestant authors under consideration in this essay—that whatever exaggerations or abuses may be perceived in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, generally Protestants have ignored Mary and have neglected to give her the consideration appropriately due her and that it is high time to right that wrong. Taking up debates that reach back to the earliest centuries of the church such as Mary as theotokos, Mother of God, the witness of scripture, and Mary’s role in the development of the early church following the crucifixion of Christ has brought new appreciation for Mary over the last four decades. Describing Mary as “the first Christian” may startle many Evangelicals and Protestants when they first hear the designation because they have never thought about the implications of the Gospel accounts in quite that way. But it puts into stark relief some important truths. Mary is indeed the first who accepts who Jesus is—the Messiah, the Promised One—bears witness to that truth by going to her cousin Elizabeth, and perseveres in that faith in spite of the collapse of all expectations of what his coming would mean to her and to the oppressed people of Israel to stand with him at the cross and bear witness to the empty tomb. Mary is a disciple of Jesus, as Gaventa writes in her essay “Standing Near the Cross,” but as his mother she is also the one whose heart will be pierced by a sword as she sees her son, the Promised One, despised and crucified. As Gaventa concludes,

To consider Mary in light of the cross summons, first, images of the mater dolorosa, the sheer fact of Mary’s grief and the grief of all who acknowledge the relentlessness of the human rejection of Mary’s child. Yet more is at stake than shared grief. Mary’s association with the cross recalls for Christians the scandal at the heart of the gospel: that God’s actions on our behalf meet ever and again with misunderstanding and rejection. In Mary’s “standing near the cross” (John 19:25) Christians may find themselves alongside the suffering world and its vulnerable God (56).

Blessed One presents a collection of essays by eleven Protestant theologians who were asked to consider Mary specifically as Protestants. Diverse in style and approach, nevertheless this volume offers rich and provocative ways of thinking about Mary. Organized into three sections, the essays loosely address the questions: Who is Mary? What can we learn about ourselves through Mary? and, What does Mary teach us about God? Two essays from this last section titled “Bearing Mary” reveal some significant dimensions of what we can learn from the Reformers themselves.

One of the striking revelations that comes from digging into Protestant views of Mary is the contrast between the regard that many of the Reformers had for her and her virtual absence within most Protestant churches now, with the exception of her role in the nativity story at Christmas and perhaps an acknowledgement of her presence at the cross at Easter. But even these references tend to treat her in a perfunctory manner with no inquiry into how she might help us to understand ourselves or God better. In his essay “Woman of Faith: Toward a Reformed Understanding of Mary” in Blessed One, Daniel L. Migliore discusses this disjunctionbetween the Reformers and the contemporary church. The 1967 and 1991 confessions of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. “do not even mention her name. Nor is there any reference to her in the new children’s catechism recently approved by the General Assembly for use in Presbyterian congregations,” Migliore writes (117). Many contemporary Protestants in the pew would be surprised to learn that most of the Reformers accepted the designation of Mary as theotokos, understanding its Christological significance. Luther wrote a treatise on the Magnificat. Both Luther and Calvin presented her as an example of obedience and faith who should appropriately be honored and emulated, albeit avoiding exalted titles or formal ceremony. It is in fact Mary’s “fallibility” perhaps more than any other characteristic (in contrast with interests within the Catholic Church to see Mary as sinless, albeit due entirely to the grace of God to find her a vessel fitting to her role as Mother of God) that commends her as a model in the Protestant mind. Like Job, Abraham, David, and so many others who came before her, she struggles and misunderstands, yet persists in her faith in spite of those very limitations. She provides an example of the life of faith, it is true, but an example of one who is truly one of us.

In her essay for Blessed One, Lutheran theologian Lois Malcolm takes up the implications of Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat (1521) in her essay “What Mary Has to Say about God’s Bare Goodness.” Citing the “status inversion” proclaimed in the Magnificat where the lowly are exalted and the mighty are brought down, Malcolm presents a powerful and compelling discussion of Luther’s commentary, relating how being “regarded” by God when we are in the “depths” allows us to “trust” and to “love and praise God” (using Luther’s words here). “[I]t is precisely situations of distress or chaos that are the loci of God’s creative activity, which ‘creates out of nothing,’” writes Malcolm, provoking a recognition of God’s unique power and “bare goodness” (133-34). Another significant insight gleaned from Luther ’s commentary is that the message one receives depends on who one is—the lowly or high, for example—and how one then responds to God’s power—with joy and gladness or with fear and opposition. Luther’s commentary is not, as Malcolm presents it, so much a reflection on Mary and her unique role as mother of Christ but on the example that she provides for understanding the grace of God in the life of the believer and the promise of His “reign [which] will only be fully consummated in the future” (141). Cautioning that ignoring Mary’s “unique vocation” as Jesus’ mother limits our understanding not only of Mary but of God, nevertheless Malcolm demonstrates convincingly in a profound and provocative way that “the lesson that Mary…teach[es] is that God’s bare goodness, even when hidden or unfelt, gives the equanimity not only to defend the right or the truth…but to face whatever may come with an ‘even mind’” (141).

Ecumenical Dialogue

Another broadly defined dimension of this “third event” that Perry identifies is the renewed interest by Protestants that continues into the present as witnessed by some of the publications under consideration here. But perhaps more importantly, the reforms of Vatican II which tempered and defined, among other things, Marian devotion opened up a whole new level of dialogue between Protestants and Catholics. Talks between Catholics and various Protestant denominations including Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and Lutherans have taken place at various points over the last several decades. Some have continued over a period of decades, such as those with Pentecostals. Some have been suspended, such as those with Baptists. And others have borne tangible fruit as in the case with the publication of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification signed by Catholic and Lutheran leaders in 1999. Spearheaded by Chuck Colson and Father Richard John Neuhaus in 1994, the project “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” caused a great deal of discomfort initially and even distress for members of both camps but is now viewed more widely as a sign of God’s spirit at work in the church worldwide to draw Christians together (see Longenecker and Gustafson, 219-221 for reference to these developments).

Le Groupe des Dombes in France is yet another example of this phenomenon but also reveals the way in which some have worked diligently over many decades to help strengthen the unity of the Christian church. Composed today of twenty Catholic and twenty Lutheran or Reformed theologians, the group began as early as 1937 with the gathering of French-speaking ecumenists interested in the issue of Christian unity. Such conversations provided some of the impetus for the ecumenical stance that would be adopted by Vatican II. According to the foreword of their book, Mary in the Plan of God and in the Communion of Saints, published originally in French in 1999, Le Groupe des Dombes and its aspirations are described as follows:

All of the members share a common theological interest and are concerned with studying and praying together in order to overcome the historic divisions that have plagued the Christian Church, especially since the sixteenth century. Their goal is to clear the way for the union of Christian Churches by gradually removing obstacles to that union inherited from previous centuries and to formulate anew the common Christian faith. Part of this goal is also a call for metanoia, a change of heart and mind, and for conversion, a willingness to recognize the faults and errors on both sides that have caused the division and to push for a really mutual conversion. Their meetings are marked by periods of meditation, study, and prayer together; each day the liturgy is celebrated, Catholic or Protestant (Blancy, Jourjon,and the Dombes Group, 2).

Although their goals may extend beyond what many Christians on both sides of the theological debate would find feasible or, in some cases, desirable, this enterprise reflects a spirit for genuine unity within the Christian Church that is becoming increasingly widespread and formalized. Their book is the result of their annual meetings from 1991 to 1997 that were devoted to the consideration of “Mary’s role in God’s plan of salvation.” This “document” as they describe it, presents the findings of this extensive period of study with the enumeration of 338 points reflecting on history and scripture, disputed questions and issues pertaining to “the conversion of the churches.” While the heart of their enterprise is the desire for unity, they do not pursue facile compromise but instead a rigorous search for “authentic Christian faith,” debating and exhorting one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. What results is a surprisingly readable and informative record of their inquiry into the person and place of Mary in God’s plan of salvation, agreeing that Mary represents “the decisive and perfect example of the Yes which Christian faith must utter” (124). Significantly, this interest in unity within the Christian church extends to all of the historic branches of the church. We are witnessing channels being reopened between the Roman Catholic and Eastern churches.

In May 2005, I was visiting the fifth-century church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome when suddenly the lights began to come on all through the normally dark interior. As I proceeded toward the massive nave doors, one of the doors opened, flooding the nave with natural light. In that light stood the just recently elected Pope Benedict XVI escorting a group of invited guests who had just walked from the Basilica of Saint John Lateran about a mile to the east of Santa Maria Maggiore. The new pope was on his first official journey outside of the Vatican and had invited a number of Eastern Orthodox clerics to accompany him. This gathering of leaders of the two oldest branches of the historic Christian church, so long estranged, in that great Early Christian Basilica in the city of Rome where the church took firm root, was a remarkable and salutary event to witness, reflecting an openness and desire for healing and wholeness within the church that had seldom been seen before. The ecumenical movement that gained momentum following the Second Vatican Council appears to have opened up dialogue at a critical juncture in human history when Christians across the globe need to draw together to address an increasingly secular and hostile world.

The papers collected in Mary, Mother of God touch on a wide range of topics from diverse theological perspectives—Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Reformed, Evangelical. In “Born of a Woman: A Theological Meditation,” Lawrence S. Cunningham makes the point that the dispute over the designation of Mary astheotokos (God-Bearer) or christotokos (Christ-Bearer), proposed by Nestorius, was fundamentally a debate regarding the true nature of Jesus Christ—fully human and fully divine or merely the one having the superficial appearance of the other. It was a debate over the doctrine of the Incarnation. In the 5th century, the designation christokos, which may sound perfectly acceptable to our ears (after all, how can we quarrel with the designation of Mary as the mother of Christ?) accounted for only one of those natures—not both. As Cunningham puts it, “the conciliar Fathers understood clearly that words have consequences” (Mary, Mother of God, 37). The designation of Mary as theotokos laid to rest the claims of the Gnostics and Docetists, at least as official doctrine, identifying Jesus clearly as equally human and divine. Investigating the significance of the concept “born of a woman,” Cunningham invites reflection on the very particularity of the Incarnation—a particular woman who bore a particular man—Jesus who was no less than the Word of God come down. In view of the theology of creation/re-creation where God creates and Christ recreates, Mary’s “yes” to God takes on new significance.

Robert W. Jenson’s essay “A Space for God” in Mary, Mother of God presents a powerful and poignant discussion of the significance of Mary as the Mother of God. Jenson introduces a particular type of icon called the Virgin of the Sign that presents Mary with a “window” into her body that reveals the Christ child within her. Explaining that this particular type of icon is accompanied frequently by an inscription that is best translated “The Container of the Uncontainable,” Jenson highlights the incomprehensible nature of a God who would limit himself so as to be born of a woman in such a way that the outrageous absurdity of the idea that God would deign to do that begins to dawn. But with the recognition of that very absurdity comes a realization of what it means for God not just to choose but to want to dwell with us. While the Incarnation is the ultimate example of this desire and the lengths to which God will go to bring about our reunion with him, Jenson relates the ways that God demonstrated his desire to dwell with his people and they with him throughout the Old Testament—by dwelling in the Heavens which he created, in a particular way in the Tabernacle and Temple, to and through the patriarchs and prophets. By reviewing the many ways that God reached out to his people Israel time and time again only to have them reject Him, Mary’s assent maybe seen in a new light. As representative of her people Israel, she overturns their “no” with her “yes,” agreeing to be “God’s space in the world,” as Jenson puts it, bearing Immanuel, God with us (55-56). Jenson’s conclusions regarding the implications for understanding how this concept of Mary as “The Container of the Uncontainable” and heaven as a dwelling place for God and all those who have gone before us may be more problematic from Protestant and Evangelical perspectives, but his articulation of the ways that God has limited himself willingly down through the ages, persistently pursuing his desire to dwell with us and we with him, is compelling.

The two concluding essays in Mary, Mother of God contrast aspects of Orthodox theology with Evangelical Protestant perspectives. Kyriaki Karidoyanes Fitzgerald identifies three essential terms for Mary that are invoked frequently in the Orthodox liturgy and devotional practice: “Mother of God” or theotokos, “Ever-Virgin,” and “All-Holy.” From an Orthodox point of view, these terms encompass more than a literal understanding of the designations: “Mother of God” includes a recognition of “the kenosis, the self-emptying of God in order to become human,”“Ever-Virgin” refers not only to physical chastity but “a dynamic process focusing upon purity of heart…identified as a kind of unconditional integrity in the presence of the living God,” and “All-Holy” is an honorific designation that does not indicate worship which can only be offered to God but “veneration or honor [which] can rightly be offered to those human persons who are close to God.” It must be understood that “She is a full member of the human community who fulfilled her particular vocation,” no more but also no less (83-87). Identifying five theological observations about Mary—a life centered upon God, freedom, humility, collaboration with God, and relationship, Fitzgerald relates them to the call to holiness for each individual believer: “She is one with us in our humanity and in our discipleship. As such, she provides us with a valuable example of a person of faith. She is truly the one who ‘heard the word of God and kept it’ (Luke 11:28)” ( 99).

Timothy George examines five ‘Marian motifs’ from an evangelical framework: Daughter of Zion, the Virgin Birth, Mary Theotokos, Handmaiden of the Word, and Mother of the Church. George remarks that the emphasis evangelicals tend to place on the New Testament can at times limit their understanding of the full message of scripture and the relationship between the Old and New. He notes that evangelicalism’s emphasis on historic Christian orthodoxy actually provides many points of agreement with Catholics and other orthodox Christians—commitment to the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, for example, and the dual nature of Christ that underlies the designation of Mary as theotokos. George reveals a depth of understanding of the theological issues seen from the various branches of the Christian church, the perspective of the Reformers, and the conviction that one must differentiate between official teaching and doctrine and popular practice or beliefs, even as it applies to one’s own theological tradition. Following his discussion of the Reformers and of Luther in particular, he writes,

As the embodiment of sola gratia and sola fide, that is, the material and formal principles of the Reformation, Mary should be thus highly extolled in evangelical theology and worship. Why is this not the case? Why do evangelicals remember the Reformation critique of Marian excess but not the positive appraisal of Mary’s indispensable role in God’s salvific work (116)?

To this he offers two partial answers: the “pruning effect of the scriptural principle,” which means essentially that over time the Reformers tended to continue to abandon positions that did not find specific support in scripture, and what he calls “an ecclesiological hardening of the arteries,” which means, “To be an evangelical meant not to be a Roman Catholic” (117). George concludes by reflecting on the image of Mary sous la croix, under the cross, in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece where she “represents the church in its primary vocation and call to discipleship,” declaring along with John the Baptist that “He must increase [just as] I must decrease” (120-21).

Evangelical Interest

Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate takes the form of just that—a debate between authors Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, two former classmates at Bob Jones University raised in the American evangelical church whose spiritual journeys have taken them along different trajectories. The one, Longenecker, after attending an Episcopal church as a student, goes to study in England and is ordained as an Anglican priest. Dissatisfaction with the Anglican Church that “seemed to be unsure what she believed” and an interest in Catholic spirituality, liturgy and history eventually lead him in 1994 to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. The other, Gustafson, retained his commitment to his evangelical roots, becoming a successful lawyer; desiring a deeper understanding of the historical church and theology, he embarked on a program of self-directed study. A fluke (providential?) e-mail communication reconnects them and the acquaintanceship they had as students deepens into friendship that is built on their mutual commitment to identifying and living out what might be called a truly authentic Christian faith. From their exchanges emerges the question of the role of Mary. The vigorous give-and-take of the book presents an engaging discussion of Catholic and Evangelical perspectives that should stimulate thought on both sides. Courteous yet without mincing words, the honest conversational tone makes this book accessible to a broad lay audience, posing tough questions to both sides. Questions for Reflection, Study and Discussion with Others provided at the end of each chapter indicate the intent of the authors—to stimulate inquiry and interaction on these issues that can separate us from parts of the body of Christ.

Both Longenecker and Gustafson are driven by a fundamental desire to connect with the early Christian church in an effort to live an authentic Christian faith. But they diverge over the authority attributed to tradition by the Catholic Church and the singular authority ascribed to scripture for evangelicals. The posture of each author is reflected even in the two forewords with the encouraging openness of Richard John Neuhaus who suggests that the book be seen as “more [of] a fraternal conversation” (11) than a debate while J. I. Packer expresses cautious reservations,

This exchange about Mary is one facet of the great Reformational face-off between developed Roman Catholic ecclesiology (which includes the truth about Christ) on the one hand, and full-scale Protestant Evangelical Christocentricity (which includes the truth about the church) on the other (14).

Given Packer’s scholarly expertise on the Reformation and his deep knowledge of the extreme Mariology at the time, his caution is understandable, but it raises the question of whether the strict measures that virtually excised Mary from Protestant minds that may have been necessary then are appropriate now. Nevertheless, one of the prime themes that runs through the debate is the nature of the relationship (or balance) between this and that—tradition and scripture; the church and Christ; Christ and Mary; evangelical and catholic—while Longenecker refers to himself as an “evangelical Catholic,” Gustafson refers to himself as a “catholic Evangelical.”

In their discussion regarding the veneration of Mary, they turn to consider the example of the Roman Catholic National Shrine in Washington, D.C. as an example of the focus Mary is given in the Catholic Church exemplified by so many churches dedicated to her. Explaining the difference between veneration—honor—which is warranted by Mary and worship, which is appropriate only to God in Christ, as it is understood by Catholics, Longenecker identifies the many ways that both the fabric of a Catholic church in its traditional cruciform and the service of worship in the mass focus on Christ. He also raises an important point that Protestants would do well to remember before attaching too much significance to such traditions—that evangelical churches and Protestant schools often refer to biblical characters or churchmen such as Calvin, and whole denominations are named after Luther, Wesley, and Menno. One might ask what an outsider would make of the emphasis placed on figures such as C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and missionary martyrs like Jim Elliot in Protestant circles who at times seem to be placed high on pedestals not of their own making? The Longenecker-Gustafson debate highlights the ongoing challenge that Evangelicals and Protestants have in distinguishing between the teachings and doctrines of the church and personal practice and belief. Longenecker challenges Gustafson regarding what he calls the “‘either-or ’mentality”. It may also startle Protestant readers to learn that Catholics may find their neglect of Mary to be a kind of offense—not to her but to Christ. Clarifying the role Jansenism played in fostering the conception of Mary as mediatrix to counter the emphasis placed on Christ as harsh judge serves as a reminder that teaching and practice develop in the context of history, but does not alleviate the need to ensure right doctrine and correct practice.

One of the most interesting chapters revolves around the devotional practice of the rosary. Explicating the nature and purpose of the rosary with its focus on four sets of “mysteries” and its focus on the life, ministry, and passion of Christ demonstrates the Christological focus of what might be seen otherwise as a Marian devotional practice in keeping with the Catholic assertion that devotion to Mary always points to her Son. But the question of the appropriateness of invoking Mary to “pray for us” remains a point of debate. While Catholics (and a growing number of Protestants) view a request to Mary or one of the Saints who are “alive in Heaven with Christ” as no different from asking a friend or church member alive here on earth to pray on one’s behalf, still there can be widely varied understandings of the nature of that mediation (or advocacy) and the form of its efficacy depending on the individual. Nevertheless, this extension of the communion of the saints to include those who have gone before offers a provocative vision of the body of Christ. Perhaps the most interesting observation arising from their discussion of the Rosary comes from Gustafson, who acknowledges that prayer for him (and perhaps for many evangelicals and Protestants) is often “too much directed toward supplication…and not enough about adoration…. It would be very wholesome for me to have some routine or discipline in prayer that kept me focused outward, on Jesus Christ” (183). Concluding their debate, they arrive at a kind of impasse. Longenecker reiterates his interest in rediscovering the faith and practices of the early Church and his desire to see himself in continuity with those first believers: “Becoming a Catholic has meant entering into a wide and deep stream of Christian tradition, worship, and teaching whose source is in the apostolic church” (210). To this Gustafson replies that he has been surprised to “learn of the antiquity of Marian devotion” but whenever Longenecker points out that “such-and-such an instance of Marian devotion can be traced all the way back to the third century, [his] reflexive response is that [it’s] a couple centuries short” (211).

In his introduction to Mary for Evangelicals, Tim Perry identifies two events that prompted his decision to undertake this in-depth study of Mary: the first, a remark by a colleague that indicated that had he been at the Council of Ephesus, he would have sided with Nestorius to designate Mary christotokos, revealing his lack of understanding of the real issue at stake—the dual nature of Christ; and the second, papers presented by Timothy George (“The Blessed Virgin Mary in Evangelical Perspective”) and Jaroslav Pelikan (“Most Generations Shall Call Me Blessed”) at the 2002 conference sponsored by the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology discussed above that “underscored the relative silence of Protestant theology generally and evangelical theology particularly.”Published in 2006 and the most heavily documented of the studies under consideration here, Mary for Evangelicals builds on the work that came before providing a methodical and frequently meticulous three-part study of Mary—starting with her representation in scriptural accounts, followed by an overview of Mary in the history of Christian thought, and ending with considerations of the implications for the development of an “evangelical Mariology.” Of all of the books discussed here, Perry’s offers the most extensive consideration of the scriptural references to Mary, including chapters on the synoptic Gospels, the letters of Paul, and the distinctive perspective offered by John’s writings. In the final section of the book, the extensive footnotes accompanying the first two sections disappear as Perry lays out the findings from his study for those of his own ecclesiastical affiliation—evangelicals. Acknowledging a range of possible objections that might be proffered against his conclusions, including that he has “overlooked or forgotten the history of the controversy surrounding Mary in Western Christianity,” he writes,

The result is an understanding of Mary squarely within and indeed beneath the rubric of Christology. Beliefs about Mary arise from and are intended to clarify our beliefs about Christ. Indeed, they are intended not to glorify Mary as much as they are intended to glorify her Son.

Those beliefs include the ongoing significance of the virginal conception for Christology, a willingness to reconsider claims to perpetual virginity and recognition of the deep symbolic connection between the Mother of God and the people of God. Added to these are convictions concerning the place of Mary in God’s plan to save the world and an acceptance of Mary’s sanctity defined biblically as perseverance rather than traditionally as immaculate conception. Finally, the picture is completed when we acknowledge Mary’s intercessory, mediatory and coredemptive role in the plan of salvation (307).

Recognizing that this may be the most controversial of his conclusions, he explains,

I remain convinced that a great deal of pious or affective language about the Blessed Virgin perpetuates a grave misunderstanding of her subordinate role, effectively creating an equal, alternative Savior (308).

Closing with his hope that he has “helped to clear away some of the polemical baggage” arising out of the Reformation on both sides “in order that productive conversations may take place,” he expresses alongside many others today an interest in fostering a spirit of unity within the larger church (308).

The Search for the Person of Mary

Recently I received a figurine of Mary from a friend who learned that I was writing a review essay on the recent surge of interest in Mary from all quarters of the church. It is a small white porcelain figure with head slightly bowed and hands clasped together in a gesture of prayer or devotion. It reminded me of a remark by the noted Renaissance Art Historian Msgr. Timothy Verdon: “At the heart of Marianiconography we always find her Son, even when He is not actually represented.”4 The first few centuries of the Christian faith were marked by disputes over who Christ really was and the implications for the church and its practices. Is it any wonder that these debates also included questions about Mary, his mother? Two recent books take up this age-old issue: The Lost Gospel of Mary: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts by Frederica Mathewes-Green (2007) and The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus by Scot McKnight (2006), offering distinctly different approaches that provide useful insight.

The Witness of a Faithful Life

In The Lost Gospel of Mary,Mathewes-Green presents translations of three ancient texts that refer to Mary with commentary. The first, better known as the Protevangelium of James, dates to as early as AD 150. “Lost” to the Western Christian tradition, Mathewes-Green makes the point that it was “never lost in the East—on the contrary it was enthusiastically embraced and widely circulated and translated” into numerous languages (8). Reviewing how this text relates to many of the debates of the first centuries (some of which continue today) such as how to interpret designations as Jesus’ brother and implications for whether Mary remained a Virgin throughout her life, Mathewes-Green identifies Mary’s purity as one of its dominant themes. Making no claims for the origins of the text other than structural evidence that suggests it was drawn from oral tradition, the overriding significance of this text to Mathewes-Green is the way that it reveals the “great affection” the early Christians had for Mary and the way they desired to remember her, “a tender figure who deserves protection” (87). The second text is the earliest recorded prayer addressed to Mary scribbled on a scrap of papyrus found in Egypt dated to AD 250 that is still used in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. It reads, “Under your compassion we take refuge, Theotokos; do not overlook our prayers in the midst of tribulation, but deliver us from danger, O only pure, only blessed one” (107). It is interesting to note that already the term theotokos is being applied to Mary. Noting the historical circumstances in which these early Christians lived where tribulation and danger and the need for refuge and compassion were realities because “their faith was still a capital crime” makes the invocation all the more poignant. Mathewes-Green continues to consider the implications that can be drawn from each phrase of the prayer for what those early Christians believed—that Mary was “present” and that her prayers were effective. Just what this means remains something of a mystery of how we cooperate in God’s work. Referring to Paul’s concept of synergoi, she explains in one of the best explanations of this perspective:

[T]hose who join together in prayer begin to be affected by prayer in turn. As they draw near to God, they begin to understand more clearly where he is leading and how to cooperate with him…. “Prayer changes things,” and often the first thing that changes is us. So when you ask earthly or heavenly friends to pray, you’re not asking them to make the request happen by their own magic powers. You’re asking them to join you as synergoi in this mysterious thing, the will and work of God. And, somehow, that participation sets dynamic forces in motion (95).

The third text she considers is the “Annunciation Hymn” (also known as the Akathist Hymn) by the Syrian poet St. Romanos dating to around AD 520, which is still sung in Eastern Orthodox churches today. This hymn reflects a new level of complexity with “dozens of Scriptural allusions and theological paradoxes, all centering on the Virgin’s pregnancy” (109-10). What is most notable here is the way the text celebrates the Incarnation in the century that follows the dispute over the true nature of Christ and the appropriate designation for Mary, which was settled by the Council of Ephesus in 431. Acknowledging the “extravagant praise” this hymn offers to Mary, Mathewes-Green is firm in her conclusion that these three ancient texts demonstrate that these early Christians did not mistake her for God or attribute to her supernatural powers, but saw her as a very real, very human but exemplary model who was “honored for one particular moment in her holy life: she said yes to God” (131).

Scot McNight’s The Real Mary attempts to take the reader into an understanding of the world that Mary inhabited so that we can understand better the significance of the limited information that scripture provides. In doing so, he fleshes out a powerful and provocative image of the girl who would become the mother of Jesus and grow into the woman who would stand with him near the cross. Joyful, accepting, pondering, doubting, challenging, grieving—McNight’s Mary is all of these things and more—a complex woman struggling to believe, not understanding fully what all it means. Reading his discussion of just what it meant for a betrothed woman to be found pregnant and not by her intended husband brought to mind the opening scene of the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1965 film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew which was, notably, dedicated to Pope John XXIII. We see a close-up of Mary’s somber face; then cut to a close-up of Joseph. Returning to Mary, she looks down, and we see her figure framed by grotto-like stone arch revealing her pregnant body. Suddenly Joseph turns and leaves as Mary watches sorrowfully, a dark doorway behind her framing a woman holding a child in her arms, foreshadowing the coming of the child she will soon bear. Joseph, overcome with grief and anguish, looks out over Nazareth, understanding that this pregnancy will cause each of them to be reviled and ridiculed, and cast out of Jewish society no matter what he does. This reality was made poignantly clear in McNight’s book where he recounts how Mary’s pregnancy was just cause for stoning in first-century Judea and Joseph, as her betrothed, was expected to divorce her or accept his own shame. These facts make both Mary’s and Joseph’s assent to God’s plan all the more remarkable. McKnight truly manages to bring to life Mary and the dilemmas she faced, making her a very real, very human yet remarkably resilient and, before all else, faithful woman. In keeping with the Bible teacher he is, McKnight asserts that the real Mary with her distinctive calling bears witness to five qualities of faith that we should learn from: “faith leads us to Jesus,” “faith is uniquely personal,” “faith is real,” “faith develops,” and “faith is courageous and dangerous” (145-50). Quoting Kathleen Norris in her forward to Blessed One, “When I am called to answer ‘Yes’ to God, not knowing where this commitment will lead me, Mary gives me hope that it is enough to trust in God’s grace and promise of salvation,” (Gaventa and Rigby, x) McKnight concludes that not only is it appropriate to honor Mary, but in doing so perhaps we will be, like Mary (referring to the prophetic call of the Magnificat), “encouraged to let our hearts and minds swell in bigger thoughts for our world” (150). As a Protestant, often I have felt some discomfort with the prominence of place often given to Saints in the Catholic Church, particularly when I have spent time in Europe, their lives chiseled in stone on the facades of churches with chapels dedicated to all manner of local and canonized figures, many of whose names meant little or nothing to me. However, when I came to realize that these figures were in fact witnesses to the faith who in many cases had some special connection to the local people, I began to understand that they, too, were members of that cloud of witnesses of which we will someday be apart and I could appreciate them in a whole new light. Coming upon a chapel dedicated to Joseph, I found myself wondering what it must have meant to be asked to be a father to the Son of God and was struck dumb by the thought. Mary, perhaps more than any other, should be acknowledged as one of those witnesses who by virtue of her particular vocation testifies to God’s love and care in a distinct way.

Cooperating in the Work of God

In her essay “Mary and the Artistry of God” in Blessed One, Cynthia L. Rigby invites the reader to consider the common experience of artists in the process of making art as analogous to the nature of our cooperation in the work of God. Challenging recent interpretations regarding whether or not Mary had a “choice” in accepting God’s will for her, she presents an alternative way of thinking about the relationship. In the way that artists of all stripes—painters, writers, musicians—describe frequently, an idea may come to them from somewhere outside of themselves that is so compelling, so fully in keeping with who they are called to be that they must act on that idea, unable to rest until it is brought to fruition. Rigby suggests that this is the way God frequently operates with his people—calling us to work that is consistent with who He has made us to be so that we can do nothing other than respond with a resounding “yes”! Rigby explains that this is the very nature of Mary’s cooperation in the redemptive work of God.

A writer writes. The Word becomes flesh. Mary bears God. The writer writes because she is a writer. To write (for the writer) is to exist in consistency with essence. It is to be free, to be an artist. The Word becomes flesh because God, in the divine freedom, wills not to be without us but with us and for us…. Mary bears God in freely acting out who she is as theotokos….Mary reminds us of who we are as bearers of God, humbly submitting to and courageously claiming our place in relationship to the Art that overshadows us, lays claim to us, and continues both to grow in and remain distinct from us…. In becoming a particular, finite being, God conveys that God is not only for humanity in general (pro nobis: “for us”) but foreach of us in particular (pro me: “for me”). As Mary is called, by name, to participate in the work of God, so we are also called by name (154-55).

What a compelling vision! Why bother with Mary? In a word, Emmanuel—God with Us.

Cite this article
Rachel Hostetter Smith, “The Trouble With Mary? Considering the Person and Place of Mary in Christian Theology and Personal Devotion”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 37:3 , 357-379


  1. SEEN, VII.2, 2007: 4.
  2. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press,1972), 46.
  3. See “‘Coredemptrix’ Nixed” in the U.S. Catholic, November 1997. René Laurentin, clearlycautioning against such a step, provides a good overview of the issues involved in its consid-eration in a brief article titled “Proposed Dogma: ‘Mary: Co-Redemptrix. Mediatrix, andAdvocate.’ Something to Consider Before You Sign” published originally in The Tablet (Janu-ary 31, 1998).
  4. Mary in Western Art published in association with Hudson Mills Press, 2005.

Rachel Hostetter Smith

Taylor University
Rachel Hostetter Smith holds the Gilkison Chair of Art History at Taylor University.