Don’t Forget About Mary

The Mother of God? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

Many of us who are Protestants can get nervous at this point in talking about Mary. It’s understandable. We don’t agree with the way other faith traditions have treated Mary and given her a place that we think is way too high. This would be a mistake. Let’s consider for instance the social gospel. This is the idea that Jesus came to tell us to love one another and give to the poor so we should be caring for the poor.

I’m as strong a capitalist as they come and realize that many people here see liberalism and remind us that Jesus came to teach the Kingdom of God, that His rule was coming, and to die for our sins. All of this is no doubt true. The great danger is that in acting against the social gospel, we can miss one point. Jesus did want us to care for the poor and to love our fellow man. Conservative capitalists should seek to do this.

Let’s take this back to Mary. At the start, I used the term Mother of God and this already gets people wondering. “God doesn’t have a mother! God has always been!” Yes. The title can be confusing, but while such objections can be raised, let’s make sure that we don’t forget something easily overlooked.

The church when saying this knew that already.

Yes. They knew darn well that God was eternal. They knew He does not have a mother, and yet they referred to Mary as the Mother of God. Why?

Part of the problem is treating God as if it was a personal name. There is the idea that when we say God, we must always refer to one person who is God and not say anything about His nature. When the Five Ways of Aquinas end with “And this, everyone knows to be God” it would have already been clear that when you say God, you are making some statements about the nature of God.

Consider what happens when someone tells you Jesus is God. We uphold that of course, but what do we mean? Greg Stafford, formerly with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, used to have a syllogism that went this way.

Jesus is God.
God is a Trinity.
Jesus is a Trinity.

The form of that syllogism is absolutely valid. Therefore, we need to find a problematic premise, but the top two premises are both statements we affirm and yet we don’t affirm the conclusion. What kind of situation are we in?

Let’s look at the first one to see. When we say “Jesus is God” do we mean “Jesus is the being who is the Trinity”? No. That’d be modalism. What we mean to say is that Jesus is a person who carries within Himself the full nature of God. That nature happens to be shared by three persons.

So let’s take this back to Mary. We are not saying that Mary gave birth to the being of God. That is nonsense. We are saying that Mary gave birth to a person who happens to have the full nature of God. That is difficult to understand, but not ipso facto nonsense.

Mary has a great position then in church history getting to give birth to Jesus. While I do not affirm her sinlessness or assumption or perpetual virginity, I and I would hope my fellow readers who are Protestants will affirm that this lady was given an incredibly special privilege we dare not take lightly.

It means that at the right time, God found just the right woman in Israel who he chose to be the mother of His Son. For thirty years, she would raise Him and care for Him and show Him how He ought to live. If some scholars are right and Joseph was dead when Jesus began His ministry, this would have been an even more challenging task.

In fact, usually in the gospels when she shows up, she’s not really acknowledged. Obviously, she plays a part in the birth narratives, but even then there’s a mystery. Luke writes about how she pondered events in her heart no doubt wondering what exactly would happen with this child. He also gives the words of Simeon that a sword would pierce her soul as well, and surely a number of mothers can say there’s no sword like losing your child.

When we see Jesus at the age of twelve in Luke, Jesus rebukes his parents to say “Didn’t you know I would be in my Father’s house?” It’s as if Mary should have known better. Why was it so hard to find Him? Surely such an event made an impression on her.

When in His ministry, Jesus’s family comes for Him, we find at one point that they think He is insane. There is no indication Mary is not part of this. Had she told Him about his miraculous birth and did she think that this was going to His head? We don’t have enough information to know for sure.

Later when His family seeks Him, Jesus tells them that His family are those who hear the Word of God and obey it. In a society that placed great emphasis on honoring family obligations, Jesus did just the opposite in putting His family in a distant position, something He told us we must do in Luke 14 to be His disciple. When a woman cries out that blessed is the womb that gave birth to Jesus and the breasts on which He nourished, he replies that blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and obey it.

Of the gospels, John alone has the future of the situation. While in the beginning, Jesus does rebuke His mother at one point telling her His time is not yet come, nevertheless He does as she says. In the end, we find that He has the beloved disciple be the one to take care of her.

If any time was perplexing to Mary, it would have been that weekend. The disciples had followed Him for but three years. She had been there all His life and Had been told He was the Messiah by Gabriel himself. Didn’t God know how the story was to turn out? How could crucifixion be what He had in mind all along? Had God deceived her? Had Mary just failed as the mother of the Messiah? Had she brought doom to all of Israel so that they would never be free from Rome?

It would be fascinating to know what went on in that time. It has been said that when a parent loses a child, they lose their future. Mary lost not only hers, or so she thought, but she had lost the future of Israel, not just for herself but maybe for everyone else. Was there any chance God would send another Messiah? We can’t be sure what she thought, but we can be sure her thoughts were not pleasant.

The last time we see Mary in the New Testament (I know some might say Revelation 12, but I do not see that as Mary) is in Acts. Mary is there with the rest of the disciples. There she has come to understand and no doubt with the coming of the Holy Spirit would understand more.

Perhaps what we need to do to understand best what it meant for Jesus to carry the hope of Israel on Him would be to consider what it was like for His mother. While there are ways we think that we should not see Mary, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. God chose a special woman for a special task, and may we all be ready for whatever special tasks He has for us, even if we just see ourselves as peasants.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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2 Responses to “Don’t Forget About Mary”

  1. wincorduan Says:

    Nick, please let me add some clarifications to your open-hearted interpretation of the term “Mother of God.” There are some further issue connected to the term, which one needs to consider. You make a good case for the idea that one could use the term in a neutral sense without getting into trouble with scripture or correct theology, and thereby pay her the respect she deserves. However, it’s not easy to scrub a term clean without committing strategic ambiguity. (You speak the term in your sense; someone else hears it in their sense.)
    The origin of the term, or at lest of its popularity, was anything but neutral. “Theotokos,” or “God-bearer” was used by the Monophysists and Eutychians (1 person-1nature) in their argument with the Nestorians (2 persons-2 natures). Since the Monophysists held that Jesus had but one nature in which his humanity and deity were commingled, they used the title as a slogan to emphasize that when she gave birth to Jesus, by doing so she was facilitating the entry of the combined God-man into the world. So, I’m not sure we can say that the church knew already that it was silly to think that a human being could give birth to God on earth. The Eutychians apparently weren’t clear of that fact. Nestorianism was declared heretical and the title “theotokos” was affirmed by the First Council of Ephesus (431 AD), which was almost as much manipulated by the Monophysites as the Second Council of Ephesus, the “Robber Council.” The Monophysites were declared to be heretical at Chalcedon (1 person-2 natures); still they were the ones who most energetically promoted the use of theotokos as a means of advancing their cause.
    Meanwhile in the West, the pagan cult of the Romans was less about Jupiter, Juno, Venus, etc, than about the unconquered Sun, and on a lower level, the “Three Matrons.” Wherever in Europe the Roman army went, you find displays of these three motherly figures. It became all-too-easy for “Christianizers” to substitute the cult of the Mother of God for the cult of the Matrons and thereby satisfy the need for a feminine divinity. Even today, in Europe, Latin America, and who knows where else, much of Catholic devotion is directed almost entirely to the Madonna. Christ’s death on the cross finds its most significant meaning there in the pain that Mary had to go through in experiencing it alongside him as his mother.
    Along that line then, before treating the term “Mother of God” as potentially theologically neutral, we must remind ourselves that it is tied by those who use it to an erroneous soteriology. I would recommend reading among the documents of Vatican II “Lumen Gentium,” the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, chapter VIII, “The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” It could be an eye-opener when you see her referred to as Mediatrix.
    Oh, by the way, the tradition of Joseph being old was purely an ad hoc device to protect the idea of the perpetual virginity of Mary. She could not have given birth to his brothers and sisters without violating her virginity, and so they must have come from a former marriage of Joseph, in which case Joseph must have been quite a bit older than Mary.
    So, I agree with you that the Protestant church has frequently needlessly downplayed Mary’s important role in the life of Christ and the early church. She was undoubtedly confused during the time of Jesus’ ministry, not to mention his death, but I can’t help but think that afterwards she was a significant force in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). I think she must have been one of the sources that Luke used in compiling his gospel when he was hanging around Jerusalem while Paul was captive in Caesarea, 58-60 AD. That would give us an easy explanation for how Luke could know what Mary was thinking in her heart.
    My point is simply that I would urge some caution using the phrase “Mother of God” because historically it’s been a polemical and syncretistic phrase, and today it is far too loaded with theological baggage to purify it for ecumenical discussion. Win

  2. apologianick Says:

    Thanks for adding that Dr. Corduan. Very informative.

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