“No talk of Catholic [practice] can advance very far without coming upon the topic of the Virgin Mary. And there is no topic, not the papacy, not the Mass itself, that arouses greater consternation, not to say scandal, among non-Catholics.” So writes former Protestant evangelical and now Roman Catholic, Thomas Howard. [On Being Catholic, 179]
And, surely, that is so. Protestants have the greatest difficulty understanding or showing sympathy for the doctrines of Mary that Catholics teach (that she herself, and not only her son, was born and lived without sin [“The Immaculate Conception”]; that she remained a virgin all her life [“The Perpetual Virginity”]; and that, shortly after she died, Mary’s body was raised, reunited with her soul, and then she was taken bodily to heaven [“The Assumption of Mary”]. Where, we ask, is any of this taught in Holy Scripture? Where is there the barest suggestion of such teaching? Is not the simple, artless teaching of the Bible, and of Mary herself that she, like all the elect, was a sinner saved by grace in the same way that all sinners are and must be saved?
Still more, Protestants have the greatest difficulty understanding how Catholics can justify saying prayers to Mary, a mere human being. Why, Protestants point out, Mary is mentioned only a few times in the Gospels after the accounts of the Savior’s birth and is never mentioned again after Acts 1, where we read that she was together with the Apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after the Lord’s Resurrection. Paul never mentions her, Peter never mentions her. There is nothing, not one word in the Bible about any special place she occupies in the life of Christians. But Catholics have their reply.
First, they say, to pay this honor to Mary, to believe these special things about her, and to pray to her, was the universal teaching and practice of the ancient church, what Catholics often refer to as “the unanimous consent of the fathers.” Now, we have already dealt with the Roman Catholic doctrine of tradition as a source of Christian doctrine and practice alongside the Bible. Catholics are not troubled, as we are, by the fact that the Bible contains nothing of their doctrine of Mary, for they believe that doctrine was handed down to the church in another way: not in the Bible, but in the teaching of the Apostles handed down through the bishops of the church. I am reading a new biography, a magisterial study of the life of John Henry Newman, the 19th century’s most prominent example of a Protestant — he was a member of the Church of England — who left his Protestant church to become a Roman Catholic, indeed to become eventually a Cardinal in the Catholic Church. Newman said that what “made me a Catholic [was] the visible fact that the modern Roman Catholic Communion was the heir and the image of the primitive Church.” [Ker, 611] That is, Newman felt that the Roman Catholic Church believed and worshiped as the early Christians did. That was, for him, the proof that Catholicism was right and true.
We have already said why we cannot accept this argument, or the Catholic doctrine of tradition, or its claim faithfully to represent the practice of earliest Christianity, and we have already said why we must rest our doctrine and our practice on the Bible alone. But Catholics, of course, think differently.
And we Protestants must admit that there is a great deal about Mary and her place in the Christian life in the materials of early Christianity, much more than there is in the Bible. Last week we pointed out that the practice of confession of sins to a priest, so much a part of the Catholic understanding of salvation, cannot be found in the teaching of the church fathers or of the church councils for many centuries after the apostles. But the same cannot be said for the special place that Catholics assign to Mary.
By the later fourth century you find both exalted views of her and of her sinlessness, if not her immaculate conception, and the practice of prayers addressed to her and veneration, even worship, given to her. Gregory Nazianzen tells of one Justina who prayed to the Virgin Mary to protect her virginity because she had come under the spell of a youthful lover– who happened to be Cyprian before his conversion, the man who would later be the celebrated North African bishop–. You also begin to find the proliferation of titles by which Mary would be known: especially, “Mother of God” and “Queen of Heaven.” In the fifth century, when the worship of saints appeared in full bloom, Mary, by reason of her unique relation to the Lord, was placed at their head, the Queen of the heavenly host. Later Catholic theology would draw a distinction between latria, the worship due to God alone, dulia, the veneration which is due to all saints and angels, and hyperdulia, the highest degree of veneration below latria, which was reserved for Mary. In the centuries following the place of Mary in belief and piety continued to develop. The practice of prayer to her often overshadowed prayer to God himself, she was believed to have performed miracles, and became almost coordinate with Christ as a joint or co-mediator invested with most of his attributes and powers. Like him she was conceived sinlessly, lived without sin, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, though these beliefs became doctrines only very slowly and against much opposition. The last of these Marian doctrines, her bodily assumption to heaven, did not become the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until 1950! The Greek church also followed this pattern and in some of its collects, that is, short formal prayers in the liturgy, substitutes the name of Mary for the name of Jesus.
But Protestant Christians, and Protestant theology has always been much less impressed by this historical argument. First, there were forces unquestionably at work in those early centuries that made virtually inevitable such a development as we see happening in the growing veneration given to Mary. In the apocryphal gospels of the third and fourth centuries — writings that even the Catholic church regards as spurious — there are all manner of fantastic tales told of Mary. In other words, there was a great temptation in that age to extrapolate from the sober and reliable history of the Bible fables and legends that exalted the biblical characters far beyond the facts. What is more, in that culture at that time, there was a predisposition to believe in the mothers of gods, the heathenism of that time, which had worked itself profoundly into the culture, was well used to female deities, to a hierarchy of lesser deities leading up to the great God or gods, and was also accustomed to worshipping heroes — as the Greeks and Romans did. It was inevitable that, in that culture, there would be a strong temptation to attribute to Mary the kind of place the mothers of gods occupied in the other faiths and, in that highly ascetic age, to begin to prefer to believe in her perpetual virginity. Christian history demonstrates a thousand times that the church’s thinking is always susceptible to influences from the philosophies and religions round about, is always succumbing to those influences, always having to be purified from them. [Schaff, III, 411, 413-414]
But, in addition to this, the entire development of the doctrine of Mary and the practice of veneration for her and prayer to her is much more complicated than is suggested by such a phrase as “the unanimous consent of the fathers.” There is, as a matter of fact, a slow development of this doctrine with a great deal of disagreement along the way. The Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, was not brought forward as the formal teaching of the church until 1140 at Lyons and, when it was, it was opposed by no one less than Bernard of Clairvaux himself. From that time on, the doctrine of the immaculate conception was a matter of dispute between the Franciscans and the Dominicans until it was pronounced church dogma by a papal bull in 1854. Early fathers, such as Tertullian, did not hesitate to teach that Mary had other children by Joseph after the birth of Jesus, the brothers and sisters who are mentioned in the Gospels, or that she sinned, even that the Lord rebuked her on several occasions in the Gospels. Prayers to Mary do not appear in the evidence until late in the 4th century, and there is no mention of such prayers in the voluminous writings of Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, and Augustine. Some fathers specifically condemn the practice as blasphemous [Schaff, III, 423 n.].
Take another example. The famous Catholic prayer, the “Hail Mary” or “Ave Maria” is composed of three parts. The first part is the salutation of the angel which we read in our text, “Hail Mary, full of grace — so read the Latin translation; the NIV has the meaning more accurately, “you who are highly favored” –. The second part is Elizabeth’s greeting in Luke 1:42: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” The last part — “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and in the hour of our death,” is the controversial part, obviously. It used to be claimed that this part of the prayer went back to the 5th century. It is now widely admitted that it originates in the 16th century and the closing words, “now and in the hour of our death,” are even later. Even the first two parts of the “Hail Mary,” did not come into general use as a prayer until the 13th century. In other words, the development of Marian devotion in the church happened as we might have expected it to happen in such a religious culture and the culture the early church found herself in, and, even then, it was a development in fits and stages that came only gradually into the form in which it is now known.
Second, but the Catholics further argue that their practices in regard to Mary are really but an extension of principles of great importance taught in Holy Scripture. This was the particular emphasis of the teaching on Mary that I have studied over these past weeks, that is, the teaching about Mary given by former Protestants who are now Catholics, such as Thomas Howard and Scott Hahn. They want us to hear them say with great emphasis, for example, that they are not praying “to” Mary, as if they believe that she can, in her own strength and by her own virtue, hear and answer prayer. They are asking her to pray with us and for us as she is there is the very presence of her Son our Lord. And so with prayers to other saints. Thomas Howard is quite willing to admit, indeed, that this point is often missed in Catholic practice and that many “an ill-instructed peasant supposes that Mary somehow is more approachable than her Son”  Those are his words. Or, he says, “multitudes of poorly instructed Catholic faithful have not altogether grasped the distinction between what they are doing at this image of St. Anthony or St. Lucy [or, we might add, this image of Mary] and what they do when they kneel in the Lord’s presence” . That is, of course, true. I saw an interview with Catholics about Mary and one woman was happy to say that she felt that, as a woman, Mary understood her better and was more approachable.
But, he goes on. We Christians ask one another to pray for us all the time. Why would we not ask those brothers and sisters, and the chief among them especially, who are now gone on from us and are among the spirits made perfect, to pray for us? We do not cast any aspersion on the power of Jesus’ intercession for us when we ask others to pray for us, do we? Of course not. So, why should it be thought some kind of diminishment of Christ to ask Mary for her prayers? And, then, he appeals to the tradition of the church and the practice of such prayers for prayers already in early church history. The problem is that the fine distinctions that these modern writers wish to maintain are not so easily demonstrated in the tradition. Mary is prayed to; she is asked herself for blessings. It is not the case that only her prayers to Christ himself are sought. She is given a role that is not only utterly absent from the teaching of the Bible, but which is utterly foreign to the teaching and practice of the Bible, where, from Genesis to Revelation, the saints call upon God himself and directly!
A grand illustration of the problem was furnished for us some years ago when Pope John Paul II, the present Pope, was shot in St. Peter’s square. This Pope is known for his Marian devotion. After he was shot he was placed still conscious in an ambulance and rushed to a hospital. From the time he was wounded to the time he lapsed into drug induced sleep on the operating table he is reported to have uttered but one word, and that word over and over again: “Madonna.” Not, “Lord,” not “God,” not “Christ,” not “Savior” or “Redeemer,” but “Madonna.” When his life was in the balance, he lifted up his heart not to the Prince of Life but to the Lord’s mother. Are we not right to think that something fundamentally unbiblical is at work here? Not simply extrabiblical, but unbiblical. Something has been placed between the soul and the Savior himself that is never placed between by the Bible itself. In the Bible people do not pray so. For the thousands of years covered in Holy Scripture no one prayed so. It was the glory of their faith that they were given immediate access to God who was willing to hear their prayers and answer them.
But, finally, the Catholics respond, when we venerate Mary we are entering into that spirit of faith and humility that she demonstrated so magnificently in the way in which she undertook the astonishing service that was granted her to perform. And we are seeking to put ourselves in her place and to respond to the Lord with the same faith, the same submission, the same devotion, his grace working in and through us. Thomas Howard and Scott Hahn particularly have some beautiful and moving things to say of Mary’s example as a perfect example of all that Christians aspire to be. And that, surely, is true. Absolutely true. Listen to these words.
“As mother of the Savior of the world, the Virgin Mary unquestionably holds forever a peculiar position among all women, and in the history of redemption. Even in heaven she must stand peculiarly near to Him whom on earth she bore nine months under her bosom, and whom she followed with true motherly care to the cross. It is perfectly natural, nay, essential, to sound religious feeling, to associate with Mary the fairest traits of maidenly and maternal character, and to revere her as the highest model of female purity, love, and piety. From her example issues a silent blessing upon all generations, and her name and memory are, and ever will be, inseparable from the holiest mysteries and benefits of faith. For this reason her name is even wrought into the Apostles’ Creed, in the simple and chaste words, ‘Conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.'” [Schaff, III, 410]
Those words were written by a Protestant, a Reformed Christian. And surely we can give our assent to them with all our hearts. Let no Roman Catholic take our crown in the reverence in which we hold the mother of our Lord. It is in saying more that we face the problem. Here Thomas Howard and Scott Hahn fail to persuade us. Faithful she was, wonderfully! Humble and submissive to God, she was, as we must be! But the Bible, and the Lord himself, seem to treat her as other Christians, seem to place her with the rest of us, who must live by faith, die in faith, and await the resurrection of the dead.
Indeed, in a most interesting passage, perhaps a text that has always bothered us a little, the Lord Jesus seems to be even a bit dismissive of his mother (as many have thought, at first glance, he was at the wedding at Cana in John 2). He was not dismissive of her in either case, of course. But, he does not take the opportunity provided in Matt. 12:46-50, to exalt his mother above the others who trust in him and walk with him. This has always stuck in my memory. My father was reading this text at family worship one evening when I was a boy. And he wondered aloud why the Lord spoke as he did. Why he spoke in such a way as might be taken by some as not properly respectful of his mother. You remember: the Lord was teaching the crowds and his mother and brothers appeared on the outskirts wanting a chance to speak with him. Someone told the Lord that they were there wanting to see him and he replied, “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” And, then, pointing to his disciples around him he said, “here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” To Protestant ears, that sounds almost as if the Lord was anticipating mistakes that would be made about Mary in ages to come! I should say, as an aside, the Lord’s reference to his brothers, again, would naturally be understood, as the other references to them in the Gospels, as a reference to his younger siblings, the other children of Joseph and Mary, which, of course, would contradict the claim that she remained a virgin all her life — an idea that is completely without support in the Bible, or reason in the Bible, but would have been increasingly attractive a few centuries later as the church took from the surrounding world the notion that a sexless life, an ascetic life was a superior and more holy life.
Why does the Bible say nothing of her in those ways in which Catholics think of her and pray to her? When it describes the life of faith, when Jesus taught that life and Paul and Peter, for whom Catholics have a special reverence, why do they say nothing about Mary or seeking her prayers. Why do they describe a life and a piety without mentioning any of this? Thomas Howard can only say that the Bible’s silence may be “the veil shrouding a mystery worth guarding from profane eyes” . But who is to say? Why should we believe any of this system of prayer to Mary or the practice of devotion to her and, all the more, given its slow, fitful, and controversial development even within the Roman Catholic tradition?
You see, I do not doubt that Scott Hahn and Thomas Howard believe that God alone can answer prayers and that the purpose of Mary in the Catholic system is really simply to confirm gospel principles that are taught in Holy Scripture. But, what the Catholic system of theology and piety has done in extrapolating from the biblical account of Mary this entire world of beliefs and practices that are utterly unknown in the Bible, utterly foreign to the teaching of the apostles themselves, is to place something between the soul and the Savior. There is our fundamental objection. I do not doubt that some Catholics are not fundamentally confused by this interposition of Mary and the other saints between themselves and the Lord. Thomas Howard admits that multitudes of Catholics have been so confused and misled. But the question is: are we to believe that the place given to Mary in this system is faithful to the truth as it is taught in Holy Scripture.
And here I answer as I have answered in regard to other such questions in our examination of Roman Catholic belief and practice. The way they extrapolate from the Bible and build an entire edifice of practice that cannot itself be found in the Bible, is precisely what the Jews did in the days of Jesus Christ, and before and after. They too were intensely interested in the faith and serious about their practice of it. They too developed traditions, both of doctrine and of the practice of piety, that they felt would help them be more faithful. Some of those traditions were very much like Roman Catholic practices, such as the rosary. I can very easily imagine a devout Jew arguing for the worth and value of their practices in virtually identical language to that used by Thomas Howard or Scott Hahn as they argue for Catholic devotion to Mary and the like.
But those traditions, Jesus said, actually got in the way. The stress they placed upon those traditional ideas and practices drove a wedge between the soul and God himself and created a sense of dependence upon the believer’s works, even pious works, for his salvation instead of concentrating all attention upon the faith that a believer is to place directly in the Lord and his mercy. And that was such a crucial error, and led eventually to such a different conception of salvation, that it was loyal members of the church of God who crucified the Savior of the world when he came among them. Their traditions and traditional practices had hidden the Savior himself from their eyes.
No, what is at stake here is finally something terribly immense. What Christianity offers is the very knowledge of God. You, yourself, you pipsqueak, sinful human being, can know God, can know God in his love and tender mercy, in his fatherly interest and provision, in his kingly protection. You, your very own self, can speak to him with the knowledge that the Almighty will hear and answer, can love him and be loved in return. Christ came among us in part to prove this to us: that the Creator of heaven and earth and the King of Kings would really stoop to know and be known by us.
But in our sinful rebellion, and in our craven fear of a holy God on account of our sins, we are always wanting to put a greater distance between ourselves and God, to put something in between, to manage, to make safe and predictable, this otherwise so personal and so intimate relationship with the living God himself. After all, whenever, in the Bible, someone comes face to face with God, it is no casual affair; it is devastating, terrifying, at least at first. So we are always tempted to domesticate this Christian faith, to make it more predictable and to place it once again under our control. It isn’t just Roman Catholics that do this. Oh no. Don’t anyone take that away from this message. What concerns us in their practice of Marian devotion should concern us as well in our own Protestant, Presbyterian, Reformed practices and our own approach to our life of faith. We are just as likely to make our relationship with God more comfortable for ourselves by placing something between ourselves and him, by giving ourselves a little distance as it were. We place our works, our pious acts of worship, or intermediaries like Mary and the saints, between ourselves and God. We turn our faith into a lifestyle, or an ethic, or a set of practices until, before we know it and without our realizing it, it is not longer a personal relationship with God, a walking with God through this world. Now we are dealing with God according to a set of rules or procedures. We are more comfortable with that.
But, in that we lose the glory and splendor and power of the gospel, which brings us directly to God and gives us to know him and be loved and ruled by him. It is not always easy to have your life open entirely to God and to have to deal with Him directly regarding your days and your nights, your choices, your sorrows, your disappointments, your failures, and your sins. But that is what God requires.
And what he promises is that if you come to Him, directly, lay your soul, your life at his feet, as Mary did, look to him for your salvation, not only in the world to come but day to day, and live your life in active dependence upon his living presence with you, as Mary did, He will give you rest, the forgiveness of your sins, the promise of eternal life, his love shed abroad in your heart, his Spirit to support, comfort, and encourage you, his law to guide you, his hand to direct your steps, and he will give you the longings, the delights of your heart, as you trust in him. Nothing can come between you and Him. That is the secret of all life and all truth: God himself may be known by us as our Father in heaven, Christ as our Savior, the Holy Spirit as our Comforter. But sinful little creature that you are, you will struggle all your life to believe that and to act upon that truth. Whether it frightens you, the prospect of facing God, or whether you believe it too good to be true, you will struggle to accept. But you must for, as the Lord Jesus himself said, “he who comes to me, I will never drive away!”