How ought evangelicals to think about Mary, the mother of Jesus?

I am a born-and-raised protestant. I grew up in a “non-demonimational” Vineyard Christian Fellowship church. I have since spent a lot of time in Episcopalian parishes, but I have been called back to the Vineyard church of my youth, and there I shall remain, until the Lord leads me elsewhere. All that to say, I am by no means Roman Catholic. And yet, through a close reading of the church fathers during my time at Biola University, and through ongoing conversations with Christians of the past (in books) and Christians of the present (in person), I have come to appreciate a few things about Mary, that very unique young lady whom was given the position of being Jesus’ mother, things which I subconsciously thought were vain and idolotrous to appreciate, or at least, non-evangelical.

I appreciated Matt’s thoughts, and I look forward to reading Scott McKnight’s book on this topic. In the meantime, let me offer three of my most modest and least controversial observations about Mary and her unique place as a character in the story of the universe, in hopes that my fellow evangelical readers can join me in breathing a little more easily when they think about Mary, without, in so doing, seeming (God forbid!) Roman Catholic on the one hand and without ignoring the facts on the other hand.

I do not want to overvalue or over-honor or “worship” any human being, and I do not want to ignore church history, the pattern that God uses in coming into our lives as seen in the specific examples of believers. From these observations, I will offer three suggestions for how we, as evangelical Christians, ought to think about Mary (without praying to her).
1. God uses specific people to serve as his prophets,

Mary is to be honored in our minds. When we think about her, we ought to think, “Mary, there’s a cool woman whom God used for a very important purpose. Wow, isn’t it amazing how God raises the humble and lowers the proud?” Even if Mary were nothing special in herself, even if we can rightly say “God has opened up his gift of salvation to all of humanity equally, and there is none priveleged before God,” the historical fact that God chose some specific person as the first gateway through which to enter the world in Christ, this historical fact is significant. We honor trinkets and old possesions of famous people (like Elvis’ wigs, or the President’s quill pen), not because the possession is necessarily of great value, but because it is that which the person we value chose as their own. Mary is the woman God chose as his gateway into the earth… and to ignore this is to implicitly disrespect His decision! We must follow suit in honoring that which God chose to honor, of no merit of her own. It is a matter of obedience to Him.
2. Mary trusted God.

The Lord made some incredible promises, through his angels, to this simple woman. Like Abraham, she believed His voice, and her faith was credited to her as righteousness. If God says to me, “Enthusiasmos, you shall learn to fly like Superman and float up to where the air is thin,” how easy would it be to say, “Excuse me, who is it that is saying this? Isn’t that a little improbable? How will I survive? What about gravity? Are you going to change the laws of physics?” But if it was God’s voice, after all, then all that would be necessary would be recognition of that fact. Mary recognized His voice, and believed. We ought to long to have such a familiarity with God’s voice.
3. Mary is a female example of the church.

We evangelicals rightly use Christ as our model and example in all things. But there are times when we often throw our hands up and disregard Jesus as an example for how to behave, saying, “But he was God.” Mary provides an example, just like Jacob and Abraham and David and Sarah of the Old Testament, of a purely human being who obeyed God and served him in holiness. Not only this, but she is a wonderful female, New Testament example of Christian thought and behavior. The analogy Christ used of the Church, that we are a Bride, seems to resonate most clearly with Mary. She is the submissive, obedient, and holy feminine example from whom the Church, which is, collectively, referred to as feminine, can take her cues. So we ought to look at Christ and say, “Here is our Lord and God, our perfect example, from whom we learn what it means to be human, and holy, and pleasing to God.” And we ought to look at Mary and say, “Here is a servant of our Lord and God, a wonderful example of how to relate to our Lord, from whom we learn what it means to be the Bride of Christ, and holy, and pleasing to God.”

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Posted by Keith E. Buhler

2 Comments

  1. My friend Vicki commented that she does feel a certain sense of wonder about small objects that were touched or used by famous people of the past, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat for instance, or George Washington’s wooden teeth. And Mary, who was the flesh from whom the flesh of Christ came (she provided the egg, after all), attains a certain kind of fame and wonderfulness from being used as Christ’s carrier.

    Some might say that such adoration of “relics” from old Presidents is quaint and nice, but mostly sentimental and not-rational. And that, by extension, so is affection for Mary.

    Two responses to this: 1. If by “sentimental,” you mean “of or relating to the sentiment,” then I agree. If by sentimental you mean “merely sentimental,” or “to the exclusion of the rational,” then I will have to challenge you.

    1. Are not some sentiments rational, and others irrational For instance (to use the most basic and obvious of examples), isn’t a sentiment of disgust at seeing a car wreck a ‘rational’ or fitting or appropriate sentiment? And isn’t a feeling of adoration, of warmth and delight at seeing a one-year old baby also a rational sentiment? I would much more quickly call a husband irrational who greets his wife with a cold greeting such as, “Hello carbon-unit spouse, to whom I am bound in a contract of marriage.” His sentiments are off, though his brain seems to be working. He is, in fact, less rational and sane than the man who greets his wife with exultant and hyperbolic affection, “Hello to the most beautiful woman in the world!”
    Another example: the clothes that I use do take on a sort of identity, not just as “clothes” but as “my clothes.” If someone dies, it seems rational, therefore, to keep around their favorite sweater as a powerful reminder of them. Not because of vague emotional associations, but because the identity, the smell, the habitual color schemes, the preferences and choices of that person have come to reside, partially, in their regular possession. This has some intuitive force to me, so if it does not to you, further argumentation will probably not persuade. If I am correct, however, than the sentimental attachment to the woman whose body gave Christ a body is indeed a rational sentiment, since His divinity and humanity and whole person, in a mysterious but definite way, are connected with her.

    2. For those of you who are persauded that, if nothing else, Mary’s ‘association’ in time and space to our Lord makes her special and worth notice: Is there anything more to be said? The Church Fathers suggest that when the Angel described Mary as “full of grace,” that they were describing an attribute she really had, and that before the Incarnation. Surely, it was an attribute that God gave her, so no woman can boast. We know that she has a certain honor just from being the one historical person chosen to be God’s gateway onto the earth. But we ought to also ask ourself if there was any reason why God chose this woman and not any others?

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  2. […] My friend Vicki responded in person to my first post about Jesus’ mother, saying that she (Vicki) does feel a certain sense of wonder about small objects that were touched or used by famous people of the past, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat for instance, or George Washington’s wooden teeth. And Mary, who was the flesh from whom the flesh of Christ came (she provided the egg, after all), attains a certain kind of fame and wonderfulness from being used as Christ’s carrier.Some might say that such adoration of “relics” from old Presidents is quaint and nice, but mostly sentimental and not-rational. And that, by extension, so is affection for Mary. […]

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