I have sometimes argued that the evangelical church is afflicted by the ancient gnostic heresy.  The old heresies don’t die.  Like the eastern notion of reincarnation, they are always being revived and cast in different clothing.  Gnosticism is one of these (as is Pelagianism, Docetism, etc).

Tonight, Joe Carter wrote an appreciation of Catholicism that included this thought:

[Evangelicals] complete renunciation of Marian theology, however, often causes me to downplay the importance of Mary herself, indisputably one of the most incredible humans who every lived. How can we not be in awe of this woman when we realize she held God in her womb? Our Catholic friends remind us that Jesus wasn’t just the son of God; He was Mary’s son too.

I wrote a comment immediately, then thought I would share it here:

Incidentally, as I read your thoughts about Mary, I wondered whether the resistance to thinking hard about Mary stems from the neo-gnostic strain that seems to afflict much of evangelicalism. It seems that Jesus’ humanity (including his corporeality), Mary, and a robust ecclesiology are interconnected. After all, the Church is (on some accounts) the “hands and feet” of Jesus on earth now. Mary reminds us that he had real hands and feet–neglecting her may cause us to forget that.

I will confess that I don’t have a good handle on what evangelicals should do with Mary (no, I haven’t read Scot McKnight’s book yet!).  But it seems interesting to me that our appreciation of her is as robust as our ecclesiology.  Perhaps the proper recovery of the latter will lead to a growth in the former.  What might such a robust appreciation of the mother of God look like?  For evangelicals, it is an open question, but a question that demands an answer, especially if we are to escape the gnosticism of old.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

7 Comments

  1. Mary doesn’t particularly remind us that Jesus had real hands and feet anymore than Jesus Himself, or the Gospel accounts, or Paul or John does.

    I’d say evangelicals don’t need to think anymore robustly about Mary than any other Biblical character, be it Samuel, Samson, or Paul. Character studies are interesting and sometimes even illuminating as we try and understand how God works in the lives of His people, but I’ve never felt a need to think “robustly” about any of the Biblical personages. Why should I bother having a Johanine or Pauline or Petrine or Mosaic theology in the sense that Catholic’s have Marian theology? The demand for such a “theology” comes about only once thinks that the object of study has some characteristic or property that could properly be considered a subject of theology. Doesn’t that just amount to saying that they are in some way divine?

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  2. Tex,

    Good comments!

    I’m not sure your blanket statement that Mary doesn’t remind us of Jesus’ humanity any more than any other Biblical account is accurate. I’m not suggesting thinking ONLY about Mary, but including her particular situation in our thinking about Jesus.

    When Catholics claim to have a “Marian theology,” I don’t think they (in most cases!) claim to have a “theology of Mary” in that they are making her Divine. They are, however, saying that they have a theology that is informed by Mary and her unique position. But that’s exactly what we do with Scripture–Johannine, Petrine, and Pauline theology are not necessarily all the same. They have different emphases, different tenors. The difference with Mary, of course, is that she doesn’t have any letters in the Gospels, but I’m not sure that should exclude her. I just don’t know.

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  3. Given the fact that Mary, Barnabus, Thomas, Joseph or Saul, Noah, or Abraham, are not authors of Scripture excludes them from having the same sort of voice in theology as Biblical authors, what then can be gained from the record of their lives and words?

    Certainly we can learn from the commentary of the authors who left a record of these men and women. We also can learn from their examples. We also can learn things about the way God interacts with and works with people. None of these things seem to fall into the category of “theology” in the sense that it is used in the phrase “Marian theology.” This is at least historically true even if you happen to disagree with it. There has not been much development of “Abrahamic theology” or “Thomasine theology” or the like. There has, however, been a development of “Marian theology” and it usually ends up dealing with things like the human nature of Mary, her sanctity, her identity as the Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, and her role in the salvation and sanctification of saints.

    I’m not saying to exclude Mary from offering insight into the nature of the Christ. I am saying that this insight need not move any farther than that which could be derived from any another person whom Jesus knew, loved, and interacted with. However, such insight could hardly be termed a robust appreciation of Mary. And if the concern is neo-Gnosticism, it might better be dealt with by a robust appreciation of the humanity of Jesus, with Mary playing the supportive role of evidence to His human nature due to His human birth.

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  4. Tex,

    There’s much that I agree with in your comment. Remember, I’m not Catholic (and given my posting here in the last year, it’s clear I’m a long ways from becoming Catholic!).

    That said, I would suggest that Mary is more important to examine than other Biblical characters simply because she holds a special position (as a human) in redemptive history. She is, by virtue of the fact that she held God in her womb, in a very unique situation, and as such can illuminate the human situation with respect to the Divine better, I think, than other Biblical characters.

    I wonder whether both of us having children (with our wives–not together!) will change the discussion. I have heard parents say they understood the power of the incarnation much better when they held their baby in their arms. If that’s true, I wouldn’t be surprised if such an experience will give me a deeper appreciation of Mary as well.

    I don’t disagree that Catholic theology has tended to make too much of “Marian theology.” But discussing her human nature is interesting (after all, we’re talking about the birth of a perfect human from an imperfect person, which seems complex!), as is thinking about her identity as Mother of God (and maybe Queen of Heaven), and her role in salvation history. Do you think she has a special place at all in the economy of salvation, maybe even as a representative for all of humankind (i.e. representative of the Church?)?

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  5. Peregrine Ward March 13, 2007 at 7:51 am

    The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Christian churches contend, is a lot more interesting than any other saint for several reasons.

    1) She is called “blessed among women”: she was chosen to bear Christ. Why? The answer is as hidden as the mystery of grace. But she has been given greater honor than any non-divine human ever has been given. Our admiration for men and women should be proportionate to their honors. So to Mary is accorded the most admiration. Because her honor is due to grace, she is also the archetype of redeemed humanity. In Matt’s words, the representative of the Church.

    2) She uttered “Be it unto me according to thy will”: she is the archetype of obedience to God, since her orders were the most wonderful and the most terrifying.

    3) She being a virgin is yet a mother. She was a living miracle. Knowing this as a first generation Christian would have been truly marvellous.

    I can’t think of any principled reason not to have great reverence for the Blessed Virgin, other than worries about Mariolatry that only cause one to develop an opposing vice. But that’s not a very principled reason. Once can deny the immaculate conception, the perpetual virginity, the assumption, etc., and still practice healthy devotion to Mary. Why would anyone not want to?

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  6. Thanks, Matt, for the reminder to remember Mary. Your post brought to mind the part in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” when Imogene shouts out “Mary was pregnant?” followed by Alice Wendlekon’s smug comment, “I don’t think its right to say that Mary was pregnant.” How we fool ourselves when we use nice sounding phrases like “great with child” while forgetting that Christ developed in Mary’s uterus, was fed from a placenta and came into the world just like all the rest of us.

    I wonder though if Mary’s importance isn’t so much in the reality she brings to Christ’s incarnation. As Tex pointed out, virtually any biblical character could illustrate that point. I find Mary of central importance in the history of redemption because she was a woman ready to be used of God. She differs from other woman such as Deborah, Esther, and the Shunammite, who God also used to display His power, because He used her as He can only use a woman. She is the culmination, the archtype if you will, of Eve, Sarah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba who God used as women to bring His Son into the world. Through her very body, Mary was the instrument through which God fulfilled His promise of a Seed who would crush the head of the Serpant. Paul told of the relationship between Adam and Christ, the one who brought death and the Other who brought life. But what if we go back a step to Eve and Mary? Eve was deceived through pride and thereby plunged the human race into sin, but Mary offered herself as the humble handmaid of the Lord and thereby brought to the world her redemption. God uses woman in all different kinds of ways and Mary’s story should not be used to establish the woman’s role as a baby-making machine. But let the fact that God used a woman to bring His Son into the world help us understand the place of women in the kingdom of God. He did not use a man, and in the way He chose to incarnate Christ, He could not. And that is exactly the point – He chose to use the womb of a willing woman. Mary is thus important because God’s use of her begins a proper perspective of truly Christian Feminism.(I think Paul’s comment in 1 Timothy 2:13-15 is to the same effect)

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  7. The Eastern Orthodox church has a nice balance, I think, between the Roman overemphasis on Mary and Mariophobia of Protestants. She does play a large role in EO theology, but not as an end in herself (as is sometimes the case in Catholicism); rather, she signifies and realizes Jesus’ humanity.

    Orthodoxy: the original Via Media! ;-)

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