– by Dr. Victor Kuligin
She is known by dozens of names: The Blessed Virgin, Saint Mary, Madonna, Queen of Heaven, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady, Mother of Perpetual Help, Queen of Peace, Mother of God, plus numerous devotional titles as well. In the Bible she is simply known as Mary. In light of Mothers’ Day this month, we will take a Protestant look at Mary, the mother of Jesus.
A blessed woman
By all measures, Mary is a most remarkable woman. Chosen by God to bear the Messiah, Mary has become nearly as important as Jesus in some Christian traditions. When Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, said to Mary, “Blessed are you among women” (Luke 2:42), she certainly knew what she was talking about. There are few women in history who are regarded as highly as Jesus’ mother.
Some Christian traditions, like Roman Catholicism, have granted Mary an almost God-like quality. This has developed over many centuries, with early church fathers extolling Mary’s virtue above all women. Debates about Jesus’ nature as the God-man almost accidentally brought Mary into the conversation (see the Theotokos column), with what might have been unintended consequences for a Christian doctrine about Mary. As time went on, this “Mariology” increased to the point where Mary rivals Jesus in many respects. For example, Roman Catholics pray to Mary and ask for her intercession. Catholic doctrines that must be held by all faithful Catholics—called “dogma”—have developed around Mary, including:
• Mary’s status as the Mother of God—No other woman can boast having given birth to the Saviour of mankind.
• Mary’s immaculate conception—The belief that Mary was born without inherited sin was made a Catholic dogma in 1854. It also states that she lived a life entirely free from sin.
• Mary’s perpetual virginity—Mary as “ever virgin” developed from as early as the third century. It states that Mary was not only a virgin at Jesus’ birth, but remained one her entire life. Biblical references to Jesus’ siblings (Matt 13:55-56; Mark 6:3) are believed to be speaking either about Joseph’s children from a previous marriage or Jesus’ cousins. In short, Mary never had sex, and this doctrine has come in part from the unfortunate tradition in some Christian circles that all sex, even marital sex, is tainted by sin.
• Mary’s “ascension” into heaven—This Catholic belief, made dogma in 1950, states that Mary did not die, but ascended into heaven as Jesus did.
Catholic Mariology has increased to such a point that Mary has almost become another Jesus. She is prayed to, is believed to mediate between humans and God, and she even mediates salvation. In many respects, Mary is a co-redemptrix and co-mediatrix with Jesus.
While some Protestant traditions have latent Mariology in them (e.g., Lutheranism, Anglicanism), by and large Protestants reject Catholic dogmas concerning Mary, often considering them ‘Mariolatry’ or a form of idolatry that detracts from Jesus’ supreme place as sole Mediator and Saviour. At times, though, in a possible over-reaction to Catholic doctrine, Protestants treat Mary with an irreverence that considers her just another woman.
Striking a balance
Most Christians would agree that it is best to develop Christian doctrines from Scripture. This being the case, it would be helpful to strike a balance between views of Mary that either accord her too much status or no status at all.
The Biblical data
For all of the traditions surrounding Mary, she appears relatively infrequently in the New Testament. Luke mentions her the most, a dozen times, but all within Jesus’ birth narrative. The other Gospels mention her infrequently, either at Jesus’ birth, or in John’s case, at the Cross (John 19:25). The only text where Jesus has a conversation with Mary is in John 2:1-10. She is also mentioned in Acts 1:14. Despite this scant Biblical evidence, there is much we can learn about Mary.
Falling pregnant out of wedlock
Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph (Matt 1:18) when the angel Gabriel told her she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit’s power (Luke 1:35). Despite some consternation at how this could be possible, since she had not yet been with a man (Luke 1:34), Mary faithfully acceded, saying, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” – Luke 1:38. For this reason, she is rightly praised as a Godly woman. Today, bearing children out of wedlock does not carry the stigma it once did in earlier societies, but in first-century Jewish culture, few things were looked down upon more. In fact, the Jewish law stipulated that if a woman had claimed to be a virgin, but after her marriage was found to have lied about it, she should be stoned to death (Deut 22:20-21).
Faithfully obeying God
If the disgrace of pre-marital pregnancy were not enough, raising a child who everyone knew had been conceived before the wedding day was equally dishonourable. Yet Mary (along with Joseph) faithfully raised Jesus according to Moses’ law, presenting Him in the temple and providing the proper purification offering (Luke 2:21-24). Throughout the nativity accounts, we are told that Mary did whatever the Lord commanded her to do (e.g., Luke 1:38), highlighting her consistent, faithful obedience.
What can we learn from Mary?
Despite trying circumstances and a command from God that she could hardly have entirely understood, Mary persevered in her faith. Indeed, we should call Mary “blessed” as she herself prophesied in her beautiful hymn of praise known as The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). In it we see her deep devotion and dedication to God, who she calls mighty, holy, merciful, Saviour.
Mary should be honoured
Raising her child after all that transpired in those early days – let alone watching her Son die a gruesome, bloody death – was certainly not easy. Is it not the desire of every faithful Christian that when called upon by God, we act in utmost obedience to His command? Mary is such an example. As Protestants, we can extol her just as much as we do Biblical icons like Peter and Paul. Hers is an example to be emulated.
Sticking to the Biblical portrait of Mary, let us avoid jumping to what can be questionable conclusions about her from extra-Biblical evidence. Mary was indeed a woman like any other, one born with inherited sin like every human since Adam and Eve, and one who surely died as we all do. The Bible tells us that only Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, thus protected from original sin. All others, as the Apostle Paul writes, “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Mary knew this, that is why she called God her “Saviour” – Luke 1:47.
God chose Mary
But, let us not empty Mary of all the wonder and grace she possessed. After all, the Lord didn’t pick just anybody to serve as the vessel for His Son to enter this world. He chose Mary, a virtuous woman of supreme integrity and Godly devotion, one who obediently did what the Lord required of her. Surely we can extol Mary while remaining true to the Biblical portrait. This month as we thank God for our mothers, let us take a moment to thank Him for Mary the mother of Jesus. She is indeed rightly praised among women, “For behold, henceforth all generations will call [her] blessed” – Luke 1:48.
For many Protestants, hearing Mary called the “Mother of God” is certainly strange, perhaps even heretical. After all, who could possibly be God’s mother? Yet, this name has important historical roots. In Christianity’s early centuries, much debate ensued over Jesus’ nature. Was He fully human; was He fully God? If He did have two natures, how did the natures relate to each other? One side argued that Jesus was actually two ‘persons’—one human, the other divine—united together. Contrary to this, others argued that Jesus was one person with two natures. These people insisted on calling Mary Theotokos, which means “God-Bearer,” in order to emphasise that Jesus was indeed one person who was fully God. Eastern Orthodox churches mainly use this term today for Mary. It doesn’t mean that God was born, but rather that Jesus is fully God. The term was officially adopted by the ecumenical Council of Ephesus in AD431 but has taken on the more popular phraseology, Mother of God.
One doctrine of Mariology that is particularly offensive to many Protestants is the belief that Mary appears supernaturally throughout the world, called apparitions. The Catholic church recognises twelve officially canonised apparitions of Mary, usually named after the place where they occurred (e.g., Guadalupe, Fatima, Lourdes). These are physically visible appearances of the Virgin Mary, either witnessed by individuals or several people over the course of time, and usually accompanied by cures or some other miracle. Some have included statues of Mary that wept. Tens of millions of Christians make pilgrimages to such sites each year, which adds to the Protestant suspicion of idolatry. As the Catholic church has investigated nearly 300 of these claims, yet has only officially recognised a dozen of them, this should cause us to view apparitions with extreme caution.
Victor Kuligin is an international author and speaker who served as a missionary in Africa for 24 years. His latest book, Meeting Jesus, is published in South Africa by Christian Art. He can be reached at email@example.com
Article source: JOY! Magazine (May 2019)