Monday, June 13, 2005

Protestant objections to Catholic beliefs about Mary: a brief response

A friend of mine, the Director of a Presbyterian (PCA) mission in France living in Marsaille, recently wrote me asking a number of questions about Catholic Marian beliefs, which, it was suggested, might send Protestants scurrying off to the nearest pub. I responded by suggesting that the idea of scurrying off to the nearest pub may be more Catholic than Protestant, citing the example of an Irish priest who, after Mass, would beat his parishioners in the twenty-yard dash to the local pub down the hill. What was it that Hilaire Belloc used to say? --
Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There's always laughter and good red wine.
At least I've always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!
As to the matter he addressed, I could say next-to-nothing about "Our Lady of the Pilar of Zaragoza," whom he mentioned, but I could point out that all such "Ladies" refer to the Blessed Mother, of course. Here's what I wrote:

I imagine there are several things at issue here -- the perpetual virginity of Mary, the immaculate conception, the view of Mary as the Mother of Christians, the intercession of Mary, and the fear of Mary worship. All of these, and perhaps other issues are likely conflated in what Protestants find so objectionable about Catholic attitudes toward Mary. Hence you're asking me to foot a large bill in responding to this question, and I haven't time to do it justice, though, as Francis Schaeffer always said, honest questions certainly deserve honest answers.

Let's start with the last first: Mary worship. First of all, worship of Mary was explicity condemned from when it first arose in the 5th century cult of Mary worship among the Collyridians (see this LINK). Since Protestants typically identify worship with hymn-singing and praying, they identify the singing of hymns in honor of Mary or the petitioning (in prayer) for the intercession of Mary as forms of worship. But this is not so. If you examine what Cathlics understand worship to be, namely the enactment of Sacrifice of the Mass (which is the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary), you will see that it is strictly Christo-centric. There are petitions for the intercession of saints on earth (as I would petition you) and saints in heaven (who likely have more time on their hands and a better chance of fulfilling the qualifications specified by James 5:16b --that the prayers of a RIGHTEOUS man avail greatly-- by virtue of their completed sanctification), but there is no worship of anyone but Christ, within the context of the Holy Trinity.

Second, we honor Mary because, like Jesus, we seek to keep the commandment to honor father and mother, and since Jesus is our brother (that has a biblical basis, doesn't it?), His mother is also our mother. Further, when on the cross, Jesus committed his mom to the care of John, saying to her, "Behold your son," and vice versa, saying to him, "Behold, your mother." If Jesus had any other immediate family, she would have been entrusted to their care (a circumstantial argument about Jesus' "brothers" being literal "brothers," as well as the absence of any younger siblings during his visit to the temple when he was twelve in Luke). Hence, we understand the relationship between John and Mary to be paridigmatic for the relationship between ourselves and His mother too. In other words, there is a spiritual maternity at work here making her in some sense our mother by adoption. If you examine the end of Revelation ch. 12, the basis for the Mexican image of Our Lady of Guadalupe-- clothed in the sun, moon underfoot, crowned with twelve stars, etc., it says that the dragon (Satan) went out to make war with the remnant of her seed (=her offspring, or children), i.e., those "who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ. In other words, Christians are her children too! This doesn't in any way diminish the sense in which we are children of God the Father. But the point here is that there is also this other sonship we have through Mary. If you were being honored, and you were in a banquet hall at a table with your mother at your right hand, and someone came in who knew you and wanted to talk to you, and you introduced him to your mother, but he talked only to you, brushing her off as unimportant, do you not think you would consider such a person rude, to put it mildly. Another OT antecedent is this: there were two ways to get access to the king in the Hebrew court-- through the chief chamberlain (or steward or prime minister, or whatever -- they guy who in Is. 22:22 is said to have the power of the "keys" of the kingdom, who obviously is an antecedent of Peter in Mt 16:16-18), and, secondly, the Queen Mother. You will recall how King Solomon rose to his feet when his mother entered his precincts. This, in effect, is an icon of the view many Catholics have of Mary. She is King Jesus' Queen Mother, and while we also can dare to waltz boldly up to Jesus himself like trusting spiritual brethren, there are times we don't know how to pray. That's why we ask others to pray for us. Who could more readily intercede for us than our spiritual mother in heaven, the Queen Mother of Christ the King?!

The principle of intercessory prayer I've already implicitly addressed, so let me skip on to the issue of the Immaculate Conception. While this belief was not defined dogmatically until 1854, it was a long-standing belief that went back as far as we know to the beginning of the Church. Augustine believed it (I can furnish proof texts, if you need them). First, the fact that something isn't defined until later in history doesn't mean the belief didn't develop until then. The dogma of the Trinity wasn't defined until the 4th century (Nicea 325), but by faith we Christians believe the Jehovah's Witness intepretation of Scripture is mistaken and that the subordination passages (where Jesus doesn't know what the Father knows) and the equality passages ("I and the Father are one," etc.) implicity harmonize to teach a trinitarian understanding of the hypostatic union of Christ's two natures to make him the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Likewise here. There may be some concern that this violates various texts such as Romans 3:23, but there is a problem in taking the "all" there in a strictly distributive sense (as opposed to -- what was it called -- a "commutative"?? sense). First, since it's talking about sin as a verb here, it's not referencing original sin but actual sin. But if you take that strictly and literally then it would have to include not only you and me but the mentally retarded and infants incapable of responsibility, and, perforce, Jesus Himself and Mary, and Adam and Eve before the Fall. So it's obvious that some qualifications are called for. Without going into all of these just now, we can say that there's no reason for supposing that Mary could not have lived without sinning any more than Elijah or Enoch could have lived without tasting of physical death. Further, to suppose Mary was sinless from the moment of her conception is not to assume that she needed no Savior. It's clear, in fact, from the Magnificat in Luke that she understands that she personally has a Savior. Why should we suppose, then, that the Savior is restricted to saving only those who have already fallen into sin, as those who have fallen into a mud puddle and need to be fished out, and cannot also save some by preventing them from falling into sin to begin with? The question is not altogether different from the way in which God saves infants, the mentally retarded, and Old Testament saints -- none of whom have the capacity of accepting Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In other words, all who are saved are saved through Christ alone, but the modes by which they are saved may differ significantly.

The perpetual virginity of Mary, of course, is one of the most well attested beliefs in Christian history. To begin with, neither Luther nor Calvin had a problem with it, though numerous Protestants today do. But the first mention of the thing in history -- any history at all that we know of -- is the writing of the outraged Jerome against Helvedius, who is the first person we know of in Church history to have questioned it. Hence, while an argument from silence (before Jerome) isn't a conclusive argument, the fact that the first time the thing surfaces is in an outraged condemnation of a dis-belief in the thing, serves as a significant circumstantial confirmation of the tradition that the belief ran back to the beginning. There is also what I've already said about Jesus' "brothers" not being immediate brothers. There's a great deal of great biblical data on this that I would go into had I the time -- the three Mary's at the the foot of the Cross, which show that James was not the blood brother of Jesus, the fact that Jesus was Mary's "firstborn" but the Lucan account shows no younger siblings when he was taken to the temple at age twelve. And much more. But perhaps that's not such a big issue for you anyway.

I hope this gives you something towards the beginning of an answer to your good question, my friend. If you'd like to look into the arguments further, here is a web-page I've put together with useful links on the question: LINK.


Ye Olde Bard


Thank you for this very informative post. As a person who was initially raised Catholic and then whose family switched to a protestant church while I was still quite young, I'm trying to gain some insight as to my Catholic roots. And understanding Catholic views on Mary certainly has been a point of confusion to me. Your post was extremely helpful, and I also enjoyed the humor in the introduction. Thanks again for posting this!



A good Episcopalian friend of mine has challenged me to a debate about Mary in which I am the Protestant (of a Baptist-ish flavor). It seems a most fruitful intellectual exercise, and I am glad to meet his challenge. Upon doing some initial research on "Protestant objections to Mary," I came across this post. Most of the links you provided are defunct, so I was wondering if you had advice on how to approach this topic? I figure most of their objections are based on faulty notions of certain Scriptural passages, but I am not sure what many of those passages could be. Any thoughts on this would be greatly appreciated!