"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ." - Jerome

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Why I cannot be Roman Catholic (Part 4): I believe Mary is the Theotokos


My summer free time reading has been filled with Historical Theology. In reading the history of doctrine, I noticed I had a blind spot: Mary. My attention to Mary, mother of Jesus, only consisted in the fact that she was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Beyond that, what was there to learn from her? Soon, I realized there was much to learn from her.

First, what did it mean that she was the mother of Jesus? In the Christological debates asking about the deity of Christ, the most orthodox thing to say about Mary was that she was "Θεοτόκος" (Theo=God, tokos=bearer). This does not mean Mary is "God the Mother” (as I heard one person attack the term), but that Mary is “God-bearer.” This title contains the baffling paradox, that a teenage single mother carried inside her the One who created her, Who created the earth she walked on and the universe in which that earth hung. The Creator was held in a creature.

Second, I had to learn that Mary was supreme in her commitment to Jesus. Before any signs, Mary knew her son’s mission, commanding others to do “whatever he says” at the wedding in John 2. Mary was there at the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and even at the end at the cross in John 19:25-27, even when the “great” disciples had run off. Though Mary may have had a lapse of judgment back at the temple in Jesus’ youth (leaving him, then scolding him), Mary was committed to her son’s adult ministry from start to finish. Christ’s mother and earthly authority was supremely submissive to her Son’s authority and duty.

Throughout my studies, I found Mary to be someone of honor in the early church, and continuing in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, who lifted up Mary as a supreme example of holiness, and I had to agree: Mary was the Theotokos and truly a saint worthy of imitation.

That was until my reading encountered the post-Thomas Aquinas Latin church. During Thomas’ time, a new teaching arose that declared that Mary was conceived immaculately herself. Both Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux opposed this new teaching, for if she was conceived this way, and born without original sin and herself was sinless, then she also would need no redemption, and all humans need redemption, even the mother of the Redeemer.

The Latin Church, however, pushed a noble honor of Mary into idolatry. They changed the accepted interpretation of Scripture. Originally, Proverbs 8:22-31 had always been interpreted as pointing to Christ, the wisdom of God (see the debate with Arius). Now Mary was the wisdom of God according to Nicholas of Cusa. Richard of St. Lawrance could even insert Mary’s name into John 3:16 - “that Mary so loved the world that she gave her only son” …Mary was “my only hope” [Thomas a Kempis] and exercised “maternal authority over God.” [Gerson] Finally, Mary could be “adored as God” according to Nicholas of Cusa, a mediatrix between Christ the Mediator and humanity. Despite the honor given to writers like Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux who opposed some of this, the cult of Mary dominated the scene. The paradox of a creature carrying God, became herself the god of many.

Despite my deference to the development of the treatment of Mary in the East, even to the point of not finding the “ever-Virginity” of Mary to be a doctrine worth fighting over for those who hold it, yet the Latin Church went beyond the bounds of devotion. Saints make up a “great cloud of witnesses” but their primary job is to be witnesses. The lives of the saints abound in rich treasures of contextual gospel living, worship and devotion, but if their actions do not point upward, they are distractions. God shares his Glory with no one, and no one is worthy of worship other than God. (Ps 115:1, Isa 42:8) It is quite important to keep the title of Mary as Theotokos, especially for its Christological importance, but most importantly to point to the object of worship which she bore, not to herself. The cult of Mary as it arose in Latin Christendom is neither catholic, nor Christian. Mary’s greatness is found in her bearing not a mere man who rose to greatness, but bearing the great God who condescended to humility and suffering.

Truly and simply this is why I cannot be Roman: Romanism too often fails to keep the main thing the main thing. It places a man (or a woman) in the place of satifier, of ultimate authority, and of worship. The center of our life and worship is Christ. Theology is not primarily a reflection on the words of Calvin or Aquinas or papal encyclicals or Ecumenical Councils or Creeds or even Scripture - it is a reflection on the Word. Theology is understood by, points to, resolves in and professes the Word as Person, in Christ. He is our Mediator. His Spirit is our guide. His Father, the Son reveals; for the Triune God is revealed in and by Christ. The Scriptures are His word. The Church is His Bride. Religious reflection can often obsess over Soteriology or Ecclesiology - and this might be acceptable, if it is obsessively looking for Christ. A man who may be too often an idol himself once said: “men are born idol makers.” We may place trust in many things as Christians: a preacher, an upbringing, a teacher, in a Pope, or a Reformer or tradition. Yet none of these is worthy of our trust in the same way as Christ. The highest they can attain to is a pointer to God in Christ.

4 comments:

Andrew said...

"Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux opposed this new teaching, for if she was conceived this way, and born without original sin and herself was sinless, then she also would need no redemption, and all humans need redemption, even the mother of the Redeemer."

Both of them St. Thomas and St. Bernard actually were against the immaculate conception because they believed sex to be inherently sinful (as St. Augustine did). It had nothing to do with a dislike of Mary or Soteriological problems.

However, after having said that I agree with you on almost everything else in the post. However the East eventually venerated her to the same level as the West did - or near enough.

It's also ironic that Martin Luther believed in the immaculate conception.

but all in all, good post. I like that you're coming at it from a historical theology perspective, these posts are by far the most convincing anti-Catholic things I've read. I'd like to hear more.

Jared Nelson said...

I don't quite know what you are saying on the immaculate conception. The ones advocating for an immaculate conception of Mary did so to make Mary sinless. Others argued against it because they saw Mary as in need of redemption too. A general feeling towards sex of "icky-ness" (that's the theological term) is in quite a few of the fathers, some more than others. None of them see it as sinful if done for the purpose of reproduction. Just don't enjoy it too much! "Marriage and the Early Church" by David Hunt is a book with some texts to compare on the early church on sex and marriage. That's mostly what I am basing the diverse take on sex on. Tertullian and Augustine fall in the "icky" camp. Methodius and Lactantius are more "hey, look at the cool thing God made" camp. Sorry to use so many technical classifications.

Andrew said...

LOL - that was the greatest response I've ever got...

I guess what I was trying to say is that from what I've read (quotes from Aquinas and Bernard put up by Catholic Apologists), it would seem that they believed that the very act of conception was in some way sinful and thus they believed Mary was conceived in sin.

I think I go with St. Augustine's view on Mary, that we should just not talk about Jesus' mama and her sins, and not speculate about them. Though of course if someone is denying the universality of sin (with the immaculate conception) it tends to be something we have to fight about.

I think she was a great woman, but I've still never heard a logical Catholic response to the verse where Christ calls St. John the Baptist the greatest born of woman.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read the "Glories of Mary" by St Alphonsus Liguori?