Answering a Devotee of Mary

Explanation: Working in Ireland, I sometimes receive emails from Roman Catholics. The following message was sent to a devout Roman Catholic, who advocated the veneration of Mary. It may help the reader witness to Roman Catholics. (The name of the reader has been removed from the message).

 

Dear [...],

Thank you very much for your email. In an age of religious apathy, it is good to find one genuinely interested in exploring the truth of God. Obviously, we will not agree, but at least we can disagree without rancor. That is my hope.

You begin by disparaging the Bible, which is not a good start. You assert that “the Bible does not teach the Trinity, etc.” I disagree. If the Bible does not teach those Christian doctrines, I have no business believing them. What you meant perhaps is that the Bible does not teach those doctrines using the precise theological language and terminology that the church has come to use in her creeds and confessional statements. That I can agree with. Nevertheless, the Trinity, to take just one example, is taught throughout the scriptures. The word is not there; the concept certainly is.

The Bible is the Word of God. “All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable” (II Tim. 3:16). That the church is the pillar and ground of the truth does not mean that the church invents the truth. The church cannot be the pillar of something that does not precede it. If I ask you to uphold something, that “something” must exist so that you can hold it up. The church exists in the world to hold up the truth that God has revealed. “The church precedes the Bible” is your claim. That is partly true. John, Peter, Paul and others who wrote the New Testament preceded the books that they wrote. However, the church does not precede the truth. God is the truth. Christ is the truth. The Spirit is the truth. God reveals the truth to the church, which then records it (by divine inspiration through the apostles and other holy men) and (in subsequent generations) upholds, proclaims, defends, and even develops, the truth. If any ecclesiastical body or religious organization does not hold up the truth, but holds up lies, it is not the church.

II Thessalonians 2:15 refers to “traditions,” but those traditions were the traditions which Paul and the other apostles had taught (“by word, or our epistle”). Subsequent “traditions” (such as the traditions of the “Church fathers” or the “Medieval theologians” or even the Reformers) must be tested by the Word of God. We do not accept something simply because Irenaeus, Tertullian, Augustine, or even John Calvin, taught it.  

The “Church fathers,” for example, taught many good (and also many bad) things. The idea that there is “a unanimous consent of the fathers” is a myth. They disagreed on many particulars, even on the interpretation of key texts.

(Some of) the church fathers may have taught that, as Christ is the second Adam (which the Bible teaches), so Mary is the second Eve (which the Bible does not teach), but they were mistaken. That is an example of bad tradition, not tradition to which we should hold fast. (Some of) the church fathers may have taught that, as salvation came through Christ (which the Bible teaches), so Mary brings salvation into the world (which the Bible does not teach). Some Christians may have been praying to Mary before 200 AD (I do not have the resources at hand to check the historical sources), but that does not make it good tradition. That (some of) the church fathers called Mary “Queen” or “Lady” is regrettable, but it does not make it right. The Bible does not give her those titles, and for good reason.

What is important, however, is the Biblical “evidence” you marshal in defense of your position. To those texts I now turn.

First, you appeal to the passage where Mary prophesied, “From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed” (Luke 1:48). Mary uses the verb makarizoo, which means “to declare blessed” or “to declare happy.” It is also used in James 5:11 (“Behold we count them happy which endure”). The related adjective makarios is translated “blessed” in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). It is not unique to Mary, therefore, to be blessed. Besides that, Mary does not say, “All generations shall bless me,” or “All generations shall venerate me.” She meant, “All generations shall recognize that God has blessed me.” In a similar vein, Elizabeth declares, “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42). The Greek verb is eulogeoo (“to bless”), which appears many times in the New Testament. It, too, is not unique to Mary. Indeed, her blessing to be chosen to be the mother of the Messiah is unique, and we recognize that. Notice, however, she is not blessed “above” women, but “among” women. (Incidentally, Jael in Judges 5:24 is called “blessed … above women in the tent,” but that is another matter). Indeed, one particularly overzealous woman cries out on one occasion, “Blessed (makarios) is the womb that bare thee, and the paps [breasts] which thou hast sucked” (Luke 11:27). Jesus does not disagree with her, but He responds, “Yea rather blessed (makarios) are they that hear the word of God, and keep it” (v. 28). In other words, Mary’s blessedness is not so much in her being the mother of Jesus (her unique blessedness, for sure) but in hearing the word of God and keeping it (which is the blessedness of all Christians, and the more important thing).

Second, I think (some of) the fathers, if you cite them correctly, were confused about the “divine motherhood.” What does that even mean? Mary does not have a divine motherhood. The term “Mother of God” is an unfortunate and inaccurate translation of the Greek term theotokos, which is found in the Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD). A better translation of theotokos is “God-bearer.” Why does the Creed call Mary “God-bearer”? It is not to exalt Mary, but to exalt Jesus. The one whom Mary bore in her womb is God, that is, He is the incarnation of the second person of the divine Trinity. Notice the careful language of Chalcedon: “Begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the mother of God (theotokos or “God-bearer”), according to the manhood.” Since the divine person or divine nature of the Son of God is eternal, infinite and unchangeable, Mary cannot be the mother of God. Mary was the mother of the Son of God according to His human nature.

I would be fascinated to understand your distinction between “veneration” and “honour,” which you give to Mary, and “worship,” which you withhold from her. Is that not a distinction without a difference?

Third, you claim that Gabriel “honours” her. How exactly does he do that? Gabriel does not fall down prostrate before Mary. He does not worship her. He speaks to her in announcing to her the miracle of the Incarnation. He says “Hail, thou that art highly favoured. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). The word “Hail” simply means “Greetings.” It is never used in prayer, and prayer is never addressed in scripture to anyone but God. Indeed, Jesus greets a group of women after His resurrection with the words “All hail” (the same Greek verb), and no one suggests that Jesus was honouring them! The other phrase is “thou that art highly favoured,” of which the Greek original is kecharitomene, which you rightly identify. Kecharitomene does not mean “full of grace.” It means, “Favoured one” or “Graciously accepted one.” The ideas that Mary is so full of grace that she has no sin, and that she is so full of grace that she is able to dispense grace to others are absent from the text and absent from the Bible as a whole. Jesus Christ is “full of grace” (John 1:14). He is the fountain of all grace. Mary is an empty vessel, who received grace, as all Christians do. What about the tense of kecharitomene? It is true that the form of the verb is a perfect passive participle, which means that Mary has been favoured of God in the past, which favour continues into the present. The same verb, albeit not the perfect tense (but the aorist, or simple past tense), is used of all Christians in Ephesians 1:6: “To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted (charitooo) in the beloved.” Being highly favoured is not unique to Mary.

Your next claim is that “In scripture the queen is not the wife of the king, but his mother.” That is a half-truth, at best. The Hebrew word gebirah can be translated “queen mother,” although that is not always the translation. (The Hebrew Old Testament uses the word gebirah in the following verses: I Kings 11:1915:13II Kings 10:13II Chronicles 15:16Jeremiah 13:18 and 29:2. In none of them is “queen mother” the conclusive translation). Maachah, for example (I Kings 15:13), was the grandmother of Asa. The word gebirah simply means “mighty woman.” Besides that, the common Hebrew word for queen is malakah, which certainly designates the wife of the king in several passages. Esther, for example, is called queen throughout the book, and she was clearly not the mother of king Ahasuerus! Bathsheba, the wife of David and the mother of Solomon, is called neither gebirah nor malakah in scripture. It is true that Solomon greatly reverenced his mother (I Kings 2:19) in keeping with the fifth commandment (“Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee” [Ex. 20:12]), but that is not relevant to the point in hand. I would have you notice that, when Bathsheba attempted to intercede for Adonijah (“He will not say thee nay … I will not say thee nay” [I Kings 2:1720), Solomon did not grant Bathsheba’s request. The one for whom Bathsheba made a petition was put to death (v. 25)! So much for Bathsheba’s powerful intercession! Mary is not a gebirah, powerful and worthy of honour, your fanciful typological exegesis (eisegesis) notwithstanding! (Bathsheba is not a type of Mary, so any parallels you suggest are irrelevant). Mary is a humble handmaid (Luke 1:3848) upon whom God has condescended to look (v. 48). Our Lady and Queen of heaven are not Biblical titles attributed to Mary. Besides that, the bride of Christ is the church. She is the object of Christ’s love (and Mary is but one member of that church).

It is absolutely true that Simeon prophesied to Mary that a sword would pierce through her soul (Luke 2:35). That sword was the sorrow that a mother felt when she saw her son die on the cross. However, her sorrow (great as it was!) was not redemptive, and did not in any way contribute to the salvation of God’s people. Mary did not participate in Christ’s passion. She did not cooperate in His passion. She did not assent to His passion. And she did not offer Him up in His passion. She stood helplessly and passively as her Son died. She could do nothing to assist Him. She could not even offer Him a drink of water or caress His brow, something I dare say she wanted to do. In fact, had Mary had her way, she would most likely have tried to take Him down from the cross. She like most (if not all) of His disciples misunderstood the necessity of the cross. When Jesus died, He died alone. He drank the cup given to Him in Gethsemane alone. He bore the wrath of God in the darkness of Calvary alone. He did not have the assistance of Mary. Only Jesus, as the Son of God, could sustain the eternal wrath of God against sin in His body.

Jesus speaks to Mary from the cross, His last words to her. When Jesus said “Behold thy son” and “Behold thy mother” in John 19, he meant, “Mary, John will be your son now, to care for you;” and “John, care for Mary as your mother.” This is obvious because “from that hour that disciple [John] took her unto his own home” (v. 27). Jesus did not designate Mary the mother of the whole church or the mother of the whole human race. As He was dying, He was fulfilling His filial duties. Indeed, Jesus never calls Mary “mother” in the Gospels: he calls her “Woman” (John 2:419:26) and He rebukes her when she foolishly interferes with His divine mission (Luke 2:49John 2:4Matt. 12:46). Indeed, I would argue that Mary is no longer Jesus’ mother. Earthly relationships cease or change at death. If husbands and wives are not married in the afterlife, why should Jesus still consider Mary His mother in heaven (Mark 12:18-27)? Death cuts all earthly ties, including the mother-son relationship. Jesus recognized that when He committed Mary to John’s care.

There is a huge difference between someone asking a few friends or an entire congregation to pray for him or her while he or she is on earth and the supposed intercession of Mary and the saints in heaven. In Isaiah, for example, Israel prays, “Doubtless thou art our father, though Abraham be ignorant of us, and Israel acknowledge us not: thou, O Lord, art our father, our redeemer; thy name is from everlasting” (Isa. 63:16). They acknowledge that Abraham and Israel (Jacob) do not know them, indicating that departed saints cannot hear prayers. Consider this: if Mary is the great intercessor, she must be able to hear and answer millions of prayers offered around the clock, all across the world, in multiple languages. If she could do that, would she not need to be omniscient? Scripture never teaches us to offer our prayers through the intercession of Mary. The only intercessor in heaven is Jesus Christ: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us” (Rom. 8:34). “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5); “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (I John 2:1). Bear in mind, also, that the two functions of the priest (Jesus is the high priest) are sacrifice and intercession. Intercession is offered on the basis of the sacrifice. Mary has offered no sacrifice. Therefore, there is no basis for a Marian intercession. Besides, if Jesus, who is the Son of God, who has the Father’s ear, and who has died for my sins, cannot secure for me the blessings of salvation, why should I go to Mary, who is a mere creature? “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16). There is none so merciful to poor sinners as Jesus. Would anyone dare suggest that Mary is more merciful, more compassionate and more gracious than Jesus Christ?

Finally, you argue that Mary was sinless, which, you say, is the work of God. The Bible does not breathe a word about Mary’s supposed immaculate conception. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit. Mary was not. Jesus is free from all sin. Mary was not. When the Bible speaks of universal sin, guilt and depravity, it excludes only Jesus, never Mary. The reason Jesus is sinless is (1) He is the Son of God and (2) the operation of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). You might think, as many Roman Catholic theologians like to theorize, that it is fitting that Mary be sinless, stainless and pure in order to accommodate Jesus in her womb. The Bible does not teach that such a thing is necessary or fitting. The Holy Spirit shielded Jesus from any pollution in Mary’s womb. Was the ark stainless, as you suggest? If you mean the ark of Noah, I highly doubt it: it was full of animals! Besides, where does the Bible ever draw a parallel between the ark of Noah (or the ark of the covenant) and Mary’s womb?

Scott Hahn says Mary is God’s masterpiece, which is a nice thought, I suppose, but nowhere taught in the Word of God. The Bible calls all believers God’s “workmanship” (Greek: poieema) “created in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:10). However, we do not venerate one another because of it. Certainly, God graciously prepared Mary for her role as the mother of Jesus. However, He does not command us to venerate her. An artist might not be offended when we praise his painting, but God is offended when we worship the creature instead of the Creator.

I mean no disrespect to Mary. She was, like many in the Bible, an admirable example of faith and piety. There is much that we can learn from her, but I will not go further than the Word of God allows. I will not pray to or venerate her. I will not seek her intercession. I will not give extra-biblical or anti-biblical titles to her.

I quote from the Reformed tradition, which does not replace, supplement or supersede the Word of God, from Belgic Confession, Article 26, Of Christ’s Intercession:

But this Mediator, whom the Father has appointed between him and us, ought in no wise to affright us by his majesty, or cause us to seek another according to our fancy. For there is no creature either in heaven or on earth who loveth us more than Jesus Christ; who, though he was in the form of God, yet made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a man, and of a servant for us, and was made like unto his brethren in all things. If then we should seek for another Mediator, who would be well affected towards us, whom could we find, who loved us more than he, who laid down his life for us, even when we were his enemies? And if we seek for one who hath power and majesty, who is there that has so much of both as he who sits at the right hand of his Father, and who hath all power in heaven and on earth? And who will sooner be heard than the own well beloved Son of God?”

Thank you again for your email, to which my response is longer than I intended. I did, however, want to answer your points as fully as I could. In addition, please respond if you have further questions or objections you would like to raise. I appreciate the opportunity to explain the scriptures.

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This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. 

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